Are you a proper writer?

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Yesterday, I felt like a proper writer.  I felt so proper that I sent a text to a good friend about it, just so it was recorded for posterity.  There are certain things that should generally enhance your writer status.  These include:

Writing stuff.

I’ve been writing stuff since I was about six.  Tellingly, I only have one friend left from childhood.  I wonder if the others fell away under the weight of having to endure endless rhyming couplets about my dog, Jai.  Or the time the coffee percolator exploded.  Or even that special moment when a really big worm slopped on to my mum’s bare foot in Italy.  (Oh, happy days.)

There are other reasons why I could have claimed proper writerliness.  I read out my poem about Romans in Fishbourne at a parents’ evening.  (And believe me, my school was hot on quality control.)  And another poem – is there a pattern here? – won an award at a local arts festival and was read aloud by the only Doctor Who companion who died in situ.   There were the stories published in ‘True Romance’ and the constructive, encouraging rejection from ‘Black Lace’, ‘the first erotic imprint in the UK written for women’.  Apparently, kinky politicians were a bit of a cliché.

Come sixth form, come my crowning achievement –  a reworked pantomime version of ‘The Wizard of Oz’.  Not only did my head of house agree to be a witch and her deputy, rock the stage as Toto, but the production team featured future stars including a model and ‘Emmerdale’ actor and the bass player of a world famous indie band.  Us Haywards Heath folk punch way above our weight.  Or sometimes just punch.  Entertaining nightlife is a bit sparse there.

But did that make me a proper writer?  No.  My rich earnings of £60 and a poem published in the ‘Evening Argus’, did not turn my head.  (I must have had a rich store of poems, though.  I wonder where they are now.  Along with my childhood friends.)

Many years later, I’m preparing for the debut of ‘Orangeboy’, my first novel for young adults.  I’ve arrived here via short stories, screenwriting, comedy writing and a go at radio scripts.  All languishing in a forgotten folder in a forgotten hard drive with ports for cable types that have long been extinct.

I was lucky enough to gain Caroline Sheldon as my agent.  She saw my potential (but thankfully, no poems) and encouraged me to write for a younger audience.  A couple of paying gigs followed – children’s short stories and educational publishers – then by pure accident I was at an Arvon crime writing course and found myself chatting to a 16-year-old protagonist called Marlon.  Orangeboy.

But still… proper writer?  Ummm.

Then yesterday, something changed.  I went in to Hodder to talk publicity, proofs and literary festival panels.  We chatted school events and people of influence. Coming out into the Blackfriars’ sunshine, I thought – goddamn, this is real!  I then whizzed up the District Line for a lunchtime catch up with Caroline.  A lovely hour or so that also happened to feature some rather splendid butternut squash and apple crumble.

So what was it that made me feel like a proper writer?

Was it the lightheaded shock from getting a seat on the Underground for most of the journey from Blackfriars to Notting Hill?  Definitely a contributing factor.

Was it the lunchtime glass of wine?  As, if!

But perhaps it’s finally sunk in – I can do this!  I can write stuff that people want to read.  I can write stuff that people want to sell.  Without a rhyming couplet in sight.

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My partner knows a coroner. I never saw that coming. (Notes from a debut YA author.)

Yah!  I have a two-book deal with Hodder!  I have signed on the dotted line for my first young adult novel as well as another stand alone one to follow.   I am actually being paid money for this.  Yay, again!  Last Man Standing, will be published in March 2016, Indigo Donut, (title may change…) in March 2017. This is good news.

Actually, it’s amazingly excellent news.  Such good news that it  made our local paper, as well as The Voice newspaper, the website of a prolific local blogger and our local freebie. I was even interviewed on Colourful Radio, sitting in the corner of a north London park, on a bench between the goats and the deer, on my way to work.

And I have wanted to be a writer since.  Just since.

So, how did this deal come about?  I researched the young adult market – that is, loitered with intent in Charing Cross Road Foyles and scanned my daughter’s shelves.  She’s into manga.  Not helpful.  I also started planning a crime novel set in 1940s Port of Pain, a society still facing up to the impact of the second world war, colonial rule and a programme of de-slumming and emigration.  If you’ve seen Errol John’s play ‘Moon On A Rainbow Shawl’, you know what I mean.  A setting ripe for drama and random poisoning.

I took my collection of ideas to an Arvon crime-writing course, tutored by Dreda Say Mitchell and Frances Fyfield.  About halfway through the week, we were given an exercise to help us hide information – a sentence that had to be embedded within a paragraph or so.  The rest of the group had to guess the sentence.  I was presented with ‘He woke up dreaming of yellow’.  So – what was on my mind?

The obvious.  Mustard.

A few weeks earlier, my daughter and I had used the day of a teachers’ strike to check out Hyde Park Winter Wonderland.  Everything was so pricey that after a couple of rides – her, not me, I’m a coward – we only had money left for one hot dog to share. So – what if?  What if two young people are at a fairground? It’s their first date and the boy is a bit uncertain.  He hates mustard but he’s going to eat that hot dog the girl’s just bought him because it’s a sign.  She’s claiming him.  The date’s going well and then what’s the very worst thing that can happen?  After I wrote that, I just carried on writing.

There was no plan.  Characters emerged from a murky subconscious and vicarious wish fulfillment.  The mother I’d like to be, the 15-year-old I wish I’d been, the big brother I wanted, were all there on the page.  And what was at the core?  The press release mentions gangs, drugs and guns, but that wasn’t what really interested me.  I wanted my protagonist, Marlon, to be a lovely young man, a bit quiet, a bit geeky and with an enduring love for vinyl records.  I was fascinated by what would tip a boy like that over.  Why would Marlon Sunday, who can name every Earth, Wind and Fire album in order, risk destroying his family and his future?

First draft done, after a thorough critique from my writing group, priceless mentoring and the complete removal of a subplot, I was getting there. The book had always been like a jigsaw, but now I had the right number of pieces.  I had to keep trying until the picture looked right.

Caroline Sheldon, my agent, sent it to a number of publishers. My first meeting with Hodder was in an office with a wonderful view and premium biscuits.  I fell in love and eventually it was requited.

So what have I learnt from this so far?

1. My partner knows a coroner.  I honestly never saw that coming.

2. Local newspapers really like good news. So –

3. It’s good to have a couple of decent hi res pics to send off.  My hair is its own lifeform.  In the photos you will see it trying to escape.

4. I somehow have to balance shameless and modest self-publicity.  Haven’t quite worked out that one yet.  However, promotion is vital.

5. The joy of getting to the 300th edit.  There will be more polishing, but I feel that we’re nearly there.  (Aren’t we?  Say ‘yes’!)

6. How pleased and encouraging my friends are!

7. I have a full time job, a teenage daughter, a needy cat and a heavy clad allotment.  I should learn to multitask.

I’ll (try and) keep you posted about book cover selection, promotion and all those new experiences as as we edge towards publication. Px

‘The Lonely Londoners’ – Radio 4 Book at Bedtime

‘The Lonely Londoners’ – Radio 4 Book at Bedtime

Don Warrington is definitely doing justice to Sam Selvon’s book!  Sir Galahad, Tante and the journalist, Brixton…  Yes, it was a struggle for families coming from the Caribbean, but this book is very funny and Don Warrington’s accents and voices brings out the humour.

And with a spot of Lord Kitch bookending it too.  Great!

One’s for posing, two’s for the parents…

Come on!  You have to do it, don’t you…

The publisher usually sends five free copies.  I kept one, sent one to my Aunty in Trinidad and gave one to my husband’s parents, my parents and my best friend’s mum. Which leaves… Damn!  Where’s that gone, then?  I’ve always wondered what other writers do with their freebies.

 

One's for posing, two's for the parents...

The books that built Malorie Blackman

The books that built Malorie Blackman

I must admit, I wasn’t sophisticated enough for Jane Eyre.  My favourite Narnia book (er-hm, the only one I read) was ‘Voyage of the Dawn Treader’.  I devoured Arthur Ransome’s ‘Swallows and Amazons’ books from our primary school library, before trundling through ‘The Jungle Book’, ‘The Hobbit’, ‘Lord of the Rings’ and the blub-fest S.E. Hintons.

Haywards Heath library – I owe you so much!

Branding black music -als -‘The Lion King’ v ‘Some Like it Hip Hop’

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Last week I was chatting to a writer about branding.  He told me that he almost ruined his career when he challenged his publishing company about the cover of his book.  The book told the story of four men’s lives, two black, one white and one mixed race.  The publishers wanted the white protagonist on the cover.

In an interview in the Guardian newspaper a few years ago, the children’s author, Malorie Blackman, argued:

“Through my whole writing career it seems people have always been criticising me for not tackling racism. But things like even having black characters on covers when I first started was a bit of a political statement, because I’ve had more than one bookseller say to me ‘that book would sell better if you didn’t put black people on the cover’.

Yesterday, I was chatting to a work colleague about finding children’s books featuring characters that – well – looked like our children.   She had tried a well-known radical bookshop.  She had received a blank look.  Unfortunately, their lofty aspirations of equality did not stretch to boosting the self-esteem of brown children.

So does branding really matter?

On Saturday, we went to ‘Some Like it Hip Hop’, a dance and music show in London – though to simply describe it as a ‘dance and music show’ does it no favours at all.   The grieving governor of a distant dystopia has shut out the sun and relegated women to second class.  Two women are expelled through the city gates and return dressed as men – and good sense is restored by… books.  What’s not to like?

There’s live singing – gospel, R&B, 80s-style funk, a folky ballad – and eye-wateringly good dancing.  It’s funny, quirky, joyous and utterly London.  The cast, all shapes and colours, look like London.  The audience, all shapes and colours, look like London – a rare thing in a London theatre.  The Welsh narrator beatboxes with the singer and guitarist who may be of east Asian heritage.  The white guys breakdance, the black guy’s king and the women are tough and funny.

But – ‘hip hop’ is hardly a genre likely to entice in much of the general public.  As much as I baulk at stereotypes, I can’t imagine the couple behind us, perhaps in their early 60s, going straight home to spit lyrics with their NWA CDs.  But something filled every seat in the theatre that night.  Could it be the sparkling reviews?  The word-of-mouth buzz?  The posters leaning on the humorous?

The show celebrates the joy of black music in way that won’t terrify a wider audience.  And once again – books save the day!

Over to ”The Lion King’.  The first time – yep, there has been more than once – it struck me.  This is a ‘black’ musical – albeit, topping up the great Disney treasure box.  Okay, it also features the songs of Elton John, so not quite ‘black’, but most of the cast are.  (On the Wikipedia page, there’s an interesting passage about the potential racist and anti-immigration undertones of the film.)

Perversely, the only reason the thought occurred to me was because of the one solitary white guy, dancing and singing in Swahili.  Nearly everybody else visible was played by black artistes.  Yes, it’s set in Africa so that kind of figures, but likewise, good make up and costumes could have sorted that out.

Disney is hardly celebrated for its proliferation of black protagonists.  There’s the princess who’s a frog.  There’s the Jamaican who’s a crab.  They’ve touched Chinese with Mulan and Arabic with Aladdin.  And…  So what if Lion King was celebrated as a showcase of black talent?  An opportunity to nurture a generation of black stars?

Hmm, the problem for me is that’ it’s Disney.  This organisation introduced thousands of little girls to pastel nylon and netting.

Disney rebranding itself as culturally-provocative, challenging the status quo?  Nope.  I wouldn’t buy it.