I have just finished writing my nineteenth novel. For years people have asked me how it feels when I finish a novel, and I haven’t known how to answer them. In the old days, it felt wonderful, knowing I had achieved something so big. A great weight would be off my shoulders, freeing me up to enjoy life for a little while without a cloud of guilt following me around if I hadn’t written that day.
Then I moved to a different publisher, and found myself working with a very talented editor, who didn’t like the kinds of books I wrote. She wanted more suspense, more drama, more plot. I stopped trusting that I could write books by myself, and would deliver first drafts that I knew needed work, knowing that she would require me to rewrite huge chunks of each book. Finishing a book meant the beginning of a grueling round of edits, sometimes up to five, always with large rewrites.
The books I wrote whilst there garnered some of the best reviews of my career, but they never felt like mine, never felt like the warm, character-driven feel-good novels with which I made my name. I felt as if I was almost writing by numbers, moulding my characters to fit someone else’s formula. I grew more and more demoralized, knowing I had to leave.
I wrote Falling, my last novel, under enormous duress. I was secretly preparing to change publishers, writing my first cookbook at the same time, and preparing for a grueling book tour. When I delivered the manuscript of Falling, there were things about the book I loved, but I knew there was something amiss with the timeline. The publishing schedule didn’t allow time for me to fix it.
And then I sat down to write The Sunshine Girls. I went back to my old ways of writing, telling a character-driven story, with a rough idea of the story arc, but allowing the characters to direct me. I wrote entirely by myself, with no-one else’s input, allowing myself to trust that I knew how to tell a good story.
This is a book about sisters. Three girls with a self-absorbed, dramatic, disinterested mother. A mother from whom they are all estranged, until she is diagnosed with a terminal illness, and calls them home to heal old wounds. It is a book where each of the sisters sprang to life from the very first sentence. They were so real, they felt like my friends. Self-contained shy Nell, a single mother who doesn’t think she needs a partner, until she finds herself falling for the last person she ever expected; people-pleasing Meredith, who is engaged to a man she is slowly realizing she can’t stand, even though he checks all the boxes of what she thinks she is expected to look for, and spiky, selfish Lizzy, a celebrated chef who thinks of no-one other than herself. Every page of this book was a joy to write, and it has restored my faith in my writing, reminding me of why I became a writer in the first place.
Next is a Young Adult novel, and perhaps, perhaps, a small spot of breathing space where I can take some deep breaths and see all the people I love. And today, I am feeling enormously grateful for having a job that I love.
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