The story so far: Just before the summer holidays, I was taken on by an agent. Three weeks later, The Ship was sold to a publisher. Not long after that, the contract was signed. So it’s going to happen. In January 2015 – twelve months from now – a hardback book called The Ship will be set loose on the world and it’ll have my name on the front. And, as this is what I have dreamed of, and worked for, ever since I was eight years old and realised that books were written by real people, I was all ready to write Happily Ever After.
Because that’s why we strive to be published, isn’t it? It’s a rare writer – and a happy one – who is content to concern themselves with the words they’re putting on the page. Writing is a solitary activity. So is reading. And yet both are all about connection. If I bake a cake, I want to share it. When the bulbs I planted begin to show their green tips in the garden, I want to show them to other people. And when I write, I want the stories I create to be read. There are a great many young men in possession of good fortunes who have no desire whatsoever for a wife – but writers dream of publication.
So what happens when that dream becomes a reality? For a start, you have to write the novel again. All those little plot elisions you thought you could get away with, because the writing was good, or the character so compelling – well, you can’t. From being a great success (it got you an agent and a deal, after all), your novel becomes a mass of contradictions, of over-writing, of missed opportunities. It’s as though you’ve been squeezing the toothpaste tube in the middle – you’ve managed to get plenty of toothpaste out, but now you have to start painstakingly rolling it from the bottom to get all the bits you missed. And it’s heartbreaking, because you’ve already done it more than once in the journey from first draft to agent draft, from agent draft to publisher draft. You thought you’d learned how to cut and edit. Now you’ve got to learn again.
And the terrifying thing is that rest of your life doesn’t stop to allow you to do it. School-age children still have to be got to and from school; pre-schoolers still need to be played with; everyone still wants to eat. I’m not quite sure why I thought that publication might change these things. No one ever promised that publication meant I would no longer have to have the boiler serviced, or tax the car, or go to the supermarket, or vacuum or wash up or take out the bins or wash and iron uniform or find a toga for an eight year old with no notice whatsoever. I’d created this promised land in my mind, to which publication was the key. Now it’s a reality, and it looks strangely like the place I lived in before, except with more pressure.
Because this is my chance. If a surprise toga demand stole my writing morning pre-publication, that was a darned shame. Now, that toga chips a little from my opportunity to make The Ship just a little bit better. A little more compelling. It takes away the time I was going to use to try something out, to refine a description, to check that the name changes I made are consistent. A new word is creeping into my interactions with the rest of my life – resentment. As I watched a small, delighted Roman citizen trot into school yesterday, I calculated the chronological cost of every laurel leaf on his oblivious head. Later, I served up our evening meal to a running commentary of exactly what I could have been doing while I was cooking it, then burst into tears.
This is not sustainable. My dream has come true, and my world is going to have to shift to accommodate it, because I’m not giving it up. There is a way to remain as instrumental to my little children (and they are still so little) as I have been and want to be. There is a way of continuing to enjoy cooking, and spending time with the family, without giving up writing. I know what it is, and it’s so alien to the way I have lived for many, many years that I find it very frightening. I have to talk about what I’m doing, and ask for help. More than that, I have to accept it.
I could achieve this dream alone – I got a long, long way All By Myself. But the past few weeks have given me a glimpse of what that would look like. Rushed and resentful – constantly feeling that nothing in my life is getting the best of me – compromise and misery. Every inner resource used up, with nothing to spare for the child who’s upset because their best friend’s playing with the new pupil, and no energy to think of fun ways of learning spellings and times tables, or to bake treats with the littlest for the when the big ones get home, or to go looking for dragons and fairies in the garden.
I was a teacher in my previous life. If I’d gone back to the classroom (and I do miss it), I’d have arranged childcare. I’d have had a takeaway from time to time; I’d have arranged lift shares, and limited the children’s activities. Because even I would have had to accept that I couldn’t be in the classroom and in my home at the same time. I got this far on snatched time, chance time, painstakingly-carved-out-of-granite time. But now it’s time for time time. Work time. Writing time. I’m not yet sure what that looks like. It frightens me, because at the moment, I have the ability to make the most of any time I get. At the moment, I think of procrastination and writer’s block as luxuries I simply can’t afford. But when I’ve shifted the furniture of my life and made some space, will that arrogance come and bite me?
It’s a risk I I have to take. Because, I’ve realised, dreaming of publication was never about having a book in my hands with my name on it. It was about having readers. How can I expect their time – your time – if I don’t dedicate mine?