Friday, 19 March 2010

SCBWI Undiscovered Voices Winner: DAVE COUSINS


Dave's winning novel 
by Dave Cousins

Fifteen-year-old Laurence Roach just wants a normal life, but it’s not easy when your mum is a depressed alcoholic, and your six-year-old brother thinks he’s a dog.
When Mum fails to come home one night, Laurence tells nobody, terrified the boys will be taken into care if anyone finds out. Instead, he attempts to keep up the pretence that Mum is still around: dressing up in her clothes to trick the neighbours and spinning an increasingly complicated tangle of lies. After two weeks on their own, running out of food and money, and with suspicious adults closing in, Laurence finally discovers what happened to his mother. 
And that’s when the trouble really starts …
A nail-biting thriller, following the brothers through some hilarious, surreal moments during their heartbreaking journey, Fifteen Days without a Head is a tender, honest story about family, forgiveness and hope.

Hi Dave and welcome to tall tales & short stories. 
Would you like to tell us a bit about yourself?

I grew up in Birmingham in a house full of books and records. At eighteen, I went to art college in Bradford, joined a band and moved to London. I spent the next ten years touring the UK in a van and was nearly famous! I now live in Hertfordshire with my wife and family, in a house full of books and records, lots of toys and a grumpy overweight cat.

What inspired you to write your book?

An incident I witnessed in a pub one afternoon: A very drunk woman arguing with a stranger at the next table – much to the embarrassment of her sons. It made me wonder what life was like for those two boys, what would happen when they got home.

Would you like to tell us about your experiences since finding out you were one of the winners?

On the evening of Thursday 1st October 2009 I put on my coat and hat and carried a mug of tea up the ladder into the loft as usual, to the space in the corner, behind the boxes, where I write. It’s cold in our loft in October, and after a long day at work it’s the last place I want to be. That night I was working on ideas for a new story, while the manuscript for Fifteen Days without a Head was with Cornerstones Literary Consultancy for an editorial report. I drank my tea and typed, trying to ignore the voice in the back of my head telling me this was just a dream, that my chances of ever getting published were non-existent.
I’ll always remember that night, because the next day, everything changed.

I was at work when the call came through from Sara at SCBWI, telling me I had been selected for the 2010 Edition of Undiscovered Voices. I hadn’t expected to hear so soon and certainly didn’t think I’d win. Between grinning like an idiot and silently punching the air, I thanked Sara for making my weekend, scribbled down the date of the launch party (months away) and went back to work.

That’s when the emails started. First one from Nick Cross, another of the chosen twelve, who I had met previously at an SCBWI event, and then the agents, even an editor. Two weeks later I had met with two agents, both of whom expressed an interest in working with me. By the end of the month I had signed with Sarah Manson. Her enthusiasm for the story was infectious and she understood exactly what I was trying to do. It still took me about a week to accept the fact that I actually had an agent!

Sarah was very positive about the manuscript, but felt that with a little bit of work, it could be even stronger. There were elements in the story that I had never been completely happy with, so I was glad of an excuse to rethink. After a few weeks of trying out various options, the new threads began to emerge, in the way these things often do – sneaking out in the words as I typed, rather than having anything to do with what was in my head. I sent the first fifty revised pages to Sarah and her response was almost immediate and (thankfully) very positive.

Over the next ten weeks I more or less rewrote the story, and as the pile of pages grew, the more it felt like this was how the story was meant to be all along. It was hard work. Gallons of tea was consumed as I typed deep into the night, reading back and marking up the previous evening’s pages on the way to work. I became adept at reading and writing notes while walking – more than once in the snow! I would return to the loft each night with crinkled pages and pockets full of scribbled ideas and the story slowly took shape. I still had to rewrite the ending six times before I was happy enough to send the ‘New & Improved’ Fifteen Days without a Head to Sarah, on the Friday before the Undiscovered Voices launch party.

Sarah phoned me at work on Monday, and I went outside to take the call. It was snowing again. An hour later I went back inside, my hand frozen and red, but I barely noticed – Sarah loved the new version.
By this time the copies of Undiscovered Voices had been sent to agents and publishers throughout the UK and the emails started again: more agents, more editors – full of congratulations, kind words and enthusiasm for the story. My face was beginning to ache from grinning.

The launch party was at Foyles in London; noisy, chaotic and over too soon. It was great to finally meet the other eleven authors – and some of those now published from the class of 2008: Steve Hartley, Candy Gourlay and Sarwat Chadda – as well as the Saras and Natascha from SCBWI, Becky the designer, Chris and his team from Working Partners, not to mention a number of editors, who I spent a great evening talking with about the books we love. It was fantastic! I was overwhelmed by all these industry professionals coming up and saying nice things about my story.

I’m still sitting in the loft. It’s still cold up here as I work through the final revisions on the manuscript – doing my best to put the words in the right order, before we send it out into the world. But now it feels different – knowing there are people out there, waiting to read the story – wanting to find out what happens. What more could I ask for?

How long have you been pursuing your writing ambitions?

The first thing I remember writing is a script for an episode of Fawlty Towers when I was ten. It involved Basil being hit with a frying pan and I don’t think I got past the first few pages. I wrote off and on for years, purely for the joy of writing stories. Even when I was in the band, I would scribble away in the back of the van. I made picture books for the kids, but I always had longer, older stories in my head. So I decided to see if I could write anything as good as the books I loved to read. It took many years before I was happy enough to send anything out, by which time I had three completed novels and half a dozen abandoned manuscripts in boxes under the bed. I was lucky enough to have a short story about football accepted by Radio Five Live, and got to read it myself, for the broadcast on Boxing Day afternoon.

What have you done, if anything, to improve your writing?

The answer to that is simple: write a lot and read a lot! I try to learn as I go – by writing, making mistakes. I have thousands of pages in boxes in the loft – years of work, but none of them wasted. Each word you read makes you a better writer, each word you write, even more so.

What made you think ‘I want to write for children?’ Is it a genre you enjoy reading?

Those are the stories that arrive on the page – though I suspect I’m still roughly thirteen in my head! I remember certain books being really important to me when I was growing up. It’s a time when books, music and films can have a huge impact on the way you see the world and start to discover your place in it. Talking about life changing moments sounds a bit corny, but there are two particular books I would have to put into that category: Jan Mark’s Thunder and Lightnings and The Machine Gunners by Robert Westall. Great stories can still have that effect on me, and I think some of the best books on the shelves today are those written for teenagers. They’re a tough crowd – they won’t stand for self-indulgent ramblings about paper thin characters with no story to tell.

Which authors/stories did you enjoy reading as a child/teenager?

I started collecting and reading Robert Westall from the age of eleven. I re-read his books now and they’re still brilliant. I was a big fan of Jan Mark, Susan Cooper, Robert Cormier and Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. As I got older I loved Great Expectations and A Christmas Carol, and the imagery and rhythm in the poetry of Roger McGough and Wilfred Owen. I tried Hardy, Austin, Hemingway, Orwell, Waugh … there were a lot of books in our house!

If you could recommend one recent children’s or YA novel what would it be and why?

This has to be the hardest question of the lot! There are so many – can I not have a top ten?
I would recommend anything by Siobhan Dowd, Mal Peet, Keith Gray, Kevin Brooks, Philip Pullman, Jenny Downham, Frank Cottrell Boyce, Catherine Forde, Philip Reeve … but if I really have to choose just one, it would probably have to be The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness, for having one of the best opening paragraphs I’ve ever read and such an original, gripping story – and as for that ending …

Dave Cousins is represented by Sarah Manson


Nick Cross said...

Great post, dude! We male writers should stick together ;-)

Seriously though, you should get a fan heater or something - I feel bad thinking about you being sent to the loft like you've been naughty!

Good luck with the final tweaks.


Sue Hyams said...

Enjoyed this very much. Almost as much as I enjoyed your sample in UV. Fingers crossed you get a deal very soon so I can read the rest!


Candy Gourlay said...

well, dave, you're on your way! love your booklist - i adore robert westall!

Paula Rawsthorne said...

Hi Dave,
It sounds like it's all going so well.
If Fifteen Days is ever made into a film I'll be expecting you to provide the soundtrack as well as the screenplay.
Keep up the good work!


Anne M Leone said...

Beautiful post. I can't wait to read the whole book! Though I do get awfully cold just thinking about you up there writing!

Jane McLoughlin said...

Inspiring and entertaining post, Dave. So pleased that things are going well for you--yours is a great story that deserves a wide hearing. Take care!

Emily George said...

Hi Dave, great post! I am feeling your coldness.. Thermal socks and a hot water bottle needed. Good luck with it all... Emily

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