I never imagined being a writer. I didn’t staple paper together when I was 6 and write stories about fairies that lived at the bottom of the garden, I didn’t while away time as a teenager writing angsty novels about loving and losing. Ok, I wrote some really, really awful poetry for a while which I think my ex boyfriend still has and hopefully won’t ever put on ebay. When I was about eight I was asked to write a story about an invention — any invention that I could think of — and the page stayed blank. When I was eighteen my English teacher told me not to bother applying to read English at university.
I did write other things despite these early warnings to take up maths instead; diaries, newsletters, amusing emails to friends, love letters (sent and unsent), an early blog at the start of the century, countless essays about the Renaissance, the resistance and neo-realist cinema, and then, once I started work, I wrote millions of words of wildly creative nonsense in the form of funding reports and applications to government for large amounts of money.
I honed my creative writing on the battlefield of the British voluntary sector. And I won a lot. Anyway, the point is I never really aspired to be a writer, other than that vague notion in the back of my head to one day write a book which I think I shared with 99% of the population. Just one of those things I thought would be cool to do but which I would probably never get around to.
Then in 2009 I got tired of working and living in London and my husband John and I decided that we’d pack up our lives and head off around the world with our then 3 year old daughter to find a new place to live (as one does). Our decision to cut all ties, quit our jobs, and step into the great unknown transformed our lives and we’ve never had a single regret. We both consider it to be the best thing we ever did. We look back now (from the balcony of our house overlooking the rice paddies in Bali) and grin to each other at how one small decision (I quit) set us on a new, incredible pathway and threw open the doors to outrageous potential. No more 9-5, no more grind, no more commute. No more certainty or security either (though I’m learning that both those things are illusions anyway), and that’s a small price to pay for the kind of life we enjoy now.
About the time we were planning our round the world route I started having panic attacks about what I’d do for money, having no discernible skills whatsoever. I was swimming one day and this was my thought process, right, gotta earn some money, or I’m screwed, so now, who’s rich? Richard Branson, but he’s a workaholic, oooh Stephanie Meyer, she’s rich and all for writing about vampires with angsty faces and quiffy hair, right I’m going to write a book.
And that, really, is the first part of my story.
By the time I’d swum twenty lengths I had the kernel of a story idea. Every time I got stuck I’d think ‘what if…’ and so the story expanded and evolved.
I started writing Hunting Lila in June. I wrote it naively, I wrote without really knowing what I was doing as is obvious by the final word count of my first draft (117,000 words — I had no clue that first novels in YA should run around 80K— didn’t even think to google it). I finished it in November and started editing it. Then I began sending out letters to agents in London whose names I’d culled from the Writers’ and Artists’ Handbook.
I was good at writing letters — that was something I’d honed through long practice in the work place. I sent out my submissions and then I headed off with a backpack to India. Most people find themselves in India, and I was no exception, in India I realized that I wanted to be a writer, that writing was no longer just a means to an end but something that I couldn’t imagine not doing, it was my passion. I’d have daydreams where I had to choose what limbs to lose and I’d make pacts with myself that I’d be fine if I had an accident so long as I was left with my head and my right arm. If I lost my right arm and could no longer write I felt like I would rather die.
I hit the beach in Goa and started writing again — this time the sequel to Hunting Lila. I didn’t have a book deal, I didn’t have an agent, but I had this story and these characters of Lila and Alex who I couldn’t let go of. They haunted me. I felt like I was betraying them in some way just leaving them hanging, their story only partly told. They would actually talk away in my head, whole conversations with me as the eavesdropper and then I’d just write it down. It was an awesome way to write a book — feet buried in the sand, looking out over the Arabian sea.
Whilst I was there, I received replies from the agents I’d posted to. I had sent 12 letters. I received 9 rejections, 3 of which claimed to really like it but had no room on their lists, and I received 2 requests to read the entire manuscript.
I emailed the full manuscript through to these two agents in utter terror. At the point of getting an agent I could suddenly see the glint of light through the trees and with it came this sense that I would die if it came to nothing. (see melodrama in every aspect of my life, not just my writing). If you’ve ever got to this stage in writing you’ll appreciate how hellish the waiting is. Those points where I’ve been waiting — for an agent to get back to me, for a publisher to respond — have been the most stressful and godawful but also most exciting moments of my life, like being in the throes of labour but not knowing if the child you’re giving birth to is going to be born with a head or without one.
Anyway, both agents came back almost instantly to ask to represent me and I found myself in the amazing position of being able to choose my agent. I spoke to writer friends and asked them what I should ask and I scoured the web. Both were highly reputable, well established, with excellent track records. Both were very excited about the book. It was an easy choice for me to make in the end after I spoke with both — I chose the person I got on with the most and who had clearly read the book more than once and who loved the characters as much as I did.
So I signed with Amanda at Luigi Bonomi Associates and have never looked back. I have now signed seven books with Simon & Schuster and my first new adult novel Come Back To Me is about to be published by Pan Macmillan (under the pen name Mila Gray).
Amanda sent Hunting Lila out to the top 11 publishers in the UK — Penguin, Hodder, Simon & Schuster, Harper, Orion etc — and then we waited for three weeks. And then another two weeks. And I got a lot of rejections that made me feel like puking. It came very close with publishers whose names I could barely whisper and only then with reverential awe. It’s an almost impossible thing to get my head around still — that editors at these publishing houses read my manuscript.
In July ‘10 I received an offer from Simon & Schuster for Hunting Lila and its sequel.
In August we were on the final leg of our journey, a road trip of California. We were staying in a beautiful house in Montecito with friends and one day I started writing a new story. I finished it by October and sent it to Amanda. She loved it but wasn’t sure that Simon & Schuster having taken such a big leap of faith on a two book deal with me already would buy a third book when the first two hadn’t yet been published.
But they did. I think I woke every person in our village in Bali, screaming about that one at 6am.
It’s April ‘14 now and I’m just starting writing the third Lila book. That will be my fifteenth book in the four years we’ve lived in Bali. I’m published in Australia, UK, US, Canada, Brazil, Mexico and Russia. Hunting Lila is in early production and will hopefully one day make it to the big screen. I have a film agent and am making a switch to screenplays. I’m talking at writers’ festivals and being invited to schools to give talks.
Five years ago I hadn’t even considered being an author. I read books. I didn’t write them. Five years ago I was living in a London suburb and working for a non-profit. Now I’m sitting on my bed looking out at palm trees and an endless blue sky.
What have I learned?
- Saying ‘fuck it’ was the best thing I ever did. Try it.
- Just do it. Ignore the voices in your head saying ‘you aren’t good enough’. You’ll never know if you don’t try.
- Ask ‘what if…’ every time you get stuck with a story.
- Keep going. Keep writing. Commit.
- You don’t need a masters in creative writing. You don’t need any qualification in fact.
- Follow your gut. ALWAYS.
Follow me on Twitter