Fiona Gibson: Is it possible to write books when you have children?

Fiona Gibson author

Author Fiona Gibson proves that productivity doesn’t cease once you start a family; on the contrary: it increases tenfold. Here’s her brilliant piece on going from women’s magazine journalist to novelist (with motherhood in the middle)…

Is it possible to write books when you have children? Daft question really. Of course it is, and plenty of people do. Naturally, early parenthood throws up some challenges – but if you have an urge to create something, then I’m a firm believer that it’s entirely doable even if your so-called desk is frequently used as a Lego construction site, and your writing ‘day’ commences once bedtime stories have been read.

It sounds like the very worst time of life to tackle a novel – but for me, it proved ideal. Before I had kids, I banged on and ON about writing a book – for over a decade. However, while I turned out plenty of features and short stories for magazines, not one word of a novel was ever written by me in my pre-motherhood life. I had acres of free time – but rather than knuckle down, I went to the pub a lot and careered around London with my friends. Meanwhile, the large, intimidating notebook on which I had written MY NOVEL remaining embarrassingly blank.

Until my husband Jimmy and I became parents, I had worked on magazines such as Just Seventeen and more!, and loved it. But when our twin boys were born I was happy to throw myself into a whirl of playdates and picnics with my new mummy mates in Victoria Park, in east London’s Hackney. Gradually, I started freelancing, writing for women’s magazines like Red and Marie Claire. Once our boys had had their first birthday, I was itching for a couple of proper writing days a week – rather than cramming it all into their nap times – so they went to a nearby nursery. I’ve never had any problem with having some childcare. Almost every friend of mine who has children worked at least part-time when they were little, and everyone seems to have turned out just fine.

We moved from London to rural south Lanarkshire, Scotland, and had a daughter. Finally, when she was two and her brothers were five, I sat down and wrote my first novel. Weirdly, it felt like the right time to do it. My life was full of children and domestic concerns, and I was determined to see this thing through – for myself. As I was still writing magazine features – which paid the bills – the novel ended up being written at night. I was terribly sleep deprived, but it seemed sort of normal back then, and people were used to me looking that way all the time.

I had sent my work off to an agent and she had agreed to represent me. I was at toddler group with my daughter when she called to say three publishers were all bidding on my first novel. Playgroup was so noisy, I couldn’t make out what she was saying and had to run out into the street. I came back in all shaky and excited, and my friend Tania said, ‘What was that all about?’

With a proper publishing deal, I now felt I had ‘permission’ to write novels during the day – hurrah! – which I have done ever since. By the time my three children were at primary school, I was back to working full time. School holidays were a challenge, but I got by with activity clubs, reciprocal help from friends, and bashing out as many words as possible whenever they were watching TV.

Eighteen months ago, we downsized from our big family house in the country to a Glasgow flat. It’s just me, Jimmy and our daughter here; our boys, now 20, are away at university. At the moment I write two romantic comedy novels a year, from my workroom at home. I start at seven or even six am. if I’m on deadline, and occasionally work late into the night, although that’s less productive, and the lure of that bottle of sauvignon (‘lady petrol’) in the fridge is almost impossible to resist. Mornings are my best writing time.

Every novelist I know finds writing intense and difficult. In one day I can veer from euphoria – ‘This is the best thing I’ve ever written!’ – to feeling I should erase the whole thing, give up writing forever and re-train as… argh, what exactly? Who would have me? It’s important to switch off and do non-writing things (I love to cook, draw, run and walk Jack, our collie cross) so your brain can recover.

My family has inspired, rather than hampered, my writing. Most of my books have a strong parenting theme, and for several years virtually all of my magazine features were about my kids (until they begged me to stop writing about them!). Crucially, being a typically time-pressed mum has made me determined to focus and make the most of my time. I’m definitely more productive as a parent, and am just starting my 11th novel. Without my family, I don’t think I would ever have written a single book.

Fiona’s new novel, The Women Who met Her Match, is out now (Avon)