I’m often asked who you should write for. Is it for a market, for yourself, for an audience? It’s taken me a long time to find the right answer because of course you should write for yourself and keep readers in mind, too. But I think I’ve finally worked out who I’m writing for: it’s all about this tiny photo I keep on my desk:
It’s a very blurry photo of me, taken around 1990 when I was seventeen. I was at sixth-form college in Stourbridge studying for my English, History and Theatre Studies A-levels – and evenings and weekends at home I was working on my very first book.
I hadn’t told anyone I wrote. My family knew I was doing something because I was writing on a travel typewriter I’d been given for Christmas (remember those?) – the kind that became a rather heavy mini-suitcase when you closed the lid. They didn’t know the story I was writing, only the noise it made.
I loved drama and wanted to be an actress. I had a vision of myself as a confident woman one day, striding off into the world chasing after her dreams. On stage I was confident: in person I apologised, worried, played down my own achievements. I thought I was fat. (I wasn’t fat). I had a strong voice but whispered in choir because I’d been told it stood out too much. (It did stand out, that’s what made it awesome). But when I wrote, I could believe anything was possible – even if the many splodges of Tipp-Ex on the pages told a different story.
And then I decided to tell the guy I had a crush on that I wrote.
(You know a story that begins like this isn’t going to end well…)
He was the leading light in my Theatre Studies class and in the amateur theatre group I performed with on Saturdays. I was a T-Bird to his Danny Zuko, the Ugly Sister to his Prince Charming. He agreed to partner with me for a duologue piece as part of our course – the Inspector from J. B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls grilling Sheila Birling over her mistreatment of Eva Smith. While we were rehearsing alone one lunchtime in the drama studio, I seized my chance.
‘I’m writing a book, actually.’
What I imagined would happen next proves I’m both a writer to my core and a hopeless romantic: I imagined him taking my hand, my hair blowing around my shoulders, the London Philharmonic Orchestra wheeling into the background to accompany my confession with suitably sweeping strings. He would gaze into my eyes, murmuring, ‘I’ve waited my whole life for a woman who writes…’
What he actually said was a little different.
‘You write stories? Shouldn’t you have given that up at primary school?’
And that was when I quit as a writer.
I went home, binned the many sheets of my book, shelved my typewriter and sobbed into my duvet. I didn’t write another story for ten years.
I write for her.
I write for the teenager who believed one idiot instead of following her heart. I write for the young woman setting out into her life longing for adventure who came home and cowered instead. I write for her – because every chapter I write, every draft I finish, every book I edit and see through to publication, is proof she was right. It was possible. It is possible. It’s happening now.
She’s on my desk (flanked by the Tenth Doctor because she’s awesome and deserves it) and I see her every time I sit down to write. I want her to know that she gets to write books for a living. Books that have gone around the world, translated into fifteen languages, read by over a million people. I want her to believe in herself and stop hiding.
The story I started to write after the ten-year hiatus went on to become Fairytale of New York, after years of secret writing. I’m currently writing my twelfth novel and my eleventh, Our Story, publishes on 3rd September. It’s about two people chasing their dream of writing. And the male protagonist is called Joe – which is the name seventeen-year-old me chose for her very first male lead in the book she was dreaming about.
I think she’d like that.