A Richard and Judy moment

As any writer knows, one of the best ways to improve your writing skills is to read and one particular novel I’ve thoroughly enjoyed recently is SeaSea Sisters Sisters by Lucy Clarke.  Not only is it another fabulous pick from the Richard and Judy Book Club but it’s also a book that was originally spotted by my editor Sarah Ritherdon at HarperCollins who also acquired my book Yesterday’s Sun…another Richard and Judy selection.

So while I immersed myself in the lives of the Sea Sisters, at the back of my mind I was also marvelling at my own good fortune.  As I considered what it was about this novel that caught Richard and Judy’s eye, I couldn’t help wondering what it was that caught their attention in my book.  What I do know is it was very exciting time in my life and one I’ll never forget.

Yesterday’s Sun was selected for the Spring 2012 list but it was in October 2011 when I first heard the news.  I had finished work (my day job) early because HarperCollins had arranged for some photos to be taken for my author profile.  The photographer was lovely but it wasn’t a particularly pleasant experience for me trying to look comfortable in front of a camera.  I’d switched off my phone so it was only when I left the studio that I noticed a missed call from Sarah.  I was walking through Cavern Walks in Liverpool laden down with the outfits I’d taken for the photo shoot when I phoned her back.

She was delirious with excitement and at first I wasn’t quite sure what she was telling me.  It took a while for the news to sink in but when it did I sank down onto some nearby stone steps.  You know how you try to talk quietly when you’re on the phone in a public place?  Well not me, not that day.  It didn’t take long before I was just as excited as Sarah, tears were in my eyes but I couldn’t stop grinning even when passersby looked at me with mild curiosity.  Next I phoned my agent Luigi Bonomi, who already knew of course, but the excitement was contagious.  And after that?  Well…nothing.  I wasn’t allowed to tell anyone else!!  It was top secret and there was a veiled threat that if the news leaked out then I could be taken off the Richard and Judy list.

So what did I do?  I went to the supermarket and bought a bottle of champagne and then rushed home to my daughter who was the only other person I was allowed to tell. And what was the response of my sixteen year old daughter?  ‘Who are Richard and Judy?’  Sorry Richard.  Sorry Judy.

I cannot even begin to explain how frustrating it was not being able to tell people.  I suppose the only good thing was that at this point my writing career had barely started and I didn’t have this blog; I wasn’t on twitter; and I didn’t have an author page on Facebook so the only real temptations were with family and friends.  The list was going to be announced on 5th January 2012 and I have to say I was pretty good at keeping the secret although by Christmas I was whispering the news to my family, swearing them to secrecy.  Not that they did.  When I told my brother Jon he grinned sheepishly, my mum had already told him.

The first time I saw my book on sale was in WH Smiths on the Richard and Judy stand.  It was the day before publication so I hadn’t expected to see it.  I was on my own and I stood there transfixed.  My hand trembled as I picked it up, still not quite believing my book had been published and then quietly I put it back on the shelf.  How I stopped myself from grabbing the nearest unsuspecting customer and pointing at it I’ll never know.

But the highlight of the whole experience had to be being interviewed by Richard and Judy for their website.  They were filming a series of interviews with some of the authors on the Spring list and we all gathered in what had been set up as the green room before being ushered in to be interviewed.  Jojo Moyes was there and said not to worry about the interview as she’d heard how experienced interviewers like Richard and Judy didn’t let their interviewees fail, they would look after us and they did.  Not that I can tell you much about the end result. I still haven’t watched the interview…but click here it is if you want to take a peak.

OK, so now I’ve just realised how every other sentence has Richard and Judy in it, including this one!  Needless to say that even now, eighteen months later I’m still absolutely thrilled that my debut novel had such an amazing kick start.  Thank you Richard and Judy…and by the way, have you heard that my next book Another Way to Fall is out soon? [VERY SOON – WATCH THIS SPACE!]

My Autumn Child

I suspect I’m not the first author to think long and hard about what to share on a site like this.  The answer on the face of it should be a relatively easy one.  It is after all an author blog set up to share information about my writing and my books and a host of other ‘author-ish’ insights.  The question is really about what not to share and where to draw that line between the public persona and the private person.

My problem however is that one of the most personal aspects of my life is also the reason why I write, not to mention why I write the things I write.  There is no clear separation.  I began to write because my little boy was diagnosed with cancer and writing was the only way I could express how I felt; I continued to write because when he died at 3 years of age, a huge void entered my life and words were one way of filling the abyss; and I write now because my son continues to influence my life.  I write because I am so very proud of everything he did in his short life and how much he continues to influence those who were privileged to know him.

So I make no apologies as I begin the countdown towards the publication of my second book in September.  Once again I feel compelled to tell the world that it’s all because of Nathan.  I have no choice.  I’m the only voice he has now.

By the same token, I should also add that I am immensely proud of my daughter too but here I will draw the line.  Jessica does have a voice and is more than capable of using it.  I must therefore respect her privacy, or at least as much as any other gushingly proud and interfering mother can.

With all of that said, here is what I wanted to share with you today.  It will come as no surprise that I wasn’t the only one influenced by Nathan’s life.  Where I began to write, my brother Chris Valentine was inspired to develop his artistic talent.  Below is an example of how our creative paths crossed as we both dealt with Nathan’s illness and ultimately his loss.  I wrote the poem ‘My Autumn Child’ when Nathan was in the midst of his battle against leukaemia and the painting is my brother’s visualisation of my words and essentially my son’s life.  I think the painting is beautiful.  There are a couple of other poems and paintings I hope to share soon but this poem is particularly poignant as it was the inspiration for my second novel.  The working title of Another Way to Fall was Autumn Child.

My Autumn Child

My autumn child, take my hand
Give me the courage
To walk through this desolate land
Give me the courage to keep by your side
Not able to heal you and nowhere to hide

My autumn child, touch my face
Give me the strength
To smile in this godforsaken place
Give me the strength not to give in
To the anger that burns from deep within

My autumn child belongs in the spring
Should take life for granted, see everything
Shouldn’t face winter ‘til he’s an old man
That’s what I thought, that was the plan

My autumn child should learn from his mum
How to play safe and how to have fun
But my autumn child is the one teaching me
To face the storm and bend like the tree

My autumn child, as winter nears
Give me the hope to staunch these tears
Give me the faith to hold onto those dreams
Of you in my future, when so bleak it seems

My autumn child is orange and gold
The brightest colours so vivid and bold
Born to shine and never to fade
My autumn fruit, the child I made

By Chris Valentine

By Chris Valentine

So the agent likes it but what does the editor think??

If you’ve been following this blog then you’ll know how I’ve been busy writing my first short story.  Forty days ago I had an idea in my head and lots of blank pages.  Even a week or so ago when I thought I’d finished, I still didn’t know if what I’d written would get the approval of my agent and publisher.

Luigi has said he loves it so what did Kim think?  Well, here’s what she said….

‘I’ve read Less Than Perfect this morning and think it’s wonderful. As Luigi says, it’s so emotional! It really does capture those hidden dynamics between couples that go unspoken for a long time even though everyone is aware of the truth…’

Of course I’m not completely off the hook.  Kim has suggested a couple of ‘tiny tweaks’ which I hope will only strengthen the story but they really are minor adjustments, nothing compared the major redrafting and restructuring that can happen with a full length manuscript.

So now as I set to work on the next draft of Less than Perfect I can honestly say it’s been a thoroughly enjoyable journey and one I hope will be out there soon for readers to enjoy too.  I’m off to London next week to catch up with Kim so there might be some more news then, if not about the short story then most definitely about the publication of my second book Another Way to Fall which is due out in September.   Yes, there’s definitely going to be progress to report on that score so watch this space!

What happened next to my short story?  It was published 🙂

The Keeper of Secrets

A Step Back in Time

Even though I’m immersed in the rewrite of The Bench at the moment, I’m very aware that the publication of Yesterday’s Sun in America is fast approaching and I’m suddenly distracted by all of those images I conjured up of the gatehouse, the place where Holly comes face to face with her future in Yesterday’s Sun.

The house itself was part of the Hardmonton Hall estate, all figments of my imagination that can be traced back to countless old houses scattered across England that have now become detached from the larger estates they once guarded.  The imagery of the garden however was created from memories a little closer to home and while the rambling and overgrown grounds of the gatehouse where Holly finds the moondial is deep in English countryside and looks out over an orchard, the feel of the place lies deep within my childhood memories of my grandparents’ garden.  Lynn Chris and Mandy Garden

I was brought up in a terraced house in Liverpool so my Nan and Grandad’s garden a few miles away drew us kids like magnets.   And now you’ll have to indulge me because I’ve managed to dig out some family photos.  They don’t do the place justice but if nothing else, they give a good sample of 1970’s fashion.Chris Garden

The garden didn’t have an orchard, only an apple tree grown from a pip my mum had planted when she was a child.  A homemade swing had been hung from one of its branches and we always fought for turns on it.  Unsurprisingly, that’s one memory that appears in Another Way to Fall (which isn’t going to be out in the UK until September 2013 now but I hope you’ll find it worth the wait). Lynn Chris Mandy Neil Garden

You wouldn’t have found a large workshop in the garden either but there was my grandad’s shed.  It had a strong smell of creosote and all kinds of tools crammed inside.  My granddad was a shipwright at Cammell Lairds and was a skilled craftsman.  I never realised until later that he had made some of the wooden toys we loved to find in their house, remnants of my mum’s childhood.

It’s funny but whenever I think of their garden, the sun is always shining and all the memories are good.  But enough of my reminiscing, I must get on with my writing!

PS.  If you must ask, I’m the younger girl but please don’t get confused – not all of the long haired kids are girls.  My brother Chris did have such beautiful curls though!

The Perils of Research

When it comes to writing fiction, there’s only so much you can draw from personal experience and knowledge before you have to start knuckling down to research. It’s a necessary evil that sometimes slows down the writing process but then there are certain subject matters where you can only count your blessings that you don’t have firsthand experience. Another Way to Fall is about a young woman with a brain tumour and as well appreciating my own good health as I built Emma’s world around her, I also felt a huge weight of responsibility. I had to do justice to my heroine and more importantly the real life sufferers of this insipid disease. I had to put the research hours.

Now I’m the first to admit that with my fledgling career as a writer and a full time job, finding enough hours in the day can be a struggle so it’s a godsend when I can enlist the help of others and with my second book I was lucky enough to find a wealth of information and advice from someone who surely had better things to do with her time than answer my endless questions. Natalya Jagger set up BT Buddies (www.btbuddies.org.uk) after her friend’s daughter was diagnosed and later died from a brain tumour. She is undoubtedly an amazing woman with a generous spirit which she extended to me. We certainly agree on one thing, the story of someone battling a brain tumour should respect the harsh realities and not trivialise or twist facts. That being said, I have to accept that my account will be flawed. I don’t know if writers are meant to admit to that but the truth is, even with the best research, I still can’t know what it’s really like for sufferers, I can only imagine and I hope I’ve achieved what I set out to do, to create a story that will be inspiring and not depressing, to reflect the inner strength and bravery that can be found in real life and to give some insight into a family dealing with a cancer diagnosis, something I do have experience of.  More than anything I want readers to admire my Emma rather than pity her and to love her as much as I do.

Continuing on the subject of research, I should confess that it’s not all as onerous as it sounds and sometimes it can broaden horizons. In Another Way to Fall, Emma gets to create an amazing life for herself and amongst other things, explore the world. In the first draft this included going off to Iceland and it was only when I started researching the country that it became one of my own dream destinations. Sadly, Iceland didn’t make it to the final cut although to counter this I did make reference to New York which was where I took my daughter Jess for a celebratory holiday after getting the first book deal. But where fiction failed, reality succeeded and at the time of writing this blog, I’m on the flight home after an absolutely amazing week in Reykjavik. I didn’t get to see the northern lights but maybe next time…and I really do want to go back…the mountains, the volcanoes, the geysers, the lava fields, the thermal pools, the waterfalls, the glaciers, the blue lagoon…I could go on. It was all breathtaking and I wasn’t deterred in the least by the driving rain, low cloud or lack of daylight – it’s only given me an excuse to go back again during summertime.

I’m sorely tempted to bore everyone with tonnes of photos but I hope these two reflect the two extremes of my experiences on holiday.

Blue LagoonGullfoss Waterfall

I know I’m in danger of sounding like I’m working for the Icelandic tourist board but it really is an incredible country and even though there’s a lot to be said for blazing sunshine and sandy beaches, this is one holiday I won’t forget in a hurry and one that might just make it into another of my stories one day.

A Time to Pause

November is a difficult time for me, a time when my mind draws me back to the past.  I’m reminded of all the reasons my life, my perspective and my priorities have changed so much in the last six years but mostly I’m reminded of the little man who went through such awful things and who taught me so much.  My son Nathan.

But even as I stand still and reflect, the world doesn’t stop with me.  Everything moves on and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  I haven’t moved on from the death of my son, I’m not ‘over it,’ but I have accepted that life has continued and that I’ve been swept along with the flow of time.  So as I stood still for a little while this month, life has continued at a pace and with a deep breath I’m back in the present catching up with all my author duties.

That oh-so important contract for books three and four has now been signed although there was a little surprise in there for me.  As well as two new books, HarperCollins would like me to write two short stories.  Gulp!  It’s most definitely a new challenge and after the initial shock I’m starting to quite like the idea of working on something that should take shape much more quickly than the year-long process of finishing a full length manuscript.

So what else is new…the dates for publication have so far been confirmed as 14th March 2013 in the UK for Another Way to Fall and 12th February 2013 in the US for Yesterday’s Sun.  I’m also thrilled that along with Yesterday’s Sun, Another Way to Fall is also going to be published in Germany.

As I write this I’m on my way home after another trip to London where yesterday I met my new editor Kim Young who’s covering maternity leave for Sarah and to top the day I was invited to the Harper Fiction Christmas Party at the Ivy.  I had an absolutely lovely time and it was really good to get to know more of the team at HarperCollins as well as meeting some pretty fab authors too.  Writing can be quite a solitary profession so thank you to Harper for arranging this festive group hug!

And now I take another deep breath…I’m looking forward to another exciting year knowing full well how privileged I am to have good friends and family around me who help me look to the future without ever losing sight of the past.

What would your word be?

The page proofs for Another Way to Fall have arrived and it’s so exciting to see the words I’ve written (and rewritten) transformed into something that resembles a book if only on the screen.  But at the same time it’s also very scary because this is my last opportunity to make any changes and hopefully I won’t pick up any major errors as I’m only supposed to be making minor adjustments now.

This run through is probably as close as I can get to seeing the book from a reader’s perspective.  I’m actually reading my story now, not writing it.  OK there are two streams of thought as I read, one still asking if a sentence is flowing properly and picking up on repetitions or inconsistencies but the other part of me is enjoying the journey that my characters have embarked upon and yes, I am enjoying it.  I can only hope that others will feel the same when it’s published in February next year, that part’s scarier still!  Emma is the focal point of the story, holding onto her dreams whilst her cancer tries to yank them from her grasp.  But it’s not just Emma’s journey I’m following, it’s her family and friends’ too and of course it’s Meg, Emma’s mum who I can relate to most and there’s a part of me speaking through that character.

There’s another character who pops up from time to time in the book and he’s clearly made an impression on me because I had a dream about ‘the shopkeeper,’ the other night.  I won’t say too much about him but in my dream I was in his shop and he directed me towards a special room and told me I had to choose a word, one that would be with me for the rest of my life.  I’m the first to admit that it was a pretty weird dream even by my standards but frustratingly I woke up before going into the room and picking my word.  So of course I’ve spent the last few days trying to decide what word I would choose.  There were no rules, the word could be anything…something inspiring, funny or completely random.  There’s only one restriction and it’s a tough one, it has to be a single word.  It’s taken a while to decide but I’ve settled on my choice and my word is…smile.  It sums it all up really, enjoying the moment, doing things that make you and your loved ones happy, appreciating what you have and if things are tough then it’s a gentle prompt to find something to smile about, even if it’s only summoning up precious memories of happier times and the people you miss.  Smile…and everything else will follow.

So….what would your word be?

Why I’m Supporting “Stand Up To Cancer”

autumn

First signs of autumn

It’s a lovely autumn day and as I drive home through Liverpool, the trees are starting to turn and the yellows and golds sparkle in the afternoon sunshine.  This year I’m more aware than ever of the change of season and the reason for that is the book I’ve spent the last twelve months writing and rewriting.Another Way to Fall has been a labour of love and I’ve invested so much in the story emotionally, even more so than with Yesterday’s Sun.  It’s the story of a young woman called Emma who discovers that the cancer she thought she had beaten has returned and the seasons are a very strong theme running through the book.  In many ways Emma sees autumn through my eyes, not as a time to marvel in the glory of nature but to mourn this last flash of colour before winter descends and life is snuffed out.  The inspiration for the story came from a poem I had written about my son Nathan which was called Autumn Child and for a while it was the book’s working title too.

For the last six years I’ve dreaded the approach of autumn because it marks the run up to the anniversary of my son’s death.  This year is no different but I do think that writing Another Way to Fall has allowed me to shift my mindset.  I can now catch a glimpse of the beauty in the turning leaves that shine their brightest just before they fall, leaving a burning impression as well as bare branches.

Nathan’s memory still burns brightly in my mind but I wish he was still here and I hope that other parents can be saved the pain of losing a child…and that is why I’m supporting the Stand Up To Cancer campaign.

Today I am mostly being…Amanda Brooke

At 9.48am, I board the London train at Lime Street Station, Liverpool.  I had to drive through torrential rain to get here but the sun is out now and I’m scanning the skies.  No rainbows.  Normally at this time of day I’d be at my desk at work but as the train pulls out of the station, I’m leaving my normal life behind me, for a while at least.  Today I’m not in the office where I’ve worked for the same employer for the last twenty seven years, I’m an author off to meet my agent and my editor for lunch in Chelsea.   I signed the first book deal almost eighteen months ago and my first book was published six months ago but being an author is still new to me and I’m having one of those moments where I have to pinch myself.  I suppose it’s a good thing that I write under a different name, it gives me a clear separation between my normal life and my ‘alter ego’.  So yes, today I am mostly being Amanda Brooke.

With two lives to lead, it’s busy fitting everything in so even on a two hour train journey I need to make the most of my time and so I set to work writing this blog.  Just as I reach London the sun is shining when my friend Karen texts me to say there’s a rainbow over Liverpool.  Rainbows have a strong significance in my life.  I searched for rainbows after my son died, convinced it would be a sign from him to let me know that he was alright.  The first arrived one week after I lost him, to the exact minute in fact, just as I was struggling to work out how I was ever going survive without him.  The next rainbow arrived the following day at his funeral just as I was sitting in the funeral car telling my sister about the one I’d seen the day before and there have been a fair few since then.  So if nothing else, the rainbow in Liverpool reminds me that this journey I’m on started with Nathan and he’s never far from my mind.

A quick race across London and I arrive on time for lunch with Luigi and Sarah.  I am most definitely Amanda Brooke now and the food is good and the company even better.  The news is that Another Way to Fall is going into production so it won’t be long before it stops looking like a Word document and more like a book.  Of course that also means that the time for playing around with it is over, there will only be minor changes from now on.  Sarah tells me she hasn’t shared it widely yet but those who have read the manuscript have cried but that doesn’t surprise me.  I read through it from start to finish after the copyedit and it made me cry too.  She also tells me that they’re planning to publish in February which is the same month that Yesterday’s Sun is being published in the US so it’s going to be a busy month!  There are no firm decisions on the front cover for Another Way to Fall yet but I can’t wait to see it as a proper book.

We talk a little about book three which I’ve now handed over to both Luigi and Sarah.  Its working title is The Bench but no-one is under any illusions that it will stay that way – I need to think up a proper title for it.  I might muse over that little problem on the way home on the train.  Of course the worst and best news is that Sarah is pregnant (very pregnant!)  so after a year and a half of holding my hand, she’s leaving me.  But of course I’m thrilled for her and she assures me and Luigi that I’m in safe hands with her chosen replacement Kim who is coming over to HarperCollins to cover her maternity leave.  There’ll be a lot of work to do while she’s away and Sarah and Luigi have plenty of ideas of how to promote the new book and me, ‘the author.’  I’m glad I’ve spent the wet and miserable summer writing, it should give me enough free time to put more effort into all the other work that comes with being an author in the coming months.

Lunch is long but over too soon and I’ve got the rest of the afternoon to myself.  Slowly but surely, I stop being Amanda Brooke.  I’m in Oxford Street shopping, calling in at Forever 21 which is a must when I’m in London with my daughter but today it’s only window shopping.  Eventually, I find myself on the train home.  It’s late and I won’t get home until ten so am in no mood for the two businessmen sitting opposite me who are having a very loud conversation that they really should be having in private.  I suspect their ruthless character assassinations of their colleagues are annoying the whole carriage.  I can’t concentrate on anything else, especially not titles for The Bench but perhaps one day I will exact my revenge…I wonder if I can use these two obnoxious characters in a future project.  I smile, I haven’t stopped being Amanda Brooke quite yet.

Why have I got three and a half books spinning around in my head?

I had thought, rather naively I admit, that writing novels would be a fairly linear process…you write one book, finish that and then onto the next. And if it wasn’t for that wonderful first book deal which is a writer’s dream, I might still be under that illusion.

So here’s how it really happens or at least this is how it happens for me…

My first book, Yesterday’s Sun went through a fair few rewrites but by the summer of 2011while the manuscript was going through the finer detail of copyediting and proof-reads, I knew I had to make a start on the second book. I already had a synopsis which had been agreed with my editor Sarah Ritherdon and my agent Luigi Bonomi so I set to work. Yesterday’s Sun was put to the back of my mind and Another Way to Fall began to take shape.

Early in 2012, Yesterday’s Sun was published so even though I was busily working on my first rewrite of Another Way to Fall, I was now being asked lots and lots about Yesterday’s Sun as part of its promotion. It was an amazing time but eventually things quietened down and by late spring Yesterday’s Sun was on the shelf and Another Way to Fall had gone through a second rewrite which my editor Sarah loved…so I was ready to start on Book 3 which has the working title The Bench.

Just when I thought I only had one book to concentrate on, I heard from Harper in the US who are going to publish an edited version of Yesterday’s Sun for an American audience, so there was more copyediting to go through. Fortunately not much but enough to distract me temporarily from The Bench.

It’s now August and at last the very first draft of The Bench is finished and I can breathe a sigh of relief. Writing isn’t my day job – I work fulltime in local government – so for the first time in a long time I was looking forward to having a weekend or two of pure leisure. What did I used to do with all of that free time? At the back of my mind I know I need to go right back to the beginning of The Bench soon as I’ve only finished a very rough draft but at least I have a complete story and I can mull over some ideas in the meantime. I might even have time to think up some ideas for future books….

I’m still planning what to do when what happens? My weekends (plural) turn into one singular Saturday where I treat myself to a trip to my mum’s caravan in North Wales but I’m already thinking about the emails I’ve just received. Yesterday’s Sun has thrown up a few queries during the proof read in the US that need addressing, Another Way to Fall is back from the copyeditor and I’ve got three weeks to turn it around and The Bench is still demanding my attention.

My head is spinning but I’m really not complaining, I’m loving it. I know how very fortunate I am to be in this position and that’s not something I’ve been able to say in a very long time. I have the publication of Another Way to Fall to look forward to early in 2013, not to mention the publication of Yesterday’s Sun in the US in February by which time The Bench should be coming together and I will need to start thinking about Book 4.

I’ve just remembered what I used to do in my free time…in 2010 I ran the London Marathon and the months of training left no room for anything else…yes I think I prefer the writing!