Like many writers before me, I have drawers full of rejection letters from publishers and agents. Seven unpublished novels and as many years later, this is the story of my journey to finally achieving the dream.
Football,and having babies are the things that first got me writing seriously – although not in that order. If you’ve read the ‘My life is a Booklist’ page, you’ll realise that I’ve always been crazy about reading, and as a child I kept endless journals filled with poems and stories as well as running commentaries on my life so far. At school I was good at Science and English, and I started A levels in English and the three Sciences. English got dropped along the way though, and I ended up going to university to study Genetics.
I loved Genetics – our bodies are truly fascinating at a cellular level. When I graduated I was ready to solve all the world’s problems through the magic of science. My image of scientists as shining lights for good was shattered though. My first job as a research scientist for a medical diagnostics firm introduced me to the harsh reality of science as a business, where profits win over people every time. Disillusioned and disappointed, I quit, and went back to University to train to be a science teacher.
I’d been married about two years by this stage, and when I started teaching, I was already pregnant with Rebecca. After she was born, I finished the school year, then decided I wanted to be a full-time mum. (Not that working women are part-time mums – I mean a stay-at-home mum) . Within three years I’d had two more babies – Daniel and Christy, and I was completely immersed in the world of nappies and trips to the park. I loved the whole mum thing, but it wasn’t terribly intellectually stimulating – some days my longest conversation was ‘look at the ducky’. I got a little bored, and my thoughts turned back to writing for the first time since I was a teenager.
But how could I find the time? The babies kept me busy all day, and in the evenings I wanted to chill out and spend time with my husband. This is where the football comes in. (Now at this point I want to stress that my husband Paul is by no means a stereotypical beer guzzling, vest wearing, sofa soccer fiend – but he does like his football.) As uncharacteristic as it is of him to neglect me in favour of footy, there was a big tournament of some kind on somewhere in the world and he couldn’t be expected to miss it. I took irrational offense at being ignored and said – ‘well, I’m just going to ignore you too then. I ‘m going off to write a book!’ That told him.
The first book was a fantasy for adults called ‘The Battle of Aragia’. I didn’t give any thought to character development or plot structure etc etc, I just ploughed on. I got totally drawn into the writing process though, and ignored my husband long after the football tournament was over. Forget science, forget teaching, in writing (I thought) I’d finally found the thing I was born to do. I felt like I’d come home. That my body belonged behind the keyboard and my mind and spirit belonged in the worlds of my own creation. Writing was like reading – only better!
I bought the Writers and Artists yearbook, and started firing off submission letters and sample chapters with a naive sense of excited optimism. Rather than hang around for the months it takes publishers to reply to these things, I started right into book number two: ‘Jungle Fun Adventure Land’. This one was a children’s book, and when the rejection letters for Aragia started pouring in, I thought, never mind, Jungle Fun is better, I bet they’ll want to publish it!
Jungle Fun Adventure Land enjoyed a little more success than the first book – one or two publishers asked to see the full manuscript, although ultimately no one decided to publish it. I kept writing though, because I loved it and couldn’t imagine giving it up. As the kids grew up and all started school, the original plan had been for me to go back to teaching, but I really wanted instead to use the child-free daytime hours to write. So I didn’t return to teaching, but spent all my free time at my desk writing (except for Thursday mornings when I help out at a parent and toddler group).
They were the best of times, they were the worst of times. The writing, submitting, getting rejected cycle went on for years. On the plus side, I was still doing what I loved; my working hours were very flexible – I could always take time off to go to the kids’ sports days, or look after them when they were sick; there was very little pressure in my working environment – nobody hassling me with deadlines or criticism. On the downside, I wasn’t contributing financially to the family and our debts were piling up; however nicely they are worded, rejection letters don’t do great things for a gal’s self esteem; and when people asked me what I did, I always had to consider: do I say writer, and then have to explain that I have nothing published, or do I say housewife, and deny who I really am?
My big break came in the middle of 2005 when my daughter Rebecca spotted a poster advertising the Wow Factor competition in Waterstones. The competition was looking for unpublished writers of fiction for 8-12 year olds, or teenagers. I’d just started a new book that I had a funny feeling was better than anything I’d written before, so at Rebecca’s urging, I took an application form, and a few days later, entered the first three chapters and synopsis of The Forbidden Room. I’d entered writing competitions before, but never one that I felt fitted me so perfectly. I became totally preoccupied with thinking about the competition and how much I wanted to win, and how I might just be in with a chance.
I found out that I was one of the thirteen finalists in September, just a couple of days after I finished the manuscript. I’d sent off plenty of manuscripts before, but never one with such great odds at being published, and yet in a strange way that made it more nerve-wracking than usual. Plus I got invited to be interviewed on BBC Radio Ulster’s breakfast show, and was so nervous that I literally didn’t sleep the whole night before.
The two months waiting for the overall winner to be announced were probably the longest in my life. My family was worn out with me telling them how much I wanted to win. I scoured the internet for stories about the Wow Factor competition, and it seemed like the other finalists were getting much more media coverage than I was. When the phone call from the judges panel finally came, the line cut out after a couple of seconds, so I didn’t know if I’d won or not. That got sorted out pretty quick, and I got the good news (and the scary news) that I’d won, and oh, would I mind coming to London the next week for a live TV interview? (Watch the interview here).
What followed was a blur of TV, radio and newspaper interviews, which in spite of me being painfully shy and totally phobic of being the centre of any type of attention, I found I grew to quite enjoy. The whole thing was repeated nine months later when the book was launched, but then the best thing was just wandering alone (or with Paul) into a bookshop and seeing my book on the shelves. That’s a feeling that’s pretty hard to beat.