There was one file left. It was called ‘Are you in or not?’ I had no idea what it referred to, or why it was there.
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood …
I got a new iMac earlier this year. (Not new new, but new to me. It’s very beautiful and I am in love.) Transferring my work from my old trusty (actually not so trusty any more) laptop was time-consuming and it had taken months to organise it so I could find it all easily. But finally, finally almost everything was in a folder that made sense, apart from a dozen random small files that had never made it into a folder at all. These I went through systematically, moving or deleting, until it was down to one.
I almost deleted it without looking. It had a boring title and clearly wasn’t important or it would have been saved somewhere useful. But it was the last document of all. I opened it on spec, and found …
That I can write. This is remarkably reassuring.
It’s clearly an early, unused opening for what became You Don’t Know Me – my fifth YA novel – always called Drop the Fat Girl (or DTFG) during the writing process, until very close to publication. Then, under some pressure and alarm from the publisher, I agreed that a book about bullying might in itself be used to bully, with a title like that, so we dropped Drop the Fat Girl. I’m not sure if it was the right decision. You Don’t Know Me feels too anonymous. Maybe there was a better title out there that we never found.
Lots of things are fascinating about this extract, especially as I teach writing now:
– the fact that I don’t remember writing it at all, or ever conceiving the characters in quite this way. They must have gone through a greater metamorphosis in the drafting process than my brain has space for;
– what changed in the process, and what didn’t. The main characters are there, but one is missing. The set-up is completely different and I’m not sure where this one was going exactly (what was criminal about what they were going to do? I have no idea) – though the basic plot never really changed. The made-up town I used for the setting is the same. Sasha’s home life is different. Her relationship with Jodie, and Jodie’s nature, is something else entirely;
– the brio and confidence of the writing, the rhythms of it, the giving and withholding of information, the compromised characters, the voice — all of which I love now. “But as long as nobody found out we’d be fine. Better than fine: we’d be famous.” Why did I not have confidence in it then? Why did I abandon this draft so early in the process? What put me off? I’m not sure.
Writing is such a difficult, delicate process. By our nature as writers we have to be optimistic, or we would not commit ourselves to a longlasting slog that is pure risk, with no guarantee of success at all. But was we fight through it, we constantly wonder and second guess ourselves. Is this the best choice? Will readers like it? Can I do it differently, better, with more words, with fewer? As optimists we remember and share the rare moments in our own writing lives, and others’, when it’s suddenly all flowing and making sense and we’re in love with the creative process and proud of what we can make. We tend to keep more quiet about the redrafts, the vicious edits, the blocks, the bits that didn’t make it, the days – the many days – when we question if we can do this, when we slog on anyway because it’s all we can do.
I don’t remember You Don’t Know Me as being easy, but this was largely because I was writing about cyberbullying and what it feels like, as a teenager, to go through fractured friendships and feel constantly under attack. Looking back, I must have played around a lot with the characters and the storyline too.
But I could write. I think this opening could have worked. So here, the last file on the system not to have a home, are the two pages that didn’t make it, in honour of all the abandoned drafts and redrafts, the difficult choices, the search for voice, the self-questioning, the road not taken. The road in the yellow wood.
Drop The Fat Girl
‘So, Sasha, are you in, or not?’
Jodie Evans cocked her head to one side and looked at me through eyelashes matted with thick mascara. ‘Five seconds to decide, because if you’re not, I can always find another dancer. And if you ever breathe a word …’ She narrowed her eyes until you couldn’t see her the blue of her irises at all through the layers of Maybelline.
Five seconds to decide. Whether to join a band, make a video and suddenly launch my popularity stakes from zero to the stratosphere. Or whether to stay being a nobody and have Jodie constantly peering at me, wondering whether I was about to spill her secret. It was no decision, really.
‘I’m in,’ I said, gratefully. ‘Honest, I’m in.’
There was one, teeny problem. What we were about to do was definitely illegal and probably pretty cruel, if I thought about it too hard, which I tried not to. But as long as nobody found out, we’d be fine. Better than fine: we’d be famous.
‘Let’s go and tell Rose, then,’ Jodie said. ‘And, just to be clear, you’re her best friend from now on, right?’
‘And all this was your idea because your mums are friends. She’d never take it coming from me.’
I breathed deeply. Jodie Evans was in the year above me: rich, pretty, catty and scarily ambitious. She was not a good person, but she was a very good singer. In fact, the best in our school, always performing solos with the choir and winning talent shows. She was the only girl who loved singing possibly even more than I did. Of course she would be the lead singer and Rose and I would be back-up. That was only to be expected. But we would be out there, performing. This would be the start of something. All I had to do was make friends with a super-shy, strange girl in my class called Rose Ireland, and persuade her to join us, and never, ever tell her why.
‘OK. D’you have her number?’
Jodie looked horrified at the very thought. ‘Of course not. Why?’
‘To check she’s home. I know where she lives, but not her phone number.’ ‘Oh, she’ll be home,’ Jodie assured me. ‘Where else would she go?’
Jodie had come to put her proposition to me on the way home from school. I wondered why she’d insisted on walking me away from my normal route and instead, down towards the large blocks of flats at the end of the road. Now I knew.
Castle Bigelow. Centre of nowhere. But very attractive to look at. Stone churches, thatched cottages, river, swans, olde worlde town buildings. Perfect if you want to shoot an Agatha Christie movie. (The number of times we found our street signs suddenly removed while they did it.) Not bad if you want a cup of coffee. (Six cafes at the last count, mostly empty, most of the time.) Less than perfect if you want to go to a cinema with more than one screen, or skate, or bowl, or see a play, or watch a band, or shop for any item of clothing that looked as if it was made after about 1947.
For all of that, you had to take a bus or the train into Winterton, twenty miles away. But if you happened to be, let’s say, a costume design assistant on an Agatha Christie movie and suddenly needed a genuine felt 1920s cloche hat, there was always ‘This Old Thing?’, my mother’s shop, just off the Market Square. And if you wanted your nails done in the latest designs, there was ‘Nailed It’, Mrs Ireland’s shop next door. Let’s just say that Castle Bigelow is so exciting that the opening of the nail salon last year made the front page of the local paper: ‘High Street lady ‘Nails It’ in new venture’. All very sweet, but if I’m not out of here by the time I’m eighteen, I will officially self-combust.
Jodie hesitated outside the bright yellow door. ‘You go in first. You know them.’
‘It’s not true, you know,’ I said.
‘About the smell. Rose doesn’t smell of garlic. I’ve checked.’
Jodie pursed her lips. ‘I never said she did.’ All the same, she looked relieved. Yet, still, she hesitated.
‘It’s not true about her mum, either,’ I added.
Jodie looked shifty. ‘What about her mum?’
‘That she’s a drug dealer. I don’t know who made that one up.’‘You can’t be sure,’ Jodie said. ‘I heard the evidence. It sounded pretty convincing.
Anyway, we’re not worrying about that now. We just need to get on with it.’
I’d heard all the rumours about Rose over the years, but I’d never believed them. I didn’t think anybody did, really. But clearly, I was wrong. What about the one saying Rose liked to dance around her garden naked at Midsummer, pretending to be a witch? Or that she was the secret lovechild of a major rock star? Did Jodie believe those, too?
‘She’s just … unusual, OK?‘ I said, in a last-ditch effort to calm Jodie down. We’d never get the band going if she constantly looked nervous that one of her backing singers was going to strip naked and force-feed her drugs or magic potions. Also, it wasn’t just about the band. I’d seen some of what Rose had gone through over the years. I didn’t want her to go through more of it because me. But I knew what Jodie had riding on this meeting and I hoped I could trust her to behave.
‘Yeah – weird, unusual, whatever,’ Jodie snapped. ‘As long as she can sing and play.’
‘You know she can. You told me, remember?’
Jodie nodded uncertainly, and finally I pushed open the door. A plump-faced, kindly woman with her red hair piled in a messy bun looked up from the narrow table where she sat organising nail varnish pots, and smiled hello. Her dangly earrings shimmered as she moved her head, and the bangles on her arms clinked as she waved us in.
‘Sasha Bailey! I haven’t seen you in ages. Come to get your nails done with your friend? I could do you a special rate, if you like.’ She indicated two chairs opposite her. ‘We’re very quiet today.’
‘Actually, it’s Rose we were after,’ I said, hoping the size of my smile outdid the acid look on Jodie’s face. ‘We’ve got a proposition for her.’
Mrs Ireland looked surprised and delighted. From what I knew at school, I imagined people didn’t call for Rose very often.
‘Well, isn’t that lovely? In you go then. Through that door and up the stairs. Door on the right. I’ll put the kettle on.’
Unlike us, Rose and her mum lived in the flat above the shop, which had been built about the time that Jane Austen’s characters were alive. Or alive to me, anyway. Mum always said I took my fiction too seriously. There was a set of narrow and rickety stairs, leading to an upper floor with a low ceiling and walls that seemed to lean in towards the landing, like a playing-card house.
Rose’s door was shut, so I knocked, gently. No answer. So I knocked again, harder. Eventually Jodie brushed past me and bashed on the door with her fist.
‘Are you in there, Rose?’
We heard footsteps padding across the floor and a
[And there it ends. I gave up on it and tried again. Different choices. Another road in the wood.]