There are times when the writing journey has hard, tangible milestones, and seeing the cover of my debut for the first time has been one of those this-is-really-happening moments.
What do you think of it? It instantly gave me the right feels, down in my gut. FRIEND ME is the story of an Irish girl who moves to America and is badly bullied in middle school, and how she gets past it — and then gets into even worse trouble — with the help of her new BFF.
I love the smashed phone, the way Roisin is indistinct in the reflection, and the no-escape way she’s tunneled towards the girls whose actions (and inactions) come to define Roisin’s daily ordeal of school.
FRIEND ME has undercurrents of tech swirling in and around it, not least the social media apps that Roisin finds it hard to look away from, and the clinical shininess of the lockers accentuates that vibe. Tremendous thanks to the artists whose talent made this cover: the art was created by Mike Heath and the design is by Elizabeth B. Parisi and Yaffa Jaskoll.
Here’s what the legendary Elizabeth Wein has said about the book: “Friend Me is a heart-racing escalation from toxic teen power play and the dangers of social media to a darkly searing near-future thriller. A stunning debut.” Elizabeth wrote the New York Times bestselling Code Name Verity amongst other fantastic works (see a review of her middle-grade prequel to CNV, The Pearl Thief, here).
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How important are covers in the books you choose to read?
I’m still reeling from the best news I’ve had in my professional career: Scholastic in New York will publish my debut for middle grade readers, FRIEND ME, in autumn 2020. My agent Jennifer Laughran is to thank for this magnificent turn of events, as is my editor Emily Seife at Scholastic. Emily hasn’t just championed the project heartily through the acquisitions process, she’s also been the most profoundly sensitive and ingenious reader I’ve ever encountered, with inspired editorial suggestions that have pushed this story to be so much better. The deal announcement is here:
How can I express what it’s been like to go through this experience? I’d been writing on and off for children for more than a decade when, in 2014, I attempted my first NaNoWriMo. That’s when I wrote the first draft of a middle grade adventure I really thought was going to be a winner: I honed it to what I felt was a bright shine, including writing 35 versions of my cover letter, pitching it at and winning The Hook, SCBWI’s national pitching competition in the UK, and signing with my agent, Jennifer. That manuscript and my next one got fantastic feedback, but neither of those projects was quite The One.
To be honest, life then took over. My health, mental and physical, headed south, and I found myself inside a deeper hole than I thought possible. I stopped writing.
It was months before I could face a keyboard again. Even when I did, I decided that what I wrote was just for therapy: I wouldn’t show it to anyone, I’d just focus on the catharsis of it. So I began, and never have I written from a place of such anguish. I wrote the first words when I was at 30,000 feet, in May 2018, flying home to see my mother and sister in Massachusetts. Miraculously, I looked up and realized a couple hours had passed. Mentally I’d been miles away from the cramped abnormality of the aircraft cabin, absorbed with the opening scene of the book – a scene that would later be rewritten, then rewritten again, then cut altogether. I remember how good it was to experience that sense of wellness again, a feeling that only writing can give me.
I grabbed onto that wellness and followed it, taking baby steps. I wrote slowly, more or less every day, averaging just 250 words a day, I realize, when I look back at my Pomodoro statistics.
I knew where I wanted the story to go, including the accident that would befall my main character’s bully. I also knew the unhealthy turn that I wanted her relationship with her best friend to take; but the rest I left open, writing scene after scene, following only the sincerest motivation of the main character. If it didn’t make sense for her to do a thing, it didn’t happen.
It was around then that I had breakfast in Edinburgh with a friend from Harvard, Maile Meloy, now a celebrated novelist and short story writer. We discussed her book (an excellent thriller for adults called DO NOT BECOME ALARMED) and what her characters did in it, and I told her I felt strange about pantsing rather than plotting my current story.
Maile gave me the confidence not to worry: “Just stand your characters up, make them want something, and don’t let them get it,” she said. Scene after scene, that exact strategy had been working for me, so I carried on. What I ended up with, by that October, was the mostly tightly-woven story I had ever written, with clear and strong motivations throughout.
Jump forward to May 2019, and a Google Hangouts message from my agent at 10pm (“I know it’s late there – I have just sent you some very exciting news”) made me shriek and brought my daughter to the top of the stairs. All I could say was, “Oh my God, oh my God.” Because there it was: I was going to be published. And all it required was that I write not just from the heart, but from the deepest, darkest abyss I’d ever experienced.
It was almost a year to the day since I had written those first words on the flight to Boston.
I may never know why the earlier manuscripts weren’t The One, but I sense that there is a chiming between who I am as a person and the subject matter of FRIEND ME that the other stories didn’t have. I don’t just mean my own experiences of bullying, but also my career as a technology journalist, which has steeped me in the kind of tech that surrounds (and overwhelms) my main character. Roisin’s life is as phone-dependent and social-media-fuelled as the vast majority of young people today; throw classic middle-school bullying into the mix, and it’s an explosive combination.
Writing and your wellness
Even if I had not struck it lucky with the publication deal, I know now, after what I wrote through and out of last year, that I would’ve kept writing no matter what. For me, there’s no salve like a well-written sentence, a sturdy paragraph, a pleasing scene. I find tremendous comfort in re-reading something solid that I’ve written. Its solidity helps me regain my own, when I’m wobbling.
If you’re reading this, and you’re a writer, keep writing. If you can’t write – as I couldn’t, for months – try at least to protect your writing time and do something else satisfying in it, something creative or mentally stimulating (I practiced my old acting monologues, and tried new recipes, and learned Japanese). That way, if and when you feel you can work with words again, your writing time is ready and waiting for you, and it hasn’t been swamped by life.
Even if the world hasn’t yet given you a signal that it needs your writing, you need your writing. And a happier world starts with a happy you.