When I was a kid, I read every book in the children’s section of my local library I could get my hands on – Roald Dahl, Enid Blyton, Judy Blume, Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys… I loved authors like Anne Pilling and Robert Swindells, too, I was a Point Horror junkie, and I devoured the Sweet Valley High books (well, they had a certain glamour!). I also read each and every one of the Chalet School books, lent to me by a relative. Basically, there wasn’t much I didn’t read. I loved it.
Then I hit my teens. Back then (and it wasn’t that long ago) YA didn’t really exist as a genre – at least, not in the sense it does now. And I don’t remember there being a designated section in our library for books for teens like we have in the library I work in today.
So I skipped straight from kid’s books to adult books – Stephen King, Ben Bova, Michael Crichton. About the same time, I started writing, and as a result, my early ‘novels’ (which I still have, stacked in the top of a wardrobe), have a distinctly hard-boiled flavour as I tried to imitate these authors, both in content and in style. I was thrilled, at fourteen, when my grandmother inadvertently paid me one of the biggest compliments anyone’s ever made about my writing – that I wrote like a forty-year-old man.
Then came the GCSE years, and reading for study, rather than pleasure. And as we analysed the meaning of Scout and Jem’s every word in To Kill a Mockingbird*, and dutifully wrote essays about Macbeth, I began to wonder whether, because, secretly, I still preferred Sci-fi to Shakespeare – despite being told that THIS was great literature! – I was lacking in some way.
So I turned my back on the books I liked to read in favour of the ones I thought I should be reading. Stopped writing the stories I wanted to write in favour of the sort I thought I was supposed to. And pretty quickly, I stopped having fun with them. Just stopped.
Often, I had to force myself to read. The few times I cracked and bought, say, the latest Stephen King, it was a guilty pleasure, one I’d only allow myself every now and then. One strange pattern did emerge, though – the ‘literary’ books I was making myself read nearly always had a young or teenage protagonist. But the significance of this didn’t occur to me then; I knew I felt more of a sense of kinship with these sorts of characters than any other, but I didn’t stop to think about why, or what that might mean for my own writing. In a desperate attempt to revive my fading enthusiasm, I had a go at a story for children, but because I didn’t read children’s books – I didn’t think I was allowed to, somehow (a crazy notion; I realise that now) – it failed, and ended up in the bin.
At the same time, I started to realise that I had no idea how to write a plot that actually worked. I’m not one of those lucky people born with an innate sense for storytelling – I simply couldn’t figure out why the plots in everything I wrote flatlined, or went in circles, or simply went nowhere at-all. Maybe it’s time to give up, a little voice in my head started telling me. Maybe you’re not a writer. Maybe it’s time to try something else.
Then two things happened. I saw a review of a book, STORY: SUBSTANCE, STRUCTURE, STYLE AND THE PRINCIPLES OF SCREENWRITING by Robert McKee, in a magazine. It sounded interesting – the article talked about it as if it could be applied to novel-writing, too – and the library had a copy in, so I borrowed it and found out it does exactly what it says on the tin. I’ll warn you, though, it’s not a book for the fainthearted. I had to read it through twice, taking detailed notes, before I even started to understand what it was trying to tell me. But then it started to click. I started to get it. And started to realise where I’d been going wrong.
At almost exactly the same time, I got the opportunity to go on a weekend course run by the award-winning YA & children’s author Linda Newbery. Better read one of her books, I thought (as shockingly, I never had). So I got myself a copy of THE SHELL HOUSE, which at the time was her latest novel, about two teenage boys separated by almost eight decades but linked by a crumbling mansion, and who are both struggling with issues of identity, faith and sexuality.
It was a revelation. I enjoyed it so much I read it in less than two days. And after the course, which was interesting and fun, I went back to the bookshop and the library for more YA books by other authors. I couldn’t get enough of them.
But still, my brain was slow to catch up. It wasn’t until several months later that something suddenly occurred to me: why not try writing the literary coming-of-age novel I’d been struggling with, on and off, for two years, as a young adult novel?
I remember that moment so clearly. It was an autumn evening, and I was sitting on the sofa in the little rented flat my then-boyfriend (now my husband) and I were living in at the time. I’d been working on another story all day which I was bored to death with. I hated the storyline. I hated the characters. I was constructing it according to McKee’s principles in STORY and it still didn’t work. But I was ploughing on relentlessly with it because I felt I ought to.
The moment the thought of writing YA exploded into my brain (it really was that dramatic) I put the boring story to one side, grabbed a notebook and started scribbling as ideas for this new novel literally tumbled into my head. Everything I’d learnt from STORY (which I’m still learning from – I don’t think I’ll ever stop) collided with the characters and story I’d been trying to piece together, and by that night I had an outline and a first chapter written out.
For the first time ever, I fell in love with my characters, becoming so obsessed with them I wouldn’t have been surprised to see them get on the bus when I was on my way to work. I found myself listening to music that sounded like the story. I was totally and utterly immersed in the world of the story – the first time it had ever happened. It was incredible.
That book was also the first one I ever sent out to agents and publishers, although – quite rightly, because it was terrible – it quickly collected a stack of rejections, and it would take several more novels before ACID was born. But from that moment on, I knew: I was going to write YA. I was going to read YA. And I was going to love it – every single minute of it.
What about you? How did you find your genre? Or are you still searching for it? Whatever stage you’re at, I’d love to hear about it in the comments!
*Ironically, I recently picked up my battered, much doodled-in copy of TKAM and it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read. Go figure!