Why I write about maternal mental health in my novels – part 3

In Maternal Mental Health Awareness Week, I’m re-posting the 4-part piece I wrote leading up to publication of The Flight of Cornelia Blackwood  last year. It’s about my own mental health in the first days and weeks of motherhood, and why I frequently address this topic in my fiction. It’s too long for one post, so I’ve split it into four, and this is the third post (scroll down for parts one and two) 

Lack of sleep

I wasn’t prepared for the level of sleep deprivation that comes with a new baby. When people talked about ‘sleepless nights’ it was with an almost cheery tone. It’s still the same – they see a newborn, then grin widely and say, ‘bet you’re having a few sleepless nights!’ And you’re supposed to smile and nod in return. No-one told me I’d end up crying with tiredness. No-one warned me that when the baby finally slept I would suddenly become sharply alert and completely unable to sleep, terrified that she would die while I slept, or be carried off somewhere by I knew not what or who.

Any ability to concentrate that I had left was soon smashed by a cacophony in my head – snatches of music and voices, some singing, some talking, as though several televisions were on at the same time, all on different channels, all running together in my brain. It was as though my mind was never, ever at rest.

Isolation and the company of crows

With my then husband working nights and sleeping during the day, I spent many hours alone. I didn’t have friends living nearby, and I didn’t drive, so it would often be days before I saw anyone other than my husband, who offered very little support. I spent a lot of time pacing up and down, jiggling my crying daughter on my shoulder and looking out at the wooded area behind our garden, watching and hearing the crows as they came and went. They felt like company. For me, there will always be a strong association between crows and early motherhood, which is one of the reasons I use them to illustrate Leah’s state of mind in The Flight of Cornelia Blackwood.  

The Flight of Cornelia Blackwood

This is the hardback cover, which I love!

Delusional thinking and paranoia

It was at about this point that I began to imagine that my baby daughter was judging me. She slept so little that she and I inhabited a separate night-time world in which it felt like we were the only people awake, and there was something about the way she would fix her eyes on mine that started to unnerve me. There was a wisdom in her eyes, a knowingness. It was as though she was assessing my competence as a mother and finding it wanting. I became afraid that I wouldn’t be allowed to keep her, that ‘they‘ would come and take her back – don’t ask me who ‘they’ were, because I’ve no idea. This wasn’t like the fear I had later, that social services might take her away because it was clear I wasn’t coping like the women I saw in the magazines, the ones who were all smiling and capable. This was the strange idea that she had been ‘sent’ to me by some indefinable source and that she might report back to them that I was making a pig’s ear of caring for her, and that ‘they’ would therefore take her back.

I remember also that my sensory perception became skewed. Noises seemed extra-loud and colours brighter than they should be. My perception of the size of things went wrong, too. It wasn’t just that they looked bigger than they were, it was as if I could sense their density and bulk, and it was massively out of proportion. It was worse at night when I was at my most tired. I’d look at the lamp, say, or the pillow, and I’d feel overwhelmed, almost engulfed by its apparent hugeness. It was terrifying.

I’m not sure how long this went on for, but certainly a few weeks, possibly months. I didn’t tell anyone, and no-one noticed except my sister, but she was only 19 and didn’t know what to do. But gradually, I stopped seeing bodies in the trees and I had fewer nightmares. The paranoia lasted longer, and it was a long time before I was able to stop thinking about scenarios in which something happened to my baby – everything from illness to accidents to kidnapping. I also feared there would be a nuclear war any day, and that I’d be killed and Emma would be left unprotected in a post-apocalyptic world. My mind was like a horror film.

The beginnings of recovery

As the weirdness slowly faded, it was replaced by more common symptoms of depression. I was tearful and anxious, I felt down all the time, and guilty for bringing a child into such a terrible world. But things were less scary. My stitches healed slowly – it was eight months before I could have sex again but Dr Snooker-fan had done a good job with the needle so there were no long-lasting problems. I didn’t recognise my depression, though, and it was only much later when a new health visitor asked me how I was coping that I broke down and sobbed for about fifteen minutes.

Final post tomorrow.


Why I write about maternal mental health in my novels – part 2

In Maternal Mental Health Awareness Week, I’m re-posting this 4-part blog, which I wrote last year leading up to publication of The Flight of Cornelia Blackwood 

I’m talking here about my own mental health in the first days and weeks of motherhood, and why I frequently address this topic in my fiction. It’s too long for one post, so I’ve split it into four, and this is the second post (scroll down for part one) 

the birth

The birth wasn’t especially traumatic, but nor was it easy. My pregnancy had been fairly straightforward, and the baby was planned and wanted by both myself and my then husband. I was a young mum, even by 1980s standards, giving birth three weeks after my 22nd birthday. When I was admitted to the labour ward a week before my due date, the first thing they asked me was, ‘What’s your pain threshold?’ Reassuring, huh? I’d been mildly apprehensive, like any first-time mum, but once I was in hospital, my anxiety levels rose rapidly. There was a fuss about my small stature and size 4 feet, the implication being that I might struggle to deliver vaginally, and apart from a lovely student midwife who held my hand when things got tough, the staff seemed brusque and unfriendly. I remember actually apologising for being small!

Epidurals were new and scary back then, so I had gas and air, which made me feel sick, and pethidine, which made me high, quite literally – I had an out of body experience where I was floating near the ceiling, watching what was going on below.

Despite all the mutterings about a caesarean, I delivered vaginally after 16 hours, but the second stage was painful and protracted, and despite having an episiotomy, I ended up with 2nd and 3rd degree tears. But when I held my new baby daughter in my arms, I was euphoric. ‘Hello,’ I said. She looked right into my eyes, and I knew that she knew me.

After they delivered the placenta, they wheeled me away to be stitched. As I lay on my back with my legs in stirrups, drifting in and out of consciousness, I could hear the doctor chatting to my husband about the snooker while he stitched me. I became tearful, angry with both of them but too exhausted and vulnerable to speak. How could they be so inappropriate? How could they trivialise this profound thing I’d just done? I’d grown a whole new human and pushed her out of my body, and they were talking about the sodding snooker!

First Days

I was in hospital for six days, but even when I was discharged, my stitches were still so painful that I could only walk using tiny, careful steps. I’d watch people walking up and down the ward, genuinely wondering if I’d ever walk normally again.

The first couple of weeks were dominated by sleeplessness, exhaustion and pain – pain from my stitches, and also from breast-feeding with sore, cracked nipples. The health visitor told me it was like breaking in a new pair of shoes – I’m sure she thought I should just ‘woman-up’.

Emma cried a lot and refused to settle unless I fed her. I was breast-feeding exclusively, and breast pumps weren’t in common use, so it was all down to me. My mum and mother-in-law helped out occasionally, but both had full-time jobs, and also, my then husband wasn’t keen on having other people around, especially people who might notice he wasn’t pulling his weight. He’d take her out in the pram sometimes and change the odd nappy, but he was by no means a hands-on dad, and anyway, he only had a week off work (no paternity leave back then) and he worked nights, so I coped alone at night, and during most of the day while he slept.

The nightmares

I’d only been home a few days when I began to feel strange. It started with the nightmares. The worst one (which I had several times in different forms) was where I’d found my newborn baby in pieces on the doorstep. There was no blood, it was just that her tiny, perfect form had come apart, ‘broken’ into a dozen or so pieces. With the skewed logic of dreams, I started calmly collecting up the parts and putting them in a shoebox with the idea that if I took it to the hospital, they’d put her back together. But as I began to dwell on my incompetence at having broken my new baby, the true horror of the situation dawned on me and I’d wake up sobbing.

I became afraid to sleep. I had dreams that were haunted by images of random blue-grey bodies with head or limbs detached. I called them ‘my mutilation dreams’, and they began to spill over into daylight, especially when I looked out of the window towards the wooded area beyond our garden, where I’d watch the crows coming and going. I started to ‘see’ bodies – blue-ish corpses hanging from the trees. I’d stare at them to confirm what I was seeing, then I’d blink and they were gone. 

The only person I told about this was my sister. She says now that she knew there was ‘something odd’ about me at the time, but she was even younger than me – just 19 – and she had no idea what to do about it.

Part three tomorrow!

Why I write about maternal mental health in my novels – part 1


This week, 3rd-9th May is Maternal Mental Health Awareness Week, so I’m reposting this piece, which I wrote in 2019.

If you’ve read my latest novel, The Flight of Cornelia Blackwood, you’ll know that I have a special interest in maternal mental health. My kids are in their 30s now, but I went through a tough time during those first weeks of motherhood, especially after my first child was born. I was so terrified that my baby would be taken away if anyone suspected I wasn’t coping that I didn’t tell anyone how I felt. It was only when I interviewed a perinatal psychiatrist as part of my research for this book that it became clear that I’d suffered from postpartum psychosis, albeit in relatively mild form.

Mad? Or just exhausted

My memories of those early weeks are still painfully vivid. Not only of crippling exhaustion, but of nightmares, fleeting hallucinations, paranoid anxiety and delusional thinking. I was desperate for sleep, yet unable to give into it because I was terrified my daughter would die while I slept. I wasn’t sure if was going mad or if I was simply exhausted, but I knew my ability to cope was at fault. After all, other women managed…

Me with Emma the day after she was born

The experience has haunted me ever since, and if you’re one of my regular readers, you’ll know that all my books touch on postnatal distress or the difficulties of early motherhood in some form. But my most recent novel, The Flight of Cornelia Blackwood, is perhaps the book I’ve been wanting to write ever since I became a mother. As this is Maternal Mental Health Matters Awareness Week, I thought I’d share my own experience and talk a little about how I came to write  the novel. There’s too much to say in one blog post, so I’m going to split it into four consecutive posts.

When the Bough Breaks

Cornelia Blackwood started as a short story called When the Bough Breaks around fifteen years ago. I was working as a magazine journalist and I’d been trying to place a piece on postnatal depression, or perhaps on the effects of sleep deprivation and lifestyle change on new mothers. The editors weren’t interested, so I thought I’d try exploring it in fiction. The short story worked well, but I wanted to go deeper with a novel, and this book is perhaps the closest I’ve come to saying what I want to say about how, for some women, the experience of early motherhood can be difficult, exhausting, frightening, and traumatic. In some cases, that manifests as postnatal depression or even psychosis.

For many women, the glowing and serene new mums that smile out from the pages of the baby magazines represent their own experience, and for them, I am truly happy. But for some women – more than you may think – new motherhood is not a rose-tinted time that glows brightly in the memory, rather it is dark and frightening and bathed in shadows.

This is post one of four, so tomorrow, I’ll talk more about how it was for me in those first few weeks. (You’ll need to scroll up for part two!)

If you, or someone you know is struggling, you can find sources of support through  Maternal Mental Health Alliance 

The Writing Life – the ‘ups’

I often talk about the ups and downs of the writing life, and I’m guilty sometimes of lingering on the ‘downs’, especially after a horrible period of real, full-on ‘writers block’ in the first half of last year.

But being an author is a mix of highs and lows, and while the lows can be very low, the highs can be very high. And I’m lucky enough to be going through a pretty high phase at the moment.

My new book, The Flight of Cornelia Blackwood, is being published in hardback next week. I was nervous about this book because while it is the book I’ve always wanted to write, it tackles some difficult subject areas, and I worried that it might be too much of a risk. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but I am over the moon with the pre-publication reviews.

Out 21st February 2019

Of course I want the book to sell well – I make my living through writing and teaching, so I’d be lying if I said the money didn’t matter. But this book in particular goes a good way to saying something I really wanted to say about new motherhood, so it’s even more important to me that it strikes the right note with readers.

So far, the response has been incredible. The reviews have been amazing, and that’s always going to put an author up on cloud nine. But what has really blown me away this time is the empathy reviewers have shown for Cornelia, and the positive way in which they’ve responded to the difficult subject matter.

At this point, I’d like to say a huge thank you to the book bloggers who take the time to read the books and write the reviews. They don’t get paid for this, and I know from personal experience how long it can take to craft a book review, so thank you, lovely book bloggers!

You can read some of those reviews here:

With just a week to go now until publication, I’m feeling very excited about my fourth ‘baby’ going out into the world. I’m loving these reviews and I’m absolutely thrilled that the book seems to be sparking some discussion.

It out in hardback in exactly a week – 21st February – then in paperback later in the year. On 28th of February, there will be a launch event at Waterstone’s, Orchard Square, where I’ll be ‘in conversation’ with my good friend and fellow tutor, the crime writer Russ Thomas, so if you’re in or near Sheffield, do come along, have a glass of wine, and say hello – all welcome!

If you can’t make the launch, you can still come and say hello on Saturday 2nd March when I’ll be signing books in Waterstone’s Meadowhall. (No wine, though!) I’ll be there from 11 AM for a couple of hours, I should think.

If you’re writing a book yourself, even if it’s only at the ideas stage at the moment, it’s not too late to sign up for our all-day Planning and Plotting workshop on Saturday 23rd of February – Hop over to the workshops page for full details. https://susanelliotwright.co.uk/workshops-critiques-mentoring/

Hope you can make it!

Susan x

THE WRITING LIFE – NaNoWriMo V #100daysofwriting

I thought I’d give NaNoWriMo ( National Novel Writing Month. ) If you’ve not heard of this, it’s where you write 50,000 words during November – 1667 a day, which is quite a challenge. You can sign up to the website, track your progress, get little prompts and pep talks, and join the NaNo community for moral support. It’s a great thing to do, and I highly recommend it. But sometimes life gets in the way, big time. I started enthusiastically on 1st November, aiming to generate 50,000 words of material towards my new novel. I hoped that by simply pushing on to get the words down, I’d start to understand more about my characters and their story, and hopefully, some scenes would suggest themselves – material I could work on later.

Early days of NaNo, and it was going well…

But then my  daughter got a date for the operation she’s been waiting for. She’ll be out of action for a few weeks, So I’m on extended granny duties, plus extra cooking and driving. Oh well, I thought, it’ll be tough, but possibly still doable. Then some other family stuff happened,  and suffice it to say I found myself feeling too physically and emotionally drained to be able to produce that challenging number of words every day for a month.

I’d kept up  for the first eight days  but as I sat at my desk on the ninth, I could feel the pressure mounting, and as I thought about everything I had to do that day, I started to feel sick with dread. Then, scrolling through my Twitter feed, I stumbled on a tweet from author Clare King @ckingwriter  about writing challenges. Claire suggested that if NaNoWriMo  proved too much, a gentler option might be #100daysofwriting   The hashtag was started by  Jenn Ashworth who’d become mired in a horrible period of writers block following a bereavement. The commitment to #100daysofwriting was her way of gently easing herself back into her novel, and ‘falling in love’ with it again.  I worked out that if I made that day ‘day one’, then ‘day 100’ would be three days before The Flight of Cornelia Blackwood is published. I took that as a sign!

By the way, Cornelia Blackwood is now coming out in hardback in February – paperback will be out towards the end of the year. Check out this gorgeous hardback jacket!

Out on 21 February 2019 in hardback

The only commitment you make to #100daysofwriting Is to ‘turn up’ to the novel every day. Whether you write a thousand words or 50 words, whether you edit a chapter or tinker with a paragraph, or whether it’s just doing some planning or making a note. What counts is that it’s contributing to the novel. I’m now on day 27 and I’ve turned up every day, writing at home, in the library, in coffee shops, even on the train. It’s mostly rubbish, but maybe it’ll slowly lead me to the Good Stuff. I’m doing what I’d hoped to do through NaNoWriMo – I’m generating material. And if all I do one day is tinker, I’m not beating myself up over it.

I love writing in coffee shops with friends

One revelation has been that I have started writing by hand again. Initially, this was because I had to make a train journey and couldn’t carry my laptop, but I’ve discovered that I can write faster by hand, because it actually looks like crap (my handwriting is appalling and there are loads of crossings out) so I don’t agonise over It and get tempted to edit along the way. I just allow myself to write crap because it looks like crap, whereas I sort of expect nice, neatly typed stuff to be better.

Writing by hand on a train – a notebook is so much lighter than a laptop!

So, I’m definitely recommending #100daysofwriting as a way of generating material, and/or keeping your characters, setting, and story in your head from day-to-day. It means you don’t have that long break and have to spend the first half of the next writing session reminding yourself where you are. Give it a go!

if you’d like to follow this blog, scroll up the page and click on the ‘subscribe’ often on the right. To find out more about me, or if you’re interested in attending a workshop, please have a look around  my website . You can sign up to the mailing list to receive workshop dates and occasional book news, just go to the Sign-up page  You can also follow me on Facebook  and Twitter 


Instead of THE WRITING LIFE, this is a long-ish one-off post about my dog, Henry, so if you’re not a dog person, it might not be your cup of tea. At just nine years old, Henry went to that great doggy kennel in the sky late on Monday night. He became ill suddenly on Friday morning and deteriorated rapidly. We’re devastated. Losing a pet is not the same as losing a human family member – of course it isn’t  – but if you’re one of those “it was only a dog” people, I’d suggest you move along.

Henry 2009-2018

I’m writing this partly because I can’t concentrate on anything else, but partly as a sort of obituary. We’ve loved every dog we’ve had, but this one was something else, and the absence of him in this house is almost palpable. I thought it would be nice to record some memories and share some photos, and perhaps work out why Henry – sometimes ‘Henners’, occasionally ‘The Henster’ – was so very special.

He’d been through so much in his short life. He came to us aged ten months as a private rehome and when my husband, who doesn’t drive, went to collect him on the train (I was at work) he was taken aback by how big Henry was – he looked ‘medium’ in the photos, and we’d agreed we wanted a medium-sized dog because our house was very small. My husband was a bit worried I’d think he was too big, but he was so well-behaved that when they took the three-hour train journey back home to Sheffield together, the other passengers couldn’t believe that they hadn’t been dog-and-owner for years

The moment I set eyes on Henry, I knew I loved him.  It’s true he was a big lad. He was half Lab, half Springer, but people often asked if there was ‘some Great Dane in there somewhere’, and maybe there was – his paws were huge! What I saw was an overgrown puppy with the shiniest coat I’d ever seen and the silkiest ears I’d ever stroked.

He settled in quickly and everyone who met him loved him for his gentle nature, his constant smile, and his ecstatic tail wagging (more on this in a moment). He was a beautiful animal to look at, too, and people would often stop us in the street to admire him. He was big, strong, and well-muscled, and by ‘eck if he trod on your toe, you’d know about it. He weighed 36kg – just over five and a half stones (more on this in a moment, too.)

He was virtually fully grown when he came to us, but he was very puppy-like. He liked soft toys, and I loved how excited he’d be when I came back with a carrier bag from a charity shop. He’d ram his nose into the bag , then sit and wait like a Good Boy for me to hand him the teddy bear, then he’d carry it carefully to his bed and disembowel it with relish, tail going like the clappers. He wasn’t a chewer as such, though, and he never destroyed anything other than his own toys. We were enchanted once to find he had put both my husband’s trainers in his bed – not chewed, just there for comfort. Not sure cuddling the other half’s trainers would do it for me, but still!

He loved his teddies, even after chewing their faces off…

So, back to that tail. We’d had him about three weeks when we noticed drops of blood spattered up the walls. At first, we couldn’t work out where it was coming from, then one day I stroked him to the end of his very long tail and found it was bleeding at the tip. The vet warned us that dogs with Happy Tail Syndrome – yes, it’s a Thing – often had to have their tails amputated because healing was so difficult. We were horrified and wanted to try healing it first.  He was fitted with one of those plastic cones so that he couldn’t chew at the dressing, but that didn’t stop him from wagging it off.  Every time the dressing was replaced, it would be off again in no time, and his tail would start bleeding again. One day, we noticed the dressing had gone but we couldn’t find it – it was three inches of plastic tube, covered in cotton wool and wrapped in stretchy blue bandage.

Wet dog

We searched high and low but no joy. On the walk  to the vet’s for re-dressing, Henry stopped for a poo. Yep, there it was, three inches long and an inch wide, and it had (thank God) passed right through his digestive system without doing any damage.  It soon became clear that the only real option was amputation. It was horrible, and we felt like monsters. He’d come to live with us and trusted us, and we’d let them chop his tail off.  I still shudder to think of it. But he recovered quickly, the little five -inch tail he was left with healed and all was well.

Very wet dog



We enjoyed life with Henry so much. He loved water and would go crashing into it whenever he could. He loved food, too, and would snaffle up bread meant for the ducks, bits of discarded burger and anything else that took his fancy, and he wasn’t fussy about whether it was actual food – he would eat any old shit. And I mean that quite literally. He was fond of sheep and rabbit poo, and on one holiday in the Yorkshire Dales, he gobbled up so much of the stuff that his teeth were green with it and his breath stank of it. The first time he had a bout of vomiting and diarrhoea, we assumed he’d just eaten something nasty. He was quite ill and had to be hospitalised for a couple of days. He lost a little weight, but we assumed he’d regain it when he was better.

We started to notice he was prone to diarrhoea, so we were careful with his diet, but very slowly, so that it was barely noticeable at first, he began to lose weight steadily and relentlessly. It wasn’t that he had no appetite – he would eat an entire bowl of dry food in less than 30 seconds (we timed it). And although he always strived to be a Good Boy, sometimes he couldn’t help himself, and if I left him and unattended food in the same room, well, I think he felt it would be worth the telling off. One day, I’d made some Haloumi burgers as part of a meal to serve to friends later. I think I’d made ten, but by the time I came back from the loo, there were four.

Trouble was, he was so tall, he could easily reach the kitchen counter. The best one was when I was preparing the food for my daughter’s wedding. I’d spent all morning making two biggish dishes of brandied chicken liver pate. I’d decorated them with bayleaves and cranberries and poured clarified butter over the top and everything – they looked really good. Henners was asleep in his bed and was actually snoring when I popped up to the loo. When I came back, he was standing on his hind legs, licking the bejesus out of the pate. He’d had about half of one dish and had licked it into the most perfect curve. I shouted at him and saw the whites of his eyes as he glanced at me, but then he speeded up the licking, clearly having calculated that there was time to get a bit more down his neck  before I could get across the room.

On holiday in the Yorkshire Dales, probably contemplating a meal of sheep dung…

Most dog owners will be familiar with the situation where you’re telling the dog off and laughing at the same time. Once I’d told him off, part of me just wanted to let him have the rest of the pate, because there was bugger all else I could do with it, but maybe that would have sent the wrong message…

We started to notice he was getting thinner – his collar was loose and he didn’t look as chunky. We took him to the vet and weighed him. He’s lost 6kg – a significant loss. There then followed a long period of examinations and blood tests and x-rays, but nothing showed up. Treatment, which consisted mainly of steroids, didn’t seem to be doing very much. We tried different diets – he still had a hearty appetite – but the vet said it looked like his body wasn’t absorbing proteins. The weight continued to fall off him. When he hit 25 kg, we were at our wits’ end. The vet was completely stumped. We tried all the different prescription diets but by this time, he looked like a Greyhound and we had to reduce his exercise so that he didn’t burn too many calories. The vet feared that his organs would start failing.

At the 11th hour, Royal Canin brought out a new hypoallergenic food that worked. It cost us £100 a month to feed him (we were lucky that we’d recently received a small inheritance, because I don’t know how we’d have managed otherwise) More worrying was one occasion when there was a problem with production and we couldn’t get any more food for two weeks. Fortunately, we managed to eke out what we had, but given it was the only thing keeping him alive, what if that happened again? It wasn’t as simple as using the right ingredients, it was that it had been processed in such a way that he was able to absorb the nutrients.

It was a struggle financially, but he regained most of the weight. We did this for a couple of years before moving to raw feeding, which was a revelation – less than half the cost, and he never looked back. He maintained a healthy weight and a gleaming coat from then on. It’s a tribute to our veterinary surgery that in spite of all the unpleasant treatments and investigations, he still loved going there. He’d charge in, run straight up to reception, stand on his hind legs and plonk his paws on the counter, ready for a treat.

Enjoying the view in the Yorkshire Dales

In the last few years, he’s given us so much joy. He was with one or other of us most of the time, often sleeping next to my desk while I worked, or stretched out in the living room with us in the evenings. We had some wonderful holidays with him – he seemed to know when we were going on holiday and wagged his little stump like mad every time we walked into a holiday cottage. His daily walks, while we sometimes thought of them as a bit of a chore, were always a pleasure the moment we were out walking rather than just anticipating the walk.

Before we had Henry, we had a lovely little border collie called Jasper, and during that time, I thought of us as a couple with a dog. Very soon after Henry came to us, I realised I was thinking of us as a family of three. If you’ve read this far down the post, you’re probably a dog person, so you’ll probably understand. It seems most dog owners have one ‘special’ dog in their lives, and Henry was definitely ours. I’m not sure I’ve still fully taken in that he’s gone for good, and I know the next days and weeks are going to be difficult. As I said before, it’s not like losing a beloved family member, but it is a bereavement. I have lost a dear friend and companion.

I miss the comforting weight of his head on my knee and his great big dry paw in my hand; I miss lying on the floor with him and cuddling his warm, solid body; I miss the strange basmati-rice smell of him first thing in the morning; I miss the funny noises he’d make when he was excited, the exaggerated sighs when he thought it was time I took him out, the sound of him snoring. I even miss the sound of him eating. I vacuumed the house yesterday, and it occurred to me that it would probably stay looking clean and newly-vacuumed for quite a while. But right now I’d give anything to have the place covered in dog hair and muddy pawprints.

Grief, as they say, is the price we pay for love. We’ll get another dog, for sure, but we need to fully grieve for Henry first. It’s been nice writing this post and reliving some of the memories. My eyes keep leaking, and they will do for a bit, I should think. If you’re a pet-person so you’ll have been through this and will know this sadness. I hope you’ve enjoyed some of my memories and photos. I’ll wrap this up with one of my favourite pictures.  It was another Dales holiday, and in this one, the way the sun catches his shiny coat makes it look like he’s wearing a blond wig. But the best thing about it is, you can tell by his eyes that he’s smiling.  And I’ll never forget that smile.

Henry 10.7.09 – 27.8.18

I’ll be back in a week or two with writing-related stuff, but in the meantime, you can catch up with me on Twitter or Facebook See you soon!


THE WRITING LIFE – why do writers find it so hard to take a break?

A five-minute walk to the beach

I love writing, and I feel privileged to be a full-time author, but it’s still a job. This year, for the first time in 12 years, I went on holiday and didn’t take my laptop! And do you know what? The sky didn’t fall in!

holiday selfie

Odd, isn’t it, that we complain about writers not being taken seriously, about people thinking it’s easy, it’s self-indulgent, it’s not ‘real work’, and then we find ourselves not treating it as real work, not taking a break from our working lives like any normal person would.  This may of course be different for writers who also have a day job, but I now have a working life that is entirely focused on writing, whether it’s my own work, or whether it’s through teaching or mentoring.

And I love it, and I know I’m lucky to be doing a job that I love. But it’s only just dawning on me that I still need to occasionally take a complete break. I think I’ve been so immersed in writing for so long, that I am forgetting to look around at the world and see the things I want to write about.

blue sea, blue skies

So myself and himself went to Aberystwyth for a week (our holidays are always fairly modest – being a full-time writer means cutting back on stuff like holidays, new clothes, meals out etc). We usually go out of season, but this time, we went at the end of June, which happened to be the hottest week of the year! And oh my, but it was gorgeous – blue skies, blue sea, and a quiet, unspoiled beach.  We could see the sea from our apartment, and the sunsets each evening were stunning.

I spent a good part of the week either just watching the sun go down, or staring at the sea. Apart from that, it was just eating nice food, drinking nice wine (or prosecco) and reading. Every now and again, I kept getting a little twitch of guilt  – I should be writing! But then I reminded myself that I’m in the midst of attempting to fill the creative well again. if you follow this blog, you’ll know that I’ve just come through a rather horrible period of writers’ block, so in a way, I’ve had an enforced break, but it’s really made me think about my own creativity and how it works.  As writers of fiction, we should be observing the world around us and the people in it, but it’s also important to relax sometimes, and observe in perhaps a more passive way, so that we’re watching the setting of the sun and the changing of the tides without necessarily thinking about the words we’d use to describe these things.

…and another one

Anyway, we had a fabulous week, and at the end of it, I really did feel relaxed and refreshed – I can’t remember the last time that happened! We both felt genuinely sad to be coming home.

last night of the holiday

So now we’re back, and I’ve got over my sulking that we’re not still on holiday. I won’t say the creative well is bubbling to the brim with ideas, but I do feel in more of a relaxed state about the whole thing, and at least I’m now thinking about new ideas without getting my knickers in a twist. I’m not saying I’ll never take my laptop on holiday with me again, but I am definitely going to make sure I occasionally take a complete break from writing, even if it’s just for a couple of days.

Enjoy this gorgeous weather while it lasts!  If you’d like to be notified when I post in this blog, click the subscribe button to the right of the screen, and if you’d like to sign up for occasional updates on my books, events, and workshops, you can do that via the contact page. In the meantime, I hope you’ll catch up with me on Twitter or Facebook 

THE WRITING LIFE – when writers can’t write, part five

Thank you for bearing with me over these five posts! I can’t believe that I set out to write a quick little blog post about writers’ block and it ended up at over 4000 words. The irony is not lost on me!


So picking up from from yesterday,  I’d got to a point where I felt mentally and physically paralysed, and even the mention of writing would have me fighting tears. I concluded that I had writers’ block. I wasn’t stuck on an idea or a plot point, it was that I couldn’t write anything more challenging than a shopping list.

What did I do about it?
The time had come for me to fess up to my agent. I was worried she was going to call me and say, ‘How’s the book going?’, only for me to burst into tears and say, ‘It isn’t!’  So I emailed her to explain the situation, and received a lovely, sympathetic and understanding email in return. She suggested I that I take some time off,  a month, maybe – some time away from even thinking about writing.

At first, I struggled with that idea – I’ve never been very good at taking time off. But eventually I saw sense. Given that I teach writing and had workshops to deliver, I couldn’t avoid thinking about writing altogether, but I did give myself a break, spending most of my time reading, or  (and this may not have been the best idea) looking up solutions for writers’ block.

Advice from the Guru Google
Much of the advice I found – ‘go for walk’, ‘use a writing prompt’ or ‘try 15 minutes of freewriting’ – is good advice for someone who’s stuck, but it doesn’t really help a block. There is some good advice out there, but you have to trawl through a lot of confusion between being stuck and being blocked.

Some advice was useful though, especially when it focused on healing, or on appreciating creativity or nature rather than on forcing the writing. Things like: visit art galleries, listen to music, walk in the countryside, meditate, do yoga, spend all day reading, go dancing etc. Activities which in the past I’ve probably regarded as skiving. I’m sure I’m not the only writer who feels guilty for taking time off. It’s crazy really, because even when we’re not actually writing (or doing research, or marketing, or social media) we’re still thinking about our characters and their stories.

So I relaxed. A little. I could probably have relaxed a bit more, but it was a start. I was anxious to start some kind of writing, so I decided to go back to the good old ‘morning pages’ idea, as recommended by Julia Cameron in The Artists Way and Dorothea Brande in Becoming a Writer.

The latter is one of two books I recommend to every beginner writer, as well as to writers who are struggling to write (the other is Stephen King’s On Writing: a memoir of the craft). Becoming a Writer talks about the psychology of being a writer, about how the unconscious mind has a profound effect on the ability to write. Brande talks in particular about the voice of the inner critic, which, while it’s an essential part of the editing process, can be a confidence-destroying little fecker when we’re actually creating fiction. (Or in my case, even while we’re still at the thinking stage.)

One way of doing this is to train yourself to write to order and with no quality control. Brande suggests at least half an hour first thing in the morning, then another 15 minutes later in the day at a time you’ve chosen. It’s strict – if you say you’re going to write at 3pm, write at 3pm you must  – not 2.55 or 3.05.  You write anything as long as it’s not nonsense. It doesn’t have to be fiction, it doesn’t have to be good, it doesn’t even have to be grammatically correct. You just write, and you don’t look back at what you’ve written for at least a few weeks (if ever).

I did this for three weeks, filling a reasonably thick A5 notebook. It was a challenge, especially as the RSI in my hands and arms had flared up again. (It’s worse when typing so I use dictation software but sometimes the pain is severe in spite of this – I’m sure it’s another contributory factor to the block.) But it got me physically writing again, and that in itself has made me feel more positive.

I’m still a long way from starting a new novel, but I’ve jotted down a few notes – only brief thoughts, images, random situations. And writing this post has been an important step, because I don’t think I’d have been able to write it even a few weeks ago. Next, I’m starting work on a feature I’m planning to pitch ahead of the publication of Cornelia Blackwood in February. I want to have a draft in place now, because by the time the book is published, I fully intend to be working on a new novel. Then I have a week’s holiday in Wales, and for the first time in 12 years, I’m not taking my laptop! When I come back, I’m going to start thinking through ideas again.

So, that’s the story – much longer than I’d anticipated – of my writers’ block how I’m slowly coming through it. I hope you’ve found this interesting and useful, and if you’re going through something similar, my heart goes out to you. One thing that helped me enormously was hearing other writers talk about their own experiences of writers block, and that’s another reason I wanted to write this post. My thanks to them – I hope they know who they are – and to you for sticking with this week-long post!

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THE WRITING LIFE – when writers can’t write, part three

In the previous two posts, (scroll down the page to read them) I talked about getting stuck with each of my first three books and how I managed to get myself out of it. I started a fourth, but ended up putting it aside – my agent has since named that one ‘book three and half’. I’ll come back to it at some point, but I need to think it through a bit more, so it was the right decision. That decided, I started thinking of ideas for a new book four.

Making a plan
I’ve never planned a novel in such detail before. As I said in the previous posts, I’ve always known where I was going, but my usual method is to plan a little, write a little, plan a little write a little and so on. But my agent, who’s always been an advocate of planning, had seen the horrible time I’d had with books three and three and a half and wanted to spare me the same pain again, so she advised me (very strongly!) to plan this one in detail before I started writing.

I’d been wrangling with a new idea that had a fairly dramatic storyline, but I wasn’t clear about my protagonist’s motivation. And what was I trying to say? Each day I sat down and forced the outline a little further forward, a paragraph at a time, and I managed to develop a reasonable outline for the present day story. But I needed to explain why my character reacted that way, why she felt like that. Then one day, I remembered a short story I’d written years ago about a woman called Cornelia Blackwood and the crows she kept seeing and dreaming about. Quite suddenly, I knew that this was who I was writing about now; it was Cornelia’s story.

So although a great deal changed in the actual wriiting of the novel  – there were still plenty of surprises – I knew my protagonist’s backstory. So, not only did I know where I was going (the ending of the novel would be based on the end of the short story) but I also knew the big thing that had happened in the past, and it explained a lot about who my character was now.

Six weeks to write the plan
I’m not saying it was easy. The 3000 word story formed the basis for half a novel, so clearly there was a lot more work to do,  but knowing Cornelia’s history was key. Writing a detailed outline is like writing a novel in microcosm –  you have to let some areas breathe and develop on their own before you know what’s going to happen next. It took a while – six weeks – but  I ended up with a five-page the outline which I used as a guide.

A joyful experience
Writing the first draft took four months, and it was an absolute joy.  I had never found writing a first draft joyful before, but this time was different because I didn’t get stuck – yay! This must mean that finally, after four and a half books, I’d cracked it; I knew how to write a novel!

As it turns out, I hadn’t cracked it after all, but we’ll come back to that.

The flight of Cornelia Blackwood

The flight of Cornelia Blackwood

The editing and redrafting process took several more months, but I delivered the final version in the summer of 2017 to an incredibly positive reception. I was on a high – I’d written a book in a year from start to finish, my agent and editor loved it, and I was very happy with it myself – it was the book I’d always wanted to write, and it said what I wanted to say. But it’s a hugely emotional story, and when the euphoria of finishing it wore off, I was feeling quite drained.

I gave myself a couple of weeks off, but then I started trying to plan out a new idea. if I could repeat the experience I’d had with this book, I’d have a first draft of a new one by Christmas.

I’ll let you know how that went in part 4 tomorrow.

THE WRITING LIFE – a room of one’s own

Virginia Wolfe famously told us, ‘A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.’ Well, the money bit is tricky – most of us have other jobs or at least rely on teaching and critiquing to keep the lights on. And I know that for many writers, men as well as women, having a room that’s exclusively for writing is a luxury they can only dream of. I know that I’m extremely lucky to have a lovely study-cum- office at the top of the house.

I have an ergonomically designed desk and chair, two monitors, a comfy sofa, a coffee table, lots of books around me – it should be the perfect environment for writing a novel. But what do I do at that desk? I do admin, then I faff around on Facebook. Then perhaps a bit more admin, before taking to Twitter. Next I’ll probably check my Amazon sales ratings and see if there are any new reviews. Then I’ll check my email again and if there’s nothing that needs answering, perhaps it’s time for a quick look on eBay. I probably need more ink, or a lightbulb, or something.  Then I’ll just have one more look on Twitter before I make a start. Chances are I’ll find a link to some fascinating  blog post and that’ll be another 15 minutes gone. You know how it goes.

A designated place for fiction
One of the articles I read recently was one of those ‘top tips for writing your book’ pieces. Now, I know as well as any other writer that the top tip for writing your book is just sit down and bloody well write it. But one of the tips was, don’t write your novel in the same place as you do your admin and social media – have a space that’s exclusively for writing. This made  sense. I can see how having a special  ‘writing place‘ and going to that place regularly to write helps to automatically switch your brain into writing mode. It’s probably one of the reasons so many of us like writing in coffee shops, as well as the fact that we can’t be distracted by domestic chores and we’re less likely to be distracted by admin and social media.

I love writing in coffee shops – I wrote most of The Flight of Cornelia Blackwood in the coffee shop across the road – and as long as they ‘re not busy, many places don’t mind you sitting there with one drink all morning. But even one coffee a day has become unaffordable for me at the moment, though I still try to  go once a week. So I needed an alternative. After spending last Saturday doing a tour of the secondhand furniture shops, I found this little fold-away table for a fiver.

I’ve tried writing at the kitchen table, or in the sitting room, but there’s always something The House wants me to do. Fortunately my ‘room at the top’ is divided into two with a plasterboard wall so that guests can stay overnight without feeling as though they’re sleeping in an office. It’s a small space, not big enough for a proper desk, but perfect for this little fold-up.

Trick your brain into focusing on fiction
So I can still be tucked away at the top of the house, but I can close the door to my study (when the dog isn’t demanding it be left open so he can be near the radiator and see me at the same time!) and I can focus entirely on the novel instead of being constantly tempted to check Facebook or Twitter.  It was also a conscious decision to work facing a blank wall – an attempt to trick my brain into thinking the most interesting things are happening on the screen.

As for whether that’s true, I can’t say at the moment because I’m in the very early stages of a new novel. That point where the confidence I had about it at first has disappeared, and The Fear has arrived. A quote from Iris Murdoch springs to mind – “Every book is the wreck of a perfect idea.” Ain’t that the truth!

Ah well, for me this is a normal state of affairs. I just need to put myself in that chair every day, switch on my laptop and step into my fictional world. It may work, it may not, but one thing’s for sure, nothing’s going to happen if I don’t try, and I’m pretty sure that reducing the distractions will help.

What do you think? Should we write fiction at the same desk where we pay the bills?


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