It’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.