Early in 2010, I sat in a pub in Derbyshire with my friend Jane and told her I had an idea for a novel. She asked what it was about. I told her the basic premise which – although I hadn’t at that stage perfected my one-line-pitch – would have gone something like this: It’s about a young woman who’s running away from her past. She goes to live off-grid on an eco farm on the Anglesey coast where she stumbles on a mystery only she can solve. In so doing she confronts the ghosts of her own past.
And Jane said: “That sounds good. Write it Clare! I’ll read it.”
What neither of us knew then was that soon after we would both be diagnosed with cancer. Mine was a primary breast cancer, treatable with surgery, chemo and radiotherapy. But Jane had already had cancer several times. This time, hers was a secondary. She didn’t see out the year.
When I visited her in hospital a few days before she died, I vowed to write that novel. Seeing my friend on her deathbed, I asked myself ‘if that was me, and my life was ending, what would I regret not doing?’ And the answer was, unequivocally, writing a book.
So the idea gestated, and Amy Blue was born.
Draft by draft
It took several years before I had anything like a first draft. Going back to work post-cancer, struggling with fatigue and the after effects of punishing treatments and ongoing hormone therapy, I found it hard to write.
But there’s nothing like a cancer diagnosis for focusing the mind on what’s important. So I kept at it, and when an opportunity came to take redundancy from my job, I seized it, and enrolled on an MA in Creative Writing.
This gave me the focus to finish the first draft, plus ample opportunity to have my work critiqued by a discerning bunch of fellow students who ranged in age from early 20s to 70 and hailed from all corners of the globe.
Their input helped me improve massively on that early draft, finessing the voice, bringing the setting to life and, crucially, getting the structure right. The thing I struggled with most was structure. I learnt from peer critique and feedback from tutors that the long chunks of back-story in the first draft didn’t work. I needed to balance back-story with front story. Which, after much shuffling of the jigsaw, I did.
I used the first section of the novel as the basis for my dissertation. And when I somehow managed to swing a Distinction, decided that maybe, just maybe, my writing was good enough to get published.
The novel went through several more iterations and more time elapsed before I felt it was anywhere near ready to send to publishers. But there comes a time when, imperfect thing that it was, I had to let it go. That time came in 2017 when I spotted a submission window with a small indie press called Inspired Quill. I sent the synopsis and first few chapters off and the answer came back ‘we’d like to read the rest’. And the rest is history – or should I say her story!
The proof copy of Amy Blue’s story arrived, fortuitously, on World Book Day. I ran my fingers over the cover, enjoying its waxy feel. I relished in the artwork, a fabulous design by Valeria Aguilera which I absolutely love. I flicked through the pages, with that mixture of anxiety and pride that always comes with holding a copy of something I’ve written in my hand. And I said to my friend, who I still speak to in my head, “I did it Jane.”
In March this year I stood in front of a packed audience at Waterstones, Nottingham, a copy of my new book in my hand, reading extracts from the novel then signing copies. It was a moment of triumph. And one my friend, I’m certain, would have been proud of.
Tips for getting started
One Saturday, I did a book-signing at a branch of W H Smith in a nearby town. The manager invited me in after reading Blue Tide Rising. She gave me a prominent spot near the entrance, created an attractive display for my books, and bigged me up for her customers. It was a successful day and I met lots of interesting people, among them a young woman in her 20s and a retired man in his 60s who both told me they write and would love to have their work published. “My dream is to be sitting where you’re sitting, signing copies of a paperback with my name on,” said the man. So I urged them to persevere with their writing and take it as far as it can go.
To those who’ve always wanted to write a novel, I’d say, don’t delay, the time to start is now. It’s a bit like running a marathon, it may seem daunting but you get there by putting one foot in front of another. To write a novel, you just have to sit down and write. Don’t worry if you think what you’re writing is rubbish – all writers, even multi-award-winning best-selling authors sometimes think that! Just write. You may well be pleasantly surprised by what comes out.
So here’s some tips for those who feel they’ve got a book in them.
Dos and don’ts
Do: Read a lot. Your writing will improve the more you read. Read widely. Don’t just read your preferred genre. Read things you normally wouldn’t and take yourself out of your comfort zone.
Do: Get into the habit of writing regularly. Even if you only have ten minutes a day. Even if you think what you’re writing is rubbish. The more you write, the better you’ll get.
Do: Put your work aside for a while before you review it. When you read it back you might be pleasantly surprised by what you find.
Do: Share your writing with a discerning but supportive audience. Writing groups are good for this. Sharing your work can be nerve-wracking at first but it boosts your confidence and builds your resilience.
Don’t: Give up because you think your work isn’t good enough. Everyone has to start somewhere and your writing is probably better than you think. It’s like any kind of exercise, the more you write, the more you’ll hone your skills.
Don’t: Edit too much as you are going along. Write while you are in the flow and edit later.
Don’t: Put off writing until the time is right. If you wait for moods, the mood might never come. Time is precious and if you have that yearning to write, do it now. There are always a thousand distractions which will stop us from writing, if we let them.
Don’t: Be put off by the fact it is difficult to get published. Thousands of books get published every year. Why shouldn’t yours be one of them? There is no feeling like the sense of satisfaction that comes from holding a published copy of your work in your hand, so keep your eye on that goal and take incremental steps towards it. But remember, in order to get published, you have to put pen to paper.
“Somewhere in me a scream is rising, but I contain it. Just.”
Diazepam-fogged Amy isn’t the best person to investigate an unexplained death, but she’s the only one Jay can get through to.
On the run from her troubled past and controlling older (ex) lover, she winds up on a Welsh eco farm where she starts to rebuild her life, grounded by the earth and healed by the salt air.
But it isn’t just her inner self she manages to uncover. There are living ghosts at Mor Tawel, and they’re as loud as the waters crashing over the shingle on the beach.
Amy’s new life has just started, and she’s already running out of time.
Blue Tide Rising is out now with Inspired Quill. More details here.