I’ve been knee-deep in proofs of one book and the first draft of another – but the last few days have been pure time-travel.
The book formerly known as Big Woo (also known as serafina67 *urgently requires life*, and shortly to be known as something else all over again) will soon be available as an ebook. It’s a YA novel set entirely online, that I started writing in 2006. The year the verb ‘to google’ was added to the OED. Facebook was new. There was no Twitter, no Tumblr, no *insert social network of choice*. Perez Hilton was pretty big. We all still liked Captain Jack Sparrow. 2006 is a loooong time ago in internet years.
I was happy to do it, but afraid. Six years is a long time in writing, too. I knew some of the internet stuff would be dated and weird. But revising My Invisible Boyfriend had made me wonder if I had the right to go back and ‘fix’ it; if it was like my older, wiser self sneaking back to my teenage diary to make it more Rookie, less yawn. Mostly I was just scared to read my own old words.
I was right to be scared. So, here’s what I learned this week.
1) I’m sorry. There’s a ton of hate speech in the original version of this book. I recall having an editorial discussion about whether it was ok to have ‘bad’ characters use ‘gay’ as a pejorative. Then, I felt them using that word was ‘authentic’, and also a way to signal to the reader that we might not like them so much – but I don’t think there’s enough in the text to make that clear. I wasn’t out when I wrote this, but I don’t think that’s what makes me feel differently; I think I just read some stuff and I grew the hell up. Regardless: I know I find it uncomfortable when I see it in other people’s fiction. I think ‘not promoting hate amongst the real people who read books’ trumps ‘authenticity in my fictional characters’. So. It’s not going to be in the ebook, and I’m sorry it was in the old one.
2) I’m sorry. Because the ‘gay’ pejoratives are in there a handful of times, I think, but there’s sexist ableist fat-shaming rubbish up the wazoo too. It’s the oddest thing, reading your own privilege revealed to you. My teenage diary analogy up there? That’s ridiculous. This is fiction. It’s crafted, constructed, I made it up. But when you make stuff up a ton of you goes into it, all the same. I wanted Serafina to be clumsy and thoughtless and sometimes unkind, because people are – but often she is in ways I didn’t intend or even register. The word ‘retarded’ makes me shrivel and yet there it is, over and over. That’s not going to be in the ebook either, and I’m sorry it was in the old one.
3) I am old, old like Methuselah. It’s less excruciating than the above, of course, but damn. I’ve got a teenage girl struggling to make this wacky new thing called ‘wifi’ work. I’ve got teen characters who don’t know what LOL means (and they aren’t David Cameron). Remember when Moff was pilloried for the ‘cameraphone’ line in Sherlock? Yep. ‘Digital camera’, too.
4) I have, like, three ideas. Both this and My Invisible Boyfriend have a discussion about gelatin being made from boiled-up horse. The first of Serafina’s Very Thrilling Novels is about mermaids, with uncomfy shell bras; pretty sure that’s in Pea #1. The OPENING LINES (“…I have met me, and I am not really the Ta-da! type”) – I apparently nicked and put in my last Girls Heart Books blog. All unconscious. Had no clue. My next book will be about a writer who rewrites an old book and has, like, three ideas…
5) I write books more gooder now. This is the book that got me my agent, and I remember very clearly me stressing how important it was for the book to truly capture the randomness of online communication, and her saying yes, but. Yes, but not at the expense of narrative. Yes, but not so ‘real’ that it forgets to tell a story. And I laughed, and winced, and said, Yep. You’re right. I’ve got some rewriting to do. And that was the moment that we both knew we could work together. And we did (with the late Maggie Evans, who ‘got’ it, always, and who is responsible for an enormous amount of the not-awful parts) – but, well. Let’s just say that in places I have indeed captured the randomness of online communication, oh my.
6) The Author is Dead. Long live the Author! There was a brilliant piece about Michael Rosen’s We’re Going on Bear Hunt in the Guardian last week, where illustrator Helen Oxenbury revealed that the ‘older’ character in her illustrations, carrying the youngest on his shoulders, is an older brother. Twitter was filled with plaintive ‘But I always thought it was the Dad!’ laments – which prompted me (and others) to wonder: if we the reader all think it is the Dad, might that make him be the Dad after all?
In my book, I wanted to be utterly even-handed: to show the sincere supportive community (and above all, jokes) integral to a social network, but also the possible downsides: no judgement passed. But I know some readers felt it was a finger-wagging lecture, an after-school special with a moral to take home about the Perils of the Internet. And rereading – I get that. I drew the older brother, but I can see the Dad.
7) It could never work. There was a moment in this revision process when I realised that what my character would say next, within the (updated) universe of the story, was
There was no purer expression of their feelings. Nothing more plausible. No verbal substitute. And ultimately, that’s true time and again in this book. It’s a book, a novel, trying to be a screen that keeps updating. I set out to see if you could write a book with no description, no exterior information, only the voice of the main character online and the voices of those who ‘commented’ on her blog – and still tell a story. Also jokes. That gif? Makes me laugh more than anything I will write today or ever. (Your mileage may vary.) But a book – even an ebook, even an enhanced ebook – can’t seize that. I set out to see if you could do it and I think my answer is: you can have fun trying.
8) It could never work: Part II. Here’s the bit that’s not my fault! When I wrote this book, text was still king. Image sharing was still a faff via Photobucket et al; getting pictures off your ‘cameraphone’, if you had one, was a chore. If you wanted to join in, you could type, without needing to learn anything new. Then. Smartphones, Tumblr, Instagram. (Flickr! I’d almost forgotten.) Nerd stuff went wide. Twitter gave us brevity. Facebook gave us… Farmville. The internet I was trying to pin down in my book was textual, with some shiny visuals that just wouldn’t translate. Now, I read a text post or two between gifsets. Image is king.
(Side note: you see the internet you see. I’m describing mine, with elisions and handwaves. It’s not universal; it’s just the view from here.)
9) BOOYA! It’s hard to like your own work, but there’s a peach or two in there. Phew.
10) Back To School. When you revise a book you look at the broken parts. There are a lot to look at. But this was my first book for a YA audience, and I hadn’t read much YA then, hadn’t thought much about who might read it, had just written a thing that seemed real, and worth writing about. It does a shedload of things wrong and badly, hands up – but there’s something reckless and, well, a bit bonkers about it too. It’s a genuinely strange read. It’s not very much like anything else. I wasn’t worried about how parents or teachers or librarians might react, or whether it would fit into a trend or a brand. I wrote it immersed in the world of the book. And – don’t get me wrong, I’m proud of my work from the last few years, absolutely – but I’ve lost that. I know my industry now, I think about my industry now. I’m better at the craft, but I’m not as brave. That makes me a little sad. I miss being fearless.
That’s what I learned.