On the heels of this week’s other ten-year anniversary, I’ve been hesitating to share this – but real life’s a disorderly thing. It goes on. So, ten years ago today, still shell-shocked by the news from the US of what wasn’t yet called 9/11 (and reeling from 2 hours’ sleep after a very delayed flight home from a holiday in Tunisia) I turned out to have the most important, life-changing, amazing day of my life.
I was one of six finalists in the BBC Talent Children’s Fiction Prize. I’d sent in one chapter and a short synopsis, been inexplicably plucked from 4500 entries, and commanded to write the rest by early December. All six hopefuls were invited to a day’s workshop at Television Centre, to get advice from – get this, this still blows my mind – Jacqueline Wilson and Michael Rosen. They were warm and hilarious, encouraging, and very kind to a group of people who (in my case at least) very plainly had NO IDEA AT ALL how to finish a book. (Jacqueline Wilson’s face on learning that we had 3 months left before the deadline and some of us hadn’t written any of it at all? Memorable. Oh so memorable.)
We ate the BBC’s crispy prawns, failed to visit the Blue Peter garden as promised because we were too busy nattering, and left clutching a sealed brown envelope marked ‘Feedback’ and all the other finalists’ email addresses, with promises that we would stay in touch.
I met my sister J for coffee, and burst into tears all over her. 2 hours’ sleep and the first ever experience of what a sealed brown envelope marked ‘Feedback’ feels like will do that to a girl. (It was – as all early-stage critiques should be – 90% positive, with a few gentle suggestions for improvements. At the time, it felt like the end of the world.) I was definitely not going to win the prize, and all those other finalists were definitely scary people who had probably given me made-up email addresses.
The following February, I got a call saying my book was the winner. Not long after, I got on a train to Market Bosworth, and all 6 finalists ate and drank and celebrated and commiserated, and they didn’t spit in my food or poke me with bitter sticks. In fact, they were lovely! We talked about how we didn’t really know a lot about the publishing industry, or any other writers: how maybe we ought to stick together, and help each other out.
Ten years later, that BBC prize-winning book is of course out of print – but that wasn’t the real prize. One of our little band decided not to pursue writing (we miss you, Zoe!), but the rest of us have kept at it. In the last ten years, between us we’ve published seven novels: there are contracts signed for another seven, with more waiting to be inked. We’ve cheered each other on, and been brutally honest when honesty was needed. We’ve skipped over hurdles because one of us has seen them before, and knows when to jump. We’ve eaten a quite startling amount of curry. I’d have given up in despair on multiple occasions without them – and I think that goes for the lot of us.
So thank you, Sarah, Ruth, Josie and Caroline: I owe you tons. And tons. And some more tons.
And for those of you who are aspiring writers, and don’t have a Sarah, Ruth, Josie and Caroline to read your first draft, or your submission letter (and spot that humiliating typo on line 1), or brainstorm plot with, or give you a hug when you get a rejection, or to pontificate wildly at that special wine-based time of the evening, or comfortingly hate that book that just came out that’s a bit like that idea you had, or just tell you you’re ace at the precise moment you happen to need to hear that – I hope you find some.