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?

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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.

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.

Parenting – Swapping Calpol for Vodka

 

It was my birthday over the weekend. I woke to a still house. Silent. First light filtered through a crack in the curtains and shone a spotlight on the empty space at the bottom of the bed where once small children would bounce, clutching handmade cards decorated with indistinguishable drawings.

“Wake up Mummy.”

My heart would be filled with love as I’d eat a breakfast they’d lovingly prepared – “of course smarties taste good with cornflakes”- before unwrapping gifts fashioned from empty yoghurt pots and cardboard toilet roll tubes.

Two of my three children have grown. One has already left home, another due to go to uni in September. 

As I lay there I felt such a fierce longing for simpler times. For sticky marmalade kisses and time that seemed to stretch endlessly. 

Where had their childhood gone?

The day was lovely. I had a fabulous lunch with my whole family and yet still I felt oddly unsettled.

Sometime. Somehow. There’s been a shift in the fabric of my relationship with my older kids and as I watched them leave after dessert, going back to the grown up part of their lives I was not included in, I was inexplicably scared it was all going to unravel. The invisible thread of love that binds me to them might stretch and stretch until one day… would it snap altogether?

And then I got a text – dinner, Mum?

Saturday found us crowded around a table sharing tapas, before heading to a bar and there was another shift in dynamics. A Saturday night drinking cocktails with the people I love most in the world. 

It’s a different stage of parenting, swapping Calpol for vodka. Baby rice for bar snacks, and it wasn’t better, or worse. Just different. And I realised as we hugged at the end of the evening and went our separate ways that the invisible thread is strong enough to span years and miles and oceans and it will always, always remain unbreakable. 

My heart will forever be filled with love.

THIS is why I LOVE book clubs (aka book people are the NICEST people)

 

I adore book clubs. I’ve intermittently been a member of one for as long as I can remember. There’s nothing quite like the warm and fuzzy feeling that comes through spending time with like-minded people, sipping wine, and discussing the characters, the plot twists, the theme.

In the back of all my books are reading group questions. I love to think of them sparking a discussion and with local groups, I feel privileged when I’m invited along to be part of that discussion.

A lovely American lady called Cheryl, messaged me after her group discussed The Sister and The Gift telling me how much her group loved my stories and that they were planning something very special for The Surrogate. Both a chance to talk about the book and to help a good cause.

I was very intrigued and this morning I was absolutely thrilled to be sent the glowing feedback for my book and photos of ‘The Surrogate themed baby shower.’

The onsie cake looked amazing (I so wish I was near enough to eat a slice), and the ‘It’s a Book’ bunting made me smile.

The games were all ‘The Surrogate’ themed and it was quite surreal seeing my name, and my characters pop up in a word search.

Best of all was the huge basket of baby items collected that is now being donated to their local church where it will be distributed to mums in need.

The power of words bring people together in so many ways. Book people really are the NICEST people.

Thanks so much ladies.

My new book! Cover Reveal!

I am RIDICULOUSLY excited to reveal the gorgeous cover of my fourth psychological thriller, The Date, which will be published June 21st and is now available to pre-order from Amazon, iBooks, Kobo & Google!! This is my darkest, paciest book so far, and also my most emotional. You’ll need a cushion to hide behind AND a box of tissues. I’ve lots to say about this story and why I chose to write about Prosopagnosia (Face Blindness) but for now, here’s the blurb: –

Something bad has happened to Alison Taylor.

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. She can’t recognise her friends and family. And she can’t recognise the person who is trying to destroy her…

 

You can find The Date via your local Amazon here.

 

This time last week I was in prison – My visit to HMP Thameside’s book club

Eighteen months ago, when my debut novel, The Sister, was No.1 in the charts, I was invited along to HMP Thameside to meet their book club. Immediately, The Fear hit and I quickly declined. Not because of the environment, but because I had a massive phobia of public speaking. Those who read my blog know that after turning down numerous talks, I was asked to speak at the Althorp Literary Festival last year and eager to attend, I had a course of hypnotherapy to help me overcome The Fear (you can read about that here). I’ve since spoken at, and enjoyed, several events so when HMP Thameside’s librarian, Neil Barclay, got back in touch and asked if I’d reconsider, grateful of a second chance, I said yes.

I had never been in a prison before and my expectations were very much centred around what I’d seen on TV, rowdy tattooed men in orange boiler suits, and as I queued up to be booked in I started to wonder, for the first time, what I’d let myself in for. It was a surprise I had to be fingerprinted before I was granted entry, and not by ink and paper but by a scanner. (‘Mum, did you think it would be like an 80’s cop show?’ my son asked when I told him that later. Umm, yes.) My photo was taken, my ID checked and then I was given a visitor’s pass. After storing my possessions in a locker I was directed to the next room. Here, I was met by an officer who asked me to remove my boots so they could be scanned. As she snapped on blue latex gloves I felt a flicker of unease but the search was soon over and another officer arrived to escort me to the library.

One of my first observations was how many doors there were. Each one needing to be unlocked and immediately locked behind us. Listening to the slam, the twisting of the key, I tried to imagine how I would feel if I knew I would be there for months, or even years and anxiety bubbled.

In the library I was greeted by the prisoners who participate in the book club and the creative writing class and it struck me, as my eyes swept around the room, at the different clothes (not an orange boiler suit in sight) the different ages, races, that these were just people and my anxiety dissipated.

We talked about my books, about writing, but more importantly, we chatted about mental health. I relayed my story of how finding myself with a disability in my 30’s lost me my mobility, my job, my home and caused me to develop clinical depression. I shared how I was at rock bottom, thinking my life was over, my best days behind me. My fears that no-one would employ me, love me. But eventually I picked myself up and overcome depression through mindfulness and forged a new life. A new career. Although, they didn’t tell me why they were in prison, and nor did I want to know, they shared how they felt. How they coped.

Time flew by and after signing some books the men were escorted back to their cells. I ate a delicious lunch at the staff bistro, cooked and served by the prisoners. Later, I had a tour of the prison. I experienced what it was like in both a single and double cell and chatted to the men who lived there. It was heart breaking to visit a room full of toys and books where the men could record themselves reading a story to send to their children and that really reiterated that their sentence isn’t theirs to bear alone.

It’s now been a week now since my visit. A week in which the people I met are still very much on my mind. A week in which I am still trying to process how I feel. Despite my expectations, the images I had built up in my mind, ultimately these men were people, like you and I. Some were anxious, bewildered, depressed and frustrated. All were respectful and polite. There were repeat offenders, that was inevitable but I also met men who wanted an education, the chance of a better life. Hope. There are no victimless crimes but could any one of us take a wrong turn? Although I’ve never broken the law I’ve made bad choices, rash decisions. Mistakes.

I’ve offered to go back and run a workshop on mindfulness. As well as helping with depression and anxiety, imagine if learning to live in the moment, pausing to think rather than having a knee jerk reaction, could stop just one person reoffending? Mindfulness is all about choice. I chose to visit the prison, and I was free to leave at the end of the day, but sometimes I think – what if I wasn’t. It’s a sobering thought.

I was presented with a gorgeous bouquet, a ‘Wish You Were Here’ mug, and a thank you card.