Young Adult author Sally Green has had quite a year. Her debut novel Half Bad was the subject of a bidding war, has sold into more than fifty countries, and will also be adapted into a film. With the second in the trilogy, Half Wild, coming this March, Sally talks about her writing process, working with an editor, her favourite recent YA novels and tips for aspiring writers.
How did you start writing?
‘My story is fairly untypical in that I only started writing in 2010, having not done any since O-Level English!’
After a career as an accountant, Sally had a change of direction following the birth of her son: ‘That was a huge change in terms of lifestyle. Thankfully I could afford not to go back to work and it just gave me time. As a writer I think you need a huge amount of time and a huge amount of different life experience, so I had the two extremes.
‘I took a degree with the Open University and I really put my heart and soul into it.’
Her breakthrough came one Tuesday afternoon when her son was at school. Instead of tidying her office: ‘I’d had this idea for a story, and I thought I’d take twenty minutes to write it up. One thing I’d learned was that I loved writing essays – these were academic essays, not creative at all – just the fact of putting the words on paper. I wrote for a lot more than twenty minutes … and after about two weeks I was really into it. I was writing for hours each day.'
By the end of that summer she had ‘this monster of a complicated love story set in a witchy world. It wasn’t Half Bad but it had lots of the same ideas and some of the characters are the same.'
After three creative writing courses with the OU and the support of her online critique group, she’d learned ‘the nuts and bolts of how to put a story together.'
Was that first version your practice run?
Sally describes sending the manuscript out and receiving 'various degrees of rejection.' Her now agent, Claire Wilson, at Rogers, Coleridge and White, was the only one who sent feedback.
‘Claire said, "I like it but it’s not really there. I like the voice but the story doesn’t have enough edge for today’s market."
And I was actually delighted with the rejection because I’d only just started writing.
‘When I started re-writing, it, I decided to forget about that version and not be inhibited by it. But I kept the world that I’d created and some of the characters and the basic idea of white witches versus black witches.
‘I had the freedom you have when you still don’t believe you’re ever going to be published. You think, I don’t have to worry, I’ll just write the story that I want to write.'
How would you describe your work?
Sally tells me she was never top of her creative writing class at university, except ‘I’d always get ten out of ten for the voice and the tutors would say the pace was incredibly strong.’
Her writing is character-driven: ‘Character comes first for me. Obviously you have to build other things around it pretty quickly, but if I don’t have a character that I’m happy with, I really struggle with it.'
Do you have an imagined reader that you write for?
‘I think I’m writing for the fifteen-year-old Sally, because I think I know what I would have liked, and it’s not hugely different from what I like now.’
Sally didn’t consciously censor herself for a younger audience: ‘I say, ‘he swears’ a lot, because that fits in better than having lots of F-words, and then you can make your own mind up.’
On the depiction of violence in Half Bad, however, she is firm: ‘I’m a great believer that you should show violence to be horrific because it is horrific. The only thing I find appalling is if you make light of it and pretend it’s some kind of joke or it doesn’t really hurt. I think that’s more offensive than ignoring it.’
Did you always know you wanted to write for teenagers?
‘For those first two weeks of writing, the book could have been an adult book.’ Her choice to make it YA was, ‘Partly luck, partly because I was writing about a teenage girl. But I didn’t consciously think I was writing a YA novel. I think my style, as YA, comes naturally.
‘YA appeals to a range of people. The thing I find interesting and exciting is the quality is pretty good, some of the ideas are really clever; and I don’t think there’s any bar on any issues that are raised. If you write it well, it’ll work.’
What are you working on right now?
‘I’m halfway through the first draft of the third book.’
How many drafts do you usually do?
‘Thousands! Beyond count!’
Is your process different now?
‘Half Wild was a real struggle. I had more critical feedback from my publisher and it was a harder book to write technically because I had to remind the reader who hasn’t read Half Bad two minutes before, and I also had to set up book three.’
She is very disarming about what she’s learned along the way, telling an anecdote about wanting to surprise her editor (Ben Horslen at Puffin Books) with the manuscript of Half Wild, to keep it fresh, ‘So I didn’t tell him any of the plot until I gave him the manuscript. What a mistake! I would have had a lot of the feedback earlier. So I ended up rewriting a lot.
‘With book three I came up with a very broad outline and talked it through with Ben in detail and he’s given me feedback. It doesn’t mean it’s set in stone, but at least we’ve started to talk and we’ve made sure we’ve uncovered any big issues. I think it’s easier anyway because it’s the third book.
'This will make you laugh!’ She shows me a sheaf of papers – a kind of planning spreadsheet with rows for each chapter: ‘I’m doing a lot of planning beforehand. I’m doing it a completely different way.’
Do you like editing?
‘I love the whole thing. That’s the joy. I’m still get a buzz out of… it’s great when you think of something good. There’s even satisfaction in just slogging through something. Even if it’s painful, it’s still satisfying. I love it, and I love re-writing.’
Which recent YA novels have you enjoyed?
‘Shadow of the Wolf by Tim Hall. I was so impressed by it. It’s so different. He’s managed to do something brand new. I was blown away. Halfway through I was thinking, it’s not long enough!
'Also Andrew Smith’s Grasshopper Jungle: this is really good quality writing, but it’s also bonkers. I love it: there’s a human story mixed up with sci-fi. It’s weird and very good.’
Sally tells me she was advised to read Kevin Brooks when she’d just started writing, and how she really liked The Bunker Diary: ‘It didn’t feel miserable, I actually felt quite uplifted. It was a positive take on a horrible situation. I think Kevin Brooks is brilliant.’
Sally’s tips for writers:
· You have to do it for pleasure because you enjoy it, knowing the chances of being published are minimal.
· You still have to be professional. You have to work really hard and take it seriously.
· You’ve got to finish your work and send it off.
· Don’t give up: it might not be perfect but you can still work on it with friends. Keep going and have faith.