I’ve had a really hectic Christmas and feel as though I blinked and missed it.
Going away on holiday before Christmas was a first for us and, in some ways, it meant a longer run-up to Christmas because I needed to get my presents bought and wrapped so much earlier than normal. I was looking forward to a few days to relax and get into the Christmas spirit before the big day itself but the reality was that I had to retreat into my editing cave and lock the door. Other than a short break on Monday afternoon (23rd) to see Last Christmas at the cinema (amazing by the way) – which I’d probably not have done if I hadn’t pre-booked the tickets before our holiday – I was in my editing cave until early evening on Christmas Eve when I forced myself to stop working. I was then back to it on Boxing Day and finally finished what I needed to do late that evening. I’ve been fortunate enough, whether employed or self-employee, never to have had to work on Christmas Eve or Boxing Day so this was a bit of a shock to the system for me! It therefore meant I didn’t have the immediate build-up I normally have which is why I feel I blinked and missed Christmas.
There was no time to draw breath as we had family gatherings on the next couple of days so yesterday (Sunday), I announced I was going to lie in then stay in my PJs all day and watch films. So that’s what I did. Well, maybe not quite all day because I had a few things to do on the morning, but I popped on some ‘loungewear’ and slobbed in front of the TV to watch Fisherman’s Friends (loved it), The Princess Switch (loved it although I’d already watched it when wrapping gifts last month so this was more for munchkin than me) and Avengers: Endgame (loved it although struggled a bit to remember what had happened in previous films). And I wrote a blog post about the past year which I’ve just completely scrapped because I decided it was more boring than a boring thing that’s really tediously mind-numbingly boring whilst wearing its most boring clothes and visiting Boringville. Yes, it really was that bad.
So my alternative post today is more about reflecting on the past decade instead where I went from an aspiring writer to becoming an international best-selling author. Eek!
At the start of this decade, I was working for a very well-known food manufacturer with a strong presence in York (think chocolate, coffee, cereal, water and pet food) in a job that I absolutely adored. I was responsible for designing and running development centres for factory-based staff who had the potential to become shift managers or engineering managers but needed to work on a few areas. It was one of those dream roles where it really is a round peg perfectly fitting in a round hole.
We were living in Scarborough town centre but had made the decision that we wanted to move out to a village and our house was on the market. I started helping out at a local Brownie pack in May and took over as Brown Owl in the September when the existing Brown Owl retired; something I’d always wanted to do, having gone through Brownies, Guides and Rangers myself.
My daughter was three and time for writing was very sparse although I had made a good start on my debut novel, Searching for Steven. Well, when I say good start, I mean there were lots of words. Not particularly good words and not in the right order but there were words which is significantly more progress than a blank page!
Then something really exciting happened. I’d made an 11th hour submission of a short story to a competition run by English Heritage for stories set at or inspired by Whitby Abbey. The top fifty would be selected and placed in an anthology from which profits would be ploughed back into the Abbey. It wasn’t as polished as it could have been but I was thrilled to have been selected as one of the top fifty. Woo hoo! Somebody thought I could write. It certainly spurred me on.
Remember that dream job I mentioned? It was taken away from me. A massive HR restructure gave it to someone completely inexperienced in training, coaching and development and left me ‘at risk’. I was devastated. We’d just accepted an offer on our house the day before I got the news and I was kept in the dark for one week, not knowing whether I had a job or not, and therefore not knowing if we’d be able to move. When the call finally came through, I was told that I did still have a job … back in the recruitment team where I’d started life at the company two years previously. The existing team had all lost their jobs and I was going to provide consistency for the new team being recruited.
The reality of this change was that I ended up doing my original job (because my replacement lacked the knowledge or experience to do it), my recruitment job, the graduate recruitment role (because the person doing that had left during the restructure too and I had expertise in this) and the Head of recruitment role. All for no extra money, or course. The further reality was that I couldn’t do any of the roles well because, let’s face it, who can do four full-time roles at the same time? On top of this, I was no longer home-based but, because the house sale had gone ahead and we’d moved out to a village, I now had a pig of a commute. I spent 4.25 hours commuting each day by a mixture of bus and train. I worked solidly during that commute and until 11pm each night because that was the only way I could even attempt to keep fire-fighting my many roles.
Needless to say, no writing got done in 2011. I’d been gutted that my application to join the RNA’s New Writers’ Scheme (NWS) hadn’t arrived on time to secure me a place that year but, with hindsight, it was a blessing because there was no way I’d have been able to finish my manuscript for submission with the hours I was working.
My daughter started school in September and I managed to secure a couple of days off work so that I could take her on her first two days and be there when she finished. When I dropped her off on that first day, I burst into tears when I walked across the playground, realising that I was missing out on everything about her growing up with the stupid commute and the demands on my time from work. I returned to work the following week with my resignation letter.
At the start of 2012, I tried again with the RNA’s NWS. They’d changed the system so that you could apply via email instead of post and I secured my place that way. Yay! What this meant was that I needed to crack on with writing because I had a deadline of August to get my MS submitted. I work well when I have a deadline, though.
I’d started a home-based role conducting telephone interviews and, whilst this did see me working evenings and weekends, I did manage to find some time to write and got a draft of Searching for Steven submitted. The feedback was really positive and the key improvement needed was to make it shorter as it was at least 30k words over at nearly 130k words.
I turned 40 in May this year. I’d like to say that I had some huge life-changing epiphany but there was nothing so exciting. It was just another birthday and a milestone like that didn’t really bother me.
The life-change that didn’t happen when I turned 40 actually happened in 2013 when I joined a bootcamp. Three mornings a week, I rose at 5.15am (plus a Saturday slightly later) to go down to the seafront in Scarborough and work out for an hour. It was an amazing time, full of laughter and friendship, and I blogged about my journey towards losing half my body weight.
Searching for Steven went back through the NWS with a 30k cull – but various changes had added a different 30k words back in – so I knew I was going to get similar feedback to the first year. I did. But it was extremely helpful and insightful, helping me shape him to send out into the world of publishing the following year.
I attended the RNA’s conference for the first time and pitched Searching for Steven to a couple of digital first imprints who both loved it. One cited it as one of her favourite reads and both were sure they would be interested in publishing it and I should definitely submit the full MS. Naively I thought I was in there and, as soon as it was ready, I started sending it off to agents and publishers – including those two – and the waiting game commenced. And I waited… and waited… and waited.
Writer Jo Bartlett and I formed the Write Romantics, a group of ten writers who were all on the NWS and who had aspirations of becoming published. We started blogging together and soon developed quite a following.
Career-wise, 2013 was a bit of a disaster. Although repetitive, I’d enjoyed my telephone interviewing role but some significant changes were made to the work expected of us (more detail in the reports) but the pay rate per call actually decreased. Double the work for less money? Not exactly fair. I took a fixed term contract to do a coaching role at my local technical college but it turned out not to be a ‘real’ job and had been more about having someone in situ to avoid them losing some funding. I was made redundant after only five months into a two-year role and I couldn’t find another role without returning to commuting to York or perhaps even Leeds which I really didn’t want to do. I ended up securing a seasonal job in a garden centre on minimum wage just to have some money coming in. I actually really loved that role. Christmas at a garden centre? What isn’t to love?
At the end of the previous year, I started a training and development role at the Scarborough factory of an international food manufacturer (think frozen food, particularly chips or other potato-based products). In the summer, a request for flexible working was agreed meaning I worked my full-time hours across a Tuesday to Friday, giving me a Monday free. Monday was Brownies night so meant I could prepare for my meeting but the main bonus was a day to write. Luxury. There were niggles with the job but the day devoted to writing meant they weren’t that significant.
I finished Getting Over Gary (the second book in my ‘Welcome to Whitsborough Bay’ series) and submitted that to the NWS for critique. In the meantime, Searching for Steven rejections were coming in thick and fast. The two publishers who I’d met at the 2013 conference took forever to get back to me and actually had to be chased by the RNA as I wasn’t the only one waiting to hear. After a whopping 9 months, both said no. Oh. I was so sure one of them would take it from the reaction at the conference, although I’d become less sure as the months plodded past.
By this point, I had 23 rejections (or no response whatsoever) and, although some of them had been very positive, I was fed up. I hadn’t necessarily expected Searching for Steven to find a home so the rejections weren’t too upsetting; it was more the time and effort that was soul-destroying. Everyone wanted something different and, at that point in time, a lot of them wanted it via paper format so it was very expensive too. I had a couple more publishers to hear from and had decided to go indie if it was a no from them. But both said yes and I had a very happy dilemma on my hands.
I actually verbally accepted one but they were so slow in getting a contract drawn up that the other came through before I’d signed anything. I was also starting to get doubts about them as it seemed that, after saying they wouldn’t change much, they wanted to change loads, particularly removing the friendship focus and keeping the stories pure romance. The friendship thread was very important to me and was what made the series so it was actually very fortunate that So Vain Books made an offer and I went with them instead, signing my contract in September 2014.
On the day that Searching for Steven was published (3rd June 2015), my husband gave me a set of three canvasses. One had the front cover of Steven, one had the cover of a novella called Raving About Rhys that my publisher released in May as an introduction to the series, and the third had this quote on it:
“The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.” Mark Twain
3rd June 2015
The day life changed for Jessica Redland
It made me cry. It is still above my desk and I draw inspiration from it when I doubt myself as a writer. I am a writer.
I had a launch party for Searching for Steven but it didn’t quite go as planned. The printers messed up and I actually had no paperbacks to sell. A launch party without a book to launch? I forgot to cut the cake and it was an unexpectedly hot day with no air con in the venue so everyone was melting. So I drunk lots of wine!
Just when my writing career was taking off and I could finally say “I’m a published author”, my HR career was about to take another nosedive. The company had gone through a major restructure and we were assured that, because HR was already streamlined, there would be no HR redundancies. Only they needed to trim a bit further and my job went. I was fortunate to walk straight into a role for a local recruitment agency but it was a real low point for me. The company and the people were great. I was not great at the job. Naively we’d all thought that my recruitment skills would translate well into the role but the reality is that a recruitment agency is a sales role; not a recruitment role. Me and sales? Very square peg and very round hole. I knew my days were numbered there.
I stopped going to bootcamp because I was couldn’t fit it in around my working hours and the three stone I’d lost (nowhere near my goal at that point) started to pile back on.
I’d worked at a local factory some years earlier and the engineering manager had rated me highly. When he realised I was working for the agency, he was keen to put a number of vacancies my way. It was worth a lot of money to the recruitment agency so I’d managed to cling on by my fingertips at the back end of 2015. 2016 arrived, the vacancies had all been filled, and I wasn’t bringing in much income so they let me go. They were right to do so because I was completely and utterly crap at the role, but this was the first time I’d ever been let go rather than made redundant and it was awful.
Fortunately I’d been working part time for a distance learning company for several years as an internal verifier and they were rapidly expanding. I’d already put out some feelers about working for them as a tutor too and this got escalated. I still have that role today, based from home, dealing with queries and marking assignments for students studying their HR professional qualification. I travelled a lot, running weekend workshops in London and Birmingham, which was a wonderful opportunity to catch up with friends based in both cities who I hadn’t seen in ages.
With hubby and I both home-based, we made the decision to get a dog; something hubby had always wanted. Ella the Sprocker Spaniel joined our family, much to Felix the cat’s disgust!
Getting Over Gary and Dreaming About Daran were released in March and August respectively, concluding my series. And also concluding my time with So Vain Books. Things hadn’t worked out for them as hoped and I secured back my rights before the company ceased trading. Feeling very despondent, I decided to lick my wounds as an indie writer and see how that went before thinking about submitting again.
As an indie writer, I released Bear With Me, a standalone novel but still set in Whitsborough Bay like all my others. I was very proud of it but it didn’t soar. In fact, none of my books were setting the charts alight but I was working so many hours that I had no time available to invest in marketing and promotion so I had to just keep ticking along.
A lot of work travel meant a lot of time on trains and in hotel rooms to write and I managed to pen two Christmas books. I’d only planned to write one – Charlee and the Chocolate Shop – but I mentioned a shop called Carly’s Cupcakes in that book and suddenly had a vision for who Carly was and what her story was. It was begging to be written. So in October 2017, I released twoChristmas books and they sold far better than anything else I’d written … although still not quite as well as I’d have hoped.
I made a big decision in the summer to start studying towards a Masters in Creative Writing through Open University. I’d never thought I’d study again but I liked the thought of taking the next academic level in a subject I loved. If I was going to study, a sacrifice had to be made and the only one I could make was leaving Brownies. After 7.5 years with the pack, I stepped off my perch in December.
I was surprised to discover that a Christmas book is not just for Christmas. Charlee and Carly continued to sell in January, February, March … and all year round. It seemed that Christmas books were winners so I wrote another two for release ahead of Christmas 2018: Christmas at The Chocolate Pot Cafe and Callie’s Christmas Wish, the latter being a follow-on to my novella Raving About Rhys.
Word was out, though: Christmas books sell. Everyone seemed to be writing them and neither book did as well as the two the previous year. And then Amazon sent me to Amazon Jail. They claimed I was engaging in activities to manipulate the sales and downloads of Searching for Steven. I wasn’t. I’m not clever enough or technical enough to even begin to know how to do this. So Steven was stripped of his rankings in all markets meaning he couldn’t be found in any searches unless someone specifically looked for that title. Sales practically disappeared.
Earlier in the year, I attended the RNA’s conference again. It wasn’t yet finished but I pitched a book called Wish I Could Tell You Goodbye which told the story of several women who needed to say goodbye to someone or something in their lives but were struggling to find the strength to do so. It explored whether meeting each other via a bootcamp could give them the encouragement to let go. The setting was inspired by my bootcamp experiences and I was very proud of this piece of work. I pitched to four publishers who all enthused about it but two wanted it to go down a cosy romcom route and two wanted me to keep the contemporary women’s fiction I’d moved towards in my writing. They were particularly passionate about it finding a home with them. Only, when I finished it and submitted to them, they didn’t want it.
The rejections floored me and, with low sales across all my books, I began seriously questioning whether I could write or whether it was worth the heartache. Yet being a writer is who I am. I wouldn’t know what to do with myself if I didn’t tell my stories. The sales figures may not have screamed success but the reviews did and I’d regularly pick myself up looking at them.
In a home-based role, the weight continued to pile on and my despondence about my writing didn’t help me in doing anything about it. The long hours I worked between the day job, my Masters, and trying to write didn’t help either.
I started the year still languishing in Amazon jail. They finally released me in February and put me straight back in less than two weeks later, starting the hideous episode all over again.
A couple more rejections for my latest novel came through. Whilst acknowledging that I was a good writer with a great location for my books, they either didn’t “get” the bootcamp setting or didn’t think the book had enough of a “hook”. This floored me again and, on top of the Amazon jail situation, I wasn’t in a happy place with my writing in early 2019 and was flooded with doubts about my future as an author.
But things were about to change in a big way. On 1st February, a new publisher called Boldwood Books opened for business and they sounded different. Reading their website, Boldwood sounded like the perfect home for me. I just had to hope that they “got” the setting and thought it had a sufficient “hook”. Fortunately they did and, on 20th March, I received a whopping nine-book-deal from Boldwood for four brand new books and five from my back-catalogue. Woo hoo! It couldn’t have come at a better time.
Wish I Could Tell You Goodbye got a new identity as The Secret to Happiness and was launched on 3rd September. It came out in all formats (eBook, audio, large print and paperback) globally from day one; something very unique to Boldwood as part of their “publishing reimagined” offer.
The Secret to Happiness had performed well during its first month out but a Bookbub promotion in Canada and Australia in October saw me become an international bestseller with the amazing positions of number 9 and number 20 respectively in the overall Kindle charts in those countries. I still can’t quite believe I’m both a top 10 bestseller and an international bestseller. Eek! Some major promotions in the UK also saw the book achieve its highest UK chart position within the top 600 which was very exciting too.
More good news was on the way. After two years of studying, I passed my MA in Creative Writing with distinction which I couldn’t be more thrilled about. I worked so hard to achieve that grade but creative writing can be very subjective so I wasn’t sure I was going to quite get there in the end.
The Write Romantics still exist and the group have gone from being ten unpublished writers to ten published writers, whether that be traditionally, indie or through a hybrid approach. We no longer blog together as we simply don’t have the time with our individual social media activities to manage, but the support of the group is invaluable. Whenever one of us are experiencing a high or low, whether in writing or in life in general, there’s someone there to give a virtual hug of sympathy or congratulations. I’ve met every member at least twice and am very fortunate in having forged a very strong friendship with the fabulously talented Sharon Booth who I meet a couple of times a month to catch-up on all things writerly, and eat cake. Perfect!
As for 2020 and beyond…
I have a whopping six books coming out with Boldwood Books next year. That might sound excessive but five of them are from my back-catalogue. The ‘Welcome to Whitsborough Bay’ series that started my writing journey has been re-edited, re-packaged and re-titled. The novella has been combined with the follow-up Christmas short novel to make one book, turning this into a four-book series. Making Wishes at Bay View will be out on 14th January, New Beginnings at Seaside Blooms and Finding Hope at Lighthouse Cove will be released on 20th February and Coming Home to Seashell Cottage will come out on 17th March.
July 2nd will be the publication day for my next brand-new Boldwood release, which doesn’t have a title at the moment. Then Christmas at The Chocolate Pot Cafe will be re-released on 1st October. This was my Christmas novel last year and I have added several new chapters to extend the story. I needed to keep it under 70k at the time because I’d submitted it for a competition where it couldn’t exceed that amount but, whilst the reader wasn’t left hanging, there was an aspect of the story I could have explored more and this has been my opportunity to do so.
My July release is part one of a new series and the second part will be out on 7th January 2021. I’ve only written one chapter so far so need to get cracking on that one very soon!
It’s still my dream to be able to write full-time one day. Maybe 2020 will be the year it happens. Got to dream big!
Wishing you all the best for a wonderful start to the new year and new decade. See you on the other side.