Last April, as ambulance after ambulance made high-speed slaloms down my south London street and the Government’s evening briefings increasingly acquired the ghoulish unreality of nightmare, I survived by creating an imaginary world, and retreating into it.
I started writing my novel The Lock In over the Easter weekend, in the first throes of lockdown 1.0, when the quiet and the isolation were both new and already felt like they had always been. I finished writing it about eight weeks later, in mid-June, just as the world started tentatively to open up (well, for the first, fateful time). And so the book will forever remind me of the strangest of days — in more ways than one, since the idea for the novel actually spun out of my experience locking down with my boyfriend in our flat when we both had coronavirus last March, and spent a sweaty week managing our sky-rocketing temperatures and taking it in turns to cry until we became too dehydrated and had to stop.
Afterwards, I wrote a column for this newspaper about our feverish week — I believe my hard-won advice to those self-isolating was to make sure they had more in the cupboard than a tin of bamboo shoots, like us — and the day after the column was published, I was contacted by an agent, Hannah, who suggested I consider turning it into a book. Then the world closed down. I hate baking and Zoom quizzes make me want to join one of those cults where they don’t believe in the internet; so I wrote the book instead. A disclaimer for those who’d prefer not to relive it, The Lock In is not actually about lockdown, or me and my boyfriend. The column was just a nebulous starting point.
Instead, it is a comedy (I hope) about three house mates, Ellen, Alexa and Jack and Alexa’s Hinge date, Ben, all of whom end up trapped in an attic, while the ground floor of their New Cross house fills with water. They can’t call their poisonous landlord, the sort of everyman tyrant you may be familiar with if you’ve ever rented a home in London (raise your hand if you’re stuck in Generation Rent!), and they can’t break the door down.
As they improvise ever more inventive ways to escape, it turns out that Ellen knows Ben from somewhere (enter: plot twist), and Jack’s live-tweeting the whole fiasco… Here, I’m certain my publishers would agree, seems like the logical point at which to put the plug that the book is out now in ebook and audiobook, and available to pre-order in hardback, which is released in July...
Anyway, writing the book wasn’t just a pastime; it became a release (my second favourite, in fact, after staring at a blank wall until I realised an hour had passed, but definitely before doing burpees in my bedroom until the neighbours complained).
While the world felt like it was in freefall, routine became a mode of survival: mine was working from home for this newspaper during the day time — juggling Zoom calls and Slack diplomacy and how on earth to find something new to say about the Groundhog Days of lockdown — and then in the evenings, without the time and energy vortex of my commute, I would write, usually with a glass of wine. No offence to the day job, but I enjoyed the evenings a lot more.
I’ve been a journalist for almost a decade — which has involved a lot of words, many stories and very many contrived and unflattering photographs. But unless you count the play I wrote and staged for my extended family in the Christmas of 1999 — and trust me, no one who saw it would — I had never written anything “creative” before. After years of writing to a brief for my editors, there was something rather freeing about being let loose on my own imaginary world. I didn’t really plan, besides a slightly bonkers synopsis for my agent, and the sketchiest of chapter outlines. A modern commercial fiction novel tends to be between 80,000 and 100,000 words — I aimed for around 90,000 (and I think the finished book is around 95,000). I didn’t have a spreadsheet where I clocked my word count, or commit to a specific word count per day — and after deciding that Googling “how to write a novel” conjured tips that made me feel inadequate and a dreadful imposter (the audacity of contemplating writing anything, you fraud!), I stopped doing that too, and just went for it. What works for one person might not work for another.
It is also very hard to get any perspective on it while you’re in it. You will be careering along, tossing out adjectives and crafting your dialogue, enjoying it all (“could this be... the best book ever written?”) and then you hit a rut (“could this be... the worst book ever written?”). The answer is (obviously) it’s neither — and the main thing is just to finish it. It goes without saying that it helped a lot that I didn’t have much of a social life when I was writing The Lock In; I’m currently writing my second novel, and it’s a lot harder with the allure of wine on outdoor terraces and real, human interaction. Still, I’m enjoying it enormously — and this time around, it still feels like a retreat.
Before I published a book, I’d probably have said I knew a bit about publishing (I have an English degree! What else was it for?); I now know I hadn’t a clue about how any of the nuts and bolts work, and I’m still learning plenty. While I was writing last spring, I used to send a few chapters to my agent Hannah as I went along; once I thought I had a finished draft, she suggested a few tweaks and then took it off my hands and I entered the “submission” stage. Hannah had a hit list of editors at various publishing houses and imprints both big and small — people whom she thought would be a good match for the book — and then sent out the manuscript.
The response was fairly quick — within a few weeks, there were five editors interested, which meant the book went to a five-way auction. In the end, I signed a two-book deal with Michael Joseph — an imprint of Penguin Random House. I’m biased, but they’re brilliant.
After I signed the deal, there were a few weeks of using it as an excuse to go for drinks, and then it was back to work. My agent, my editor, Rebecca, and I had a brainstorm about the book, highlighting the parts of the storyline that should be amplified, and how to keep the pace moving. Rebecca provided me with a “line edit” of the book — as it sounds, a line-by-line analysis of the book — and I set to work refining the manuscript: polishing, and adding chapters, and trying not to be too precious about losing bits that no longer fit with the story (writers, eh?). With every round of edits, it felt more like a real book that might one day be published.
Which is a good thing, because it’s now out in the world. It’s exposing and exciting simultaneously; I’m not reading reviews — frankly, my anxiety doesn’t need anything else to feast on — and I feel a sense of vertigo every time someone tags me on Twitter in case it’s something I’d rather not see, but it’s a thrill when someone tells you they’ve enjoyed it; when your sense of humour translates and you learn you’re not the only weirdo that finds something funny. And after the last year, connection feels like the ultimate prize.
The Lock In is available in ebook now, or to preorder in hardback (Penguin Michael Joseph, £12.99)
LOSE THE PHONE: tips on finding your writing zone
Thinking of entering the Stories competition? While everyone will find their own way to get into the groove, here are a few writing tips that worked for me.
Don’t compare yourself with anyone else
The beauty of writing is that everyone does it differently. Find your own voice — and don’t worry if it doesn’t sound like someone else’s. Authenticity stands out.
Switch off social media
Maybe I’m a Luddite, but I found that it was easier to get in the zone when I wasn’t scrolling hyperactive newsfeeds (especially during a pandemic). The same went for WhatsApp. I’d stick my phone on Do Not Disturb, then leave it in another room while I was trying to get on with things.
Take a break
Plenty of them — and regularly. If you’re puzzling with something, step away from the screen or page, and come back. You’ll often find your brain has sorted it out while you thought you weren’t thinking about it.
Little and often
Instead of trying to have a single epic day a week where you write seven chapters, try writing for less time, more regularly. I found I got into the swing of things more this way.
Don’t chase perfection
You need a draft to work with, so persevere and get your idea down. You can finesse later.
Phoebe Luckhurst is a judge of the YA category of the Stories Festival
Now tell us your story
The Evening Standard and Netflix are launching the inaugural Stories Competition and Festival. The writing competition, “What’s Your Story?”, seeks a new generation of writers with strong stories and original voices. Entries should be written (up to 1,000 words) or recorded as a video (up to two minutes), and winners will receive mentoring from Netflix and Penguin. Categories: Young Adult (ages 11-17); Adult (ages 18+). Entries close on June 30 at 11.59am.
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Features Editor and Columnist, Evening Standard
Enter at stories.standard.co.uk/competition #ESstories