Written for and first published by Books for Keeps December 2015
I heard someone use the phrase ‘a vomit script’ recently. She was a television writer and, when asked how her new project was going, replied that she’d only got as far as ‘a vomit script’ but was pleased with what had come up. What she meant, I gathered, was that she had sat down, with only the vaguest idea of what she was going to write, and let whatever came into her head spew out onto the page. Later, of course, she would go back and write it properly, but she reckoned that all sorts of stuff came up spontaneously in that way, that would emerge in no other.
It is not how I write myself. Or how most writers work. In my days as an A level history teacher, I told my students (as I had been told myself) that before you launched into an essay, it was essential to have a plan. I assumed this applied to all forms of writing. Even a novel needs a plan. Trollope might only take a day or two to plan one of his tomes, while P G Wodehouse might take several months, but we all have to have a plan.
It came as quite a surprise when I first met a writer who didn’t. Astonishingly, he really did just sit down and start writing, trusting that something in his unconscious would map things out and lead his story to a satisfactory resolution. Even more astonishing, it seemed to work, and I was intrigued enough to want to try it myself.
I’d had an idea for a ghost story. I thought it might be a nice twist to start from the ghost’s point of view instead of the person who sees one, and the picture I had in my head was of a girl (I called her Jessica), who discovers that she’s dead (she has no idea how she died and nor did I) wandering around in a world where no one can see her. That’s all I knew when I sat down and started writing. I had no other characters, no story arc, no plan… I was going to write just whatever came up.
The first thing that came up was that she met a boy about her own age who was able to see her. The boy was mostly interested in fashion and dress making (goodness knows where that came from) but he seemed a decent enough lad and he got on rather well with Jessica… For a while, my story explored how it might be fun to have a friend who was a ghost, and then a second character turned up who could see Jessica and, a few chapters later, a third. I still had no idea where all this might be going when – and I can remember the exact moment – like a bomb going off in my head, I suddenly knew how Jessica had died.
She had committed suicide.
And in the same instant I knew that, I also knew what was going to happen in the rest of the story, including how it was going to end, and – and this was the really weird bit – it suddenly made sense of all the stuff that had come before. It fitted. Almost like I had had a story arc planned out beforehand. There was also, for some reason, no choice. That was how Jessica had died. There was no debate, no exploring of other avenues or looking at other possibilities… because there weren’t any. Jessica had killed herself and I could either go with that or abandon the story.
For several weeks, abandoning it was my preferred option. I’m a writer for children for goodness sake and most of my books have ‘Andrew Norriss has a wonderfully light comic touch’ emblazoned on the front. A quote from a particularly nice review I got some time in the last century. What on earth was I doing with a story about suicide? Who would want to give a story like this to their innocent off spring? What young person would want to read it? Was there any point in pressing on?
I did press on, but it was only when the vomit draft was finally finished that I was able to see that suicide is not really what Jessica’s Ghost is about. It acknowledges something we all know – that life can sometimes be an unbearably painful business – but the real emphasis is on the things that, despite this, make the game of life worth playing. Friendship, kindness, laughter, love, healing… Precisely the things, I was delighted to see, that were picked up in the review the book was given in Books for Keeps. I’d like to think that Jessica’s story is a reminder that, however dark life gets, you never really know what’s around the corner, what can change, or who will appear with a light to help you tread safely into the unknown.
The sort of things, in fact, that I’m always trying to remember myself.
Mind you, next book I write, I’m not typing a word without a definite plan.
The winner of the 2015 Costa Children’s Book Award will be announced on Monday 4th January 2016.
Jessica’s Ghost, David Fickling Books, 978-1910200339, £10.99 hbk
Aquila, Puffin, 978-0141308951, £5.99 pbk