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.
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.
Now, I have no desire to try this (kudos to those who do) so it shouldn’t have any impact on me.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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Anyone who reads either my Louise Jensen psychological thrillers, or my contemporary Amelia Henley fiction knows I love a prologue. Here I’m sharing the opening of my brand new release, ‘The Art of Loving You’ which you can download for just 99p on any digital platform during August. (Amazon link here).
Four phone calls.
It took four phone calls to tip my world off its axis. I remember them all with sharp clarity; the things I wanted to know, the things I wished I’d never been told. The disbelief, the fear, the hope. The impossible, impossible choice I am faced with. I want everything to slow down.
‘I can’t …’ What I can’t do is look my sister, Alice, in the eye. It’s too much. All of it.
‘Say yes, Libby.’ She’s crouching before me, reaching for my hand. I snatch mine away. As vivid as the memories of the calls are, it’s the time in between each one I am struggling to recall. Alice says shock has the power to whisk memories behind a hazy curtain, sometimes replacing them with a better, shinier version – the way we wished things were. The way we wished they could have happened – and she’s probably right. Right about that at least, but the rest? I have to remember if I’m to make the right decision. Again, I try to summon a slide show in my mind but the images are as fuzzy as an out-of-focus photo, nothing quite making sense. ‘I think …’ I tail off, unsure what I think. What I know. Alice has been telling me a new life, a better life is what I need. What I deserve.
That word plucks a hollow laugh deep from my belly. Deserve. Do I deserve … this?
‘You know what you have to do, Libby.’ Her voice is thick with tears. ‘For your sake. For Jack’s.’ She adds softly, ‘For mine.’
Sometimes I hate her.
Should I do what she is asking? If I agree, it’s an admission that my life has been built on a lie and the childish part of me taunts; why should I give her what she wants when I can’t have what I want?
‘Please, Libby, please,’ she pleads. ‘I know it’s a big ask. I know you weren’t expecting this – none of us saw it coming but …’ One whispered word. ‘Please.’
Neither of us speak. The clock ticks. In the distance the thrum of a tractor. Alice’s perfume fills my throat, something light and floral.
‘Don’t speak his name,’ I snap.
She flinches but still she doesn’t leave. She’s waiting for an answer as she tucks her long blonde hair behind her ears. My eyes flicker towards the nicotine-yellow ceiling we never did get round to painting bright white, as though I might find the right response written there.
Yes or no?
Yes or no?
Yes or no?
The words are loud. I raise my hands to my head, fingertips digging hard into my scalp. I can’t decide. I won’t.
I have to.
‘You know if I could change things, I would,’ Alice says softly. She places her palm against my cheek; it’s cool and I lean against it, allowing her to take the weight of my head which is heavy with thought. With doubt. For the first time I look at her properly. Her eyes, the same green as mine, are rimmed red. The whites streaked with tiny blood vessels from where she’s been crying. She is no more together than I am. This is a torturous for her as it is for me. ‘If I could go back …’ She falls silent before she can blame herself again. I can’t bear her guilt. Her shame. I have enough of my own.
I shift my gaze around the room which was once warmed with love but now feels as chilly as my cold, cold heart. If we could go back, I would return to the exact moment everything changed. It was the day Jack and I moved in here. I allow my mind to travel, tumbling down the rabbit hole to that ordinary Thursday when it all began.
The point which had led to this.
The memories bring me pleasure.
I have to make my choice.
Yes or no?
I have to give Alice my answer.
Yes or no?
I have to tell her now.
Before it’s too late for her, for me.
Time is running out.
Yes or no?
In the opening to ‘The Art of Loving You’ my hope is that I’ve intrigued readers enough to want to read on. To wonder what has happened between Libby, Alice and Jack. Not all of my books have prologues but I do enjoy them as a reader and a writer and you can read more about why I find them so valuable and whether your novel needs one on an earlier blog post here.
I’m a huge animal lover, perhaps bears the most of all. Maybe it’s because, growing up, some of my favourite fictional characters were bears, from Winnie-the-Pooh to Paddington, Rupert to Bungle. Baloo. There’s something very comforting about them. Very familiar. Perhaps the main character in my next book could be a bear…
I’ve been visiting Hamerton Zoo Park since they first opened to the public and have seen how much they care, watched the conservation work they do, observed how they’ve grown over the past thirty years. I was super excited last January when they announced the arrival of 3 young bear cubs as part of a global project to restablish Syrian bears which are sadly extinct in Syria. As soon as lockdown restrictions lifted I went to visit them, admiring them from afar, thinking it was the closest I’d ever get. I was wrong.
For my birthday my husband, Tim, surprised me with a ‘feed the bear’ experience. And a few days ago we excitedly set off to do just that.
We were met by one of the bear keepers who led us through some locked gates, into the bear enclosure. At the first site of Laiko, Jaiko and Newton I was so overwhelmed I found myself close to tears. They were so adorable. So near I could reach out and touch them (I was told not to reach out and touch them).
For the first part of our adventure we loaded spoons with honey and peanut butter and let the bears lick it off. Now, I hand feed my cat sometimes and he is ferocious around food. With him, I worry I’ll lose a finger. Not with Laiko, Jaiko and Newton who sat patiently waiting for their turn. They were SO gentle. I accidentally dribbled honey onto the bars and they each licked it off, sharing it equally. The bond between these siblings is so touching.
Next, we were taken into the shed to choose some props for their enrichment. We picked some barrels and boxes. We filled the barrels with their favourite foods – nut, seeds, oranges, avocados and apples, with some dog biscuits for protein (apparently they also eat meat once a week and fish twice a week). We sealed the lids on the barrels, loaded everything into a wheelbarrow and then took it all into their main enclosure. We positioned the barrels near the fence so the waiting crowd would be able to see the bears close up. it felt a little odd and unsettling to be on the wrong side of the fence. The keepers told us that most of the animals enjoy watching the humans and were pleased when the park reopened after lockdown. Apparently we are just as entertaining to them.
After we’d laid out the barrels and boxes we walked around their enclosure and hid fruit and nuts behind trees and on top of lower branches so they had something to seek out. Then it was time for us to step out and the bears to have their lunch.
For the last part of our experience we were allowed to stand in front of the safety barrier so we could position our cameras to take photos without the bars in the way. It was joyful to observe them getting the lids off the barrels and enjoying eating. Playing.
All too soon it was time to say goodbye. After we’d left I had a little cry. I felt so privileged to have been able to get so close to my favourite animals. It was one of the best things I’d ever done and I’ll definitely go back to do it again. I’m even considering featuring a zoo and a keeper in my next book so I can keep returning for ‘research’ purposes…
I am INCREDIBLY excited to reveal the details of my seventh psychological thriller – seventh! When I began writing in 2014 I had no idea of the journey it would take me on and today, looking at my book covers hanging on my wall I feel immense gratitude, and, if I’m honest, relief that so far I seem to be pulling off masquerading as an author…
I’m loving the cover of ‘All For You’ and very thankful for my editor and the wonderful team at HQ Stories/Harper Collins who have created a package that fits this very twisty story perfectly. It’ll be published on 30th September in the UK on paperback, ebook and audio, and is available to pre-order now via Amazon, Waterstones, or your local bookstore can order you a copy.
So, are you ready to meet the Walsh Family?
Lucy: Mother. Wife. Falling to pieces . . . Aidan: Father. Husband. In too deep . . . Connor: Son. Friend. Can never tell the truth . . .
Everyone in this family has something to hide, but what are they trying to protect, and at what cost?
IT WAS ALL FOR YOU.
I’ll be sad to let the Walsh family go, they’ve shocked me continuously throughout the writing of this book. There were times I thought I had the plot all figured out but Lucy, Aidan and Connor are strong characters who wouldn’t do entirely what I wanted them to do. I’m very fond of them though because, despite their secrets and lies, they’re an ordinary family with a lot of love for each other.
The proofs are being printed right now and I’ll be giving away a signed copy soon, as well as a signed proof of ‘The Art of Loving You’, my second contemporary fiction novel which publishes under my pen name, Amelia Henley this July so do sign up to my blog or newsletter to keep up to date and follow me on social media over at Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
For now I’ll leave you with pre-order links and I’ll be back soon blogging about how I structure my books and why I’m still evolving as a writer.
After publishing 6 psychological thrillers under Louise Jensen which is my real name, last year I published my first contemporary fiction book under the pen name Amelia Henley. Since then I’ve been asked so many questions about why I used a different name I thought I’d write a blog post about it.
My publisher told me to.
Shortest post ever?
Let me expand it then, there are many reasons to use a pen name and multiple pros and cons.
When I first signed a deal for my debut, ‘The Sister‘, it didn’t even cross my mind to use a pseudonym. I was super excited to finally see my name on the cover of a book. It was such a special moment for me, and my family. My son took his friends into Waterstones and showed them and I felt a glow of pride I’d never felt before. Of course, then, I didn’t realise it would quickly sell over half a million copies and be translated into twenty-five languages and that a LOT of people would read it. This was really only an issue for me during a smear test when the nurse asked me if I’d written ‘The Sister’ and then proceeded to tell me how much she loved Grace and Charlie which was very nice but probably not the time or the place. Having a disability and subsequently a lot of medical appointments there are times when I’ve wondered whether I’d have been more comfortable using a pseudonym. Not that I assume people have read my books or know my name but, as the smear test palaver demonstrated, you really never know.
If you want to retain anonymity or have some separation between your writing life and another career a pen name can be really useful. Particularly if you have a name too similar to an established author. Being called Stephen King may not create any confusion in day-to-day life but in publishing…
There are many other reasons authors use pen names. Reinvention is one of them. An author who hasn’t had the best sales and wants to begin again, or, as in my case, an author who wants to try a different genre.
My publisher (HQ/Harper Collins) loved my debut love story but wanted a separation from my thriller brand (I’m very uncomfortable with the word brand btw). This was liberating in that I could bring something out with no reader expectations and no fear of judgement because although ‘The Life We Almost Had’ is ultimately a tear-jerking love story there is a sci-fi element to it and I wasn’t sure how it would be received. The downside being I had to set up social media accounts in a new name and running two of everything is quite time consuming. In the end my publisher suggested we use ‘Amelia’ as an open pseudonym which was a relief, some publishers have it written into contracts you can’t tell anyone for a stipulated period of time and I am rubbish at keep secrets.
So, who choses the pen name?
My editor wanted me to come up with suggestions I was happy with but then these needed to be run past the marketing department for their approval.
Amelia Henley is the only name I put forward and I’m thankful they approved it because it is very personal. I have three children and for ‘Amelia’ I took two letters from each of their names. ‘Henley’ is an extremely special name to our family.
It’s worked out really well for me having two names (which is just as well as I have a second Amelia book – ‘The Art of Loving You‘ – publishing this July and a new thriller coming in October). One of my career highs and a completely ‘mind blown’ moment was last autumn when both ‘The Life We Almost Had‘ and ‘The Stolen Sisters‘ were published in paperback and I walked into Tesco and saw them both on a shelf together.
If you’re a writer and thinking of using or have a pen name I’d love to hear of your experience and how you chose yours.
‘The Life We Almost Had’ is currently in its 3rd week at No.1 in Germany and UK readers can currently download the kindle book for just 99p for a limited time from Amazon here.
I am absolutely THRILLED to share the gorgeous cover from my forthcoming ‘Amelia Henley’ novel – ‘The Art of Loving You‘.
The response to my debut contemporary fiction novel ‘The Life We Almost Had’ was so positive I feel excited rather than nervous to be publishing my second standalone love story this summer, although I expect that to change on the lead up to the big day…
For those of you who fell in love with Adam and Anna, prepare to meet Libby and Jack. My editor says this story broke her heart and then put it back together again.
I can’t wait to share more details over the next few months, particularly when it comes to Sid, the eighty year old man who was meant to feature briefly in the story but had such a huge personality he kind of took over (although he was such a joy to write I didn’t mind).
‘The Art of Loving You’ will be available as a paperback, ebook and audiobook and you can pre order right now. Find it on Amazon here, Waterstones here, or any other digital or indie bookshop.
For now, I’ll leave you with the blurb: –
They were so in love . . . And then life changed forever . . . Will they find happiness again?
Libby and Jack are the happiest they’ve ever been. Thanks to their dear friend, eighty-year-old Sid, they’ve just bought their first house together, and it’s the beginning of the life they’ve always dreamed of.
But the universe has other plans for Libby and Jack and a devastating twist of fate shatters their world.
All of a sudden life is looking very different, and unlikely though it seems, might Sid be the one person who can help Libby and Jack move forward when what they loved the most has been lost?
The Art of Loving You is a beautiful love story for our times. Romantic and uplifting, it will break your heart and then put it back together again.
* * * *
Praise for Amelia Henley:
‘A love story with a definite difference . . . intensely emotional’ Best
‘Beautifully written and plotted. Get ready for the final chapter – you have been warned’ Candis
‘Intriguing, unusual and intensely romantic’ Sunday Mirror
This photo used to be one of my favourites. It’s my son Kai and I, just over three years ago, on our way to his university interview. We were both incredibly excited, so full of hope for Kai’s future. Now looking at it makes me incredibly sad.
Kai is almost at the end of his time at uni and the onset of COVID has had an enormous impact on his course, Media Productions, a practical degree which doesn’t and hasn’t transferred well to online learning.
Without access to the university studio and the specialist equipment and being able to work in groups Kai is set to leave uni in three months with no portfolio and virtually no hope of breaking into the industry he is so passionate about. Despite this there is no chance of a refund on the £9000 fees he has paid each year. The government has given no direct financial aid to universities or students in England. The parliamentary debate on 16th November resulted in the government stating students had to contact their universities if they wanted a refund and so far, according to The Tab, only 1.6% of students who have tried to claim a refund have received a small sum. (As there were lecturer strikes at the beginning of 2020 in Kai’s second year there has been no face-to-face teaching for over 12 months now).
The course fees aren’t the only debts students accumulate. There is the cost of accommodation. Most students have been told not to return to campus under Gavin Williamson has unveiled a roadmap for a staggered return. Some accommodation providers are offering a partial refund but there is not official guidelines although this is something Boris Johnson as said he will ‘look at’.
So what about the students on practical courses who are leaving uni without the experience they signed up for and no prospects without portfolios?
The future is grim.
Here I chat to Kai a little further about the challenges he has faced in the past year. Apologies for the quality in some parts – but do give it a watch and if you’re a student, a parent or any one with constructive advice, I’d love to hear your thoughts.
I didn’t blog much in 2020 –I didn’t feel I had much to say, if I’m honest I still don’t. We all know how terrible the year was. As a family, we’ve faced challenges the same as everybody else; illness, hospital admissions, bereavement, an accident, a decline in health, the list is endless. My creativity was non-existent, my productivity poor.
During the first lockdown I spent weeks wondering how I could write alongside home schooling and my husband working from home. This morphed into what I should write, my mind was too cluttered to think clearly. Pre-pandemic I’d been writing psychological thrillers in the morning and contemporary fiction in the afternoons but I knew I no longer had the mental capacity to do this. I had an idea for an Amelia Henley book but publishing my debut love story during a pandemic had been hugely challenging and I wasn’t certain there was a future for Amelia.
Finally I spent the last few months of the year contemplating whether I should write at all. Had I lost my love for it? 2020 was the longest stretch I hadn’t written anything in years. Perhaps it was time to do something else entirely.
Then came the end of year blogs, the ‘Best Books of 2020’. It’s always so rewarding to see my books featured on these lists and to see multiple entries for ‘The Stolen Sisters’ was hugely gratifying.
But then came something unexpected. I checked my ‘Amelia Henley’ social media channels not expecting any notifications but there was. I was overwhelmed to see ‘The Life We Almost Had’ featured on numerous ‘Top Ten’ book blogs and even voted book of the year.
I cried and then I replied to the posts I’d been tagged in on to say thank you but thank you doesn’t quite convey just how life affirming and life changing these blog posts have been.
Today, I sat at my computer for the first time what feels like forever and wrote two small words I wasn’t sure I’d ever write again, ‘Chapter One’ and I feel nervous, excited and above all hopeful, to begin a fresh Amelia Henley story, to have new characters to get to know.
In this post I wanted to try and express, but fear I am failing the importance of book bloggers. How they have allowed me to regroup, refocus.
Thank you doesn’t quite cut it but I don’t know what else to say.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)