Today I saw the draft cover of my novel for the first time, and this was the moment where it suddenly felt real: my words will be printed and packaged and marketed and read. I can hardly wait. It's a year to the day since I began writing The Doll Factory (and oh my god what a year it has been!), and I thought of writing a blog about the last year. However, this felt a little untruthful, and hid the years of endless writing, trying and failing, all of which meant I was finally able to start the novel which I didn't think I was capable of writing.
It is difficult to process what has happened since. I had my wildest dreams, and then there was this - far, far beyond them. Signing with Madeleine Milburn, who believed in my book (I gently tried to prepare her for disappointment - like my other novels, this was never going to make it). But within a couple of days of the submission going out to publishers, we had multiple offers. Soon after, publishers sent me mementos related to the novel: engraved silver tankards like those my character Silas drinks from, a bottle of Penhaligan’s perfume with the same name as my protagonist, hand-painted flowers with the offer wrapped around the base, invitations to the pitch which echoed the design of tickets to The Great Exhibition. I sat on my sofa in my pyjamas, unable to eat, to move. I thought I was going to be sick. It was everything I had ever wanted. I could not process joy like it. The foreign rights deals started to rack up, offers from TV and Film companies. Then came the pitches: a frantic day of taxis between offices, where we had Victorian tea parties thrown for us, offices decorated with objects from my novel (one publisher even brought a taxidermy owl to the meeting - pretty amazing). It wasn’t just that people wanted to publish my book, it was that it was being reimagined. This little world I’d invented and inhabited alone had sparked other thoughts and other ideas, had been digested and re-interpreted. In a way, it belonged to others: I had sold a product. Nothing could be more exciting.
That is the fact of it: spectacular, wondrous happenings, a giddyingly smooth ride for The Doll Factory. But people don't see the years which came before it - the setbacks, the rejections, the hard, hard work, the tears, the tantrums, the sense that I was falling behind my peers, that I was pursuing a career that I frankly wasn't up to. When I tell people that I started The Doll Factory last June, they are often surprised. ‘But it’s all happened so fast!’ ‘How did you write it so quickly?’ ‘What a year you’ve had!’ ‘I had no idea writing is so easy!’
I tell them that yes, I wrote this novel relatively quickly and success and validation has happened faster than I could ever have imagined. I tell them that it helped that the themes and setting had been percolating for a while - 'Clutter in 1850s Literature' was the title of my (appalling) undergraduate dissertation many moons ago, and I've always maintained an active interest in the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, particularly in Lizzie Siddal.
But I also want to tell them that this isn’t my first novel and it has been far from easy; I have been writing seriously for ten years. For the last decade, I’ve woken up at 5am every day, sat in a cold and greasy café near St Paul’s for three hours before going to the office, tapped away, and pinned my eyes open with as much caffeine as I could afford to lay my hands on. I’ve written all weekend, every weekend, turning down lunch with friends, minibreaks. When I’ve taken annual leave, I’ve looked for places with a café nearby so I can write all day. My desire to write has been constant through three careers, four boyfriends and a husband. I must have written over half a million words, all of which were swallowed by my ‘trash’ icon. I wrote two novels in that time, and then refreshed my phone for three months hoping for an offer from publishers: universal rejections. I fielded questions ‘When can I read your book?’ ‘When will it be on the shelves?’, with a forced laugh and an awkward, self-deprecating joke.
I decided to apply to UEA. I had to learn to write. I wouldn’t have a novel in mind: I would workshop short stories, and when an idea really grabbed me, I would run with it. I wrote a lot of drivel in that year. I wrote a short story where a literal python was a metaphor for puberty, picturing it as radical, utterly original, and was then outraged and hurt when it was given a mediocre grade (at a recent book launch one of the markers came up to me and said, 'that story you wrote. It was really, REALLY bad', and I had to agree).
I workshopped a few ideas which felt like something more: a short story about a modern day collector, a fictionalised account of Lizzie Siddal; and I contrived an outlandish and frankly insane plot about misunderstood parenthood, hidden paintings, murder and asylums, which I breathlessly explained to my tutor, and he nodded along with a look of mounting horror. I obsessed over finding the right idea. I tentatively began a novel about a Victorian collector and a girl working in a dressmaker’s shop. It was received generously by my classmates, and yet those early words were so tightly wound with criticism that I couldn’t face rereading them.
And so last June, I sat down with a blank screen and started afresh. If it hadn’t been for the physical anchor of my 15 week old kittens snoozing in my lap, I probably would have spent the next six months rearranging bookshelves, and my kitchen would be much cleaner than it is right now. But I wrote. And wrote and wrote and wrote, sometimes 8000 words a day. It was bloody hard, and I existed in a manic limbo between despair (nobody would ever read it, it was utter drivel) to joy (I loved the Pre-Raphaelites, I believed in my characters). I wrote with little hope of publication, convinced this was my third failed novel, convinced that nobody except my Mum would read it. I told myself this was my final chance to try, and when The Doll Factory was surely rejected, I would accept defeat at last, close my laptop and give up any pretensions I had of being a writer. I would return to pottery, and take joy only in the words of others.
But it hasn't worked out that way. Without meaning to sound trite, I am grateful for, and even proud of, my rejections. I know that I've worked my ass off for this, that I've picked myself up and kept writing when all the signs were telling me to stop. While I am sure there will be many days of angst and woe ahead - negative reviews, writers' block - I am determined to enjoy it all, to realise that a bad review means someone is engaging with my work, rather than it being dragged on the 1 second journey to the trash icon. It is all quite wonderful.