“I wake up panicked at 2am every night”: an author reveals what it's (really) like to write a debut novel

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Write a novel: it's on many people's bucket lists, but how does one even begin such a mammoth task? How long does it really take and how many rejections do you face before someone is willing to speak to you? How is it even possible when you work a nine to five?

Authors often relay retrospectively rose-tinted versions of their own processes and provide us with vague advice such as 'just write,' when what we really want to know is if it's normal to spend hours crying over a laptop or if it should just flow like water, out of us.

Freelance journalist and published author, Harriet Reuter Hapgood's debut novel, The Square Root of Summer, entered a bidding war last year and will be released on 5 May. Here, she talks us through the real process of writing her first book, from pulling all-nighters, to suffering panic attacks in public.

August 2009

I’m a dissatisfied magazine sub-editor. The only writing I do is 10 words about shoes. When my grandmother is admitted to hospital with a stroke, I begin writing something – a sketch of an idea about a girl and a grandparent.

August 2010

I’m promoted to features writer, but I’m soon demoted and want to quit, but I have zero confidence and blow a job interview by doing Wobbly Cry Voice. On a solo trip to the sea, I think about my idea again, and write 10,000 words, calling it The Square Root of Last Summer.

All of 2011

Work is a relentless grind of late nights, deadlines, stress and misery. I rewrite the opening three chapters endlessly, but I don’t know how to finish a book.

January 2012

Granny dies, and I feel compelled to turn my dozens of disparate documents into a book. Something else, worse, happens too – I don’t speak about it publicly, but it’s there in every line. I write frantically, trying to excavate to the heart of what this book is about, trying to excavate my grief.

December 2012

I hand in my notice and go freelance. My friend Jess emails me her book – she has beaten me. I have been writing throughout 2012, but I’m nowhere close to finishing. For a second, I hate her.

April 2013

Email to a friend: “I’ve finished a really shitty first draft of a book, gonna leave it alone for six weeks.” Life interferes, and I don’t touch it again until January 2014.

January 2014

I rip Square Root down to bare bones, 20,000 words, and build it back to 80,000 words in a month. Over the next 12 weeks, I draft and redraft, working every evening and weekend. Saturday and Sunday are sacrosanct, writing days.

May 2014

I send Jess the 70,000 word manuscript to read. She’s on holiday. I can’t wait, not even a week, and send it out to ten agents. Half ask to read the whole thing; half turn me down flat.

June 2014

I sign with Gemma Cooper at The Bent Agency. All her clients are poised, calm and proper writers; I am a sweaty, incompetent imposter. Gemma returns the manuscript with 317 comments and four pages of notes. She is only my agent for a trick.

July 2014

Gemma checks in “to see how I’m doing” – my brain translates this as, “I will fire you, worst client”, and I panic-reply at MIDNIGHT, the time I’m leaving Freelance Job From Hell, with STREAM of CAPITAL LETTERS and EXCLAMATION MARKS to REASSURE HER, sanely, that I can edit this book!!!!!!!

January 2015

I finally finish! Two days later Gemma phones with an offer. It is equivalent to two years’ salary and I stand in the stairwell at Stylist (where I am freelancing one day) and somehow whisper “No”. Within 24 hours we’re going to auction in the UK and the US. The way this works is you meet all the UK editors in person, speak to US editors on the phone at night, go to bed at 2am and cry in the loos at work for four days until you have two major book deals but have disassociated so much you don’t feel happy, just numb.

February 2015

I have never had so many emails in my life, not even when I signed up to LinkedIn. Headshots, announcements, accountants, film agents, foreign rights, VAT, contracts. My manuscript comes back with 315 comments, a 20-page letter of everything that is wrong with it, and a three-week deadline.

March 2015

I finally celebrate! My friend Rachael makes me a Square Root of Summer cake. I cry and drink until I am sick…for two days. A week past deadline, I finish my edits. It’s 3am on a Tuesday.

April 2015

Nine days later the book comes back with more edits?! Email to my agent: “Please can we talk – have had the kind of work day where you want to lie on the floor and give up.” I do my first reader event. No one seems able to tell that I am as raw and skinless as a peeled prawn.

May 2015

It takes three weeks of lunch breaks and evenings and weekends to re-edit the book – and FIVE DAYS for my editor to return it with MORE notes and a three-day deadline. I reach a state of Zen acceptance that I will never sleep again, then one lunch time I have a panic attack so overwhelming I have to lie on the floor of Blackfriars Post Office.

June 2015

Email to my agent: “I'm really sorry, I'm having a mental health crisis.” I get my first advance payment on the same day my GP prescribes an anti-depressant that immediately makes me vomit. I finish my copy-edits at 2am on a Thursday.

September 2015

When I get a phone call telling me my book is on the American Booksellers Association Indies Introduce list, I politely say “thank you, I don’t know what that means” then hang up because I am making fishcakes. I can’t manage normal reactions to things.

December 2015

Barnes & Noble picks the book as one of its 2016 most-anticipated, but I focus on all the lists I’m NOT on. I tell everyone I don’t look at Goodreads but secretly squat on it like a paranoid toad.

January 2016

I have a first draft of book two. It took me three years to get here with Square Root; I’ve done this in six months. I fly to four US cities in four days and do my first bookstore visit, school event and live reading, while physically unable to stop shaking from nerves.

February 2016

At a bookseller dinner in Cardiff, I drink too much and have a day-long shame hangover. The book gets a starred review in School Library Journal, Teen Vogue picks it as a most-anticipated, and I’m invited to appear at a book festival in Santa Monica. I wake up panicked at 2am almost every night.

March 2016

My first phone interview requires a beta blocker, binge consumption of an entire Easter egg, and a two-hour nap after. My emails are like those arcade games where you hit the monster with a hammer. I’m also falling in love with someone, and writing every day. The book comes out in five weeks, and I am completely calm.

10 Tips to Finish Your Book

Be secretive. Nothing more demoralising when you’re in a writing slump than, “Finished yer book, then?”

Tell people. You’ll finish the book just to save face.

Skip the pub. Do you want to spend Saturday writing, or hungover on the sofa?

But sometimes go to the pub. It’s important to take breaks, otherwise you just start moving commas back and forth and achieving nothing.

Be single. Take away weddings, his mates, family events, brunch, sex, and fun, and you’ll have loads of writing time.

Read. Read widely, and often. Dissect the books – literally – to figure out plotting.

Be shit. First drafts are notoriously awful, but you can’t edit a blank page. I’ve got a draft where the romantic hero is called Digby. DIGBY!

Take your time. From first rumblings of an idea to my book being published – six years.

Unplug. Turn off the Wifi, install Cold Turkey or Freedom on your laptop, put your phone on aeroplane. Twitter is the biggest writing cockblock in the world.

Be catless. Those little feline bastards are laptop hogs.

The Square Root of Summer is out on 5 May. You can buy it here.