Friday, September 21, 2012

When and Why I Decided To Write YA

It’s a cliché, but I can’t remember a time when I didn’t write. As a child, I spent most of my spare time reading books or writing my own stories. My first serious attempt at writing a novel was when I was about 19 or 20 and at university. Naturally the book was a ‘campus novel’. I remember parts of it. It wasn’t very good. It was set in London. The main character was a lot like me. The other characters were a lot like people I knew or people I wished I knew. Fortunately the only surviving copy of that manuscript is saved on an outmoded form of technology. Phew!

Novel number 2 was written a couple of years later while living in California. It was a drug-smuggling thriller inspired by a backpacking trip to a remote part of west Texas called Terlingua. It had drugs, sex, intrigue and far too many words. I still have a hard copy of that book, but bonfire night is just a few weeks away and I think it might be time to throw that epic effort onto the flames.

I always imagined I would spend a few years doing other things, building up life experience, before devoting myself to writing full time. Then Life happened. I got married. Had a kid. Then another one. Built a house. Got a ‘proper’ job. I still scribbled ideas into my notebook, outlined plots and wrote the first few chapters. But it was hard to find the time or energy to see any of these projects through to completion. 

My day job was as an English teacher. I loved it. Reading and discussing books with a new generation of (sometimes) enthusiastic readers is a great way to earn a living. I kept telling myself that one day I would have the time to write my next book. 
I clearly remember my ‘light bulb’ moment. I was teaching a bottom set year 9 class (that’s 14 year olds for those of you across the pond). They were a lovely, but disaffected group. They were dyslexic, dyspraxic, ADHD, bored or all of the above. Not a single one of them had ever read a book for pleasure. I was teaching Romeo and Juliet. Surely to god, I remember thinking, you can relate to this. First love, rebelling against your parents, passion, parties. One girl, however, was busy staring at her lap. I had a pretty good idea what she was doing: texting. I gave her ‘the look’ and demanded that she give me her phone. 

But she wasn’t texting. For the first time in her life she was reading a book because she wanted to. Imagine the dilemma: tell girl who is reading for pleasure for the first time ever to put the book away and listen to me teach Shakespeare. Or not. “Please just let me finish this chapter,” she begged. 

The book in question was Twilight. I hadn’t heard of it. When she told me it was a vampire novel, I told her that wasn’t my thing. Two more years passed before I finally gave in to peer pressure and forced myself to read Twilight. I immediately understood why a fourteen year old girl would find it so compelling. Not only did it make me feel like a teenager again, reading it reminded me of the ambitions I’d held when I was that age. I’d wanted to be a writer. And here I was, busy busy busy, telling myself that ‘one day’ I’d have the time to finish a novel.

I gave myself a goal. One year. Wake at 5:00 am and write for an hour and a half every day before work. If I didn’t finish a novel, get an agent and a book deal, well so be it. At least I’d tried. I decided to try to write the sort of novel I would have secretly read under my desk when I was fourteen. The result was After Eden. I don’t know if some disaffected year nine girl will ever sneakily turn its pages under her desk when she should be listening to her English teacher, but if I had one wish for my book – that would be it.

Author Photo
Helen Douglas is the author of AFTER EDEN, a time-travel love story coming in 2013 from Bloomsbury. You can find out more about her novel on Goodreads, and join her on Facebook and Twitter.


  1. That's a great story (and I really need to have a bonfire night around here for some manuscripts that need never see the light of day). I admire you for getting up at 5am everyday and finding a way to make it work. I hope you have loads of girls sneakily turning the pages of your book under their desk :)

    ~ Rhonda Parrish