I grew up in London and moved to the Birmingham suburbs in my teens. I always loved writing, and as a child I wrote stories and poems in my spare time, but it never occurred to me that I could do it for a living.
I worked as a waitress, a shop assistant, and a general dogsbody at the Shakespeare Centre Library in Stratford-upon-Avon (where the biggest perk of the job was lots of free theatre tickets) before studying at Cambridge University and then at Aberdeen University where I did a Masters in Celtic literature.
I went on to work in media relations for the homelessness charity Shelter and spent several years as a press officer for then Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone. This involved a lot of writing – press releases, articles, briefing papers – but it wasn’t until I took a career break to have my children that I plucked up the courage to do what I’d always really wanted to do and attempt to write a book. I did an MA in Writing for Young People at Bath Spa University, and wrote The Year of The Rat as my MA manuscript.
(Photo: Lou Abercrombie)
Q: When and how did you become an author?
I’ve always loved writing and it was definitely the thing I was best at when I was at school, but it never occurred to me that I could do it as a job. I worked in media relations for several years doing a lot of writing, but although I enjoyed it what I really wanted to do was write stories. When I had my children I had to take a break from my career as it involved a lot of late nights and weekend working and I decided to give creative writing a go. I didn’t think of it as a possible job even at that point, I just really wanted to do it. I went on a five-day creative writing course run by the Arvon Foundation because I just couldn’t get past the fear of the blank screen. I was convinced I had no ideas and that even if I did they’d be rubbish, and even if they weren’t I wouldn’t be able to write them. That course was life-changing. I had the idea for my first book The Year of The Rat on that course and started writing it but I had three very young children including a new baby which meant very little time for writing! Eventually I signed up to do an MA in Writing for Young People part-time at Bath Spa University and, almost four years after having that first idea, finished the manuscript! I sent it off to a brilliant agent who I’d met at a SCBWI event, Catherine Clarke, and then bit my nails and tried to work out what I’d do when no one wanted to publish my book. Fortunately she loved it and offered to represent me. The book then went to auction which felt unbelievable and I got to choose my publisher. It was a very wonderful and completely weird experience. Until the book was published I was convinced it had all been a terrible mistake or that I’d dreamt it.
Q: Who is your agent and how did you get an agent? Does a writer need an agent?
Most writers have an agent and my opinion is definitely that a good agent is invaluable. The standard fee for an agent is 15% of UK sales and 20% of foreign sales and some people wonder whether it’s worth handing over your hard-earned cash. All I can say is, if you’re agent is any good at their job, you’ll end up earning more despite the fee. You’re paying for their expertise, their knowledge of the industry and the people in it. Could I have sold my first book without an agent? Well, quite possibly. Would there have been an eight-way auction for my book? Um, no. The person responsible for that was my wonderful agent Catherine Clarke of Felicity Bryan Associates. I’d found her in the Writers and Artists Handbook and seen that she represented several writers I really liked, including Meg Rosoff, Linda Newbery and David Almond. I also knew she represented children’s, YA and adult authors which appealed to me as I’d like to be able to write for all these age groups. I went to see her speak at an event and went to had a chat with her. She was interested in what I was writing and asked me to send it when it was finished. It was a long wait but thankfully she liked it and agreed to represent me.
Q: Where do you get your ideas?
From everywhere. I get them from things that happen in my own life, stories in the news or programmes I see on TV, from snippets of conversations that I overhear on trains or sitting in the doctor’s waiting room, from pictures, from dreams, from memories, from history. I think the key to being an writer is to be really nosy. You have to constantly ask “What if…?” and “Why?”. The answer to those questions sometimes turns out to be a story, or at least the beginning of one. It also helps to be a pessimist. If you’re prone to wondering “What would happen if this situation went horribly wrong?”, you’ve got a whole supply of ideas right there just waiting to be written. After all, stories where everything goes absolutely right all the time tend to be pretty boring…
Q: What are the best and worst things about being an author?
This is a tough one. Most things about being an author are brilliant – after all you’re being paid to make stuff up. The down sides? Well, it can be pretty solitary at times and when you get stuck you’re the only one that can fix it (although talking it through with other writers or your editor can help). It changes the experience of going into a bookshop – instead of relaxing and browsing you’re gripped by silent paranoia as some variation of the following mantra plays in your head: “Have they got my book in stock? How many copies? Is that good or bad? Is no one buying it? Why isn’t it on a table/face out on a shelf? Why does THAT book have a massive display in prime position right by the till? Why am I not David Walliams?” etc etc. But this is all more than compensated for by all the good bits. Best of all is getting lovely feedback from readers who enjoyed your book. Sounds corny but it’s amazing to know your words have made a difference to someone.
Q: Why do you write for teenagers?
I write for whoever wants to read my books! Both my books so far have been about teenagers and have been published for both teen and adult readers. I’ve had lovely feedback from readers from 12 to in their seventies about my books! I hope I’ll write for all age groups in the future. I do really enjoy writing about teenagers – I think it’s a time that’s so full of opportunity, when you start to see the world differently and ask big, difficult questions, and work out who you are and how you fit into the world. Everything is intense and new and full of possibility but it’s also a complicated time and that’s why I love writing about it. I think that’s also why so many of us are drawn to coming-of-age stories in film and literature. When people ask me how I find out what teenagers do and think it makes me laugh – we’ve all been teenagers, I just remember how it felt! Some of the practical details have changed (mobile phones make plotting much more difficult!) but the way it feels to be a teenager hasn’t.
Q: Do you think creative writing courses are a good idea?
They certainly can be, but like any course they vary a lot so if you’re thinking of doing one do your research. Look at who teaches it, what the content of the course is, and what others who have done the course have achieved. The MA I did at Bath Spa University has a consistent record of graduates being published and going on to win prizes and get subsequent book deals. That’s because it’s a great course. Others aren’t so good. Any course that promises to get you published shouldn’t be trusted. No one can guarantee that.
It’s certainly a myth that, because it’s creative, writing is something you either have a gift for or you don’t and that teaching is not going to make you any better. After all, no one would say that about music or art or drama or dance. No course can make you more talented – I could have the best dance teacher in the world and practice every day but I’d never be a brilliant dancer – but a good teacher will always help you improve. A good course will help you through practice, understanding your writing, working out how to achieve different things in your writing, thinking about different techniques, and may also give you practical advice on the publishing industry and finding an agent.
Obviously this doesn’t mean you can’t become a writer without doing a course. Many people do and there are lots of books you can read, online writing groups you can join, and events you can attend to help you along the way.
Q: How long does it take to write a book?
It can take anything from weeks to years. My first book took me four years on and off! My second took me a year. Some people write their first draft very quickly and then spend a long time editing. I tend to edit as I go along. So it varies hugely from author to author and book to book.
Q: What are your hobbies?
I love film and going to the cinema and I’m also a big theatre buff – basically I’m a frustrated actor, I love the excitement of it all! I’d love to write plays and hope to give it a go soon… I love running (even though I’m definitely NOT a natural born athlete) and even ran the London Marathon in 2014! I’m not fit enough to do that now but I’d love to do it again, it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done. I hated running as a kid but now I find it weirdly relaxing and it often helps me to sort out tricky plot problems when I’m writing. I destroy any health benefits from the running by baking. I’m no domestic goddess, I just love cake. Finally, of course, I love reading. I’m a very slow reader but I’m challenging myself to read more widely rather than just sticking to the same old authors. I’ve never been a big non-fiction reader so that’s my mission for this year. I’m really into reading diaries and collections of letters at the moment.
Q: Do you do school visits?
Yes I do! You can find out more on my school visits page. If you’d like me to visit your school you can contact me via my Contact form.