How losing my job while pregnant inspired my debut novel

IMG_6764.jpg

It occurred to me recently that I hadn’t really talked about the inspiration behind my debut, The Rival, on my blog. So, I thought it’d be good to remedy that! Let me start by saying The Rival is a work of fiction. However, the seed of the idea came from my own experience of new motherhood. One of my friends once told me that giving birth was like being in a car crash, both physically and mentally. It stuck with me before I gave birth, and it proved to be surprisingly accurate.

I’d been a wholly selfish ‘career woman’ up to that point

I was 33 when I got pregnant, and although my daughter was very much longed for, I was shockingly naïve and had no idea what to expect. I’d been a wholly selfish ‘career woman’ up to that point – I was a successful journalist and PR consultant and knew nothing about babies, or how to care for them. Once the first few months as a new mum were behind me, I was amazed not to be able to find any novels on this subject, given all the women I knew who were also struggling to forge a new identity as a mum after so long in the world of work. And so I decided to write about them – a story for women who have struggled with this transition, in the face of a working world that is still so stacked against us.

I didn’t suffer from postnatal depression but like many women, my sleep deprivation in those early days reached the point where I started hallucinating at night, imagining the baby was in bed with me when she was actually asleep in her cot, and my moods swung from euphoric to desperate with exhausting frequency.

To add to my stress, I unexpectedly found myself on maternity leave without a job to return to. Sadly, this is an all-too-common situation. It was utterly terrifying: this open-ended new ‘life’ that was completely alien to everything I had ever known, and that I was woefully underprepared for. And when I did secure some freelance work when my baby was only four months old, I was averaging three hours’ sleep a night, none of my ‘work’ clothes fitted me, and I felt exactly as Helena does in the book: a misplaced lump between two stools. Not yet confident as a mother, no longer a career woman.  

... despite my ferocious love for my baby, I felt bewildered by who I had become.

It was the strangest time of my life. I had been the old me for 34 years by then, but a mother for only a handful of months, and despite my ferocious love for my baby, I felt bewildered by who I had become. I’d never really realised how much my identity was tied up in my work and independence.

Not working was very strange, and in the middle of the night I’d panic that I should be doing something with this time ‘off’. I read on someone’s blog that when you have a baby, it’s OK for you just to be looking after the baby. You don’t have to be trying to hold down a part-time job too, or finishing a long-neglected novel (!), or doing charity work, or whatever it is that you think is necessary to justify your existence as a stay-at-home-mum. That helped, a little. But it was still hard to give myself permission to do ‘nothing’. Even though I was exhausted and probably working harder than I had done in ages – just in a very different way.

I feel like I really lost myself in those early months. In fact, I would say it took a year for my confidence to return. Thankfully, Oli is super supportive and, thanks to the nature of his career, is around a lot more than most fathers. I genuinely believe my situation might have been very different were it not for the fact that I had him by my side every day during those life-changing early months.

Because this is what it boils down to, in my opinion. Support. New mothers need support. They deserve support. It can make a crucial difference - can truly determine whether they sink or swim.

Since The Rival was released last September, it’s been fascinating seeing how readers have responded to it. Many mothers have written to tell me that the feelings Helena experiences in the story echo those they experienced too. Many more people have said it made them cry. Other people have complained that it’s not a thriller, and despite my frustration that no one ever said it was (!), it actually just makes me sad that my message was completely lost on them.

I still find it a bit frightening that I have shared that bewildering experience - that intense loss of identity that came with the loss of my working life - with the world

It’s strange, your debut novel. You pour everything into it - it feels intensely personal, in a way that your second and third novels don’t. I still find it a bit frightening that I have shared that bewildering experience - that intense loss of identity that came with the loss of my working life - with the world, even if it was through a character who isn’t me (I promise!). Those feelings seem so far away now - my whole personality has changed over the past three and a half years, as my daughter has grown, and I’m more than happy in my own skin these days. In many ways then, I’m grateful that I managed to capture those feelings - the raw emotion, the little kernel of truth that was so painful to admit to at the time.

The Rival will always be a special book to me, a marking of time that reminds me how far I’ve come.

The RIVAL is currently available for just 99p in the Kindle Spring Sale! UNFOLLOW ME will be published in June.

Things about publishing that make me cry (and things that don’t)

getting-a-book-deal-charlotte-duckworth.jpg

Before I got my book deal, I was sure that hearing those magic words from my agent – ‘we’ve got an offer’ – would make me burst into tears, or make my heart explode with euphoria, or fill my gaping chasm of self-doubt with confidence and validation and turn me into a New, Shiny, Better Author Person.

So it was a bit disconcerting, really, when it did none of these things.

I remember feeling a little rush of excitement, but my overwhelming feeling was relief. I just thought – thank GOD. I’m not a deluded idiot – I can actually write after all! Also, I was worried about money at the time, and being told I was going to get some actual cash for my six months’ of risky work was a huge weight off my mind.

But I didn’t cry. The whole thing – and this feels like a terrible confession but I like to be honest because if we’re not honest about these things then really, we’re just cheating the world – felt a tiny bit anticlimactic.

I didn’t run around the garden screaming, or sob down the phone to my agent or call my friends and relations and declare that I’d made it, finally, or… do anything really. I was very calm and businesslike about it all. It made me wonder if I was, in fact, dead inside. I was disappointed with myself. In comparison with the weeks when my book was on submission, and I was going crazy with nerves and anxiety, it was all rather… flat. 

What was wrong with me? Did I not really want to be an author? Had I been fooling myself all along?

After the dust had settled a bit and the deal was done, I remember feeling a little worried that I hadn’t had one of those ‘OHMYGOD MY LIFE’S AMBITION HAS COME TRUE’ moments. What was wrong with me? Did I not really want to be an author? Had I been fooling myself all along?

I tried to tell myself it was fine. I’m a pretty chilled person anyway, usually on a relatively even keel (unless I haven’t had enough sleep, or my book is on submission, and then I go a bit insane).

But months later something strange happened. I received my contract in the post, and I had to sign two copies and return them. As I read it over (understanding about 13% of it, but that’s what agents are for), I found myself welling up. And suddenly I was sobbing. Maybe it was the fact it was finally official. But there you are. It hit me in the end, months later, when I was home alone trying to decipher legal jargon and nobody knew what I was doing. 

I’ve come to accept over the past year and a half that my writer-joy-tears will come when I least expect them. It’s completely unpredictable. When I first saw the cover for The Rival, my eyes filled up, and my whole body was covered in goosebumps. But I weirdly didn’t cry when my proof copies arrived, or even when my finished hardback of The Rival arrived. I was pleased to see them, and it was wonderful to hold a proper book in my hand, but I didn’t burst into tears as I opened the box. (More than anything I remember thinking, argh all those bloody words, thank god I don’t have to read them ever again…).

Anyway the point of this embarrassingly verbose post is to share with you the fact that the writer-joy-tears did visit me again recently. They popped back up when my proof pages for Unfollow Me arrived earlier this week.  

getting-a-book-deal-2-charlotte-duckworth.jpg

Proof pages aren’t that exciting to look at – just a massive pile of A4 sheets that need to be read carefully one last time – but there’s something about seeing my words so beautifully typeset that moistened the old eyeballs yet again. I suppose it’s similar to the contract – it’s the moment when it suddenly feels official, as though it’s a baby that’s grown up and got a degree all on its own. That’s a shit metaphor, but it’s the best I can come up with at the moment.

So yes, it was nice to feel the writer-joy-tears again. I wonder when they’ll next visit? Perhaps half the fun is in not knowing.

The RIVAL is currently available for just 99p in the Kindle Spring Sale! UNFOLLOW ME will be published in June.


Me, on the internet

the-rival.jpg

Happy 2019! It's been so long since I blogged that I've come to Wordpress only to find the CMS has completely changed. Hopefully this will work out alright...

So, since I last posted, quite a lot has happened. Most significantly, of course, is the fact that my book was finally published. It is officially out there. And the experience has been mildly debilitating, euphoric and plain weird all at once. I am so grateful that it's been pretty well-received. The reviews have been, on the whole, really lovely. It's not a conventional thriller (it's not really a thriller at all, but I've ranted about that before), so it's been really heartening to see most readers have enjoyed it and been surprised by it.

I'm currently knee-deep in book 3, which has been such a different experience from book 2. Book 2, by the way, will be out later this year! It has a title now: Unfollow Me, and you can find out more about it on my website. I really really enjoyed writing Unfollow Me - it was one of those rare experiences when the plot came to me pretty much fully formed, so I just had to write it all down. Book 3, on the other hand, has been a nightmare from the very first paragraph. But I had a break from actual writing (or typing, anyway) over Christmas and spent a long time thinking about it, and I'm hoping that I can wrestle it into some kind of shape in the second draft.

But I digress. The point of this post was really to do a little round up of places I've been featured on t'internet since The Rival was published, in case you want to find out a little bit more about it/me/my writing journey. So, without further waffle, here we go:

Why I wrote my debut novel The Rival - The Early Hour

My top 5 books about rivalry - The Big Issue

Best thrillers roundup - The Guardian

Beginners Pluck - The Irish Examiner

My journey to publication - Women Writers

Dark undercurrents of everyday life with Charlotte Duckworth - BritLit Podcast

My top 5 scariest reads - Crime Files

How the Faber Academy course helped renew my faith in writing - We Heart Writing

How I lost and found myself after having a baby - Female First

Three Pics to Publication - Amanda Reynolds blog

Phew! I am sure I have missed some but that will do for now. Before I go though, could I just ask a tiny favour? If you have read The Rival and didn't hate it, please would you pop a review on Amazon for me? It doesn't have to be long, but all ratings are so helpful, and I'd really appreciate it. If you have read it and didn't enjoy it however, I'd really appreciate you, er, not writing one. Cheers. ;)

You can find out more about THE RIVAL on my website, and order here if you want to make my day.

What it really feels like to get a bad review

bad-reviews-lifebylotte.jpg

It's happened! I have popped my bad-review cherry. Ugh, I apologise. That's the worst analogy/metpahor/whatever of all time. But anyway, I have had my first (and second) bad review. They weren't even that bad, but even so, it was a discombobulating experience. So discombobulating in fact that I thought I might blog about it and share my findings. Because being a writer, writing about stuff helps me deal with it. Obvious but true.

I consider myself relatively thick-skinned - but there is nothing quite like the sensation of someone you've never met before telling the world that something you've worked really hard on disappointed them. It hurts! It's also really weird. It feels a little like you're going along with your day, living your life, and then suddenly a stranger springs out of the bushes and slaps you round the face, and then disappears, leaving you with a sore cheek and a confused frown. It's a bit like an ambush.

After that first sense of shock and the stinging aftermath, comes your own sense of pride, riding out on a horse called Anger. Your pride then tells you that this person is an idiot, that they're wrong, that they know nothing etc etc. Your fingers twitch with desperation to type some clever, well-thought-out retort to show them who's boss. You want to ask them how many books they've bloody well written. You want to tell them that the twist was not a twist it was a sodding REVEAL so who cares if they guessed it - they were meant to and it was meant to be satisfying. You want to say that it wasn't meant to be highbrow literature, so if the prose was workaday then that's because it's commercial not literary fiction, and don't they know anything about the publishing market and genre-expectations?

You would also REALLY like to point out that you wrote and FINISHED your book before The Replacement aired on TV and that you were majorly pissed off when you saw the trailer and realised that if the book got published everyone would think you had nicked the idea.

Then you realise that would make you look like a dick.

(Well, maybe not that last bit about The Replacement. That last bit I would quite like to add to my writing bio. But I will resist and take comfort in this rant instead.)

So you decide to rise above it and get on with your day. But every now and then those choice phrases of criticism (my current favourite is 'the prose is merely workmanlike' - how bloody insulting to workmen) creep into your head and slap you round the face again. And you feel a bit sad.

You resolve never to look at your reviews again.

But then... your editor congratulates you on a new 5 star one. So of course you have to go and look. So you do. And you read their lovely feedback and it's like a warm drink heating you up from inside. And you wish you could reach out through your computer screen and hug the person who loved your book, and tell them how much their kind words mean to you.

And then you remember what your wise novelist friend told you. That a bad review just means the book wasn't for them. You imagine yourself whispering it to this faceless username who took such great offence at your work that they felt the need to warn others off it.

'It wasn't for you and that's OK. There are plenty of other books out there for you and plenty of other readers out there for me.'

And you go away and write this blog post. And that helps a bit too.

And then when the next bad review comes through, you read it with a better understanding. It still hurts, but a little less.

It wasn't for you. And that's OK.

If you're a fan of 'workmanlike prose' you can find out more about THE RIVAL on my website, and pre-order here if you want to make my day.