Deborah White on Balancing the Books.
For anyone wanting to write a young adult book that moves at a cracking pace, but at the same time facilitates the absorption of an enormous amount of information, then I suggest you use Deborah White’s books Wickedness and Deceit as a template.
She is also someone who’s had a great deal of experience as a published writer and during the course of the interview provided some very useful insights into the industry.
How did you become a writer and acquire your writing style of packing a great deal of information into so few words to create a fast and easy read?
I’ve always been interested in writing. I was very interested in poetry and read a great deal of it, so I think that is responsible for paring down my style. When you’re used to being concise with a poem it influences your other writing as well.
It’s is one of the things I really thought about when writing the historical part of both Wickedness and Deceit. I was very much aware that when you do a lot of research the tendency is to try and put it all in, because you find it interesting. In actual fact what you should do is try and forget most of it.
I have read some historical novels that just overload the reader with facts. I was reading one recently, written in the same period as mine, and it was just page after page of detail. I got so absorbed in the detail that it stopped the flow of the story.
My brother had a copy of my book on his coffee table. He had a Japanese, female colleague staying with him and she picked it up and started reading it. She carried on reading it, completely absorbed, until she’d finished. He asked if she’d enjoyed it and she said, ‘Yes I did,’ and when he asked why, she said it was an easy read, in the sense that it was very clear. For somebody who was reading something that was not written in her native language, she found no problem dealing with the English. So that was very positive for her.
It is interesting because the most effective poetry can be written with very simple words.
Yes. The other thing that influenced me as well as poetry, was the writer Graham Joyce. I had a tutorial session with him that was very helpful. One of the key things he made me look at was how I use words. He made me think about which ones I really needed. He said I had to justify every single word I used, and if I couldn’t then I needed to take it out. I had that session with him a long time ago but it’s really stayed with me. So every time I look at a sentence now, I think of Graham. Sometimes I do go through things and think, ‘Oh yes, that’s got a bit flowery.’ That’s when I know I have to pare the sentence down.
What is the age group of the readers of your book?
It’s about 12 plus. I have talked to a younger audience, but had to tailor what I was going to say, because I didn’t think the material in the book is appropriate for the children of that age. So I really don’t think that children under the age of 11 or 12 should be reading the book.
Yes, you’ve got an unmarried mother in the seventeenth century. Why did you decide to have Margrat was an unmarried mother?
It would have been very difficult in those days for a young girl in plague torn London. The whole fabric of society was falling apart. Women had many fewer rights than they do now. So if you got into the clutches of somebody older like Robert Benoit, with supposedly an impeccable reputation, who seduces you, you don’t actually fight against your fate.
Some people have found this this difficult to understand, ‘I’m surprised she went off with him,’ they say. My response is that they didn’t have social services in those days. Margrat had no family and Nicholas was her legal guardian. What else could she have done?
I remember being 14 or 15 very vividly and I think if I had met somebody very famous and who had lots of power, I could have easily have been taken advantage of. Well it’s still happening isn’t it?
How have your readers taken this? Is it a point of discussion?
It hasn’t actually been the focus of their questions. Teenagers don’t seem to be very worried by it. It’s only really been a few adults who found this subject very difficult and questioned whether it was morally acceptable in those days.
I have thought quite a bit about why I chose 14-year-old girls for the key characters in the story and I think it’s because this is the age where the change occurs from childhood to adulthood and where emotions can be particularly intense. What I wanted to explore with Margrat was the fact that although she is very scared of Nicholas, she is also very attracted to him, because he IS very charismatic. It’s that sort of difficult position where, in your head you know you shouldn’t be doing something, but the other part of you wants to.
You have again chosen a very interesting dynamic, in the modern day part of the story. Claire is also in that transition period between childhood and adulthood and is just settling into a relationship with a boy of her own age, which is tested during the course of the story. The family is currently very fractured with her father living with a younger woman. Did you deliberately frame it that way to create tension?
I think that situation seemed to write itself, although I did want Claire to be a different person to Margrat, because I think of Margrat as more vulnerable and this vulnerability is still evident in Deceit. Even though, with Christophe’s help, she overcomes her addiction to laudanum, I feel she is more emotionally fragile than Claire. Claire’s family is still around and her dad’s there even though he’s living apart from his family.
Do you think the relationships that occurring in the modern day part of the book are something that your audience can relate to?
Yes I think so. In the current novel I’m working on, my main character Kate actually says that people in her class find it weird that her parents are still married. I think it is possibly more common now to have split families than those that stay together. But nobody’s ever asked me about it, or commented on it. So whether it’s just something they accept, I don’t know.
As an adult reading this book I’m can see all sorts of issues being explored. What do your readers comment on? What do they focus on when they’re reading the book?
They think it’s a page turner. They like the fact that it moves very quickly. They also like the fact that they get a lot of historical information about that period, but it doesn’t overload them. They says it’s atmospheric.
So far nobody in the classes I’ve talked to has asked questions about the relationships in the book; probably because it’s always been quite big groups, 60 kids or more, so maybe this is the reason why it hasn’t come up. Maybe if it was a more intimate group then it might be a discussion we would have.
You split the book between the seventeenth century in the modern day and also included a paranormal element. Why not just do a historical novel?
I started off with the paranormal bit, because I’m quite interested in how people make something scary, without all the blood and gore. I chose that particular period of history because some periods of history interest me and some don’t. For example I’m not interested in the Tudor period at all, whereas the Plague, The Great Fire and London at that time fascinates me. I did have an editor who said to me, ‘Your period writing is very strong and atmospheric. Why don’t you just cut out the other story?’ I knew I could do that and that publishers would still be interested in the book, but I knew I didn’t want to do it. I think it was a bit of a challenge for me, because I was told that stories that have two strands are very difficult to do. So I thought, ‘Yes, I’m going to give it a go then and I’m going to make sure I pull this off.’
This is certainly something to think about for anyone who wants to become a writer, because you can be given editorial advice that you may choose not to take.
Yes, you have to make your own mind up, because you could be swayed all over the place by people telling you things. I’m sure many people have had experiences where their submission has gone off to different publishers and it’s come back with the publishers saying diametrically opposite things. Obviously, there are times when editors have really good ideas and you take their advice on board. But I think you must be sure yourself that what you’re doing is right. I think if you going to spend one or two years writing something then you’ve got to want to do it and enjoy doing it.
If you try and write to a particular market, you have to accept that by the time you get it out there, the market may have moved on. Then, if you haven’t really enjoyed writing it and you don’t get it published, it’s really demoralising.
I remember once talking to an editor and asking her what they were looking for at that moment in time. She said it was romance in an exotic setting. I said to her, ‘Even if I could write romance in an exotic setting, by the time I’d written it, you could say, ‘Sorry, we’re not taking that sort of thing anymore!’
There is an element of luck getting the right book in at the right time. Sometimes people have a book continually rejected by publishers. They put it away in a drawer and five to six years later they send it out again and the market’s changed and the publishers love it!
So what you’re saying is it’s not really possible to accurately judge a market?
Yes. Although if you’re writing for the younger market where the word count is substantially less, you can see what the publishers are looking for in a particular age range and get it written quickly. For example if they want a book about boys’ football (which is what happened to me when I had my first book published) you can do that, because you’re not committing yourself to months and months worth of work. And if it isn’t what the publisher wants, it’s not a big problem, because it’s not been a huge commitment.
You have two eras linked by family association and Robert Benoit who doesn’t seem capable of dying. Was he always there or was he a character that came in later?
He was there at the beginning but I initially toyed with the idea it would be a descendant of his that would pop up in modern day part of the book. After playing around with that I realised it wasn’t the way I wanted to go. What I quite liked was the idea of writing a type of detective story. I hoped that teenagers reading it would pick up on some clues and realise, probably quite quickly, that Nicholas Benedict and Robert Benoit were the same person. I spent quite a lot of time juggling with the names, Benedict and Benoit. Benoit is a diminutive of Benedict.
And the smell that is associated with Robert, the myrrh, cassia and aloes, these were the oils that Jesus was anointed with when he went into the tomb. (In fact I have a candle that the publishers sent off to America for me that is called ‘The Authentic Smell of Jesus’!) I don’t suppose many people get that reference, but I wanted to include it, because I wanted readers to ask the question, was Robert evil? Or did he truly believe that what he was doing would benefit the whole of mankind? And was that any sort of excuse for doing the things he did?
How do you ensure that the continuity was correct between not only did two eras but also the two books?
I initially used cards, pink for the modern day chapters and white cards for the seventeenth century ones. I did the chapters like that so I’d have a rough idea what was in each one. I put notes on the back of the cards about the characters and other useful details.
I wrote the seventeenth century story first, then the modern day story, then interwove the two. Writing a second book was always on my mind, so when Templar gave me a two-book deal and I had the choice of either writing a different book or a sequel, I chose to write the sequel. I felt the story wasn’t quite finished. I had more to say about Margrat and Claire. But the problem with writing a sequel is you can’t change anything that has happened in the first book. So whatever interesting plot twists you might come up with…if they don’t fit with what happened in the first book…well you can’t use them!
It’s actually quite interesting because a lot of the reviewers said that I’d left it open for a third book, but I don’t agree. I think I’ve done as much as I can with it and it’s time to move on.
How did you do your research for historical part of the book?
I started off by reading Samuel Pepys. He was one of the reasons that I set the book in the seventeenth century. His writing does jump off the page at you. And when I was at University doing English, I also did a thesis on the literature of that period. But it was the entry in Pepys Diary where he says he went to see an Egyptian mummy that really caught my attention. Then I began to read about Egyptology and what they knew about it in the seventeenth century. They really did believe that there was an ancient book of knowledge, written by the Egyptian god Thoth and that if they could find it, they would have the secrets of the universe. It was fascinating stuff, because science in the seventeenth century was progressing in leaps and bounds, but on the other hand they still had a belief in magic and the supernatural. You could have a scientist who is incredibly logical and doing amazing scientific research, while at the same time still believing in magic. Religion and the Decline of Magic in the 17th Century by Keith Thomas is a classic book on this subject.
You had some books published before. Just talk through the process leading up to getting Wickedness published.
I’d written another novel before, which I’m actually working on again now. So I’d finished that one, which is about adoption. My eldest son is adopted and has Down’s syndrome. When we adopted him, his natural parents knew that he had Down’s syndrome and felt they couldn’t cope with bringing him up. In fact they told everyone that he had died. So this is something that I’ve always worried about, because I thought, ‘Supposing they have more children and these children discover they have a brother?’ I wondered how that would make them think about their parents. So I really felt I wanted to write about this whole situation, because my views on handicap have changed over the years. I’ve met a lot of people and read a lot of books about it, and I wanted to write about it. So I wrote this novel and Random House took it to acquisition, but in the end they turned it down. Various other publishers rang me up and said they really liked the book, but they weren’t sure it was the right time to publish a social issues novel. So I put that book away at that time and decided to do something completely different.
Barry Cunningham at Chicken House said to me, ‘Put it in your bottom drawer and have a look at it again in a year’s time.’ So this is what I’ve done.
I was already known by a number of publishers, but then I was introduced to David Ford and Brett Brubaker who were my agents for Wickedness. So that made it easier to get the book looked at seriously.
You do a lot of workshops with schools. Given that the cover of the book seems to be more orientated towards girls, is this a book that boys read as well?
Templar have just changed the cover to Wickedness. The previous cover was more ‘neutral’ and boys were happy to be seen reading it. I actually spent some time specifically talking to boys in the audience of the last couple of school sessions I did, because there were boys happily reading Wickedness and enjoying it. It certainly didn’t seem to worry them that the two central characters are female. But they did say that the new cover was clearly aimed at girls…and that would have put them off reading it.
I think Templar feel that there are more potential readers who are girls out there and so wanted to tap into that. So this is why they changed the cover. I’ve also had quite a few adults reading it and telling me that it is page-turner.
I said to Templar, I think there’s an adult market for this book, because there do seem to be a lot of adults wanting something that’s a quick and easy read, but also a good read. The problem is, because Templar is a children’s publisher, they can’t publish it as an adult book. It would have to have a different ISBN number. Only books being brought out by publishers who publish both adult and children’s books would be able to bring it out in two editions.
What you do in your workshops for schools?
What I’ve been doing a lot of is talking about the historical side of things, by using PowerPoint presentations. I have changed my presentation slightly though, because talking to the teenagers after the sessions, I found out that though they really enjoyed the presentation, what they were also fascinated by was the actual publishing process.
They were interested in how much money is spent on marketing and wanted to know about the royalties and percentages you got for books. They had no idea there were such things as advances. So we worked through all that. I also had Liz Scott with me who is the publisher’s PR person and we were talking about how you get books into supermarkets. Liz told them that the publishers pay for that and that there is a hierarchy. So if you want to get your book at number one on the list, then you pay more. The teenagers we were talking to seemed really horrified by this and thought it was totally immoral. They had thought that the books being promoted in supermarkets were there just because they were very good books. They had no idea of the financial implications of this sort of thing.
I also told them that commercial book clubs are great if people buy books through them, but the author does get a lower percentage in royalties. We started doing some sums on the whiteboard so we could calculate how many extra books you have to sell to make up the difference.
They found this fascinating.
We also talked quite a bit about covers and they were surprised that I didn’t get to pick the cover myself.
The other thing we talked about was the e-books revolution. I was impressed how knowledgeable they were about e-books and we talked about how reading an e-book compared to reading a paper one. They liked both!
They were very articulate, bright and interesting…so don’t believe it when the newspapers rubbish teenagers! Even with the historical part of the talk, I was impressed by how much they knew. I had a picture of Samuel Pepys as part of the power point and they recognised him and knew what he was famous for. The teachers were also amazed at how much detailed information their pupils had retained about the Great Plague and the Fire of London.
How many of them read e-books compared to conventional books?
Quite a lot of them read e-books. I think it’s something to do with kids that age being clued in to things like i-Pads, e-readers and of course they can download books onto their phones. It’s something that is a natural part of their lives.
Do their parents buy the books for them or do they buy their own books?
They seem to be very independent and buy their own books. Of course the good thing about a normal book is that you can pass it on to a friend. That was also something that we talked about. If you get an e-book at the moment, you can’t pass it on to someone else; although the concept of the second-hand e-book market is up-and-coming.
What is your next project, because you’ve finished the book on adoption?
I have a couple of things I’m interested in turning into novels, one of which is set in the eighteenth century. I had been thinking about doing another time split novel, partly set in Ancient Greece and the Oracle at Delphi. But I’m not sure I’m ready to do that yet. I’m currently playing with the idea of doing a detective novel set in the mid eighteenth century. The main protagonist this time will be a 16-year-old boy. So this will be for the young adult market, with a possible crossover. I do actually have three chapters of an adult detective story already written, and the rest of the plot is mapped out. So at the moment I have more than one thing that I’m considering.
I recently met up and had lunch with Alison Sage, who’s done a lot of work for Harper Collins and was my first editor at Oxford University Press. She always told me she thought my writing was wonderful, but she wasn’t keen on me writing novels at all! She said I was really good at writing funny stuff for boys and I should concentrate on that! That’s what you need when you’re a writer; somebody like Alison who believes in you. Maybe I should take her advice.