At the Bottom of the Stairs - Coming Soon!
I am delighted to say that my novella, At the Bottom of the Stairs, is going to be published by Reflex Press next year, having been one of the two runners-up in the Reflex Novella Award.
The award had 173 entries from 18 countries, so I am so pleased to be in the top three. At the Bottom of the Stairs is my second book. As it is seven years (and two children!) since I last had a publishing contract, it’s been a long time coming!
Since the award was announced I’ve been thinking a lot about the evolution of this book. I suppose all books start with a single line, but this is especially true in my case…
About five years ago, while on a day out, I took a walk along a river path to try to get our baby to sleep in the baby carrier while my husband entertained our toddler. As I walked, some words popped into my head: tomorrow they will laugh about this. I often find I get fragments like this but they rarely come to anything. This one though felt different. It was in the future tense and it made me wonder whether I could manage to write a good piece of flash fiction all in the future tense.
Jump forward a few months, and my flash story, Everything After Now, won first prize in one of the quarterly Flash500 competitions. It was one of my only first-placed stories ever so it felt very special.
Jump forward another 18 months and I was looking for a writing project. My youngest child was about to start pre-school and I was finally going to have a few hours a couple of times a week to concentrate on writing. I’d heard about this thing called a ‘novella-in-flash’ and it sounded ideal. I wanted to write something longer, but had only written flash for a couple of years by this point. The problem was, I didn’t have any fresh ideas! Then I remembered Everything After Now and another story that had done well for me, Wildflower, and got wondering what it would be like if the main character of those two stories was the same person.
I eventually pulled together a story of about 17 000 words, written in flash fiction chapters and entered it into the Bath Novella-in-Flash Award 2019. I ended up making the top-10 shortlist, but I knew this was only really a skeleton of the story I wanted to tell. With the insightful critiquing and great encouragement from Michael Loveday, the story grew. Not only did it double in length, but hopefully in depth too! I found that little events in those original chapters became recurring motifs. My tiny story about two people bumping into each other half a century after breaking off their engagement was now about tree-climbing, motherhood and female astronauts!
When I’d finished, I was worried that by telling the same story in twice as many words meant I’d only made it twice as boring! But the feedback I got from Michael and others suggested differently. I was encouraged to dream big for the finished manuscript - perhaps even to try and snag an agent.
I hadn’t thought of getting an agent for a novella, but there was one agent I’d always really wanted to work with. I sent it to her and within 24-hours had a full manuscript request! The dream! Then lockdown and furloughing happened and I heard nothing for some months. When I did hear it was to be told that the agency loved it, but they didn’t want to take on something of that length.
At the time I was a bit crushed, but quickly realised that I didn’t really want an agent after all. I didn’t want, for various reasons, to be tied to someone who would expect me to produce more prose fiction right now. Approaching a publisher seemed a better idea.
There was one publisher who had produced a couple of my absolute favourite novellas and who I had, therefore, promised myself I would be brave enough to submit to one day. I decided I had to go for it - as outrageously ambitious as it seemed. I submitted and I heard nothing for over three months, before getting another ‘we really like it, can we see the full manuscript’ request. Another three months passed. My novella was read by more people at the publisher and was taken to the acquisition meeting… where it was finally, after six months, declined.
It was now not far off a year since I’d finished it. It seemed as if at least half of my writing acquaintances were knocking out brilliant novellas and getting publishing contracts. I was feeling a little bruised and, as I read these other fabulous stories, beginning to doubt. I knew I should start sending out to multiple publishers, but - homeschooling again for months - was struggling to find time or self-belief.
Reflex Press were the publisher I really wanted to send it to. I love the flash fiction they produce and have read a couple of their books- which are always so beautifully produced. They are such a supportive part of the flash/short fiction community. While I was summoning up the submission courage, I saw that they were actually running a novella competition. All my excuses not to submit kind of fell away. At least if I shoved At the Bottom of the Stairs into the competition, I could feel as if I was being proactive, without actually having to do anything else for a few months while awaiting the results!
And now here we are. First there was the longlist, then the shortlist and then the publishing contract! I’m so excited to be published by such a wonderful press. It has felt a long journey since that first line popped into my head as I tried to get our stubborn baby (now a delightful boy coming to the end of his second year of school!) to nap. I never imagined it would lead to this. That random line has remained the first line of my novella and I can’t wait to share it - and all the lines after it - with you.