Taking the plunge – beginning the first novel
Compiled by Jade Craddock
What do all women’s fiction writers have in common? They’ve all had to take the plunge at some point and write that first novel. Time, work commitments, family, self-doubt can all deter wannabe writers from putting pen to paper, fingers to keyboard but every journey has to start somewhere and as scary or as difficult as it may seem, writing the first novel may be just the beginning. Here five debut authors discuss what made them start writing. ♥
Turning thirty was one of the lowest points in my life. My long-term relationship had ended, I’d lost my job and I found myself alone with my two-year-old daughter, feeling confused, sad and utterly broken. But sometimes being broken allows the parts of yourself you’ve kept hidden to seep out of the cracks. I truly believe that without this crisis, I’d never have written The List.
Every night while my daughter slept, I’d write until the early hours and every day I’d quietly promise her that I’d do my very best to get us out of this situation. Fate had handed me the opportunity to change my life, albeit on a shit shaped platter but I grabbed it with both hands anyway. I had no idea if anyone would take my writing seriously but I was determined to find out. I had nothing to lose.
Six years later, I’ve signed my second book deal.
The secret to seeing it through was really enjoying my idea. I knew I’d failed previously because I didn’t believe in my idea enough. It also helped to find an editor who offered to read my first few chapters and provide encouraging feedback.
My debut novel In Bloom was an accident. When I first put pen to paper, I wasn’t trying to write a book; I was trying to save my job. It had never occurred to me that I was a writer — I had always been an avid reader, but never had a desire to tell my own stories. Instead, I wanted to be a fashion designer, and that was the path I followed after college, landing a position as an assistant dress designer for a new line being started by an established lingerie designer. We were just beginning to have success — selling to stores like Anthropologie, Barney’s, and Nordstrom — when the economy collapsed. The dress line went under and the lingerie line merged with a larger company. I was given a design position at the new firm, but having little lingerie knowledge it soon became apparent that my design skills weren’t going to cut it, and it was suggested I try something else entirely, like starting the ecommerce website for In Bloom Intimates.
Building an online business from scratch was completely new to me and I tried to learn the ins and outs of SEO, PPC and social media, but again, I couldn’t quite meet expectations. The numbers weren’t good enough and I felt like I was failing. My self-worth was at an all time low and things got even worse when Google accused me of selling mail order brides and banned me from advertising. In a last effort to drive traffic to the website, I decided to start a blog. The problem was, I still wasn’t a lingerie expert, and I had no idea what to write about. I knew I needed to use wedding key words to help drive traffic as In Bloom specializes in bridal lingerie, so my solution to my content problem was to write the blog as a fictional serial about a girl who worked for In Bloom and was engaged. The blog was to be her live wedding journal. As I started to write, though, I realized I couldn’t plan her wedding without knowing how she fell in love with groom … who was this guy anyway?
And it began. Relying heavily on my personal experiences for inspiration, I started to tell Olivia Bloom’s story. My real life leading man, my husband Jason, was immersed in the Los Angeles music scene, and in the years post college we’d had a backstage view as some of our friends’ bands went on to become world famous, while others, despite their success, couldn’t keep it together and broke up, and still others never got off the ground. Being a part of this creative crew, but terribly shy, I was adept at hiding in corners at celebrity parties, wondering how I got there.
And that was the basis for my story. I put all of the emotion that stemmed from following my own dreams and recent feelings of inadequacy onto the page and the story took over. It started waking me up at night, demanding to be told, and as Olivia Bloom fell in love with Berkeley Dalton, I fell in love with storytelling.
The path I took to writing my first novel was a bit strange, a big winding. I wish I had a great story from my childhood that I could share about little Carolyn sitting on her bed at night jotting down adorable stories in her Holly Hobbie journal. But I was more of a doodler than a jotter. And more of a liar than a storyteller. We moved a lot as a military family and I learned at an early age that I could lie my ass off and get away with it, you know, because of all the moving and leaving and never looking back. A terrible, terrible lesson for a kid and it took me years to outgrow it, but I think it was the beginning of being “creative.”
(If anyone from my elementary years is reading this I should be clear that no, I never really broke into a hangar on base and started a helicopter. We did not have an older brother that we kept locked in the attic. I never actually participated in a marine experiment that allowed me to hold my breath under water for an hour. And no, I didn’t really have a telepathic connection to my sister allowing me to read her mind.)
I earned a college degree in architecture which was in no way literary but was its own strange version of creative storytelling. Anyone who has faced a jury to present their design knows what I mean. But I didn’t start writing, actually writing, until I had kids. It would be hard to explain the myriad of stupid shit that my kids would do in a ten minute period. I found myself desperate to capture the stories, share them with friends, have a paper trail of evidence. That’s what led me to blogging. I was the eyewitness to these ridiculous events and I felt compelled to write them down. Blogging trained my brain to see things as a story. The lost tooth had a punch line. The skinned knees and wrecked cars and milestones, all recorded, all framed in a story, all tied up with a bow. Blogging taught my brain to see things as a narrative, and it created a daily habit of writing.
When my youngest daughter was nine she asked me to stop writing about her on the internet so I quit blogging. Cold turkey. But my brain was still in the habit of writing, of telling stories. I realized that this one small act, starting to write, had been a pivot-point in my life and I hadn’t even recognized it when it happened. I sat down one day and asked the question: What if that moment, that seemingly insignificant event to change everything, your path, your future, presented itself and you took it? How many things would be altered?
Immediately the story of Olivia in Cancel the Wedding popped into my head. I felt her frantic need to do something drastic and watched as she jumped up in the middle of dinner to announce an unplanned road trip. The story took off on its own once I started writing. The characters revealed themselves and their story unfolded as I wrote. I don’t know where that came from, those voices in my head having conversations and forcing me to write them down as a way to exorcise them from my mind. But the act of writing my first novel really began by asking one question, then indulging myself with this addiction to writing, and finally being willing to hear the voices in my mind and go wherever they took me.
Basically I just admitted to being a pathological liar who hears conversations in her head and writes them down. I guess that’s fiction writing in a nutshell.
I’ve always drawn on real life for my fiction and my non-fiction writing. I began writing magazine features about things that had happened to me – for example, I’ve written a lot about my relationships for women’s magazines which helped me to become comfortable using my own voice in my writing. Writing first-person features was good training for storytelling. I’m inspired by real life because truly knowing how it feels to be in a situation ensures the story is plausible. I wanted to have a lot of great real experiences to pull from when I started a novel.
I started writing Tweethearts when I was working in magazines and reality television. I remember sitting in The X Factor studio during rehearsals eavesdropping on the judges when the idea struck.
Because I genuinely know what it’s like to work in magazines and reality TV I was able to create a character whose experiences were real. Of course I used a lot of imagination to build the tension and exaggerated heaps but it was essential to make the setting real. The same goes for the relationships – they’re fictional, but I know how Jemima feels to battle a lot of the emotions she experiences.
They say having a child changes everything and I got that but only in the abstract way a person who still owns her life might. So I’ll become a morning person and I might not see the inside of a nice restaurant for a while and I’ll have to do a lot of laundry and sterilize things and all that but really how hard can it be? I mean, come on, life’s not going to change that much, is it?
Yes. I know. The awakening was rather rude. Working in Silicon Valley when my son was born, I suddenly found the job I loved uncomfortable, like my pre-pregnancy shoes. I could jam my feet in there but it just wasn’t the same. So I decided to give full time mothering a go. And I gave it my all. I really did. And I lasted six months by which point my colicky kid nearly got the best of me. So there I was, unshowered, in jeans I’d worn fifteen times minimum, in a sleep-deprived delirium and I announce to no one in particular I’m going to write a novel. I can’t even find my shoes but hey, why not ? If there was eye rolling, I was too tired to notice.
So I packed up my laptop and trundled off to my corner San Francisco coffee shop where I drank enormous amounts of coffee and struggled with my manuscript while surrounded by other people drinking enormous amounts of coffee and struggling with their manuscripts. The up side – I wasn’t lonely. The down side – writing a novel turned out to be hard. Really hard. I was better equipped to cross the ocean in a rubber raft than craft a story with fascinating characters doing meaningful things in exotic settings. I very nearly quit.
But buoyed by my new coffee shop posse, I persevered and six months later I had a draft of a love story I thought was pretty good. However, fifty plus literary agents begged to differ. I know this because I kept every rejection letter. And here’s something I discovered: rejection doesn’t feel good but it can be highly motivating. I abandoned my love story novel and embarked on the journey that would eventually lead to Happily Ever After.
I took the plunge because I was so tired from having an infant I didn’t have the energy to talk myself out of it. I stay because writing feeds a hunger nothing else can satisfy. So try this: take a deep breath, sit down and do it.