The BIG editing lesson I learned writing The Surrogate #WritingTips

Today is the UK paperback publication of my third psychological thriller, The Surrogate (US paperback publication will follow later this year).  Although I’ve learned from every book, it was this one in particular where my editor gave me a piece of advice that has always stayed with me.

When I shared with my sister that I’d be writing a book about surrogacy she told me that she though the subject was too limiting. That the story would be predictable. I was determined to prove her wrong.

The Surrogate features Kat and Lisa, childhood friends, and Kat’s husband, Nick. They are all keeping dark and damaging secrets. I never plan when I write. I had a vague idea of who might be bad and who might be good but as I got deeper into the story the characters pulled me in unexpected directions. The plot became more complex than anything I thought I was capable of constructing.

As the ending gathered pace I layered twist upon twist, they tumbled onto the page as they tumbled out of my head, until finally the story reached its dramatic conclusion.

Nervously, I sent it over to my editor.

‘This is a phenomenal story’ her feedback began, ‘but…’ my heart sank ‘you’re not giving your twists time to breathe.’

I wasn’t entirely sure what she meant until I reread my manuscript. There wasn’t time to process each revelation before another one hit. It had been exhausting writing it. It was equally exhausting reading it. Rather than the pacy, hard hitting ending I thought I’d written it was confusing, lurching from one reveal to another.

She suggested taking out several twists which I was reluctant to do, so I set about rewriting the end.

For the twist she’d classed as ‘the big one’ I ensured I had no other reveals in this chapter. For other twists I moved a couple so they were away from the end. For most I lengthened the chapters so they weren’t so crammed together, particularly the epilogue which contains several.

Rereading it, I could see the difference. There was time to rest back, to process the turns of the story before it once more turned on its head.

There’s nothing I like more than pulling the rug from under the readers feet. To lead them to think they’ve got it all figured out when they haven’t. My stories always contain multiple twists. Now I’ll always give them time to breath.

You can read the opening of The Surrogate here and buy it on your local Amazon here. It is also now available in Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s & all good book shops.

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The valuable lesson I learned on my writing retreat

In 2015 I nervously went on a ‘How to create a submission package’ retreat at Wentworth Castle. I’d finished my first novel and although I didn’t feel quite brave enough to send it out into the world, I wanted to explore my options if I one day I drank enough wine to actually sum up the courage to share it.

Ali Harper and Anna Chilvers were the tutors and after reading the opening for The Sister, felt it would glean much interest and after running through the pros and cons of agents, publishers and self-publishing, encouraged me to craft a query letter and gave me tips on writing the dreaded synopsis. I went home believing, not that I could, but that I might, and I held tightly onto that kernel of hope until the day came when I did drink enough wine to press send on the submission emails that had been languishing in my draft Hotmail folder.

Fast forward three years, four books published, nineteen translation deals and a million sales later I was delighted to be invited back to Wentworth Castle to talk to Anna and Ali’s new students on their ‘Writing Fearlessly’ retreat about my bumpy journey to publication. I spoke about the group I was part of in 2015. How the 15 other students and I were passionate about writing but never believed it would happen for us. How being an author always seemed too far out of reach.  I shared my experience  – how extraordinary things can happen to ordinary people if you can pick yourself up after the inevitable knock backs, always be willing to listen to constructive criticism and never, ever stop writing.

It was in the bar afterwards (where else would you find a bunch of writers) a lovely lady shared with me that she never wanted to be published and had no intention of ever trying to be. ‘I write for myself’ she said ‘for the love of it, because it brings me so much happiness.’

I paused. Lowered my glass and remembered how it felt to write The Sister, with no hopes or expectations, just the pure joy of spending time with my characters. How writing lifted me out of clinical depression and gave me a purpose. I still love writing, of course I do or I’d choose another career but sometimes caught up with the deadlines, the marketing, the accounts, everything else that comes with the job sometimes, just sometimes, it’s possible to lose sight of what drove me to write to start with. The passion, the drive, the possibilities.

The desire to tell a story.

I do hope the retreat participants got something out of my visit, I know I took something valuable away too.

In 2015 I was unable to stand unaided so it was super special that this time I was up to having a little mooch around the grounds, checking out Stainborough Castle and the beautiful countryside. As gorgeous as it was, alone at the castle I was seeing crime everywhere, plots spinning around my mind, picking out potential hiding places for someone to spring out, bodies to be buried. Can we ever entirely switch off the writer side of us?

Transitioning to full-time author & creating a space to write

When I began writing The Sister, I would perch on the end of my bed, iPad balanced on knee, for the half an hour each night when my son had independent reading time. Writing was my way to unwind, the way I fought clinical depression after suddenly acquiring a disability and chronic pain. As time marched on and my short story grew and grew I hesitantly invested in a second hand laptop, feeling horribly guilty, in the way most mother’s do, for spending money on myself rather than the kids.

It became clear, when I wrapped up the tale of Grace and Charlie at 90k words that it was a book but it was only after many weeks, and truth be told, many glasses of wine, I felt brave enough to send it out and luckily it got picked up quite quickly.

It was then the whirlwind started.

With The Sister scheduled for publication only six months after I signed my deal, and my editor waiting for book two life became really hectic. Still teaching mindfulness through the business I had spent years building up I wrote The Gift during breaks while simultaneously editing The Sister. I wrote in my car waiting for the kids to come out of school. My ancient laptop was propped open on the breakfast bar while I cooked meals. It came into the utility with me while I squeezed in a few words waiting for the iron to heat (okay I took artistic license with the last one – I NEVER actually iron but you get the picture. I wrote everywhere.) Still, I didn’t have a space in my home to write.

Juggling too many things, my health began to slide and my husband took over the business while I focused on writing The Gift, immediately followed by The Surrogate and then The Date. I wrote on the sofa, at the dining table, in the bedroom, at my son’s desk in his room. Anywhere I could carve out space in our busy house. My ancient laptop took longer and longer to boot up. I found it harder and harder to focus. My notes were scattered all over the house. I had no structure. Rooms were cluttered and so was my mind. Work was everywhere and it was increasingly difficult to switch off. Almost impossible to think of beginning a new book.

Something had to change.

And then an email dropped into my inbox from my publisher ‘Huge congratulations, you’ve surpassed a million English language sales.’ Stunned I shared this with my husband who was thrilled but had a very important question to ask.

‘Is this it now? You’re a full-time writer?’

I hesitated. I’d slipped further and further away from the business but we’d never sat down and talked properly about what I want. What he wants. What it would mean for our family if I could say ‘yes I’m an author’ rather than staring at my shoes and mumbling whenever anyone asks what I do for a living. My career has got off to a flying start with No.1 placements in various charts, in various countries and nineteen translation deals. Time wise I have been writing full-time but I’d still not made that mental shift. I felt a pang of sadness admitting aloud ‘I don’t think I’ll be coming back to the business.’ As much as I hoped one day to find a balance, writing is all consuming and honestly there’s nothing else I’d rather be doing.

‘Then we need to find you the space to do that,’ he said.

Last weekend I was away at a literary festival and when I returned home he’d cleared the small study that’s always been his and we spent the week decorating and choosing furniture. For the last few days, I’ve sat at my new desk, in a clutter free room that is mine and mine alone, a blank wall in front of me and I’ve felt more creative than I have in months. Ideas are flowing and I’m genuinely excited at the prospect of writing more books because finally, my name is Louise and I’m a full-time author.

I’m slightly ashamed to say this sideboard is crammed full of notebooks…

LOVE my floating bookshelves & so proud to know many of these authors.

A cosy corner to read the proofs I’m sent.

My desk will NEVER be this tidy again.

My super creative sister has made me a piece of artwork for every book I’ve released (Admittedly I’m TERRIFIED of masks so I sit with my back to this).

Rich Hall Comedian – Interview – Writing & what you should NEVER do with a good idea

Rich Hall is one of my favourite comedians. Alongside stand-up he’s a firm fixture on TV panels shows, especially QI. In 2000 he won the Perrier Award at the Edinburgh Fringe in the guise of his country singing ex-con uncle Otis Lee Crenshaw.  This week I was lucky enough to see him live where he combined comedy and music in a show that was so funny my stomach muscles still ache from laughing.  During the first half he talked in his trademark drawl, taking an interest in the audience, randomly asking people where they were from, how long they’d been married and what they did for a living.  The second half kicked off with Rich singing a song based around an audience member’s life. I was utterly in awe of how quickly he’d pulled the song together over the interval and my writer mind instantly questioned, how had he done it? As time marched on he sang song after song using new information about different people and I knew these hadn’t been pre-written. How did he, seemingly easily, come up with ideas.

At the end of the show I asked if I could ask Rich directly and blog about his process. Thankfully he said yes.

Rich, I’m in awe of the way you put songs together so effortlessly tonight.

Thanks it’s not always as effortless as it appears.

I thought you’d used the interval to write the first song you sang in the second half but then you carried on singing about audience members. You must make them up on the spot?

Not entirely. The interval helps, trust me. In the interval I’ve got a bit of information to work with. I don’t know what I’m gonna do with it but at least I know. I knew that guy drove a mini metro and I could think about it.  I guess it’s a little like you planning books?

I tend to wing it!

Hehe I wing it too but even then I’m thinking ahead wondering what could come next. Sometimes shows are shorter without an interval and then the pressure’s really on but some writer’s work better under pressure. You one of those?

God no! I don’t like too much pressure but I’m beginning to think I’m better with a deadline of some sort. I don’t have one at the moment.

 Yeah sometimes it stems creativity having to produce something. It sucks the life out of it. But sometimes you need that kick up the arse.

A couple of the songs you sang tonight I’d heard before. How do you approach song writing?

Often I work on the structure first and then I sit and teach the band – here’s what I want you to play – then we’ve got a good feel for it and I fill in the words. It comes easier with experience. Writing is writing whatever it is. Practice definitely helps.

 How long have you been writing?

Thirty five years now. I studied journalism at college and then went to work for the Seattle newspaper writing columns. I hated it. I’d always wanted to be a comedian. One day I just decided to go for it.

It’s not only jokes and songs you write is it?

No there’s plays, books and documentaries. All sorts.

Do you write on the road? Are you structured with your approach?

If inspiration hits I’ll write. I split my time between the UK and my ranch in Montana and I tend to do a lot of writing there.

Do you have any rituals?

I wish I did. I wish it was like a tap that I could do something and it would come. Sometimes I get really stuck, don’t you?

I do but I tend to only work on one project at a time so I have to work through it somehow. What do you do?

 I walk away. Writing’s pretty much the same, jokes, stories, whatever and sometimes you have to walk away from it.

If you could give one piece of advice to new writers, what would it be?

When you get an idea you know in your gut if it’s a good one and if it is don’t beat it into the ground. If it doesn’t flow and you force yourself to keep working on it you lose confidence in the idea and it becomes old. You’re a writer, Louise. You know what I’m talking about?

Absolutely. I’ve had to put the manuscript for my latest novel, The Date, away so many times because it wasn’t coming and I knew it was too good an idea to let go.

Yeah that’s the thing. You give something space and it could be good.  If you’re sick of thinking about it let it go for a while. That’s what I learned. I was very frustrated when I started out because I thought I had to sit and work on something until it was finished.  Sometimes you’ve got to mix it up. What gets you through the hump?

A mixture of pure panic, cheese and too much wine.

Hehe, I might try that!

It’s been lovely talking to you Rich. Thanks so much for your time.

It’s been a pleasure.

US publication day & over excited characters…

It was well over a year ago now that my fabulous agent called to tell me that Grand Central Publishing in the US were to publish my backlist and my forthcoming books, starting with The Sister.

‘Goodness. Grace and Charlie will be SO excited!’ I said.

There was a short pause before he continued running through the details. He, along with everyone else who knows me, have long since stopped pointing out that the characters in my debut novel aren’t real. Even though I’ve written three books since I penned The Sister, Grace and Charlie are still fully formed and ever present in my mind.

Proofreading the US version was like I’d never been away from the characters and even with the US spellings, and the tweaks to fit the market, it was so familiar to me. It doesn’t seem five minutes since I started writing the story, utilising the thirty minutes I had spare every day while my son had independent reading time.  I started writing to see if I could lift my mental health after acquiring a disability, and subsequently clinical depression in my 30’s. I never once dreamed my new hobby would lead to a career and I feel so blessed.

Today, it’s finally US publication day for the trade paperback of The Sister and admittedly Grace and Charlie aren’t the only ones who are excited! Much of my family live in Texas and they couldn’t be happier that my books will be in stores there.

As well as being available in bookstores, I’m delighted to learn that Barnes & Nobel and Target have some special promotions lined up.  Early trade reviews in Booklist and Publisher’s Weekly have been very kind and I can’t wait for my story, set in a little English village, reach a whole new readership.

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…

 

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.