WRITERS' MINDS Patrice Lawrence

W&P's roving reporter Sarah Broadley talks to Patrice Lawrence about her publishing journey and her experiences with the industry

Do you have any hints and tips for authors who are publishing their first book or perhaps publishing through a different house? What they should look out for and what not to be afraid to ask about?


I think the first important thing, which I have learnt gradually, is how absolutely important the editor is. You'll need to develop a good relationship with your editor. They’re the one who fought to acquire you because they really ‘get’ your work. 


It’s also useful to know other members of the team’s roles – the copy editors, the desk editors, etc. It still confuses me as to what they all do! All of these things are worth knowing about.


It’s definitely worth asking how your book will be marketed and promoted, because it seems that most publishers have a small capacity to promote a book. If you can come to this with your own ideas and networks, that’s really useful. Another thing that's worth remembering is to 'be nice' because people in the industry do come back into your life, and I remember the people who were horrible to me! It is a small world and you do tend to meet the same people again.


Cover art – how much say does an author have in the final design? Have you experienced different formatting and logic between all the publishers you have dealt with (Hachette, Scholastic, Nosy Crow...)?


Your editor is also responsible for organising the cover of your book. I remember when Orangeboy came out, Emma Roberts, who was my editor, saying that she was going to look at all the in-house designers and if we couldn’t get anything we’d go externally. I think what was fantastic about having an internal designer was that they read the book rather than working on just a brief. However, you have to live with that cover and feel proud of it, so if you’re not happy, perhaps collect some ideas for covers that do inspire you and represent your book, and forward them to your editor. 

I don’t have that visual sense anyway so I am happy for them to pass me ideas. Obviously with the Scholastic ‘Own Voices’ there’s a brand, so all the covers in the series need to fit in with the other ones and I was absolutely fine with that. With Hachette Young Adult ones there’s very much a sense of the brand too, particularly with my first three published books (Orangeboy, Indigo Donut and Rose, Interrupted) – you don’t see the characters’ faces and the colours sort of feed into the title. They’re all quite contemporary, and then we changed tack a little with Eight Pieces of Silva – that cover was much more glossy and more figurative.


With Toad Attack, the audience is much younger, so we have flying toads on that cover! Also again, it was important for me that both of the characters were young people of colour. Rosa has a hearing aid and I really wanted that to be seen. I think my covers have been absolutely fine as there was nothing I could offer – I am rubbish at design.


If there was a cover that didn’t reflect what I was writing, or if I thought it was stereotypical, I would definitely have a say in it, but luckily that hasn’t happened to me.

Do you consider Orangeboy your debut?


Yes, it was my debut for a full length novel. I had published Granny Ting Ting and Wild Papa Woods before that, which were for educational publishers with very clear boundaries – these two were very useful to me because they taught me how to work with an editor. Yet, I do think Orangeboy was very much my debut. It was the fifth full length book I’d written, but the first to be published. Whereas the other two were born from those moments with publishers when they say ‘we need more diversity’, so I thought, you know what, I was born in Brighton but if you’re willing to pay me some money to write books which are diverse, I will do that for you.


Looking back to when Orangeboy came out, do you feel you had enough support? What was the marketing approach you were given, the book launch, etc?


It was a bit difficult. I had no ideas or expectations because I had no real writer friends at that time who had gone through it. Also, again, because I was working, all my attention wasn’t necessarily with the book and the marketing of it, so anything I got would be a bonus. Emma, my editor, is incredibly active and one of the things she had told me afterwards at a SCBWI event, was she had told Hachette that it was going to be entered for prizes – she was very much the force behind it. It’s important for me to know how to get the book into the hands of non-traditional YA readership. It does feel sometimes that in terms of marketing, there isn’t really the in-house skills to explore underrepresented readers. 


My editor, Emma, runs for a local organisation called Run Dem Crew which was set up to support all sorts of people who run for their mental health at all levels. So, she gave a copy of Orangeboy to a couple of the members. That informal type of promotion really works, and I think publishers should be looking at doing more of that, especially in terms of their survival. 


I think that generally mainstream publishers aren’t terribly good at this and it’s left to the individual authors, who are receiving much smaller advances than from 20 years ago. It’s no coincidence that Orangeboy came out as my daughter reached her late teens because it gave me the freedom to concentrate on the launch, even though I was still working full-time. Again, this is around diversity, unless you have the financial support already there (partner, family or whatever) how can you work full-time, have a caring role and write your book (which you could probably do in the evenings or the mornings), but then market it and everything else that comes along? It’s not sustainable for many people. It’s also why I write for many different publishers so that I have the money to pay my rent and support my daughter through university, I have to do that.


World Book Day in 2019, that must have been a fantastic experience to have your story ‘Snap’ involved?


World Book Day books are good because the turnaround is quick. Obviously it’s a charity, so they have no money, and it depends on your publisher if, and how much, they will pay you. The publisher has to foot the bill for the editing, cover design and all of that. I was just keen to get paid an appropriate amount for it. It was noticeable the year before, that there had not been any writers of colour involved considering it’s WORLD book day. 


It was an interesting experience and it gave me the chance to talk about two characters that I like from Indigo Donut, I got the opportunity to give them a voice. Also I got to write about my joy of being on London buses.


The best part of my World Book Day experience was filming a video with Malorie Blackman. It was one of the things I never thought I would do, not only meeting her but being part of a video for Authorfy who were creating a free resource for schools about creating characters. The other brilliant thing about World Book Day is that the books are only £1, so it’s great that kids who couldn’t afford the £6.99 can buy it, get it signed and have a chat with them. That’s really lovely because it has made stories accessible. Meeting these young people is probably an interaction I wouldn’t normally have had.

Your books have been published through many houses. If you think back to your experience from 2009 to the present day with Eight Pieces of Silva, are there any noticeable differences with support received and effort made?


I think writing for educational publishers is different because you are very much a cog in a wheel. I was very lucky in that the first editor I had for Granny Ting Ting was an editor of colour, and when it came to things which I talked about like pepper sauce, etc, she completely got it. And then when I published Wild Papa Woods I was just passed through lots of people. I was looking for diversity but there was no-one on that chain who was, so they didn’t completely get things. 


As for differences in publishing, I never thought I would ever write for teenagers, I didn’t think that was a possibility for me. I’ve learned a lot about voice and the different ways I can tell a story because all the books I certainly read growing up tended to have a very omniscient narrator. Even if you keep narrative distance you can still have your own distinct authorial voice – you don’t have to sound like Enid Blyton.



Diver’s Daughter – A Tudor Story, which was published in 2019 was published by Scholastic. This was part of the ‘voices’ series, along with Bali Rai and all – what an amazing opportunity for you. How did this come about? The ripples made in the publishing world by this series were significant, has there been any follow up on that?


What’s interesting about that series (which Scholastic took very seriously) is that when my daughter was a baby, I remember looking for books which had mixed race characters in them, and the only one I could find at that time was Wait and See written by Tony Bradman and illustrated by Eileen Browne. I remember thinking ‘oh my gosh.' It has a mixed race family and it’s set in the UK! So when Tony Bradman asked me if I wanted to get involved, I was delighted. On the back of seeing David Olusoga’s TV programme on black history, he wanted to write a book which could tie into the curriculum on UK black and Asian history. 

I was given the choice of Roman Britain or Tudors. I read Black Tudor by Miranda Kaufmann and one of the lives covered in her book which did fascinate me, was about Jacques Francis, an African diver who was commissioned to salvage Henry VIII’s Mary Rose. I remember when they lifted the Mary Rose out of the harbour and it was such a big thing on TV, never did I think that black history was so much entwined with that, because you’re simply not taught that in school. You’ve spent so much of your life thinking that you don’t belong, and then when you do learn about black history, it’s about slavery and that you were saved by William Wilberforce, so you have no agency about any of British history. 


There was a recent report about diversity in Spread the Word at Goldsmiths, and crime writer Abir Mukherjee, said that he can speak the same language as the publishers, as he comes from a relatively middle-class background. The publishers and agents haven’t got those same points of reference as their writers – yes, they want those diverse writers, but only if they’re filtered in a white gaze, in a sense, and one that feels comfortable for them. Without acknowledging the structures which make it very unequal, particularly around class, we’re just going to be in the same position. They may have more BAME writers, but they’re more likely to be middle class and have the same points of reference as the publishers and agents.


BAME is an acronym used by many. What or why on its use?


I don’t find it offensive, I just find it means nothing, a bit like diversity. What it does is cloak what we’re really talking about. If we’re talking about diversity we’re not talking about racism, or homophobia or transphobia. It’s a nice cute word that we can say ‘we support diversity’ but what does that really mean? What it does, is that it stops people looking at the structural ways that people are excluded from things. My issue with BAME is that again it actually excludes – there needs to be an analysis on what people are getting commissioned to write about. 

Are black writers only getting commissioned for only writing about, almost explaining, black issues to a white audience? I think it’s interesting that Orangeboy was one of the books my publisher chose to highlight after Blackout Tuesday, as it’s a black boy who gets involved in gangs (it isn’t but that’s how it was promoted). He doesn’t get involved in gangs, so why not write about Bailey, the mixed race boy who’s into Led Zeppelin and plays the guitar and is middle class? 

BAME can cover people of all different backgrounds, but also people who are third generation in the UK, or people who weren’t born here but came over as adults, and we all have very different experiences, so we need to be specific as no one word covers everything. Ethnicity is only one factor. Income, caring duties, etc, are criteria in their own right and I think, actually, all of these things feed into one's representation. I think we just need to be a bit more clever and honest about it. It really is class that stops access to publishing.


The Make More Noise anthology to coincide with the 100th Anniversary of Women’s Suffrage was published in 2018 with so many brilliant writers involved, did you all get together and discuss it?


Not really, I came into it a bit late and I had met Tom Bonack, the editor, I have so much time for him. Not least because when I went there they gave me cake. Again it’s one of those things about whitewashing stories. I got incredibly vexed because you learn a lot about Emmeline Pankhurst and she was a bit of a eugenicist a bit later wasn’t she? You didn’t learn about the working class suffragettes, it was always about the white upper class women. We should all be learning about Sylvia Pankhurst, she is amazing, there’s nothing told about her support for class, anti-racism and everything else she did. So I really wanted to do something that would create interest as a story. 

Research always brings out more than you expected and my character, Olive, had a fascinating story. These people are there in history and we don’t know about them. We only learn such a narrow view which often shuts out class and people of different ethnic backgrounds who have been part of that history. 


It was really interesting to see who wrote what when I did get a copy of the completed anthology. As I read it, I kept saying ‘that’s interesting, I never knew that.'


What’s next for Patrice?


I am working on the last Young Adult book of my contract with Hachette, and I’ve used a character from Eight Pieces of Silva, called DNA dad. He’s come out of prison and decided to turn his life around. Splinters of Sunshine is about a boy called Spey who lives with his mum. I like to play with how we’re seen and what’s projected onto us. Spey is mixed race but could look white, and his mum has moved him from a diverse school to a white secondary school. He doesn’t know his dad until he wakes up on Christmas morning and he’s asleep on the sofa. They go on a road trip together to find Spey’s friend, Dee, who’s exploited by a drugs gang. Spey is well spoken and self assured, which is the opposite to his dad, so how does he cross that gulf? Dee lives with her gran, she loves flowers and anything botanical. Constantly checking a small book on flowers given to her, I am exploring that each chapter heading has a flower on it, with its description, because that’s the thing that’s precious to her when her gran dies. Spey and Dee have known each other since nursery school.


One of the loveliest things I did last year was for the Hay festival. They’ve got a project around sustainability called Trans.MISSION – they match up a creative with a scientist to try and find different ways of telling a story involving science, and making it more accessible. Part of this project was also to make a film, but the original project manager at Hay was furloughed due to COVID. If we’d had this event at Hay I would’ve got a young person from the audience to read my story out, but as we were in lockdown, I got my daughter to read it out instead. I’m so proud of this film and my story.


I’m about to start on something similar with the University of Leeds, looking at the effects of less transport on the roads at the start of lockdown to see if the air pollution improved. Hopefully, I'll use this to explore something for a younger audience. So I’m writing this for a website and there will be an illustrator as well.


I’d love to do more collaborations which explore film and monologues, and art or illustration as there are so many ways of telling a story that doesn’t involve a book. How you can use drama and image in certain ways – anything like that would be ideal.


I’d love to write more picture books too. I review them for Letterbox Library so I see a lot of amazing stories coming in. They use so few words and yet deal with some deep and profound moments that children feel but can’t really articulate.


I wrote an article for English PEN about my father and his death when he was in his 40s, and I think I’d like to write something longer, but explore that particular time in Brighton in the 60s/70s/80s about the Caribbean nurses that came over. It’s a different type of Windrush story, I suppose. I think I’d have to build myself up to that. 


I've also received a grant from the Society of Authors to start work on an urban fantasy set in London in the 18th Century story – I would describe it as Rivers of London meets the film Inception. It suits my geek!


Plus, I'm a judge for the Costa Children’s Award this year so I feel like I’ve come full circle!


Patrice Lawrence is an award-winning writer of stories for children and young people. Orangeboy, her debut book for young adults, was shortlisted for the Costa Children's Book Award, won the Bookseller YA Book Prize and Waterstones Prize for Older Children's Fiction, and has been shortlisted for many regional awards. Indigo Donut, her second book about young adults, was published in July 2017. It was book of the week in The Times, Sunday Times and Observer, and one of The Times top children's books in 2017. Both books have been nominated for the Carnegie Award. Her exciting new novel, Eight Pieces of Silva, was published by Hodder in August 2020.

Follow Patrice on Twitter: @LawrencePatrice

Her website: https://patricelawrence.wordpress.com



Sarah Broadley lives in Edinburgh with her family and two cats. She is a member of SCBWI Scotland. Follow her on Twitter.

Natalie Yates is Writers' Minds editor for Words & Pictures. Follow her on Twitter. Contact: writers@britishscbwi.org.

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