The Mess Of Me Now

In 2013 I released my debut Young Adult novel, The Mess Of Me. Originally, it was part of the self-publishing platform, Autharium. I then got a publishing deal with a small press and removed it from Autharium. This did not go to plan as a whole year later the small press had done nothing and not responded to my messages, so I decided to take it back and put it back with Autharium…who then closed. Since then, it has been with Pronoun, who also closed, and with Amazon. Currently, like my other books, The Mess Of Me is self-published through the indie collective Pict Publishing, and there I hope, it will stay.

Six years though! In that time I have published eight more books, had another child and started my own Community Interest Company; Chasing Driftwood Writing Group. Life has indeed changed a lot.

But in many ways, Lou Carling, the 16-year-old narrator of The Mess Of Me, is still with me, perhaps increasingly so. I will perhaps explain in another blog post, another day, but for a while now I have not been feeling myself and in times when I am feeling down, Lou is the voice I hear the loudest.

Perhaps because she is the character most like me. They say that a grain of truth seeps into every work of fiction and I agree. They say that characters are often at least partially based on people we know, or on parts of ourselves, and again, I agree.

In fact, Lou is not just the character most like me. She pretty much is me. When I wrote that book, it was perhaps the most cathartic process for me. I had an idea for a plot, for characters, back story and so on, but more than all of that, I had a burning desire to just speak my thoughts through her. Everything Lou says, thinks and feels in The Mess Of Me comes from me. Me when I was a teenager, and me now. I still think of myself as a mess and I probably always will.

The issues with food are still there, just as I suspect they will always be there for Lou. It’s just that as you grow older, you work out ways to rationalise your irrational thoughts. Or as in my case, you have your own children and are determined to set a good example and not let them down.

But for me, The Mess Of Me is a voice in my head, and Lou’s voice is one I hear more than ever lately. I feel the strongest urge to write the sequel, which contains a storyline which is also something true from my own life, but at the moment there are too many other books in progress to focus on it.

Anyway, here are a few reasons why Lou is me and I am Lou;

  • She is obsessed with being thinner
  • she thinks her life will be better if she is thinner
  • every day she thinks and obsesses about being thinner
  • if she does not do anything to help her get thinner she feels like a failure
  • she puts all her thoughts and feelings in writing rather than actually telling people
  • she’s feels the pull of self-destructive behaviour and tries hard to resist
  • she thinks everyone else’s lives are far more interesting than her own
  • for this reason, despite not really liking humans too much, she is endlessly fascinated with them
  • she is in love with her best friend

For those of you perhaps interested in reading about Lou and Joe’s messy summer, the ebook is currently just 99p on Amazon and all other ebook platforms. Please consider leaving an honest review if you do happen to purchase the book. Many thanks!

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Stuck Inside A Story (For 28 years…)

That’s how it feels. That’s what it is. Stuck. Trapped. Held prisoner. I can’t get out. But do I really want to? Evidence would suggest not. Sometimes I wonder what exactly I have done. Created a world, created characters, used some magic and a lot of hard work, an imagination I can’t control, and there you have it, an alternative reality I can’t escape from.

I had no idea this would happen when I started writing as a child. My first attempts were hand-written stories about lost and abandoned animals, heavily influenced by my love of Watership Down and other similar books. I didn’t write my first story about real people living real lives until I was 12 years old. What happened to tear me away from my quaint tales of lost dogs and runaway bunnies? Well, weirdly, this.

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And this.

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Watching The Lost Boys gave me a few vital ingredients for the story that would go on to hold me prisoner for the next 28 years. It gave me the main idea, the main concept and it gave me some characters. Or at least, it inspired me to create characters who would turn out to be the kind of people I wished I knew in real life. As for Stephen King, it was around this time that I started my collection and was well on my way to becoming a truly obsessed fan. Add to that strange mix, the recent divorce of my parents, the usual teenage angst and rebellion, and I had me a story. Remember the bit in The Lost Boys when the younger brother realises his mother is dating the head vampire? That’s where the idea for The Boy With The Thorn In His Side came from. It wasn’t called that back then. It wasn’t called anything for ages. But I kept thinking…what if your mother was dating a monster? Only not the vampire kind, the real-life kind? And what if no one believed you? And what if you only had yourself and your best friends to try to battle this person? It was a weird mix of asking ‘what if’ questions, my parents’ recent divorce playing on my own fears, a dewy-eyed fascination with the actor Corey Haim, and a love of horror and fascination with the darker side of human nature that spawned this tale.

In my mind, my main character Danny, who is 13 at the start of Part 1, looked a lot like Corey Haim, who I was quite a bit in love with at that age. Once I had him in my head, his character started to grow and evolve, and I think I wrote that very early first draft pretty quickly. I remember it was my absolute obsession for a while. I hated to be away from that story. I’d rush home from school and up to my room to pick up my notebook and pen. I’d write endlessly and passionately. I suppose at the time I had no real idea of what I was doing. I was sort of trying to invent friends, I think. People I was intrigued by, people who had drama in their lives. I felt like I was a character in the book too. I was so proud when I finished it. I even started a sequel. I showed my English teacher and she read it and gave me a merit certificate I had to go up in assembly to collect. I remember being embarrassed but happy. The certificate said I had written a novel. At age 12! I don’t think I have the certificate anymore, but here’s the book.

 

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I started rewriting it after that. I had invested in an electronic word processor. It was the most exciting machine in the world to me! I could sit there and tap away and watch my words appear on this mini screen, before hitting print and then holding typed pages in my hands. What also happened to me at that age was that the story crept inside my brain. It kept me awake at night. It was company. I was never, ever bored. I’d look forward to bedtime because I knew I could lie there and think about my story before I fell asleep. I watched the scenes in my head like a movie. I heard them talking and arguing. Inevitably I came up with new ideas and extra bits, but mostly I just let them play it all out, and most of those imagined scenes have never made it into any of the books. It was just me, a fly on the wall of a made-up world, watching them live.

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Here’s one of the many pictures I drew of the characters. Only some of these made it into the final version.

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I rewrote that book again at aged 16. I’d started and not finished tons of other stories in that time. The book had opened a floodgate, forging a lifelong addiction to writing. But that one story, I couldn’t ever let it go. I rewrote it again at 19. I thought about it constantly during the non-writing years of balancing early motherhood with self-employment. The same story, the same characters always in my head, coming back to me night after night. I was 34 before I finally returned to it. I started writing in notebooks again, just like when I was a kid. Snatching spare moments, writing before bed, suddenly entirely addicted all over again, but this time it had to come out, it had to be finished.

I finally released it in 2013. The Mess Of Me snuck in and was released first because The Boy With The Thorn In His Side was so long and needed so much work. But finally, it was out. A real book I could hold in my hands! I’d done it. So now they would fall quiet, surely? I’d stop thinking about them. I’d stop playing out more scenes.

Well, no, not exactly. Before I knew it I’d penned a sequel, This Is The Day and released that too. That should have been the end of it it, but yet, it still wasn’t. The story itself was so enticing to me, and I was so invested in it, I couldn’t stop imagining other endings, and I guess, truth be told, in my head I did not want it to be over. So the stories went on. Every night, hi guys. What’s happening now?

I wrote an alternative ending in 2016 and included it in Bird People and Other Stories.That was supposed to draw a line under it, but it only made things worse. Now I couldn’t get the thought of other endings out of my head! What if this happened instead? What if? What if? For the fun of it, I started writing a screenplay in a notebook. Brand new material that led on from the original ending of book one, slotting in and delaying the ending, but finishing up before This Is The Day. This was only supposed to be for fun. To get it out of my system. To indulge myself even more than I already had. What the hell, what did it matter? It was for fun. I didn’t have to explain that to anyone!

Except now I do. Because that screenplay became a total obsession. I carried that notebook around with me everywhere. I grabbed every spare moment I had to write into it, getting this new story out. I absolutely loved it. I was so excited about it. I just couldn’t put it down. So eventually, after a lot of thinking and plotting, I came to a decision. I would do it. I would split the book back into two parts and this new material would be part three. Part Four would be This Is The day but it would need some reworking. Then suddenly, parts five and six emerged…

I’ve now accepted the truth. And that is that this story and these characters will never let me go. They are part of me and part of my life and I’m going to leave each book open, just in case I want to revisit it again.

There are new characters introduced in Parts Five and Six, and these also get their own spin-off book or possibly series with characters from both appearing in the others. So, as you can see… this thing could run and run.

So, if you are interested in reading this story, which began when I was 12, followed me through my life and has now evolved into at least a six-part series, you can start with The Boy With The Thorn In His Side Part One which is available for pre-order on Amazon now and is released on 9th November. This is a reworked, revised edition. The Boy With The Thorn In His Side Part Two is also available for pre-order now and is also released on 9th November. Both at the special introductory price of 99p.

I plan to release the brand new Part Three in January an Part Four in February. By then I hope to be into the second or third draft of Part Five…

And the weird thing about this story is that I wrote it purely for myself, I indulged myself entirely, became utterly lost and absorbed and have still been unable to climb free from it. So I don’t really expect anyone to buy it, and I don’t really mind if they don’t. It feels weird to even try to plug it if I’m honest. Like this one is just for me. Like this is my mind, my imagination, my daydreams and to imagine anyone else wandering around in there is almost unsettling. And if it holds me prisoner for another 28 years? I think I’m okay with that…

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The Seeds that Sow a Book…

As launch day for my next book, Elliot Pie’s Guide To Human Nature draws ever closer, (Friday 5th October!!) I thought I would write a post about the various things that inspired this particular novel. As always, it is never just one thing, but rather scattered seeds of ideas that take root and then somehow weave together as the process unfolds. And it was a particularly long process for this book. I worked on it, on and off, for over three years, which is the longest I have ever spent on one novel. I expect that’s another blog post for another day, but for now, here are some of the things that inspired Elliot Pie.

Current state of the world.

I wasn’t so much concerned with dissecting it, or even asking why it is the way it is. I was more interested in the question, is it getting worse? And of course, it’s human beings I’m really referring to, not the actual spinning ball of mud itself. Are people worse? Is human nature crueler and more destructive than it once was? When you look at the issues facing us today, it’s easy to consider that they must be. We have rising homelessness, poverty, increasing inequality, fascism on the rise, endless wars, plastic pollution, and climate change and environmental destruction on a devastating scale. It’s not hard to see why some people think we are simply doomed. That it has all gone too far. That there is no turning this around. End days are upon us. It’s Elliot’s mother Laura who feels this genuine fear in the book, and if I’m honest, I think her character’s fears are exaggerated versions of my own. Like most people, I have days when the fears consume me. It simply feels like the world has never been a more dangerous place. This is a question Elliot asks repeatedly throughout the book. Is this the worst things have ever been? Or have they always largely been the same? Or is it actually not as bad as we think? It was my constant pondering over these questions that inspired the journey Elliot would go on in the story.

Human Nature.

Human nature is something I think about a lot. What makes some people kind and good and gentle, and other cruel and destructive? This is something both Laura and Elliot consider throughout the story. Laura is a cynic. She’s been hurt too many times and has no faith left in people. She genuinely feels that the majority of people are cruel and selfish. She feels utter despair when she watches the news every evening, and can’t understand why other people do not seem to be as upset and depressed as she is by the horror stories. Elliot, on the other hand, is an optimist. Part of this is obviously his young age. At twelve, he has yet to see the worst of human nature, unless you count his increasingly disturbing altercations with Spencer Reeves at school. Elliot is curious about Spencer and wonders what makes him get up in the morning and decide to bully people. He wants to prove to his mother that most people are good and don’t want to hurt you.

Strangers. 

This may have been the seed that started it all. I’m an introvert but I’m endlessly fascinated by people. I always have been. Even as a child, I preferred standing on the edge, listening and observing. I was always watching people and wondering about their lives and their motivations. I didn’t want to talk to people or interact with them. Even now, I probably hold most people at arms length. But I am curious about them, and in particular, those people you never see again. Glimpses through car windows, strangers that pass you on the street. People you speak to in a shop, in the bank, at the park, and then never ever see again. I always wonder about their lives and in the absence of knowing, I make one up for them. It’s this curiosity about strangers and their lives that inspires Elliot’s plan to help his mother. If he can befriend strangers and prove to his mother that not everyone is bad, then maybe he can encourage her to leave the house and start to live her life again.

Family.

To be honest, I think all of my books are inspired by the complexities of family life. It’s another aspect of humanity I find compelling. In this particular book, Elliot is an only child born of a one night stand. His mother, who has never had any luck with men, has now sworn off them for good. She never planned to be a mother and has never found it easy. This is perhaps because she is haunted by the relationship she and her brother Liam had with their father Pat, a man who in death is glorified by their mother Diane, but was a far darker presence in their lives than she will admit. Families are complex structures, simmering with resentments, jealousies, guilt and longing. I often think that at the heart of every human’s insecurities and woes, is the desire to be accepted and valued by their family. If a person never felt either, they inevitably struggle in life one way or another. Laura’s family secrets begin to reveal themselves as the novel progresses, and her attempts to unravel the past and understand it, are part of her own healing process. In truth, she had her own plan to get better all along, but as this is kept from Elliot, he has no idea.

Mental health.

Again, I think all of my books deal with mental health issues one way or another. From eating disorders and self-harm to depression and suicidal thoughts, I think I’ve explored them all at some point. In this book, Laura suffers from agoraphobia, and we eventually discover that her brother Liam, who is missing, once attempted suicide. On the surface, an extrovert and a clown, Liam has his own hidden scars, and at the start of the book, we learn that he has disappeared after a series of tragic events, including the stillbirth of his child. This tragedy has obviously had a huge impact on his mental health and on those around him.

Hope.

This book explores some upsetting topics but Elliot is the optimist, carrying the light. He’s determined to help his mother, find his Uncle Liam, and learn something about human nature as well. He also feels that as a member of the younger generation, he will not give up on this world just yet.

Nature.

This was also a major theme in The Tree Of Rebels, and as these two books were written and worked on during the same time period, it’s no wonder that it crept into Elliot Pie as well. It’s mainly explored through the character of Frank, an elderly man who feels we have all become too far removed from nature. And as Laura locks herself away in her home for safety, Elliot begins to explore the great outdoors, riding on his bike from one area to the next, discovering new places and people. He begins to feel the opposite to his mother, and feels the urge to be outside as much as possible.

 

So, there you have it. The themes that weave a plot together. The interesting thing about themes and ideas is that you not always aware they’re there until after you’ve written the book. I know one of my earliest thoughts about this book was that I wanted to write a book about a boy who felt intrigued by strangers and wanted to follow them. This obviously led to questions. Why was he so intrigued? What was it about his own life that drew him to strangers? And the rest began to unfold as I wrote it. Funny how all those little seeds get planted along the way and grow into a book.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What Comes First? The Characters or the Plot?

 

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!