A lot has changed in my life in the past three years, but there’s been one constant: my novel, The Girl You Left Behind. It’s been my shadow, growing and evolving from a dream-inspired scrawl in a notebook to a first draft, a second, a third, a fourth, and now, finally, into a finished product.
For the first time since 2015, I am no longer writing a book — I have written it.
It feels momentous. It’s always a wonderful thing to have completed a novel, and that’s a feeling I experienced before with my book Beyond the Call of Beauty, but this story is different. Special. There’s a part of me in it, a part I never knew I had, and I’m both terrified and proud to share it with the world. Thanks to this book, I finally understand that famous Ernest Hemingway quote:
“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”
While working on this book, I got my heart broken. It was sudden, cruel, soulless. I felt used and betrayed, like I’d been tricked by a good actor with a pretty face, and I was utterly humiliated by it. But mostly I was sad. At the time, I just wanted back what I had lost. I missed it terribly. I felt like I couldn’t breathe.
That’s where the story begins. But it isn’t where it ends.
Like Hemingway says, I bled. My situational depression spurted onto the pages, staining the story in the same way as it had stained my life — but this time, I could turn it into something beautiful. I channeled those terrible emotions into art, delving into almost literary corners of my ability, creating characters to hate and to champion, language I love, a story that’s full of darkness and fear and hope…
The basic plot is exactly the same as the first draft: girl tries to escape hostage situation. But over time, the story became so much more than that. The layers built up, the tone shifted, it became deep and meaningful and empowering. Perhaps it was all of those things before, back in that messy first draft, but my depression helped me crystalise it.
I wrote over a year-and-a-half ago in my first post about my heartbreak that working on the book was very cathartic for me — but honestly, I almost gave up writing for good. While I’m thankful I was able to channel my darkness into something so fulfilling, it was a struggle. I wrote, but it was in fits and starts. I’d have a good week and write a chapter, then spend two or three months trying to force out the next one. My main character got stuck in a bathroom for a whole winter because I didn’t have the motivation to write her out of it, even though the door was open. I detested myself every day for being so slow, for killing the momentum of my Daily Mail competition shortlisting in August 2017, for wasting so much time…
But it wasn’t my fault. Heartbreak robbed me of over a year of my life.
As much as I wanted to be the poster girl for writing through your feelings, the reality was very different. When you’re utterly devastated and can’t stop crying and stare out of the window, day after day, hoping to not wake up tomorrow and crying even more when you do, it’s hard to be motivated to work on a novel — especially one that relies on you revisiting all the painful things you’re trying to forget.
So while the book was my catharsis, it wasn’t my escape. It was a prison.
When I had nothing, when I hated myself and my life, I still had writing — and that was my way out. The hope of one day seeing The Girl You Left Behind published was my lifeline, the only buoyant thing in a sea that stretched to the horizon. But to finish the book, I had to immerse myself in the darkness, the depression, the heartbreak, day after day, to reach the end. I was trapped with my own demons, feeling the same emotions in my main character Katy that I was trying to forget in myself, and had to feel the shattering of my heart, fresh and raw, every time I opened the document.
That’s why completing this book feels so special to me. I fought for it. I battled. I faced off against the deepest, darkest parts of myself — and won.
At times this felt like a never-ending novel, one I’d be working on forever. I suppose in an odd way that became a comfort: I’d lost the guy, but at least my novel would always stick around, right?! But snapping out of that, pushing past it, kicking through sadness with anger and determination and pride, helped me heal myself — and my protagonist. Just as I learnt to see things as they really are and rely on myself, so did she. So while our lives and stories are very different, we share the same heart.
And we both learnt to fix it.
When I finally typed “The End”, saved the file, and sent it to my parents and critique partners to read, it was like a switch flipped. The story is out there — not as a part-written competition entry or a badly explained elevator pitch forced out of me over drinks, but as a real, readable, beginning-middle-end novel.
And now that I’ve shared it, it can never go back to being just text in a Word document.
In a way, the story is no longer my own.
And after living in its misery for so long, I can’t even express what a relief that is.
The next step is a big one, and it’s scary. Once my latest batch of readers get back to me and I fix the (many) glaring typos they’ve found, it’s time to send my work to literary agents in the hope of getting published. It’s an exciting and terrifying prospect, because I could wipe out and get nothing but rejections or find myself suddenly “in the industry” and with the prospect of an actual career in writing, something I’ve been dreaming of since I was a child…
But whichever way it goes, I’m ready. Finally. I went from a broken shell of a person to someone with a big, shiny, polished product ready to show to the world, and although I’m so grateful for the support of friends and family during the past couple of years, I did the hardest parts alone. And I did it for me.
The Girl You Left Behind is my own heartbreak repackaged into something separate from me, something other — and it’s something I’m proud of in so many ways.
Whatever happens in 2019, I will always be proud of it — and myself.