Diary of a Novelist – It’s been car crash, literally.

I began this diary series back in September to record my progress writing a first draft of a new psychological thriller, to keep myself on track (you can read the first part here).

This is my first update since January, so it’s going well then…

Since I began writing in 2014 I’ve written virtually every day. Initially squeezing in time around a full-time job but even when I became a full-time writer I rarely had a day off. Fitting in a session before/after days out. Early mornings during holidays. Even over Christmas. And now, now I feel quite despairing because I have barely written since before Christmas.

I’ve had so many health challenges in 2022. On top of the problems I was already experiencing there has also been a car accident which left me with whiplash and a headache so debilitating I couldn’t look at a screen for weeks, and then a nasty case of Covid which I still haven’t fully recovered from. This all led to a really low mood, at times thinking my writing career was over, that I’d never be able to get back into the swing of things. Unable to focus on anything for any period of time.

Two weeks ago though however, I found myself in Paris, and you can read more about that here. I didn’t think I’d have the strength emotionally or physically to go but with a BIG birthday to celebrate and a research trip needed as next summer’s ‘Amelia Henley‘ book is partly set in Paris we set off telling ourselves that if all we did was sit outside a cafe and drink coffee it would still be time well spent. Thankfully we managed more than that.

I’ve returned, not with renewed vigour, but with a quiet determination to return to the job I love. I have two edits waiting for me. The copy edits for my forthcoming ‘Amelia Henley‘ book. And the first structural edit for my 2023 psychological thriller (and I’m not procrastinating and avoiding reading the editorial letter by writing this blog…)

Wish me luck!

p.s. – If you’re at Crimefest this weekend do come and say hello. I’m on a panel at 16.00 on Saturday the theme is ‘Suspicion and Doubt – who can you trust?’

Monthly round up: –

No new words written!

High – My trip to Paris!

Low – Feeling so ill

What I’m reading – ‘Before the coffee gets cold’ Toshikazu Kawaguchi

What I’m watching – Only Murders in the Building

Special offers – ‘The Stolen Sisters’ is currently 99p – Download from Amazon here. “Twenty years ago The Sinclair Sisters were taken. But what came after their return was far worse. Can a family ever recover, especially when not everyone is telling the truth…?” I adored writing this tense story about Carly, Leah & Marie Sinclair.

Join me, hopefully next month to find out how the edits went and if I’m back on track with writing. Subscribe to my newsletter here today and get two FREE short stories.

Diary of a novelist – December 2021

Happy New Year!

It’s part 4 of my Diary of a Novelist series (catch up from part one here). Working on the first draft of my latest psychological thriller has been a challenge so far but my December was a LOT more productive than I’d hoped. 

Week One

Panic has set in. Unusually, this year, I’m intending on taking at least a week’s break over Christmas – usually, other than the big day itself I write almost every day of the year but I’m feeling so exhausted it’s take a break or burn out. Stepping away from my manuscript midway through a first draft isn’t ideal. I don’t want to lose the sense of story or connection to the characters. My editor has let me know the edits on my next Amelia Henley love story should be with me by the end of the year, followed by the edits on my 2023 thriller so it’s likely I won’t be returning to this book until the Spring. I NEED to cobble together a coherent story, even if I only bullet point chapters or scenes. I carry on working on the end, weaving in all three points of view until I have an ending that is so dark I will likely change it but it’s an ending – hurrah!

Week Two

Finishing the end has forced me back to the middle which I have entirely skipped. I have zero ideas what might happen here so I take my dog for a walk and think about my beginning and my end while letting ideas brew. I find getting outside, away from the house, really kickstarts my creativity. When I return I have a few potential scenes and a big twist in mind so I dig out my index cards and jot them down. Once I can see them in black and white other ideas begin to germinate so I write each idea on a separate index card and then spread them out over the living room floor, rearranging the order, discarding the ones that don’t fit until I have some sort of bridge between the middle and the end. 

I work in Scrivener so, following my index cards, I open a new section for each idea and transfer my notes. With experience I now know roughly how many words I like per chapter (between 1200-2500) and I can tell that I have enough story to take the script to around 88k words – enough to fill a novel. 

Week Three

I’m frantically expanding my notes as much as I can so it’ll be easier to pick up in a few months when I get back to it. Really, I should have visited some old Tudor houses by now for research but the ones that are open to the public are full of Christmas events and I don’t want to come into contact with anyone and potentially catch Covid so instead of writing any detail I’m inserting ‘XX’ into the places I need to fill once I’ve managed to visit some locations next year.

Still, the story is the main thing and I really happy with the way it’s taking shape. I’m writing between 8.30-5.30 every day (usually I only write new words in the mornings). My eyeballs ache I’m so tired but my word count is shooting up and I feel quietly confident I’ll have some sort of draft by Christmas. 

Week Four

I have a zoom meeting with my editor about my forthcoming release ‘All For You’ which publishes 20thJanuary. With only 3 weeks to go I need to arrange an online launch and prizes and SO MUCH.

Breathe. 

The event is set up on Facebook (do come and enter some of the giveaways here) and after a final push on my 9th psychological thriller, I have a shorter than usual, very patchy with lots to fill in draft. Christmas Eve my edits arrive so that’s my January sorted. Time to switch off, spend some quality time with my family with lots of bracing dog walks.

New words written – 32,000 (Total of wip 72500)

Highs – Finishing what I’m loosely calling a first draft

Lows – Not getting any research done

What I’m reading – The Salt Path – Raynor Winn 

What I’m watching – The Landscapers – Olivia Coleman is brilliant

Special offers – ‘The Family’ is 99p across all digital platforms. Download from Amazon here and discover why, once you’ve entered Oak Leaf Farm, you’re NEVER allowed to leave… 

Event – ‘All For You’ live Facebook launch with prizes, details here

Newsletter sign up – subscribe here and get two free short stories and access to exclusive giveaways.

Diary of a novelist – November 2021

Welcome to my diary of a novelist where I’m documenting my routine (such as it is) and progress (pitiful) on my new psychological thriller.

The shame I felt sharing last month’s progress should have pushed me to achieve more this month.

Should…

Week One

Ridiculously, I spend this week in much of a panic because (and I told you it was ridiculous) it’s NaNoWriMo. For those who don’t know that’s National Novel Writing Month where you (clue is in the name) write a novel in a month.

A month!

Now, I have no desire to try this (kudos to those who do) so it shouldn’t have any impact on me.

Shouldn’t...

But I find myself lurking on social media, feeling more and more deflated at those taking part posting their daily word count. By the end of week one most have surpassed the wordcount on my new novel which I’ve been working on for two months.

AND I WRITE FULL TIME.

Now, usually, I’m pretty positive (because I’ve taught myself to be) and I know that no good EVER comes of comparing myself to other writers but sometimes, particularly during such a rough time personally when I’m feeling so low anyway, it’s just so bloody hard not to.

Consequently, I end up writing, deleting, rewriting the same chapter over and over and then eating too much cheese. 

Week Two

This week is publication day for ‘Everyday Kindness‘. An anthology in aid of Shelter Charity. Having had my own life transformed by a single act of kindness I was really happy to contribute a story. I take a few quiet moments on publication day to think about how lucky I am. There are people out there who are homeless.

Homeless.

And I’ve been stressing about Nano WHICH I’M NOT TAKING PART IN ANYWAY.

Back to my wip. I carry on writing the past point of view featured in part three, the end (I’ve skipped the middle for now). 

Then my husband begins to feel unwell. His throat is raw, he has swollen glands, a raging temperature, muscle aches, fatigue. He takes a lateral flow test which is negative. I make him take another two and then, not quite trusting them after my son’s Covid experience, I take him for a PCR. That’s negative too. Turns out he has tonsillitis.

Knowing that while he’s sick I have less time because all the shopping, cooking, childcare etc will fall on me I use my time more productively. I write the epilogue knowing now where I want to get too but still not quite sure how to get there. 

Week Three

The ending is growing longer and longer. My pet peeve, as a reader, is endings which are rushed so I like writing this way, giving the twists the space they need to breath, knowing the middle will be less meandering because I’ll have fewer words less to fill. I’ve almost, almost, finished the point of view I’m working on.

I take a couple of days break. One of my kids graduates and we head up to his uni for the ceremony. My husband was still feeling exhausted but wouldn’t have missed it for the world. We kept our masks on throughout the ceremony but behind them, we couldn’t stop smiling.

Week Four

There’s a 16th birthday in the house! I take my son to see Hamilton to celebrate. It’s odd being on a train. Odd being in London. But we loved it. We were in the actual room where it happens!

It takes me days to regain my energy but by the end of the week I’ve finished the point of view I’ve been working on. I have two other points of view to write in the final part and the entire middle to go. 

The middle is the point I’m most concerned about, not wanting to make it too supernatural (actually desperate to make it really supernatural but I don’t think my publisher is super keen).

And so we’re beginning December. Three weeks until Christmas and I hope by next month, although I’m incapable of planning, to at least have a good sense of the story I need and be able to bullet point some scenes so I’ll be able to pick it up again in the New Year. 

Watch this space…

Monthly round up:-

 New words written 25K

US paperback publication day for ‘The Family’

Some lovely review for ‘All For You‘ which is out in Poland – can’t wait until this is published in the UK next month!

A graduation

A birthday

High – Some exciting news regarding ‘The Life We Almost Had’ that I can’t quite share yet

Low – My husband being so poorly

What I’m reading – Everyday Kindness

What I’m watching – I’m a celebrity, get me out of here

Social offer! – Two of my books have been selected for Amazon’s ‘Countdown to Christmas’ 99p deal. ‘The Life We Almost Had’ my Amelia Henley debut (which is NOT a typical love story) and ‘The Date’ featuring face blind Ali trying to stop her stalker ruining her life (challenging when she can’t recognise them).

I’ll be running another giveaway very soon so if you haven’t already, subscribe to my Newsletter here to be kept up to date and receive 2 free short stories. 

Stay warm and I’ll see you next time. Louise x

Diary of a novelist – October 2021

Hello!

Welcome to part two of my new diary series. Each month I’m documenting the progress on my new first draft, and sharing a little insight into the life of a full-time writer. If you missed part one you can catch up with it here. Now, it has crossed my mind multiple times to skip this month’s entry and hope that nobody notices because my progress has been shameful, but then I wouldn’t be being entirely honest about my writers’ life and the point of this series is to keep myself on track. I knew October was going to be such a busy month but I didn’t realise my word count would be quite so paltry.


Week One

The first few days were spent frantically checking my emails. I’d sent both my editor and agent the first three chapters of my new idea and, of course, when they didn’t reply in five seconds telling me they loved it, I assumed they hated it.

While I waited I began playing around with the structure, not yet entirely sure how I was going to approach two timelines and at least three points of view. Whether I’d write one complete point of view before switching to another or whether I’d mix it up. One thing I have learned over the years is every book is different and the process I’d used before may not work for this story. After writing a few super short chapters (no more than 500 words) from all three points of view to get a feel for the characters I realised one thing. The structure I’d sent to my agent and editor wasn’t going to work for me. The third chapter was supposed to be from a podcast and although I loved the idea of this I found writing it jarring. The switch really pulled me out of the story as a writer and trying to read it objectively as a reader I felt the same thing might happen. If readers aren’t fully immersed in the story they may give up on it and I don’t want that so back to the drawing board. 

In the meantime, my agent got back to me first with feedback which could have gone  either way as he began with ‘OH MY GOD’ but he loved it saying he felt I’d really moved into new territory.

Interestingly, my editor’s feedback echoed similar thoughts: – 

“Well… What an opening! That prologue gave me chills – and I mean that in a good way. I do like the direction this is moving in, and although it will move you into a slightly different space that could be a good thing by the time we get to this point in your publishing, as it’s important that your storytelling keeps evolving.”

I spent some time pondering what they mean (if pondering can mean excruciatingly examining every word over and over). I hadn’t made a conscious decision to move into a new direction, rather I thought of a story I’d like to tell. I wondered whether I could ask for feedback on their feedback but instead tell myself to JUST BLOODY WRITE.

Week Two

Holiday time – hurrah! It seems like forever since we went away and it was such a treat to have all of my children under one roof (I do only have three – I’m not the old woman who lived in the shoe). But with the eldest having left home and another now working full-time it isn’t always easy to coordinate. Pre-pandemic if we’d gone on holiday I’d have taken my notebook and laptop and squeezed in some writing when I could. This time I didn’t.  We  hired a cottage in the New Forest and spent the week dog walking, eating, drinking, playing games and laughing. I hadn’t realised how mundane life had become until I had a change of routine. It was a JOY.

Week Three

We had such a good time away, my husband and I decide to sneak a long weekend away in while the weather was still reasonable. But first, a few days to focus on my manuscript. Disappointingly, I found that after a break so close to the beginning it wasn’t easy to dive back in. I took into account something my editor and agent both mentioned about being careful not to stray into the horror genre (I fear I might stray into the horror genre…) and as I’d had a vague idea about the (an) end that seemed a good place to start while I figured out genre, points of view and the dreaded middle. I began at part two, there was a new point of view there so I aimed to write all of her parts first.

I was interviewed for a podcast with author John Marrs who it appears has a really similar process to me, start writing and wing it. I found this very reassuring.

I got about 5k words in before I go away, determined that when I came back I’d really knuckle down.

Week Four

Life took an unexpected turn, as life has a habit of doing and much of this week was spent with a friend in need. I had a couple of days to write though and I was becoming clearer on the end. 

It’s dark. Very dark. 

I must not stray into the horror genre.
I must not stray into the horror genre.
I must not stray into the horror genre.

I don’t know if I am – send help!

In November I really need to get my head into this new idea and to write almost every day because I keep losing the story. Also I need to decide whether I’m confident this is a thriller because as well as the (may or may not be) horror strand, I might also have introduced a supernatural element.

Writing under contract means I can’t entirely write what I’d like because it needs to fit with what I’ve promised the publisher, which is a psychological thriller. I fear, that as I’m writing my 9th thriller and with over a million sales, it’s perhaps a little late, and a little embarrassing, to ask for a definition of exactly what a psychological thriller is…


Monthly round up: –
8000k new words written
German publication day for ‘The Stolen Sisters’
US publication day for ‘The Stolen Sisters’
Polish publication day for ‘All For You’
A holiday
A weekend away
A lovely review in ‘Heat’ magazine for the forthcoming ‘All For You’.

High – ‘The Stolen Sisters’ has spent almost a month in the German Kindle top 100 so far.

Low – More time spent not writing than writing

What I’m reading – Sophie Money-Coutts – ‘Did You Miss Me?’

What I’m watching – Good Girls season 4

Join me next month to find out whether I find out what a psychological thriller is, whether I nail the end, and how I approach the dual timeline in the middle. 

Do subscribe to my newsletter here today and get two FREE short stories as well as access to exclusive giveaways.

Diary of a novelist – September 2021

Hello!

Welcome to my new diary series. Each month I’m going to document the progress on my new first draft, both to keep myself on track and to share a little insight into the life of a full-time writer. So, here’s how my September went…

Week One

At the end of last month I finished editing my second Amelia Henley book ‘The Art of Loving You’ for the German market. As much as I love writing contemporary fiction there had been an idea for a thriller I’d been toying with for the past couple of years that was on my mind more and more. It really excited me and I’d tried to start it three times but I couldn’t figure out the purpose of the book. Usually, once I have a concept, a character who wants something, and an idea of what’s stopping them getting it, I dive right in but I knew this story was different. There had to be a point to the ‘baddie’ being bad and I just couldn’t figure out what it was. Because of the setting, options were limited and I didn’t want to write myself into a corner. For a long time I was fixated on the bad guy being after a key the main character had, and sporadically over dinner I’d fire questions at my bemused family ‘what could the key be for?’ becoming more desperate each time. I was at the stage of shelving it (again) and despairingly said to my younger son ‘I don’t know what to write next’ (fact – ALL writers worry at some stage they’ll never have another idea) when my youngest son said ‘let’s get some post-its and brainstorm ideas.’

Best. Thing. Ever.

Within an hour we’d ditched the key, come up with something better, and, relieved to have a direction, I began writing it immediately.

I’m not a quick writer. No first draft within a few weeks for me, it takes a few months and that’s alright. I never want to put pressure on myself and suck the joy from the writing. For me, consistency in writing, showing up every day and either putting a few words down or researching is more important to me than word count goals. It took me a long time to accept that my process is okay because it works for me. It can be difficult, particularly on social media, not to compare yourself to other authors.

Just. Don’t.

Day one was spent solely on the first line. Once I get the tone of that right I knew the prologue will flow and it did. It terrified me both writing it and reading it back. This will definitely be my darkest book yet.

At the end of week one, the prologue and chapter one were finished (3k words – told you I was slow) and then there was a few days I didn’t think about my story because my son got married! It was such a joyous event and I was immensely proud of all of my boys. The youngest read a poem I had written and his brother was the Best Man and read out a highly emotional speech. Happy tears were shed.

Week Two

I began the week itching to get back to my new characters but then two things happened. The edits for the US version of my first Amelia Henley book ‘The Art of Loving You’ arrived and my youngest son was diagnosed with COVID. Some days, I sat on the landing, outside of his bedroom, with my laptop, trying to focus but it was difficult, I was consumed with worry. I knew, that whatever I wrote towards my new story wouldn’t be any good so instead I took the time to think about how many points of view I wanted to include and how to structure the story. I decided on three points of view and a dual timeline. Then came one of my favourite parts of being a writer – I ordered a new notebook! Oh the joy in an otherwise bleak week.

Week Three

My son was, thankfully, over the worst of the symptoms, although he was left with an overwhelming exhaustion. I returned to work in my study downstairs although I was constantly messaging him and checking my phone. I reread and revised what I’d written. I know, I know, according to every writer ever you should never edit as you go (I always edit as I go). 

Week Four

The week began with a new foreign rights deal which I was very grateful for. Like so many other industries the pandemic has hit publishing hard and this has given me a little hope for the future. I also had discussions with my UK editor and my German editor regarding covers for my next releases. I always get so excited when I see a cover, it really makes the book seem real. This spurred me on to knuckle down to finish the first three chapters of my wip (work in progress). My agent and editor have no idea what I’m writing about so I’ve sent it over to both of them. Much like when I was submitting my debut, my palms were clammy and my heart beat faster. Sharing your work is always nerve wracking. If my editor doesn’t think my idea is commercial enough or she doesn’t think there is a hook then my publisher won’t want to publish it and I’m already so invested in this story.

So now I wait for feedback…

Monthly round up: –

7500k new words written

Light edits on 2 books for foreign markets

High – My eldest son’s gorgeous wedding

Low – My youngest son got Covid

What I’m reading – Joan Collins ‘Past Imperfect’

What I’m watching – Money Heist season 5

Join me next month to find out what my agent and editor think of my opening chapters. In October there will also be an exclusive giveaway for subscribers of my newsletter. Subscribe here today and get two FREE short stories.

Any specific questions on writing and publishing do drop them in the comments below.

What doesn’t kill you… helps your novel writing by Kendra Smith

A few days ago I wrote a blog post about how my life didn’t turn out as I’d envisaged and how the best laid plans can’t always come to fruition – you can read that post here. Today, I’m delighted to welcome Kendra Smith to share her inspirational story.

Along the theme of ‘when life gives you lemons’, a head-on car crash is up there with the sourest of experiences. And so did I ‘make lemonade’ afterwards? Well, I certainly made the nurses in the High Dependency Unit laugh when I determinedly pushed them away from helping me to the commode at the foot of my bed because I couldn’t walk. ‘I go to the gym,’ I said, my mouth set in a firm line, trying not to cry and willing my arms not to give out. One nurse, let’s call her Emily, stood with her arms folded and watched me. ‘Fair enough,’ she said as she could see my determination (and probably fear) as I managed a task that would normally involve the help of two nurses.

My journey of recovery wasn’t just about being determined to heal from the physical injuries: broken foot (actually it was bent backwards), six broken ribs and a punctured lung – I also had to get back to being ‘me’ in my headspace. That has probably been the hardest.

Before the crash I had written some of a book that I had hoped to get published. I have always written, from being a journalist to would-be novelist, but the crash rather put paid to finishing this particular book. When I came home from hospital and could not walk, I watched some TV. I was not a big daytime TV-watcher, but I had limited options. Let’s just say organising a cup of coffee genuinely took me about 50 minutes. That’s if my children had remembered to leave the milk, coffee and cup by the kettle. If not, it was hop-along-the-kitchen on my Zimmer frame for a good half a day to reach various items.

One morning, finally with a cup of coffee next to me, I pressed ‘play’ on the remote. On came some Breakfast TV. It had been snowing. The presenter said, ‘We’re going round the UK to show you the photos our viewers have sent in of cats in the snow!’

Cats.

In.

The.

Snow.

That was it. I could not sit there on my saggy sofa and watch felines frolic in frozen gardens. My brain had had enough. I clambered unsteadily to a make-shift desk. My manuscript needed editing, it needed polishing, hell, it needed finishing. Which I did. About two hours a day and it exhausted me. Later that year, when I had sent it to various agents and publishers, Aria got in touch and said they wanted it and could I do a few more? That was a lovely moment. And so A Year of Second Chances made it out to the big wide world. The book is about three women who all have very different lives and through the course of a year, as they connect as one life changing event binds them together and allows them to re-evaluate their worlds. They laugh, cry and discover that friendship comes from many different places.

Find ‘A Year of Second Chances’ on Amazon

Since then, I have gone on to write a couple more. My latest novel, Everything Has Changed is about a car crash. It’s a pivotal moment, but I don’t dwell on it in the novel. Instead, I use it as a plot point. But I felt able to write about it as enough time had lapsed from real events to turn it into something I could use in fiction. It’s about two sisters who need to re-write their past and move forward. But can they? I had great fun writing this novel, as one of the protagonists, Victoria, loses her memory. After my crash, I remember thinking: what if I had woken up to a new world? What if things were different? Luckily for me, things were the same, but for Vicky – or Victoria as she thinks she is – her whole life has spun on its axis. Her adorable 10-year-old twins are now stroppy teenagers and her darling husband is more distant than the International Space Station. She has lost nearly seven years of her life, and her job is to find out why Everything Has Changed…

Find ‘Everything Has Changed’ on Amazon

You can find Kendra on Twitter @KendraAuthor on Facebook @kendrasmithauthor

Through grief & hopelessness I realised my dream – Gill Thompson

A few days ago I wrote a blog post about how my life didn’t turn out as I’d envisaged and how the best laid plans can’t always come to fruition – you can read that post here. Today, I’m delighted to welcome Gill Thompson to share her inspiring story.

Like many writers, I spent much of my childhood creating stories. When characters came into my head I gave them words and took them on adventures influenced by whoever I was reading at the time: Enid Blyton, C.S Lewis, Alan Garner, Jean Plaidy. There was no doubt in my mind that I would one day write a novel.

But although my father, a sometime writer himself, encouraged my creativity, he suggested that teaching was a more reliable career, so I took a degree in English Literature. If I couldn’t write books, then maybe I could read them instead. Most of my working life has been spent lecturing in English at sixth form level. But the hankering to write never went away. For years it was a dream that might only be realised when I had the leisure and financial independence to write. I couldn’t see this happening for a long time. But then my father died. He left me a little money and I started to think I could use it to fuel my writing ambitions.

No sooner had I made plans, than my husband become ill and the plans were put on hold. I was too busy trying to look after him whilst keeping up my teaching commitments and supporting our two teenage children. All ambitions to write were shelved indefinitely. But as my husband slowly recovered and our children progressed to the next stage in their lives, I finally started to claw back some time for myself. One day I was listening to the lunchtime news and heard Gordon Brown apologise to the ex child migrants to Australia who had been lied to by the British government, sold a dream life on the other side of the world on the basis that their parents were dead, then cruelly treated by so called Christian brothers. Some were never to see their parents again, and those parents often spent fruitless years trying to track their children down. I was appalled and started to read more about this tragic story. I eventually spoke to some of the ex child migrants who lamented the fact their experiences were still relatively unknown. With their permission, I started to write a novel based on their lives. But I realised if I was to do their stories justice I needed to be the best writer I could, so I enrolled on a Creative Writing M.A at the University of Chichester.

There my wise tutors and fellow students helped me to shape the novel that is now ‘The Oceans Between Us.’ It took nine years, eighty drafts and bucket loads of blood, sweat and tears, but I finally found an agent and then a publisher. The book is out in the world now, as is its successor ‘The Child on Platform One.’ Both are doing well.

I now look back on that challenging time of life with remembered horror. Yet if I hadn’t experienced grief, anxiety and – often – sheer hopelessness, I might not have managed to draw on those emotions in my writing. Sometimes it’s only when plans change, and we think we have to surrender our dreams, that we develop the patience and determination to see them through.

Gill runs a creative writing website which you can find here.

You can buy Gill’s books from Amazon, Waterstones, Hive and Bookshop.

A tough 12 months made me the writer I am today – N.J. Simmonds

A few days ago I wrote a blog post about how my life didn’t turn out as I’d envisaged and how the best laid plans can’t always come to fruition – you can read that post here. Today, I’m delighted to welcome the lovely N. J. Simmonds to share her inspiring story.

There are years that fly by where we can hardly remember what filled them, and other years that are forever stained by the challenges life throws at us. For me, late 2016 to late 2017 was twelve turbulent months of extremes.

With every high came a low. The day we emigrated to the Netherlands from Spain my daughter broke her arm. We were stuck in a hospital in the UK for days and missed our flights. When we finally arrived in Holland after not seeing my husband for three months, he had to leave for 6 weeks to the UK after his father was pronounced unexpectedly and terminally ill. We all suffered greatly from that loss. Then days away from my debut, The Path Keeper, being released I learned that my imprint was about to fold. I had been signed for the full trilogy, but this meant now only one book was ever going to exist.

By late 2017 I was close to giving up writing, even though I’d hardly left the starting block. When you suffer a sudden death in the family it puts everything into perspective, yet coupled with our children trying to integrate into a new country, all the political horrors on the news at the time alongside the awful stories of the #MeToo movement, that year had me wanting to get a nine to five job and give up on my writing dreams forever. Everything was too hard, too dark, too futile.

But the problem was I had promised my readers a trilogy. The Path Keeper came out February2017 and it had already received over 100 five star reviews in a matter of months, not to mention I’d channelled so much of that year’s pain into its sequel, Son of Secrets, that it felt criminal to deny my readers the next part of the story. But my imprint was folding, which meant the rest of my trilogy wasn’t going to be printed. I had a choice – leave my story only 33% told…or keep going.

I reasoned I had nothing to lose by trying, so that’s what I did. My book went out of print just six months after its debut launch, but instead of getting upset I got busy. I talked to agents and publishers, made more author friends, got advice from the SoA, and researched writers who had gone through similar situations. Needless to say, most publishers and agents weren’t interested in a series that had already partly launched. But six months after my book went out of print a relatively new publisher in the US, BHC Press, took a gamble and signed me.

Two weeks from the day I write this, the third and final book of that trilogy will be hitting the shelves. Children of Shadows is a book about hope, perseverance, and resilience. And that’s no coincidence. Four years ago, I was about to throw in the towel and give up on this writing game – and now I have not only released an entire trilogy but I’m also writing manga, I cowrite a paranormal romance series as Caedis Knight (Blood Web Chronicles) which has sold also internationally, and I’m working on another exciting collaboration with a fantastic author, which our agent is currently talking to publishers about. Not to mention the illustrations, lecturing, school visits, and coaching I do on the back of my writing.

We’ve all had no shortage of strange years lately. 2020 was, for most of us, the year that never was. But if my own intense and turbulent twelve months taught me anything, it was that it’s not up to life how our days and weeks and months are filled, but down to us. WE get to decide which year will be forever muddied, and which will shine.

So from now on, my years are going to be full of dreams and hope, words and worlds, and remain perpetually polished…no matter how hard life tries to push me off track!

CHILDREN OF SHADOWS is out now:  mybook.to/ChildrenOfShadows

N J Simmonds is the author of fantasy series The Indigo Chronicles – she also writes Manga comics and is one half of paranormal romance author duo Caedis Knight. Her stories are magical, historical and full of complex women, page-turning twists and plenty of romance. When Natali’s not writing, she illustrates books and runs her own marketing consultancy, lectures on storytelling and self-branding. Originally from London, she now lives with her family in the Netherlands.

Website: njsimmonds.com

Prologue – The Stolen Sisters & does your novel need one?

I began writing my debut, ‘The Sister‘, for fun. It was meant to be a short story. I hadn’t written any fiction as an adult and I hadn’t any qualifications other than a clutch of GCSE’s. I never believed I could write a book. I had always thought that to be a published novelist you needed a wealth of experience and a degree in creative writing.

When it got to the point that my ‘short story’ had reached 90k words I began to tentatively hope I could edit it to a high enough standard where I’d dare to submit it. Out of my depth, I was so grateful when a writer I met at an event offered to read the opening 3 chapters for me. I didn’t check where she was published, or how she was published. The fact she was in print led me to believe she knew absolutely everything.

Her overriding feedback was that my prologue was a huge mistake, ‘”readers hate them, agents hate them and publishers hate them. If you submit something with a prologue it won’t be read.”

I felt my face burn with embarrassment. I didn’t know the rules and I’d been found out for the imposter that I was.

Immediately I deleted my prologue, but now, several books on and with over a million copies sold I’m familiar with most of the rules and (whispers) here’s the thing. There aren’t any.

That writer, as it turned out, was right that ‘The Sister‘ shouldn’t have a prologue, but not for the reasons she said.Her overriding feedback was that my prologue was a huge mistake, ‘”readers hate them, agents hate them and publishers hate them. If you submit something with a prologue it won’t be read.”That writer, as it turned out, was right that ‘The Sister‘ shouldn’t have a prologue, but not for the reasons she said.

The prologue wasn’t needed. It didn’t serve a purpose and in a novel, every single scene, every single word needs to earn its place, prologue included. After The Sister spent two months at No. 1 I found the confidence to include a prologue in my second psychological thriller, ‘The Gift‘, because no matter what that writer said about people hating prologues, I don’t and first and foremost I’m a reader. I don’t write one for every book because not every story warrants one.

So how do I decide when to use one? ‘The Stolen Sisters’ (currently 99p in the Amazon Kindle Deal) is my latest thriller and I’ll use it as an example, I’ve included the prologue below.

Prologue

When Carly looked back at that day the memory was in shades of grey; the trauma had sucked the blue from the sky, the green from the freshly mown grass. She had sat on the back doorstep, the coolness of the concrete permeating through her school skirt, the late-afternoon sun warming her bare arms. Carly remembers now the blackness of a beetle scurrying down the path before it disappeared into the soil under the rose bush. The stark white of the twins’ socks, bunched below their knees.

Inconsequential details that later the police would jot in their notebooks as though Carly was somehow being a great help but she knew she wasn’t, and worse than that, she knew it was entirely her fault.

It had all been so frustratingly normal. Leah and Marie had shrieked in mock disgust as Bruno, their boxer, bounded towards them, drool spilling from his jowls. But their screams then still carried an undercurrent of happiness, not like later when their cries were full of fear and there was nowhere to run to.

The things that have stayed with Carly are this. 

The way her fingers gripped the cumbersome Nokia in her hand as though she was clutching a secret. Her annoyance as she angled her screen to avoid the glare, never dreaming that soon she would be craving daylight. 

Fresh air. 

Space. 

The pounding in her head increasing as the girls bounced a tennis ball between them across the patio. The way she had snapped at the twins as though it was their fault Dean Malden hadn’t text her. Of all the things that she could, that she should, feel guilty about, she had never forgiven herself that the last words she spoke to her sisters before they were all irrevocably damaged was in anger rather than kindness.

Although in truth, she had never forgiven herself for any of it.

‘Shut up!’ She had roared out her frustration that the first boy she loved had shattered her thirteen-year-old heart. Crazy now to recall that she once thought the absence of a text was the end of the world. There were far worse things. Far worse people than the floppy-haired blond boy who had let her down. 

Her younger sisters turned to her, identical green eyes wide. Marie’s sight trained on Carly’s face as she chucked the ball for Bruno. Carly’s irritation grew as she watched it fly over the fence.

‘For God’s sake.’ She stood, brushing the dust from the back of her sensible pleated skirt. ‘It’s time to come in.’

‘But that’s not fair.’ Marie looked stricken as her gaze flickered towards the fence.

‘Life isn’t fair,’ Carly said feeling a bubbling resentment that at eight years old the twins had it easy.

‘Can you fetch our ball, please, Carly?’ Marie pleaded.

‘Fetch it yourself,’ Carly snapped.

‘You know we’re not allowed out of the garden on our own until we’re ten,’ Marie said. 

‘Yeah, well I’m in charge today and I’m saying you can. It’s not like we live in a city. Nothing ever happens in this dump.’ Carly was sick of living somewhere so small where everyone knew everyone else’s business. Where everyone would know by tomorrow that Dean Malden had rejected her. ‘Be quick and shut the gate properly.’ 

She turned and pushed open the back door, stepping into the vast kitchen that never smelled of cakes or bread. It never smelled of anything except freshly roasted coffee. Carly clattered her phone onto the marble island and yanked open the fridge door. The shelves that were once stocked with stilton and steak and that had groaned under the weight of fresh fruit and vegetables, were woefully bare. There was nothing except a shrivelled cucumber and some out-of-date hummus. It was all right for her mum and stepdad out for the evening at yet another corporate function. They spent more time on the business than with their children nowadays, although Mum had assured her it wouldn’t be for much longer. She’d soon be at home more but in the meantime it was left to Carly to sort out tea again. She had loved her half-sisters fiercely since the day they were born but sometimes she wished mum still paid the retired lady down the road to babysit but since Carly had turned thirteen mum felt that she was responsible enough. 

She sighed as she crossed to the shelf above the Aga and lifted the lid from the teapot. Inside was a £10 note. Chips for tea. She wondered whether the money would stretch to three sausages or if they should split a battered cod.

Minutes later the twins tumbled into the kitchen.

‘Yuck.’ Leah dropped the tennis ball coated with slobber into the wicker basket where Bruno kept his toys.

‘Wash your hands,’ Carly snapped as she checked her phone again.

Nothing.

What had she done wrong? She had thought Dean liked her.

Marie perched on a stool at the breakfast bar, swinging her legs, the toes of her shoes thudding against the kick board. How was Carly supposed to hear her text alert over that? Marie had her chin in her hands, her mouth downturned; she hated being in trouble. Carly could see the way her lip trembled with upset but she couldn’t help yelling again.

‘Shut. Up.’

Marie slid off the stool. ‘I . . . I left my fleece in the garden.’

Carly jerked her head towards the door in a go-and-get-it-gesture before she clicked on the radio. The sound of Steps flooded the room. Marie paused and momentarily their sisterly bond tugged at them all. ‘5, 6, 7, 8’ was one of their favourite songs. Usually they’d fall into line and dance in synchronicity.

‘Let’s do this!’ Marie flicked her red hair over her shoulders and placed her hands on her hips.

‘It’s childish,’ Carly snapped although inside her shoes, her toes were tapping.

‘It doesn’t work unless we all do it.’ Marie’s voice cracked. ‘We have to be together.’ 

Carly pulled the scrunchie she’d been wearing like a bracelet from her wrist and smoothed her long fair hair back into a ponytail. The twins got into position. Waited. Carly reached for her phone and tried to ignore the pang of meanness that flitted through her as the smile slipped from Leah’s face. Marie’s small shoulders rounded as she headed back outside.

Minutes later she raced back in, socked feet skidding across the tiles, tears streaming down her freckled cheeks. ‘Bruno’s got out. The gate was open.’

‘For God’s sake.’ Carly could feel the anger in her chest form a cold, hard ball. It was one of the last times she ever allowed herself to truly feel. ‘Who shut the gate?’

Marie bit her lower lip. 

‘I did,’ said Leah, slipping her shoes back on. 

‘You’re supposed to bang it until it latches, you idiot. You know it’s broken. Three times. You bang it three times.’

The girls pelted into the garden, calling the dog’s name. 

Marie hesitated at the gate. ‘Perhaps we should wait—’ Under her freckles, her skin was pale. She’d been off school yesterday with a stomach-ache and although she’d gone back today, she didn’t look well. Carly knew she should ask if she was feeling okay but instead she shoved her roughly into the street. ‘It’s your fault, Marie. You search that way.’ She pointed down the avenue lined with beech trees. 

Marie grabbed Leah’s hand.

‘No,’ Carly snapped. ‘Leah can come with me.’ The twins could be silly where they were together and she had enough to worry about without them getting into trouble.

‘But I want . . .’ Marie began.

‘I don’t care what you want. Move.’ Carly grabbed Leah’s arm and led her in the opposite direction, towards the cut-through at the side of their house which led to the park.

It all happened so quickly that afterwards Carly couldn’t remember which order it all came in. The balaclava-clad face looming towards hers. The forearm around her neck, the gloved hand clamped over her mouth. The sight of Leah struggling against arms that restrained her. The scraping sound of her shoe as she was dragged towards the van at the other end of the alley. The sight of Marie, almost a blur, flying towards the second man also clad in black, who held her twin, pummelling him with her small fists. 

‘Stop! You can’t do this! Don’t take her. I don’t want you to take her!’

The soft flesh compacting against hard bone as Carly bit down hard on the fingers that had covered her mouth.

‘Run!’ she had screamed at Marie as the man who held Leah grabbled to find something of Marie’s he could hold onto, clutching at her collar, her ginger pigtails, as she dodged his grasp.

‘Run!’

I decided to use a prologue for this story, not only because it’s an instant hook, but because I wanted to begin twenty years before I started the story proper. There was vital information I wanted the reader to know. The girls are snatched in the prologue but Chapter One immediately move on to the girls as adults and we learn they were returned without any abuse. As a mother the only way I could write about missing children was if we know straight away that the girls were safe and the prologue enabled me to do this. We do, as the novel prgoresses, delve back into the past where we see, not how the girls were taken, but why and in the present it’s all about what happens when their abductor reappears on the twenty year anniversary of their abduction.

To read more of the Sinclair sisters’ story download the digital version of the book for just 99p for a limited time only across all digital platforms. You can find The Stolen Sisters on Amazon, iBooks, Kobo, Google books & Waterstones.

It’s also a Fern Britton book club pick and a special edition with extra content is available at Tesco. You can also find ‘The Stolen Sisters’ at Asda, shortly at Sainsbury’s and as an audiobook on Audible.

Two of my other books (with prologues!) are also in Amazon’s October sale. Download ‘The Gift‘ or my Amelia Henley debut love story with a twist ‘The Life We Almost Had.‘ (you can read the prologue for this here.)

RAF Upwood – the real life location behind ‘The Stolen Sisters’.

Locations can be hugely important to a book. My first four psychological thrillers were based in fabricated towns in the midlands because the place wasn’t relevant to the story, my fifth, ‘The Family’ in a cult in Wales because I needed a vast amount of rural space and I was very familiar with this area. ‘The Life We Almost Had’ my debut love story takes place on a Spanish Island based on Lanzarote.

For my 7th and latest book I needed somewhere specific. Somewhere remote and yet not too far out of a town. Somewhere creepy. Somewhere you could feasibly hide three young girls…

I’m obsessed with exploring abandoned buildings and my children are the same. If we want a day out we’d much rather go and look around a ruin, and so the hunt was on for somewhere to base ‘The Stolen Sisters’. In this book the Sinclair sisters are snatched during chapter one. In chapter two we find out they had been returned unharmed with no sexual abuse (it was the only way I could bear to write this). Chapters in the book alternate between past and present and in the past we needed to feel the girls fear, the tension and the way to build on this was to use the setting almost as another character.

I considered, and disregarded multiple locations before I stumbled upon RAF Upwood. It was everything I wanted it to be. Close enough to take the girls there in a relatively short space of time.  Vast enough for the girls to get lost when they escape their room. Remote enough so no-one can hear them scream…

I renamed Upwood, RAF Norwood for the story and like Upwood, in my book Norwood was fenced off, waiting to be demolished for a housing estate (Upwood has now partly been knocked down.) Hyde Housing were very accommodating, allowing me to look around and film. I also staged rooms where the girls might be held, with the scant possessions they were given, to try and really get a feel for the horror Leah, Marie and Carly Sinclair might have felt.

It was surreal being at Upwood. Kind of like being on a film set for a movie version of ‘The Stolen Sisters’.

This clown was really the start of everything. I imagined it being on the back of the door, terrifying the young girls, the sense of his eyes watching them every time they try to escape the room. I was never afraid of clowns until I wrote this book, now…

The corridors have so many doorways coming off them, imagine how terrifying it would be to be chased, to choose a doorway, and find yourself trapped in another dark room.

There is a scene in the book where the girls hang from these bars hoping they can pull them free from the window. They can’t.

Carly is running with her two younger sisters, she hears the men coming, does she hide upstairs or try to make it to the door?

I set up a camp in one of the rooms with Leah’s teddy bear, the blanket and the food and drink the girls were given. It was horrible

There is a terrifying scene that takes place in the shower block. Thanks to my visit I was able to describe the environment, but the smell! I could never describe the smell.

The site is absolutely vast. Imagine running around here at night with no lights. Shudder.

Some of the graffiti here is so impressive.

Everywhere I turned I spotted potential danger for the girls.

In a bid to escape, Leah dropped her teddy bear, it was heartbreaking to think of it left the RAF base amongst the rubble.

The Stolen Sisters is currently 99p for a limited time only across all digital platforms. You can find The Stolen Sisters on Amazon, iBooks, Kobo, Google books & Waterstones.

It’s also a Fern Britton book club pick and a special edition with extra content is available at Tesco. You can also find ‘The Stolen Sisters’ at Asda, shortly at Sainsbury’s and as an audiobook on Audible.