Kim Hood on writing Plain Jane

Kim Hood

This month the wonderful Kim Hood shares her experience of writing her most recent Young Adult novel Plain Jane and describes what it means to be an author.

Authors are a strange breed of people. Most of the time you might not notice how strange we are. We learn how to adapt; how to hide what we do.

What we do is spend most of our lives cataloguing observations into a vast storehouse of senses and feelings. We are always noticing and noting: a smell that defines a place, that snippet of conversation that sums up a relationship, the fleeting look of pain on an otherwise happy face. Anything at all. Authors are never bored. We are happy to sit in a corner and soak up every mundane detail.

Then there is this other part of our brain that is always asking questions. I wonder why? What if? What does it all mean?

At some point mixed up bits of stored observation and something we wonder about collide – and the seed of a story is born. In my case, the catalyst of this birth is almost always character.

So it was with Plain Jane.

Years ago, I had one glorious year of university when I didn’t have to work at the same time. With time to spare I decided to volunteer on the children’s ward of a hospital, doing arts and crafts with kids one afternoon each week. This particular hospital was the hub of treating childhood cancer for towns and villages in a huge radius.

I got to know a lot of the kids, many of whom were there for weeks and months at a time, and some of whom were very ill. They were amazing kids, who almost always took their illness in their strides, dragging IV poles behind them. The nurses and doctors doted on them and volunteers like me came in to make their days more joyful. A weary parent was by their side day and night.

While it was very sad when some of these kids died, and while I did store up details of what a hospital setting is like, it wasn’t the kids in hospital that interested me. Not in an ‘I-must-write-a-story-about-this’ sort of way, in any case.

It was the kids in the corner that had me wondering. What about the brothers and sisters of these terribly ill children? Many families travelled from towns and villages miles away to access treatment. What was it like for the siblings who didn’t see their mum or their dad most of the time? At a time when you are searching for who you are, and want to be, what is it like to be in the shadow of a sibling who – by necessity – takes a whole family’s focus?

That wondering stayed with me for a very long time. I needed the right character to answer the questions I had, though. I’m learning that, for me, starting to write before I have a character to guide me, will just not work. I can wonder all I want, but until I have someone in my head to have a dialogue with, my questions will remain vague and hard to pin down.

Eventually, the right character did come along. Jane. One day she appeared in my head, sat down and wouldn’t leave me. That was when the work of writing her story started. Perhaps I would not have started had I known just how hard it would be.

With a sister being treated for cancer over many years, Jane was the right person, but that didn’t mean she was going to answer my questions easily. I have to say that she was the most uncooperative character I have imagined yet. I spent many months in front of a computer screen with very little coming from her – until finally her story poured out in torrents over a few weeks. Thank god, as I was writing to a deadline.

Still, when I got to the end of her story I had to forgive her for being so difficult. There was much more to her than I first saw. (Stuff I can’t tell you about without giving away spoilers!) We have been through a lot, Jane and I, and I am really fond of her at this point. I hope you will be too!

Kim Hood, June 2016

Both of Kim Hood’s books, Plain Jane and Finding a Voice are available here and in all good bookshops!

Finding a Voice in Fiction

FindingAVoiceDebut author Kim Hood talks about her journey to writing Finding a Voice

Finding a Voice wasn’t the book I set out to write. When I arrived in Doolin, County Clare one January morning, with my backpack, my bicycle and my laptop, in search of a cottage to hole up in for the winter, I had an entirely different novel in mind. It was time to change direction—step away from my work with kids with complex disabilities. I was going to write a ‘literary novel’ – all character and profound things and well … no story at all.

It didn’t go well.

I blamed my lack of progress on life getting in the way. Doolin, until the Celtic Tiger took a swipe at it, had a way of making time disappear in days spent wandering along sea and rock, and nights in a whirlwind of music and madness. And then there was the REAL truth of why I’d returned to Clare ten years after first stepping foot in the county: missing the west of Ireland with a physical ache, and perhaps a little bit of missing a certain previous love I’d never gotten over (don’t tell him that though).

It all lead to a job, and a house, and a dog, and a baby (not necessarily in that order). But no book. No finished book.

It was eating me though. I’d upturned my life to finally write, and I wasn’t doing that. Oh sure, a few pages here, a bunch of rewrites there—but not a finished book. And while I kept trying to find a way through The Literary Novel I’d started, what was creeping into my head instead was a line: ‘One, two, three, four. I started counting the steps as soon as my feet left the drive’, and a girl named Jo who was keeping such control, but needed to let go. I wanted to tell her story.

I dabbled. Over about a year I wrote a few chapters.

Another character started talking to me—a boy who happened to have a disability. Having spent a large part of my life working with people with various challenges, that was hardly surprising, yet I had always shied away from writing characters with any disability. There are far too many people who don’t know someone with a disability thinking ‘Ah, the poor craters’, without me unwittingly contributing to that. But from the moment he came to me, I knew that if I could just get him right, nobody would mistake Chris for a ‘poor crater’. He was strong, and I knew he was going to be the one to show Jo what she needed to be happy.

A story was beginning to form.

It sounds silly now, but it wasn’t until I let go and allowed myself write a story—no big message, no profound observations, just story—that I rediscovered what I had always loved about writing. I loved getting lost in characters and writing from my heart—not my head.

Suddenly it wasn’t so hard to write.

So I decided I’d put The Literary Novel aside and commit one month to finishing this story. I mapped it out. 15,000 words a week. I’d work on it from 7pm to 1am every work night and six hours on Sundays. We’d eat instant noodles for the month, bedtime stories would be the shortest I could find, all housecleaning and laundry would be on hold for the month.

One month turned into three. Some weeks flew in a whirl of words; some weeks I paced the floor trying to figure out a plot problem I couldn’t seem to get past, and wrote nothing.   It was hard. But I didn’t want to stop. Not even when I was falling down exhausted, not even when I had a huge row with my significant other (‘But you said it would be one month!’ he said from the midst of a pile of dirty laundry, holding the four year old who no longer recognised her mother), not even when I thought it would never be finished. I was obsessed.

There was no turning back.

I was learning to write a novel. I was doing what I had wanted to do all of my life and never really believed I could. And I loved, loved, loved the story. Not all of the time, mind you, but lots of the time.

Those months before I wrote ‘The End’ for the first time seem so long ago now. I didn’t know then that The End was only The Beginning. I have been so incredibly fortunate to have found a wonderful agent and a warm, supportive publishing house. There are so many people who have helped make this book.

And guess what? It turns out there were some themes lurking ; nothing earthshattering, but thoughts that I hope may help even a few kids navigate their way through the murkiness of being a teen. Those themes just needed a story to grow from!

KimHoodKIM HOOD grew up in British Columbia, Canada. After earning degrees in psychology, history and education, she wandered through a few countries before making the west coast of Ireland home. Her eclectic work experience in education, therapy and community services has presented endless opportunity to observe a world of interesting characters. She has always had a passion for trying to understand life from the perspective of those on the fringes of society.