The Girl in the Letter
by Emily Gunnis
‘I’ve sold my book!’ I squealed down the phone to my husband Steve, as my mother, who I was visiting for the day, cracked open the fizz at 11:30 in the morning.
It was September 2017, and it had been exactly three years earlier when, over a glass of wine on a rare night out with my husband, Steve, I’d told him an idea I’d had for a novel.
I tend to daydream and love nothing more than spending time making up my own worlds. I never understand people who say that writing is lonely; you have your characters for company and can go anywhere. But needing to pay the bills had always meant that I’d spent my working life as a personal assistant or office manager—daydreaming about one day writing for a living, sitting in my palatial study, my framed book covers lining the walls.
Until that fateful night it had been scripts that I was drawn to. I’d written a couple of screenplays, and a two-part drama, and had some success, with two episodes of BBC Doctors commissioned in 2005 and 2006. But I found the commissioning process quite restrictive and impossible to lose yourself in—every member of the editorial team wants to add their ten pence worth to your script and what you are left with is very little of you.
It was Steve who suggested I try writing a novel, and when I told him my idea that fateful night, he decided that this was my chance. I had just been made redundant from my job—but I also had a three year old and an eleven month old in tow, it wasn’t going to be easy.
Still, I began, setting my alarm for five every morning, to get two hours writing in before the baby woke up, and with Steve taking the kids out every weekend, after nine months I had my first draft. People often ask me how I managed to write a book with two small children; the answer is that I spent a lot of time thinking about the book before I wrote a word. I would plan and plot in my head, while I was driving, in the park, at endless dreadful farms and soft plays, or whilst chatting with friends, supermarket shopping, running. Then, when I had my precious writing time, I wasn’t staring at the dreaded blinking cursor, I had my 500-1000 words ready to pour out of me.
I excitedly sent the first draft off to a potential agent and a few close friends and family but a depressing radio silence followed. I started to realise from their eventual feedback the first, and perhaps hardest, lesson of novel writing, which Terry Pratchett puts so eloquently: “The first draft is just telling yourself the story”.
I was devastated. It seemed that all my efforts had been for nothing, and by this time my redundancy money had run out.
My husband kept telling me that nothing was a waste, that all the time I was writing, I was learning and getting better, but, quite frankly I wanted to scream at him that he didn’t understand. However, he was right, and it would be one of my major pieces of advice to budding writers now. Of course, it’s painful when you have to write draft after draft—I’ve been there! But every word, every re-write is getting you closer to your goal. It may not feel like it, but as long as you are listening to people and advice you trust, you are learning and getting better. Don’t obsess over every word, just write: keep going, it will come.
Thinking my dream was over, I got another Office Manager role, which was full time and very stressful. I threw myself into it and forgot about my dream for another year. However, I found juggling motherhood, with a very tough and rather unfulfilling job, incredibly hard, and it all became too much. I handed in my notice. After licking my wounds and a lot of encouragement from Steve, I picked up my first draft again in August 2016. But I knew I needed help and so made the best phone call of my life—to Cornerstones Literary Consultancy.
Luckily, Helen Corner-Bryant took me on and assigned me to the wonderful Benjamin Evans. We began the huge task of turning my first draft around. Something inside me had clicked: this book was my chance to change my life, and I would work round the clock to do it if I had to. That’s just what I did, until midnight most nights, with my girls waking just before seven. I was exhausted a lot of the time, but with Steve’s unfaltering faith in me, and endless support from friends and family, I pushed on. It wasn’t easy, but it was easier than letting it go.
As Ben Evans, my Editor at Cornerstones put it; the problem with my first draft was that it had ‘unwieldy amounts of exposition’. For those, like me at the time, who don’t know what this means, basically I had put huge amounts of work into making the underlying story logic add up at the expense of making it exciting to read. I was telling, not showing, the story. Explaining the suspense rather than making the reader feel it, telling them something was funny rather than making them laugh.
I had given up on the book because of what it was lacking, but it had a great premise, with interesting characters and a fantastic twist: I just needed more dramatisation. I needed more suspense, a sense of urgency and time running out, the stuff of page-turners!
After chatting with Ben, we decided the seven deaths – the set piece scenes as Ben called them—In the book, were where we should start in creating atmosphere. I remember that phone call so clearly, Ben suggesting that in order to practice writing suspense, I should sit in my house on my own, late at night, and note all the creepy sounds, all the anxious feelings they triggered, and then write it all down. That, and to watch a lot of Hitchcock films!
Creating suspense means elongating sequences that would only take up a short amount of real time—so it became my job to take the reader through, beat by beat, exactly what the character sees, feel, and notices. Stretching out time to create suspense—we know something’s going to happen, and I needed to fuel my reader’s unease through unsettling details and observations. I took my homework very seriously!
Slowly, I got the hang of it. I would send Ben a death I’d worked on, then another, and in time we had all seven. After this we needed to work on the overall pace of the book. Until this point, St Margaret’s, the old mother and baby home, had just been in various characters’ memories, but I had the idea that it was still in existence in the modern day, and was about to be torn down. Ben liked this idea a lot, as it put the building at the heart of the story and puts Sam, my protagonist, under pressure, giving the book more pace. We worked on this idea; abandoned buildings are wonderful writing fodder, in their own way, all the ghosts and the crumbling walls are alive as much as we are. So, once we decided on this, I had the spine of my story running from 1956 through to 2017.
I’ll always be incredibly grateful to Ben for teaching me so much about storytelling in the six months we worked together in a mentoring capacity. He got me to the point where I attracted the attention of Helen at Cornerstones, who then passed me through to my wonderful agent, Kate Barker.
Kate and I still had a mountain to climb to get the novel submission ready, and after every draft I sent her I would wait eagerly for her emails, which contained phrases like, ‘we’re getting there’, and, ‘I think we need one more push’. I would collapse in a heap, Steve would pick me up, dust me down, and eventually I’d crack on. Kate and I worked on the book together for another eight months until I got the best call of my life from her saying it was ‘bloody brilliant’ and ready for submission.
It is always hard to put your finger on what drives you on, but for me, it was probably the heartache of being unfulfilled in my work. I wanted to set a good example to my girls, and when my eyes were fizzy at midnight and I was desperate to stop, that drove me on. My mum, who was a novelist, always said, ‘don’t cry, make notes’ and it’s great advice. If you’ve had a bad day, write it down, if someone’s breaking your heart, write it down, if your boss is awful, write it down. It will help to ease your pain and it’s gold dust for novel writing. What’s wretched for you, your readers will love, because it will ease their pain too.
Emily Gunnis’s first novel, The Girl in the Letter (Headline, 2018), is out now.