TOT was a format that worked for most scenarios. It went like this: opening paragraph describing a happy, everyday scene, followed by a line saying it wasn’t always the case for this person/family. You’d then go into the tragedy, which might be illness/very premature labour/an accident/a twist of terrible luck, and then move on to the triumph. This might be an amazing charity founded in someone’s memory, a greater appreciation of life, or the joy of a baby conceived after 25 years of infertility.
Sometimes you started, as novels usually do, with the “inciting incident” – the moment that changed everything, such as a positive pregnancy test.
Now and again these features were a tad too schmaltzy, and, yes, occasionally we parodied them in the office. But they were rewarding to write – and far easier than celebrity interviews because celebrities were too media-savvy, giving such neutral, guarded answers to questions that it was hard to get anything interesting from them. (At this point, though, I should disclose that the height of my celebrity interviewing was a soap star whom most of you won’t have heard of.)
“Ordinary” people usually gave far better quotes. When you asked the right questions, they spoke of elation and sadness, loss and kindness in surprising ways, with an authenticity that made your spine shiver. They gave you a glimpse into human resilience. The features were uplifting, sometimes inspiring, because they gave meaning to adversity.
In July 2006 my sister, Clare, was diagnosed with cholangiocarcinoma, bile-duct cancer. She’d just had her 41st birthday, and her sons were 13 and 11. The outlook was bleak.
One day I was sitting by Clare’s bed at the hospital and she told me that in addition to the heartbreak of not seeing her boys grow up and worrying about how her husband would cope, she was sad at the thought that she’d never go walking in Wales again. I nearly fell off the chair. Walking? Seriously? We were so different.
I told Clare I’d regret never having properly tried to get a book published, and she said, “Don’t put off your dream.”
And so I thought about an idea for a book (cancer-related, how unoriginal of me) and began to write seriously from January 2007. I wrote most days. I worked on my authorial voice – and discovered it was a teenage one (I remember so clearly how I felt as a teenager). I went to talks and workshops. I joined the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) and became part of a writers’ group. I even read a couple of “How to” books. When my first book was widely rejected, I paid for a report from The Literary Consultancy, and Catherine Johnson (author of The Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo and other great books) told me where I was going wrong. In fact, there was so much going wrong that she suggested I start a new book, but she told me not to give up.
There were highs – being taken on by an agent, winning a big competition – and there were lows – heaps of rejections, parting company with an agent and failing to get through two acquisition meetings with book four. Book five (now known as my debut) benefitted hugely from editor Natalie Doherty commenting on it as a result of me winning a raffle at an SCBWI conference. Eight years from when I started, just as writing despair was seeping into my bones, Scholastic offered me a 2-book deal.
As I set out on this writing journey, something incredible happened. It became apparent that although there was a mass on Clare’s bile duct, she might not have had cancer. There was a flicker of hope, but the doctors kept saying, “You’re not out of the woods yet.” A series of hold-our-breath moments followed. No cancer cells found in two liver biopsies, a diseased gall-bladder removed, inconclusive scans, a strange blood picture. Clare’s medical condition wasn’t straightforward – and still isn’t – but she’s cancer-free and able to work part-time. She’s seen her boys go to university, she volunteers on a charity helpline and she’s been back to Wales to go walking. When I told her about my book deal, she whooped louder than anyone.
One morning, soon after we realized Clare didn’t have terminal cancer, I went with her and Mum to IKEA in Croydon (because that’s how we roll). Before we bought any tea lights or napkins, we sat with coffees and Danish pastries in the sofa area and chatted. Then we cried, and it was hard to stop. We wept about everything that had happened. But our family (Clare and I also have a father and a brother) has changed. We’ve always been close, but we’re kinder to each other now. More grateful.
I loathe the phrase “Everything happens for a reason”. To me it makes no sense. It’s natural to want to find meaning in everything – that’s why the stories we tell usually follow a standard shape – but life is unpredictable and sometimes there are no silver linings. We can make our own luck by working as hard as we possibly can, but there are elements outside our control, particularly when it comes to publishing deals. We can look after our health, but ultimately there are people who are lucky and those who aren’t.
There will always be new and difficult challenges ahead. Last year I went to a talk called “Coping with Adversity”, given by Dr Christopher Hamilton, Senior Lecturer in the Philosophy of Religion at King’s College London. Adversity, he told us, is inevitable, and we have to make peace with that.
What it has taught Clare and me is that we have to make the most of the happiness that comes our way. And that, right there, is the perfect headline quote for a TOT.