What Could Happen If You Worked As Hard As You Possibly Could?

Fact: I’ve never worked as hard in my entire life as I did last year.

(Because I’m a student, I now think in academic years, so I mean the period between  September 2014 and the end of May.)

Here’s another fact you might not know, one you might be surprised to learn: I had never worked hard before that.


In the last few months I’ve given this revelation a soft launch, telling a few people who know me in real life that I never worked hard before this past (academic) year. They have reactions like scoffing, eye-rolling, etc. ‘Yeah, right,’ they say. ‘Don’t be ridiculous.’ I admitted to one person that I’m the laziest person I know and she said, ‘Lazy? Lazy? That’s not a word I’d associate with you at all.’

Well… Surprise!

I find it odd that people think prior to September 2014 I was a hard worker, but I must acknowledge that I’ve had a hand in spreading the lies. I constantly tell self-publishing authors that they’re not going to get anywhere without a lot of hard work – and that’s true. It is true that I did a lot of hard work. All the social media stuff, the million little things that go into self-publishing a book (or three), the speaking engagements, the blogging, etc.

But that is not the same as working hard. It’s certainly not the same as working as hard as I possibly could. I know it’s not, because it didn’t involve any real sacrifice.

Between March 2010 and March 2014, the list of tasks above was my full-time job. I did it for a few lazy hours a day, usually starting mid-morning. During the day, I was usually free to drop whatever I was doing and go out for coffee, or to see a movie, or basically to do whatever I wanted. At night you could usually find me watching TV with my laptop balanced on my knees typing a blog post or an e-mail or whatever, but that was more a habit than a necessity. There were times when self-imposed deadlines had me at my desk before dawn or into the night, but these occasions were few and far between. I had no other responsibilities. I was living with my parents. I never missed anything I wanted to see on TV, and I wanted to see a lot of things. Sometimes I even made a big flask of coffee and brought it upstairs, into my bedroom, so I wouldn’t have to walk all the way downstairs to achieve a caffeine refueling. That’s how lazy I was.

Things were going well – my self-published titles were keeping me in coffee grounds and ink cartridges as planned, I’d established a sideline career as a public speaker and a major publishing house had invited me to do well-paid freelance work for them that tied in with what I was doing for myself already – but they weren’t going as well as I wanted them to go. No where near it.

I still hadn’t got a book deal and, crucially,  I still hadn’t finished the novel I hoped I’d get a book deal for.

Almost all of the writer friends I’ve made over the last few years are now published writer friends. For a while there it felt like every single person I knew had a book deal. (Except me.) But whenever good news broke, I had to acknowledge that the person it was about was a person who worked a lot harder than me. Maybe they’d been getting up at 4:30am for well over a year now, to write before work. Maybe they’d been staying up until 4:30am because they couldn’t write during the day in a house full of kids. Maybe none of us had seen them in forever because every spare minute was spent adding to their WIP’s word count. They got what they wanted because they deserved it. They’d worked as hard as they possibly could.

Ricky Gervais has said that The Office was the first thing in his life he ever really worked hard at. I often wondered what would happen if I worked as hard as I could. My brother acts, and often he and I would say it aloud to one another: what could happen if we worked as hard as we possibly could?

In the end, I forced my own hand. I applied to do a four-year BA in English as a mature student, a move that would require a move to Dublin from Cork. I didn’t expect to get in so when I did, it suddenly meant that my novel had to get finished now, before the luxury of spare time completely disappeared. I got an agent during my first mid-term break, so I had to do a rewrite during term-time alongside all my classes, getting through my reading list, keeping up my freelance work and sleeping and eating and all that. Even my beloved TV fell by the wayside, and I didn’t read anything for pleasure for almost nine months. Actual sacrifices were made as opposed to me just “being busy”.

It was completely and utterly exhausting – after I delivered my rewrites I instantaneously developed a horrific flu and went to bed with Netflix for three days straight – but it was also exhilarating. Mostly because I knew it was going to lead somewhere, because I knew I was working as hard as I possibly could. I always thought I loved wasting time – Sweatpants & Sofa Time, to be specific – but it turns out I feel infinitely happier when I’m not wasting any time at all.

I also felt a seismic shift in how I approached my writing. Before, I’d have taken out my diary and looked for the blank spaces in which I could fit some writing time. Now, all time was writing time by default and everything else that I absolutely had to do – and only the things I absolutely had to do – would be squeezed in around it.

The most (pleasantly) surprising thing was the momentum that builds when you work like that. It got easier and easier to sit down at my desk and get going every day. I went from refusing to do anything unless I had a whole, clear afternoon, to scribbling sentences while the kettle boiled.

I have another crazy (academic) year ahead of me now: I have to deliver Book 2 by April, Book 1 comes out in June and I’m into the second year of my degree with its lecture schedule, reading list, essay assignments and, just after Book 2’s delivery date, exams. But now that I equate success with working as hard as I possibly can – and not a smidgen less – I don’t think I’d have it any other way.

What could happen if you worked as hard as you possibly could? What already has?

What do you think? Do you agree/disagree? How can you tell if you’re just doing hard work, or working hard? What’s the difference? Let me know in the comments below… 

(The featured image is of my Erin Condren Life Planner, which has changed my stationery-addict life. Find out more about her amazing products here.)


Something Nice from Nice

I’m in Nice.

If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you’ll know that this isn’t my first time in Nice. For 6-8 weeks every Autumn for three years beginning in 2011 – I’ll give you a moment to catch your breath after that weird sentence construction – I came here, supposedly, to write. That sounds very decadent, I know, but I was living with my parents at the time and had no real financial responsibilities. (Now I have rent to pay in Dublin “The Rent On This Telephone Box Will Make Your Eyes Water” City and university fees to cover, so it all balances out.) Plus the work I was doing was freelance, so all I needed to do it was a laptop and an internet connection. 


In 2009, I’d rented a somewhat isolated holiday home near the sea in East Cork for a six week period that started in October. It rained most days. At night, high winds rattled the windows. I don’t drive – I never did get around to learning to drive on this side of the Atlantic – and so if I wanted to see other humans, it involved a walk of about 20 minutes to the nearest shop and back again. In the rain and wind. If I was feeling very energetic the beach was about 45 minutes away and, if I was suddenly gripped by the need to be social, there was a hotel at the other end of the strand where one could sit at a nice table by the window and have a proper coffee. While looking at out at the grey skies, grey sea, wind and rain.

There was no internet in the house, only three or four channels that weren’t Static TV. (That was the year I really got into Strictly. Those couple of hours on a Saturday evening were the only time the house felt alive.) By the end of the six weeks I had written a first draft of a novel from scratch, but I also was muttering to myself and hoarding plastic bags.

A couple of years passed and somehow in the box room of my parents’ house, a house filled with other adults and at times, children too, and with my sister’s music playing on the other side of the wall and the TV on downstairs and conversations going on everywhere – somehow – I hadn’t been able to recreate the productivity I’d had in the House Not Quite By the Sea. But there was no way I could survive another six weeks there; I’d definitely have stray cats clustered at my feet by the end of a second stint. So I started thinking: where else could I rent an off-season holiday home?

I’d never been to Nice but my family had been a few times. I knew it was sunny and by the sea and was a city but also had a gorgeous promenade and, hey, good coffee and France. I did some searching online and found an apartment that, when you did the sums, was not that much more per week than the House Not Quite By the Sea. I’d arrive in October and leave at the end of November; it’d be cold, but who cared. I’d spend as little as possible while I was there by walking wherever and whenever I could, limiting my cafe coffees to two per day and dining on meals of soup (less than a euro per packet) with fresh, crusty baguettes. Because I’d be there alone, I wouldn’t be going out at night either, spending my evenings reading instead.  It would be perfect.

So I booked it and off I went.

And then I did it again the following year, and again the year after that.


Now, I have to be honest. Did I crap out three first drafts – or three any kind of drafts – during those three Nice stints? Hell no. I have basically nothing to show for them word count-wise. The first year I pretty much spent my time exploring Nice and the other towns along the coast. The second year I dragged a second suitcase that was just full of books and worked my way through them at various spots on the beach. The third year – because I sensed it would be my last, having applied to university – I did a little bit of both, plus I discovered that all the TV show DVD box-sets in the Virgin Megastore on Jean Médecin had – of course – their original English audio in the options menu.

Also, no one wants to come visit when you are in a cold, weird house by the Irish Sea in autumn which in Ireland is no different to winter, really, but everyone wants to come visit when you are on the French Rivera. On top of that, the apartment was a dream. It was big and it was bright and in the morning the living room was filled with golden sun, and all I had to do was make my coffee – in the Nespresso machine – and open the French doors and take it out onto the balcony, which was planted with enough basil to open a pesto store, and sit there and sip and think about how lucky I was and wonder how did I swing a life like this, eh?

But despite the scant word count, it was so worth spending that time in Nice.


On a practical level, Nice features in Distress Signals because that’s one of the places where the Celebrate, my fictional cruise ship, stops, and a couple of my characters spend a day there. So it was research, okay? (Don’t answer that.) I also kept a little pink notebook with me at all times, writing down any ideas or snippets of ideas that came into my head while I was doing Nice-y things (sitting on the beach, walking the Prom, etc.) and when the time came to start writing my book in earnest, I found some gems in there. I came up with the book’s biggest twists while sitting on Nice’s famous pebble beach with Nice’s famous pebbles digging uncomfortably into the flesh of my arse.

But here’s where I really got my money’s worth: the alone time. When you are alone – when you away from all the voices in your life – you get into a zone where you can start to believe in yourself. Your daydreams start to look like achievable goals, because there’s no one around to argue with you, to contradict you. No one to say that maybe you should downsize and reach for treetops instead of the stars.

(I remember clearly having a moment of realizing this back when I lived in Florida. The ESA had advertised for volunteers to participate an experiment that would simulate an 18-month mission to Mars, and I thought it’d be a great idea to apply. What happened next was… Nothing. No one said anything. No one tried to deter me. No one laughed. It was like shouting into a deep cave and getting no echo. It was disconcerting until I realized what the feeling was: expecting someone or someones to start talking me out of it. In Florida, no one did.) 

And sometimes dreams need that kind of space to grow, a chance to set down roots and grow strong before you have to start defending them to everyone else.

Every year I came here to Nice, I was on a seriously limited budget. One of my favorite things to do was to walk through the Old Town early in the morning. The Cours Selaya has a famous flower market most mornings, and there was a cafe that would sell me a reasonably priced coffee that offered a great people-watching spot. Up a narrow little street from it was a shop called Transparency that sold tiny models of things set in acrylic cubes. (Never let me write auction house or art gallery catalogue descriptions, will you?)


I’d gazed adoringly in their window whenever I passed and tried to limit the times I went in because I’d only be a time-waster for the sales clerk on duty. My favorite piece was a small cube of acrylic, essentially a paperweight, in which a tiny model of one of NIce’s famous blue deck-chairs – the symbol of Nice – had been set. It was a beautiful piece. Depending on how you looked at it, there could be one chair or more than you could count. If I brought it home, it would be a gorgeous addition to my desk and a constant reminder of the sunny days I’d spent in Nice. Unfortunately it was €40, or as much as a week of baguettes and cafe coffees. My budget was so tight I couldn’t justify it. I whispered to myself that one day, when I got a book deal, I’d come back and buy it.

I could say “when” because there was no one around to correct me, no one to talk me down from the moon, no one to suggest that maybe saying “if” would be more appropriate.

About five and a half years ago I started this blog, in which I declared that my goal was to get published. I remember wondering what would happen if that never happened – the sting of public humiliation, the internet record of my failing. How long would I keep up the blog, if self-publishing didn’t work and I couldn’t even finish my novel? 

Well, yesterday, I bought my little blue chair cube. I don’t want to get all Jimmy MacElroy but… 

Picture 2

What do you think about aiming high? Do you dream of reaching the moon, or do you temper your goals with reality? Which do you think is the best approach? Let me know in the comments below! 


How Many Drafts Did You Do Of Your Book?

“How many drafts did you do of your book?”

In between getting a book deal and being able to tell people I got a book deal, I went to an event at Dun Laoghaire’s Mountains to Sea festival where an audience member asked Paula Hawkins, superstar author of The Girl on the Train, this very question. On hearing it, I rolled my eyes and groaned about it to my company for the evening (who rolled her eyes at my groaning), even though it wasn’t that long ago that I sat in the audience at writerly events and asked the very same thing of published authors myself.

Why the eye-rolling? Because I don’t believe the guy who asked wanted to know how many drafts Hawkins had done of her book. What he really wanted to know was how many drafts of his book he’d have to do – minimum – before his publication dreams came true, before his debut hit 2 million copies sold in the space of a few months (selling at a rate of one every 18 seconds, apparently), became the “recommended” book in the Audible sponsor message on Serial and started being tweeted and Instagrammed about by the likes of Reese Witherspoon, Jennifer Aniston and Mindy Kahling.

What he really should’ve asked was “How many drafts did you have to do of your book?”

I know this because that’s what I wanted to know when I asked – or silently hoped someone else would ask – questions like  “How many drafts did you do of your book?” (See also: “Was your book finished when you submitted to an agent?” and “Do publishers make offers on partials?” and “How many words do you write a day?”) In his memoir We Can’t All Be Astronauts, Tim Clare despairs when a pair of friends emerge from a day spent at the London Book Fair with a deal for an idea they sketched out on a single sheet of A4 paper. We’ve all heard of ten-way auctions culminating in six-figure deals for three chapters and an outline, and I know of at least one publishing story that actually involves scribbles on a cocktail napkin. Sometimes the folklore of publishing edges very close to fabled Hollywood pitches, like the one where James Cameron says “Romeo and Juliet on the Titanic” to studio execs and gets a green light on the spot.

As a writer whose ratio of writing a novel to daydreaming about having a novel published was about 1:10, these stories were music to my ears. I collected them. Fixated on them. Turned to them for encouragement. Because I wanted the spoils, but I wasn’t prepared to do the hard work first. Not if I didn’t absolutely have to.

But boy, is it hard work. Distress Signals is almost ready for copy-editing and it’s taken a lot of work to get to this point. Here is a very long blog post to tell you just how much.

Beginnings (Autumn 2012-Spring 2013)

So you have an idea for a novel…

I don’t actually know how many times I wrote the start of the book that at this stage was called Dark Waters. Four or five times, at least. When I say “the start” I mean the opening chapters; I think the furthest I ever got was 10,000 words. I was trying to figure out how to write the book. Who would be the narrator? At what point would the story start? I have a folder on my computer full of these fragments, and very little of them – almost none of them, I’d say – made it into the final version. But I wouldn’t have got to the final version if I didn’t mess around with these aborted beginnings so much first.


Vomit Draft (Summer 2013)

The next major step in the process was a discovery draft. At least, that’s the professional-sounding name for it. In reality, it’s a vomit draft. You sit down and upchuck everything you know about the novel, filling in ideas for the bits you don’t know in between. By the time I sat down to do this, I’d spent the best part of two years kicking the idea around inside my head.

This was not a draft for anyone else’s eyes but mine, because it wasn’t a readable book. If I knew what was going to happen in a chapter, I simply wrote a summary of a sentence or two and then moved onto the next. The idea was to figure out what I didn’t know, so I skipped over the scenes I already had set in my mind. At the end of this I had about 50,000 words – but what I really had was the skeleton of the novel, the framework on which I’d build the book itself.


First Draft 1.0 (AUTUMN 2013 – SPRING 2014)

By spring of last year I was up to about 30,000 words of my first, proper, readable-by-other-people draft and, egged on by writing friends (Sheena and Hazel, I’m looking at you), I submitted the first three chapters and a synopsis to an agent. Now in my heart I knew that neither I nor the book was ready to be doing this, but at the same time I needed to do it, because I needed to take the plunge. I was trying to scale a mountain of fear and for months – years – I’d been standing at the base of it, looking up, paralyzed. I wasn’t ready to leave the world where I might possibly get everything I wanted and move to the land of reality checks just yet.

I got a rejection, which was devastating, but it was a very detailed and generous one that pointed out what I now realized was a glaring flaw in my main character’s story, a development that just didn’t ring true. I scrapped most of what I’d written and went back to the start again.

You may wonder about the logic of taking one person’s subjective opinion and changing your entire book because of it. Well, I knew she was right. I simply knew it. It caught in my gut. I knew the best thing to do was to change that element of the book.

First Draft 2.0 (Summer 2014)

So I re-started my first proper draft and this time got up to around about 50,000 words. Then I stalled. Not because I didn’t know what was to come next, but because life got in the way. I’d applied to go back to university as a mature student and in May, I found out I’d got in. This meant packing up my apartment in Cork, moving back in with my parents for a couple of months while I house-hunted in Dublin (a full-time job in itself) and then, hopefully, moving myself to Dublin once I found a place. Writing fell by the wayside.

In an effort to kick myself up the arse, I submitted to another agent. My thinking was once I pressed “SEND” I’d be gripped by a fear that she’d come back and request the full manuscript I didn’t yet have, and would therefore get it finished immediately. But of course that’s not what happened – life was still in the way, fear or no fear – and when she did request the full manuscript  nearly three months later, I still didn’t have it.

Imagine getting that e-mail.

I decided to pull the old “Sorry, I Was on Hols” trick, which was plausible considering that we were now into August. I cancelled everything and spent three weeks in a caffeine-fuelled haze, finishing the last 30,000 or so words of the book. Thankfully I was working from a detailed outline so I knew exactly what to write, but still, it was tough going. After a few days of re-reading, re-jigging and revising, I sent it off to the agent…

… who swiftly rejected it. But this time I didn’t listen to the criticisms that came with the (very nice) e-mail. Why? Because they didn’t catch in my gut. They didn’t stick. I didn’t think she was right. I thought that this was simply a case of this novel not being for her.

When I read over the novel again – this was a month after I’d finished it by now – I remember thinking, “Hmm. This is actually okay!” So now I still didn’t have an agent, but I did have a finished book I was happy with.

This being the first time in the process I had a full manuscript I felt confident about, I decided to go all in on the agent thing and do a simultaneous submission to my ultimate agent wish list. Two of them offered representation and at the very end of October I signed with Jane Gregory – who I almost hadn’t bothered submitting to, because I thought the odds were so fantastical.

photo 2-7

Second Draft (Winter 2015)

Gregory and Company can spend up to two years working with a debut author before their novel goes out to publishers, so I knew that now the real work would start. It was time to do a re-write of the Novel Formerly Known as Dark Waters Now Known as Adrift with Stephanie, Jane’s in-house editor extraordinaire.

I think this was the most enjoyable part of the writing experience for me, because enough time had passed – we were into the New Year now – for me to be able to look at the novel afresh and, with Stephanie’s input, make it much better. There were no structural changes to do (plotting is my strong point, I think) but there was plenty to be done about my characterization (my weakest link). This was also an opportunity to layer in more complexity and to tighten all the nuts and bolts. I spent about 6-8 weeks on it, and then there was another week where I worked on the changes Stephanie suggested after I sent her back the draft, and then another couple of days for typos and addressing my favourite hobby, missing words. The manuscript grew to about 105,000 words in the process (up from 85,000).

Some writers don’t like being edited and although this will sound harsh, I’m not sure if those writers really know what writing is about. Being edited is absolutely wonderful. It’s like one-on-one tutoring in how to make your book better – and not just this book, but every future book you’ll ever write. A good editor doesn’t tell you what to do – they’ll just point you in the direction of where the potential problems lie. It’s up to you to figure out how to fix them. But amazing things happen along the way. New ideas. Better ideas. A better book, by far.

It was difficult time-wise because I was in university by now and re-writing when I should’ve been writing my last two essay assignments and starting to study for my exams, and the moment I finished it I spontaneously developed the world’s worst flu. You can read more about what happened next here.

Third Draft (Summer 2015)

Now for the scary bit: the first edit with Sara, my editor at Corvus (Atlantic). The novel was now called Distress Signals. When I first met her in London we talked about some of the things she thought needed reworking, and again, I agreed with them all. I knew she was right. But when the marked-up manuscript arrived in the door with lines through some of my favourite sections, my palms started to sweat.

It was soon obvious that the entire third quarter of the book needed to be rewritten. I’d given my readers a breather half-way through, much like the moment in a horror movie when the sun comes up after a horrific night of terror. But what I’d actually done is bring the narrative drive to a halt, to slow the pace to a crawl after spending 50,000 words working to crank it up. Elsewhere I needed to dump a few research dumps, and there was more work to be done on characterization.

But, again, I really enjoyed the process. Who wouldn’t enjoy making their book better? It’s like the first draft is the cupcakes and editing is the icing and decorating bit. It’s the fun bit. The hardest part is done. Now you get to make things look pretty. (This analogy doesn’t go the distance, does it? But you know what I mean.) By the end of it I was really, really proud of my book – and still in love with it, crucially.

If I can give you one piece of advice it’s to write a book you are madly in love with, because that love is going to need to last a long, loooooong time. It’s going to have to be stronger than your desire to start a bonfire when you’re reading it for the 53rd time.

Last week I heard that my editor loves the changes and the rewriting is over. We just have some line editing to do on the new sections and then Distress Signals will be off to the copyeditor.

That’s how many drafts I had to do of my book.

What next? Oh, just the little matter of doing this all over again with Book 2.

More coffee, please.

 * * * * *



Since I got a book deal, the most common question I’ve been asked is why the book isn’t coming out for a year. The next most common question is how in the name of the fudge I’m going to squeeze the writing of a whole book into the time between now and next April, when – as evidenced by this thesis of a blog post – it took me approximately five times that to write the one I’ve just finished. (Darling, let me tell you: we’re both dying to know the answer to that). So between now and next summer, I’m going to do a monthly series called Book One/Two, where I update you on the publishing process and my attempts at doing this all over again. Consider this the prologue. I’ll hope you’ll stick around for the rest! 

UPDATE 17th August: Oh my, Freshly Pressed! Thank you so much, Freshly Pressed Elves. This is, somehow, the third time I’ve been FP’d. (Whaa…?) If you’d like to read the other two, they were Why, For Me, Print Will Never Be Extinct and Self-Publishing? Read This First.

A Short Story About Scarpetta

I’m heading to the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate tomorrow morning (for the first time ever and feeling a bit like the new girl who switches schools half way through term and has to walk into a class where she doesn’t know anyone!) so this evening, while I procrastinate instead of pack, I thought I’d share with you a story about my introduction to crime (writing): Kay Scarpetta and the woman who invented her, Patricia Cornwell.


One Christmas, back when I was (I think) either 12 or 13 (ish), a friend of mine lent me her older brother’s Patricia Cornwell paperbacks. Now, I’m not sure if she leant me one and then I bought the others, or if she lent me the whole lot and I just never gave any of them back – in fact, the more I think about this entire incident, the fewer tangible details I can recall – but I do know that several nights in a row, over the school holidays,  I stayed up reading until three or four in the morning because I couldn’t sleep until I got to THE END.

Now I’m sure I’d read other crime novels before that but there was something about Cornwell and her central character, Kay Scarpetta, that moved me from mild interest to totally obsessed. The feisty women, the high-octane plots, the autopsies (ewwww), the pristine house (I STILL want my own mud room and totally OTT home security system) and the detours into highly descriptive Italian cooking sessions (???) – I loved it all. (I never quite understood why a medical examiner would be out in the field investigating crimes, but anyway…) They would be my gateway drug into Harlan Coben, Michael Connelly, Karin Slaughter, Gillian Flynn (I was reading her long before Gone Girl was a blinking cursor on her computer screen HASHTAG SMUG), and all the other amazing crime/thriller fiction writers whose books I devour today.

Last August I finished my own thriller and when it came time to write the all important cover letter, I mentioned that Cornwell was my introduction to the genre:

Crime/thriller novels have been my reading passion ever since a friend’s older brother irresponsibly let me borrow his collection of Patricia Cornwell paperbacks when I was 12 and, if my apartment spontaneously burst into flames right now, my ‘grab’ item would be my limited-to-200-edition, numbered, gold-edged, slip-cased, red leather-bound copy of Nine Dragons that Michael Connelly personally inscribed to me as a competition prize. (Safe in the knowledge that my MS has been saved to Dropbox, mind you.)

Flash-forward now to the beginning of April this year. My superagent, Jane Gregory, has got me a 2-book deal with Corvus, an imprint of Atlantic Books, and although I’m not allowed tell everyone yet, I have told a few someones: my writing friends. A gang of us go out to dinner to celebrate in Jamie’s Italian in Dundrum. There’s five of us setting at the table – all either published or about to be – and three of us write crime while a fourth says she doesn’t but there’s a dead body in her book. (Although I’ve stopped saying she’s written crime because it’s starting to really annoy her, I think.)

(But it IS.)


So the waiter arrives at our table to take our drink order, and we decide to order a bottle of wine. (Good decision.) Everyone elects me to choose which one. (Bad decision. I only started drinking wine in the last year – I actually started drinking it at the Irish Book Awards when I turned to Hazel Gaynor and uttered the immortal line, “How winey is that wine?” – and all I know about it is whether it’s white or red.) The waiter eventually steps in and says he’ll pick a wine for us, tells us nothing about his decision and then disappears to go get it.

This is what he brought back:


Naturally, the table erupted. I couldn’t believe it, and I still can’t believe it now. (And no, the waiter knew nothing about who we were, what we did, why we were there or what we were celebrating.) Isn’t that amazing? I mean, what are the chances?

(And it was quite nice, by the way. If anyone knows where outside of Jamie’s Italian you can buy it, do let me know.)

I’m hoping it’s a good omen for the adventures ahead…

I finally caved and joined Instagram. Follow me there and on Twitter for updates from Harrogate and if you’re in Harrogate too, come and say hi! 

Side note: reading this back, you can tell that I’ve had a LOT of coffee today and that I cleaned out my talent for writing words more good getting the latest draft of Distress Signals done last week, can’t you?

Let’s Talk About Self-Publishing. In Dublin. Next Weekend.

(I know, I know – a blog post that’s not about The News. Surprise!)


Next weekend, the Books Go Social Writers Conference takes place in Dublin. It promises to be an action-packed weekend with multiple “streams” or options for attendees to choose from, with topics ranging from how to get published to exploring in depth how to write a story that other people will want to read in the first place. There’s also a dinner for all speakers and attendees on the Saturday night, and the weekend will also offer some time to explore the city of Dublin.

I’ll be there on the Saturday afternoon talking about The Business of Self-Publishing.

You can find out more about the conference here.


(Being) On Submission Syndrome

I know it’s only been five minutes since I last mentioned it, but I got a book deal. In true Publishing “Hurry Up and Wait” Industry style, it happened in a flash after a couple of decades of waiting for it to. The offer from Corvus came just six days short of Mousetrapped‘s five year anniversary – I self-published Mousetrapped on Monday 29th March 2010; the offer was made on Monday 23rd March 2015 – and only five days passed between my agent sending my novel out to publishers and an offer coming back. (The moral of that story? Finish your damn book.) This was a good thing, because I did not take being on submission well…

DAY 1: Thursday 12th March 2015

I send the final, final, FINAL (for now) version of the book back to my agent’s in-house editor extraordinaire, Stephanie. Instantaneously I develop a host of flu-like symptoms, including but not limited to: headache, chills, sinus pressure, sore throat, cough, general feeling that death is imminent. I crawl into bed with Netflix and sleep for fifteen hours.

DAY 2: Friday 13th March 2015

I e-mail my agent, trying to be as breezy and casual as I possibly can be, trying to find out if I’m already out on submission or if that horror is ahead of me yet. In other words: should I have already assumed the foetal position on the floor alongside my phone, or can that wait until Monday?

Think Crocs with socks, in a tornado. I am that breezy and casual. “So,” I type, “just, like, whenever you have a chance – no rush! – could you, like, maybe possibly potentially just give me a quick update on what happens next? BUT LIKE I DON’T EVEN CARE. Laters.”

Day 3: Saturday 14th March 2015

No response. It’s the weekend.

Day 4: Sunday 15th March 2015

No response because it’s still the weekend.

Day 5: Monday 16th March 2015

I’ve been in bed for weeks, it feels like, because it’s difficult to fall asleep when you’re anywhere else and sleep is the only respite I have from wondering which way I will fall off this precipice: into my dreams (an offer!) or into disaster (thanks but no thanks).

It’s the day before Patrick’s Day – which is falling on a Tuesday this year – so in Ireland, it’s unofficially an extension of the weekend. No one is doing anything, including me. I decide not to leave my sick-on-submission bed for college, and sleep more instead.


Day 6: Tuesday 17th March 2015

News breaks of a colossal book deal that a female writer in the UK has signed, a female writer who I’m sure is lovely and talented and works harder than me, but who this morning I can feel nothing for except stone cold hatred and contempt, seasoned liberally with jealousy. But her book sounds really intriguing and I say so on Twitter. The publicist tweets me that it IS really intriguing and says he’ll send me a proof when it comes out. DOES THIS MEAN SOMETHING?

I venture outside, just to check it’s still there. I do this about half an hour before Dublin’s Patrick’s Day parade starts and therefore I encounter strings of tour buses and people from other countries wearing leprechaun hats. I go back inside.

I sit on the sofa, eying the bed.

I get back into bed.

Day 7: Wednesday 18th March 2015

I’ve made a doctor’s appointment for 9:00am so that I (a)  might score some antibiotics and (b) am forced to get out of The Bed and keep going, further, until I’m out of the house.

It turns out to be a gorgeous sunny spring morning, fresh and warm with blue skies, and I am hemorrhaging positivity (that’s a thing, right?) as I skip down the street, light-headed from the oxygen. The doctor refuses to give me any drugs but that’s totally fine, because while I’m in the doctor’s surgery I forget for a whole twenty minutes about my Gmail account and when I remember it again – GASP! – there’s an e-mail from The Agent…


… that says sorry for the delay in replying, but all is well and she’ll be sending out a short description of The Book to a number of editors later today. Which means I’ve spent a whole week of my life fixating on something that wasn’t actually happening yet. But I have learned a valuable lesson.

Well, I’m sure I have. I’ll realize what it is eventually.

So now we’re back to:

Day 1 (for realsies, this time): Thursday 19th March 2015

Between finishing the book and then being horribly diseased, I feel like I haven’t been at college much lately. Even when I was there, my mind wasn’t really. Today is my first post-rewrite, post-post-rewrite-flu day back and I have a busy schedule of lectures and tutorials and catching up with college friends to do. It’s another gorgeous sunny day and as I sit in the sun off Dawson Street sipping a flat white, it occurs to me that I’m feeling great.

So great that I only check my phone, like, 3,051 times during business hours.

Day 2: Friday 20th March 2015

I have two essays due in 6 days, so I better start them, eh? I spend the solar eclipse in the library reading about the symbolism of curtains in Dubliners.

That evening I head out to Dun Laoghaire to the Mountains to Sea festival, to see crime writing stars SJ Watson and Paula Hawkins in conversation with Sinead Crowley (also a crime writer) with my friend Sheena (also a writer whose novel The Lake opens with the discovery of a dead body). Not the ideal way to take my mind off being on submission, it turns out.

Day 3: Saturday 21st March 2015

Turns out it’s near impossible to resist stalking editors on Twitter who you suspect have been contacted about your book. Wait, she says she’s reading something she’s enjoying? WHAT DOES THAT MEAN? Could it be my book? How much praise is “enjoying”? Is that like pre-empt enjoying, or thanks but no thanks enjoying? What if –

Oh, it was just a magazine article about Paris. Unless… Is that a clue that she really meant my book but can’t just come and say so because it’d be inappropriate at this tentative negotiation stage? Does “Paris” really mean “Catherine’s book”? Is it CODE? Is she trying to communicate with me over the medium of Twitter? Or –

Oh. She’s not even at work. She’s on maternity leave.



[Wakes up briefly]

[Turns over]

[Sleeps more]


This morning, I have a stern talk with myself. I remind me that it could be weeks before I hear anything – my agent warned that it would be – and when I do, it could be less than amazing news. I need to move on.

Or at least I need to pretend that I’m moving on.

I get up early and do some work on one of the two essays that are due now in approximately 98 hours. My plan for the day is hectic compared to what I’ve been up to since I started suffering from On Submission Syndrome: I have a Romanticism lecture at 2pm and am meeting writing friends – Hazel and the aforementioned Sheena – at Le Petit Parisien at three. We’re meeting to celebrate the fact that Hazel won the Historical Fiction category at the RNA awards a few days before, and the publication of Sheena’s The Lake.

But at exactly one minute to one o’clock, Monday 23rd March 2015 becomes all about ME.

Lecture smecture. I can’t possibly go to that now. Instead, I text Hazel and Sheena to tell them that I am now AN ONGOING SITUATION and to meet me at the cafe ASAP because OMG stuff is happening and I’m like WTF with the all caps and the acronyms.


I was about fifteen minutes from walking out the door when my phone rang with a UK country code.

Instantly I know: it’s my agent, Jane. My heartbeat starts thundering in my ears but I’m pretty calm, cool and collected when I speak to her. I actually miss her call – I don’t get to the phone in time – and I call her straight back without listening to her voicemail which will later tell me that there is “terrifyingly good news”.

I think she is calling with a general update – what else could it be? The book went out on Wednesday – so I’m not prepared at all when she says, “We have an offer.” Two books from Corvus, an imprint of Atlantic, and an advance that means I can be a student for the next three years without having to live off of Aldi’s instant noodles. With this, I’ll be able to dine on McDonnell’s Super Noodles instead. Major brand noodles instead of own brand/generic.

Major brand noodles, people. Hooray!

One small thing: it’s a pre-empt and it has a 5pm deadline.

A pre-empt is basically an offer  that says, “We want this book and we don’t want anyone else to have the chance to make an offer for it too. We want it off the FOR SALE shelf, now.” It is not the opening bid in a potential auction, because if you say no at deadline time, the offer doesn’t stand. It will definitely drop significantly – the Super Noodles would be gone and I’d be back to those mystery noodles in Tesco’s Everyday Value range that are so cheap (12c a pack! Whaaa….?) I’m not entirely convinced they can be a foodstuff – or it might go away altogether.

You know that sequence in 24 that plays on either side of a commercial break? The beep… beep … beep… of the ticking clock that speeds up until it’s more like beep-beep-beep-beep-beep-beep-beep? That’s what my afternoon was like that day. As I said I skipped the lecture, heading straight for Le Petit Parisien, where Sheena had thankfully dashed to a bit early so we could sit drinking coffee and staring at my phone together, waiting for my agent to ring back. Hazel eventually arrived too.

We did this for three hours. I forget how many coffees I had.




Beep beep beep beep beep beep beep beep beep beep beep beep beep beep beep beep.

We waited while Jane got more information, which she called me at about a minute to five to relay. Everything she came back with sounded like good news.

The editor, Sara, seemed to be incredibly enthusiastic, as shown by her coming back with a pre-empt just five days after the book went out. (My agent said it was the fastest deal she’d ever done.) Now I’ve had a foot in the publishing industry for the last three years or so and knew way more than I needed to about it before that, and what I’ve learned is that enthusiasm is everything. It can be hard to maintain through the long process of a publishing contract – for both sides – and so if you don’t start with oodles of it, you’re destined to be short of it later on.

So, on Wicklow Street, standing outside the cafe with my phone to my ear smelling the lovely stuff on offer in L’Occitane next door, I told Jane to accept the offer.

I know I’m incredibly lucky to have to suffer through only five days of being on submission – and for it to end in a deal – but that’s just as well, because it turns out that five days of being on submission is about all I could take!

The featured image is a view from the famous promenade in Nice, France. I love it there, and have spent many an hour sitting on benches like the one pictured, sunning myself and reading great books. It makes me feel the opposite of how being on submission felt. 

... and not enough of this.

HOW To Finish Your Damn Book

At the beginning of this year I wrote a post for that treasure trove of writing and publishing information, Writing.ie, about why you should finish your damn book. You can read that post here. It proved really popular. So popular that it seems to me like a lot of you are in the same place I was until last summer: wanting nothing more than to have finished your book, but finding yourself doing everything but writing it.

It’s all well and good for me to tell you why you should finish your book (nutshell: a finished book is the one thing everyone who ever got published/successfully self-published has in common) but how do you do it? How do you overcome procrastination? How do you finish your damn book?

I only know what worked for me, but maybe you’ll find something in there that works for you. Let’s see…

1. Reality check: do you really WANT to write this book?

For about two years a few years ago, I was trying to write the book that I thought would get me published, not realizing that this was also the kind of book I didn’t want to read. I had plenty of ideas, a plot outline, a killer title – but every time I sat down to add to my word count, it was like getting blood from a stone. That’s okay, I told myself. Writing is supposed to be hard. When I finally realized I was trying to type my way up the wrong tree and switched to writing the kind of book I loved to read – a serial killer thriller – there was practically an audible click.

Writing the wrong book, I’d begin a chapter by thinking Okay: 1,500 words. What can happen here that will take that to unfold? I was stretching out my plot points, trying to fill the virtual white pages with “set pieces” that would take me from one event to the next. But writing the right book, that became Okay: 1,500 words. How am I going to squeeze everything that happens at this point into that? I always knew what was going to happen next and in writing it, it was a case of even more ideas popping up during the process, rather than having to milk the few I had for more than they were worth.

That’s not to say that the book [eye roll] “flowed out” of me, as I’ve heard other writers say/lie. There were still struggles, still many non-productive days. But nothing as bad as when I wasn’t writing the right book, when I wasn’t writing the book I wanted to read.

Before you commit to this, check you’re trying to finish the right damn book.


This doesn’t suit everyone, but I couldn’t even attempt a novel without having some sort of plan.  It doesn’t have to be detailed, but a few signposts along the way will take the pressure off. Think about it: how does it feel to have to work your way from 0 to 100,000 words (your beginning to your ending) compared to working your way from 0 to 25,000 words (your beginning to your break into Act II) or even 0 to 5,000 words (your beginning to your catalyst/inciting incident)?

(These word counts are just examples, by the way. You can put your plot points wherever you like.)

Making a plan also avoids having to cross the wasteland of the Dreaded Middle. When we get novel ideas, they usually come with a beginning and an end. But what happens in between? How do we ensure that our middle doesn’t sag, it being the place that’s most likely to? I think a few signposts or tentpoles will really help to lead the way and curtail any aimless wandering.

You could have, just for example:

  • Beginning
  • Set-up
  • Inciting incident (that sends main character off on journey)
  • Start of B story
  • Midpoint – what happens half-way through your story that changes everything and/or significantly ramps up the tension/raises the stakes? If you even just had this along with a beginning and an end, you’d make things so much easier for yourself
  • “Dark Night of the Soul” to use Snyder’s term (see below) – the lowest point for your character
  • Act III/finale
  • Ending

I recommend Save the Cat by Blake Snyder to everyone I know who writes commercial fiction. Yes, it’s a screenwriting book, but with a few tweaks it works wonders for commercial novel plotting too. Not only does it help you fill in the middle, but it shows you how to construct an incredibly satisfying story. It’s like Robert McKee’s Story, but a For Dummies version of it.

Are you shaking your head right now, dismayed at the notion of a storytelling formula? Get over yourself. This isn’t about formulae, but principles. You’d agree that every story has to have a beginning, middle and end, wouldn’t you? All that’s happening here is that we’re examining what happens between those three points. As Snyder says (and this is another paraphrase), when you know the principles of storytelling you have a framework that you can set down on top of your novel idea to check for holes. It’s not giving you a story or telling you how to make one up – it’s a stress test, a checklist that can determine whether or not the story you have has structural integrity and if it doesn’t, where the strengthening work needs to go.

Finishing your damn book will be a lot easier when you can break it up into smaller, manageable pieces.

3. the Entertainment Business

I had an epiphany while reading Rachel Aaron’s shot of motivation to the writer’s heart/e-book, 2k to 10k: Writing Faster, Writing Better and Writing More of What You Love (99p on Amazon): I’m in the entertainment business. What I’m trying to create is, above all else, entertainment.

I’m with Harlan Coben, quoted in The Guardian back in 2007:

Screen Shot 2015-04-15 at 11.46.48

Aaron talks about how, reflecting on her process, writing seemed to be at its easiest and most enjoyable when she came to write the scenes she loved, the ones she’d conceived of first, the pieces of the book she wrote the rest of it to get to. When she got in the zone, writing her book became almost like reading it. She wondered: shouldn’t it be like that all the time? If your goal is to entertain readers, isn’t there something wrong if you, the writer, can’t keep yourself entertained with your own book? Shouldn’t a scene that’s a drudge for you to write sound an alarm bell?

Honestly, this idea freed me.

First of all I stopped worrying about fancy sentences and evocative language. (When I read my favourite scribe, Sir Michael Connelly, I never notice the language. It’s like a translucent membrane; I see through it to the story. It’s like the page and the words on it don’t exist, but Bosch and his LA do, fully. To me, that takes far more skill to produce than a certain literary writer who spends a whole day at his desk perfecting just the one sentence, writing it over and over until it’s good enough for him to turn around and type it into the computer on his other side…) From them on, I just had one goal: work out/get down the story. I could move much quicker this way.

Secondly, I stopped at the beginning of every chapter to ask myself how I could write it in the most entertaining way possible, a way that would be fun for me to create as well as keep any eventual reader turning the pages. I didn’t start until I could answer that and if I couldn’t, I scrapped the chapter altogether. This way, there were no “duds”. No chapters I had to trudge through to get Mr X from A to B.

I also got into the habit of ending each chapter with a line that (hopefully) forced the reader to push onto the next (the “just one more chapter” syndrome I suffer from as a reader, usually late at night), and deciding on that line at the beginning. This was really excellent motivation to finish the chapter sooner rather than later, because I knew where I was going and I was dying to get to that killer line, partly so I could slap the desk and say “BOOM!” which is what I like to do when I’m overly pleased with myself at the end of a chapter… (Don’t tell anyone.)

It’ll be easier to finish the damn book if you are enjoying the process. If you’re not entertained by your story, what are the chances readers will be?

4. stage your own NANOWRIMO

Early this year I discovered that it’s infinitely easier to commit to finishing a project by pulling out all the stops for a short, intense period of time than it is to say, commit to getting up at the crack of dawn every morning for a year so you can get 500 words down before your real life begins. It’s easier to sustain motivation, it’s easier to keep your novel in your head and when you are really going at it, writing whenever you can, after a few days you don’t even need motivation anymore because the book takes over.

I went from telling myself that there was no point in even starting anything because I only had a free hour to sitting down at my desk even if I only had ten minutes. (This from the girl who once upon a time believed that if you hadn’t started your writing day by 10:00am, you might as well wait until tomorrow.) It’s also easier to forgo socializing, appointments, human interaction, etc. for 4-6 weeks than it is to resist invitations to fun for months or years.

You will have to make sacrifices. This is something I don’t think I truly understood until I had six weeks earlier this year in which to re-write my novel, alongside being in university full-time and having freelance work to keep up so I could pay my rent too. For me, this meant doing nothing else except writing, working, being at university and sleeping – and I did a lot less sleeping than I usually do. It was hard and I had to push myself, but it was doable because I knew it was for a limited amount of time.

Be realistic about the phrase “I don’t have time.” Is that really true? You don’t have time to do the thing you want to do most in the world? You have to find it. Don’t be like the participant on a weight loss show that aired in Ireland last year who threw a strop at having to prepare healthy meals because it was sooooo time-consuming and she was sooooo busy – the same woman who, before she embarked on the programme, managed somehow to find the time to drink an entire bottle of red wine in front of the TV every night.

Practical tip: clean your entire house and cook up lots of things that can be frozen before you begin, so you have as few distractions as possible. It also helps to tell everyone what you’re doing. It makes it easier for you to say no to invitations, ignore phone calls and e-mails, etc. but it also gives you a bit of accountability.

It may be easier to press “pause” on life so you can finish your damn book in a matter of weeks, rather than trying to fit in and keep up a daily writing routine for months or years. 

5. Don’t read over what you’ve written

Again this may not work for everyone and I know there are those who like to edit as they go, but editing as you go was why I didn’t get past 10,000 words for more than a year. You just have to keep going. Stop mid-sentence so you can pick right up when you left off the next time you sit down at your desk. Resist the urge to edit. You’ll edit in the next draft.

At the same time, write the best chapters you possibly can – but in terms of what happens in them, not necessarily the line-by-line language. (If that makes sense.) Think of how professional editing works: it starts with structural things, and only then moves into the language. You should work the same way, I think,  especially if you are writing a first draft.

I really couldn’t resist this for a long time, until I hit upon an idea: print out your book as you go. Every time you get to the end of a scene or chapter, hit PRINT and then put the pages in a pile to one side. Far away enough so you can’t read it, but close enough so you can be reminded of your progress.

Speaking of progress, charts are your friend. Make a big one in which you can write the number of words you wrote per day, or use a calendar. Sometimes you’ll stay at your desk just because you can’t face writing ’29’ in the box for today, trust me.

It’s easier to keep moving forward when you don’t stop to look back. 

* * * * *

So there you go. Sorry this post is so long but I have my first lot of end of year exams coming up, so I just don’t have the time to blog as much as I’d like. A long post whenever I do hopefully makes up for this.

Also: look! I changed my blog. Catherine is still caffeinated but this pile of HTML bricks is just catherineryanhoward.com now, and the pink is more an accent colour than a drowning depth of candy floss. There’s been some reorganization too. What do you think?

Have you managed to finish your damn book? Tell us how you did it in the comments below.

You might also be interested in this post I recently wrote for Writing.ie: Should You Be Best Friends with a Writer, Daahling?