Orange gremlins on the right side of the image on a darl grey back ground with the text from left to right into his mouth saying "Gremlins of self sabotage"

We all have gremlins, of some kind or another. Everyone has something they need to get over if they are going to achieve what they want. In my case, it was my first novel, The Jacaranda Letters.

After an English degree at Bristol University, I moved to London, did the usual ‘thinking about life’ jobs, and then entered the annual Vogue Talent Contest. I didn’t win, but I was the only finalist to be offered a job.

I spent two years there learning from the best, before moving on to edit London Portrait, and then to become Deputy Editor of Country Homes and Interiors.  I was in the running for Editor when my husband, a conservationist, was offered work in Africa; we moved to Sierra Leone, to Kenya to Cameroon and thence to Brussels, where I edited a magazine for the European Commission.

This CV feels impressive, even to me. So the question is, why on earth did it take so long for me to do what I really, really wanted: To write a novel and have it published?

I have thought about this a great deal.

Writing a novel is like dancing in Piccadilly Circus with your kit off. You lay yourself open to criticism from people you respect, those you don’t and those you’ve never met.

So, why do it?

Lesson one: Because I had to. I am a writer, and when I am in it up to my neck, I love it. And I had a rattling good story in my head.

I spent my childhood in India and Bangladesh, on a tea estate. No phone, no internet, no nothing. We wrote letters, and I had a correspondence with my great-aunt Helen who lived on the other side of India.  I never met her, but both my parents said lovely things about her. She was funny, she was well read, she bred dogs, she was supremely capable – and she never married. My father one day remarked that this was a pity. “Your grandfather Arthur was quite keen on her, I think, but your great grandmother wanted Helen at home to look after her, so he married your grandmother Kate.”

That’s all, but for some reason it stayed with me. Why didn’t she fight for Arthur? Had she liked him too? Why did he move smoothly on to her sister? What on earth was her mother like, to be able to demand so much of her?

I plotted and planned, I made up a story around this skeleton, and I played with it for about four years. Whenever I got stuck in, though, I would feel a peck on my ear, and a hoarse whisper telling me it was rubbish, asking why on earth I was wasting my time – there were lots of better writers and more interesting stories. I stopped and started. And stopped. I went to India, and it was like going home. I came back fired up, and began to write. And the gremlin got going again.

I was lucky enough to meet someone I had worked with many years ago, now a successful self-published writer.

I had met a very good agent once, and she had said she would represent me if I wrote a novel, but now she had retired and the woman she passed me on to said it wasn’t her kind of thing. So did about six other publishers.

Lesson: when someone shows interest, get on with it, or the moment passes.

My friend offered to read my work, and came back, full of encouragement. “This is a cracking story,” he said. “I loved it. You must finish it, and let me read it again.”

Lesson: you get help when you least expect it. Grab it.

I did. I wrote like the clappers, he read it, and was ruthlessly honest.  One page would have a heart-warming compliment, another “Clunky, clunky, clunky.  What on earth are you doing?”

It was tough, but I kept going. I am a journalist, and respond to deadlines and word counts and editors.

The gremlin gurgled in the corner, but I largely ignored it. I kept going, and eventually decided that it was finished.

I picked a title: The Jacaranda Letters. I found someone to help me format it and upload to Kindle and CreateSpace. I found a great designer for my cover. I put it on to CreateSpace. Several times. There was always a mistake, an unwanted space, and that’s when the gremlin really got going. “This is going to take you ages. Give up. Who’s going to read it anyway?”

But by now I had removed its claws. I was determined to publish, and publish I did. I have a website, a blog, 2000 postcards of the cover with purchasing details on the back. I am giving talks, and learning, slowly, lessons of self-publishing, and self-confidence. The Jacaranda Letters is doing well – it’s not great literature, but it’s good and it’s done. And I’m on my second – Feverfall.

The most important lesson?

The gremlin can be silenced. We should all take pleasure from that!

Sylvia Howe



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