Becoming A Writer
I became a writer when I was ten years old, the same year that I discovered Agatha Christie – and therefore crime fiction. On Christmas Day 1984, I unwrapped a notebook and a box of pens, and after lunch, while everyone else dozed chipolata-stuffed in front of the TV, I made a nest in the corner of the dining room and began to write my own murder mystery.
By Boxing Day, I’d filled my notebook with a story about a series of country house murders, a French detective with an enormous moustache and his bumbling English sidekick. There was a victim who wore tweeds, and a murderer ‘with greasy hair the colour of egg yolk’, who I named after me.
I’d written a book.
I became a writer when I was twenty-two and started a novel without a plot, about a twenty-two year old girl who was lost in the world.
I became a writer when I was thirty-five and made myself do something I’d always been afraid to do: I booked a place on a Skyros writing course, tutored by Julia Bell. Our first exercise was to take a walk and find a place to sit, to observe. And then to write five sentences, describing what we were experiencing through each of our senses. It’s an exercise I still use to kick-start my writing after a break, or to enter a scene.
I sat in a pub garden, my notebook open on a splintered sun-blistered table, and found I was looking at the world differently. It was as though something fundamental had shifted in me.
Two of those sentences became my first short stories. Another exercise we did in the classroom became my third. I began to hear the first weak cries of what would become my writing voice.
I read my work aloud. I listened to the feedback from my classmates and tutor. And on the last night of the course, Julia Bell told me I must keep going, must keep writing. She said I was a writer – and with that, she held up my wildest, biggest, scariest dream, and she told me it could be real. She took me seriously.
I hugged her words to me all the way home and through the following winter. I wrote more. I read more – more widely, more deeply. I thought more about what makes a book work: what makes a character walk off the page and into your mind? What makes a sentence or a paragraph or a metaphor sing to you?
In the spring of 2010, I booked a place on an Arvon course. I kept writing. I made friends with other writers, joined a critique group back home in London, stood naked and tense and terrified in front of them when they gave me feedback.
I cried. I made mistakes. I couldn’t do it.
I got back up. I kept going.
I had the germ of an idea about a woman called Ruth. I wrote about her waking up one hot morning, about the mask she put on to face the world. I didn’t know where the idea might go, but I couldn’t forget her. I spent time with her. I watched her. I learned how she walked and danced and ate and cursed.
I booked a second Arvon course, and then a third. I realised that my idea was more than a story about a single character. It wouldn’t be contained.
In 2013, I started a course at Faber & Faber, and told my classmates about the novel I was writing. I made it real.
I began to try out the words ‘I am a writer’ – on paper at first, then inside my head. And one day I said them out loud.
At the end of the course, we were offered the opportunity to read aloud from our work for two minutes. I couldn’t imagine anything would make me more nervous than I was already, so I chose the rawest and bravest and most visceral part of my book, and read it loud and slow to a room of agents and publishers. If I only had three hundred words, I wanted to make them count.
That reading was like walking into a white winter’s day: exhilarating, shocking, breathtaking.
Two weeks later, I had offers of representation from nine agents and a publisher. Choosing one felt like the most important decision I’d ever make. I couldn’t make it.
In the end, a good friend gave me some wise advice. Pick the person you can imagine saying no to, she said. Everyone will want to celebrate with you when things go well; pick the person you want in your corner on the days you can’t write. When you know you won’t make your deadlines.
I chose the agent I felt most affinity with, and who I felt understood me and Ruth Malone best. Jo Unwin wasn’t just enthusiastic about Little Deaths: she believed in it, and saw how good it could be. She was interested in my other ideas: she wanted me to have a career as a writer. And she was the person I knew would be there on the days I felt I couldn’t do it.
In the spring of 2014, I sent her what I’d written of Little Deaths so far, and we got to work. It took us eighteen months to polish my raw rough material into something that hinted at the novel it could be. In September 2015, we sent it out, and within two weeks I had six offers of publication.
At forty-one, I became a writer.
This post was originally published on the Books By Women site in November 2016.