The most important thing I learned teaching Creative Writing

My husband is worryingly good at spotting potential murder sites…

Last week I taught my first creative writing class which you can read about here. It made such a change to be out of the house, generally I’m at home writing. Every. Single. Day. It’s where I’m happiest though, in my tiny study, in my pyjamas, dreaming up worlds.

During the workshop I was asked where ideas come from.

‘They’re all around us if we keep our eyes open,’ I said. Leaving the house isn’t the only way to find ideas of course but I did mention that for me I found inspiration in getting out, living life. ‘If we never go anywhere or do anything, we might find we’ve nothing to say. Nothing to write about.’

As I said this I was mentally calculating when the last time was I went out and did something different.

I couldn’t remember.

I thought about what I might write next once I’ve finished my current book.

I had no idea.

And I was a little worried.

As my writing schedule has become busier I realise that lately I’ve been viewing life solely through my laptop and missing out on new experiences. The less I’ve been venturing out the more I’ve noticed my anxiety has also increased. It was time to make a change.

At home I relayed this to my husband and on the Saturday morning he told me to pack an overnight bag and after loading the dog in the car, we headed for the coast.

“Are we nearly there yet?” asked Granger for the millionth time.

At first I was a little worried about leaving my current characters Libby and Jack behind. I’d left them in an awful situation, but promising them I’d sort it all out on Monday I put my story out of my mind and anchored myself to the present moment.

Everywhere I went sparked at idea. Walking along the beach in the bright sunshine, a potential love story for my next Amelia Henley book. Taking Granger down to the deserted harbour at dusk, the perfect setting for a crime for one of my next thrillers. High up on the sand dunes, overlooking the beach huts, the glittering sea spread before me was, I thought, so romantic, a great spot for a proposal. (But those beach huts could well be hiding secrets). Walking away from the sand dunes, into the forest there was a small abandoned building.

My husband nudged me, ‘You could bury a body there and nobody would find it for months.’

In the crowded coffee shop, snippets of conversation, mannerisms of customers. A real opportunity to study people (in a non-creepy, non threatening way…)

I’ve come home refreshed and revitalised, not with a new plot, but with a new setting that every now and then I’ll bring to the forefront of my mind and add detail to, and by the time I’m ready to start a new novel it will be fully formed.

Already I am excited for it.

I learned a lot teaching my class but making time to get out is perhaps, for me, the most important lesson of all.

It’s never too cold for a paddle

Why the HQ New Voices literary showcase event made me furious

Last night was the HQ Stories New Voices Showcase. An evening where over 70 journalists and bloggers would gather in the impressive function room at the Harper Collins Offices, with the sweeping panoramic views of London, to listen to authors pitch their forthcoming novels.

We were given sixty seconds each to talk about our plot or the inspiration behind our stories. When I read the brief I thought sixty seconds wasn’t long enough to talk about my forthcoming Amelia Henley love story, ‘The Life We Almost Had.

I was wrong.

Some of you know I once had a phobia of public speaking – not a touch of anxiety – but actual fainting or vomiting or sometimes both. Some of you know I had a course of hypnotherapy to overcome this phobia when I was asked to talk at Althorp Literary Festival about my thriller (you can read about that here.) I’ve spoken at many events since my hypnotherapy – I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the panels and the Q & A’s I’ve taken part in.

I was aware that this pitch would be the first time ever I’d be on stage alone but it was just sixty seconds. It would just pass in a flash, I’d thought.

I was wrong about that too.

Patiently I waited at the side of the stage for my turn listening to the other authors pitch their books, some with humour, some with true stories behind them, all with a confidence I did not feel. As I listened to them I knew I wanted to read each and every one of their books.

It was my turn to talk about ‘The Life We Almost Had’. The walk to the podium felt extraordinarily long. Eyes weighing heavily on me as I began my polished pitch only suddenly it wasn’t so polished. I was talking about something personal, my family, and voicing aloud for the first time the sad inspiration behind my story brought with it an onslaught of emotions that I fought to keep in check. Sixty seconds felt like the longest time but when I’d finished I realised I’d missed out a vital sentence in the middle of my pitch and thought without it, it might not have made sense to anyone.

On the train, I was furious with myself all the way home. Sixty seconds. How could I have messed up sixty seconds when my story means so much to me. When my characters Adam and Anna mean so much to me.

At home I opened Twitter. I’d received a lovely message from a book blogger. “When you said at the end of you speech ‘At the beginning of the book Adam and Anna question whether love can be eternal, by the end of their story they have their answer’ has made me desperate to read it.”

Tearfully I replied, that was the reaction I had hoped for. That’s when I realised. It was because I cared so much I was angry and that was something that all of the authors in that room had in common last night.

We cared.

Our stories might be in different genres but we were all passionate about the worlds we had created. We all wanted to share those worlds and it was that passion that made me desperate to read every single book I’d heard talked about, it wasn’t necessarily what the author said (or didn’t say in my case). We all spoke from the heart and are all immensely proud of the books we have written and ultimately that was what shone through and made the evening such a special one.

Big thanks to HQ for arranging the event and to everyone who came along and supported it. I loved meeting so many new people and am really grateful my editor invited me along. And a huge shout out to the incredible authors last night who stepped out of their comfort zones (and in my case my pyjamas) to share their stories. I had a fabulous time.

Book bloggers Linda Hill, Jacob Collins, Sarah Swan

Publication day & why I feel so vulnerable

 

Today is publication day for my fourth psychological thriller, The Date and although early reviewers are unanimously calling it my best book yet, my emotions are mixed; excitement and nerves. Fear and hope. This is the story I never thought I’d finished after several false starts. My main character, Ali, suffers from Face Blindness and it took me a long time to really get to grips with the emotions she feels after acquiring this condition in her 30’s.  I first heard of Prospagnosia through a BBC documentary featuring Hannah Read who suffers from the most extreme case in the UK. (You can read about that in a previous blog here). I often approach difficult subjects when I write and it’s so important to me to remain sensitive and empathetic. A book may predominately be entertainment but real people are living very real lives within the subjects I write about and I want to remain respectful of that at all times. This is the time I feel most vulnerable. Of course it’s inevitable that not everyone will love a book, but I never want anyone to think I’ve taken the emotional side of my story lightly.

Three years of trying to get Ali right, and much research later the book is today in the hands of readers who I hope will enjoy the story and perhaps learn a little about a condition that is far more common than you’d think.

Order The Date from Amazon, iBooks, Kobo and Google.

If you want to hear directly from Hannah about what it’s like to live with Face Blindness and the challenges she faces, check out our short YouTube interview here.

In the meantime, here’s the blurb: –

One night can change everything. 

‘I know it as soon as I wake up and open my eyes… Something is wrong.’

Her Saturday night started normally. Recently separated from her husband, Ali has been persuaded by her friends to go on a date with a new man. She is ready, she is nervous, she is excited. She is about to take a step into her new future. By Sunday morning, Ali’s life is unrecognisable. She wakes, and she knows that something is wrong. She is home, she is alone, she is hurt and she has no memory of what happened to her.  

Worse still, when she looks in the mirror, Ali doesn’t recognise the face staring back at her…

 

What it’s REALLY like living with Face Blindness: Interview with Hannah Read

Last week I blogged about Hannah Read, the (then) 13 year old girl who featured in a BBC programme several years ago documenting her life after she had acquired face blindness. Hannah has the UK’s severest reported case of Prosopagnosia and her story was one which I was unable to forget. Hannah’s condition was the inspiration behind my latest psychological thriller, The Date (you can read that post here) which features Ali, my main character, who also acquires face blindness later in life.

I was so thrilled to be able to track Hannah and her family down after finishing my book to tell them the impact her experience had on me. Today, I’m delighted to share my short YouTube interview Hannah where I ask her directly what it’s really like living with Face Blindness.

The Date will publish on 21st June and you can preorder a copy via your local Amazon here.

Face Blindness – why this is the subject of my new novel

Next week on 21stJune, my latest psychological thriller, The Date, will be published. This is a novel that has taken a long time to write and several false starts before it was completed and there is a very special reason for that.

With my previous novels I’ve written about a subject that interests me. The Gift was about cellular memory and the concept that the heart, when transplanted, can retain memories from the donor. In The Surrogate I became fascinated with the laws (or lack of) surrounding surrogacy and what might happen if either party didn’t follow the agreed plan.  Through The Sister I explored the impact of grief and how far we would go for our family and friends and the secrets we keep.

The idea of The Date sprung from the unlikeliest of sources – ‘My Life’, a long running Children’s BBC documentary series featuring children with unique stories. Around six years ago, my family and I watched an episode featuring Hannah Read, a girl who acquired the UKs most severe case of prosopagnosia at the age of eight after an infection caused inflammation of her brain.  Hannah’s story was equally heart-breaking and inspiring. In one scene she was led into a room containing her family and friends but also some strangers. She walked around the room and studied each face intently and you could feel her panic as she was unable to identify anyone she knew. Hannah was also shown a selection of photographs and became extremely upset she couldn’t recognise her own picture. Hannah said ‘she felt cut off from the world around her’ and her anxiety whenever she left her house was palpable. The documentary makers introduced her to other teenagers with the condition and a university who were carrying out a research project who subsequently taught her coping strategies. By the end of the programme Hannah felt less isolated and more positive but her distress and her story stayed with me long after I switched off my TV. Imagine waking up one day in a world where everyone looked like a stranger? How utterly terrifying.

A year after watching Hannah often crept into my thoughts. I knew I had to write a story about Face Blindness. After I finished The Sister I started playing around with an opening but I didn’t know how to progress it, there was almost too much scope and so I put it to one side and wrote The Gift instead. The time came to write my third book and instantly, I thought of Hannah again. I pulled out my notes and this time wrote the first 10,000k words and sent it to my editor. ‘How are you going to progress it?’ she asked. I was at a lost to know how to sensitively approach a story surrounding a subject that had really touched me. Again, I put it to one side and instead, wrote The Surrogate. By the time I’d finished my third book, my main character, Ali, had been brewing in the back of my mind for four years and I was determined to have a third attempt. This time I felt more confident I could write a pacey, unnerving thriller, but also stay true to the emotions and challenges faced by those who have prosopagnosia. I wanted Ali to show the same courage and determination that Hannah did.

Having a person act as the inspiration behind my new novel has been terrifying but as soon as I’d finished the book I knew I wanted to let Hannah know how her programme had not only introduced me to a condition I’d never heard of but had also propelled me to want to raise awareness of it too.

I managed to track down Hannah’s mum and I’ve since spoken on the phone to her and with Hannah. Next week I’ll be interviewing Hannah for my YouTube channel and asking her what it’s really like to live with Face Blindness. Do join us!

You can preorder The Date as ebook, paperback or audio via your local Amazon here.

A writing retreat – Is it more than wine & cheese?

 

A few months ago, I was lunching with a group of writer friends when it was suggested we should hire accommodation and go on an informal writing retreat. Four of us committed to a date and I spent last weekend packing for my big adventure.

My son sat on my bed as I haphazardly threw an array of clothes into a case and then I spent an inordinate amount of time carefully selecting notebooks and pens.

‘Like you’re going to use those,’ my son scoffed.

‘Of course I am!’ I was a little offended.

‘It will be like the “revision” sessions I used to have with friends during A’Levels.’ he said.

‘I thought those were really valuable?’

‘Yeah. In terms of drinking beer and eating pizza. You’ll be the same but with cheese and wine.’

‘I’ll be writing.’ I stressed again, as though he didn’t know me really well.

At this point my other son wandered into my room. ‘Mum, isn’t an untutored writing retreat really just a holiday.’

‘Umm… no?’ Yes.

Monday, led by Word Warrior Tina, we checked into Centre Parcs and immediately headed to the shop and filled a trolley with wine and cheese. After we’d unpacked, I lounged on the sofa, opened my notebook and jotted down the available times for a massage. Damn my children for always being right.

But although this week there has been much talking, eating, laughter and drinking there has also been much, much more. It was such a privilege to watch and feed the wildlife including this adorable deer who slept on our patio.

The gorgeous surroundings, dusted by the unexpected snowfall, created the perfect creative environment.

Although we’ve been out – our first day saw me heading to the spa after a humungous afternoon tea – we’ve also given each other the time and space to work on our individual projects. We’ve bounced around ideas, read aloud and critiqued each others work with love. I feel relaxed, energised and as I look back at what I’ve achieved this past week I’ve also written more than I thought.

It’s been a really valuable experience and one I can’t wait to repeat. You can listen to my 90 second summary here: –

 

Novel writing 1st draft – When the end is also the beginning

Today, I typed two words on my fourth manuscript. The two words that are often the most exciting to write. The End. Although it’s only a first draft, the relief I feel is immense but it’s also mixed with a nervousness, and if I’m honest, a little sadness.

Relief, because despite the success of my first three books the self-doubt has never completely gone away. The little voice whispering I won’t be able to do it again. This book has been such a hard write, and a long time in the making, started and abandoned twice, and there were times when I absolutely believed that voice and almost, almost gave up.

Nerves, because this is when it goes over to my agent and publisher for their feedback. This psychological thriller comes from a different angle and I’m hoping it’s one they will like. It’s also pacier, darker and more emotive than my first other books, although I hope it still retains the same feel.

Sadness, because again, I’ve become ridiculously attached to my main character, Ali and in a way this feels like letting her go. She’s been through such a lot in her life (and in my story!) and after spending 8 hours a day with her for almost a year I am already feeling lost without her.

I remind myself that this is not the end, this is the beginning and it’s the next part of the process I enjoy the most. The editing, the shaping of the story, polishing the language. It will be interesting to see, when the edits come back, how they compare to my previous books. I feel I’ve learned so much working with an editor and I’ve tried to put it all into practice. I shall let you know shortly as well as sharing the tips I have picked up along the way.