My friends often ask me, “did you always know that you wanted to be a writer?” and, truthfully, I did not. Nor was I a teenager with no aspirations for the future. There were at least a hundred other things I wanted to do with my life. At the age of nine, I wanted to be an actress. People warned that it is a challenging profession, and I wasn’t talented enough. It was a fair assessment; I had lacked confidence from an early age. Next, I hoped that I would be a lawyer. Perhaps I had watched Legally Blonde one too many times because I had glamorised the entire profession to the point of obscurity. What would it mean to be a lawyer? When it dawned on me during my work experience, age sixteen, that it meant long hours, zero social life, and mountains of paperwork, my ardour diminished. During those teenage years of hopes, fears, and dreams, I had been writing a novel, the very same novel that I had been writing since I was thirteen. Yet, surprisingly I had never given a moment’s thought to becoming an author. I hardly considered myself a writer. To me, it was simply a pastime to assuage the anxiety that had plagued me from an early age.
I spent my childhood on Dartmoor, in the South West of England. The world around me resembled a Pinterest cottage core aesthetic, rolling hills, quaint buildings, and copious wildlife. It was like living in a storybook. As an only child, living miles from civilisation and friends, I turned to my imagination. I would roam the countryside, inventing characters, stories and drawing maps of fantasy worlds that existed only in my head. I began to lose myself in books and the stories of my own creation. Soon my imagination became maladaptive. I found that I preferred living in my own mind to the real world. I was not a lonely, unhappy child but rather someone who developed a robust sense of self from a young age and found that I enjoyed the solitude many others fear.
At school I enjoyed English, but it was never my favourite subject. Coincidentally, my English teacher was also my Latin teacher, and from that point onwards, I always associated the two subjects. I preferred poetry but did try my hand at a few short stories, one that always comes to mind is a Norse-inspired fairy-tale that was voted the best in my cohort. I felt an immense sense of pride at this achievement and began to delve into further storytelling. Mythology and folklore piqued my interest, and I would spend hours in the school library delving through pages of legend, using them as inspiration for my own stories. Still, I was too scared to write anything more than a couple of thousand words. I loved dystopian fiction but wanted to put my own unique twist on the genre. Over the years, I had developed a budding interest in the ancient world, particularly the Romans, through my study of Latin. I pondered what a world where the Roman Empire still existed might look like. The concept for Divine was born – A modern-day dystopian reality where the Roman Empire never fell.
Around that age, I spent most weekends at my grandparent’s house. My grandfather was like a best friend to me, he would often take me to the local adventure park, or we would sit watching movies, completing crosswords, and playing scrabble. I told him that I wanted to write a book, and he encouraged me to do so. A few months later, my grandfather fell ill with cancer and was told he had only weeks to live. We brought him home to be around the entire family, and before he passed, I promised to finish the story I had talked to him about. I am doubtful I would have even completed the novel if it weren’t for the promise I had made to my grandfather.
To distract from my grief, I devoted myself to writing the book, which I had originally titled – The Chosen. I dedicated every spare moment between schoolwork, exams, and sports to writing. By the time I was taking my GCSEs, I had a rough first draft. In those months leading up to the exams, writing had become my release. I never intended to share this book with anybody other than my parents; it was simply a hobby to manage my high functioning anxiety. Developing an unhealthy obsession with academic achievement meant I wanted to channel my energy into something creative, where there were no deadlines and teachers wouldn’t grade my work. To begin with, I had no idea what I was doing, and the manuscript reflected that, but slowly my writing improved, and I developed my own unique voice. In the summer of 2017, my parents suggested I attend a creative writing course. Not only would it help me improve the draft of my novel, but it would be a great accolade for my university application. I attended a creative writing summer course at the University of Toronto, Canada. Collaborating with other writers and working on my novel made me believe more in my story, and I finally knew that I wanted to share it with the world.
The following year I was fortunate in meeting a film producer. We struck up a conversation about my novel. He was intrigued by the concept and expressed an interest in reading Divine. I never expected him to get back to me, but a few months later, he did, and it was the happiest day of my life. He decided to purchase the rights to the novel and publish it through his film company. Over the next two years, during my A-Levels, I rewrote the novel; it was a painstaking process, pouring everything I had learned over the past four years and from the creative writing course which had inspired me into the new, revised manuscript of Divine. I began to manage my time more effectively, prioritising my studies and writing a little every day until the book was finally complete by the Christmas of 2019. I fondly reminisced my childhood, the little girl who lost herself in books, listened to film scores and lived in the fantasy worlds of her own creation. Now she had written a 126,000-word book that would soon be published.
Then the pandemic struck, and the world shifted around me. Like many others, I struggled to adapt to the new way of life that the pandemic ushered in. The publication of my book was delayed, and I started at University to study Ancient History and Archaeology. Four weeks into my course, I fell ill with Covid 19. As a young, fit person, I hardly expected to experience symptoms beyond those of a common cold. I was mistaken. Weeks of severe symptoms, fatigue, chest pain, and debilitating aches left me bed-bound. Slowly I recovered, but the tiredness lingered and does to this day. I was forced to drop out of University and focus on putting the finishing touches on the book after receiving the first round of copy edits. The fatigue meant I could barely concentrate on my writing, let alone my degree. I had planned to return to University in September of this year, but my symptoms have not alleviated how I hoped they would. Some days I feel fine, others I barely want to get out of bed. For now, I hope to focus on my writing career, working on the sequels for Divine and a new project – a NA Epic fantasy set in the ancient world. I hope to spread awareness about young people suffering the severe aftereffects of Covid 19 and its impact on people’s lives. I was one of the lucky ones.
Years of research, plotting, outlining, rewriting, editing, tears, and apprehension that what I wrote would never be good enough had led up to this moment. The time came for me to put the manuscript aside – it was complete, even if it wasn’t perfect, even if I wanted to spend countless more months going over the manuscript (the perfectionist that I am), it was time to share this story with the world. I don’t think an author is ever truly happy with their work, but I am proud of how far I’ve come, how much I’ve learned, and of the world and characters that I created, who grew up with me and taught me so much about not only writing but life. Divine is a fantasy novel, but it is also a reflection of my adolescence, of the mind of a thirteen-year-old girl who wanted a world to escape to and characters to look up to. It is the book I always wanted to read growing up, after falling in love with the worlds of The Hunger Games, Maze Runner, Red Queen, and countless others. But these stories, these worlds, they were never enough, I wanted more, so I wrote a story myself, incorporating all my passion for the ancient world, the people who defined its history, and its languages. There is a saying for authors, write the book you want to read, and I did that; I can only hope it inspires others to do the same.
Want to check out MJ’s novel, Divine? Take a look here!
Alternatively, you can take a look at her Instagram, @mj_woodman.