Life after Rolo

Here’s a quick update on my writing life, starting with the bad news: My YA comedy drama The Reinvention of Rolo Rawlings has reached the end of its submissions journey with publishers, and no one has taken it on. Cue violins, quivering lip, 50 kilo shipment of Minstrels due any minute.

The good news is that Rolo clearly hit the right note on many fronts as it earned me a super-supportive literary agent, was shortlisted for the Bath Children’s Novel Award 2017, and gained a lot of love and praise from children’s publishers across the board.

So why didn’t publishers want it? Well some didn’t want it because it didn’t fit on their list, or was too old or too young for their particular market. A few didn’t gel with it. One or two felt it was too domestic. A few weren’t sure where to position it as they felt it fell between Middle Grade and Teen. Basically it seems that domestic comedy drama for teens is a high-risk genre at the moment. (The Middle Grade market, however, is a different story – pardon the pun.)

While all this sounds a bit doom and gloom, many of the editors who rejected Rolo, did so with constructive feedback and a lot of praise, which made it an easier pill to swallow. One editor said, “I think the humour and the writing and the style is all there – it’s wonderful, it made me belly-laugh and left me feeling very satisfied with life.” I seriously couldn’t wish for a better response than that! (Apart from one that says SIGN HER UP NOW obviously.)

What next? I’ve resisted the invitation to rewrite Rolo for a younger audience, and instead will get to work on a new project aimed at the 9-11 age group. My new story will have all the humour, warmth and grossness that Rolo had, but without the naughtier words and sexual references. Right. I’d better get cracking then. There’s a mountain to climb and I’m not even at Basecamp yet!

In the meantime, here are the first few chapters of The Reinvention of Rolo Rawlings, which I still hope, one day, will make lots of kids – and adults – smile.

Chapter 1

Saturday 23rd September

Lacey had gone too far this time.

We were supposed to be living life as normally as possible – not letting our “current situation” defeat us. So you could say that keeping up our sibling rivalry was about as normal as you could get. Only the rivalry had just been stepped up a notch, and had – thanks to my older sister – left normal levels eating her dust.

That’s how me and Jake found ourselves stranded, butt-naked, in the deep end of The Prince Regent swimming pool – clinging to the side with one hand, covering our crown jewels with the other. A few people who’d witnessed Lacey (also known as Satan In A Skirt) and her best friend Paige rip off our trunks ten minutes earlier, were pointing and sniggering. Worst of all, Mattie Clemence – who was idly doing backstroke up and down the pool – was likely to notice us at any minute.

‘For God’s sake, Jake! A handstand competition? You should’ve known it was a prank,’ I groaned.

You’re her brother, Rolo. You should’ve known!’ he protested.

Half-brother.’ I didn’t admit that I’d hoped my well-perfected handstand would attract Mattie’s attention. (It didn’t.)

‘Yeah, well I can’t help it if I get distracted by your sister in a bikini.’

Half-sister.’

‘I thought she was flirting with me…’ Jake rolled his eyes.

‘Jake, for the millionth time, she’s not interested in Year 9 boys. She’s not interested in anyone who isn’t Curt the Cock Cripps – except for Zac Efron.’

‘Well on the bright side, at least Curt the Cock isn’t here to make things worse.’

As if things could get any worse! My teeth were chattering and Jake’s lips were turning blue. I watched as Mattie completed another length, flipped around and kicked off again without taking her eyes off the ceiling. In under three weeks, Bevensleigh High’s newest arrival had somehow managed to take over my brain without even knowing I existed. And although I really wanted her to acknowledge my existence, now was seriously not the time.

Jake scanned our surroundings. ‘How do we get out without getting arrested for indecent exposure in a public place?’

‘Floats! We borrow their floats.’ I pointed to two boys aged about six or seven, gripping green, frog-shaped polystyrene floats and splashing their way towards us.

As someone who was teased at school for having an interest in amphibians, covering myself with a frog-shaped float wasn’t exactly an ideal solution, but I had no choice.

I paddled over to them, trying to keep my body vertical and my trunkless butt-cheeks undetected.

‘Scuse me, lads, can we borrow your floats a minute?’ I asked, treading water.

‘No,’ one of them replied, eyeing me suspiciously.

‘Just for a minute – I promise we’ll give them straight back.’

‘No, you’re strangers!’ He swam off. Fair play.

I pedalled an imaginary unicycle back to Jake.

‘Plan B?’ asked Jake. We looked at each other and understood what needed to be done. God was Lacey going to pay for this.

When our targets reached the shallow end, we casually made our way towards them, snatched their floats and swam like the clappers. As we clambered up the steps, we could hear shouting and crying, followed by the ear-splitting screech of a whistle. It didn’t matter – we were out, backs to the wall, our privates shielded by floats.

We side-galloped to the changing rooms, chased by a whistle-blowing lifeguard, only to find our path blocked by none other than Curt the Cock Cripps and Satan’s sidekick, Paige.

Before we could stop them, they whipped the floats out of our hands and tossed them back into the pool. Stunned by the shock of being ambushed, we froze – only for a nanosecond, but long enough for my scheming sister and a bunch of her stupid cackling friends to get a good eyeful of our fruit and nuts from the spectators’ gallery.

Hoots of laughter echoed around the pool. One of them shouted through cupped hands, ‘Didn’t know you were a streaker, Kermit!’

All I remember, before the lifeguard caught up with us and marched us to the changing rooms, was seeing Mattie Clemence standing in the shallow end, staring straight at me with eyes as wide as dinner plates.

At that moment I hated Lacey so much that I imagined her tumbling from the spectators’ gallery, landing with a smack and lying in a mangled heap on the wet tiles by the side of the pool. Relishing the thought, a semi-crazed smile spread across my lips as Jake and I were led away in front of an audience of sniggering swimmers.

For the record, I want it to be known that until that point, I was all for keeping life as normal as possible. I wasn’t the one stirring up trouble while Dad lay unconscious in a hospital bed, a life support machine the only thing keeping his soul attached to his body.

Up until now, I would’ve been happy to call a truce with Lacey. But she’d had her chance and blown it. This was no longer sibling rivalry. This was war.

Chapter 2

58 minutes later

I burst through the front door to be greeted by enthusiastic barking, tail-wagging and slobbery licks from Mozza, our “temporary” dog. The hook by the front door was missing a set of keys, so Mum was either at the supermarket or at the hospital, visiting Dad.

‘Where’s Cruella?’ I whispered, ruffling his head.

Mozza clearly understood who I meant as he rocketed into the front room where a giggling Lacey shoved her phone in her pocket and leapt off the sofa to face me.

‘Your face!’ she squeaked, her shoulders quaking with laughter. She gripped the mantelpiece to steady herself and crossed her legs tightly, tears rolling down her cheeks. ‘I’m gonna bloody wet myself!’

I charged at her, sending her toppling to the floor – her head narrowly missing the corner of the fireplace.

‘Stop it!’ she shrieked, trying to get up. But I leapt on top of her and pinned her down. ‘You’re hurting me – GET OFF, Freakshow!

‘You’ve really done it this time, Satan,’ I hissed, spit escaping through my teeth and spattering her face. ‘Give me your phone!’

‘Why would I give you my phone?’

‘To delete the photos you took.’

‘I didn’t take any photos – not that it wasn’t tempting.’

I pressed my knee into her forearm.

OW!’ Her precious long blonde hair was now a tangled bird’s nest strewn over her face.

‘Are they on Instagram?’

I told you – I didn’t take any photos. Like I’d want to get arrested for sharing nude photos of my brother! That would make me look weirder than you.’

‘I don’t believe you. Give it to me!’ I grabbed a handful of her stupid hair and pulled as hard as I could. Lacey let out a deafening scream as a clump came away in my fist. It was a few seconds before I realised that Mozza was barking and a third person had entered the room.

WHAT THE BLOODY HELL IS GOING ON?’ shouted Mum, dumping bags of shopping on the floor and storming over to us. ‘Get up, the pair of you!’

Lacey gave me a vicious pinch as I climbed off her. I swiped her back.

‘Enough!’ yelled Mum. ‘How dare you behave like this! Go to your rooms immediately.’

‘But Mum, she–’

Mum held up a hand. ‘I don’t want to hear it right now, Roland. We’ll talk about it later when you’ve both calmed down. If your dad could see you now he’d be ashamed of you both.’

He’s not my dad!Lacey retorted, her nose in the air. She pushed a tangle of hair out of her eyes and smoothed it behind her ears.

Mum glared at her, her nostrils flaring in and out, making her nose ring glint on and off like someone signalling in Morse Code. After what was possibly the longest minute in history, she addressed a pink-faced Lacey in a barely audible whisper.

‘You’re grounded indefinitely. Give me your phone and go to your room. Disobey me and the consequences will include the immediate cancellation of your phone contract. And that’s just for starters.’

I opened my mouth to protest – I needed that phone! I needed to make sure there were no incriminating photos on it. But the only sound that came out of my mouth was a croak. Two thoughts stopped me from speaking up:

  1. A) Although me and Mum were close, I didn’t want the exposure of my manhood in a public place to become a conversation at dinner. I must’ve been eight the last time Mum mentioned my “winky-woo” – as she liked to call it – and it was embarrassing enough then.
  2. B) If Mum knew that Lacey was the reason behind my indecent exposure, she’d go ballistic. Not that I didn’t want Cruella to get the bollocking of the century, but I was more worried about Mum and Lacey falling out big time. It wasn’t what Mum needed right now. She also didn’t need to worry about the crap I’d cop at school. (And I didn’t need her interfering and making things worse.)

So I closed my mouth. And swallowed hard.

You’d think Lacey would’ve cast me a grateful look, but no. This is Satan we’re talking about. She doesn’t do gratitude.

‘NOW!’ Mum held out her hand. Lacey took her phone from the back pocket of her skin-tight jeans and dropped it into Mum’s open palm. Then she tossed her hair over her shoulder, folded her arms and turned on her heel. She didn’t stomp upstairs or slam her door because she is The Devil, and therefore knows how to channel her fury in silent but deadly ways.

‘You too, Roly.’ Mum nodded towards my hoodie pocket. I resisted reminding her not to call me Roly, or pointing out that she now owed a pound to the swear jar, and reluctantly handed over my phone.

‘I’m sorry, Mum,’ I said.

‘I’m really disappointed in you. I know she can be difficult, but for Christ’s sake, Roly, physically attacking her is NOT the answer. If it happens again, I… Well, I’ll have to call social services. Because siblings of your age having physical fights is clearly a sign of a family in crisis.’

She put our phones in her dungarees pouch and disappeared into the kitchen. As I trudged upstairs to my room I heard the glug-glug-glug of wine being poured into a glass, followed by some mumbled swearing and the muffled sound of tears.

 

On top of my chest of drawers, Buster, my fire-bellied toad, was hopping around in his tank. I sat on my bed and watched him, wondering how hideous my life was going to be at school on Monday. I needed to find out if Jake had seen anything on Instagram or Snapchat, and discuss tactics for facing the storm ahead. I reached for my phone, then remembered I was phoneless. Instead I punched my pillow and pretended it was Lacey.

‘If I was allowed my own laptop, I could’ve found out by now,’ I moaned to Buster. ‘Then again, Mum would probably just confiscate that too.’

I tried to predict what would happen. If Lacey had posted photos of me and Jake online, she’d get into trouble, for sure. Even if she hadn’t, if Jake’s mum found out about my mutant sister’s prank, things could get really ugly for her – a satisfying thought that quickly evaporated.

‘Grown-up interference would only make things worse for me and Jake in the long run,’ I explained to Buster. ‘We’re on our own. And as he’s not as unpopular as me, it basically means I’m on my own.’

There was nothing I could do but sit and worry about the tsunami of abuse coming my way. My life was hard enough already having a ridiculous name like Roland (after a type of electronic synthesizer for God’s sake), getting teased for having an interest in toads, and not being the most confident kid in class. But while I could live with not being one of the cool people, I never imagined my reputation could sink to such an all-time low – thanks to my own sister.

What would Mattie Clemence think of me now?

I flopped face forward onto my pillow and let out a long, weary groan. As much as I wanted to find a way to shake off all the frog-related nicknames and gain some acknowledgement from my fellow schoolmates, making a name for myself as a flasher wasn’t what I’d had in mind.

Buster croaked at me from the rock next to his pool. I got up and pressed my nose against his tank.

‘My life’s over, dude. Year 9 has barely started and months of suffering lie ahead – all because of that monster in the next room.’

I pulled Lacey’s clump of hair out of my pocket and slipped it under Roy, the Venus Fly Trap on my windowsill. It was worth keeping in case I dabbled in voodoo in the near future. Also, it was a small trophy – a reminder that for a few seconds, I’d gained power over her.

I picked up the framed photo of Dad that lived on my bedside table and studied his face, his bright blue eyes, and his short greying hair. He was proudly holding up the latest camera to join his impressive collection – a 1956 Rolleiflex 2.8E, his pride and joy.

‘I really need you, Dad,’ I whispered. ‘It’s been nearly six weeks – you’ve got to wake up soon. My life’s gonna be hell now cos of her. If you were here, you’d know what to do.’

I could feel tears coming, but the last thing I needed was bloodshot eyes that made me look weak in front of her, so I turned his photo to face the wall. Time to get a grip.

Mum’s got this mantra: “We keep on trucking.” She wants us to think of Dad’s condition as “him simply having a much-needed rest” and “if we stay positive, we’ll get through it.”

Mum reckons when Dad wakes up to find that we finally varnished the garden fence, he’ll be so over the moon, he’ll joke forever more about the lengths he has to go to for us to help out with any DIY. That’s what we were clinging on to: the belief that he’d eventually wake up and make fun of us in true Dad-style.

I looked at my alarm clock. I’d been room-grounded for 45 minutes. I went and got Buster out of his tank to pass the time. As usual, he hopped underneath my bed. I lay down to keep an eye on him and noticed a book leaning against some old X-Box stuff. I dragged it towards me with a pang of guilt.

It was the leather-bound notebook that Dad had given me last Christmas. ‘A notebook to sketch, jot, doodle, plan,’ he’d said. ‘There’s nothing like a fresh pad of paper to get your ideas out and help get your life in order.’

It was time for a plan of action. Dad would be pleased to know I’d taken his advice on board. I reached for the biro on my bedside table and chewed its lid while I thought. Eventually I wrote:

 

  1. Get even with Satan.
  2. Get Mattie Clemence to notice me.
  3. Become someone people respect. (No more Freddo Frog or Kermit.)
  4. Figure out why Dad went up the old mill when he knew it was dangerous.

 

Chapter 3

That evening

When the curfew was lifted an hour or so later, The Satanic One remained in her room, abusing her guitar and butchering an Adele song. I went into the kitchen where Mum was sitting at her sewing machine, mending a hem on a customer’s dress and listening to a talk show on the radio. Mozza lay on the floor beside her, his chin resting next to her foot. (He likes the vibrations from the sewing machine foot pedal.)

‘Sorry about earlier,’ I said. ‘She just got to me.’

‘I can’t believe you’re still capable of such childish behaviour, Roly.’ She adjusted the pencil in the bun on top of her head. ‘You’ve just turned fourteen for God’s sake.’

Yeah, and we didn’t even celebrate my birthday properly – other than a hurriedly bought caterpillar cake from Tesco Express. (It was all they had left.)

‘D’you want a cup of tea?’ I offered, hoping that being polite and helpful would get me back in her good books again.

‘Please. You know, I thought you were more sensitive than that, Roly.’

That was my problem – too “sensitive”, too “nice”. Well not any more. I spotted the empty wine glass by the sink as I filled the kettle up.

‘Mum, can I have my phone back? I really need to speak to Jake.’

‘You can both have your phones back tomorrow.’

‘But it’s urgent – we’re doing a joint maths assignment.’

‘Then call him on the landline and make it quick. Just so you know, I’m pretty disturbed about what I witnessed earlier.’ She gave me a stern look over the top of her glasses.

‘But, Mum, she’s horrible to me – even when I try to be nice to her.’

‘Well try harder, Roly. Don’t forget she’s in Year 11 now – exam pressure has begun.’

‘It’s ROLO, Mum. And that doesn’t explain why she hates me so much.’

‘She doesn’t hate you, love! We’re all dealing with Dad’s situation as best we can. Sometimes we take it out on each other without meaning to. Besides, you two are in such different places right now – she’s not a girl anymore, she’s a young woman dealing with her first relationship and all the responsibilities that come with that.’

Oh God – she meant sex! I tried to block the revolting image of Lacey and Curt doing it from my mind. Too late.

‘And then there are things women have to deal with that men don’t, like periods, unwanted body hair–’

‘OK, OK, I get it! Stop!’ Mum was a major over-sharer. I passed her a cup of tea.

‘There’s no need to pull that face, Roland– Rolo. Every boy should understand what girls have to deal with – everyday sexism, avoiding pregnancy… It’s not a level playing field, love.’

If only Dad was here – he’d level out this conversation. Being outnumbered sucked.

Mum took a sip of tea. ‘Go on then, call Jake.’

‘I need his number – I don’t know it by heart.’

She pulled my phone from her pocket and held it out so I could tap in my pin. I looked at his number and repeated it out loud until I reached the landline in the hallway.

‘Jake, it’s me!’

‘About time! I’ve been Whatsapping you for ages!’ he said.

‘Mum caught us fighting and confiscated our phones. Did Lacey post any photos of us?’

‘I can’t find any – I think we’re in the clear.’

‘That doesn’t mean she didn’t take any. She could use them to blackmail us.’

‘What could she do with them, though?’ said Jake. ‘Taking a photo of someone naked without their permission is like a major crime – Lacey’s not stupid.’

True. Evil, yes. Stupid, no.

‘They’re still gonna slaughter us at school,’ I said.

‘I know. We’re so dead, dude. I’ve gone right off your sister.’

‘Finally!’ I couldn’t believe my ears. ‘Just don’t get sucked in again.’

‘I won’t. She’s like a Terry’s Chocolate Orange. Looks good. Smells good. Tastes shite.’

Mum gave a loud, fake cough in the background.

‘I’ve gotta go,’ I said. ‘Meet me on the corner Monday morning.’

I sighed. Mum needed to know that all those things she said about Lacey and what girls go through have got nothing to do with my sister’s spitefulness. I went back into the kitchen, and was about to make this point when the doorbell went bananas.

When the doorbell goes bananas, that means it’s Jim (Lacey’s dad), who still, at the age of 50-whatever, thinks it’s amusing to press the bell five times in a row. (One press for every year of his mental age.)

‘Let him in will you, love?’ Mum rolled her eyes. ‘Maybe he’s finally got that money he owes me…’

Jim always drops round unannounced – and more often since Dad’s been in hospital. On the rare occasions Jim makes solid plans to be somewhere at a certain time, you can guarantee he won’t turn up. On the other hand, if you don’t hear from him in ages, you can bet he’ll show up any minute – especially if a meal’s about to be served. Like a dog, he can smell a Sunday roast from several miles away.

Talking of dogs, Jim’s the reason we have Mozza. Jim found Mozza – a malnourished and filthy black-and-white mongrel – wandering the streets, so he took him in and named him after some ancient pop dinosaur. A week later, he came over for a cup of tea and brought Mozza with him. And when he left, he accidentally-on-purpose left Mozza behind. Mum tried to track down Mozza’s owners but without success. Four months later, we still had him – just temporarily, until Jim had a bit of “a quieter week to come and take him home”. The chances of that being the reason for this visit were unlikely.

‘Alright, Freckles?’ Jim slapped me on the back as he came inside. Why couldn’t anyone just call me Rolo? ‘How’s your dad holding up?’

‘No change.’

Mozza bounded up to him, barking like a crazed fan and giving him a hero’s welcome.

‘’Ello boy! Missed me, did ya?’ Jim patted him and commented on how much healthier he was looking. ‘Your dad’ll pull through, mate. Don’t you worry. He’s a tough’un.’ He winked at me and shrugged off his tatty leather biker’s jacket to reveal a faded AC/DC T-shirt that was struggling to contain his growing beer belly. Jim was the only bloke I knew who wore jewellery. Around his neck was a manky leather string with a silver rhinoceros skull attached to it, a crucifix and a chunky silver chain. He was also covered in tattoos, including a small bird on his middle finger who he referred to as Sid.

‘You taking Mozza home today then?’ I asked.

‘Er, well, I was hoping you lot might hold onto him a tad longer? I’ve got a gig – potentially.’

‘Who with?’ called Mum.

I followed Jim into the kitchen and grabbed my untouched cup of tea before he could steal it.

‘Well?’ Mum glanced at him over her glasses.

Jim sighed and flicked the kettle on.

‘Oh dear,’ said Mum, prodding pins into her pincushion. ‘I take it it’s not The Rolling Stones then?’

He ran his fingers through his straggly grey hair and made a whimpering sound.

‘Oh get off your high horse, Jim Draper. Who is it?’

‘Toploader – reunion tour.’

‘Who are they?’ I asked as we pulled out chairs and sat down.

‘Exactly!’ Jim reached for the biscuit tin and crammed a couple of Hobnobs into his mouth. ‘The sort of pop pissants that bring my arse out in a rash.’

‘It’s not like you can afford to turn it down – seeing as you still owe me a hundred quid and I really need the money right now.’ Mum packed away her sewing machine and hung the dress on the back of the kitchen door. At that moment Lacey appeared in the doorway.

‘Nice of you to tell me you were here,’ she pouted. As if she didn’t hear the doorbell! I wanted to pull the rest of her stupid hair out.

‘Treacle!’ Jim reached out for a hug.

Lacey stayed put, arms tightly folded. ‘Our guitar lessons were supposed to start last week.’

‘I had a gig, babes.’

‘There’s always something.’

‘I can’t turn a gig down, Lace. Like your mum says, I need the money.’

‘Which is why your dad’ll be going on tour with Toploader,’ said Mum.

‘Whatever. Can I have my phone back now?’ asked Lacey.

Mum laughed. ‘Nope.’

‘But I need to text Curt.’ Or rather, she needed to check how many likes her latest selfie had got.

‘Too bad.’

Jim got up to give Lacey a hug. ‘You been naughty, Treacs?’

‘No. I’ve been trying to teach myself the guitar.’

She leaned sulkily into Jim’s embrace while he stroked her hair.

‘Caught them fighting,’ said Mum. ‘As if they were a couple of eight year olds.’

Jim chuckled. ‘She didn’t hurt you, did she, Freckles?’

As if.’ I helped myself to a Hobnob.

‘Well, we could squeeze in a guitar lesson right now?’ He checked an imaginary watch on his hairy wrist.

Lacey’s pout mutated into a grin. Jim glanced at Mum.

‘Go on, then,’ said Mum.

Jim sat back down and squeezed Mum’s shoulder. I noticed his hand stayed there for a lot longer than was necessary. A bit like Jim in general… He hung around like a bad smell when he wanted something. And he’d been doing a lot of hanging around since Dad’s accident.

Chapter 4

Sunday 24th September

The following morning Mum, Lacey and I went to the hospital to see Dad. I brought my pencil sketch of Mozza that I was pretty proud of. I showed it to Phil the nurse who went to find some Sellotape so I could put it up on the wall in Dad’s room. Mum brought some orange and geranium essential oils (“for energy and wakefulness”) to massage Dad’s hands and feet with. And Lacey brought in a copy of Heat magazine that she’d found in the corridor waiting area so she could catch up on celebrity gossip.

Mum and Lacey settled into the chairs on either side of the bed while I repositioned Kevin, Dad’s cactus, in front of all the Get Well Soon cards on the windowsill. (Dad had bought Kevin for himself, Roy for me and Mabel for Lacey about six months ago and suggested we compete to see who could keep their plant alive the longest. Mabel was long gone, having been starved to death from the day she arrived.) I got out my bottle of water and sloshed some onto the dry soil in Kevin’s pot.

‘Look at Dad’s arm,’ said Mum, rolling up his sleeve. ‘You’d never know it was black and blue a few weeks ago. Doctor Khan says his ribs are coming on nicely, too.’

‘He’s tough,’ I said picking up a Modern Toss card from the windowsill and sniggering at the cartoon on the front.

‘Who’s that from?’ asked Mum.

‘Uncle Baz – again.’

‘What did he write this time?’

Wake up, you lazy bastard! I’ll shout you a beer when you’re back to your old self.’ I looked at Mum.

‘Not if Auntie Vee has anything to do with it,’ she sighed, working the oil into Dad’s arms.

Apart from my voice breaking, Uncle Baz leaving Auntie Vee because he’d fallen in love with a man was the last notable thing to happen in my universe before Dad’s accident.

‘I thought she had a new bloke?’ Lacey turned the page of her magazine.

‘That doesn’t mean she’s over Uncle Baz,’ said Mum.

Funny how Dad’s accident made the Auntie Vee/Uncle Baz showdown seem like a million years ago now.

‘Lacey, could you go and get me a coffee, please?’ Mum looked up from massaging Dad’s hands.

Lacey reluctantly slapped her magazine down on the bedside cabinet. ‘I haven’t got any change for the machine.’

Mum pointed at her handbag with an oily finger. ‘Take a few quid and get yourself something – Roly, what do you want?’

‘Hot chocolate, please,’ I said, not looking at Lacey. All our conversations took place with as little eye contact as possible. If we kept this up for much longer I’d soon forget what she looked like – a reward worth putting in the effort for.

‘I’m just going to wash my hands.’ Mum winked at me as she and Lacey left the room. This was my cue to have some “one-on-one time” with Dad.

I sat in Mum’s chair and reached out to stroke his arm, which was still moist with oil. I leaned closer to his ear and inhaled the flowery smell.

‘Dad, I don’t wanna rush you,’ I whispered, ‘but I wish you’d wake up soon cos…’ I wanted to tell him about how Lacey and I were in danger of pushing Mum too far with our constant fighting, how my already pathetic status at school was about to sink to subterranean levels, how I couldn’t stop thinking about a girl who didn’t know I existed, and how Jim’s hand had stayed way too long on Mum’s arm.

But how could I tell him all that in his zombie-like state? It could upset him. It could get all jumbled up in the sleeping pathways of his brain, causing anxiety and depression – or even false memories? What if his unconscious mind got so stressed it had an effect on his body and gave him a heart attack?

We had to stay upbeat and have faith, Doctor Khan had said. ‘Interact with him as much as possible, in a calm, positive way.’

‘Me and Lacey are getting on well,’ I said in a calm, positive way. ‘Actually she’s doing my head in, but we’re making an effort to get along for Mum’s sake. We’ve still got Mozza by the way. I reckon you were on the verge of saying we should keep him before you… skydived off the old mill.’

This was my feeble attempt at a joke. Dad wouldn’t want us to get all doom and gloom, Mum said. He was always making us laugh – cracking jokes, playing silly pranks. Mum reckons Dad was a clown in a past life. On their very first date they went for pizza and Dad got some mozzarella stuck to his nose – which he’d put there deliberately to see how long Mum could ignore it for. When she twigged he was having a laugh, she took an anchovy from her pizza and placed it above her upper lip, like a moustache. This was when Dad realised he’d met his match and fell in love, or so the Rawlings family legend goes.

So the plan was to adopt a “PMA” (positive mental attitude) – which wasn’t a problem, except that no one seemed willing to talk about what had happened…to get to the bottom of what he was doing up a derelict old mill in the first place.

‘So, Mum’s theory…’ I said to Dad. ‘I’ve been thinking about it and I’m not a hundred per cent convinced. If you climbed up the mill cos you saw something worth taking a photo of, it must’ve been something pretty amazing. I mean, you made us promise never to go up there because it was dangerous. Then again, we all know what you’re like when you spot a good picture.’

I looked at his sleeping eyelids. ‘What photograph was worth climbing up a building with a giant danger sign nailed to it? Dad, can you hear me? Twitch your hand if you can hear me.’ I held his hand loosely and stared at it. No movement. Nothing.

‘When I took your camera to Jessops to get it repaired, they said you hadn’t taken any photos that day. So we’ve been trying to guess what might’ve caught your eye. Mum and Lacey reckon it was the misty sunrise or a fox in the distance, but that’s not your kind of thing. It just doesn’t add up.’

I watched his face for the slightest sign of consciousness – maybe he was willing me to guess again? But his eyeballs stayed still beneath their shadowy lids. Maybe I needed to talk about something more positive – something that would catch his attention. Something I’d been dying to talk about but didn’t know who I could talk about it with.

‘There’s this new girl at school called Matilda Clemence, but she likes to be called Mattie. Her family just moved to Brighton. She’s a bit of a bookworm – but she’s also super-sporty, too – I’ve seen her play hockey and she’s fierce.’ I stopped as I heard footsteps out in the corridor. They passed by so I continued. ‘She’s kind of a loner, but maybe that’s cos she’s still new. Don’t know why I’m telling you all this–’

The door swung open and Lacey strutted in carrying our drinks. She was smiling – not a happy “here’s your hot chocolate” smile, but a cunning “I’ve just come into some useful information” smile. I prayed she hadn’t overheard me telling Dad about Mattie. As usual, no eye contact was made as she put my hot chocolate down as far away from me as possible.

‘D’you want some time alone with Dad?’ I got up to retrieve my drink.

Lacey shrugged and took a sip of tea.

‘It might be good for him to hear your voice,’ I said, unable to avoid looking at her as my blood started to simmer.

‘Well if you say so, Roly-Poly.’ She leaned back in her chair and opened up her magazine. ‘So, Col…’ She looked at Dad and cleared her throat. ‘It says here that Taylor Swift dumped Tom Hiddleston because he’d been texting Jennifer Lawrence. Which is bullshit, cos anyone with half a brain knows that Taylor Swift’s far too ambitious to give a toss about a five-second fling with some nerdy actor. Everyone knows that Taylor is a hundred-per-cent focused on becoming the highest-selling female artist of all time. Respect, right Col? She’s set her sights on the top.’ Lacey tossed her hair over her shoulder and added under her breath, ‘Just like me.’

‘What’s your problem?’ I hissed at her. ‘What’s he ever done to you other than be there for you and love us equally?’

She cocked her head to one side and smiled to herself. ‘You wouldn’t get it.’

I imagined chucking my hot chocolate in her face. The thought made me smile. Luckily Mum returned at that moment and, seeing the expression on my face, assumed that yesterday’s battles had blown over.

‘Great minds think alike.’ Mum perched on the end of the bed, waving a copy of The Week. ‘I thought I’d start by reading him the “It wasn’t all bad” section. He loves that bit.’

‘I’m going to the loo,’ I said and excused myself.

I had to get out before I used Kevin as a murder weapon. I hurried along the corridor, down the stairs and into the foyer.

What was Lacey’s beef with Dad? They used to get on just fine – he always picked her up whenever she was out late, made her cups of tea in the mornings, cut stories about successful women out of the papers and encouraged her to read them. Once, a few years ago, he even took her and Paige to see Jedward in concert –sacrifices don’t come much bigger than that. But when she started going out with Curt, arguments began erupting. Dad had always tried to support her without stepping on Jim’s toes, but ever since Curt came on the scene, he couldn’t do anything right.

I stomped outside through the main doors and found myself in the centre of a cluster of smokers. I was about to do a U-turn and head back to the kiosk for a Cadbury’s Creme Egg when I spotted Mattie Clemence on the other side of the road, rummaging in her pockets while waiting for a bus. My heart hit the drums. She clocked me and quickly looked away. I cringed as I remembered her startled face in the swimming pool. She looked almost as startled now.

She started walking off – even though the monitor said the next bus was almost due. As she picked up pace, something fell from her pocket, but she either didn’t notice or didn’t care. I ran across the road and charged after her, calling her name, but she just walked even faster.

I stopped by the bus stop and spotted a new, unopened packet of strawberry bubble gum lying on the pavement. I picked it up and watched her figure shrink into the distance.

I could hardly blame her for pretending not to hear me. She was new, and new kids had to look out for themselves. To be seen talking with someone like me was (to use one of Jim’s favourite expressions) “professional suicide”.

The story continues…

Things are looking up!

With my fellow shortlistees, junior judges, competition founder Caroline Ambrose and literary agent Sallyanne Sweeney at the Bath Children’s Novel Award Ceremony, Feb 2018

It’s been a long time since I talked about my writing journey, but there’s been a few sunny developments recently, so here’s what I’ve been up to over the last couple of years…

  • Jan 2015 – Decided to take a break from writing after my two latest projects (Blown-Away Man and The Adventures of Fartella Gasratilova) failed to find representation. Added them to my other self-published novels on Amazon and stepped away…
  • May 2016 – In an effort to hone my skills and develop a foolproof manuscript, I applied to the Curtis Brown Creative Writing for Children online course and got offered a place.
  • Spent the next 3 months developing my novel, The Reinvention of Rolo Rawlings (a YA comedy drama), under the guidance of award-winning author Catherine Johnson and my brilliantly creative writerly classmates. Re-wrote the first 5 chapters many, many times – taking it from a 1980s setting to the present day and from a diary format to a first person narrative.
  • March 2017 – Started the nail-biting process of submitting Rolo to agents.
  • Sept 2017 – Accepted an offer of representation with Lauren Gardner at Bell Lomax Moreton Literary Agency. Meeting Lauren and seeing her passion for Rolo was a surreal moment – especially after going it alone as an independent author for so long.
  • Dec 2017 – Had to pinch myself at learning I’d been longlisted for the Bath Children’s Novel Award.
  • Jan 2018 – Had to get the husband and kids to pinch me at learning I’d been shortlisted for the Bath Children’s Novel Award! In the end I didn’t win, but making it to the final 5 out of 750 entries was incredibly exciting and more confirmation that Rolo is my strongest piece of writing yet.
  • Feb 2018 – Am currently developing Rolo further under Lauren’s guidance and, all being well, hope to submit to publishers in the near future.

Back in January 2015 – after 10 years of gaining and losing literary agents, an endless river of rejections and some short-lived success at self-publishing – I hit a bit of a rockbottom on my writing journey. I knew I wasn’t going to give up, but I needed a break from trying. Now, three years later, I’m super-proud of Rolo and the response it’s achieved so far, and am looking to the future with fresh optimism. Watch this space… (she said, biting her nails…)

Why I decided to self-publish, as told to The Guardian

Below is a link to my interview on The Guardian website. As part of their self-publishing showcase, I talk about my own self-publishing experience so far, from 10 years of slushpiles, literary agents and rejections to going it alone and finally, albeit slowly, getting somewhere. It was cathartic to say the least! I recommend all the other features in the series too.

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/aug/27/self-publishing-showcase-tasha-harrison

Agents: masters of TLC (Tough Literary Criticism)

They take months to respond, and then it’s usually with an impersonal rejection. In the miraculous event that they like your MS enough to take you on, it’s still a gamble whether or not they’ll be able to sell your book to a publisher (see my previous post).

So, in this era of accessible-to-all self-publishing, are agents worth paying any attention to at all? The answer is yes. It is absolutely worth going through this process, even if, like me, you get all the way to being taken on, only to be released again, novel unsold. For while my agents were unable to sell my novels, they helped me to edit my work, to ‘sharpen’ it so that it was as good as it could be, and I’m very grateful for that.

For example, one of the areas that I needed to work on was pace of plot. In my first ever novel 12 years ago (which I haven’t put on Amazon because I don’t think it’s good enough), an agent I met with at the time pointed out that the beginning was strong, the end was strong, the characters were strong, but the middle of the story “sagged”. She was right. I had a lot of re-writing to do. Even though, despite the re-write, that agent decided not to take my novel on, it was a good exercise which I learned a lot from.

With Package Deal a few years later, my agent at the time suggested putting in an extra scene where the main character, Mia, has some kind of confrontation with her mother or her mother’s husband. I followed her advice. She was right, it added more tension in the build-up to the climax. She also suggested toning down Steve and Craig’s language. I deleted a few expletives here and there, but in doing so I could almost hear Steve and Craig shouting at me: “Give up swearing? Us? You must be fucking joking!”. They’re just not polite, what can I say? They’re real.

With Hot Property, and yet another agent, I was advised to lose 20,000 words. (My word count was over 100,000.) That was a challenge. I didn’t want to lose any of my precious words, but they had to go. Fortunately, as a sub-editor I’m used to axing copy, but when it’s your own copy, it’s a lot harder to detach! Also with Hot Property I was advised to change a risqué storyline to avoid “alienating readers”. I didn’t like this suggestion or agree with the reasoning behind it, but I did it anyway. And now that I’ve self-published, I haven’t changed it back to the way it was originally because it felt OK like that.

I was also given advice on presentation and layout, told to shorten the sections where Georgie is emailing her friend back in the UK and make them more “punchy”, and work more on each character’s voice so that they all sounded different and distinct. It was pointed out that my teenage character Sophia was a bit of a Nobby No-mates – wouldn’t she have some friends to hang out with? All these observations, whether I agreed with them or not, helped me look at my work more objectively, more carefully. The result was a better, stronger story.

So even though I’ve ended up self-publishing on Amazon, I’m still glad to have had the experience of working with a literary agent. It has definitely helped me improve my writing.

I’m currently editing my fourth novel (title TBC) and half-way through writing my fifth (working title Blown-Away Man). Now, while I’m editing, I try to bear in mind what an agent would say (even though I’ve currently got no plans to submit to one). But while I’m writing, I shut those voices out and listen to the characters. It’s their story, after all.

Are literary agents still the key to success?

I’ve touched on this issue before in my post Back on the shelf again, where I compared getting a literary agent to getting a new boyfriend. But I thought I’d revisit the subject, given that many writers today are asking themselves if they even need a literary agent anymore, now that self-publishing online is giving traditional publishing a run for its money.

When I first got a literary agent, I made the mistake of assuming I’d made it, that I was one teeny-tiny step away from getting a publishing deal. I’d been plucked from the slushpile and deemed worthy. I had an industry professional’s stamp of approval on my work. My self-esteem was lifted from the doubtful doldrums to heights it had never known.

But despite my agent’s total confidence that she would sell my novel Package Deal in a jiffy, she was unable to. ‘Not to worry,’ she said. ‘Go and write something else. No one gets their first novel published.’ Alas I was eight months’ pregnant with my first child at this point, and writing didn’t feature on my agenda for a while.

Cut to a few years later, and I’ve self-published Package Deal (against Agent One’s advice) in paperback format. I’ve got it into a few branches of Waterstones, and I’m getting a weeny bit of publicity. At this point I hadn’t embraced blogging, Twitter (don’t think it existed yet) or any other social media – not even Facebook – partly because I was knee-deep in nappies, and partly because I’m a bit of a luddite. In terms of marketing and sales I was going nowhere, but I wasn’t bothered because a new agent was interested in my next novel Hot Property.

However, I now knew that getting an agent didn’t necessarily lead to a deal. ‘What if you don’t manage to sell my book to a publisher?’ I asked Agent Two. ‘It’s not a case of if, but when,’ she said with the kind of uber-confidence I wish I’d been born with. I liked this woman, but I was a little wiser and so I kept my joy in check. I was just thankful to be back in with a chance.

Together with Agent Two’s guidance, I wrote several drafts of Hot Property. Each time I sent it back to her, there was something else she felt needed adjusting. I did whatever she suggested. I trusted her expertise. This went on for six months, a year, perhaps. Then she said, ‘How about you put Hot Property to one side for a while and write something else?’ This sounded familiar. I could only assume the economy was driving publishers to invest less and less in new authors and my book was in the saturated category of women’s fiction. Never mind. I had a new idea anyway.

I wrote a synopsis of my new idea and sent it to Agent Two. She asked me to change the characters’ ages, which I did, and eight months or so later, I’d written a new novel. After months of waiting for a response, she rejected it and soon after left the agency, leaving me high and dry. I don’t mind admitting that I cried. (Not in front of her, thankfully.)

A year goes by and, not quite knowing where to start again, with an increasing sense of the utter futility of trying to get a publishing deal, my husband finally persuaded me to stick my books on Amazon – after all, what’s the point of two perfectly decent commercial manuscripts sitting at home gathering dust?

They are now selling, slowly but surely. This month’s sales are up on last month’s, and last month’s are up on the previous month’s. I’ve waited a long time for the satisfaction of having total strangers buy my novels. If sales accelerate to a noticeable amount at some point, maybe I’ll approach an agent again. Or maybe I won’t. The nice thing is, my feelings of self-worth as a writer are no longer dependent on having an industry professional’s stamp of approval.

You spin me right round

Do authors need a USP, a new genre or just some interesting buzz about them in order to get ahead?

We all remember the stories about how JK Rowling allegedly started writing Harry Potter in cafés in order to save on her heating bill. You might also recall how Martina Cole was living in a council flat when she was offered a historic advance for her first novel. Great stories, right? The kind that attract attention.

More recently, the new buzzword ‘mummy porn’ is on everyone’s lips as EL James’s book Fifty Shades Of Grey takes the publishing world by storm. A year or so ago ‘chick noir,’ “chick lit’s bigger, badder sister”, (think Jane Fallon) was the trendy new sub-genre attracting all the attention.

Every time I read something like this I start wracking my brains as to what cool and catchy genre name I could stamp on my novels, or what juicy little factoids I could use to spice up my author biog. I wrack and I wrack and I wrack. And still nothing comes.

Genres. So far my two beach reads have got off to a good start on Amazon. But ‘beach read’ is hardly a catchy genre name. Nor is holiday read, summer read and especially not airport novel. Apparently ‘romcom’ is an outdated term, or so I read recently. I once came up with plage-turner, which I thought was rather clever for all of five seconds until my husband pointed out that, for those who don’t speak French, plage looks more like plague spelled wrong. (And besides, both novels are set on Greek islands, not the French Riviera.)

I also came up with soap lit, as my novels are told from the viewpoints of several characters, rather than just one or two. But what image does soap lit conjure up? A ten-book saga set in the East End of London with more characters than you can shake a pound of spuds at?

Beach lit, chick lit with balls, summer sizzlers, feel-good fiction…I am still working on this and will shout if I ever hit the jackpot. As for some staggeringly fascinating fact to make my author biog more gripping than my books, I have dug deep and come up with these inconsequential crumbs.

“She is the daughter of a Buddhist and an aethiest. (Divorced but on good terms.) Her dad is half-French and the nephew of famous Corsican bandit Nonce Romanetti. (Who? Never mind.) Her husband is a graphic designer. (The National Lottery logo? Well, that was him.) Her brother and cousin are Icarus. (But all you avant garde drum’n’bass fans already knew that.) Before training as a sub-editor she worked as a shop assistant, receptionist and secretary. Zzzz. Hello? You still there? Oh, and once, when she worked in a pub, she loudly mistook 80s popstar Nick Heyward for 80s popstar Nik Kershaw. (He took it very well.)”  

Barrel well and truly scraped.

Probably the most interesting thing about me is that I’ve written four novels, (two of which are on Amazon, the other two I’m still debating uploading), and I’m half-way through a fifth. And I’ve got through two-and-a-half literary agents without a publisher in sight. Yet this information could work as much against me as it could for me, as some might choose to see a pattern of failure in my writing journey, rather than a pattern of near success and bad luck.

Anyway, all this is by the by. Once I’ve executed Operation Bonza-biog (streaking at the 2012 Olympics trailing a beach towel behind me with the words ‘Once upon a time in Greece’ on them), all my problems will be solved. Flasher fiction perhaps?

Back on the shelf again

Getting a literary agent is a bit like getting a boyfriend. The very first time he rings you up and asks you out, you do a few cartwheels, followed by a mad dance, followed by several days of singing in the rain and holding doors open for strangers. Your world is a happy place full of cherry blossom and rainbows. You’ve made it. Your dreams of literary success are coming true. Or so you think…

At first things are going great. He digs you. He likes your style. He thinks you’re smart, funny, going places. He takes your hand and says he can see a bright happy future together. He’s really looking forward to seeing you again. You skip to the bus stop in the rain, hold your umbrella above a stranger’s head, offer the bus driver your last Rolo. Life is so beautiful you could cry with joy.

A publishing deal is just around the corner. You imagine your novel lining the shelves of Smith’s and Waterstone’s (in the number one spot of course). You picture your books being bigged up in Heat magazine. You daydream about being interviewed for the broadsheet culture supplements, appearing on BBC News 24’s Meet The Author, and The Big One: selling your film rights to Brad Pitt, who’s your biggest fan and can’t wait to meet you in person.

But as time goes by, the honeymoon buzz starts to fade. He’s not gushing about you any more. He doesn’t reply to your emails in a hurry. The friends he couldn’t wait to introduce you to have just been really, really busy. Then he says it’s impossible to see into the future. You get the sense he’s not as in love with you as he once was. So you try harder to make him happy, do everything he asks you to do, without coming across as too much of a doormat and without making contact too often in case he thinks you’re starting to reek of desperation. Which you are.

Then one day, the end comes. Times are just so hard right now, he says. Harder than ever. It’s not you, it’s just the way it is. The timing is all wrong. He knows you’ll be snapped up one day and it’ll be his loss. He wishes you the best of luck in everything. You walk home in a teary blur. As you pass the corner shop you contemplate buying a packet of fags even though you haven’t smoked in years. That night you drown your sorrows and wonder how you could have ever deluded yourself that you were smart/funny/pretty enough to attract the likes of him. You’re just not good enough. Life’s a bitch. 

A few weeks go by and you pick yourself up and dust yourself off. It’s not the end of the world. You are not dying, so enough with the moping. You are good enough, you just need to up your game, hone your skills, and listen to your writing voice. Stop trying to write what you think he/she/they will like. It’s what you wrote without anyone else’s input that attracted him in the first place. Get back to your true authentic voice – the one you talk to your cat in when no one else is around.

And there you are, back at the beginning, no worse off than you were before, but older and wiser. You do this because you love it, because you can’t not do it. You’re a writer. You just keep on truckin’.