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Life, Writing

My First Five Years as a Writer

DiariesIt’s five years to the day since I started writing fiction (for someone so terrible with numbers, I am surprisingly good with dates).  By that I mean actually doing it.  Not thinking about it.  Not talking about it.  I’d been doing that for years.

During the period leading up to me signing with my agent in the autumn, I was frequently asked how long I’d been writing and what made me take it up.  Saying that you’ve always wanted to write is such a cliché and (unsurprisingly) so common that you’re always warned not resort to anything so unoriginal in a cover letter, and I never did.

But I did always long to write and that sprang from my love of reading, from a ridiculously early age.  I was an anxious, introverted middle child growing up in the middle of nowhere and books were my refuge.  My fascination with what it would be like to be someone else set in when I was a teenager.  Frankly I would rather have been anyone than the lanky, swotty late developer I was, preferably someone pretty and fun and popular, obviously.

It would have been far worse without being able to escape to the worlds between covers, without Judy Blume and Marguerite Duras (and every other dirty French novel my mother forbade) and the complete works of Agatha Christie (they really are very formulaic).  Or without the long, sodden country walks with our family dog Benny, who was so crazy I had to keep him on a long leash.  Not so my imagination, which ran riot.

There’s no real reason why entire decades passed before I started writing.  It may, generally speaking, have been easier to get published when I was in my twenties but the world is better off without whatever self-indulgent dross I would have written then, and in my thirties I was overwhelmed with raising small children and for the first four years, also working.  Plenty of writers flourish in both of those situations, but I wasn’t one of them.  Also, an unexplored ambition represents an intact dream.  The moment you start trying, you expose yourself to the risk of failure.  Unfortunately, if you’re a writer that’s something you’re going to have to get used to.

What happened five years ago was that I reached what might conceivably be regarded as the half-way mark in my life.  That may prove to be wildly inaccurate of course (I shall take extra care walking down the stairs after posting this), but it’s a common enough reflection and usually a maudlin one, tinged with regret about the things you haven’t done.  But actually that’s not what I was thinking.  Not writing was making me unhappy.   I got sick of hearing myself tell friends I wanted, planned, intended to write a book one day and I couldn’t not do it any more.  I  decided to just bloody go for it. I never described myself an as ‘aspiring writer’ or any of those coy, Who, me? terms.  I was serious about it.  It tends to be all or nothing with me.

On 4 January 2009, at the suggestion of my book group friends, I walked into a class called Ways Into Creative Writing at City Lit in London.  It is, as the name suggests, a beginners’ class and this one was taught by Christina Dunhill.  I was excited and apprehensive.  As I walked into the room I felt sick with nerves but I spotted a woman near the door who smiled at me and looked as if she maybe felt the way I did (she did).  I sat down beside Chloe, the first of many wonderful, generous and talented friends I might never have made.  Christina gave us a character exercise and then asked for volunteers to ‘Hot Desk’ –  going up to the front to present the person we’d just invented.  Despite having a pathological horror of speaking in public, people looking at me, etc. I forced myself to do it and it went really well.  (I’ve since got over that).

Words can hardly convey the high I felt when I left that classroom.  I’d done it: taken that crucial first step, taken a risk, exposed myself to feedback and discovered the incredible kick of connecting with readers that has since become for me what writing is all about.

Three months later, Christina invited me to join a small writing group and I began my first novel a year after that first class, in January 2010.  If you know me or follow the blog, you’ll know what an almighty tussle it’s been to get this far (and it’s still only the very beginning).  And I regularly remind myself how lucky I am to have made it to the other side of what felt like the widest and most unbreachable ravine – I know there are better writers than me who haven’t made it yet.

If this were my novel I’d try to come up with a less hackneyed way of saying it, but the fact is that writing has changed my life.   Now there’s an outlet for my endless pondering of things which interest and matter to me.  As I’ve learned to create real characters with believable lives I’ve become more confident, outgoing and empathetic towards other people and a bit more forgiving of myself (though that might just be age).  It’s like being given a super-sharp pair of glasses after years with my eyes half shut.

And the best part is that I now have another pair of eyes – my agent Diana’s.  I knew she’d push me to raise my game.  When I received her editorial notes it took me over a week to take them on board.  That’s because her insights and suggestions – mostly concerning character motivation – went so far beyond my own understanding of the book I’d spent the best part of three years writing and re-writing that it took me a while to catch up.   It’s an absolute thrill to have input of that calibre (Thank you, Diana!) and I’ve spent a lot of time over the holidays trying to get the final touches just right.  Soon it’ll be crunch time when Diana sends the manuscript to publishers and I’m sure it’s not hard to imagine what’s top of my personal wishlist for 2014.

But if I’ve learned one bigger lesson from the last five years, it’s to focus on matters within my control, and if you’re a writer, that almost always means writing the best book you can write.  It no longer matters that I spend my First Half not writing – I’m making up for it in the Second.

What are your goals and hopes for 2014?  I wish you all a very happy, creative and successful new year!


Thank you for the huge interest in my Fiction Hot Picks of 2014 which has had almost 1,000 hits already.   I’m getting great feedback on the first three titles, which are already on sale, with two more out shortly.

Next week, I’ll be writing a post on the vexed question of Likeable Characters, featuring The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud and Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty, one of Richard & Judy’s Spring Book Club picks.

About Isabel Costello

Writer (novels: Paris Mon Amour 2017; Scent 2021).Host of the Literary Sofa blog. Co-founder of Resilience for Writers with Voula Tsoflias. Perfume lover and Francophile.


38 thoughts on “My First Five Years as a Writer

  1. What a great post. Congratulations on getting this far and good luck with the next gigantic step.

    Posted by Experienced Tutors | January 4, 2014, 18:02
  2. Happy anniversary! Hope 2014 is filled with exciting things for you.

    Posted by Peter Domican | January 4, 2014, 18:14
  3. Fingers crossed for 2014 for you !! Looking forward to the post on Likeable Characters …….this is indeed a thorny subject partic in book groups . Personally I think unlikeable ones often create the most interesting situations….but await your slant on the subject .

    Posted by hastanton | January 4, 2014, 18:22
    • Thanks Helen. Really looking forward to our literary lunch with Jane in April – I’m sure we’ll have tons to talk about. I’m really looking forward to writing the Likeable Characters post (which is really about unlikeable ones, of course!) but how I’ll do justice to that topic in the space of a blogpost I do not know…

      Posted by Isabel Costello | January 6, 2014, 16:25
  4. Well done on getting where you are and I really hope your book lands in the right pair of hands! It’s great you have someone who is making you up your game too. What matters is that you love it and you want to keep going.

    I love the line about focusing on what you CAN control. I’m one of those people who have always wanted to write (and have always written). Although I’ve had a book published, that feels like years ago now. When I got an agent last year with my latest piece of work I thought I’d finally made it. It took me a few months to come to terms with the fact the book might not sell and I had to write another. I can’t control whether it sells, but I can control whether I produce more books and increase my chances of them selling. So onwards and thank you for that reminder!

    Posted by Emily Benet | January 4, 2014, 18:29
    • Oh thanks, lovely Emily! And for sharing your experience too – it seems like it’s never easy in this business. I hope your next project is a winner. We’re lucky to have agents pushing us on and giving us the tough love when necessary.

      Posted by Isabel Costello | January 6, 2014, 16:27
  5. Hi Isabel
    Really enjoyed this post. Yes, am also one of those people who always wanted to write since childhood. Thing was, at primary school I was entering and winning competitions, even if it was just school and local paper ones. So I like to think that I had a gap and last year I finally found that confidence again.

    Main aim for 2014: to keep doing a little bit every day. Has served me well so far.

    Even when I’m editing, I love the experience and all doubts go. Over the years I have still written, blogging, training handouts, etc. I just realised I must not forget this because all those times were just as satisfying. Do you think you were writing but in other guises before the last five years?

    Posted by Alison Clayton-Smith | January 4, 2014, 18:35
    • Hi Alison
      It sounds like you have a really great, positive attitude and I hope you get where you want to go with your writing. I definitely did a lot of other writing in those other decades: literary degree (I actually liked writing essays!) then ten years in PR in the City where I was regularly told, a propos of my reports and marketing material, that I should be writing fiction! Well, I got there in the end.

      Posted by Isabel Costello | January 6, 2014, 16:30
  6. I’m still in ‘small children mode’ so will read this again before making detailed comments but really enjoyed the post; it’s always encouraging to know other people are on the same journey. I also believe there’s a right time for everything; I’ve been writing for decades but have only in the last few years started approaching fiction seriously,and it will be another year before I have the time to write ‘properly’. I don’t believe in age limits, though. I think stories pop out when they’re ready.

    Posted by t upchurch | January 4, 2014, 19:56
    • That is a really good point, Tracey. I can only speculate about what I would have written when I was younger but it certainly wouldn’t be the book I’ve written now which draws heavily on my life experience (whilst not being at all autobiographical, or at least not in any way I’d admit to). Perhaps the right time to start writing is just whenever we happen to get round to it.

      Posted by Isabel Costello | January 6, 2014, 16:33
  7. Brilliant honest post and best wishes for 2014 !

    Posted by Catherine | January 4, 2014, 22:57
  8. Great post….. It never ceases to amaze me, from my own experience and others, the emotional resilience it takes to be a writer. It takes courage and persistence, openness to feedback, and tolerance of rejection to keep yourself in the writing game. Congratulations, Isabel, on your brilliant acheivement!

    Posted by Voula | January 4, 2014, 23:44
    • Thanks Voula! As I said in the piece, I know it’s still the beginning but it’s felt like one of those really evil assault courses where you have to jump across something enormous and scary at the start. I hope 2014 is a brilliant year for you and your writing goals.

      Posted by Isabel Costello | January 6, 2014, 16:35
  9. Always enjoy your blogs. I too like ‘focus on what you can control’ – I am inspired by you to try to adopt that as my mantra for 2014!

    Congrats on all you have achieved to date. I am sure 2014 will be a thrilling year for you, and I look forward to reading more of your work.

    Posted by Delyth | January 5, 2014, 10:35
    • Well, perhaps I should have admitted that I’m not always very good at sticking to it (for example where children’s exams are concerned – completely out of my control but still worries me a lot!) but it has slightly cut down on pointless anxiety about things that may or (more likely) may not happen!
      Thanks for following the blog and here’s to a happy 2014 with lots of lovely book group stuff xx

      Posted by Isabel Costello | January 6, 2014, 16:37
  10. Great post, Isabel. We have so much in common. I think writing takes as long as it takes. As you know, my debut publishes in a few months time but my journey has been exceptionally long and bumpy. I’ve been writing for twenty years but I’ve only just got a publisher. Looking back at what I wrote in my early twenties and younger, there was no way I could have written anything of any depth or real interest. That’s not to say people of that age can’t do this. Of course they can, and many do (and very successfully as well). I just couldn’t myself. (Possibly one problem being that I’ve always been a late developer too!). Rather oddly I did my first writing course at City Lit as well in very similar circumstances to you. I think that although I knew that writing was a solitary business I didn’t feel that I could do it on my own and I needed to find like-minded people that understood me. After the class finished a few of us from the class then formed our own writing group which we kept going for a few years. I’m still very good friends with a few of them. I then did another evening class at Birkbeck before finally taking the plunge to really grab the bull the horns and do a Creative Writing MA. I had such fond memories of City Lit that I ended up doing my actor training there as well. The whole concept of City Lit (in my eyes anyway) is that you’re never too late to try something. It’s an ethos that is just as important for writing as anything else, in my humble opinion.

    Posted by Jason Hewitt | January 5, 2014, 10:58
    • I’d like to add my voice to the City Lit fan club…. I was a student on the first ever Access course offered in the UK – it was called Fresh Horizons, a course for the mature student going back to study. I was 28 years old, and went on to do a Psychology degree at the London School of Economics. Many years later I went back there to do complete some Creative writing courses, before completing the CWMA at Birkbeck in 2007 – so a similar path to you Jason! I agree, City Lit it is an amazing place with an inspiring ethos.

      Posted by voula (@voulagrand) | January 5, 2014, 15:30
    • Hi Jason
      What a lovely comment, thank you, and you’re not kidding about how much we have in common! (Except that rather unusually, it seems, I have absolutely no creative writing qualifications!) I thoroughly agree with you and Susan (see later comment) that it really isn’t important when we start writing, it’s about what we are capable of when we do. Having already read your brilliant debut THE DYNAMITE ROOM I’m certain 2014 will be an amazing year for you – congratulations!

      PS I thought you were MUCH younger!!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | January 6, 2014, 16:42
  11. I really enjoyed this post about your personal journey (I hate that word but right now can’t think of another) so far. It must be a lovely point when someone so experienced (your agent) totally gets your novel and has loads of ideas (albeit challenging ones) to improve it. Like you, I devoured Agatha Christie in my teens, and on the first writing course I attended was told her work is a great foundation for writing (even if I couldn’t bear to read them now).
    Happy 2014 and look forward to reading about the next stages.

    Posted by Annecdotist | January 6, 2014, 11:59
    • Ha! I hate ‘journey’ too but how else to put it? It is fantastic not to be going it alone any more. I’ve been incredibly lucky and had a the support of many people along the way, but somehow the input you get from your agent is at closer range. We’re on the same team I guess and both want the book to succeed. It had never occurred to me that Agatha Christie might have had a positive influence but I like that thought!
      All the best for 2014 and your own writing.

      Posted by Isabel Costello | January 6, 2014, 16:47
  12. I’m also one of those people who started writing as a child and carried it through to signing up for an MA in Creative Writing straight out of university while my motivation was high. I’ve written sporadically throughout my twenties and am currently working on my second manuscript, with the first still unpublished, despite being shortlisted for an award. So in five years you’ve already accomplished so much, good luck with the next stage of becoming a successful author!

    Posted by Amy | January 6, 2014, 13:01
    • Well done to you for getting to writing so early – I’m sure that must take the pressure off slightly although I don’t doubt that younger writers want publication and an audience just as much as us late starters. You’re well on the way so good luck – hope it’s a good year for you and thanks for the good wishes!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | January 6, 2014, 16:51
  13. After all your hard work I hope 2014 brings you the success you deserve. All the best in the next stage in your writing career!

    Posted by helenmackinven | January 6, 2014, 14:36
  14. What a lovely, encouraging post. My own journey to becoming a novelist was very similar to yours, and I firmly believe that you don’t have to have ‘always written’ to stand a chance of success. I wish I’d been able to start a little earlier, but one of the many advantages of being an older ‘new’ writer is that you have so much more experience of observing life to draw on. I truly believe that it doesn’t matter how old you are when you start, the important thing is, as you say, to stop talking about it and start doing it! Receiving that first lot of agents feedback on your manuscript can be daunting, but like you, I have a brilliantly insightful agent, and she helped me make my debut novel (and now my second book, too) the best that I could make them, and with every bit of rewriting, I know I am learning more about the process of constructing a novel. I wish you all the very best for 2014, Isabel, and let’s hope that this time next year (or before), we’ll be celebrating a fabulous book deal!

    Posted by susan elliot wright | January 6, 2014, 15:05
    • Well Susan, that would be nice (and of course it’s what I’m hoping for!) Yes, our journeys have been similar and we’re both very lucky with our terrific agents. You’ve been very successful early in your fiction career and that’s been very inspiring for me to watch. Look forward to your next book!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | January 6, 2014, 16:55
  15. I agree! ‘Write the best book you can write’. So true – and so hard sometimes…! Well done again – I’m sure 2014 will be a great year for you. PS: Just about to start ‘Apple Tree Yard’ – will look forward to the blog!

    Posted by Sarah Hegarty | January 6, 2014, 15:42
  16. Hi Isabel I stumbled across you quite by accident on twitter, and this post just made me smile and helped me feel so much more confident. I had just finished explaining to my husband ‘why’ after so long I have decided to pack in the day job and commit to taking a big run at writing for a career, and no DH I didn’t just turn 40 and have a crisis, it just feels like it’s time . Luckily he is supportive , but it’s nice to be validated when I finished breaking that news and then by chance find this post – literally within minutes ! Good luck with this year , I hope 2014 is a good one for you .

    Posted by Jaycey | January 13, 2014, 23:35
  17. A belated happy new year!

    “Or without the long, sodden country walks with our family dog Benny, who was so crazy I had to keep him on a long leash”

    Country walks…I feel your pain for it brings back memories. The most miserable 6 weeks of my life were undoubtedly when around 1958, at the age of 8 or 9, I was sent to a “kinderkolonie” (“children’s health camp”). These were government establishments where urban children were sent, on prescription by school doctors, for a dose of healthy outdoor life, with lots of country walks, healthy food, and generally a wholesome time to compensate for unhealthy city life. The one I was incarcerated in was at the coast, somewhere in the godforsaken back of beyond. These establishments were founded in the Netherlands in the last quarter of the 19th century and were closed in the 1970s as being outdated and no longer a cost-effective use of taxpayers’ money. Boys and girls were strictly segregated and parents were not allowed to come and visit, except once, after 3 weeks. There was something of the mixture of an army barracks and a hospital about them. The young women who were in charge of the groups of children wore a nurse-like uniform and I think we called them “zuster” (“nurse”).
    I still remember clearly how I hated every minute of it. I could just about put up with the dreadful food, with far too much salt in the potatoes and vegetables. At the time I though that it was because of the salty sea air which infested everything, but now I know it was just bad cooking. And they made you drink MILK. Disgusting, YUK! And some sort of porridgey stuff with a skin on it…. and they made you eat all of it.
    But much worse than that, being an introverted little boy who liked to read books, to tinker with technical things and to make 3-dimensional geometrical shapes out of paper, I was absolutely, completely bored out of my mind and was driven crazy by the regimented life with no time for private contemplation and daydreaming, and no books to read. Everything was just physical. Nothing for the mind to do. All those interminable bloody country walks, and all those tedious hours on the beach with nothing of interesting to do. And then all that relentless jolliness, enough to drive you to despair. To this day, I detest beaches and my idea of a walk is going to the pub to have a pint, to go to some destination for a specific reason or to catch a bus or train.
    The management must have spotted that something was wrong, for after a number of weeks they finally put me in a different group of kids, about 3 years older than me. That was a relief, for the older kids ignored me and I could just through the motions and least be somewhere else inside my head for some of the time. I like Karl Marx’s recognition of the “idiocy of rural life” in his communist manifesto. A man after my heart; he understood. Goals and hopes for 2014? To continue a life without wholesome outdoor activities for me ever again, but a decadent, unhealthy urban life of books and the mind.

    Posted by Tom Voute | January 16, 2014, 21:31
  18. Hi I,

    Tell me at what stage after finishing your novel at whichever draft number it was at, did you approach agents?

    Im not ready yet, am working on my synopsis again and again, and re working my first draft.

    When will I be ready do you think, or is that question all too clearly preposterous?!

    Thankyou in advance

    Posted by julieadexter | August 31, 2014, 17:36
    • Hi Julie
      You’ll get the full picture of my long and rocky road to getting an agent if you read my posts in the Writing section here, and in particular the ‘How I got an Agent’ guest piece I did for Writers’ Workshop which is listed under the Elsewhere tab. As you’ll gather from all that, I made the classic and extremely common mistake of submitting far too early the first time round. The harsh truth is that agents are looking for stand-out manuscripts which are A. already of a publishable standard (i.e. very well-written and highly polished) and B. that they think publishers think will sell. This is why so many successful manuscripts have had the benefit of professional input, as mine did in the end. I wish you every luck but above all, don’t rush it. If you’re still working with your first draft it’s likely to be a good way off.

      Posted by Isabel Costello | September 1, 2014, 16:24

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