Ignore that title, it’s a fib. This isn’t really a post about how I wrote a book because no author really writes a book. They build a book, layer on layer, putting in, taking out, kneading disjointed scenes and chapters back together like word dough until they have something that reads like a seamless story. This is a post about how my word dough became a book.
I started writing my second novel, Meet Me at the Lighthouse, in March 2016. Although it will be the second book I’ve had published, it’s actually the third manuscript I’ve completed – the second, a romantic comedy about a pub quiz team in the Yorkshire Dales, is currently sitting in editing purgatory until I have time to pay it some attention.
I started Meet Me with a one-word premise: lighthouse. From the days of my Portland Bill wallpaper, aged four, I’ve loved lighthouses: something about that isolated, haunting quality they seem to have, I think. I was intrigued by the idea of using one in a novel; not just as a setting, but as a key part of the plot.
So I improvised the first scene, in which my hero and heroine meet at said lighthouse, then plotted out the rest. Some writers like to have a complete plot before they write a word, “pantsers” prefer to wing it, and for me it’s somewhere in between: improvise a scene or two, plot, a few more scenes, replot, and so on. I rarely do character sheets before starting work: I prefer to write scenes for them and get to know them as I go. Even scenes that are eventually cut can be an important way to learn about and develop your characters.
I decided my lighthouse was going to be a music venue on the Yorkshire coast, because wouldn’t that be just amazing? And as with my debut novel The Honey Trap, which I’d written during NaNoWriMo the November before, I set myself the target of writing 2000 words a day minimum until in six weeks I had a first draft.
Like all my first drafts, it was a bloated thing – 115,000 words – and even after editing and polishing, it was still far too long. I’ve worked as a professional copy-editor and proofreader in my day job for over a decade, which you might think would mean that the edit would be the easy part, but there’s actually nothing I find harder. It’s difficult to hack apart your own work, which you know almost by heart, and structural editing – fixing problems with pacing, plot and consistency – is a very different thing from cleaning up typos and grammar errors. However, I was still pleased enough with my work to start subbing it to agents, which is how I got my lovely agent Laura Longrigg at MBA.
And that was when the work really started! It was wonderful to work with an agent with a strong editorial background, and Laura’s suggestions on plot, pace and characterisation were invaluable. After four rounds of edits, I had two new characters, many new plot developments and I’d cut 20,000 words from the length. It was a slog but it was worth it; with Laura’s help I managed to make it a much stronger book than it had been when she signed me, and I’ll always be grateful that she saw its potential from the start. A new two-book contract was negotiated with HarperImpulse, my publisher for The Honey Trap, and the manuscript delivered to them.
But just as I was breathing a sigh of relief that all the hard work was over, along came another round of structural edits from the publisher. Another couple of rewrites, working with my fabulous editors Charlotte Ledger and Samantha Gale at HarperImpulse, added new backstory and plot developments, and addressed some issues with pacing. Then came the line edits, then the copy-edits, and then, at last, the words were a book! The final wordcount for Meet Me is around 85,000 words, but I’d estimate I must’ve produced twice that many if you include material that was cut or rewritten. I wouldn’t be surprised if I took out more than I put in. Which sounds soul-destroying, but actually, once done, I felt strangely cleansed – and the book felt a lot more streamlined.
So in summary, writing-layering-creating a book is hard but amazing, and easily the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done. Please remind me I said that when I’m mired in edits on the next one, groaning softly…
Meet Me at the Lighthouse is out from 30th June and available to preorder now.
Meet Me at the Lighthouse, a romantic comedy set on the Yorkshire coast, is due to be published by HarperImpulse on 30th June 2017. Read the first chapter below.
The day I turned 28, I bought a lighthouse and met the love of my life.
I mean, as you do. Get up, have boiled egg, meet love of life, buy lighthouse. We’ve all been there, right?
Of course I didn’t know, when I was right in the fog of it, that I was meeting the love of my life. I didn’t know I was less than an hour from buying my very own lighthouse either. Sometimes these things just jump out at you with a tummy-flopping, life-changing “boo!”.
Cragport’s Victorian lighthouse stuck up out of the chalk cliff that jutted into the North Sea’s foam-crusted swill, rotting itself quietly into the ground just as it had for years. A red-and-white-swirled job like a fairground helter-skelter, half bleached by slashes of seagull guano. It was about 90ft high and indecently phallic, arched windows long denuded of glass at intervals all the way up and a round knob crowning the lantern room on top.
Once upon a time, this beacon-that-was had beamed Cragport’s fishermen safely home. But its light had gone out for good decades ago, and these days all locals saw was an eyesore – if they noticed it at all. Cracked and graffiti-covered, the one-time colossus was just another broken thing in a town full of them.
I passed it every morning walking Monty. Barely noticed it, like everyone else. It was just furniture for a background, marked daily as Monty’s property through the medium of a sly little wee up the side.
That day a man was there, nailing a notice to the half-rotten wooden door at a little distance from us. I put Monty on his lead before he decided both man and lighthouse belonged to him and it was damp trouser time.
“Morning.” The man turned to flash us a bright smile that had no place on any self-respecting person’s face at that time on a damp Saturday. It was like he wasn’t even hungover. Surreal.
“Morning.” I nodded to him as we passed, but something in his smile made me stop.
I hadn’t seen him around Cragport before, though he had the town’s own Yorkshire twang. Squinting at him in the sun’s white glare, I could just about make him out: tall, broad, with longish hair and a rash of stubble, dressed in jeans and a padded jacket to keep out the chill nor’wester.
And he was gorgeous, really bloody gorgeous. I mean, if you went for that chiselled, rough-hewn look. He wasn’t my type, but still, it was hard not to stare. You didn’t see many bodies like that around town, not since Jess had dragged me off to see The Dreamboys last year.
“What’s it say?” I asked him, pointing to the notice. I had to raise my voice a little so he could hear me over the yammerings of an increasingly toothsome clifftop wind. “They’re not pulling the old thing down, are they?”
“They can’t.” He tapped in the last nail and turned to face me. “Listed building.”
“Oh. Good.” I wasn’t quite sure why I said that. Something about the derelict lighthouse disappearing from my skyline rankled. “So what’s the notice for? Is it for sale?”
“Yep.” His face broke into a broad grin. “Why, you want to buy it?”
“A lighthouse?” I laughed and gestured down at my scruffy stonewash jeans and too-big hoodie-with-fashionable-bleach-stain combo, my hungover dog-walking costume of choice. “Don’t let this well-heeled exterior fool you, mate. I don’t start the day with a swim in a Scrooge McDuck money bin, you may be surprised to learn.”
“You don’t need to. Here.” He beckoned me to his side and I skimmed the laminated notice fixed to the door.
LIGHTHOUSE FOR SALE
First offer gets it – NO TIMEWASTERS
Call 01947 482704 to enquire
“A quid?” I said to the man with a puzzled frown. “Oh, and it’s Bobbie, by the way.”
I was hoping he’d tell me his name in return so I could stop thinking of him as “the man”.
“I know,” he said, bending to stash his hammer in a small toolbox on the ground.
I cocked a quizzical eyebrow. “You know what?”
“I know you’re Bobbie.”
Er… what? Unless the extra year I’d added to my age that morning had just shoved me arse-first into a full-on senior moment, I was pretty certain I’d never seen this bloke before in my life. Monty was tugging at his lead, keen to claim the rest of his walk, but I ignored him.
My stomach gave a sudden lurch. Could there have been some drunken hook-up I’d forgotten about? If so it’d have to have been a bloody long time ago: it was getting on for nine months since I’d last seen any action in that department. I mean, yes, it was only six months since the big break-up – but that was a whole other story.
The man straightened to face me. Now the blinding sun had disappeared behind a cloud, I could see him more clearly.
The deep green eyes were flecked silver, lightly sparking as he squinted into the wind. And there was something in his face, a crinkle round the eyes… as if he was enjoying a private joke at someone else’s expense. He reached up to push away the rusty brown hair that was whipping round his forehead.
That face… it did seem familiar. A half-remembered smile…
“Ross?” I said, blinking.
He grinned. “Knew you’d get there eventually.”
“Oh my God!” Impulsively I threw my arms round him, a wave of pleasure sweeping through me. So it was Ross Mason: the boy in the band. What was he doing back here?
I couldn’t believe I hadn’t recognised him – but then he’d beefed up a lot since sixth form. I released him from the hug and drank in the well-built frame, trying to match it up with the beanpole of a lad who’d sat next to me in English. Not that Ross hadn’t always been good-looking in a cheeky, boyish way, but I never thought he’d grow up to be… well, buff was the only word for it.
And… there had been a hook-up, hadn’t there? My first kiss. School disco, Year 9, slow dancing to Angels by Robbie Williams. We’d managed a fair amount of experimental tongue action and some hormone-fuelled top-half groping by the time Mr Madison dived in to separate us, then spent the next two weeks avoiding each other in embarrassment.
He’d still had his braces in back then. Long time ago that it was, I could remember running a tentative tongue-tip over the ridge, tasting them; that same moist, metal flavour you get in your mouth before a rainstorm, made erotic through the thrill of inexperience.
I wondered if he remembered.
“Er – phew. Thanks,” he said when I’d let him go, looking a double dose of windswept from the weather and the unexpected hug.
I turned my face to one side to let the biting wind cool my suddenly overheated cheeks. Had that been a bit much, after ten years? Maybe should’ve gone with a polite handshake…
“Sorry,” I mumbled. “Didn’t mean to launch myself at you. It’s been a long time, that’s all.”
“Don’t apologise. Not every day attractive women throw themselves into my arms, I wasn’t about to start complaining.” He nodded down at Monty. “Your friend doesn’t look impressed though.”
Monty had fixed him with a resentful doggy glare. He was still pulling at his lead, demanding to know why we couldn’t ditch this joker and get off down the beach.
“Yeah, he’s a possessive little bugger,” I said with a smile.
“What do you call the lad?”
“Montgomery. But it’s just Monty to his friends.”
“Oh.” He reached down to tickle Monty’s ears. “Hi, Montgomery.”
“So when did you get back?” I asked.
“Few months ago. I guess my mum told you about me and Claire splitting up a while back. Once we’d put our old flat in Sheffield on the market, it felt like a good time to make a clean break of it back in the old hometown.”
I fumbled in my grey matter, trying to remember what Molly Mason had said about Ross’s life post-school in our various bus-stop chats. Proud mums always sent me into nodding auto-pilot. Claire… that was the girlfriend, wasn’t it? They’d lived together for years.
“Yeah, she did mention something. I’m sorry, Ross.”
I could sympathise: it didn’t seem so very long ago I’d been marking CDs and crying into a pile of unpaired socks myself. A not-so-clean break with the emphasis very much on the broken.
Ross shrugged. “Well, it’s been 18 months now. Onwards and upwards, eh? Can’t force these things if they aren’t meant to be.”
“Won’t dispute that.” I summoned a grin and gestured across the bay with a broad sweep of my arm. “Anyway, allow me to officially welcome you home to Drizzle-on-Sea. Still the finest selection of mucky postcards and adult-themed novelty rock this side of Bridlington.”
He laughed, showing perfect straight, white teeth to prove the childhood braces had done their work. “Cheers love, good to be back in the land of the Kiss-Me-Quick-Shag-Me-Slow hat. So how about you, you get married?”
“No, still muddling along on my own.” For some reason I found my cheeks heating again, despite the bracing air. Monty picked that moment to let rip with an accusing bark, which didn’t help.
“Just the Westie with the Oedipus Complex, is it?” Ross leaned down again to ruffle Monty between the ears. The little chap submitted to the caress with a resentful aloofness that clearly said he could take it or leave it.
“Yep, just us two and our Jess. We’re living in Grandad’s old cottage at the top of town.”
“You still writing? Back in school we all thought we’d see your name in lights one day. Or at least in embossed gold print on an airport paperback.”
I smiled at the image. Somehow Roberta Hannigan didn’t sound like the right sort of name to be emblazoned across pulp fiction. It might just about work for the tweed-clad girls’ school headmistress in an Enid Blyton book.
“Bits and pieces.” With a wince of guilt I remembered the neglected first draft of a novel sitting in the drawer at home and hastily changed the subject. “You still play?”
He flushed. “When I get chance. Surprised you remember.”
“Well, you were pretty good.” I turned to scan the notice again. “So why the bargain bucket price, is the place haunted?”
“Dunno,” he said, sounding relieved the conversation had moved on. “All I know is old Charlie wants rid, soon as he can. Says he can’t be arsed fixing it up at his age and since he’s not allowed to knock it down he just wants someone to take it off his hands. Put a stop to those letters from the council about it making the horizon look untidy and scaring off tourists.”
“Oh.” I subjected the notice to a puzzled stare. Ross’s great uncle had always been eccentric, but a £1 lighthouse sale was a new level of bizarre. Even in its current state, the thing must be worth a fair bit.
“So? You going to go for it?” Ross asked.
“What would I do with a lighthouse?” I said with a laugh.
Monty’s tugs were urgent now. I crouched down next to him to administer an apologetic stroke. “Ok, Monts, let’s get you to the beach for your run.” I stood and threw Ross a parting smile. “See you around, yeah?”
“Hope so.” He bent down to give Monty a goodbye pat. “Bye, pup. Look after her.”
“Oh, and Bobbie!” he called as I walked away.
“What?” I said, turning around.
He flashed me another smile, crinkling those merry eyes. “Happy birthday, love.”
My stream of consciousness as I wandered aimlessly along the beach’s blanched pebbles, Monty splashing happily in the baby waves, ran something like this:
He remembered my birthday!
The lighthouse… who the hell sells a lighthouse for a quid? Charlie Mason must’ve gone off his melon.
I mean, he remembered, after ten years. How cute is that?
God, a lighthouse for a quid… it’ll get snapped up by the first pillock who sees it, won’t it? Probably turn it into a crack den or something.
Wonder if he remembers when we snogged that time. Heh, bet he doesn’t know I got grounded for a week when Mr Madison grassed me up to Mum.
I hope whoever buys it does something good with it. It’d be great as a restaurant. Bit short on floor space maybe, but… oooh, or how about a bookshop? A bookshop in a lighthouse, a gimmick like that could really pull in customers. Or… art gallery?
Hang on. Did he say I was attractive before?
I wonder how much it costs to do up a lighthouse. More than I could ever afford, probably. Still, with a bank loan…
It probably doesn’t mean anything, that he remembered. Sweet though. Wish I could remember when his was. He’s older than me, isn’t he? Autumn baby, start of the school year some time…
I bet it’d be a piece of piss to get investors, if you wanted to renovate a lighthouse for a business venture. Guaranteed success, surely. It’s a bloody lighthouse.
October, that’s it. His birthday’s in October.
Oh my God! I’m totally going to buy a lighthouse!
The next minute I was tearing up the uneven steps cut into the crag. I could see Ross there still, sitting cross-legged against the little outhouse that joined the main building and looking dreamily out to sea.
Monty was at my heels, adding some drama to proceedings by barking his lungs out like the Westie of the bloody Baskervilles. He obviously thought I was treating him to his favourite game of Runny-Chasey-Barky-Catch.
“Ross!” I panted as I reached him, clutching my stomach. The burst of exercise had given me a stitch.
He looked round in surprise, tearing his gaze from the fishing trawler he’d been following.
“Hi again. That was a short walk.”
“Yeah, just wanted… God, I’m out of shape.” I stopped for a minute while I caught my breath. “Just wanted to ask you to… tell… your uncle… I’ll take it.”