I started writing my first novel in January 2014 for the final dissertation of my BA Creative Writing at Birkbeck. As you might expect, it was a thinly-disguised autobiographical coming-of-age story set in the twilight years of apartheid South Africa and saturated with eighties nostalgia. (There had been another unfinished novel before that—a story told from the POV of four narrators living in a dystopian society that forced you to…wait for it…change your name every three years. There was a complicated excel spreadsheet just for me to remember which character was which. But the less said about that the better.) The first three chapters of this novel got me a first for my degree, so I thought it would be worth finishing. So, I finished it. By the time I had finished it, however, I’d thoroughly lost interest and was dying to start writing something else. But since I had finished it I thought it would be a waste if I didn’t at least try and get it published.
So in April 2016 I started sending the finished novel out to agents. I didn’t want to be one of these people who gave up too easily and I hoped that if I found someone who really liked my book then they would be able to talk me into liking it again. I sent it out to about thirty agents over the next six months. I got four requests for the full manuscript, but nothing further ever came of it.
I had several other novel ideas while I waited for the flood of agent offers—there was one about a cult, one about mermaids, one about eugenics. (Coming up with book concepts has never been my problem, persevering with the actual writing bit is the difficult bit.)
On 16 June 2016 I wrote in my journal:
Brother and sister live in a lighthouse. Alone.
And Ash and Ellyn walked into my head, fully formed, in a way the friends-and-family-members-with-their-names-changed never did in my first novel. I started to think about why Ash and Ellyn were in the lighthouse alone, where were their parents, what was going on the rest of the world? I let their world marinade in my mind until it began to take shape.
I knew that this time I needed a solid plot, I didn’t want my characters just hanging around chatting—they needed to actually do something. I used a kind of pick n’ mix blend of novel planning tools from several online resources.
I made sure that I had a foundation based on the first four pillars of C.S. Lakin’s 12 Key Pillars of Novel Construction. (Still don’t know what the other pillars are, I’m sure they’re good, but these four seemed a good place to start.)
I based the plot on a simplified version of Aristotle’s Three-Act Structure (‘three disasters plus an ending’) that I found in this article on The Snowflake Method.
And I did at least the first four steps of Planning a Novel in Ten Steps.
In January 2017, when I knew roughly where it was all going, I started writing. And I tried to have fun doing it. I wrote about things that I thought were interesting. Lighthouses! Secret Passageways! Sentient Robots! Fibonacci Spirals! I wrote a piece of music with two different codes embedded into it. I wrote a fairy tale with a secret coded message in it. I drew sketches of symbols and hand signals.
I thought about researching current advances in robotic technology. I considered reading all the classic robot sci-fi. I decided instead that I would just make it up. My sentient robots aren’t supposed to be a realistic reflection of technology, I told myself, they’re a metaphor for the other – strangers, immigrants, aliens. They could be whatever I wanted them to be. But, as a nod to the genre, I included Asimov’s Laws of Robotics. And I named some of my robots after my favourite sci-fi authors.
At Easter I took my kids to the Isle of Wight to visit the Needles and the lighthouse that I’d used as a basis for my setting. You can’t actually visit the lighthouse itself, but we took a boat out to look at it from the sea and climbed up to the old battery on top of the cliffs to look at it from above. I wrote Ash and Ellyn’s names on a pebble and left it on the beach. It seemed an authorly thing to do. I set another part of the book in a National Trust-owned castle I’d visited with the kids the previous summer.
When I was in a writing phase I tried to write at least 1000 words a day, I would do this for a week or so and then stop and not write anything for weeks. When I was stuck I skipped the descriptions, the actions, the punctuation, and just wrote freeform dialogue until I was back with the characters in the heart of the scene. And then I would go back and fill in all the other details.
Mid-September I decided, at the last minute, to enter the Mslexia Novel Competition. I wasn’t going to enter. Philippa Gregory was the main judge—I wasn’t convinced that dystopian YA fiction about robots would be at the top of her to-read list. The previous winners all seemed to have submitted highbrow literary fiction. And technically my book wasn’t finished. I was about halfway through. But I figured it would take them ages to judge the first stage anyway, so I sent it off. A few weeks later I got an email saying that I had been longlisted and needed to post a hardcopy of the final manuscript in the next two weeks.
What followed was a marathon writing spree. It was half-term holidays, of course, so the kids were at home. But it’s amazing what a deadline and some momentum will do. I wrote 30,000 words in two weeks and finished the book with a day or two to spare for editing. I printed it, posted it off and received confirmation that it had arrived bang on deadline day. In December I heard, to my surprise, that I’d been shortlisted. January took longer than January has ever taken in the history of the world. Then, on Wednesday the 23rd of January I was writing my CV (and reflecting that writing a novel is easy compared with writing a CV) when I received a phone call from the Editor of Mslexia, Debbie Taylor, telling me I had won the Mslexia Novel Competition.