I’m very lucky that my editor is Beverley Birch, who is also a writer of some reputation. She brings with her a wide knowledge of what works and what doesn’t and she knows her readers well.
I pitched The Repossession orally at the Winchester Writers Conference. Beverley showed interest and then I wrote it. Sounds easy. The key was delivering exactly what I said I would, and on time.
Beverley read the first draft and came back with comments. These weren’t drastic but they were clever and pitched to keep me keen and also willing to make the subtle changes she wanted. More emphasis in one place, less physicality (remember that libraries won’t buy it if there’s sex). It was so hard to tone down the touchy feely parts and perhaps half the reason they get sick all the time is so they don’t even think of having sex. I liked her gentle touch. Her approach was never ‘cut this or cut that, or else’. It was like a gentle push against the tiller to make me go in the right direction. Everyone said she’d get rid of Moucher the dog or eliminate the pig, but she didn’t. She understood exactly why they were there and how it softened the harshness of the tale. I had tiny notes on language (swearing) and, yes, every teen you know swears like a trooper, but we can’t do that – those librarians again. But to be honest, you can write an exciting book without having much swearing in it. I thought she’d cut the exposition, when I have Marshall explain exactly what he was working on in the lab and how he lost his leg. But she liked the fact that there is some science in there, and she knew that there would be some readers who like to follow the logic and understand the details of what is going on. She could see and feel the location (British Columbia), although not familiar with it. She could tell that my affection for Canada was genuine.
One clever thing was to change where the story starts. Particularly in book two, switching the order of the first two chapters. How you set off as a reader and how you are drawn in is important.
For Beverley, rhythm and keeping momentum going are important. Pages would be trimmed of unnecessary adverbs or adjectives. Go straight in, don’t waste time. Kids have no patience and easily put a book down. So the lesson was trim the fat to make sure it remains compelling. As a writer I trained on radio drama - commercial radio drama at that – learning to keep the drama rising and falling so people wouldn’t switch away during the ads. I learned so much about dialogue and how to say more with little, and hopefully this translates well to teen fiction. I snatch just moments of intimacy before the next problem, as in this extract from The Hunting:
He pulled her towards him and they kissed. Genie pulled away. “Uh-uh, I don’t think my breath is so good.”
“Genie,” Rian complained. “We’re on the run. None of us are minty fresh. Eat more berries.”
Genie allowed him to hold her tight and they just gently rocked together, kneeling by the water. Moucher tried to snap a fish as another went by.
“Genie? Ri?” Renée called out, breaking the spell, fear in her voice.
They looked at the raft. She’d slept in there with an old mosquito net she’d found spread over her.
“My legs. They’re gone,” she whispered in horror. “I can’t see or feel my legs.”
I’ve recently been working on a virus thriller. The notes on this were less to do with what I had written but what I hadn’t. The story swapped between two girls who went in opposite direction to flee the oncoming sickness. Beverley and my agent, Ben Illis, felt that I hadn’t given enough attention to story B and wanted it to be more equally balanced. The snag was that it increased the word count, as I was effectively writing two novels within one. As each character had pretty harrowing experiences I didn’t want them both to be experiencing the exact same problems, even though technically they would. I decided to look again at the arc for story B and see if I could just increase the number of scenes on her progression or lack thereof towards her goal – so in a few short pages at each visit we can catch up and not feel cheated – then towards the latter part of the novel insert a particularly frightening moment that shakes her up. With luck I have hit the mark. I didn’t want to take scenes away from the other girl, yet there is now much more balance. Beverley was right again. Sometimes it’s hard as a writer to see where to improve your own work – you need a professional opinion.
In this kind of survival story there are long moments were little happens except hoping there might be a next meal. Like Tom Hanks in Castaway, the characters make the best of the situation. No one is coming for them. Sometimes I think the worst thing you could do in real life is survive Armageddon. Here’s a sample from Endtime:
Kira frowned. The supermarket was out of stuff already? Impossible. She’d got there super early. It never ran out of stuff before noon.
‘I’ve got a ticket,’ someone else was shouting. ‘You have to let us in.’
‘We’re closing. Staff shortages. Come back tomorrow.’
‘We got tickets,’ more people shouted. A rising sense of panic grew around Kira and she felt scared now. People were really angry around her and some had clearly been standing for hours already. The pushing and shoving was getting ugly.
‘WE GOT TICKETS,’ a man shouted, prodding a security guard, who didn’t like that one bit and drew a taser. He looked like he’d use it too.
Kira stepped out of line, letting her ticket flutter to the floor. Two people further back made a dive for it. Kira was moving backwards rapidly now; it was going to get nasty. She could feel the tension growing.
Someone nearby screamed ‘gun’ and people began to scatter every which way.
Security guys with tasers appeared from nowhere and fired at the guy with the gun. Must have had ten shots fired at him. He most likely fried to death before he hit the ground.
Working with a generous editor is a pleasure. You know they already like the book, so you are working together to make it better. The real battle is the marketing department… and that’s a different story.
Sam Hawksmoor’s author website: www.samhawksmoor.com
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