Monday, 16 August 2010

When life gets in the way.....

I had it all planned. I was going to re-write my novel, polish every word and have it safely deposited with agents and publishers in September. And then I got pregnant and my mum (and main source of childcare) was diagnosed with a particularly nasty cancer and it all became a bit harder than I'd expected. Morning sickness plus the demands of a toddler who hit the terrible twos have taken their toll so it's all been delayed somewhat. Now I'm finally have to concede that trying to write another 15,000 words in a week whilst ticking off everything on my 'baby - to do' list is not realistic, so I'm allowing myself to rearrange cupboards and clean skirting boards in true nesting fashion. Who knows, I might even allow myself a little afternoon snooze.

I'll be back to the book and the blog once the new baby is settled and I've got over the horror the of being up all night again. Hopefully I'll have of those angels that sleeps through the night at six weeks and I'll have the book finished by Christmas.....but maybe not.

Thanks for reading.


Monday, 26 July 2010

New chapters available on my website

I've been meaning to post the latest version of my opening chapters for a while and I've finally mastered the technology to post them on my website (or at least, I've finally got round to getting Tim to do it.) You can find them at They are also on under the group called Writer in Residence.

There have been some changes since the last time I posted them. I decided that Tag's opening chapter didn't make a strong enough opening and that there needed to be a clearer link between the two characters from the outset in order to get the reader interested. Hopefully by beginning with Lorna's character and voice and establishing her intention of volunteering at the literacy project, it sets the reader up to know how the two characters will meet, thus making them interested in reading on. That's the hope anyway! I've also done some work on the voices of the two main protagonists, although I still think I'll need to go back and work on these early chapters again, as the voices have become more convincing as I've gone on.

I was hoping to have a polished draft of the novel done by September but, because I've essentially done a total rewrite, and not a redraft as I expected, when it's finished it will still be a rough draft. I may send the early chapters (once I've polished them) to agents and publishers in September though while I work on the redraft. If I do, the chapters on the website are what I would send: usually they ask for 3 chapters (double-spaced, printed on one side of A4) and a synopsis which should be as close to one page as possible.

I've written a few books but this is the first one I've rewritten and redrafted over and over. I don't think I'd quite appreciated before just how much work goes into getting something to publishable quality.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

How important is realism?

Just back from a lovely holiday and returned to my reality with a bump. I went to visit Roundabout (the young people's homeless hostel where some of my book is set) and grilled one of the workers there about how things have changed since the time when I worked there. Fundamentally, sadly, homelessness affects people in just the same way now as it did ten years ago; however there were a few changes. One of the most interesting things that I learned is that they see much less heroin addiction these days and many more problems with the stronger versions of cannabis - including psychosis and mental health issues.

This has thrown me into turmoil slightly because Tag's heroin addiction is a fairly central aspect of the book. It makes me wonder if my book is less topical and less realistic as a result. Some of the things that happen in my story are certainly still plausible but they're not necessarily typical and it's got me questioning (again!) how important realism is and wondering why I've chosen to write such a difficult book in which accuracy feels important. Having worked with so many young people who have experienced homelessness and addiction, I feel quite a responsibility to tell their stories with sensitivity and truth, yet their experiences are very far removed from the life I've lived.

Sometimes when I've started going into detailed explanations of the benefit system or dealing with literacy issues, I've have feedback that it can sound a bit preachy and I can find myself moving away from telling the story but, on the other hand, readers need to understand the 'why' and 'how' of things in order to buy into the story and anything that's unrealistic will make them lose their faith in the narrative and the characters.

Basically it's made me realise that, even once I've got to the end of telling the story, I might need to do even more research to check for accuracy. Next time I think I'll write a fantasy book where I can invent the world in which my characters live.

Friday, 4 June 2010


I'm on retreat at the moment in Ty Newydd, North Wales, an amazing location. I'm sitting in the library at the moment and looking out through the bay window at a view of trees, sea and mountains. It's so beautiful that I had wondered if I'd get any writing done but actually it's been just the inspiration I needed.

Having taken part in an unrelated workshop on the first morning, I sat down and Tag just started to talking to me in exactly the voice I've been looking for. So weird how that happens and so difficult to explain. I'm just so grateful to this place for the breakthrough I've been looking for. Since the voices started to sound right, I've now gone back to the beginning re-writing (again!) and I'm almost on course to reach my 30,000 word mark by the end of today when I'll be heading home to see my beautiful daughter (and Tim, of course, and the dog....etc)

One of my writing friends asked me the other day about what attracted my two characters to each other and I've been working on that connection between them quite a lot over this week. Gradually music is emerging as one of themes of the book. I found them mentioning Massive Attack in a conversation they were having and suddenly realised that 'Protection' is the perfect soundtrack to the book. I'm now wondering whether to use the lyrics in the book - possibly even as a title - but I'm not sure how I'd go about obtaining copyright. I've just found Tracy Thorn on Facebook so I've asked her but I'm not sure whether she'll respond! It's an amazing age when, with the click of a button, you can just get in touch with one of your favourite artists of all time though!

In upcoming workshops I'm thinking about asking young people about their musical interests. Since having a baby, I feel so out of touch with current artists. Do most teenagers know the song 'Protection' I wonder. If not, here it is. It's fab!

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Narrative point of view and voice

I'm nearing the 20,000 word mark of my redraft but I'm beset by this feeling that 'something's not quite right' about it. Having shown it to friends, I'm starting to be convinced that it's something to do with the choice of narrative point of view and getting the voice right.

The first draft of the novel was written in the first-person, in the voices of the two protagonists - Lorna and Tag. I decided to start the re-draft in the third person because I was finding the first person point of view limiting, particularly in the case of Tag. It's a key feature of Tag's character that he is essentially illiterate and so maintaining the consistency of his voice in the first person was difficult. I really wanted to make sure that I'm conveying the real horror of his life as a homeless young person and I didn't want to be restricted to his vocabulary to do it. Besides which, I feel too far removed from his background to be sure that I can inhabit his voice and be authentic enough.

I'm now trying to write in the third person which feels better to me but sometimes I feel like I'm falling into the trap of slipping between narrative voices when I don't mean to. I'm also still plagued by the idea that the book might work better in the present tense after all but I'm concerned that it might be harder to find a publisher for something in the present tense, particularly when it's targeted at young people.

Anyway, I'm off tomorrow for a NAWE retreat in Wales and I'm hoping that some sea air will do the trick and that suddenly it will all fall into place. That's assuming I don't fall apart from the stress of being separated from my little girl for five days.

Friday, 14 May 2010

What is inappropriate for teenage readers?

"I'm not sure it's appropriate for teenagers," said a writing (and teacher) friend, having read the first 5,000 words of my novel. The reason? It features some gritty issues including drug use, prostitution and sexual exploitation, all of which affect teenagers. Ok, not all teenagers will be groomed on the internet or tempted into a life of heroin addiction but isn't it important that all teenagers know how it can happen?

It's a debate I've had time and time again with writers, librarians, teachers and literature promoters and I refuse to change my stance. I've worked personally with hundreds of young people who have been affected by these issues and I believe that it's important that their stories are heard. The book I'm writing certainly doesn't glorify the use of heroin, prostitution or the life of a homeless teenager. I hope it's a sensitive look at how young people can become the victims of circumstance. It's also just a love story, about two people from different backgrounds who find common ground.

I've been re-reading Pieces of Me ( )
a recent Sheffield publication written by young women about their experiences of sexual exploitation. I've also been looking at a linked website talks about girls as young as twelve being lured into prostitution by pimps posing as boyfriends. The issue of 'internal trafficking' (where young girls are essentially kidnapped and sold into the sex trade) has been a hidden issue, misunderstood by many . Isn't it better that we speak about it so that we can do our best to prevent it?

In my recent post as national HeadSpace Project Manager for The Reading Agency I was horrified (though not surprised) to discover that we were finding it difficult to find library groups who would host eminent author, William Nicholson, to talk about his recent book Rich and Mad - a beautifully written book about first love which includes a realistic account of a first sexual relationship, as well as giving some coverage to the subjects of pornography and sexual violence. In essence, to me, it is a feminist book, dealing with the issue of respect in relationships. According to the author ( surveys suggest that by the age of eighteen 93% of boys and 62% of girls have watched internet porn, and sexual violence is commonplace in films and on TV. If nobody is allowed to write sensitively about the subject, isn't there a risk of young people have a slightly skewed perspective on what love and sex are all about?

In libraries, I've known books be taken off shelves because one parent complained. Carol Ann Duffy's poem Education for Leisure was removed from the exam syllabus because two schools were worried that it might incite young people to knife crime, and yet, I've never heard anyone debate these issues with young people themselves.

Of course, my friend may be right and I'm aware that I might find it harder to publish this book because of the issues it deals with. Maybe I should have written some frothy pink book all about buying nice frocks and acquiring a boyfriend but aren't those books potentially just as dangerous? Many authors do publish books for young adults on controversial subjects. Melvyn Burgess is famous for it. Other authors such as Malorie Blackman, Bali Rai and Anthony McGowan all do it brilliantly. And yet, we're still having this discussion about whether it's appropriate. I'd love to hear from teenagers who have an opinion about what they think should be allowed to read.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Opportunities for young writers

I haven't had time to blog recently. I've been too busy actually writing the novel - 8,000 words of the new draft now which doesn't feel too bad. I'm waiting for some feedback from my novel writers' group before I write too much more as I'm still not sure I've got the structure right.

I thought today, I'd just say a word about the importance of writing groups and networking with other writers. Other writers provide essential feedback on material and, I also find writing groups great for giving me inspiration for new work. I'm a member of two writing groups. The old one I've been part of for about ten years and it's become more of a tea, cake and chat group, which is lovely but not always challenging. The other group, I set up recently with fellow novelist Bryony Doran. We're all in the final stages of writing novels and we're all graduates of Sheffield Hallam's MA in Writing. We take it in turns to lead writing exercises and to present a chunk of our work for critical feedback. This can be nerve-wracking and sometimes soul-destroying but it's always constructive and it's so important to know if something is working or not, before submitting it to agents and publishers.

Which leads me on to groups for young writers. I set up the Sheffield Young Writers Workshop about five years ago because I felt young people ought to have the opportunity to be part of writers' communities too. From a small seed, big things have grown and we now have groups in Sheffield, Barnsley, Rotherham and Doncaster. Other groups I know of are Leeds Young Authors and The Writing Squad, which recruits talented young writers from across Yorkshire. Buxton library are also doing some writing work with young people and I believe New Writing North promote opportunities for young people up in the North-East.

If you're Yorkshire-based, why not have a look at one of these groups or come along to the Young Writers Festival being held in Sheffield on June 19th? You can also find information about a young writers' competition and an anthology of new writing which is being put together. If you don't live in Yorkshire, think about whether you can set up a new writing group in your school or library? Talk to staff there and see what they think. And let me know of any other interesting writing opportunities that you hear about so that we can share them with other people.

In the meantime, join the community of readers and writers on or send me your writing to look at and I'll see if I can help you to hook up with other young writers, as well as giving you some constructive feedback.

Monday, 19 April 2010

Getting the contemporary details right

I managed to write about 2,000 words last Wednesday - mostly in the past tense thanks to DragonTamer's feedback. I too am beginning to think that it could be a bit much to write the whole novel in the present tense but I might keep experimenting. Originally I had thought that I might write the majority of the book in the present tense with flashbacks in the past tense but instead, I now seem to be writing the main narrative in the past tense with a secondary layer of narrative in the present tense. It's still going to be complicated structurally but I think it might work.

Another issue that I'm facing at the moment is one which all Young Adult authors have to contend with - how to make the voices and the worlds of their characters authentic. Although I work a lot with young people, it's still a long time since I was a teenager and it's hard to get the details right. This is particularly true when I'm writing about Tag's world. He's a homeless, drug user and the kind of language he would use probably changes year by year. Originally I tried to write Tag's story in the first person but I hit some obstacles with this approach, firstly because he has limited literacy skills which means that the vocabulary he uses needs to be somewhat restricted and also because there's a big issue with slang. To make his voice authentic, I would probably use a lot of dialect and slang but then the book might be difficult for readers who don't share his background. I'm now writing in the third person which frees me up a lot. I want to be able to use all of my writing skills to express the reality of homelessness and Tag's lifestyle which I didn't feel I could do in the first person.

In smaller ways, I still have similar issues when writing about Lorna. Lorna is much more like my teenage self but still, the world has moved on since I was eighteen. When trying to set the scene regarding Lorna's character and world, I found myself writing about her revising for her A Levels. Instantly I'm stuck because, first, I have to think in more detail about which subjects she would have chosen (I'm thinking English, history, maybe philosophy or a language) and then I have to think about the curriculum. Good writing comes to life by being specific so it's no good glossing over one of these details. Then there's the dates of exams. When I was doing my A levels, there was no coursework and all the exams took place in June. Now, I get the feeling that exams start earlier, but I'm not sure.

If anyone out there would like to donate a particularly dull bit of A Level revision for the following paragraphs, I'd be grateful. It would also be good to know when A level exams begin.

My aim with any feedback I get from young people, is to keep a log of names and then, if I manage to publish the book, I'd like to credit you in the finished product. If not, I'll credit you online and maybe I can come up with some other incentives along the way. For those of you who look at groupthing, there are quite a few giveaways and competitions available on a regular basis.

Most of my writing the other day was about Tag but here's the bit I wrote about Lorna before I got stuck on her revision:

Lorna was supposed to be revising. She had just eight weeks to go until her first exam but she was finding it hard to get motivated. Instead she was mastering the fine art of procrastination.

First she’d tidied her desk. Everyone knew that a messy desk was a reflection of a messy mind, and a messy mind was no good when dealing with the intricacies of ....................(what?) Next, she’d reinvented her revision schedule. It was a masterpiece of colour-coding, neat blocks of shaded orange, green, pink and a particularly satisfying shade of turquoise signifying what she should be doing for each hour of every day.

It was now two o’clock on Wednesday, a time designated for...............(what?) but instead of .............................(what?), Lorna was chatting to her friend Lyndsey on Facebook.

It's simply a case of filling in the blanks, like some kind of English comprehension exercise - if you still do those at school!

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Getting started

Today is the first day that I've dedicated to writing since before Christmas and, typically, I can't get started. I've tidied the house, written a few emails and tinkered about with previous blog posts but I haven't yet opened the file which contains the actual novel I'm supposed to be working on. Now I'm writing this blog as a form of procrastination that feels at least a little bit literary. I'm hoping that putting some words on a page will get me in the mood.

Two of my favourite authors on writing are Natalie Goldberg (Writing Down the Bones) Julia Cameron (The Artist's Way) Both are advocates of splurging words onto the page as a way of bypassing the inner critic - the nagging voice that tends to get in the way of us achieving our goals. The problem with applying the technique to blogging is that it's a bit like washing dirty laundry in public. No-one really wants to know that I've had an ear infection that's left me temporarily deaf in one ear and that the sunshine is making me want to go outside to play instead of sitting in my office.

So, what's really stopping me from getting started? Largely, I suppose it's fear. I've spent so long working on this book that I can't face the thought of not getting it 'right' this time and yet I'm not entirely sure that I know how to begin. I want to just start at the opening page of the book and then bash away at my keyboard until, 60,000 words later, I've written a fantastic novel that publishers are scrambling to buy. In reality, I don't write like that, and nor do most of the writers I know. Books emerge gradually from snippets and snapshots, images and paragraphs which eventually string together to form some kind of map. There's usually a point for me, when I've written enough of these fragments that I find a place to start and then I can be more chronological. This is a happy moment for me as ultimately, I prefer a more logical approach.

The process of redrafting this book is very different from anything else I've done because the plot and characters are fully formed in my head but the way of telling the story remains a bit mysterious. I know that the book will be written in the alternating voices of my two protagonists (Tag and Lorna) but I'm not sure at which point in their journeys I'll join them. I'm also still not sure whether to write to the book in the past or the present tense. I really like the experiments with the present tense that I've done but I'm not sure whether it might get wearing for a reader to read a whole novel in this tense. On the other hand, my friend, Bryony Doran did it really effectively in her novel, The China Bird (, and readers voted her book the winner of the Hookline competition so it must have been okay for them. I wonder if young people (and publishers of young adult fiction) would be so tolerant as it's so commonplace for books to be written in the past tense?

The other issue is to do with the opening. We all know that books need to grab their readers (publishers and agents are no exception) from the first page, usually throwing us straight into the action and providing us with hooks and questions that make us want to read on. With two protagonists though, there's the question of who I give the opening page to and also, if I decide to use the present tense, it limits my options. I wrote what I thought was a great opening/prologue and then realised that I couldn't easily start with the ending and then go back to the beginning when I'm writing in the present tense.

I've posed these as questions for my first post on where I've published one of my possible beginnings that is in the present tense. The post should be up there in the next few days. In the meantime, I'm going to have to do what any writing guru would suggest and just start putting one word after another and see where it leads me. It's got to be better than doing more housework.

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Straight on Till Morning - the project

Thanks to the Arts Council, I've now got 5 months to re-write my novel for young people. I've got some ideas about the new structure but there will still be a lot of experimenting to do. As part of the grant conditions, I've promised to share my writing process with young people: through this blog, through The Reading Agency's networking site - and through workshops.

It is my intention to share extracts from my novel along the way and I'm hoping that young people will offer their feedback and be a sounding board for me. I'm also hoping that I can inspire young people to write their own novels, poems, stories and blogs.

I'll be posting weekly and putting out chapters on a monthly basis but there might be some other questions that I want to ask along the way so I'm hoping to gather a community of young readers and writers around this blog and the groupthing blog. On groupthing, I'll be writer in residence over the summer and I'll be setting writing tasks as well as responding to your writing. To sign up to groupthing, just go to

Looking forward to hearing from you.

Straight on Till Morning - the history

I've written two books before this one. The first began as a project for my MA in Writing. Entitled Once Upon a Pony Tail, it was a kind of highbrow chick lit experiment which fell between the genres: not highbrow enough for literary fiction and too obscure for chick lit. The second was a children's book called Under the Indigo Waves. Again it wasn't quite right - too short, too long, not original enough. Both books were considered by agents and I even made it to London to talk about my prospects but ultimately they weren't good enough or I wasn't persistent enough to get them published.

I started Straight on Till Morning about 5 years ago and it's been a long journey to get to this point. The book is based on lots of my work experience: over the years I've worked in a range of literacy projects for young people as well as being an education worker in drug rehabs and homeless hostels. Whilst working as a literacy worker at Phoenix House Drug Rehabilitation Centre, I was privileged enough to help around 500 residents write their life stories, an experience that taught me never to judge other people. All of those people (most of whom were heroin addicts with criminal records) had really good reasons for getting involved in the lifestyle and most were really nice people. Likewise with the many homeless people I've worked with over the years. I suppose, in this book, I want to tell some of those stories and share the understanding I've gained with other people. Lorna, the middle-class literary volunteer, is, in reality, a bit like my younger self - naive but well-meaning. She's the vehicle by which we learn about Tag - but hopefully she's much more than a vehicle, as is Tag.

It was the life story idea which perhaps threw me off-track with the telling of the story. The first draft was written retrospectively from the perspective of the two main characters: Lorna from her Gap year travels and Tag from rehab. Tag's life story was thrown in there for good measure and, in the end, the story was too complicated. Agents and a literary consultant liked the plot and characters but not the structure. For the last two years I've been trying to figure out what to do with the book, committing occasional experiments to paper (or the screen) in between looking after my little girl and doing bits of work. For 6 months I was a consultant on Arts Council Yorkshire's new plan for young writers ( and for the last year I've been HeadSpace Project Manager for The Reading Agency ( and I've done the occasional stint with the Sheffield Young Writers project which I set up about 5 years ago.

You'll gather that I like working with young people and so it seems natural to write for them as well. I'm hoping that this book will be the first of many young adult novels that I write.

Straight on Till Morning - the synopsis

Tag and Lorna are from different worlds and heading in different directions until their meeting at a Sheffield literacy project sets them off on a journey that neither of them expected.

Tag has had a rough life, unable to read and write and growing up with an abusive stepfather, Mitch, and a mother who is too scared and too busy to notice him. His little sister Jax also suffers abuse at the hands of Mitch and ultimately the family break apart. At sixteen Tag finds himself homeless and lost with just bad memories to keep him company. By the time Lorna meets him he has begun his descent into a world of hard drugs and crime and is living at a hostel.

Eighteen year old Lorna is an average middle class girl: good grades, good behaviour and a plan for her future. Underneath her polished accent and manners though, Lorna is struggling too. Her parents are divorced and she feels like an outsider in the home that her mum has created with new partner, Pete. Her younger sister Kate is also unhappy but rather than stick together, the two girls find solace in different things. For Lorna it’s books, travel and voluntary work, for Kate it’s fashion, Bebo and the search for a rich footballer to whisk her away from her life of drudgery.

Tag and Lorna meet when Lorna volunteers at the local literacy project where Tag has recently enrolled. From awkward beginnings a friendship blossoms and it is Tag that Lorna turns to when Kate mysteriously disappears, seduced by the promise of a future with an older man.

In their search for Kate, Tag and Lorna set off on a journey that takes them to the streets of Leeds where Lorna has an insight into the worlds of drugs, homelessness and prostitution – world’s that are all too familiar to Tag. It is a rocky road, fraught with danger and fear for Kate’s safety but in the midst of the crisis a love affair begins between Tag and Lorna. But can they find Kate before it’s too late? And even if they find Kate safe and sound, can there really be a future for them? One man is sure of the answer. Pete and his police officers are after Tag and they’re not going to stop until he’s behind bars.