Kim Slater about her ‘Smart’ journey to ‘A Seven Letter Word’
Every so often a debut novel comes along that takes off because the writing is spot on and really speaks to its audience. Smart was such a novel, but the road to becoming published by Pan Macmillan was a long one, requiring a great deal of sustained hard work by its author Kim Slater. Part of this hard work involved a BA in English and Creative Writing and an MA in Creative Writing and. Kim also talks about how much her writing has benefited from doing both these degrees.
Why did you start writing?
I’ve always written. I started when I was very young and have always read lots. I read widely from literary fiction to crime, children’s and young adult books. If you’d asked me when I was about to leave school what I was going to do, I would have said I wanted to be a journalist, and that my dream job was to be a writer.
But life never quite turns out the way you want it to. So after doing my A-levels I got a job working in accountancy and continued to work with numbers until recently.
Even after I got married, had a daughter and brought her up, I never stopped writing. I was always sending out three chapters and a covering letter to agents. I largely wrote adult crime.
At that time, about 20 years ago, e-publishing was not what it is now, so I wanted to be traditionally published. But even as e-publishing became more popular I still favoured the traditional route. This was because I felt this was the way to have longevity in a writing career. Although I didn’t rule out the independent route.
But despite my efforts I never made it off the slush pile.
When I set a goal, and I really want that goal,I’m prepared to work hard towards it. In my late thirties I stepped up my efforts, focused and tried and get an agent. But I was still not successful.
I once read that the definition of insanity was doing the same things and getting different results. So I eventually realised I needed a different approach.
What made you go to university to do two writing related degrees?
My daughter was looking at choices for A-levels and brought some information home about them. We looked at it together and that’s when I thought it would be a great time for me to go back to university.
I was self-employed and working largely in Nottingham City schools as a freelance bursar doing the budgets. This gave me some flexibility, even though I was in full-time employment. I knew I wanted to write commercially, have writing as a career and sell books, but I’d always wanted to write good quality writing. I went to Nottingham Trent University and had an interview with Mahendra Solanki who was working there at the time.
I went with the intention of doing the Masters, because my submissions weren’t getting anywhere, but I felt I was a good writer and wanted to hone and develop my work. However, Mahendra convinced me to do the BA in English and Creative Writing first because that would provide a really good base for what I wanted to do. He was really encouraging, because I hadn’t done any workshopping or given out my work to anyone for feedback (apart from agents) and this is something the degree would do for me. So I did the BA in English and Creative Writing which was only six hours lecture time and 35 hours personal study time a week, which I did in the evenings and weekends. I adored the degree and then went on to do the Masters.
What happened in the MA that made you realise that you were interested in writing young adult books?
You chose a certain number of modules on the MA that you want to specialise in. So I did scriptwriting, poetry, fiction (with Graham Joyce) and writing for young children and young adults (with David Belbin). The assignment for the writing with young children and young adults was a 3000 word story. I’d had a character’s voice in my head for a couple of weeks, because that’s always the way I’ve had ideas. The character comes first and the ideas develop around them. I now know the voice of the character was Kieran from my first book Smart. I knew he saw the world in a different way. I didn’t think ‘I’m going to write a story about a boy who’s on the autistic spectrum’. I just knew he was looking at the world in a different way. He had a really interesting way of talking and spoke his mind. What I now realise I was doing was holding a mirror up to see how silly we are when we deal or look at some things.
So what I wrote was a 3000 word short story called ‘Smart’. When I’d finished it I really liked it and felt I’d got something really good. I e-mailed it off to my MA peer group and workshopped it the following week. Almost without exception everyone loved it. That was unusual, because the process is quite subjective and not everybody agrees. But everyone felt the same way as I did about it. Bearing in mind I’d spent years trying to get published and I’d really enjoyed writing my short story ‘Smart’, I decided to develop it into a full-length young adult novel, because it might be the type of novel that gets noticed.
I’d never expected to enjoy writing a young adult novel so much, although I did choose the young adult and fiction module because I had some interest in that genre, but felt I didn’t wanted to be limited by writing in that field. I’ve since discovered that writing young adult fiction doesn’t make me feel limited at all.
This time, when I sent out six submissions to six different agents, I ended up with five offers of representation. You can imagine how that felt after I’d tried to get an agent for years. So I chose Darley Anderson and my agent is Claire Wallace.
I’d signed up with the agency in June, the agency edited the book with me and I’d quickly sold my book to Pan Macmillan Children’s books.
This meant that when I graduated from my MA in 2012, which I did part-time over two years, to give myself a break from doing a full-time degree, my aim was to get and agent by the end of my MA. I managed to get both an agent and a publisher. It was amazing. But of course this is when the really hard work began and I was at the bottom of a mountain with the summit looming way above me.
Just as Macmillan bought my book they had a big re-organisation which delayed the release of the book and it was about eighteen months before it was published. The process has been faster with my second book A Seven Letter Word. Even so I’m still getting use to the apparently slow pace with which the process of publishing takes place.
But the real hard work started because although I’d got an advance for my book, I still had a business to run and I couldn’t afford to give it up on the strength of the advance, because I was just starting out as an author. This meant I had to run my developing writing career and my existing business side by side for three years. So I’d set my alarm at six in the morning and would write before I went to work. Last July I became a full-time writer. That has been amazing.
Clearly the BA and the MA have been worth doing.
I always would recommend anyone who wants to write to do some kind of course in creative writing (because not everyone will be in a position to do a university course). I went back to university because I thought that would help me with my goal of being a full-time writer. What the MA gave me was the space and time and opportunity to write different things and try out different genres. Young adult was not something I’d ever thought of doing. I really wanted to do screenwriting and had been really looking forward to doing it, but found I didn’t like it.
When you first go on one of these programmes you probably have no idea what kind of writing you will like doing and you’re able to try all these different things with expert tuition. This is how I found out I loved something I never thought I would, which was writing for young adults, and I didn’t like the type of writing I thought I would really enjoy doing (scriptwriting).
Now I’m a full-time writer I’m really enjoying having the space to write in the young adult genre, even though I may eventually write in other genres.
This is very interesting because there has been considerable debate as to how helpful a creative writing course really is.
I do a lot of school visits all over the country. I always say to young people that there are two schools of thought on whether you can become a better writer by attending a course or workshops on creative writing. I feel very strongly that ‘yes you can’. It’s the same principle you can apply to sport, a creative activity, or any interest. The more you do it or have some training, the more you improve.
One of the things a creative writing course did for me (apart from giving me the space and the time) were the resources to try different types of writing, which I probably wouldn’t have done at home. It increased my confidence enormously. I’m usually quite a confident person, but when I did the BA I had never given my work to other people to read and critique in front of me and that was so hard. I think this is because if you’re doing something creative you’re putting something of yourself in there. So when I first starting putting pieces in and someone criticised them I took it personally. I laugh about this attitude now, because I know it’s silly, but I think this is a common problem. I know for fact we all struggled for the first few months with putting our work out there for someone to comment on. In the BA most of my fellow students were nineteen and I was in my forties. But the age gap didn’t seem to matter, because we all struggled with the idea of giving out our work for others to read. Then all of a sudden something quite magical happened and I didn’t worry about it anymore.
The other thing that the degree did for me was to give me confidence in my writing and when I gave it to other people they thought it was quite good.
Taking texts apart and analyzing them and learning to how to read as a writer was another amazing skill I acquired. I was able to look at my own writing in another way and if I was pleased with it and someone else didn’t like it I didn’t take it personally, because I could explain why I thought it was a good piece of work. I could critique my own work and feel confident enough to defend it.
This process of workshopping a piece has now moved up to a whole different level as you’re working with an editor. What happens when you collaborate with an editor?
I’ll use the process I went through with A Seven Letter Word as an example, because that went through a more conventional publishing process than Smart where I had edits with other people, because it was my first book.
My editor Rachel Kellehar at Macmillan and I discussed the idea of A Seven Letter Word, because we met up to decide which of my ideas I would develop. I then got down to writing, but could contact her if I needed to discuss anything. It’s great because I have a really supportive editor. She knows my work inside out, but I also know what she looks for. My learning curve has been vertical since I’ve become published. I’ve learned a great deal about what publishers want.
I went away from that meeting and wrote the first draft in four months. This draft was not perfect. It doesn’t have to be. This went back to Rachel who takes about two to three weeks to read it and give her first thoughts on it.
The first edit is always structural, unless for some reason it’s so amazing it doesn’t need a structural edit. This assesses how the piece of work flows and fits together, and whether there is a proper beginning, middle and end.
When this is sorted out. The first draft comes back on Word with all the notes on it. I can e-mail my queries or replies any time. I take these notes and ideas, and either decide to act on them or not change them anything if I don’t want to.
But we also discuss the ideas. Sometimes Rachel comes round to my way of thinking, but I mostly come round to hers, because she’s highly skilled at looking at a piece of work and seeing how to make it better. For example, in a structural edit you begin to look at the characters. In A Seven Letter Word, there is Mrs Adams, the librarian. But I also had another character, her assistant, Mr Dean. Rachel flagged up the fact that I didn’t really need both of those characters. So I merged Mr Dean with Mrs Adams.
Then you have several more edits. In this case four, where the fourth was only a slight edit. We kept on editing until we were both happy with it.
You and your editor both seem to have an ear for the right register for a young adult book. You’re an adult writing a young adult book. How do you get yourself into the head of someone who is, for example, fourteen years old? How do you write appropriately for that age group?
I was recently on the authentic voice panel at the East Midlands Writing conference. There were a few writers on it coming from different angles. I started my contribution by saying I’m a middle aged woman writing as a fourteen year old boy. To make things even more complicated I have got a child, but she’s a girl.
The voices of characters come to me first of all. With Smart it was always a boy. I prefer to write from first person viewpoint, so I get very involved in the world they inhabit. I’ll often disappear into my study and I can’t believe how many hours pass so quickly. I find it hard to pull myself out of it.
I do tell people in adult classes for writing YA we’ve all been young people. If I were writing something from the point of view of a serial killer, that would be more difficult because I’ve never been a serial killer. I may not have been a young boy, but I have been a young person. I think that the issues and concerns that young people have are generally universal and I don’t necessarily think they’ve got the boundaries of gender. Certainly the issues I’m dealing with in the books concern a lot of young people of both genders. Some of them I’ve had experience of as I’ve been in school. I’ve seen a lot of the stuff that happens at school. For example, Finlay in A Seven Letter Word has a bad stammer and I did quite a bit of research into stammering for A Seven Letter Word. It’s something you can’t hide unless you keep quiet. But if you go to school every day with that stammer and be at the mercy of the bullies, you can’t get away from it. That’s what I mean about getting in his head. I just try to imagine the awfulness of how that would be, and in one of the scenes he changes his own name so he can say it, just to stop the horror happening.
The other thing is to not be afraid. When you write for children and young adults you do have the gatekeepers, for example, the parents, the teachers and the librarians. I know there have been some young people who have been stopped by the schools from reading Smart. Although the librarians have been amazingly supportive over Smart. They’ve loved it. Smart has been very popular in schools. But I think some schools have stopped young people reading Smart, who are deemed to be too young.
There are one or two words in Smart that are close to the line, but I tried to stay away from profanity in general. That’s just my choice as an author and I know there are other writers out there who do use them and that’s fine. But I don’t shirk from the hard issues. I have to be honest and that is why I try not to be afraid when I’m writing about tough issues.
In the editing process I can come in really hard and this is something my editor will occasionally try and soften up in a scene. In the edit process of Smart I did remove a bullying scene, because we didn’t want it to be too bleak.
I’m not afraid of the novel bring out issues, although in A Seven Letter Word I didn’t set out to think ‘Oh I want to have a Muslim character.’ I just wanted to show that there are people who think that the Muslim religion and radicalism are the same thing, and that this is not the case. That issue has ended up being really topical. But when I started out that wasn’t necessarily so. The scene where Maryam is bullied is unpleasant and the things that are said to Maryam are unpleasant and might be difficult to read for some people, but it happens, it’s real and I want my books to be real. I think Maryam is a fabulous character. She’s such a sassy, confident young woman. I really like Maryam and I hope readers will too and that her character will make people think.
Young adult readers certainly seem to be very discerning readers and in many ways I think they’re one of the most difficult audiences to write for.
Yes, because they’re not afraid to put a book down. Lots of people have asked me what the difference is between writing young adult and adult. I personally don’t think there’s a lot of difference, because young adults are really shrew readers. They can tell someone who is faking being a young adult writer a mile away.
The way Kieran talks in Smart fascinated me. It could have been enough just to explore his character without writing a story around him. His voice and character were almost big enough to fill the book, because of the way he just makes ordinary things seem different and the way that he talks. But I feel very strongly that I want my readers to keep turning the page. So I would say my books are character driven, but there is a plot there and a mystery. That’s one of the things I’ve learned by having a publisher. Fortunately young adult books are something I really love to write. Smart is the book that did it for me. It wasn’t a book I’d overly written. So I write contemporary young adult with issues for Macmillan. They want that mystery running though it which is great. I did begin by writing adult crime, so I love a mystery running through my writing.
What is interesting with Smart is that you have a young person with a different viewpoint of the world. In A Seven Letter Word, Finlay is desperate to communicate. It’s all there in his head, but he can’t get it out. There’s a lot going on in both the books with respect to problems young people face in the world today. What sort of discussions has Smart raised when you’ve gone out to schools to meet the young people there?
I was really please with Smart, because I never set out to write a character who was on the autistic spectrum. The character’s voice just came in my head and I knew he saw the world in a different way. I never mention that he’s on the spectrum in the book. There was a reason for that, because I wanted the young reader to get to like Kieran. I didn’t want to label him. I wanted readers to make their own mind up, while they get to like him. Then I wanted them to see how hurtful some of the things said to him, the name calling and the behaviour of others are to him. I wanted them to be able to feel his pain. It does seem that young people really like Kieran. I would say that nearly all the schools I go into have go experience of others who are on the spectrum.
Smart was gritty and real and makes for hard reading and I don’t make any apologies for that. I think if it stops one person calling someone some of the names that are in the book, or just makes them think twice, then it’s been a good thing for them to read it.
I always have questions and answers at the end of my session. The kind of questions I get are ‘Why does Kieran’s mum stay with Tony (Kieran’s stepdad) when he’s so horrible?’ My answer to that is that she does her best. Most of the time that’s not good enough, but people can find themselves in situations that are really difficult to get out of. Tony intimidates everyone, not just Kieran.
My young readers are interested in the family, but they don’t ask me that much about Kieran. I think this is because they really understand Kieran. They seem to have a good hold on him and what he’s about. It’s the people around Kieran and the issues around him they tend to talk about.
The other thing you do with your writing is that you get your readers immersed in it with the smells, and visual images.
I do strive show not tell. I don’t always manage that and in a later edit I might pick something up and change it. I don’t say ‘dad doesn’t speak and it’s really quiet while dad’s looking at the paper’, instead the readers knows it’s quiet because Finlay can hear the creaking of the grill pan. I don’t talk about dad ignoring Finlay while he eats, but that dad moves his plate so he’s got room to put his newspaper there. Sometimes it hits the screen first time and other times I have to go through and see if there’s a better way I can say it.
What is a typical working day?
I like to write in the morning, so I keep those as free as I can. In the afternoon I go out with my husband. This is important because it would be so easy to shut myself in there seven days a week. The world of my books is so real I don’t want to come out into the real world, which is crazy. Then I hear a noise and realise ‘Oh I have a husband and look it’s quite sunny and I haven’t had a cup of tea for the last hour and wouldn’t it be nice to go out for a drive.’
As you’re a Nottingham writer and Nottingham has just been made a UNESCO City of Literature, how do you feel about this?
Amazing. I am one of the biggest fans of Nottingham. I absolutely love Nottingham. I was born in Nottingham and I’ve lived in Nottingham or Nottinghamshire all my life. Now I live just under two miles from the city and I adore Nottingham, because it’s got so much going for it.
There are things we don’t rave about enough. I’m hoping the City of Literature status will highlight some of these things. We just don’t make enough of our local writers. We don’t make enough of our fantastic locations. Many of the readers of Smart have asked about the places in the book and if they’re real or what are they based on. I do say that it’s fiction but some of me comes in to it. I adore the Lace Market, so there’s a scene in Smart in the Lace Market. I love Green’s Windmill, so there’s a scene there. I really hope that being a city of literature raises the profile of lots of things for Nottingham.
I’m a member of the Nottingham Writer’s Studio and I do get involve with things when I can, but since Autumn my diary’s exploded. I’m so busy. The new book is about to come out, so I’ve just spent the last day in Manchester doing events, and then we’re off on Sunday and we’ll be gone until Thursday to Warwick and London. Then I’ll go and write in Spain for a couple of months which is amazing.