The Lost Sister opens in the beautiful coastal town of Queensbay. It's where one of the main characters Becky grows up... the very same town where her mother walks out one day to live in a cave. Here's one of the first descriptions of the town.
The tide was low, the sea hazy in the distance, seaweed and shells clogging the wet morning sand as people walked out of the café nearby with takeaway teas in polystyrene cups. It wasn't a built-up beach – even now it isn’t – just a plain and simple sandy cove, no trendy eater- ies or boutique shops. Its natural beauties are enough to draw people in, the chalk stacks adorn- ing most of the postcards in town. The bay beyond the chalk stacks with its five caves wasn’t as much of a draw then, people were put off by the stories of tourists being caught out there during high tide.
Before I started on The Lost Sister, I knew I wanted to write about caves and people who might be drawn to live in one. But I couldn't yet visualise where the cave might be set.
So I googled 'UK caves beautiful'. And that's when I discovered Botany Bay, a gorgeous little bay on the Kent coast.
I saw it was only a couple of hours away plus the most gorgeous looking hotel was based on the cliffs there. What better excuse to go on a research trip there?
So that's what I did... and I fell in love! By that point, I had already written quite a bit of The Lost Sister. But the location felt flat. Being in Botany Bay completely brought it to life.
Feeling the chalk of the cliffs beneath my fingertips. Standing in the damp darkness of the cave and looking out to sea. Walking along the beach as the sun set and taking in the STUNNING sight of the chalk stacks against those vivid pink and orange skies. It really brought the town of Queensbay to life in my mind and, I hope, on the page too!
In fact, I loved it so much, I went back with my family a few weeks later! Maybe reading The Lost Sister will inspire you to visit too?
To find out more about Botany Bay, visit the Thanet tourism website. To see the hotel I stayed at, check out its website.
I used to see where the story takes me but now I have tight deadlines, I’m much more organised. I usually write a synopsis first for my editor then plan the novel in Excel. Yep, Excel! Old work colleagues will tell you I used to HATE using Excel. But it’s a great tool for organising plots.
If you want me to send you a copy, email me. I also offer a service where I will read what you've written in your spreadsheet then offer you feedback and help, just email me if you need more details.
My hubby and I wanted to escape it all after a bit of a tough time. The Exmoor Cottages in Martinhoe were ideal: secluded, no mobile phone reception and sweeping views of the gorgeous Exmoor National Park. And even better, just a ten minute walk to the local pub!
One day, during a visit to that local pub, I saw three farmers standing around a table outside dressed in wellies and wax jackets, their wild-looking dogs skulking around them. One of the men turned towards us, his dark hair lifting in the breeze, and that was it: Milo from The Atlas of Us (The Lost Mother is the US) burst to life inside my head.
As soon as we got back to our cottage, I grabbed my notepad and started sketching out the noveLove, using my experiences with infertility to map out another character Claire’s character and the travels I enjoyed as a magazine editor to dream up settings, including the scars still left behind by the 2004 tsunami that I’d witnessed in places like Thailand and the Maldives.
Thing is, I had no plans to write a novel. I’d been burnt by a rubbish experience trying to get an agent with a novel I’d written the year before and combined with the fact I'd endured two failed rounds of IVF, I just couldn’t face yet more disappointment.
But this idea was there, it had to be written. So I decided I’d write it for me and my friends and nothing else: no agents, no publishers, just a selfish project.
Making that decision felt liberating. As soon as I returned home after my inspiring trip to Exmoor, I started writing in earnest.
Those paragraphs Friends asked to read it so I sent it to them. They loved it and urged me to try to get it published. As I’d queried my last novel after parting ways with my first agent, but just couldn’t strike gold. Came close, but not close enough.
I realised if I was going to send it out, I needed to give it the best possible chance. So I decided to hire a professional editor from the Hilary Johnson Authors’ Advisory Service and they did a fantastic job, highlighting elements that had never even occurred to me. What really gave me hope about this report was one of the closing statements: ‘I very much enjoyed reading this novel which has reached a high standard already and easily has the potential to be publishable’.
Has. The. Potential. To. Be. Publishable.
Those six words sent me into a revision frenzy and finally, I had a novel on my hands I really thought I could query out to agents. I started feeling that burst of excitement inside. Maybe this could happen. Maybe.
Within a couple of days of querying agents, hope grew even more. I was getting requests for fulls (you usually send out the first one to three chapters to agents then if they like what they read, they ask for more). I knew this was a good sign. But I’d been burnt before getting requests for fulls then nothing more. This time though, as agents were reading The Atlas of Us, they were emailing me to tell me they were loving it.
Momentum, that’s what fellow writer and friend Elizabeth Richards calls it. That feeling something good is on the horizon.
And then I noticed Caroline Hardman, an agent who I’d wanted to query but was closed to submissions, was tweeting about book titles. I had a nice chat with her and in the process, asked her when she was opening to submissions again. She told me to send my query along and just a few days later, she invited me in for a chat.
During that chat, we clicked straight away. First, she seemed to get what I was trying to convey with The Atlas of Us and her revision suggestions were spot on. Second, she was realistic. I’d had agents tell me to pack my bags as I’d be off to tour NY with my book soon (seriously). She was truthful: don’t give up the day job. Write for passion, not money. I needed that reality. I didn’t want BS, I wanted the truth and I wanted someone on my side who would always tell me the truth.
When she offered me representation, I wanted to say yes, yes, yes. But several agents were still reading The Atlas of Us. So out of courtesy to them, I didn’t. However, a few days later, despite phone calls with some very enthusiastic agents, I said yes to Caroline. I’d known right from the start she was The One. I suppose it’s like choosing a wedding dress. You just know.
And I’ve never regretted that decision: a super quick reader, fabulous communicator and hard-as-nails negotiator, she’s wonderful, something you see in how enthusiastically her clients talk about her. The brilliant agent she set up her business with, Jo Swainson, has also been a star while Caroline has been on maternity leave, they’re a proper dynamic duo (pic of them above).
I’d like the say the story ended there and a week later, we got a book deal. But Caroline only sends novels out to editors that are as perfect as she can make them. And The Atlas of Us wasn’t perfect yet, even with all my revisions. So we spent some time revising it until it was finally ready to send out.
And that’s when, right in the middle of caring for my newborn baby girl, I got the news of my book deal with Avon Books!
For many years, I dreamt of having the two Bs: a book deal and a baby. Little did I know the two would come along within a matter of weeks of each other. On the day I heard I’d got a deal with Avon, my daughter Scarlett was just a couple of months old. It was a stupidly hot day, the kind where all you can do is sit indoors with a fan directed at your face. Just like Louise in the first chapter of The Atlas of Us, I was dreaming of being somewhere like Exmoor, the westerly wind cool on my face.
Just as I was starting to cool down, Scarlett decided to have a nappy explosion. Yep, I’m sure you’ve visited my blog to read about joyful occurrences such at that! As I was changing her, she also decided to do a wee, the combining result dripping down into my bag. Lovely!
As I was frantically trying to clear it up, holding her under the hose in the garden (bad mummy!), I heard my email ping. I knew my agent, Caroline, was waiting to hear back from Eli Dryden at Avon about The Atlas of Us. So there was a small question in my mind: is this an update?
So I quickly grabbed my phone and checked it as I dried my daughter off. And there it was, an offer from Eli! I don’t know how I managed to remain so calm but as my daughter was starting to fall asleep, I had to be quiet. So I gently lay her in her moses basket then I ran out into the garden and screamed in excitement. This was it, the moment I’d been waiting for: the confirmation my novel – the novel of my heart – was going to be read by more than just friends, family, my agent and some editors.
I was ecstatic. I’d already met Eli at a party my agent held and we’d clicked straight away. She was SO passionate about The Atlas of Us, it just exuded off her, so I was excited to be working with her.
But after the ecstasy came even more hard work: more revisions. Eli is an amazing editor, able to bring out the absolute heart of any story and make it the best it can possibly be. It was hard work with a baby to look after, but luckily I was on maternity leave so I was able to snatch hours here and there as my daughter napped, plus my husband and family were amazing with their support.
Once those revisions were out of the way, I was really excited to visit the HarperCollins office and meet the fabulous Avon team. Here’s a photo of the reception area with its wonderful tree made out of pages from a book! I think it’s so important for writers to do this if they can. So often, we’re stuck inside our own minds, writing and revising, the true wonder of getting a book deal can be difficult to grasp, especially with a baby to look after. Visiting the offices of such an iconic publisher allowed me to stop and really take it in: my dreams were really coming true!
Then reality again: next came copy-edits. These are just how they sound, a clever person sits and reads my copy for any errors, inconsistencies, repetition and so on. It was amazing to see the little things I’d missed, the biggest being dates. I’d done a timeline in Excel including birthdays and key events. But somewhere along the way, I’d gone off course and things just weren’t matching up. Thank God for copy-editors!
Around this time, one of the most exciting parts of the process happened. I got to see my cover! When Eli emailed it through, I just sat and stared at it. It was so beautiful! Completely different from what I imagined (and yet I can’t even tell you what I imagined). But perfect. So many people presume an author decides their front cover. But this is left to the experts. And just as well, because Lord knows what I’d have come up with.
And then I got proofs, which is just as exciting. These are print outs of how the novel itself will look and I was lucky enough to get a copy of an uncorrected proof, printed and bound, a chance to finally check the version readers would see. It costs money to make any changes at the proof stage, so any changes had to be absolutely essential.
Luckily, all I noticed were a couple of tense issues (so at one point, Louise’s story which is told in first person present tense reverted into past tense) and accent issues. You’d think we’d notice things like this in earlier revisions but honestly, it isn’t until you see it printed out and in the format readers will see it that you notice some things.
And then that was it, my final copy. Any author will tell you if they could, they’d revise forever and ever. But there comes a point when you have to STOP and accept, this is the final version.
And the rest, as they say, is history!
Some of the male characters in my novels have been described as ‘having a bit of the Heathcliff/Mr Rochester about him’.
It isn’t intentional. It’s just the kind of man I love to write about… and read about. You see, I need to fall in love with my main male characters (and my female ones too of course, though I don’t necessarily want to snog them!). There’s nothing I love more than a dark brooding hero. But they need some substance too. So how do I do this? Below I use some of my favourite literary men to explain…
Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights
‘If he loved with all the powers of his puny being, he couldn’t love as much in eighty years as I could in a day.’
Heathcliff is the ultimate beautiful disaster in literature, a man who loves with a ferocity that tears everything up around him. He is a tornado and I adore him. Dark, intense but most of all, loving. In that he loves Cathy completely and utterly, no questions asked.
Of course, there are readers who question whether he really did love Cathy. But I’m not here to analyse that. I’m here to say ‘phwoar!’. From the moment I read Wuthering Heights when I was about twelve, I was spellbound.
Now this all comes from me as a reader. But as a writer, he’s a difficult character because he can come across as unlikeable. That’s fine, unlikeable characters can be brilliant characters. But as a love interest, it can be risky. The reader needs to understand why a strong woman would fall in love with this man… and ideally, you want the reader to fall in love with him themselves.
I’m not sure I really understood the importance of this at first. My first version of Milo from The Atlas of Us (The Lost Mother in US) was much more intense, even violent, than the final version. Problem is, this made him too unlikeable and that, in turn, made Claire seem weak. Why did she put up with him like this?
So I kept the intensity, the mysterious family past, the dark looks… but I tempered that with a lighter side, a kinder side, a side that makes it clear to the reader why someone as intelligent and worldly as Claire would fall for him. Milo does little things for Claire, surprises and treats. He listens to her, makes her feel able to unburden herself when others can’t.
I added some light with the darkness. But there’s still plenty of darkness…
Oliver Mellors from Lady Chatterley’s Lover
“His body was urgent against her, and she didn’t have the heart anymore to fight…She saw his eyes, tense and brilliant, fierce, not loving. But her will had left her. A strange weight was on her limbs. She was giving way. She was giving up…she had to lie down there under the boughs of the tree, like an animal, while he waited, standing there in his shirt and breeches, watching her with haunted eyes…”
There’s something very appealing about an outdoors man like Oliver Mellors, the gamekeeper Lady Chatterley falls for. It’s not just the idea of a man getting all dirty and gorgeous in the mud (ha ha, am I a freak to like this idea?!). But also this feeling he’s apart from the world. As people sit nicely in their warm homes, he is under the stars, alone, completely different.
As a farmer, Milo is like this. There’s nothing he loves more than working outdoors, hands deep in sand or mud, the feel of a sharp breeze or the warm sun on the back of his neck.
I was conscious that I didn’t want to turn him into a stereotype though, a grunting uncivilized outdoor man who’s only redeeming feature is that he’s good in the sack. Of course, Mellors isn’t just this. But he does border on it at times. It was important for me to make Milo charismatic, or else why would Claire fall in love with him? Falling in lust wasn’t enough.
I hope this comes through in his passion for animals, his ambitions to travel, the love and compassion he feels for this family. He’s not just about himself. Nor is he just wrapped up in him and Claire. He tries to make others feel loved too. So while he is insular and apart from society in many ways, he doesn’t forget those around him.
Jewel from Heroes and Villains
“Darkness was made explicit in the altered contours of his face. He was like a work of art, as if created, not begotten, a fantastic dandy of the void whose true nature had been entirely subsumed to the alien and terrible beauty of a rhetorical gesture.”
I talk about Angela Carter’s Heroes and Villains a lot. It’s not one of her more revered books, in fact, many hate it. But I adore it. I think it’s because I read it as a teen and it had a real affect on me. It was like nothing I’d read before, a gothic dystopian novel years before they became all the rage.
And then there’s the feral, deeply flawed character of Jewel, a rough tumble of a tribal boy who drags the main character Marianne from her refined world into his mess of a world.
What I find interesting about Jewel is what I hint at above: he brings Marianne into his world and helps to change her perspective. This suggests a form of dominance on his part. But what’s so wonderful about this novel is that despite it being Marianne who’s dragged kicking and screaming into this new world, in the end, it’s she who changes Jewel more then he changes her.
I feel that’s important when writing about love. Both people need to change each other and that change can’t just be ‘I fell in love’. It needs to be more than that. Claire meets Milo at a crucial time in her life. She’s standing on a precipice, about to jump off. And Milo is at a type of crossroads too.
What was important to me was that by meeting and getting to know each other, it sparks an action to move forward in both characters. Are they good for each other? Not all the time. But what’s important is when they’re together, they encourage each other to learn, to change, to try out new versions of the world they’re living in.
And that’s ultimately what a good romantic hero is all about. They need to drive a plot forward, not just as a love interest. This is why in my first sentence above, you’ll notice I don’t refer to Milo as the main love interest. He’s one of the main characters. He doesn’t just change Claire’s life by showing her what it means to truly love. He also changes her as a person, as she changes him too. And yet I hope I don’t sacrifice the romance of what they have too. As one reviewer says: ‘The romance between Claire and Milo with its passion and intensity will sweep you off your feet.’
When my novel My Sister's Secret hit the number one spot on the paid-for Kindle store in the UK, I spent time pondering why this particular novel of mine connected with so many people.
I think there are five reasons, and these five reasons...
1) The reader needs to learn something new: I’m not talking about getting all preach-tastic. I mean actually shedding light on a new phenomenon. Anyone who reviews or talks about My Sister's Secret mentions the inclusion of submerged forests.
Most people haven’t even heard about these beautiful phenomenon, let alone seen them. By introducing people to something new, it gets them talking about it to friends, family, colleagues and fellow readers, fantastic for word of mouth.
And what’s great is this is where it all started: I knew I wanted to write a novel about these unique wonders and it all spun out from there.
2) A clear focus: This is summed up in the title: the novel is about a sister’s secret. Of course, it’s about many more things too. But this is the core of the novel: a secret, lots of secrets, that completely change the direction of people’s lives.
It’s my former editor Eli Dryden who really rammed this home to me in her first editorial letter: ‘My duty to you is to ensure we hook in the retailers and the reader with an instant “yes, I know what this is and I know why it connects with me and why I want to read it immediately’”.’
She was right!
3) Twists that keep people guessing: There are several twists in My Sister's Secret (I like to make my readers dizzy!). Eli and I were so deep into the novel, we often asked ourselves: ‘will people guess?’ We tested it on people, they didn’t guess. But still we worried. We didn’t need to. Hardly anyone is guessing some of the twists and to me, when I read a novel, that can be the key. If a twist comes along and blindsights me, I’m left reeling… and can’t help but tell people to read the novel too so I can discuss it with them!
4) Writing to deadline… with a baby and a job: This is the bit that often astounds people. ‘How did you do it?’ they ask. Structure. Organisation. Weekly deadlines. With my first novel, The Atlas of Us, I wrote it from the heart, no planning, just splurged onto the page (then there was lots of editing and refining of course).
But this time I didn’t have the luxury of time. I had to know where I was going and by which dates I needed to get there because otherwise, I simply wouldn’t have finished it. I think this lead to much more finely structured, carefully planned, clearly defined drafts then in the past. It also led to some grey hairs and more dark shadows under my eyes!
5) A great team behind you: When people say ‘traditional publishing’ isn’t worth it due to the lack of editorial and marketing support, I have to laugh. The team at Avon go above and beyond the call of duty. My publisher Avon has just been brilliant. It all started with my former editor Eli who had such a clear vision for My Sister's Secret after she read the first draft, a vision that dictated everything from the words on the page to the title and front cover. She saw right into the heart of the novel and pulled out the very best bits. Of course, if you’re an aspiring writer, you might not be at that stage yet. But you might still have a team: people who read your novels, cheerleaders, people who support you in different ways. Make the most of that! I also believe the media coverage it’s received has made a difference, from a great review in the Daily Mail to a short story in the Sunday Express. Having worked in PR and currently working in social media, I know what an important role that plays.
In all the years I’ve been writing novels, there’s one piece of advice that’s stuck with me: find the core of your novel and stick with it. There are other variations of this advice you might have heard: don’t go off on tangents, stick to the main plot, don’t overwrite, do the plank exercise every day (oops, sorry, wrong core!). But let’s delve deeper and learn what this really means and how you can achieve this.
The first time I started getting to grips with this was when reading a blog post by YA writer Maggie Stiefvater many years ago. I didn’t properly understand it then, nor put it into practice. But it made me sit up and listen. Her Shiver series of novels features werewolves (yep, I have a soft spot for urban fantasy!). But in her blog post, she said she would rather cut out the actual werewolves then lose the core of the novel, which for her was the mood, a ‘slow, slow build to a bittersweet end’.
Years later, when I got my first book deal with HarperCollins, I worked with an editor who helped me to put this into practice. In her revision notes for my second novel My Sister’s Secret, she wrote:
‘This editorial stage is all about weighting and organising and prioritising then finessing the material. If you could say what this book is in a sentence, what would you say? I feel that you have to decide what you want to be the overarching strand and then prioritise plot lines accordingly – there’s too much noise and too many things happening.’
She was absolutely right. I think it’s fine to write your first drafts in a passion, if that’s what you like to do. But when it comes to revising, that’s when this focus on the ‘core’ really comes into its own.
For My Sister’s Secret, the core of the novel was sisters. Simple as that. You might read this and think ‘yep, pretty obvious’. But actually, it wasn’t in the initial drafts. In fact, the novel was first called The Layers of Me and the different strands I’d weaved in meant the true core of it – the relationship between three sisters and the impact of this in future years – was lost.
Once my editor helped me draw that out, including changing the title, I felt I finally had something to hone in on. Everything became about those sisters and the consequences of the tragedy that befell them. It worked too. My Sister’s Secret went onto become a Kindle and Kobo number one bestseller, and one of the biggest selling ebooks of 2015.
So how do you find your core in your writing and then maintain focus as you’re revising your novel?
Sometimes, it’s about the first kernel of feeling that came to you when writing the novel. So I came up with the idea of my latest novel, Her Last Breath, while watching a documentary about landslides. It got me thinking about how that would impact a town. But also, the own internal landslides we experiences. With the help of my current editor, that became my core: landslides and the, as Maggie Stiefvater calls it, ‘slow slow build’ towards it.
You see, landslides start before we perceive them. Years of subsidence and ruin, all kept hidden beneath a seemingly perfect visage until all falls to pieces. I applied this to the characters too: how a seemingly perfect life on the outside can be falling apart within. And what happens in that last gasp of breath before the landslide happens. Before Estelle, the main character, falls metaphorically to the sea below?
So how did I keep that focus?