Hi pals. Yes, here I am, a whole year having not posted a single thing. But hey, at least I have another WHOLE NOVEL done and dusted! How did that happen?! No, seriously, how the hell did that happen. ANYWAY, now I'm in holiday mode, and wanted to offer you my top ten tips for getting that novel actually written. Are you avoiding the actual act of writing, because it’s easier to think about it than to do it, the perfect book remaining snugly in your head? Are you offering to make paper chains and the fifteenth glass of eggnog rather than wade through pits of boredom and despair? Congratulations, you’re a writer.
You may have a few days off work, so you may want to write - ha - I mean, who am I kidding, I'd rather be lying horizontal on the sofa with sea-salt caramel chocolates and It's A Wonderful Life. But you know, little puddings, it ain't gonna get written if you don't actually write it.
In my experience, inspiration only gets you so far; it’s TENACITY and a willingness to adapt that will get you farther. If you want to write for an audience (and I reckon 100% of the writers I’ve met do), the beautiful power of your imagination means nothing if you are not prepared to put in the hours to tease it out, word after word, until a paragraph becomes a chapter, then a book. A lot of the work that goes into a novel is a repetitious exercise in failure. Writing isn’t an escape, it’s turning up to face yourself. In the quest for personal perfection you will experience profound frustration, for what you see in your fantasy will resist translation to the page.
Right, that’s the tough talk over from your drill sergeant. As the incomparable Maya Angelou once put it, 'if you get, give. If you learn, teach.' Well: I've got, I've learned, and here you are.
Happy Christmas to you all, and thanks for being such a wonderful bunch.
1. There will always be someone better than you
I'm ok with this. I find it comforting. It’s liberating. You just keep doing what you’re doing, and let everybody else get on with their business. Because somewhere, someone is looking at you in awe.
2. Tell people you are writing a novel
Don't be too precious; you ain't writing One Hundred Years of Solitude. Although I accept announcing to your nearest and dearest about your plans can be a double-edged sword. As soon as I did this, all I got for the next three years was ‘how’s your novel going?’ Which, as irritating questions go, is up there with ‘so, when are you going to start trying for a baby?’ HOWEVER. If you announce to people that you’re writing, there comes a certain desire to prove to them that this is exactly what you’re bloody well going to do. It’s not a perfect strategy, but it helps create some skewed sense of accountability in what is actually a very hard slog. And tell only kind people, because they will encourage you.
3. Don’t fixate on ritual
There’s a romance about writing that just won’t go away. We have to drink fresh coffee in our turrets, we have to write at dusk to the sound of a trilling blackbird, we have to be wearing Aunt Maud’s silk kimono. We have to look like her, above - the one holding the quill FFS. It's all bullshit. I wrote The Miniaturist at any hour of the day, in offices, on the Tube, in theatre dressing rooms. I wrote The Muse looking like someone had just dragged me backwards through a bush, and I mainly ate mini cheddars. If you wait for a room of your own, you’re going to be waiting a long time. Some people need silence, some people need noise. I just needed the words on the page.
4. Write what you want
No one in publishing predicted that a book set in 17th century Amsterdam about a dollhouse was going to be a bestseller. Neither did I. But it’s what I wanted to write. DO NOT WRITE FOR THE MARKET and DON'T UNDERESTIMATE PERSONAL PASSION.
5. First draft blues
Here’s the paradox: you will not be able to truly write your book unless you have written your book. GET. IT. OUT. YOUR. HEAD. Everything will probably change later – that’s fine. At this stage, accept deep imperfection. If it’s a mess, so what? If the characters aren’t behaving themselves, big deal. If the layering and nuance isn’t there, why would it be? You’ve only written it once. You are only human, you simply cannot monitor your pace, your tone, your fifty-five characters, your imagery, your themes, your atmosphere in the first go. All this will come in subsequent drafts. So be kind to yourself in these early days. But don’t stop. Do not stop.
NO. DON'T STOP.
How do I not stop! I hear you cry. I know. It’s shit. God, I know. When things are excruciating in this stage (namely any day that ends in a ‘y’), I tend to use the program Write or Die to get some actual text on the page. And what often happens, is that in the act of writing, I work out what I want to write. My original idea might have fizzled, but if it’s 30 words or 3000, there will be something there that will take me on to the next scene. And yes, I may discard most of it later, but something might stick and that’s better than nothing.
So let’s say you have a whole draft. It’s genuinely a massive achievement, so pat yourself on the back. Now the real writing can begin.
6. Read it out loud
I did this five times through my drafting – exhausting, but so helpful. The brain, when you read silently, often corrects things for you. It's only when you hear the rhythm of your sentences aloud, does your choice of words fall, or clear the hurdle. Muddy images, unintentionally repetitious adjectives, things that just don't *land*...the list goes on. Just do it.
7. Accept when something isn’t working
There will be other solutions. If your car was stuck against a brick wall, would you keep revving it in the same direction? Nope.
8. You’re going to be rejected
Back up your passion with this acceptance: Not everyone is going to like it, some people are going to truly loathe it, and no one will care how hard you’ve worked.
But one day, someone will give you some help, or a chance. And you’ll be ready by then to take it.
9. Ask yourself, ‘why am I doing this?’
It’ll help keep you focused. For me, writing my first novel was an act of hope. Five years ago, at the age of 27, I wanted something in my life to change. I wanted to write, and I wanted to be published. I wanted to see if I could make it work. But now I know that it was the act of writing, not being published, that saved me.
10. And finally:
Writing is a leap of faith. But how wonderful that the person you’re putting faith in is yourself.
I'm a bit knackered, so I don't know if any of this makes sense. But here goes.
When I was very little I wanted to be a vet. I loved lambs in particular, kittens and ducklings. My rationale to become a vet was that I liked to cup these creatures in my hand, to keep them safe and warm, to feed them and listen to their quirky cheeps. In reality, it was Aslan and Mr. Tumnus, Ratty and Mole, and Mathias from Redwall that I loved. Those animals in my hands and the ones in my head had made a seamless connection, animated by the power of being read to, and reading on my own.
When I was a teenager, I wanted to be an actress. As an adult, in between office jobs, I managed, in part, to fulfil that dream. I took such pleasure in it; it would be disingenuous to deny that a crowd laughing at your comedy is one of the greatest highs ever to be experienced. But the other side – scrimping for auditions, repetitious office work – wasn’t as freeing and fun as once it had been – when I was twenty-one and never going to age.
And yet. This is no sob story, as by now you know.
Nope, I didn’t go to a ‘posh’ school, and no, my dad didn’t sort me out with an internship at a publisher, and I never had a trust fund, and I’ve been working for my own money since I was 16 (shout out WH Smith and The Body Shop) – but none of these truths can be turned into ‘girl done good’ stories.
It has been my right, my privilege and my luck to write this novel.
I am lucky that I could entertain thoughts of being a vet or an actress at all. In fact, I am privileged from all corners – I am white, straight and cis, so have never experienced racial, sexuality or gender-based discrimination or abuse. I am educated to the hilt, at the state’s expense. Yep, I have had my fair share of street harassment and male condescension, but within my inner life I am in health, financially capable, and from a family and group of friends who have always held up a glowing yet measured portrait of me, reflecting back a constant message that I had a right to try and achieve whatever I wanted.
This cheerleading didn’t mean I’d actually achieve those dreams, of course – and the difference is important here: the mentors I had never told me that I would automatically be whatever I wanted to be, or have whatever I wanted to have, simply from my sheer act of desire. That would be poison in the ear to any child, lazy thinking, leading to mortified disappointment and therapist’s fees. No. I repeat: they taught me, as society and TV and novels taught me – that it was my right, as Jessica Burton, aged 12 and white and able-bodied and not suffering any bullying, to go out and have a go. And they would be waiting, ready to catch me when I inevitably fell.
Not everyone hears that message down the years; have a go, try your luck! Some people face profound adversity, and have no choice but to make that message themselves. Their decision to do this is far more admirable than anything I have achieved this year. I know this sounds a bit pious, but shit, according to my Top Trumps card, I should have written ten bestsellers by now – and I went to a comprehensive! A boarding school attendee should have written ONE HUNDRED bestselling novels. This is reductive and binary, and I am being flip – but I do wonder why people congratulate themselves for getting some job or promotion when they have been socioeconomically advantaged in every way over everyone else in their society from the very off…
This group exists in a protective cocoon, it likes to think it made its journey on its own, that it has earned its glories entirely itself, and that good fortune is a moral justice. This is reductive and untrue. We do not exist independently of other people. For most of us, there has usually been a whole, often intangible network that has kept us at our dreams, whilst even barring others from theirs.
We play our part, of course, we dreamers who work hard – but who first handed us the script? Who suggested that we take the lead? Who keeps us going when we want to quit? You think it’s you, but ‘you’ don’t even exist. ‘You’ are the fragments of everyone and everything you’ve ever known and seen – both real and fictional – both the villains in your life and the wondrous queens.
Yes, you work hard, but what the hell else is there to do, when no one is going to do it for you? And alas, working at something does not mean you will be rewarded in the way you thought you would be. But this does not mean that when you do find reward, you should think it was only because of your hard work. You also got lucky. The world is enormous and brimming with misfortune. We should not be ashamed of luck. We should try and pass it on. I intend to do so in 2015.
A novice in these things, once my novel was published, I thought my job would be done. Such an uphill climb it had been to get to that point, I was unaware that this was merely the beginning. Over seventy events later, talking about the book, I can tell you that the view is astounding.
I get asked a lot – ‘how does it feel?’ – the no.1 Sunday Times slot – twice now, once in the summer and then we managed to take Christmas no.1! – the top ten for over two months, over 140,000 copies sold in the UK, holding my own against astonishing big-hitters, the National Book Awards New Writer of the Year and then Book of the Year, and finally Waterstones Book of 2014 – and I often find myself responding with clichés. Amazing, wonderful, incredible. Life-changing. The last phrase is nothing more than a sleeve, brushing my hand in the dark.
Here is the best description I can give of what I will take from the last year: I am glad, looking back now, that I did not set the West End alight with my Ophelia, my Stella, my Perdita. In fact, failure was the greatest gift I gave myself. It encouraged me to think harder. Many people have helped set me on the path I find myself today – and I am grateful to each and every one – for the chances withheld as much as given.
Let me stop now, and remember how melancholy the fate of Humpty Dumpty used to make me as a child. (Yep, just re-read that, and I’m keeping it in. Last day of the year and everything.) I hope that life is long, but I picture Humpty, a fragile vulnerable egg, just sitting on his wall because he bloody wanted to. That’s all he wanted, his shining happy eyes! And then he fell, and no one could put him back together. No one. Not all the king’s soldiers could let him have another chance. This is a very serious, very awful thing.
I have been put back together, several times, and though it’s inevitably been a bodge job, as we are all bodge jobs, and we will never be as innocent as once we were – at least I was allowed to crawl back onto that wall.
Gratitude can sound cloying, so here I am, talking about fictional eggs. They are gargantuan, the gifts of this year, and my words will not be enough. Thank you, Juliet Mushens and Sasha Raskin, my wonderful agents, for all the hard work and laughter. Thank you, Francesca Main and Lee Boudreaux for the extraordinary editorial care. Thank you, Sandra Taylor, for an astonishing publicity campaign that you executed to perfection over months and months. Thank you, Sam Eades, for grabbing the tiller of The Good Ship Min and making the last few weeks so enjoyable, with more to come! Thank you Jodie Mullish, Catriona Row, Lauren Welch, Paul Baggaley and everyone else at Picador, especially the design team who have now come up with 7 iterations of The Miniaturist, each one more beautiful than the last. Thank you to all the incredible hand-selling booksellers around the country who gave my book so many legs-up I can't even count them anymore. You are all brilliant. And thank you most of all to you, the reader: for those who didn't like the book, I'm sorry, and there are lots of other books for you to read. For those who did, THANK YOU for taking the time, for sharing your pleasure, both with me, and with other readers. I am privileged to have you, and I am so grateful – you will just never know quite how much.
All that remains is to thank god for my early failures, eggshell egos, false starts and people telling me that I had a right to try. As Beckett said, Fail Better. It is a privilege, to try and to fail, to turn up and be lucky.
A Sparkling and Happy New Year, to you all. If you’re careful on those brick walls, the views are excellent.
It's Christmas time, and as a little pressie for those interested, I'm posting a link to the prologue and opening chapter of The Miniaturist. A strange woman watches a funeral in the Old Church and our heroine, Nella Oortman, turns up to her new, mysterious home...
Just click this link: http://extracts.panmacmillan.com/extract?isbn=9781447250913
Happy Reading! (Apparently it is 14 mins reading time. Who can tell? Don't rush!)
A curious thing is happening to me. Every time I write a sentence, tiny weights seem to latch, slipping over words like lumpen clogs across the page, ungainly, worrisome. Nothing is good enough. It will never be good enough. It is completely terrifying. I’m a cyclops with a giant eye, watching myself, writing. It is hideous and so am I. I’m not just monosighted, if we’re with the Greeks. I am Icarus, envisioning wax words pooling round my feet as if I’ve soiled myself.
There has been so much grace, so much luck. But now I must try to adjust. At book events, I declare how I want to recreate my previous writing conditions and become the bloody-minded innocent I was for four years. I do it out of superstition and nostalgia, and ultimately such a declaration is foolish. I am no longer she. Plus, a lot of that experience was awful. I wrote The Miniaturist and I protect its characters like a mother bear her cubs. I can no more detach myself from them than pull off my own arm.
Is this a confession? It’s certainly not a diary entry, otherwise it wouldn't be here.
So what is the solution? Identify the problem first.
Writing to a standard I find acceptable is the problem. And even then, 'acceptable' won't cut it.
When The Miniaturist became a success, other publishers held meetings in their offices to understand what had happened. The book was a puzzle to solve, and once solved, it would be repeated. Many reasons were mooted for its success. The meat of the novel was one of them, but this reason ranked equally among the others. There was the superlative, open-handed approach of publicity and publisher, and rightly so, because the business end of things is a sharp place to be, my friends. There was my subsequent willingness to talk about the book. My yellow dress helped, according to the Wall Street Journal. The welcome from booksellers was a gift from God. Readers buoying the baby up with word of mouth. Then newspapers, radio, then TV. Kismet, luck and timing. A thing that happened this summer as the world descended into war.
But there was one reason that was never suggested, in those boardrooms across the city. And it is the one elusive thing that would stop this infernal cyclops eye swivelling over my second novel, waiting any moment for Odysseus to plunge the stake.
Love was never suggested.
I wrote The Miniaturist with a love that bordered hate. This book made me cry with frustration. I loved the people in it, and for some crazy reason I had declared myself to be in charge of them. The tussle for responsibility made me hate myself. I hated myself because what I wanted to achieve seemed impossible and so elusive, and yet the novel had my undying commitment.
But it was written out of love and sold out of love and ironically enough, when it comes to a creative endeavour, you can’t make that shit up.
I want to fall in love again. And yes, I'll take the hate as well. Sam, Odelle, Marjorie and Pamela, Olive and Isaac, Harold and Maria, Charlie Grimes and Hugh – you’re all there in me, misty. I’m looking for you.
Sooooo. I have intended to put something up here about the craziness of the past few weeks for quite a while now. Immediately after the launch party on 1 July, I wanted to write something. I didn’t. Or couldn’t. Then the book was actually published, and Waterstones made it their July Book of the Month and then, Toto, well, THEN things went a little unusual and I haven’t updated diddly squat since.
The Miniaturist debuted at no.4 in the national charts amongst such stars as Robert 'JK' Galbraith, Stephen King and Caitlin Moran. According to Nielsen Book Scan, It has stayed in the top 5 (bar one TERRIBLE week of slipping to no.6), at one week even sitting pretty at no.2. - NUMBER TWO FOR PETER AND PAULINE’S SAKE. For the whole of last week it sat at no.3 after Philippa Gregory and Haruki Murakami. I completely mean it when I say this was not what I envisaged, because quite simply I had no vision beyond publication date.
The indie booksellers and sellers at Waterstones have been INCREDIBLE. Hand-selling, passion and skill have made all the difference. I am eternally grateful to each and every one of them. Leilah Skelton in Doncaster Waterstones (pictured above) made a rotating Peebo, gave away miniature copies of The Miniaturist with every purchase and made speech bubbles on cut-outs of the characters, reminding passersby that they could catch it on Book at Bedtime on Radio 4. David Cooper and Nicky Bristow in Lincoln Waterstones sold 300 copies of the book in one month alone. Everywhere around the country, dolls houses and miniature worlds sprang up in bookshop windows. I did talks around the country from south to north, and feasted on Marin’s candied walnuts and Amsterdam townhouse cakes. The response has been overwhelming and too much still to properly process. Every independent bookshop I visited (shout out to Bookseller Crow, Booka Bookshop, Urmston Books, Wallingford Books, Toppings, Lindum, Mainstreet Trading, Forum Books, Plackitt & Booth and more to come!) was a warm, welcoming place, hand-curated, lovingly looked after, each one a unique and heartening experience. I am so lucky, I know that.
Once sales had surpassed even positive expectations, the newspapers got interested, to the point where I found myself on BBC News 24. In one photo shoot I was actually photo-shopped into Petronella Oortman’s doll’s house, pretending to peer around it, exploring its nooks and crannies. It was a moment pretty much up there, in glorious metaphysical Technicolor. Some journalists asked about the money, others didn’t. My parents entered the fray, reluctant, curious, my mother laughing her head off. She came to see me do a book talk for the first time, and said quietly afterwards, ‘that was brilliant, Jess. Quite brilliant.’ It meant an awful lot, and she didn’t sound that biased.
The only way I could think of scrapbooking the last mad 8 weeks was by writing a list. There’s no particular order. It’s just how it came to mind. Obviously this is my own subjective experience. But to all of you who have read and loved The Miniaturist, and pressed it into the hands of others, I thank you. You have made all the difference.
33 THINGS I HAVE OBSERVED SO FAR:
1. Brightening eye drops are useful. They help avoid the just-smoked-five-joints-in-a-row look that touring gives you.
2a) Berocca also helps. Echinacea. Hot baths. Water. Sleep.
2b) And yet the urge to splurge at the end of 8 weeks of talking, can never be underestimated. Do it. You’ll never be in that hotel ever again.
3. A sense of self-doubt will be inevitable. That, or sociopathic egotism. It appears I chose the former, or it chose me – but it would be nice to find a happy medium. Talking about your work and your book, and your boon and your family and your feelings is, ironically, somewhat alienating. You have taken deviations from the person you thought you were. Words pour. Faces watch you. Who on earth are you? Suddenly you are playing many parts.
4. This can be very fun.
5. 99% of people are lovely.
6. Sometimes it is hard to gauge your own responsibility in the myriad operations going on behind the scenes. Things move so quickly. The best thing is not to worry too much.
7. It's a good idea to be thinking about or writing the next book. You know all the zen stuff about journeys being more important than destinations? Yeah, that.
8. A journalist reads your book (thank you), then repeatedly misnames a character throughout the entire interview. My favourite was 'Stella' for 'Nella'. It’s 6 weeks in to the book being out, and you’ve spoken to journalists in Australia, USA and UK, and you are still unsure about whether to correct her. You hesitate, then don’t say anything. Like most things that unsettle you, it soon becomes funny. What IS text, anyway?
9. When the criticism comes – and it will come, whoever you are – you realise how like any human bean, you really value praise. You are not a sieve; things do not drop through you. They stick. You wish you could be stronger.
10. Praise is hard to acknowledge without sounding like a twat.
11. Ultimately, you should avoid both praise and censure because it has nothing to do with the act of writing something.
12. That said, you will be blindsided – and I mean reduced to bridge-of-nose-tingling gratitude and joy – by the sheer generosity of readers and booksellers. These people are strangers, but they say things to you that you wish were recorded and piped every Sunday afternoon into your living room. Because then, for the rest of your time on earth, at any low moment, you would be able to remember that once upon a time, Grandma did something pretty cool. When they write to you, you keep hold of every single message.
13. Because in the whirlwind it's easy to forget.
14. An excellent publicist is golden.
15. Your book seems to change, even though the words inside it stay the same.
16. Don't do jazz hands, because that is the photo they will use.
17. Pride shouldn’t be a dirty word. You need to hone it, keep it quietly inside yourself, because you will need it.
18. Your book will put you back in contact with friends and colleagues you lost along the way. This will be a wonderful thing. Your old boss will be standing holding The Miniaturist at an airport bookshop, and he will bump into an actress you once understudied, and these two complete strangers will greet each other and express marvel and pleasure at the novel in his hands. A PA you worked with will send a photo of a tottering Miniaturist book order, piled high on your old desk. All of them will send their happiness and you will beam.
19. BBC newsreaders and their floor managers are some of the most skilled performers you will be lucky enough to meet.
20. Mariella Frostrup is your new spirit animal – a kind of foxy-autumnal-bright-eyed mischievous magnet of a woman. You will be relieved you held it together on Open Book, and you didn’t want it to end.
21. Your characters will be mauled, yet by others, they will be cherished. The same applies to your plot, your very choice of words. Never have you so keenly felt the subjectivity of art and the ultimate pointlessness of public opinion, including your own. You will be found wanting. You will be lauded. It really focuses you on what the hell actually matters.
22. What the hell actually matters is different for everyone and thus the cycle continues. The fact it's different for everyone meant your book got published in the first place, so it's no bad thing.
23. Never have you felt so grateful for unconditional love.
24. When a mezzo soprano and a lutenist play music to you that they have composed, based on the plot of your book, in the heart of Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum where this whole adventure started, your spirit will swell and your face will glow and you will want to jump up out of the audience and hug them both.
25. You have only written this book. It is very difficult therefore to talk about the process of writing in general.
26. People will ask about your ‘process’ nevertheless. You will remember cutting and pasting words into a Gmail and laugh to yourself, desperately. You will remember the walk through the woods. The brambles. The traps.
27. You will probably, at some point, end up contradicting yourself.
28. Nothing beats sighting the first stranger reading your book. Providing they are not looking deeply miserable.
29. It's funny how much you jump like a kid seeing your book on a Tube poster. Well, not really, because it's completely INSANE.
30. The photo of you looking like a maniac next to said photo will be the most popular photo you've ever taken.
31. 2 packets of Wotsits will aid all situations.
32. Your self in print is a seductive creature.
33. Beware her charms, but don’t feel you can’t give her a pat on the back. My hunch is she’ll probably be grateful.
A long time ago, a girl said to me, ‘Jessie, you’re always in the passenger seat.’ She was not talking literally about my being driven everywhere, and she meant it as a criticism. It came out a little lofty, and was a spiteful use of metaphor. Aside from the machinations of friendship, it proved how easy it was to remember cruelty and how much harder to hold a happy moment. Why are we so programmed to let the good times go? I suppose it’s so we learn from our mistakes.
I have tried to remember how it felt to sell my novel, a year ago today. I have tried to piece together a body of evidence before my own grows old and forgets, and I thought of calling it The Moment. Damascene moments make good copy; the passenger taking the wheel and all that.
Twelve months ago exactly, I spent an hour in a pleasant restaurant. I felt unease in the slack of my jaw, in my need to swallow constantly. I remember how the fashionable walls of fashionable brick were exposed to a thin high sun. I remember how the conversation between my literary agent and myself had grown skittish. We’d exhausted ourselves, both coated in the strange film of fatigue that follows euphoria. There were easy diners around us, an early lunch, me looking blankly at the menu, unable to focus on garlic prawns or dirty burgers, waiting for the phone to start its beep.
Three publishers across this enormous city, in whose offices we had sat and talked and laughed and fidgeted over the entire course of the morning – the three who were hanging in there after eight others had finally dropped away across the week – were deciding their best bid for The Miniaturist. I felt a little sick. I could have been sitting in a cathedral – those high walls, the unearthly light, the vague sense of judgment. Like a sinner, waiting for The Moment.
I hadn’t expected this. No one does. I have my rejection letters and embarrassed emails imprinted on my retina; so have we all. I had not permitted myself such wild fantasies – no Twitter messages sent secretly by enthusiastic editors, no conference calls with New York publishers – for the sole reason that I wanted to consider my writing a possible reality. Up to that point, to have someone want it was the only thing I’d wanted; a human need to have my work acknowledged. Of course, for any writer – or person, for that matter – daydreaming is utterly essential; the inward life, imagined time, both a nourishment and constant wellspring. But imagined realities can come to stymie as much as inspire. When you exist constantly on a dream planet, it’s easy to ignore the drearier one at hand (which is, in its way, also imagined, but that’s another essay). The best work is born when imagination runs headlong into adversity and restriction, instead of pretending those beasts aren’t there.
One of the publishers had given me a miniature silver birdcage with a parrot inside it, the pet of my main character. As the cocktails arrived my fingers played with this lucky charm, everything imbued with an awesome, fearsome feeling of a dream made flesh. Ironically, the insomnia had started a week before. A UK pre-empt had come within twelve hours of my agent’s submission. Brazil and Norway had already bought it. I had tossed and turned at night as if my mind was in a decompression chamber, trying to get used to the difference. Rio, Oslo, me in bed in south-east London.
You think it churlish, that I over-protest – it’s every drop of luck, after all – but let me admit it was a little frightening. All the time, the adrenaline was pumping. Now the interviews with the three UK publishers were over, those two states of alert and dope had mingled and I could no longer grasp the situation. Quite literally, I could not incorporate it.
The phone beeped. The first publisher. I sat opposite my agent, marvelling at her extraordinary calm as if she was reading the price of a bag of sugar. It was a brief email. Then another. Then the third. We knew the choice. I sipped my drink; refreshing, bitter. ‘Let’s call them back,’ she said. ‘Let’s make their day.’ The barman clinked his glasses as he took them off the shelf.
We made that day, Juliet and me – and for once, I wasn’t in the passenger seat. I wasn’t the driver, nor was I the car, nor even a lumbering carthorse. Was I a wheel, oiled and fast, momentarily possessing a symmetry of form and purpose? I wasn’t a bloody metaphor at all, which was both the liberation and the problem. For how to describe, to define the experience? Or why bother? It was what it was. The only truth was me, sitting in a restaurant with sweaty palms.
But I think I have to try. I have to bother.
Everything got back to the appearance of normal quite quickly. I made it so. It’s as though I refused to let the sale of the book to all those countries change anything. I wouldn’t let them in – the compliments, the looks of astonishment, the slyer ones of envy. The Miniaturist had come from a place of hidden safety, no expectation; a private pleasure that of course, of course, I had wanted to be public. But the change had been sudden and vertiginous. My shell was lifted off me and the wind was on my back. It was as if I’d been ushered to a golden ledge, invited to sit on it, and presented with a completely different view of my future.
Friends derived more immediate pleasure from my good fortune than I could allow for myself. I didn’t know what to do, but thankfully Amy collapsed in joyful giggles on the pavement and did it for me. Alice, who’d been away during it all, sat at a bus stop and burst into tears. Victoria, like her namesake, pretended I was empress of the world. Their secondary happiness was easier to process; in me, the doubt still burned. Why would it not – how could I be so lucky? It was a magician’s trick, except this time I was the magician, and by a sleight of hand I’d sawn myself in half.
I am not wise, because wise people, I realized, don’t wait for The Moment. I kept trying to feel it, people kept asking me, but time is not made of nuggets you put on your shelf and keep forever, frozen and perfect and easy to see. It’s what so many of us crave, but it’s impossible. So we make it up. Writing this, I have recreated a history. I have put a false nugget on the shelf. A really great one, mind. Shiny as hell. But not entirely true.
So when it came to my novel being sold, there was no particular point of change. The scales didn’t fall from my eyes. I didn’t rise up like a phoenix. I didn’t suddenly write amazing stories that poured from my fingertips like lilac wine. The week’s events and all the fragmented moments after, echo deeper inside me than I can articulate. Years knotted tight, that week I unspooled myself, and I have still not put the threads together. Perhaps I never will. Perhaps that is OK.
These months have brought great changes to my life, and yet much remains the same, for which I’m also grateful. I’m not even published officially yet. Who knows what that will bring? I do know that caution, in moderation, is no bad thing. Taken in small portions, it is a precious commodity. Not great cloying clags of the stuff, of course, but in the form of patience, in the shape of thought.
And there’s one other thing I’ve learned – gradually, (cautiously!), probably only in the last eight weeks. As if I were my own friend, I am happy that this luck has come along. What else is there to do but to deeply, truly enjoy these months? It would be foolish and selfish not to. That passenger seat, such a site of scorn? Well, it got me where I am, and thus it draws me on.
So today, Picador revealed the unique beauty that is the UK cover. It is hard to express my happiness at the sight of this extraordinary, collaborative piece of artwork. The time that has gone into it, the passion, the imagination, the wonderful match of cover with content - it is all plain to see for anyone who cares to look. All I can do really, is consider myself one of the luckiest writers around right now, and marinade in the talents of my publishers' design team.
Katie Tooke, Design Manager at Picador has blogged here about her approach to the cover, employing the services of A REAL LIFE MINIATURIST to make A REAL HOUSE. Yes, the house here is a real, 3D house and more about that will be revealed soon!
What was so extraordinary for me was the way Picador let me share in the process. I was consulted on the wallpapers, the paintings I'd like to see hanging on the walls, the expressions on the characters' faces...I mean, it was like Grand Designs or something. I am eternally grateful to Francesca Main (amainzing) for keeping me absolutely in the loop on the developments made each stage of the way.
Have a look inside the house! I would happily live here.
On my travels to Amsterdam, I saw these two items in the Rijksmuseum, so it was lovely to see both the colours and the shapes replicated in the house for The Miniaturist:
There are many references to maps in the book (unsurprisingly, given that Amsterdam was THE major trading hub of the world), and the miniaturist made a tiny version of one and put it in a golden frame. Just like in the story. Loving the use of Delft blue, as well.
and then there was Peebo, Nella's pet parakeet that she brings with her from the country. The miniaturist made a miniature version, and even a cage. Oh. My. God. And look at the shadow on the wall! The sense of depth is sublime.
And then, the figurines, drawn with excellent characterisation by Dave Hopkins. Here are the second-to-last sketches for Marin, Nella, Cornelia and Johannes before they were drawn with a blue wash. They are completely wonderful:
There was plenty of pictorial research available for the figurines, because, well, it appears that the Dutch LOVED to be painted. They were avid recorders of their own lives, even the simple act of folding linen!
And here are the figurines as mock cut-outs before being made with thicker card and washed in blue, sitting on Francesca's desk:
And then, to have a hand-painted sign saying THE MINIATURIST, JESSIE BURTON - just like the little mottoes of elusive meaning that the miniaturist sends Nella in the book - swinging from the house - well, reader, I nearly cried.
So there you are - as Katie said over on the Picador blog, the more you look, the more you see. I cannot WAIT for readers to get their hands on my novel and meet the characters captured in these figurines. This cover makes me want to dive in once more, and I've read the thing a million times.
Thank you SO MUCH to the Picador design team, for this handmade creation of beauty. I can feel the pulse of it, the heart and concentration it took. You are one in a million.
On Thursday, we were finally allowed to share the US cover of THE MINIATURIST, and I couldn't be more delighted with it. It's just so sumptuous, so sensitive to the feel of the book, and well, downright alluring.
I have had to sit on this one since last September, when I was sent an early version of this stunning cover. It has really taken my breath away, from the skirt whose folds lightly protect the houses and the people walking beneath, to the rings on the woman's fingers, and the little green parakeet whose shocking green offsets the beautiful, muted blues. The woman could be Marin, she could be Nella - or she could, of course, be the Miniaturist. The artist, Catrin Welz-Stein, even featured the two dogs in the novel! I also like the play on proportion - is the woman a giant, or are the people beneath her merely tiny? I love the falling snow - a nod to the fact the book is set in October through to January.
When I sent the cover to a friend, she commented that it reminded her of a wonderful, magic mixture of an Old Master painting with a fairytale atmosphere. She sent me this picture, (below left), a beautiful illustration by Errol Le Cain for the story The Snow Queen...and (below right) a portrait by the Dutch painter Frans Hals, of Aletta Hanemans.
Here's one more pic of Errol Le Cain's Snow Queen, just because I love her outfit so much:
Then I remembered one of my favourite images of a female figure in a snowscape. I was lucky enough to see this illustration below in the flesh at the Dulwich Picture Gallery. It's by Edmund Dulac and it's called The Snow Maiden. There is something so eerie and lonely about it, so otherworldly but vital - her strangely bridal dress, the dripping red heart in her hands...
And THEN I found two more images of women with parrots! Seems to be a theme...below left, Aubrey Beardsley's Woman Reading, and below right, Gerda Wegener's Lady with Parrot.
It just made me very happy, looking at these images.
Women, birds, snow - and that little added edge of mystery.
These just delight me. I cannot tell you how strange it is to see the title of your novel on a beer mat. I don't want to use them, I just like holding them, like a geologist who's found a special rock, or a botanist with a rare flower. Picador produced them as part of their Sales Pub Quiz, where Team Miniaturist was pitted against some of the best brains in Pan Macmillan. By some small miracle, we won. I had to stand up and talk about how the novel came about, and what the story was. I burbled, but briefly, which I suspect is always best. The Miniaturist is a story about wealth and frugality, appearance, lies and truth, the domestic, interior world and the public face we must all put on. It's about creativity and agency, love, betrayal and secrets. And lots of waffles along an Amsterdam canal.
Given the mystification seeming to surround submission and query letters and what to write in them - my agent, Juliet Mushens, and I thought it would be a good idea to publish my letter to her, followed by our subsequent email exchanges that lead to a face to face meeting.
This is quite a private admission right here, but I’m happy to do it because I hope, if anything, that it shows there are no draconian laws in place keeping you from these mythical agents. The only thing you can do is write your novel, redraft it (for me it was 6 times), then invite those agents to read. They won’t all accept your request, but that’s part of the process, too. This isn’t a post about how to write a novel that will get the notice of agents and publishers. I don’t know the secret to that - but if anyone *does* know, could they tell me? I’m cooking up book 2 right now and could do with the magic formula. Thank you please.
Juliet M, agent extraordinaire
Back to submissions. Perhaps the demon at play apart from your own neuroses (mine often weigh me down, but their engines keep me going) is an agent’s availability. Time is the most precious of commodities. Juliet works hard, all day and often evenings. She has her current client list to deal with. If she’s Juliet, she gets up to 50 submissions a week. If she’s Juliet, she will be working tirelessly on all fronts for the varying needs of her authors. But if she’s Juliet, she will make time, and if she likes your work she will get in touch.
I like very much the fact that my agent doesn’t believe in asking for exclusives. So many writers are flattered by this request when asked by an agent to stop showing other people their work and leave it solely with them. I’m special! I’m precious! They LOVE it! Well, maybe. But hold on a second and look beyond this request - yes, agents are busy, but they are asking you for your time as much as theirs, and you don’t even know them. You’re keeping all eggs tight in one basket which may end tipping up over your head.
Yes, agents need to protect themselves from wasting time on manuscripts that they then discover another agent has signed - but here’s the thing - if you use transparency and tell them the truth from the beginning, you could end up being the one to interview agents and not the other way round. You don’t need to be secretive about it. Just because you’ve sent to more than one agent doesn’t mean you don’t care who represents you, or that you’re wasting their time. Think of it as putting yourself out on tender. Who is best for the job of You? I told Juliet I had other offers. She asked me why I hadn’t accepted them, and how much time she had to read my work. I explained myself and we both were happy.
It’s tempting, but don’t jump at the first offer, if you’re lucky enough to get it. Tell the others you submitted to that you’ve been offered representation, and see what happens. You don’t need to look arrogant about it. Your career shouldn’t start in a partnership riddled with one-sided gratefulness and scraping bows that leave you with a crooked spine.
Hello! I'm Jessie.