A conversation with Vicki Bradley on her debut, Before I Say I Do, the winner of the Third Prize in The First Novel Prize 2018 edition.
The manuscript left a strong impression on the judges, Phoebe Morgan, Editorial Director at HarperCollins UK, and Sam Copeland, Literary Agent and Director at Rogers, Coleridge and White, who described it as ‘Twisty, unpredictable, difficult to put down, a sure fire commercial hit’ and predicted a great future for its author.
Before I Say I Do is published in paperback and eBook on the 28th of May 2020 by Simon & Schuster.
Hi Vicki, huge congratulations on your debut! Tell us a little about the story and the characters in Before I Say I Do.
Thank you, it still feels very surreal!
The story is about Julia Talbot. She seems to have it all, a career she is passionate about and she’s about to marry the man of her dreams. But on her wedding, she’s nervous and it’s not just because she’s about to get married. There’s a lot that her soon-to-be husband, Mark, doesn’t know – and she is determined to keep it that way.
As she walks down the aisle, spotting Mark is his tailored suit, she knows she is taking her first steps to happiness – her past can’t catch her now. But when he turns to face her it isn’t Mark in the beautiful suit – it’s his best man. Because Mark is missing. And Julia’s past is closer than she thinks.
We also get introduced to DC Alana Loxton, the detective assigned Mark’s missing person case, and she soon realises that there is more to this case than first appears as she starts to unravel the lies.
Tell us a little about you and your background. What inspired you to write this story?
I wrote my novel, Before I Say I Do, at the time I was planning my own wedding and when you’ve been in the police, I think it’s only natural that you get used to planning for the worst-case scenario. That’s what keeps us safe, preparing for the person behind the door with a knife, but it can mean that you constantly risk assess your life, which can lead to dark thinking. So for my wedding, I kept thinking what is the worst thing that could happen? And I eventually realised that it would be for your groom to go missing on the day. Being left at this pivotal moment in your life, this new beginning together, and you don’t know if something awful has happened to him or if he’s simply got cold feet. It is often the not knowing which is worse. That’s really where the story came from, me exploring that fear. Luckily for me my groom did turn up on the day.
What was the greatest obstacle in your journey to publication?
My greatest obstacle was keeping my writing to myself for too long. I’ve been writing novels since I was fifteen and I spent 10 years writing a fantasy novel without getting any professional help at all. I then sent it out to some agents and unsurprisingly I didn’t get anywhere with it. That knocked my confidence. I loved that book so much, it had been a complete labour of love, and I couldn’t understand why agents weren’t interested in it.
I’ve been in the Met for 14 years, 10 of those years was as a Detective Constable. I worked in Southwark CID and we dealt with serious crime and part of it was High Risk missing person cases. Out of everything I dealt with, the missing person cases used to be the most stressful. If there’s a stabbing, as a detective you arrive when the uniform officers have got control of the scene. The victim has often been rushed to hospital and is getting all the care they can, and as the detective you are now investigating what has happened. But when it’s a missing person case, the detectives are trying to find out what has happened to that person, where are they now and are they in danger? There’s a real urgency there, because every second can count as to whether that person is found alive and well or not. It’s often the missing person cases that come back to haunt me. And that’s often when we have to give families terrible news.
I started to doubt myself as a writer and whether I had anything to say and that can be fatal in writing.
It took me a long time to pick myself up from that. But I can now say that in my first novel I definitely made lots of mistakes which held back the story. I’ve gone on to do a Masters in Novel Writing with City University London and I wish I’d done it earlier. It made all the difference.
Writing is a skill that you need to practice and master, and the best and quickest way to teach yourself anything is to learn from people who have gone before you. I learnt so much in my master’s and it accelerated my writing. The book I produced for the master’s was Before I Say I Do.
Not everyone has the time to do a Masters, we all have commitments and life has a way of getting in the way, but there are now so many amazing courses you can take which run over a few weeks or a couple of months. Or if you already have a first draft of a book you can hire editors to review your work and an editor can make such a difference to your work. There is so much available now and I’m looking into enrolling onto another course myself, because there is always something new to learn. You never stop developing as a writer.
Do you have a writing routine? A separate space where you write?
I do have a writing routine and a tiny office that I write in. It’s important to get a space away from distractions (so for me away from the TV and away from the kitchen where all the food is!).
You need to be disciplined and motivate yourself to write. You don’t have a boss clocking when you start work and when you finish, it’s all on you so a routine is essential.
I’ve found The Miracle Morning for Writers by Steve Scott & Hal Elrod really helpful. It gives you a routine to follow which ensures that you prioritise writing.
The idea is that you get your writing done in the morning before life gets in the way to distract you, but it doesn’t have to be the morning, whenever you can carve out time to write be it 10 minutes or an hour. It teaches you how to set writing goals, how to make time for learning about writing and how to keep putting the words in even when you don’t feel like it.
So I get up at 8am and I’m ready to start working at around 9.30am, (I like a leisurely breakfast and a strong coffee!). I read a technical book on writing for 20 minutes (I’ve just finished Writing Down the Bones) and then I write down my goals for the day for the next 10 minutes in a writing journal. I also reflect on what went well with the writing yesterday and what didn’t go so well. Writing is such a strange thing and I’m trying to find out what helps me be productive and what hampers me.
I then start writing. If I’m writing a first draft, I try to aim for 1000 words a day. That usually takes around 5 hours. If I’m editing, I can do that for longer, so maybe 7 hours a day, although you can’t do that for too many weeks. I then try to read a crime book for an hour at the end of the day, as it’s so important to read other people’s work and learn from them.
When I worked in the police it was quite different, you have to snatch an hour here and an hour there, and I spent a lot of time writing on my weekends off. I now get to have my weekends off and I’m very glad about that.
How are you finding the lockdown and how has it impacted your writing?
Lockdown has been so hard for everyone. It’s been quite a shock to see it all unfolding and tremendously sad, but it’s also been inspiring to see so many people showing extraordinary courage and resilience.
I must admit that for the first few weeks I really struggled to find the head space to write or even read. I just couldn’t focus. I had to go back to my routine and force myself to stop checking the news every hour and to try to write and eventually I got back into it. I think everyone felt the same. It was hard to work in the middle of a Pandemic when such awful things were happening. But in the end, you have to keep going.
It has been quite challenging being a debut author with a book coming out at the end of May. All the promotional events I had been lined up to do were cancelled and my book launch event was cancelled.
The bookshops have been closed, which has had a massive impact, but all of that is out of my control. You have to focus on what you can change. So for me that was working on the sequel. It’s important to keep busy and focus on what you can do. And Before I Say I Do is still getting published on 28th May and I’m eternally grateful for that.
What’s your next book about?
The next book is a sequel to Before I Say I Do, so some of the police characters you meet in Before I Say I Do you will get to meet again.
I’ve just finished the first draft and sent it to my agent and editor, and I’ve started to plot out the third book. I love it when you have the seed of a new book and you start testing out different ways it could go. That is one of the best parts of writing for me. I’m hoping that I’m going to get to write a detective series, I certainly feel like there’s a lot more to come from some of these characters.
If there were one thing you could say to aspiring authors, what would that be?
You have to prioritise writing and give yourself permission to write. Finding time in our busy lives is so hard and it is so easy to put writing to the back of your mind, to see it as an indulgence – but it isn’t. You have to allow yourself the time to write regularly and believe that you can do it.
I was at a crossroads in my life in my early thirties, being encouraged to go for the Detective Sergeant’s promotion process when my sister sat me down and told me she thought I should really focus on my passion and pursue writing. She knew that I couldn’t do that if I went for promotion, I wouldn’t have had time to write, it is quite a gruelling process and then the new role would have kept me extremely busy as I learnt how to do it.
My sister encouraged me to do a Masters in Novel writing with London City University and I remember telling my DCI I was pulling out of the Sergeant’s process. Financially it was the wrong choice and for my career progression it was the wrong choice. He was disappointed, but he said that he could see that writing made me happy and told me to go for it. I was so surprised and that’s when I realised how much writing meant to me and that other people could see it too.
The Met has really surprised me at how supportive they’ve been with my writing journey, and they’ve given me a 5-year career break to pursue it.
The Masters gave me a goal to focus on. There were deadlines and it was a pass and fail course. I’d put money and time into it, and I didn’t want to let my tutors or the other students down. And I couldn’t let my sister down or myself. So I had to get on with it. I gave up my evenings and weekends when I wasn’t working. I had a very supportive partner and my family and friends cheered me on and understood when I couldn’t see them. In the second year you had to produce a novel, so every couple of months we had to submit another 10,000 words of our novel until we had a finished novel of 80,000 words. If I hadn’t done the Masters, I’d never have prioritised writing, other things would have got in the way, and I wouldn’t be getting published now.
Vicki blogs at www.vickibradleywriter.com/
You can follow Vicki on Twitter at @vbradleywriter
You can find out more about The First Novel Prize, running every year, and open to unpublished and independently published novelists at www.firstnovel.co.uk