Monday, August 14, 2017

My First Time: Felicity Everett

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today’s guest is Felicity Everett, author of The People at Number Nine. Felicity grew up in Manchester and attended Sussex University. After an early career in children’s publishing and freelance writing, which produced more than twenty-five works of children’s fiction and non-fiction, her debut adult novel The Story of Us was published in 2011. She has just returned from four years in Australia and lives in Gloucestershire.

My First Children’s Book

My first children’s book was not one I chose to write. It was allocated to me by Usborne Publishing when they took me on as a writer/editor in my second job after graduating. Truth be told, I could scarcely have been less qualified to write it or less interested in the subject matter. It was called Making Clothes–A Practical Guide and was aimed at young teens–well okay, teenage girls (this was the 80s) who wanted to run themselves up a trendy jumpsuit on Mum’s sewing machine. It wasn’t that I had never made clothes myself–there was the A line skirt I had hand-stitched in primary school, which had somehow come out upside down (V-line?), there was a regulation apron with my name embroidered on the waistband, that I had been forced to make in Stalag Needlework at secondary school (this was during the birth of Punk, when I would rather have been running up a pair of bondage trousers). There was the over-sized “boyfriend” shirt I sewed to make myself feel better about not having an over-sized boyfriend. None of these garments would have given Christian Dior a sleepless night. But if Making Clothes was going to be my literary debut, I was determined to make a success of it.

In fact, the process of writing and editing that book gave me a fantastic grounding in the business of children’s publishing. I worked with a young fashion designer on the design and construction of the clothes, and with an in-house book designer on the layout of the spreads. I commissioned a fashion photographer, booked a model and supervised a photo shoot to showcase the finished clothes and found an illustrator to produce step-by-step how-to pictures. More importantly, in the context of my future writing career, I wrote the text. You wouldn’t think that writing four-line captions on how to attach a collar would be the greatest preparation for writing fiction, but it taught me to communicate clearly, economically and as far as possible, in words of one syllable. Short words were easier to edit. The last thing you want when writing to length is a “widow”-printer’s jargon for a single word that goes over to the next line. I don’t know who invented shirring elastic, but for forty-five minutes in 1985, when the sheer number of syllables in that indispensable phrase kept taking my caption over-length, I’d gladly have strangled them with it. Now of course, I would shake them by the hand. Because that process of sifting words, trying out alternatives, checking clarity of meaning again and again and again is what makes good writing.

I can’t claim it was a hop skip and a jump from Making Clothes to my latest work of adult fiction, The People at Number Nine. Quite a lot of water passed under the bridge in between. There were a few more Usborne Practical Guides (Make-up; Fashion Design; Jewelry Making) and, around the time of the Frankfurt Book Fair, when Usborne would pitch as-yet-unwritten titles to foreign publishers, a lot of blurb writing. This was my breakthrough. My boss noticed that I had a knack for writing a catchy blurb (which was easy when the book hadn’t been written yet, because you didn’t need to let troublesome things like its contents get in the way). I soon graduated from blurbs to Beginner Readers–simple stories incorporating reading puzzles, for 5 to 9 year olds. As with the Practical Guides, the room for creative maneuver was limited–the first titles were not ones I had come up with myself, but ones which had gone down well at Frankfurt. The Clumsy Crocodile, was my debut and I spent several days cursing the person who dreamed it up even as I pondered in what amusing scenario which lent itself to reading puzzles, a crocodile might be clumsy. Tethered as I was to the practical world, hemmed in by sewing machines, nailed down by hard facts, I found myself thinking too narrowly–a crocodile in the jungle? A crocodile in the zoo? Then I had a eureka moment. This was fiction. It didn’t have to be realistic. I could make it up. I could make my crocodile the manager of a department store. Pit her against a pair of thieving rogues determined to get their hands on a priceless diamond. Make her clumsiness a hilarious impediment to catching them red-handed when they broke in at dead of night. It’s still in print thirty years later.

That lesson–“just make it up”–was key, for me, in becoming a writer of fiction. It’s still my mantra now and one I repeat to myself when I get stuck. What happens next has to make sense within the internal logic of the story. It has to be convincing enough for the readers to suspend their disbelief. What it doesn’t have to be is realistic.

So I have a lot to thank Usborne Publishing for. They gave me a grounding in writing and editing that laid the foundation for my career as a writer and three periods of maternity leave and a freelance writing contract which allowed me to keep my hand in, whilst raising four kids. It’s taken a while, but the journey from Making Clothes to The People at Number Nine hasn’t, in the end, been as circuitous as you might think. One is a couple of thousand words, the other runs to eighty thousand. Both, I hope, convey the essential information in as entertaining a way, and in as few words, as possible.

No comments:

Post a Comment