Why every writer should have a dolls house*

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*Or a dog. Or a kitchen garden. Or an obsession with knitting. Or jigsaw puzzles. Or any hobby that doesn’t involve computers

Those of you who follow me on Instagram or Twitter might have noticed that I have lately become completely obsessed with a dolls house. I have to apologise in advance here – because this post, is going to be about the dolls house. Now, I have had mostly good reactions to my social media #dollshousediaries pictures, with lots of DMs from people saying they’re loving it but I am also slightly terrified there are an equal number of people watching my Insta stories rolling their eyes going ‘shut up about the bloody dolls house woman’.

So sorry. If you hate dolls houses then… well, for a start I think you’re a bit weird because how could you possibly not love them, perfect miniature things of joy… but also, sorry, cos this post is about my dolls house.

My Dad in his workshop

My Dad in his workshop

My dad made me my dolls house from scratch when I was 9 or 10. My dad is a bit of a modelling geek. He’s a frustrated engineer who ended up working in software and his way of relaxing has always been to make things with his hands. He’s built model aircraft, model ships and a full-size car and a working, full-size German WW1 biplane in his garage (yes really). He told me that he wished he’d been a carpenter, but he followed the money and ended up working in IT instead, which makes me a bit sad but not too sad as he is always going on nice holidays and has a good pension.

Anyway, this post is not about my dad. It’s about my dolls house. So, as a young teenager I collected bits and pieces for my dolls house, and I loved it, but of course I then discovered boys and the dolls house fell out of favour. Then when I was about 21, my parents moved house and it ended up being put in their garage, boxed in by tons of other Garage Stuff. 

But last year I begged him to unearth it, and he did (reluctantly and a little complainingly). And it is now squeezed into my tiny home office and it is my Favourite Thing (after my partner and my daughter. And the cat, although that’s a close call. Sorry Percy).  

I am potentially renovating it more painstakingly than I did our actual house last year.

I am slowly renovating it. I am potentially renovating it more painstakingly than I did our actual house last year. It’s quite a big (for a dolls house) Georgian house, and while it was in storage unfortunately some mice took up residence in it, and so some bits of it are a little nibbled and worse for wear. Like any house that’s lain empty for over a decade, it has a few issues. The wallpaper is peeling in some rooms, the carpets are stained. I’m slowly redoing each room, one by one. I’ve started with the dining room, and next up I’m going to do the music room. Each room needs a different amount of work – some rooms need re-wallpapering and new flooring, others just need more furniture and accessories. And this is the best bit – the stuff.

The stuff! There are so many amazing miniature craftsmen out there, making teeny tiny and amazing things. I went to a dolls house fair recently (median age of attendees: 65) and spent £47 on a tiny porcelain vase. I spent the same on a chair that had been hand-carved. I love both pieces equally, they bring me great joy, but they also serve as a reminder that this dolls house is going to bankrupt me.

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One of the things my father never got around to doing when he first built it was put lighting in. So I have also been gradually adding lights to the rooms – and oh, my – the effect is amazing. But let’s be honest, with this kind of thing, it’s all about the pictures isn’t it? SO here are a few more…

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I have become so obsessed, that I also ordered some tiny kit furniture from Germany, and with my own hands made a new sideboard for the dining room, plus a dining table, side table and grandfather clock. I sanded and stained and varnished and glued them together. It’s the most crafty thing I have ever done. I am also currently working on a mini Georgian sampler, meticulously cross-stitching teeny tiny stitches on the smallest canvas known to womankind (and swearing about it a lot). 

I was telling one of my oldest friends about the dolls house (let’s be honest, I’m telling anyone and everyone) and she said she thought the reason I loved it so much was because I was in complete control of it. Because as a writer, she said, I had so little control. Of course, writers have control over their output, but whether or not the book will be published, whether or not it will sell more than a handful of copies, whether or not it will be well received… all these things are completely out of our hands. Whereas in my teeny tiny perfect miniature world, I am God, and what I say goes.

the thing I have loved so much is making things with my hands. And – most importantly of all – being away from a screen.

She may be right. I am sure there’s an element of that in it. But also, for me, the thing I have loved so much is making things with my hands. And – most importantly of all – being away from a screen. I have spent my working life staring at a computer screen, and it’s horrible – the most unhealthy, lonely, lethargic way to spend your time. But at 7pm each night, once Daphne is in bed, I sit down at the dining room table (much to Oli’s consternation – he objected a LOT to the smell of wood stain in the kitchen) and I fiddle with my teeny bits of wood, and I (sometimes) drink a gin and tonic and I forget everything else. And it’s pure heaven.

You can find out more about THE RIVAL here, and order here if you want to make my day. UNFOLLOW ME will be published in June.

On being a mother of one

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Facebook just told me that four years ago today I stuck up a picture of this badge to tell my friends I was pregnant.

I can’t actually believe it was four years ago but it’s thrown into sharp relief the fact that most women in my situation would have had another baby by now. Or at least be pregnant.

Take my NCT class – of the six of us, all five of the others have had a second baby. I am the only one with only one. Just like I was the only one who didn’t manage to breastfeed, but that’s probably beside the point.

Or is it? Can we all find ways in which we feel like we don’t fit in, that we’ve wandered off the expected track, if we try hard enough? I don’t know if that’s the case, or if it’s just me overanalysing everything as usual, but I have always felt a little bit ‘different’ from my peers. And motherhood is just one of the ways in which I seem to have inadvertently not fitted in with the norm.

When my NCT friends started getting pregnant with their second children, I remember thinking ‘Shit, I better get on with it.’ Around this time people started asking if we wanted another, or, more rudely, ‘when are you going to have another?’ And I would sit there and stare at them and struggle to find a coherent answer. It wasn’t that I was against having another child, it was just that I wasn’t sure. The question felt huge, too big for me to find the answer.

The decision to have a first baby, in my opinion, is pretty easy, because you have no idea what you’re letting yourself in for.

Oli and I spoke about it a lot. Perhaps it would have been easier if he felt strongly either way, but like me, he was on the fence. We love being parents – we worship our daughter – but at the same time, neither of us feels any burning desire to have another child. If I had fallen pregnant unexpectedly we would have been scared but I’m sure we would have been delighted too. But making the conscious decision to have another child was another matter.

The decision to have a first baby, in my opinion, is pretty easy, because you have no idea what you’re letting yourself in for. But having a second is a whole different ballgame, because you know exactly what it will entail. And you have another small person to consider, who’s your whole world, and you know that whatever you do will impact them enormously.

So I did what I always do when faced with a question I don’t know the answer to: I researched it. Were only children really unhappy spoilt weirdos? Were children with siblings really much better adjusted? Was it really terribly lonely for children without siblings when they were older? How did it really affect relationships when you have two young children to look after? How much did siblings really play together and how much did they fight?

The results were fascinating, and (of course) subjective. But the overall message was that the perfect family size is the number of children you have, because if you love them they will be happy. That siblings are definitely not a guarantee of happiness, that (of course) nothing in life or relationships is as simple or clear cut as this, and that the most important thing is that your child grows up happy and well-adjusted with loving parents. No amount of brothers or sisters can compensate.

Oli and I are different parents in other ways too, of course. We are both self-employed, with unreliable and irregular incomes. Neither of us knows how our work lives will pan out. We are getting on a bit. Although I’m not too old to have a baby at 38, I’m not exactly a spring chicken. We have a comfortable, lovely life in a house that’s big enough for the three of us, but would be a bit of a squash if we had another. I’d like to be able to afford for Daphne to have piano lessons when she’s older, for us to go abroad once a year. Maybe I am wrong to be thinking of the practical considerations, but when practical things go awry it causes great stress, and stress affects everything.

A lot of people told me that they grew up with a very fixed idea of how big a family they wanted. They always wanted two kids. Or three. I never had that. I was never really that sure I even wanted one. I didn’t grow up dreaming of motherhood. Now that I am a mother, I feel unbelievably blessed, but I never had a fixed picture of what size and kind of family I wanted to be the matriarch of.

I love our little family. I love it so much that I wake up in the night sometimes terrified that it’s all going to go wrong.

And that’s the other thing. I feel unbelievably blessed. I’m risk averse. I love our little family. I love it so much that I wake up in the night sometimes terrified that it’s all going to go wrong. I’m so grateful to have our daughter. I feel like I’m tempting fate just writing this. What if we had a second child, and that second child had health problems, or my pregnancy went wrong? Or my inevitable exhaustion at having a young baby to care for affected my relationship with Daphne? Made me snappy and irritable with her? I had health issues with my first pregnancy and the stress was unimaginable. I just don’t want to put myself through that again. Which probably makes me a coward and a massive pessimist. I’m not sure, I’m just so grateful to have what I have, and there’s a voice in my head that continually shouts ‘don’t push your luck.’

So, we are probably not going to have another child. I have kept all Daphne’s baby things just in case I wake up one morning feeling desperate to procreate again, but my gut tells me it’s unlikely to happen. The thing that really clarified it was one of my friends asking me: ‘If it was normal to have one child, rather than two, would you be thinking of having another at all?’ And the answer was a resounding no. Which leads me to believe it’s the pressure to conform that’s the strongest voice in me contemplating having another baby. And that’s the worst reason of all.

It’s lonely though, being a mother of an only. Even though it’s becoming increasingly common, most of my friends with kids have two (at least). I feel like there should be some kind of support group for the ‘one and dones’. I find I am increasingly fascinated by modern motherhood and all its iterations. My novels focus on parenting in our contemporary world – my work in progress centres on a stay-at-home dad, and my upcoming book Unfollow Me is about an Instagram mum. I think the myriad different ways in which people parent in the 21st century are something to celebrate, not judge.

I hope this post doesn’t sound spoilt. There are, of course, no guarantees that I would fall pregnant again anyway. And as I said, I know how lucky I am. I really do. But I wanted to post this as an answer to all those people who keep asking me when we’re going to have another.

I also wanted to share my thoughts on this intensely personal and loaded subject, just in case there’s anyone else out there feeling a bit alone, as they go through the same thing.

You can find out more about THE RIVAL on my website, and order here if you want to make my day. UNFOLLOW ME will be published in June.

Me, on the internet

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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

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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.

The joy of limbo

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A bit of a weird post, this one, but please bear with me!

I wanted to write a post as a kind of virtual 'bookmark' to myself. To remind myself of this stage of my 'story' (sorry, terrible bookish puns will dry up eventually). It's struck me lately that this period in my life - the run up to the publication of my first novel - is quite unlike any other time, and is possibly going to be the best bit of the whole thing. I wonder if other authors feel like this?

Allow me to explain, in case you think I'm bonkers. At the moment, The Rival has been signed off editorially, which means it requires no more work from me. Now I'm very proud of the book, but I'm also a bit sick to death of it, having read it approximately 8000 times, and worked on it for the best part of a year. All that hard slog is over now, and it's ready to be 'born'. It's been edited and preened and pruned to perfection, and now all I have to do is wait for it to be unleashed on the world. And in that respect, I'm kind of in limbo.

But it's the best type of limbo, as I've signed a contract, received some actual money for it (which by the way is no less of a thrill than I had hoped it'd be - someone paying you cold hard cash for something you created from nothing is absolutely awesome) and I know it will be published, which has given me a wonderful sense of validation I've never had before. But - and this is the critical bit - I've yet to bear the agony of a reviewer telling me it's shit, or reading a GoodReads review that tells me the reader couldn't be bothered to finish it, or find out that no one outside my family has bought a single copy.

Hopefully none of those things will happen. Or at least not all of them. But they are all possible, and have happened to much greater and more talented writers than me.

I am terrified of reviews. I wish I had the self-discipline not to read them, but of course I will. I'll be checking every damn morning as soon as I wake up. Writing a book is so bloody achingly personal, and there's something so painful in people telling you that something that you poured your soul into is a load of old crap. Or that your characters are unlikeable when you love them. Or that they guessed the twist (oh how reviewers love to tell you that they've guessed the twists! Clever old you!). I am DREADING it.

I've had my fair share of rejections - after all, getting a book deal is 99% about overcoming rejection and I like to think I have a pretty thick skin. As a journalist I've had my work edited until it's unrecognisable and brushed off the bruises. But even though reviews are just rejections too, they're so public, it's somehow a different kettle of fish entirely. I am currently trying to develop tactics to stay sane when I read my first one-star review. I hope I won't fall to pieces.

As for the book being a total flop, that's another legitimate and massive fear. And as a control freak, it's so hard to deal with the fact that the book's success is not within my control at all. It's about so many factors - timing, the market, whether or not particular retail buyers want to stock it, how the PR/marketing campaigns go...

A lot of authors have said that having your first book published can really impact your ability to write another one - as it's so distracting and all-consuming, and confidence-knocking when you hear people tell you what you've written is crap. I suspect huge success is equally distracting - that immense pressure to live up to expectations with your next book. I was so conscious of this that I was determined to finish my second book before the first was published, and I have done, thankfully. But now I'm wondering if there's time to squeeze out a third? Or how about I just push my publication date further and further into the future? Or how about it just never gets published at all, but someone just pays me to sit at home and write books? Would that be OK?

I hope this doesn't sound too negative. It's not meant to. I'm actually just celebrating the present moment, which really is a time of pure joy. My book is being published. I've achieved something I have wanted to do since I first learnt to read. And I haven't had to deal with any of the hard stuff yet. I want to always remember how this feels - the pride of seeing my proof looking like a real book, the excitement of knowing a team of people love it and are 100% behind it. It's a magical time, this joyful limbo. It feels a bit like being at the top of a rollercoaster, that split-second of peace before you hurtle downwards (and hopefully back up again!).

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

Thoughts on a cover

Check me out - nothing for months and then two posts in one week! Can you tell I'm sitting on my hands at the moment, waiting to hear what my agent thinks of my latest manuscript?!

I heard from my publisher today that the proofs for THE RIVAL are at their offices, and soon to be sent to other authors, press and bloggers in the hope that they will enjoy it and write about it (and on that note, if you are one of the aforementioned crowd and would like one, please let me know!).

So I thought it was high time I officially shared my cover! I put the cover on my main website a while ago, but it was done without any fanfare so I wanted to give it a little bit of appreciation. Especially as I genuinely love it.

What many readers might not know is that the author has nothing to do with the process of designing the cover. In fact, I hadn't heard a word about it until my editor randomly sent me their proposed cover out of the blue last year. My heart was properly thundering as I clicked on the attachment in her email, and I'm happy to say that it was love at first sight. I actually got goosebumps when I first looked at it, and I remember being both surprised and pleased at what the cover designer had come up with.

So without further ado.... here it is:

My first thought was that it was quite filmic, or even Netflixy, and that this was a Good Thing as I think it's targeted at a similar demographic. I was also so pleased that they'd used two distinct faces on the cover, rather than anything more oblique. Psych suspense/thriller covers often have close-ups of things like crushed rose petals on their covers and I was keen that my book would stand out a bit from that crowd. The expressions on the women's faces are absolutely perfect - it's really creepy and draws you in I think!

I was surprised by the black and red - I'd never thought about those colours being on my book, as it's a book about women and I guess (somewhat stupidly) I expected something a little softer. But I love how much it stands out, and I also love the blueish tint to the women's skin, which makes the whole thing look really dark and mysterious.

The strapline is bloody genius too, and I only wish I could claim credit for it, but, like the title, it was all the work of the clever team at Quercus.

Can you tell I love it?! I hope you like it too.

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

How I got my book deal

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Hello, is there anyone still out there!? Long time, no blog I know. I’ve been quiet because I’ve been sitting on the most exciting news for the past six months or so (yes really, and anyone who knows me will know that patience is not my forte). But finally, it’s out there, my little news piece went live in The Bookseller recently, telling the world that Quercus will be publishing my novel, THE RIVAL, later this year.

When I was on submission, I pored over blog posts like this one. I don’t know why, it’s not like they were magic 8 balls that would reveal what would happen to my novel (ahem, I may have also asked a magic 8 ball what the outcome would be…). But somehow it made me feel less alone in the tortuous hell of a process that is being on submission and waiting for news.

My agent sent my book out to a select group of editors on a Thursday last year. And so of course on the Friday I was hoping that all ten editors would have fallen in love with it overnight and phoned her at 7am offering millions of pounds for it. That didn’t happen. In fact, nothing happened on that Friday. There was No News.

The weekend was fun. But by Monday we had some ‘positive noises’, which actually mean nothing I don’t think, but were like little gulps of oxygen on which I could try to stay alive. I’m exaggerating here for effect of course, but at times I did feel like I was running out of air. I don't think anything can prepare you for it - it's like waiting for your A level results but about a million times more amplified.

Then on the Tuesday, we had our first ‘turn down’ (my agent doesn’t call them rejections, which is both euphemistic and considerate of her!). It wasn’t bad news though – only that two editors in the same publishing house had read the novel, and one had decided it was better suited to the other, who was still reading. I was OK with that turn down, because it was a really positive one. I think I might have had another rejection that day too, but I didn’t really mind because my agent was feeling very positive that the other editor at the first house was likely to offer.

Wednesday rolled around, which was also the Faber Academy reading day. You can read my previous post for more details on this, but it was quite surreal as I was basically pitching my book (and myself) to a load of agents, while knowing that I was already ‘taken’ as it were, and that the extract I was reading out loud was no longer even in the book (it hadn’t survived my agent’s edit).

After the readings, the editor who had rejected me in favour of her colleague came up and introduced herself, which was surreal (I had no idea she was going to be there!). It was a crazy day, full of excitement and nerves - reading your work aloud to a lot of literary professionals is as terrifying as it sounds - and I remember looking down at my phone at one point to see a notification from Twitter that someone new had followed me.

I’m not sure what it was about her name, but I had a weird feeling she might be important. I looked, and she was the PR director for Quercus. I knew Quercus was one of the publishers reading my book and I thought somehow that might be significant – if the PR director knew about me, presumably the editor there had mentioned me to her? It was all so overwhelming!

I’m not sure when, either that day or the next, my agent emailed me to tell me that the Quercus editor was very keen and was sharing it with her colleagues. Meanwhile, we had a similar update from the other editor at the first house. I was really hoping by the end of that week I’d have a concrete offer, and was beginning to dare to dream that I really might end up with a book deal.

Alas, the next few days brought silence, but then on the Tuesday my agent told me the Quercus editor (lovely Cassie Browne) was taking the book to her acquisitions meeting. This is the Big Meeting where editors have to convince all the other departments (like sales and marketing) that they should buy the book. It was a good sign, but it wasn't a foregone conclusion. I remember my agent saying that we should hear the outcome of the meeting later that day, but there was nothing. Suffice to say, I didn't sleep well that night.

Thankfully however, the next morning, my agent rang while I was walking home from the playground, my nearly-two-year-old in tow, to tell me that Cassie had made an offer - and that it was a pre-empt (which is an offer that expires within 24 hours and is a way of avoiding a book going to auction). It was a really exciting moment – one of those life-changing phone calls that you’ll never forget. I think my overwhelming emotion was relief – relief that I hadn’t been kidding myself all these years, that I was actually capable of writing something publishable. And not just something publishable but also something commercial, that readers would hopefully (touch wood!) want.

Later that day, I also had an offer from the other editor who was interested. It was like having my lottery numbers come up twice in a row. It was interesting to see how each editor had a different ‘vision’ for the way they would publish the book and after much deliberation (honestly, there was a huge amount of agony involved and backwards-and-forwards with my poor agent), I decided to accept Quercus’s offer.

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Both editors who offered were amazing, and I would have been thrilled to have been published by either of them (that’s not lip service either) but for various reasons my heart was telling me Quercus were the right fit. Also, and this is stupid, I know (my agent would roll her eyes at me for admitting this swung me a bit, but it did), I have a picture in my dining room – a print I bought a while ago, and at the bottom it says Quercus & Co. I don’t think it bears any relation to Quercus the publisher but for some reason it felt auspicious, especially as I stare at it every day.

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Anyway this post reads like a long not-so-humblebrag, I know. Don't worry - I am still pinching myself. I know how lucky I was - especially to hear back so quickly. I was only on submission for just under two weeks in the end, which is really short and merciful. I do count my blessings, especially as I’ve known of friends who've been on submission for weeks.

However, before everyone reading this hates me and thinks I had it far too easy, I'd like to add that this is the third book I’ve had on submission with my agent, so trust me when I say I’ve been through the agony of being repeatedly rejected! Third time lucky – there’s definitely something in it!

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

The Faber Academy Writing a Novel course

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I have been meaning to write this post for AGES. I finished the Faber Academy Writing a Novel course back in March, and kept thinking that I must remember to write a little review of it on my blog, because when I was researching the course I didn't find much online about what it was really like. From people who'd actually been through it and come out the other side. What happened to them all? Was it so scary that they never wrote another word? Were they all far too busy writing their bestsellers to have time to blog (hint: in many cases this IS the reason)? Was it just utterly rubbish?

So, for people in the same boat, here are the thoughts and ruminations of a survivor! (that's a joke btw).

I applied for the course last August, after making a decision that I was going to give the whole 'one day I'll be a proper novelist' dream a real shot. I was at the end of my maternity leave and didn't have a job to go back to - a scary prospect and a story for another time. I had some regular freelance work to keep the wolf from the door, but I didn't have a 'plan'. And I'm a Capricorn, and I like a plan. So I made one: apply for Faber Academy Writing a Novel course, write novel during six months on course, get publishing deal. Live a life of fame and riches, etc etc.

So I applied, and then waited. And waited. And didn't hear a peep. My plan was falling at the first hurdle! But, as a Capricorn, I had a Plan B. Plan B was to apply for the Writing a Novel daytime course AS WELL, which started at the same time as the evening one. I figured I'd doubled my chances, and hoped the tutors wouldn't be confused and think I wanted to do both.

While waiting to hear whether or not I got a place, I did some pretty obsessive googling and found someone on a forum saying she had been offered a place already. My hopes dashed, I resorted to Plan C, stuck two fingers up at Faber, and puked out 5000 words of something completely new in one evening. Who needed a writing course to write a novel anyway?

But then the next day, when I was licking my wounds of rejection and feeling smug that I'd at least started something, I got an email. Saying I'd got a place on the evening course, and that Joanna Briscoe wanted me to be in her group. To say I was chuffed would be an understatement, as I'd always wanted to be in Joanna's group. I read her haunting novel Sleep with Me years ago and knew she was exactly the kind of writer I wanted to learn from.

I was so nervous that first day, waiting outside in the rain for someone to open the Big Black Door. In truth, I don't remember much about the first session at all, apart from that everyone was very polite and very nice, and the mix of backgrounds and experiences was brilliant. It was a really diverse group - I had thought it would all be journalists like me, but we had screenwriters and actors and architects, and a huge age range too. I remember we had to do a writing exercise to warm us all up, which definitely broke the ice, and I was so impressed with the people who volunteered to read theirs out to everyone (I still remember yours Tommy!).

I don't think I spoke much for the first few weeks, but as we all got to know each other, I found my feet. I absolutely loved reading everyone else's work - it was amazing seeing the variety of voices and stories, and I learnt so much from hearing other people's critiques. It's a fascinating process and really made me think. Joanna was a thoughtful and considerate tutor, never bossing us about but gently leading us, and pointing out things less experienced writers might not know or notice.

It's not an exaggeration to say that I was really gutted when the first term came to an end. But - and this was the best bit - I had a first draft. An entire first draft, written in three months. Having that course to motivate me to keep going and ploughing on every day was crucial - Joanna asked us each week to set ourselves word counts, and then would check up the following week to see how we got on. The pressure was helpful, rather than scary, and everyone worked at their own pace, encouraging each other.

The second term flew by in a flash. Each term, we all had one 'peer review' session, where we submitted 5000 words of writing for the rest of the group to read and comment on. We'd then have a 45 minute group discussion once we'd all read the extracts. It's as terrifying as it sounds, but also a necessary part of learning to write if you want to share your work one day with real readers! From time to time discussions got a little heated as with any creative endeavour, opinions are so subjective. But the lively discussions always got my brain going, and I found the feedback on my own work fascinating.

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By the time the course came to an end, I think everyone was feeling a bit bereft. After having a baby and having a year off work, I'd loved having the structure of the weekly sessions (plus the long Saturday ones each month) and feeling like I had somewhere 'grown up' to go, to focus on my writing. Some of the passages we wrote in class for exercises actually made it into my completed novel, and they were easily some of the best. I also met some truly inspiring and interesting people, and count my 14 classmates as real friends. We continue to meet once a month, with several members of the group still sharing and reviewing each other's work. A gang of us also went to the Hay Festival together in May, and I know I have writing friends for life.

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So my thoughts on the course... blimey, this is already over 1000 words, I'll try to keep it speedy. I think it's a really enjoyable and interesting experience. It's a selective course, so everyone who gets a place has already shown they've got the potential to get published one day. But I don't think it'll get you published if you don't put the work in. Like so many things in life, you get out of it what you put in. It's not some kind of quick route to publication, or a way of bypassing the hard slog that comes with writing a novel. There's a lot of hype around the agents' reading day at the end of the course (when a group of literary agents come and listen to everyone read from their work). I do think this is a great way to get yourself 'seen' by agents, but if the work isn't up to scratch, it won't make a difference to whether or not you get taken on.

Would I do it again? In a heartbeat! In fact, once the course ended I started looking at other Faber courses, and wondered if I could justify the cost of the Editing Your Novel one. I also fully intend to do a poetry course there at some point in the future, as I've never really written much poetry and think it would be wonderful to learn about a completely different way of writing.

As you probably know it's an expensive course. In some ways, I think this filters out the less committed. If you pay that money to get on, then you're clearly going to take writing seriously. Which is great. But it's a lot of money (although you do get a discount if you've already done a Faber course). Faber have announced that next year they'll be offering two free places to people who otherwise wouldn't be able to afford to do it, which is absolutely brilliant.

I'm happy to answer any questions about the course - just leave me a comment below. As far as I am aware, different tutors have different teaching styles, so I can't guarantee your experience will be the same as mine, but the peer review element is the foundation of the whole thing, so happy to give any feedback on that.

Oh and just in case you were wondering, my plan worked! The novel I wrote on the course, The RIVAL is out now! UNFOLLOW ME, my second novel, will be published in June 2019.

Review: Tiddler Toddler Tracker

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One of the best pieces of advice I (stupidly) ignored as a new mum was to keep track of your little one's sleeping and feeding times, to help you establish a routine that didn't result in them becoming overtired/hungry at night. I did it a bit, to begin with when Daph was tiny and seemingly drinking eighteen bottles of milk a day, but then as she got older I didn't keep up with it. I had an app, which I never really got the hang of using (the breastfeeding ones in particular, with their built in timers, were just way too much faff for me!), and a paper chart the midwife gave me, but that soon got covered in milk/vomit.

So when I heard about the Tiddler Tracker (I saw a post about it from someone I follow on Facebook) I was pretty impressed, and really wished I'd had one in those early days, as it would have been much easier to keep on top of everything with a proper physical book. The Tiddler Tracker is a Moleskine-esq book filled with useful charts and pages for you to fill in, to track all aspects of your baby's day. And it's not just for babies, as there's also the Tiddler Toddler Tracker for older kids, such as Daph, designed to be more relevant for them.

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As a stationery fan, I just loved the idea straight away. I was also amazed that no one had thought of it before. I pinged off a tweet about them, and the company kindly got in touch and offered me a Toddler Tracker for review. Its arrival was very timely as we have recently been trying to keep a log of Daphne's nap times to get on top of this early waking issue - it's been SO helpful as we've realised that she actually needs to go to bed earlier than we thought if we want her to sleep in a bit later. It's all to do with how long she's awake for between waking up from her nap and going to bed for the night - any more than six hours, and she's overtired and will wake in the night (and then, inevitably, wake for the day super early and grumpy).

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There are several designs available to choose from, so you can find one that works for you, and the books are handily sized, so they're not so small you're squinting to read the pages, but they'd fit in your changing bag easily so you can take them out and about with you. Best of all the folk behind the company are parents and have really thought about the product, designing it based on personal experience of what works and what you need to keep a record of (they had a son with reflux, so understood the importance of tracking things carefully).

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We've been using the Toddler Tracker for a week now, and we love it. Daphne's also keen and enjoys watching us write things down in 'her book'. I actually think the Tiddler Tracker would be a perfect present for new parents - something most people might not think of, but that would undoubtedly become an essential bit of kit for anyone coping with those crazy first months.

18 month baby update

Eeek! It's my last baby update for a while! I think I'll do another one when Daphne turns two - it'll be amazing to look back and compare how much she changes in six months, rather than one. But first up, my little madam is finally a year and a half old, and I know I keep saying this, but this really is the BEST age so far. She's so bloody cute at the moment. She definitely went through a weird mental leap thing (her last ever Wonder Week - wow!) and changed a lot afterwards. The main thing I noticed is that she now doesn't do things just because you ask her to. Ha! Before, if I said 'Daph, go and get your shoes' or something similar, she'd trot off like an obedient dog and bring them back to me. But now, she looks at me, thinks about my request and (usually) decides that she'd rather do something else instead. It's actually amazing, and it fits right in with what they're supposed to have learnt in the last leap - that they have free will, basically, and don't have to do what they're told. Of course, this means a LOT more frustration on both our parts, but it's also amazing to think of her as this sentient little being with her own thoughts about things.

Another change - and the loveliest by far - is that she's suddenly got super cuddly. She's always giving me cuddles now - coming up to me and when I pick her up she throws her arms around me and buries her head against my shoulder and it's soooo sweet, because she was never a cuddly baby at all. She's also finally started sitting still a bit with me to watch television (yes I know this is terrible, but she's always on the go and sometimes I wish she'd just have some quiet time and chill out because she wears herself out). The only thing she'll watch at the moment is Little Baby Bum, the most random nursery rhyme cartoon thing on Netflix, but even so, it's been lovely to have her snuggle up against me and watch it - we even ate some popcorn in front of the telly together yesterday and finally, I was living the parenthood dream. Ha.

Other developments - she is finally walking, but only with her push along walker dog. I know this isn't a big deal for people with babies who've been walking from 10 months, but for us, this has been a bit mindblowing, and she looks so pleased with herself as she trots along behind him. She's also taken a few steps towards me if there's a gap between me and whatever she's standing against - it's almost as though she CAN walk, but she's just too scared to do it, in case she falls over. Because she does it without thinking sometimes (admittedly only a few steps, like I say) which proves she IS capable. She just overthinks things. She's got until the end of the month if she wants to beat me as I walked at 18 months, and I'm not sure if she'll get there, but we'll see... She's standing really well now, too, finally!

Sleep has been another big big change this month. We've finally transitioned to one nap. Which has been SO brilliant, as usually it's at least an hour, so we get a decent ish amount of time to get stuff done during the day finally. I know some babies sleep for two or even three hours a day, but that's just not going to be Daph, I don't think. She much prefers a shorter nap and an early bedtime, and is still going to bed around 6.30pm (but it has been 5.30 when her nap has been too short). Wake up times have been all over the shop, but that's because she's been ill the last week or two, so she seems to be waking in the night with a sore throat about 3am, and then going back to sleep quickly (a miracle in itself) until past six. This morning was 6.40am, which is the latest we've had in absolutely ages, but then I was awake at 1.30am myself coughing, as well as going in to her at 3 with milk, so we didn't really feel much benefit! Typical! I'm hoping once the sickness subsides, we'll get some kind of firm routine in place that we can stick to for the next year or so. That would just be amazing. Currently she's sleeping from 11.30am to around 1pm, which is quite good as it means we have a decent length of time in the afternoon to do things - in fact today, we had a Sunday roast at my parents, which we haven't been able to do for months.

Another big thing that's happened this month is that Daphne started at the childminder. The childminder is like an angel sent from heaven - she's absolutely wonderful, and Daphne has settled in really well. It's changed my thoughts about childcare so much, actually - I thought it was all about the parents having time to work, but in fact, it's Daph who seems to be benefiting the most, as she's getting to interact with other kids, play with different toys, and generally have a whole day focused on her development and needs, rather than fitting in at home with whatever (not) exciting things we're doing that day. We're actually going to go up to two days at the childminder's in March, and it makes me so happy to see how happy she is when I pick her up on Thursday evenings - she's always really chatty and excited, almost a different child. Also, the childminder has taught her to drink out of a beaker on her own. FINALLY.

Speech wise, there haven't been any noticeable changes this month. I think Daph has added to her repertoire of 'b' words - she can pretty much say anything beginning with B if you say it first. But other than that, not much to note. Still obsessed with the cat (is this normal?!) and still can't say Mummy. The cutest thing in the world though is every morning when Oli goes in to get her hearing her excitedly squeak 'Daddy' when she sees him.

The best thing about this age is seeing the development of Daph's personality. She's really becoming a little person. Loves the cat, loves giving things to people (will crawl over to any grown up and hand them a piece of Duplo within minutes of meeting them), loves Duplo, is very cuddly and affectionate, will wave at anyone, loves other kids - especially bigger kids... Doesn't have any patience for Peppa Pig, is SO OVER the Teletubbies now, likes to dance to music (shake her head and wave her arms around), can't go to sleep without clutching one or more muslin cloths, is still obsessed with milk and only drinks milk from bottles, loves her baths, hates being in the pushchair, thinks soft play is a load of crap, only likes pop up books... I could go on and on forever. I'm so proud of her.