Writing YA fiction requires new skillsets

In the first of a series by authors shortlisted for the 2016 Guardian children’s fiction award, Alex Wheatle, AKA The Brixton Bard, explores the difficulties of dialogue-driven fiction, and the challenge of writing his shortlisted novel Crongton Nights

Dialogue, in my view, is the poor cousin of prose. The writers who are best at it have time and again been undervalued by reviewers, even though the creation of speech that chimes true involves a complicated negotiation of regional identity, racial backgrounds, social class, individual temperament, popular culture, accents, dialects and the evolving slang of the day.

Dialogue-driven novels – I liken them to a locomotive pulling the narrative carriages along – are few and far between, and very difficult to pull off. And even if you correctly capture a period of time, you run the risk of helplessly observing your forensically crafted exchanges date more swiftly than X Factor winners.

For my debut novel, Brixton Rock, published in 1999, I wasn’t sure whether to make use of the lingo that my friends and I used in early 1980s Brixton. I worried that the general public wouldn’t get it. Not even a reading of Iceberg Slim’s Pimp could convince me that I should let the “chat” flow. I settled on a compromise where the dialogue was reined in, stunted. I didn’t fully commit. I guess the critics were kind because it was my introduction to the literary world and perhaps they glimpsed a grain of potential in me. Almost twenty years later, part of me still wants to go back and edit Brixton Rock.

Encouraged by its success I sat down to write East of Acre Lane without any fear. The narrative is set in Brixton 1981 so I lifted the language straight out of the mouths of the sound system guys, hustlers, rootsheads, bad boys, lovers’ rock dreamers and weed warriors that I knew and placed it on the page without any apology. I didn’t dare attempt any new phrases or terms that my Brixton peers would have been unfamiliar with. I didn’t want to risk that. I wanted “to come correct” and leave a legacy. I’d like to think that when I’m gone there might be a student out there who wants to research how young black youths in Brixton circa 1981 loved reggae culture, interacted with each other and went about their lives. East of Acre Lane would be a good place to start.

Alex Wheatle on the gentrification of Brixton.

For Liccle Bit and Crongton Knights, my young adult novels, I had to learn new skillsets. My writing had to become more immediate, engaging and plot-centric. I had to be disciplined – no more wandering off on tangents describing what strange object rested on a minor character’s mantelpiece. I also didn’t want some smart-ass kid from London SW9 telling me we don’t use those words any more, Alex!”

The challenge I had set myself intimidated me but I was determined to offer something different and fresh for young adult readers.

Over the years I felt restricted and confined to the south London settings of my novels, so in my Crongton series I wanted to construct an environment where I could expand on the language and set loose my imagination. From my teenage days as a budding sound system MC, I’ve always been interested in fashioning different words, phrases and sounds. Sometimes I get mildly annoyed when reviewers comment that Liccle Bit and Crongton Knights are London novels. They are not. I view them as the purest of my fiction because I had to conceive the landscape from the ground up. No longer could I rely on my old enclaves like Cowley Estate, Angel Town, Tulse Hill, Stockwell Park, or eavesdrop on the banter that the so-cool young people uttered there (forgive me – I am hardly down with the youth anymore).

For Crongton I had to invent motifs of speech and bastardise words. I even had to tweak subtle differences of slang between North and South Crongton. It was a high-risk strategy but very rewarding. Believable conversation flows like a river, twisting, moulding and shaping today’s language. It doesn’t stop evolving. Those purists who despair when they hear young people expressing themselves would have us still speaking Shakespearean English.

I fondly recall when I was a teenager riding down Brixton Hill atop a 109 bus. My friends and I would banter about the sound system clash at the Town Hall. We wondered what new reggae releases we would hear that night and what fresh vocalicious rhymes and lyrics the DJs would bring to their performance. If I can create even half of the buzz and anticipation that filled the top deck of a Routemaster with my ongoing Crongton series, I’ll be more than happy.

  • Crongton Knights is shortlisted for the Guardian children’s fiction prize 2016.

Alex Wheatle

The GuardianTramp

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