Before I started writing, I vaguely assumed plots dropped fully-formed into authors’ minds, transforming into books by some writerly alchemy the second they fired up the PC. If only! Three YA novels later and I am a platinum member of the staring-at-a-blank-screen-at 2- am- with-a-deadline-looming club.
I wrote my first book, ‘Me & Mr J’ deadline-free and for fun, squeezing it around the fraying edges of a life crammed with parenting and full-time teaching. The story is about a girl, Lara, enduring the toughest of times- family breakdown, money troubles, horrific bullying- who has an affair with her teacher. And I suppose it’s a clear example of how ideas ping at me from various directions.
First, conversations. I was teaching English in a college and a class of learners were discussing (theoretical) rumour about a girl who’d started seeing her old PE teacher after she left school. Their take (‘it’s romantic’) contrasted totally with mine (‘it’s a gazillion shades of wrong’) and really struck me, sparking the plotline for what would be ‘Me &Mr J’, a book from the perspective of the poor girl involved. Around the same time, I was sent on some truly eye-opening training about cyberbullying and that fed into the sub plot of what she endures at the hands of her bitchy classmates.
Second, students. Being a teacher has had a huge impact on my writing. I’ve spent the majority of my working life observing my target audience and that’s initially what made me choose to write YA.
Many of the learners I’ve taught over the years haven’t been keen readers. Not because they’re not capable, but because they had so many distractions and sometimes because reading wasn’t something they’d grown up with. I wanted to write funny, shocking books with ordinary protagonists, scandalous storylines and a soap opera/ magazine/ real-life appeal. My second book, ‘The Number One Rule for Girls’fits this mould too. Daisy, like Lara in ‘Me & Mr J’, uses flippant humour as a defence mechanism when she finds herself caught up in a toxic relationship with a guy she meets at college. The fuse for this was lit when I overheard a super-ballsy, confident student at my college being publicly bad-mouthed by her boyfriend. (I’m happy to say she ditched him shortly after).
I was spending several hours a week with two archetypal bad boys at the time: Heathcliff and Stanley Kowalski; and I’d just read a stack of ‘troubled boyfriend’ novels. Plus, the ’50 Shades’ juggernaut was still thundering along and I loathed that whole abuse-masquerading-as-love thing. (My personal view. I know plenty of people who consider the novels empowering). All of this distilled in to a desire to create a heroine who’d realise her life was too valuable to waste on Mr Broody Bad Boy and his moody shenanigans. Kick the bad boys to the kerb, it’s Rule Number One.
Third writing inspo: the news. My latest book, 'This Careless Life’ began with seeing a reporter interviewing migrant workers in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum. One woman in particular talked about her fears and as she spoke, she reminded me so strongly of Eva Smith in ‘An Inspector Calls’, one of my all-time favourite plays. Her words and her fears really resonated with me and I remembered how every time I’d taught the play, I found myself saying ‘look how relevant this still is today.’ I was never stuck for a contemporary example. My first two books had been about two girls and the way other people’s actions impacted on them as individuals. I decided this time, I wanted to flip that and look at how the main characters’ behaviour affects others. Everything fell into place then and I wrote a post-Brexit re-imagining of ‘An Inspector Calls’ in which four wealthy 18 year olds with varying degrees of self-centredness are forced to face up to the consequences of their actions.
Overall, I’d say writing inspo is all around. Over the last few years, I’ve chucked teaching, eavesdropping, discussions, TV programmes, GCSE texts and watching the news into the pot, given it a good stir, let it brew...and written three books.
But it’s not been easy. The first leap from full head to empty page is consistently the scariest part. That’s the thing about ideas: they sparkle like fairy lights strung around your brain. Getting them to shine as brightly on the page, now that’s when the real graft begins.