By Helen Matthews, author of Façade published on 17th September by Darkstroke Books.
I always knew I wanted to be a writer when I grew up. It just took me a bit longer to grow up than other people. Before I became an author, I worked full time for a big energy company. In corporate life there’s an assumption that early risers, who rock up to the office at dawn, are morally superior beings but I’m a nightingale – or perhaps an owl – definitely not a lark. For years I struggled to prop my eyes open and look alert for the Monday morning meeting and this was doubly tricky because I was the boss: the one running the meeting and, supposedly, inspiring the team for the week ahead!
I’ve always kept late hours. In my corporate role, I rarely left my office before 7.00 p.m. and travelled within the UK and, sometimes, abroad. In the evenings, I tried to spend time with my husband and children, but they became teenagers and forgot who I was. So at around 10.30 p.m., I would sneak off to my computer and write fiction into the small hours.
To give myself a chance to write, I fled corporate life and became self-employed so I could work from home and mould my days into a work pattern that suited my biorhythms. Alongside writing fiction, I became a freelance copywriter, drafting content for newsletters and company websites. Self-employment is a joy. As long as you meet deadlines, you can work when and where you please – on Sunday afternoons, at midnight, on holiday or outside in the garden. Unless I have a conference call or Zoom meeting, I set my alarm for a very civilised 8.15 a.m. My lovely husband, an early riser, brings me a cup of tea. If he forgets, I may send him a WhatsApp: ‘Tea, please.’ I once sent the ‘Tea, please’ message, in error, to my daughter’s partner – presumably, the last person I’d been in contact with the night before. This caused some consternation as they live 45 minutes’ drive away. A little bit too far to bring me a tea.
Enough confessions. You probably think I’m slothful but, this working-from-home life has become normal for many of us since lockdown, with more people discovering you no longer need good hair or even a shower. I postpone my personal hygiene until later in the day after I’ve done some exercise or been out cycling. In the mornings I only need to shovel down a bowl of cereal and I can be at my computer before nine.
Writers are often advised to ignore those pesky emails in the mornings and to avoid becoming tainted with Twitter so they can plunge straight into the world of their novel-in-progress. Good advice, right? I wish I could follow it, but I have tried, and failed. I’m constantly checking social media and Amazon rankings to see if anyone is buying my new novel Façade. If I haven’t produced any shareable content for Facebook or Instagram it preys on my mind and comes between me and my characters.
Launching a book means swapping your creative hat for a marketing and PR one. It also involves a shedload of admin: writing guest blogs, contacting influencers and local media, answering Qs&As from bloggers and reviewers and sending out invitations to launch events. For my previous novels, launches were held in a local branch of Waterstones, with fizz and cake, but for Façade, due to this post-apocalyptic world we’re living in, it will be a Facebook Live event shared with two other authors. There’s an upside because it’s always great to do events with other brilliant authors.
Ferreting out new promotional opportunities takes time. Live events have been cancelled but some have switched online and I’ve been invited to do Zoom and Skype talks for book clubs and women’s groups. I love doing the talks and chatting to people but it’s not great for book sales. When you do events in person there’s always a chance to do a book signing. That doesn’t translate so well into the virtual world.
Once I’ve cleared the business end of my work, I get back to writing fiction. My next novel The Girl in the Van is at first draft stage. It’s another psychological suspense thriller with contemporary themes woven into the plot. I love writing twisty page turners but I like to have some deeper material for book clubs to talk about. In After Leaving the Village it was human trafficking and modern slavery. In Lies Behind the Ruin it was the dream of escaping to France to start a new life and, in Façade, there’s an underlying theme exploring property and the meaning of home. If you read the book you’ll see what I mean.
I break for lunch for around fifteen minutes and carry on writing through the afternoon. I’ve decided not to accept new copywriting commissions for the time being because I want to devote attention to launching my latest book and give it the best start in life.
At around 4 p.m. I often look up from my screen and realise I haven’t been outside all day. So, I will walk into the village or take my bile out for a 10-15 mile ride. Lockdown spurred me on to cycle regularly and just doing a few miles a day I’d reached 1,000 miles by early July.
Writing is a solitary business and I look forward to meet ups with my author critique groups. You can never have too much time with fellow writers, so I belong to four groups. Lately we’ve been meeting on Zoom. I do realise how fortunate I am to have a writing life. I appreciate every minute.
If I stay home in the evenings, the magnetic pull of my laptop summons me back to research or writing. But I no longer have to sit up, pounding my keyboard, until 2.00 a.m. and Monday morning meetings are a private matter between me and my characters, who don’t seem to mind if I’m having a bad hair day.