Author August: Patrice Lawrence – How to Make a Boy From Words

To view all guest author posts so far and for a chance to win a £40 Foyles Giftcard visit the Author August Page.

I am a boy.  I grew up in London.  Fear makes me carry a knife and if someone attacks me, I’ll use it.

orangeboyExcept, in real life, I’m a woman that’s hurtling towards fifty who grew up in mid-Sussex.  I have never carried a knife on the street, other than a couple of grubby plastic ones stuck to old Tesco Metro receipts at the bottom of my rucksack.  But if I wanted to write a truly credible character, I had to transform.

Orangeboy is my debut novel.  Marlon, my main protagonist, is a 16-year-old young man.  He is one of life’s sweet people.   He watches ‘The Matrix’ with his mum, chats rubbish with his best mate, Tish and connects with his late dad through old vinyl funk records.  And suddenly the storm hits.

A recent review in The Metro praises Orangeboy’s ‘pitch perfect-teen voices’.   It was a welcome compliment, because the authenticity was hard won.  It was also vital.  In Orangeboy I wanted to explore the gap between the person we think we are and the way that other people see us.  How is that affected by our age? Our gender?  Our skin colour? When do we start being someone else?  From the start, Marlon had to feel as real as possible.  Or else, why would anyone care?

Three or four drafts in, I was nowhere near.  According to my writing group, Marlon sounded like me.  There was no sense of teenage boy about him at all. And, he was way too nice. The manuscript was around 75,000 words, third person, Marlon’s point of view.  If I was going to wade through all those words again, I needed to get them working for me. Especially as I had great hopes about this book being the one that got me published.

For draft five, I had a bit of a think.   

01151210-01 lawrence070Firstly, I decided to exploit the things I had in common with Marlon and use them to round out his character.  I’m a bit nerdy, love sci fi and have a crush on ‘The Matrix’.  I know how it feels to be an outsider, to be a bit different from what people may expect.   I’ve experienced racism, both explicit and unwitting.  I have an impressive knowledge of certain bus routes.  One of my brothers was seriously ill when I was fifteen, so have first-hand experience of the pressures that brings. My mum wasn’t a librarian, but she has always been a serious collector and lover of books!

Next, I had to do my research.  On public transport, I always have my ears open for a good turn of phrase.  I know a good many parents of teenage boys and they were very willing to give me the low down.  I even asked my partner’s nephew about what he’d wear on a first date….

And then a suggestion that really made the difference. ‘ Write a couple of pages in first person and see if you can get under Marlon’s skin’.  I did.  And I did.  Draft six, a rewrite in the first person.  I lost some description I loved, but gained a character I loved even more, one who felt solid on the page.

I hope that Marlon is compelling.  I hope readers want to know what happens next. But, there is something else that I’m hoping for.  

I want the YA book world to be crammed with a rich variety of characters – different cultural heritages, skin colours, ways of talking, moving and being in love.  I wanted Marlon to come from a Caribbean heritage family because I see so few in YA.  But to make the voice authentic, I had to do my research.  Sometimes writers worry about depicting characters significantly different from them because they are scared of ‘getting it wrong’.  It frightened me too, because I’m not a boy and I didn’t grow up in London.  But Marlon did and I’m happy that people believe it.

My personal thanks to Patrice for taking part in Author August!

To view all guest author posts so far and for a chance to win a £40 Foyles Giftcard visit the Author August Page.

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  1. I love Orangeboy, one of my favourite books this year. Patrice is spot on when she says writers are often worried about getting it wrong but that fear should never stop you from telling the story you know needs to be told. I’m so glad Patrice didn’t let that fear get the better of her, because Orangeboy is superb and Marlon’s voice is so distinct and strong!

  2. You certainly owned that voice, Patrice. It is a fantastic read. As a fellow writer, I read this thinking, wow, how did she do that? You are an author to watch!

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