3 years in publishing, 10 lessons I’ve learned

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This week marks three years since my debut, The Sister, was published. There was no gentle easing into the publishing industry because, and I am eternally grateful – my first novel soon rose to No. 1 in various countries, spending almost the entire summer in the top spot in the UK. It quickly sold over half a million copies and was snapped up for translation by twenty-five territories, nominated for the Goodreads best debut award, and became the sixth biggest selling book on Amazon in 2016.  As lovely as all this was – and it was – there was no time to sit back and enjoy it, the pressure was on to finish writing my second book, The Gift.

Fast forward to now, over a million sales later, and publication of my fifth thriller, The Family is imminent and yet I still feel as though I’m finding my feet. Often overwhelmed with the thought of having to write more books and yet heartbroken at the thought that one day I might not be in the fortunate position of writing full time. Creating stories is my passion, my reason for getting up in the mornings but, sometimes (generally during a first draft) the cause of my insomnia. Thoughts of ‘how can I make my next book better than my last’ all-consuming.

I have a sense that I know nothing about writing, about publishing and yet I know infinitely more than I did and these are the ten lessons I try to bear in mind.

  • There are readers who will love my story. No matter how daunting it is releasing a new book into the wild, I write stories I would love to read myself and it stands to reason that if my story is one I would love to read, someone else will love it too.
  • There are readers who will hate my story. Negative reviews are inevitable. It doesn’t mean – as I once thought – I should stop writing books because Sandra from Basingstoke doesn’t like them. Not every book will resonate with every reader.
  • The pressure I have felt has been the pressure I have burdened myself with. My agent, my publisher, my readers want future books but no one is chaining me to my desk and forcing me to write (note – that might make a good plot)
  • The world will not stop turning if I don’t ever write another book. My world would be darker, sadder, but if I couldn’t think of a single plot again it really wouldn’t cause the sun to explode.
  • Some books are easy to write. My third – The Surrogate – literally fell from the sky on to the page and I thought I’d finally found the magic formula.
  • Some books are impossibly difficult. My fourth book – The Date – took several false starts and was shoved into the bottom of my drawer multiple times.
  • Social media sometimes brings me down – if I’ve had an unproductive day I avoid twitter as I know that seeing other writers ‘I’ve written thousands of words since breakfast’ posts leave me feeling inferior.
  • My editor is mainly right. Mainly. Not always. Ultimately it is my name on the cover and if I feel strongly that a suggested change is wrong for my characters I will stand up for them. It’s a suggested change, not the law. That said I’m so lucky to have an editor and I’d be a fool to ignore her expertise. A fool!
  • EVERY writer has highs and lows but it’s often only the highs you hear about. No matter what level of success someone has there are still disappointments. Still times the words won’t flow. Self-doubt is ever-present for most creatives. I don’t think that ever fully disappears and nor do I think it should.
  • A dip in sales does not mean the end of a career. Some books sell more than others, some books gain better reviews. All I can do is set out to write my best book every time and never become complacent. I love what I do and I never forget how fortunate I am.

I’ll be giving away some signed copies of The Sister this week so do follow me on my Facebook page for a chance to win one.

 

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The joy I felt holding my first book is something I shall never forget

 

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Revisting my primary school where I wrote my first ‘book’ made me feel ALL the emotions, including anger…

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This weekend I went along to celebrate the 50 year anniversary of my former primary school, with a set of my books to donate to the staffroom and a heart full of gratitude for the teacher who encouraged me to write.

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Mr Townsend made a huge impression on my seven-year-old self. Never confident, I could usually be found curled in the corner of the library reading a book. He encouraged me to write my own stories. Patiently reading them, offering kind words and constructive advice. It was him I turned to when I penned my first novel – all seven pages of it which I’d illustrated and had stuck together with sellotape and love. ‘The Fabulous Five’, in no way ripped off from Enid Blyton.

**totally and blatantly ripped off from Enid Blyton**

We were allowed to check out one library book each week but, but always a fast reader, and incredibly careful with the pages, treating the books like the precious treasure they were,  Mr Townsend allowed me to borrow as many as I wanted to. He wisely said ‘the key to learning to write stories is to read as many as you can’ and those words have always stayed with me.

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I was thrilled my two favourite childhood books were still here (albeit newer editions)

It was emotional being back at primary school, trailing through the still familiar classrooms with my sister who had been in a different year to me, sharing memories, trading stories and occasionally disagreeing over whose classroom we were currently standing in (well we are sisters – there has to be a little conflict).

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The 70’s have such happy memories, it’s made me more determined to write a nostalgic novel one day.

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As I stood in the original 1960’s floor with its parquet flooring I remembered the smaller me who had sat crossed legged, listening to stories while drinking her free bottle of milk, dreaming of the day she’d be an author – writing those stories and I felt something else. A fleeting moment of anger for all that came after. The secondary school where I was told it was ridiculous to think I could forge a writing career. Who gradually tore apart my dreams, and replaced them with the ‘achievable and realistic goal’ of working in an office.

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It took me a long time to find the courage, the confidence to pursue writing again and, with over a million book sales so far, I’m so grateful I did.

Mr Townsend’s support is something I’ve held on to for a long time, and I was sad not to see him at the reunion. I wanted to thank him for believing in me when I didn’t believe in myself.

Primary schools are instrumental in shaping us in the people we are ultimately going to be, the people we want to be. I’m thankful mine was so nurturing.

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I’m 3rd row down on the right with the wonky collar – upset I’d just had my long hair cut off.

 

 

Where do story ideas come from? Everywhere…

My husband had gone to a client meeting, my son had just left to meet friends when I decided to have a break and make a drink. Back in my study, I put my coffee on my desk and it was then I realised, somebody had been into my room.

But I was alone.

Fear prickled at the back of my neck. On my keyboard, was a Biscoff.

‘Hello?’ I called into the silence which now felt heavy and oppressive.

Grabbing my phone, I called my son.

‘There’s somebody in the house,’ I whispered. ‘They’ve left a warning on my keyboard.’

‘A warning or a biscuit?’ He asked.

‘Was it you? But you’re not here?’

‘I found it in my pocket when I got to the bottom of the road and thought I’d pop it back as they’re your favourite. Seriously, mum how could you think it was creepy?’

‘Because somebody could want me to think I’m losing my mind, doubting my reality. They-‘

‘You’ve got an overactive imagination,’ he said.

It’s something I’ve heard throughout my life, usually accompanied by an eye roll and a sigh. My school reports often started with ‘Louise is such a daydreamer.’ I am but now, rather than seeing it as a flaw, as I’ve always been led to believe, I look upon it as something positive. Although gazing out of the window and making up characters in my head may be a problem in many jobs, without my over active imagination I wouldn’t be living out my life-long dream of being an author.

For Mother’s Day, my youngest son bought me a fizzy bath bomb from Lush. We’d not had them before and he wanted to watch as I dropped it into the bath. Just before I let it go he said ‘look mum, there’s a secret message!’

Inside a small hole on the top of the bomb there was a tightly rolled piece of paper.

‘What do you think it says?’ he asked excitedly.

‘I think it says ‘drown, bitch,’ I said. ‘I don’t think it’s supposed to be revealed until you’re in the bath and as you stare in confusion at the words you become aware of someone standing behind you-‘

‘A hand on the top of your head,’ he said (he writes too…)

‘Which pushes you underwater and holds you down until you stop struggling.’

The disappointment when we read it said ‘thanks’ was immense.

My three sons are used to me now. One called me to tell me he’d lost his wallet he quickly followed it up with ‘and no I don’t think anyone will find it and leave my ID at a murder scene.’

‘You never know,’ I said, darkly.

Last weekend, we took our dog for a country walk and my son pointed out the perfect place to hide a body. I didn’t roll my eyes and sigh, tell him he’s got an overactive imagination as though it’s a bad thing. Instead, I encouraged him to explore the idea, write it down. If all potential story-tellers were made to feel having a vivid imagination is a bad thing there wouldn’t be as many books and that would be a very sad world indeed.

What REALLY happens at an author Christmas party… #HQmasParty

Authors are often solitary creatures, introverted. Much of our days spent alone with only a laptop (and in my case a cat) for company.

B A Paris & Louise Jensen

Every so often there’s a chance to get out, a literary festival, a bookish event, a party. Today, was my publisher’s author Christmas bash and it felt odd to be discarding my pyjamas in favour of real, actual, normal clothes (if you can call tinsel, Rudolph earrings and a present fascinator normal clothes.)

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Alice Feeney, Louise Jensen

An author party isn’t just an excuse for drinking (okay it is a bit). It’s a chance to catch up with old friends and make some new. To connect. To realise that however alone we can sometimes feel, we all have the same fears, not matter what stage of writing we are at; that we’ll run out of ideas; that our current book won’t be as well received as out last. We all have the same love/hate relationship with our current WIP.

Louise Mangos & Roz Watkins

After a civilised start to the evening, with a gorgeous meal in the London Bridge Hotel, we headed over to the News Building, which houses Harper Collins. On the 17th floor we were met by caterers with glasses of prosecco and canapés and gazing out across the stunning river views I felt a million miles from home.

Lisa Hall, Louise Jensen, Darren O’Sullivan

The writing community is super supportive and one I’m very grateful to be part of. Tomorrow even though I’ll be back in my editing cave, back in my pyjamas, I’ll know I’m not alone.

Louise Jensen & Darren O’Sullivan

Vicky Newham & B A Paris

Louise Jensen & Roz Watkins

Darren O’Sullivan, Lisa Hall, Louise Jensen, Alice Feeney, Mel McGrath, Louise Mangos

Phaedra Patrick & Lisa Hall

B A Paris, Phaedra Patrick, Louise Jensen, Diane Jeffrey, Sally Gardner

How many authors can you fit in a lift..?

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.

My new book covers & news!!

 

I’m thrilled to share with you the refreshed cover for The Surrogate. It’s been given a pink make-over by Sphere in preparation for its autumn paperback publication and I think it ties in with The Sister beautifully.

The story of Kat and Lisa is one which explores their past and present and how guilt, shame and the desire for revenge can destroy the strongest of friendships. The characters in this book were so wilful they took me in a completely different direction to the one I had envisaged, even throwing in three twists on the final page I certainly hadn’t seen coming!

I’m so proud of The Surrogate which has given me the best reviews of my career to date, and I can’t wait for it to soon reach a wider audience via supermarkets and bookshops. In the meantime, it can be found on Amazon here.

I also wanted to share the Norwegian cover for The Gift. I’ve currently nineteen foreign publishers and while a lot of those have used the original artwork some have designed versions to suit their market. This cover is definitely my darkest yet!

Very soon I’ll be sharing why I chose to write about Face Blindness (Prosopagnosia) for my forthcoming psychological thriller, The Date,   and I’ll be interviewing Hannah, the young lady who inspired my story, who has the severest case of Face Blindness in the UK. You can subscribe to my YouTube channel here to catch the interview and preorder The Date which will be published on 21st June via Amazon here.

This summer I’ll also be sharing my publishing journey, the books I love and writing tips at various locations (and on-line). Keep an eye on my events page here.

 

 

 

“Introverts can’t succeed.” (Says who?)

Last night, we had the first parent’s evening at my son’s new secondary school. My son is hardworking, conscientious and worries needlessly about getting into trouble. As with his primary, I was expecting glowing reports praising good grades and excellent behaviour.

I was right. To an extent.

The first teacher we saw reaffirmed how bright he was. How he’s working at a higher level. How well mannered and good natured he is. Kind to his fellow classmates and always considerate of others.

So far so good.

‘But.’ His teacher frowned, and sadly shook his head. ‘There is a big problem.’

My son’s eyes met mine and I saw panic slide across his face.

‘What’s the problem?’ I asked.

A lengthy sigh. ‘He’s quiet.’

‘And?’

‘That’s an issue.’

‘That’s his nature.’

‘We have some big personalities and frankly some disruptive students. He needs to speak up and make himself heard.’

‘Why?’

‘Because you never get anywhere in life being an introvert, do you? If you want to succeed you have to learn to shout loudly.’

Umm. I’m an introvert and seem to have done quite well thank you, as has his father.

This set the pattern for the rest of the evening. Out of 11 teachers, 5 told him he had to be louder. More confident. Be something that he isn’t, because of course when you’re shy and insular someone telling you to be loud and confident is exactly what you (don’t) need.

Outside, in the car, I told my rather forlorn twelve year old that I was immensely proud of him. He has been predicted A’ grades in almost every subject and his behaviour is exemplary. But more important than all of that, I told him that I loved him completely exactly the way he is and that he should never, ever feel that being quiet and introverted is a character flaw. Indeed if he follows his dream career path of becoming an author being insular will serve him well. After all, who’s ever heard of an extroverted writer?