How to write a novel while on maternity leave – Cate Woods
By Cate Woods
In autumn 2014 I gave birth twice: first to my son and then to a novel. One involved heavy-duty drugs, tears, agony and screaming, and when it was over I swore I would never go through it again. The other took a few quick pushes and that was that.♥
I never intended to write a book in the first months of my son’s life. Although producing a novel while on maternity leave sounds lovely in theory – sitting at your desk, the words flowing, inspired by the angel sleeping in the moses basket at your feet – I already had one child, so I knew that this was a laughable fantasy. During the first year of my first-born’s life I barely found time to read a book, let alone write one. No, I ended up as a maternity-leave novelist by complete accident.
What happened was this: I’m a ghostwriter (non-fiction, mainly) but as there wasn’t much going on work-wise while I was pregnant I decided to start writing a novel, and by the time my due date came round I was 30,000 words in. While I was off getting my pelvic floor annihilated, my agent sent my partial manuscript to a few publishers and the feedback was encouraging – which is how on my son’s six-week birthday I ended up in a hotel bar in London meeting my future editor, while my husband paced around outside with the baby so I could breastfeed pre and post-meeting. Despite it being a momentous occasion – I had a book deal! I was going to be a published author! – I don’t actually recall much of the conversation. In fact, I think I may have been asleep for some of it.
My new editor wanted the finished manuscript in six months time, but although I knew it would be a challenge I felt sure I could manage it. When you’re waking up four times a night and counting your days in hour-long breastfeeds, six months feels like an eternity. This would be a doddle…
Except, it was very much not a doddle.
The biggest problem was finding the time to write. I was at the mercy of a nappy-wearing dictator who required total acquiescence at all times. In the rare moments that Kim Jong-un Jr was taking a nap I had a hundred other things to do, which meant writing was pushed way down the list, somewhere below ‘have a shower’ and ‘eat something not in a McVities wrapper’.
I knew that tiredness would be an issue, of course: show me a new mum who isn’t tired and I’ll be like, ‘Ooh look, there’s Mariah Carey and her 27 nannies!’ What I hadn’t realised, however, was that nature would do its utmost to sabotage my writing by making me want to do nothing but sit and stare at my precious offspring; my laptop held nowhere near the same allure to my rampaging hormones. I’ve heard mothers say that they were at their most creative while breastfeeding, but personally speaking all it did was make me emotional, leaky and rubbish at thinking of other words for ‘nice’.
For the first two months I didn’t write anything. I kept waiting for the right time – a clear day when I could open up my creative engine and give it a really good run – but it never came. I scoured the internet for encouragement, reading enviously about the ‘writing rituals’ of other authors, but it really wasn’t feasible for me to “meditate for an hour to reignite my artistic energies”.
In the end it was good old-fashioned fear that made me knuckle down and finish the book. The deadline was looming, and you’d be amazed how much you can get done when you only have a very limited window in which to do it; if you’re the sort of person who can spend hours doing “vital” online research, then having a small baby is brilliant for focusing the mind. What’s left of it, anyway; I swear half my brain cells came out with my placenta…
But I did it – and now when people ask to see pictures of the baby, I proudly show them a photo of the cover. So for any of you thinking about writing a novel while on maternity leave (you mad, wonderful fools) here are a few things that helped me get to The End:
1. Caffeine. My best work was done in the immediate aftermath of coffee consumption; my local coffee shop even gets a thank-you in my acknowledgements. Despite his daily breast-milk with double espresso, my son seems fine – and I’m sure his sleep issues will resolve in time.
2. Get some help. Have someone watch the baby while you write, even just for an hour, so you can focus purely on the book – and, most importantly, get out of earshot so you can’t hear any crying.
3. If possible, have a very understanding agent or editor. I leaned heavily on both of mine, sending them chapters as I went along for feedback and encouragement. A trusted friend would also do.
4. Make your peace with mess. I’m pretty sure nobody ever died of a grubby bathroom; in fact, it’s meant to be good for babies to get dirty (something to do with antibodies) so you’re actually being a good parent by not tidying up.
5. Be gentle with yourself. One of the most popular pieces of writing advice is that you MUST write something EVERY day or else you are a slacker who will never to be published. Bollocks to that, I humbly say. Write when you can, don’t worry if you don’t write anything for a month and firmly ignore all advice on writing if it’s not helpful to you. Including this.
Cate Woods has worked in magazine journalism and as a ghostwriter. Her first novel, Just Haven’t Met You Yet, is published by Quercus and is available from 11th February.