I am hugely excited that my YA novel The Mess Of Me has been included in this list; 9 Realistic Young Adult Books With Relatable Protagonists, over at Wiki.ezvid.com ! Just follow the link to take a look and perhaps check out the other YA books mentioned.
Q1 What did you eat for breakfast?
I just had a coffee. I wasn’t really hungry. Toast is so filling in the morning and I’ve gone off milk lately on cereal. Just a coffee most days. Coffee is fine. I do have two sugars in it though, which is quite bad, so I’m gonna’ cut that down to one pretty soon.
Q2 Do you have any pets?
Yeah, we have a dog called Gremlin. God knows what he is. He has ears like a bat and a smashed in face like a pug? He’s small and fat with along tail and weird, wiry fur. My best friend Joe calls him an experiment gone wrong. Mum bought him for me and my sister when my dad left us. It was the first thing she did! Went out and got us a puppy.
Q3 How many siblings do you have and are you close to them?
I only have one sister, Sara. She’s eighteen and off to University soon. We get on pretty well, but I wouldn’t say we were close exactly. I’ve always viewed her as a bit of a blur. She rushes around, never stays still, always in and out and involved in some huge drama. She’s always arguing with my mum too. They’re terrible together.
Q4 Who is your best friend? And why?
My best friend is Joe. We’re probably only best friends by accident, to be honest. His mum Lorraine (she is absolutely terrifying!) and my mum were in the hospital at the same time having Sara and Travis, one of Joe’s older brothers and became friends. Lorraine has five sons, and Joe is the middle one. We were forced on each other, I guess. We knew each other even when we were in our mother’s wombs! Poor us. Having to sit there, forced to listen to their constant bitching and gossiping! He’s still my best friend because he gets me. More than anyone. And I get him. We basically just swear at each other and our friendship is based on insults. Joe is calm and gentle, not like the rest of his insane family. They don’t see him like I do. Which is sad. I feel sad for him a lot.
Q5 Who are you scared of?
A few people, actually. My dad scares me a bit, or at least he did when I was younger. He was always ranting and raving and slamming doors and storming off. I hated him and the way he treated my mum. She put up with it for years but then he left her for another woman. I’m not really scared of him now. I just think he’s pathetic. Joe’s mum Lorraine scares the shit out of me. She’s like a pitbull, I swear, a pitbull in red lipstick. She’d wipe the floor with anyone. She’s not frightened of anything or anyone. Christ, she’s a horrifying specimen. Her new bloke Mick is a bit scary too. Her oldest sons, Leon, Travis and Joe have a different dad. Mick is father to the youngest two boys, Will and Tommy. Of course, he dotes on them. They can do no wrong. But he seems to hate the oldest three. So it’s like a constant war zone at their house. Mick is a lot like Lorraine and they fight like cat and dog sometimes. Physically and everything. But do you want to know who scares me the most? Well, it’s Leon. Joe’s oldest brother. Leon and Travis are very close in age and always together, up to no good. Travis is okay. He’s no angel, but he has a nice smile and isn’t too mean to Joe. But Leon? There’s something about him that chills me to the bone. Something missing in his eyes. If there’s anyone to be scared of around here, it’s Leon Lawrenson.
Q6 What is your greatest fear?
Well, it will probably sound stupid to you. Stupid and shallow. But my biggest fear is getting fat again. I was such a porker until I started dieting and exercising. Now, I’m losing weight fast and lots of strange stuff has been happening. I’m more confident, which is weird, because I always just wanted to disappear before. Boys are interested in me now! Which is mental! Boys never looked at me before. I’ve had some weird little moments with Joe this summer, and Travis tried it on with me… I know, I know! But yeah, getting fat again terrifies me. I’m not joking. I never ever want to be that girl again. I hated her. I won’t be her again. I know my mum and sister think I’m taking the weight loss too far, but it’s easy for them to say. They were never fat like I was. They don’t understand.
Q7 What are your hopes and dreams?
Well, right now, I sort of hope Joe and I can get ourselves out of the mess we’re in. Since we found that stuff in his brothers’ wardrobe, everything has got a bit scary. Suddenly Travis and Leon are being nice to Joe, and I’m really worried about what he’s getting into…As for dreams? Mine are pretty basic. I want to be left alone, because most people annoy the hell out of me. I want them all to leave me alone and let me get as skinny as I want. I want to be skinny. Super skinny. I want to be skinny forever. Aside from that, I hope me and Joe are best friends forever and nothing ever comes between us, and I dream of working with animals one day. I haven’t decided what yet. Maybe just a dog walker or a dog trainer or something? I couldn’t stand being around too many people, I know that.
Q8 Do you have any hobbies?
Running. I love running these days! And listening to music, though Joe takes the piss out of my tastes as I seem to like a lot of old stuff like Bob Dylan. Joe is really into music and wants to be a drummer. He’s saving up for this drum kit and forming a band with his mates. Walking the dog? Except that’s not really a hobby, just something I always end up doing because Mum and Sara are too busy. Writing on my wall. You could call that a hobby, I guess. My mum hasn’t noticed yet, but I’ve been scrawling my thoughts and feelings on my bedroom wall for ages now. I’ve even started the ceiling. If she ever wants to know anything about me or my life, she only has to look! Smoking weed and drinking cider with Joe and my other friend Marianne? Naughty hobby, I know, but we’re teenagers, right? We’d regret it if we didn’t break the rules a bit.
Q9 Describe yourself in one sentence
Fucked up, sarcastic, nerdy mess of a girl on the verge of….something
Q10 What’s your biggest secret?
I’m not going to tell just anyone, am I? Christ, I don’t want the world to know! I don’t want anyone to know. It’s huge and it’s embarrassing and it would change everything if it ever got out…and I although I daydream about what could happen if it did, I’m too scared, too shy, too messed up to do anything about it.
(Warning…not strictly writing related…unless you have read The Mess Of Me or intend to one day…Monday was World Mental Health Day and this post is somewhat inspired by that.)
I feel like I have always been at odds with this flesh covered vehicle of transport I call my body.
I think the only time we’ve been on the same side is when we were trying to push out babies. (Although possibly not during the fourth labour, but that’s not a story anyone wants to hear today!)
I remember how I viewed this casing of skin as a child. I can’t remember ever feeling like it fitted me right. It always felt too big. I can clearly recall being about eight years old and noticing the thin, brown arms of a boy sat close to me in the classroom. They were like little brown matchsticks, and when I looked back at mine they seemed too big in comparison. I couldn’t understand why. They were just too fleshy…just too much.
When I was about ten my body began to develop. I had womanly curves whilst still playing with Lego. I hated it. And I hated all the friendly euphemisms for being a big child as well. ‘You’re a big girl, aren’t you?’ ‘It’s just puppy fat.’ Ugh. I didn’t really want to be a fat puppy, funnily enough.
As I grew I became increasingly aware of my unwanted flesh. I had breasts that jiggled and moved. I had hips and a bum. I had rolls of fat when I bent over or squished up. None of it felt like it belonged to me. It all felt like it needed to be shredded.
The weird thing is, if I look back at old photos of me, I really wasn’t as big as I thought I was at the time. I had a brother and two sisters who were all like stick insects, and I was bigger than them and I looked big for my age, but I wasn’t really fat. I was just developing. Still, it was not the body I wanted or felt I should have, and that feeling has never really gone away.
As a teenager my weight went up and down, and more often than not, I simply loathed the human suit I was forced to wear. I wanted to unzip it and step out, revealing the true me. I would have long, thin, shapely legs. Matchstick arms. A flat, hard belly. A neat, trim waist. Angles on my face. I would shed my skin and emerge looking like the girls I saw on TV and in magazines.
At one point in my teenage years, I submitted to my body and gave in. I hated sports because I felt so fat and slow, so I avoided them like the plague, shut myself away in the imaginary worlds of books and writing, and hence got bigger. I thought I was stuck with this flabby cage forever. I did not want people to see me. I often wished I could cease to exist.
During my later years as a teenager, a full on battle commenced. Much like the one Lou goes through in The Mess Of Me. I went to war with my body. I fought back. I kicked its arse and got control of it. I aimed to change it and remould it, to make it into something I could be proud of. It all started off sensibly enough, but as you can imagine, it soon all got rather messy.
I figured out ways of fighting back and rebelling. I told my body to fuck off. I discovered ways I could eat without getting fat. I figured how easy it was to just not eat at all. I realised that I could run and that once I started, it was hard to stop. So I ran faster and faster and faster, doing all I could to outrun the fat girl, to leave that chubby loser far behind.
During my early twenties, this battle continued. It’s fair to say I treated my body like utter shit. I hated it and felt like it hated me. We would never be friends. I would punish it any chance I got. Away from parental control, my University days were not good for me at all. I became obsessed with feeling hungry. With feeling for ribs and hip bones, with feeling the enthralling darkness of pleasure and fear. At my thinnest, I got more compliments than ever. I got noticed by boys, flirted with, asked out. Things that had never happened much when I was bigger. I loved it when people told me how much weight I had lost. I went to a family wedding and people did not recognise me. The only thing that ever scared me into eating was each time my periods stopped…and only because I was desperate to be a mother.
I’ve always said having children saved me from myself, and it’s true. The first pregnancy we had ended in a miscarriage and I was devastated and completely blamed myself. I’d still been exercising, still watching what I ate, still waging war with my flesh.
The second pregnancy was a success and in the years that followed I threw myself into being the best mother I could be, and although I worked hard to get my body back, it didn’t occupy my mind in quite the same way as it had. There just wasn’t time. Through pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding I did, at last, learn to feel pride in my body. It wasn’t just a clumsy machine to be hated and abused, it was actually quite amazing. It could grow a baby. I could feed and sustain and nurture a life. Although I am far from happy with my body today, I do feel an element of pride in wobbly bits and stretch marks. They are part of who I am and what I have chosen to do with my life.
I’ve struggled over the years not to return to the old, messed up me. I was lucky enough to receive therapy before I became a mother, and I truly believe that opportunity set me on the correct path of health and fitness and sensible attitudes.
The thing is, you can’t hurt yourself when you have children because you realise that if you did, you would also be hurting them.
And now here we are. Me and my body which is fast approaching it’s fourth decade and still feels to me like it’s not really mine. I can’t say that we’re friends yet. In fact, lately it has been frustrating me more than ever. It just won’t let me lose weight. I swear it feels like it’s getting revenge for those years of punishment. It’s getting its own back on me. It’s hanging onto the baby weight my two-year-old left behind like there is no tomorrow. He was a large, overdue, ten pounder who has certainly left his mark. There is fat to spare and my body wants to keep it all! It’s not making milk any longer, but it won’t let the post-baby body shrink no matter what I do.
This battle has been ongoing for six months now, and I am starting to take things up a notch out of sheer desperation. I’ve barely touched a drop of alcohol. I am running and skipping almost every day. I don’t make excuses. If I have a cold, tough. If I only have ten of fifteen minutes, tough. My new motto is Do It Anyway!
Is it making a difference? Slowly. Oh, so…slowly.
My body is now a snail, a slug, a tortoise.
It sneers and rolls its eyes and tells me to fuck off.
I jump on the scales every Friday morning and wonder if they are in fact broken.
I get out with the dogs and run faster and further and harder.
I feel my jeans getting looser in the legs and around the waist.
And then the scales say otherwise…
I honestly don’t know what is going on. I mean, maybe it’s just me? Maybe I’m eating more than I realise?? Maybe there is something up with my metabolism!
I only know that I am not going to give up. I am not going to quit and say, okay body you win, I will accept this body wrecked and ruined by childbirth and age. I will take it and be grateful, and I will eat cake and drink wine and never mention it again.
But the problem is the mirror. The old enemy resurfaces. I can’t hold my head up high or look people in the eye when I don’t feel I’m in the right body.
I know it can’t be perfect, and to be honest, perfection was never really the goal. Just feeling happy with it was.
What comes first? The characters of the plot? I guess the answer is different for every writer, and often different for every book. I’ve been thinking about this since one of my daughters showed a rare interest in my writing and asked me what came first; my characters or my plots? My immediate answer was the characters, as this is how it so often feels. But as I went through the novels one by one, I had to admit that it’s different each time. For example, The Boy With The Thorn In His Side was an idea that grew into a character, followed by a more complex plot. The Tree of Rebels, which will be my next release, was undoubtedly plot before characters, more so than any other book I’ve written. I’ve blogged before about how difficult this made the process, and how it has taken longer for me to understand my characters and feel comfortable with them. With Elliot Pie (a book only in its first draft) it was the character first, but his character, in being someone who was intrinsically curious about strangers, was the plot. So they evolved simultaneously.
Having thought about it for some time I realised that my novels, This Is Nowhere and The Mess Of Me both have something in common. They were both written in the same way. I had the character first, and then had to create a plot to go with them.
I’m not sure this is the best way to write a book, but it’s just the way it worked with these two. With This Is Nowhere, I had the character in my head for some time, and with the character came the whole feel and tone of the book. Slightly sombre, dark around the edges, yet gentle, confused, struggling through mystery. I knew the character was a male in his late twenties or early thirties, and I knew he was rootless and aimless, a drifter. He had never grown up, but why was that? I knew he had a bad relationship with his father but the rest of that came much later. I knew he had a recurring stomach ailment, and had turned his back on the religion he had been brought up with. I had images in my head of a boy running across a sun baked field, though running from what I had no idea. The whole thing seemed to evolve in my head through feelings and images. I got the idea for the plot involving his missing mother when I was walking my dogs in the woods one day. I’m pretty sure, though it is hard to recall now, that my daughter had spoken to me about a missing persons case, and that had set something off in my head. What if this drifter was to return to his small home town in order to find out what happened to his mother, who vanished when he was a child?
With The Mess Of Me it was harder. In this case, I would probably not advise coming up with the character before the plot, although in all honesty I had absolutely no control over this!
Lou Carling started talking to me when I was about half way through writing The Boy With The Thorn In His Side. This was fantastic to me at the time. Having had a long break from writing, in tackling The Boy I was giving it all a go again, seeing if I still had the urge and the passion. When Lou started talking and grumbling, I was overjoyed because I had that feeling again. Of fireworks and ideas exploding in my head, of panic and excitement knotting in my belly, of wanting to hurry home to the laptop, of needing to scrawl notes onto scrap paper so I wouldn’t lose a thing. Essentially, Lou let me know that it was back. Writing was back.
I let her babble on for a while, mostly because she really amused me. She had just finished her GCSE’s and had a long summer before A-Levels ahead of her. She was deeply cynical about everything and everyone, and had a rather filthy mouth. Her best friend was a boy called Joe, a lanky, hazel eyed boy whose mother was her mother’s best friend. I could see Lou and hear her. In fact she barely left me alone. She would have constant conversations in my head, really interesting little nuggets of dialogue I just had to scribble down for later. But I had no plot. What was this book going to be about? What was going to happen to her? What did she want? What did she fear?
It took a while, but I got there in the end purely by listening to her, and being witness to the world that started to build around her. The claustrophobic council estate, growing up without money, feeling exasperated and embarrassed by her family. Hating everyone, especially herself.
I’m happy to admit that large parts of Lou are based on me, on my own experiences, on my own views and feelings growing up. In many ways, she is the character closest to me, at that age anyway. But I allowed her more freedom, letting her express herself when I was too shy to. Immensely liberating, I can tell you. The plot I ended up with actually came from a strange childhood memory.
When I was young, my mother had a friend who had five sons. She was a larger than life kind of woman, large in build and large in voice. She would sweep you in for a cuddle and nearly break your bones. She used to make jokes about swapping my mum’s daughters for her sons, and I used to think she was serious, and I was just a little bit afraid of her. I loved going to her house to play though. With her two youngest sons, me and my sister and brother used to trespass onto the grounds of their local school and play games with their pet dog. We would climb and hide in trees and bushes and behind walls and the dog would look for us. I can also remember playing with a huge mound of cardboard boxes in their back garden, making dens out of them, climbing up them and leaping off to crush the boxes below.
Her three older sons were teenagers when we were small. They flitted in and out of the background, and as I was so shy I probably never spoke to any of them. I watched them get the odd clip around the ear. One even had his mouth washed out with soap one day. But they were like mysteries to me. Part of my life, and yet totally unknown. They could have been anyone. They could have had any kind of life without me knowing. I had no idea who they were, where they went to, what they did, or what they dreamed about.
One day we were coming up the front path and one of the teenage boys was sat on the doorstep with his head in his hands looking absolutely miserable. In the cool dark of the kitchen, I overheard my mother’s friend telling my mum he was in so much trouble. They muttered and murmured in there for some time, while he remained on the doorstep. I never did find out what he’d done wrong.
So somehow, for some reason, this all crept into Lou’s world. The house full of boys. The mother on the warpath, driven to distraction by her unruly brood. Having these people you’ve grown up with, and yet never really know. Mysteries that unravel just out of reach and over the heads of young children who are told to go out and play.
The drug running storyline was of course utterly fabricated. It could have been anything really, the trouble the boys were in. Everything else from here on was pure imagination!
In many ways the drug running activities of Joe’s older brothers, and the way both Joe and Lou get pulled into it all, is a sub-plot to the main one, which is simply Lou’s journey over that summer. Her determination to lose weight and get skinny. Her finding herself, without it sounding too much of a cliche, was central to it all.
So that’s the story of The Mess Of Me. Where it came from and how it happened. It is probably my most character driven book, with the plot almost taking a back seat to the characters.
What about you? As a reader, do you ever wonder what came first, the plot or the characters? Can you ever tell?
What about you writers? Is it always the plot first, the characters later? Or the other way around? Which way does it happen for you, and does it make it harder to write if it happens in a way you are not used to?
Feel free to comment below!