I wrote the first draft of Best Friends Forever (back then known by its working title ‘Sugar Dirt’) with no real sense of what it was, or whom exactly it was for. It was Autumn 2021 and having struggled to make any real headway with the Young Adult project I’d been working on throughout the pandemic, I made the decision to take a break and try something a bit different.
I am not a planner. Generally, I start with a character and give them a problem, then see where that takes me. Best Friends Forever (the first title in the Bigg School series)was originally about a thirteen year-old girl called Phoebe. Told in diary form, it charted Phoebe’s experiences of being in year 9. I liked Phoebe, and I liked a lot of the characters in her universe, but something about the project just didn’t feel quite right. My instincts were telling me to make Phoebe younger; something I initially resisted. As the author of four YA novels who had previously given very little thought to writing for a younger audience, I was thrown, battling through another couple of drafts before realising that original instinct had actually been correct. I renamed Phoebe, Lola, aged her down from thirteen to eleven and started again from the very beginning.
As a writer, it is very easy to pigeonhole yourself. Having made my name with my debut The Art of Being Normal, my next three novels for young adults trod similar ground with their familiar blend of messy, loveable characters, complex relationship dynamics and heart-warming conclusions. Indeed, the very reason I’d been struggling with my fifth YA novel (the project I’d abandoned) was because I’d been trying to write something with a very different feel and had lost confidence in my ability to do so convincingly along the way. These grapples with my identity as a writer perhaps explain why it took several drafts for me to figure out that ‘Sugar Dirt’ was for a middle grade audience. Once I’d realised this and found it a home with the wonderful Guppy Books, the real work then began.
Having spent the previous eight years writing for young adults, adjusting my tone and style for 8-12 year-olds was a challenge. I knew who Lola was, but transferring the feisty, funny, complex girl I’d got to know in my head onto the page was nowhere near as simple as I’d hoped. This is where the job of an editor comes in, and luckily I have the best of the best – the immensely wise Bella Pearson. With her help, I was able to identify the moments where Lola’s voice was too mature, or her response to something was too measured. As a writer, I can be timid during the drafting stages. With Bella’s help I was able to really connect with Lola and tease out the maximum drama and impact from each and every scene.
It’s easy to assume that a 35k book must be simpler to write that a 75k one, but I’m here to tell you that this is not the case! With MG, not a word can be wasted. There is no time or space for filler; every line, every moment,every scene has to be driving the plot forward or telling us something important about the characters, all the while entertaining the reader. Comparing early drafts of Best Friends Forever with the finished book is fascinating. The characters and story are recognisable but they’re buried under mounds of padding that simply weren’t needed.
Easily one of the loveliest things about writing a MG book has been getting to work with an illustrator. Fairly early on my editor Bella recognised that Best Friends Forever should be illustrated. From there we were fortunate enough to secure the talents of Jess Bradley. Her warm, witty, quirky, often incredibly moving illustrations add such depth and joy to my words. In the process of drafting the second book in the Bigg Schoolseries (Double Drama), I’ve had such fun imagining what genius ideas Jess will conjure up this time around. I’ve also been struck by how naturally the writing came this time round, and how much more focussed and confident I felt throughout the process. Indeed, as a direct result of working on Best Friends Forever and finding my MG voice, I feel more in control of my craft than ever before. This is something I’ve been able to apply to my YA writing. I’ve since returned to the project I abandoned back in 2021 and I’m having a wonderful time reacquainting myself with the world I‘d previously lost confidence in. Best of all, I feel more in tune with my creative instincts than ever before.
Best Friends Forever is written by Lisa Williamson, illustrated by Jess Bradley and published by Guppy Books.
Views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the Federation.