Taking it to the Next Level
Well, this has been a roller-coaster of a week. It started off with a January low, the post-festive energy dipping and the darkness and cold shrinking my world to the daily necessities. After an initial burst of enthusiasm, it felt as if the tasks ahead – including working on the next novel, finishing and writing up research – seemed more like insurmountable mountain peaks than simple life tasks. Add to this the continuing shock of the daily early morning start, and you end up with one struggling author.
Then came the bright star in the dark night of winter. This week, my novel Inshallah was a Kindle daily deal. I was not allowed to advertise it beforehand, so rose early on the 15th to start sharing it on social media. At work, I engaged in some shameless self-marketing by sending an email to my colleagues informing them of the good news. This elicited a couple of comments from colleagues who had read, and enjoyed, the book. And that was when it began, the realisation that the book is really a book, not my book any more, but out there, on its own, grown up and living its own life in the wider world.
The next level came when another writer messaged me several times to give me tips on how to maximise my experience of being the daily deal, showing me how to keep track of the position of the book in the Kindle chart, and suggesting I keep screenshots of this information for my own records. I had had no idea that this would be such a significant experience. In between meetings, admin and teaching prep, I popped on to Amazon and watched my book climb and climb. By the time I got home in the evening, it was number 68, in the top 100 kindle books, a significant achievement by all accounts. I celebrated alone, but felt so enthused that I whizzed through some research work and then got stuck into some writing. When I went to bed, it was still number 68. Breaking with my usual habits, I took my notebook computer to bed and when I rose at 5.30 the next day, switched it on to find my novel was number 16! Number 16 in the Kindle chart, where it stayed for much of the morning.
Suddenly, I’m a bestselling author.
The first five months of being published have been wonderful. I have spoken at a literary festival, blogged, give talks at libraries and bookshops. But still, it has felt as if the book would stay in limited circles, the province of a small cadre of readers from Wales or within the sphere of literary fiction. Not that I’m complaining – far from it! I am delighted that anyone, anyone at all, is reading the book. The reviews have all been wonderful, people enjoying it and saying they can’t put it down. It’s a delight. The book works. The hard work I put into it seems to have paid off. The fact that people are moved and affected by the book matters to me.
The timing of the daily deal did disturb me somewhat – coming so close after the incidents in Paris, in the midst of a new tide of anti-Muslim sentiment. I have written a book which presents Islam as a faith, a positive, supportive, helpful influence in one woman’s life. I made a distinction between faith, and the Arabic culture that my character, like me, struggles to understand and come to terms with. I made no judgements in the book about this different culture, recognising my own status as outsider, as alien. But I do understand faith, and in a life dominated by women and women’s issues, I enjoyed the chance to explore one woman’s perspective on her life. In the face of the tragic happenings on the news, I sat in fear. As a writer, I feel a solidarity with the people at the magazine who died in the name of free speech. But as an individual, a person of faith, who respects those who are truly Muslim, I also felt terrible that their belief system was again being used as an excuse for extremist violence and terrorism. On the day my book was launched, at my first launch event, a Muslim woman accused me of being insensitive releasing a book with the title Inshallah during Ramadan (a coincidence). She had not read the book. She assumed that as a Western, non-Muslim writer I would not be presenting a positive view of Islam. This is understandable. I hope I reassured her with my responses to her questions. But at the same time, I realised then what has been forcefully reinforced now – that this book takes me into a critical, monstrous reality where none of us is safe.
It’s just a book, a novel about a woman and her struggle to survive.
But now . . . now it’s out there and hundreds of people across the country are reading it. I’ve let it go and it must make its own way now, without my input. And it feels good. It feels like I can concentrate now on the next book.
This is the next level, a writer grappling with the unwieldy mass of a first draft, with all its omissions (‘oh, I’ll put that bit in later when I can get my head around it’), flaws (‘I’m sure that character has a different name in the beginning’ and ‘that character/plot shift is too unexpected, I need to write them into the book earlier’), challenges (one-dimensional characters) and dilemmas (mainly the ending – at present, I have three options). There are brief moments of pleasure, such as finding a particularly well written segment and feeling that rare but familiar rush of feeling at a job well done. There are many, many moments of frustration at the sheer donkey-work that I must undertake to shift things around, fill in the gaps, build layer after layer, and wrangle unwieldy characters into place. And there is the constant, nagging and unnecessary fear and doubt, that maybe the first time was a fluke, and I’m not really a writer, and I won’t be able to do it again. This is my biggest fear, but it gets squashed and sat on, on a daily basis, as I hold true to the knowledge that I’ve made it to the end once, and created a book that works, so I can definitely do it again. I don’t think I can recreate the particular conditions that forged Inshallah over a seven year period – and I don’t think I want to. Life has moved on, and just as my first born is out in the world, so my writing has moved on to another level. I’m ready to attack this next manuscript with confidence, and with the hope that my readers will enjoy this new offering (if, by the grace of all the gods, the publishers like it too).
Now, just to get to grips with these three different endings . . . .