They say everyone has a book in them, but usually that’s where it stays. Writing a novel is a time-consuming business, a months- or years-long project, often undertaken with little guarantee anyone will ever read it.
Every successful author has their ‘origin story’, from JK Rowling scribbling away in an Edinburgh cafe to Dostoyevsky bashing out The Gambler to pay off his gambling debts. Then came lockdown and suddenly it was ‘put your money where your mouth is’ time for everyone who had been ‘too busy’ to write the next great work of popular fiction.
Most people – me, for instance – whiled away those endless hours on frivolous hobbies, or attempted to exhaust the Netflix library. But others did take the opportunity to write. The commercial fiction wing of HarperCollins reported a threefold increase in “unagented submissions” in the months following the first lockdown and writers’ groups are rife with people fitnessing ‘almost there’ manuscripts.
I spoke to three people who managed to polish off their debut book, one writing from a deserted paradise island, another from a freezing barber shop in the City of London.
Kevin Goodman, Death By Candlelight: How we succumb
I was born in Cape Town but have been living in London since 2007. I’ve worked in the same barber shop, Blades in the City of London, since 2008. Being a hair stylist, when lockdown happened I couldn’t work – it was illegal. I just sat around bored looking at Facebook videos in the early hours because I was suffering from insomnia. At the end of the first lockdown I came back to work, and on the TV there was a retired dyslexic gentleman who said he wrote a book using predictive text on his phone. That inspired me to write my book because I’m dyslexic and have ADHD and I thought ‘if he could do it, so can I’.
I’ve had the idea for the book since around 2010. It’s been there long enough for me to kind of work out the beginning and the end; it’s the little bits in between that I had to find. It’s about a young librarian. During the course of the book she accidently kills someone during sex play, which triggers a repressed memory and sends her on a revenge killing spree. The sex is way, way, way more graphic than the violence. I had to tone the violence down otherwise I would cater only to the horror crowd where I wanted a broader readership.
It’s called Death by Candlelight: How we Succumb. The ‘How we Succumb’ is in reference to the character succumbing to the darker side of life as she progresses through her transformation and how her victims eventually succumb to her.
I wrote the first four and a half chapters at home because my girlfriend was out at work and her son was at school. Then Christmas came and I didn’t have as much time and in January I didn’t write anything. My girlfriend’s son was at home having online lessons and after school he would be on his Xbox – I just couldn’t concentrate with all the background noise.
I told my boss and a week or two later I got a text saying ‘Why not use the salon as a place to write’. So at the beginning of February I came into an empty City to sit and write in an empty barber shop. My boss had said he didn’t want any money for gas or electricity but I didn’t want to run up big bills for him so I wrote in the cold. I would sit in the ambient daylight in a t-shirt, micro fleece, a heavy fleece jumper, a beanie on my head, thermal socks on my feet and a fleece blanket over my legs. At one point in March I ended up in Marks & Spencer to buy thermal woollen gloves so I could keep typing. When people say you must suffer for your art, I definitely suffered – not only because of the cold but also due to not utilising my body. The muscles, ligaments and tendons in my legs all atrophied and I’m still seeing an osteopath to this day.
The cold probably spurred me on to write a bit faster. I would come to the salon, sit for 20/30 minutes, and then just start writing. No writer’s block – I just wrote, wrote, wrote. I didn’t set myself any daily goals of how much I should write. I saw an interview with Steven King where he says he has to write six pages a day, without fail. I never did that. I didn’t even plan out my characters in advance, they were created as I was writing. Some days I would have a page and a half, two pages, other days it was five. But by the last week in March I was getting through eight, ten, twelve pages a day.
I’m not sure I would have written the book without lockdown. I work 10-7 in the City and the last thing you want to do when you get home is write. I tried to learn bass guitar in 2007 but found it too difficult to go home and practice.
The novel is now in proofreading and I’m expecting to see a hard copy by February or March. It’s a self-publishing deal with Grosvenor House Publishing. They started the company because they were authors themselves who were disheartened that traditional publishers weren’t interested in publishing their books so they started their own company.
It’s available through print on demand with Amazon, Foyles and Waterstones and an e-book will be available through Kobo, Google Books, Apple Books and Amazon Kindle.
Thierry Macquet, Message from an Adventurous Ancestor
I’m a Mauritian of Franco/British origin, but I have been based in London for 21 years. I’m an entrepreneur with businesses in travel, tourism and PR but I’ve done a bit of writing in the past – magazine articles and ghostwriting. I have always been a bit of a bookworm.
The title of my book is Message from an Adventurous Ancestor. I had the idea long before Covid – it came from some papers we’ve had at my family home in Mauritius for generations. They were written by one of my ancestors that moved from France to Mauritius. He had an exciting life, basically, and he kept a journal so I had the idea of writing a book with his story. I decided to fictionalise it and create a parallel person living today. Using my background in clinical psychology, I wanted to show that families go through the same patterns in life, and that sometimes there are patterns that go back generations.
Normally I would spend two or three months of the year in Mauritius. I left the UK on the 16 March 2020 to go to Mauritius for a month but two days later the island went into total lockdown. The UK did the same soon after so I ended up there for fifteen months. At least I was stuck in Mauritius rather than central London, so I decided to just try to enjoy my island – I hadn’t spent so much time there in more than 20 years.
I’ve got a house on the beach. It’s quite a big house for someone who lives on his own, about 300sq/m, facing the sea. It was a nice set up but as the island was in lockdown, there wasn’t much to do. I had very random sleeping patterns, like a lot of people did during lockdown, so when I first started writing I was doing about eight hours a day. I’d go for a dip in the pool, then start to write. It was either that or binging on Netflix and I felt that writing was better for my brain.
I have a desk on the first floor of my house but I decided to bring my PC downstairs to my dining table, where I have a view of the seal, which was quite conducive to writing. I had struggled with how to start the book but lockdown inspired me to start it during Covid; because I was living that kind of experience it was easy to get a feel for.
I didn’t have a plan for getting the book into print – it was only after a few months that I started contacting publishing houses. I was on a high during the whole writing process. The low happened when I finished writing and gave it to my editor. There was a kind of void. I couldn’t do a big launch party in London because it was back into lockdown and I was still in Mauritius. So it felt like a bit of an anti-climax.
I would have written the book without lockdown but it would have taken much longer – I had a thriving business, I was travelling a lot and I don’t know if I would have had the time to sit and write for such a long period. Next I might write a sequel or maybe a second book. It won’t be before 2022 or 2023 though. At the moment I’m more busy rebuilding a business and getting used to post-Covid life.
• You can buy Message From an Adventurous Ancestor here.
Heidi Stephens, Two Metres from You
I wrote my novel during the first lockdown. It’s a romantic comedy set during lockdown so I wrote it in real time, weirdly.
I live in Wiltshire and I worked for an experiential marketing agency in London. I was commuting to London from Chippenham four days a week, which is quite a hefty commute.
I’ve always been a writer in some capacity, primarily as an advertising copywriter and strategist, with a little bit of freelance journalism. Then I was furloughed at the back end of March, around about the time lockdown started – I found myself with time on my hands for the first time in about 30 years.
I guess writing a novel was something I had always wanted to do, more from wondering if I could than a desperate urge to write or get published. It was more that the opportunity presented itself – it was a way of filling the time. I’m not a very crafty person, I didn’t want to teach myself new skills or make banana bread all day so I thought, you know what, I’m just going to have a go. Quite quickly I realised it was something I really enjoyed and I kept doing it almost as a full time job throughout lockdown.
I was writing in my kitchen. My partner is a self-employed carpenter who also works from home, so obviously his work was reduced significantly during that time as well. He started renovating our garden as a lockdown project and I took the kitchen table and just started just hammering the keyboard madly. I got about three chapters in and realised that I was going to see it through.
Writing a novel in real-time was interesting. I was about three weeks behind the curve and there was a moment of horror when I realised that it was impossible to plan where the story was going because I didn’t know what was going to happen. We got to the end of what was supposed to be a three-week lockdown and that was when I started to realise this wasn’t going to be a short-term thing. What was I thinking, writing a book about something that I have no control over? Had I known how things would go, I probably would have written a different book. That was a wobbly moment. But then I hit 40,000 words, almost half way, and I knew I was going to finish it – that was a really exciting moment.
I didn’t know anything about publishing. I didn’t have an agent. But the internet is a rich source of information. I wrote a synopsis and cover letter, packaged up the first three chapters and sent it off to eight or nine carefully chosen agents. The odds are not in your favour so it was a nervous time. I got a couple of rejections for different reasons and then I got an email from Caroline Sheldon asking to see the rest of the book. I’m not a terribly anxious person but that was a bit of a roller coaster.
I know I wouldn’t have written a novel were it not for lockdown. I would never have had the time. Anybody who works in marketing will tell you it’s a really time consuming, stressful job. I sat on a train for two hours each way, every day and I can’t write on a train – I get really travel sick.
It doesn’t feel right to think of that whole time as being a positive experience but for me it was. It freed me up to do something I’d dreamed of doing for a really long time and I’m really grateful for that.
It was challenging but I feel like I seized the day. Now I have a four-book deal, so I’ve got another book coming out next year and two more I’m contracted for. It could be a life changing thing for me, eventually.
I’m back at work three days a week now. I was made redundant from that job in the end and I now work for a marketing agency in Bristol. I purposely only went back part time so I would have time to keep writing.
I wish I had done it years ago. I know that’s easy to say and I also know that it would have been different had I tried to do it with small children. I’m in awe of women who write novels in those scraps of time before their kids wake up and late at night because I don’t think I could have done it. But I love writing. It got me through lockdown and I still love it.
• You can buy Two Metres From You here.