Today I am pleased to welcome Lucy Coats onto the blog, to tell us how Cleo went from being an idea to a finished novel. Cleo is published today with Orchard Books. This is Lucy's first YA novel.
Cleopatra is somewhere in all our consciousnesses. She's probably the most fascinatingly famous woman in history, barring Helen of Troy - and there are no actual historical facts about Helen.
My journey towards writing about Cleopatra started one April afternoon, about three years ago. I was chatting to my agent at London Book Fair, and she mentioned briefly that an American publisher had told her that Angelina Jolie was making a film about the last female pharaoh (a project sadly now shelved indefinitely after the WikiLeaks furore over Sony emails). Might Cleopatra be someone I'd be interested in writing about for teenagers? As it so happened, I'd recently been reading the Stacy Schiff book the film was going to be based on, so the answer was yes (or at least, yes, I'd have a go). However, I knew that if I was going to write a successful book for YA readers, I couldn't write about the woman we all think we know. I needed to find another angle.
The lightbulb moment was when I read that Cleopatra had seen herself as a living incarnation of the goddess Isis. Immediately my brain began to tick very fast, and ideas came tumbling out almost faster than I could think them. Because my great love is mythology, I started to wonder if I could write a story on the border where real historical met fantasy paranormal, if perhaps my version of Cleopatra had been helped towards the pharaoh's throne by a goddess of the Egyptian pantheon. What I discovered after a little research and digging was that there is almost no credible information about Cleopatra before she came to the throne. A hole in history is the best of all territories to work in, so I decided that her Isis-aided teenage path to the throne was the story I should write.
Several discarded synopses later, I had a rough plan, and I dived into writing. That's how I always work. But there was a problem. I'd started writing in third person, and at just under 20,000 words in I realised it wasn't gelling for me. Writing was becoming a struggle, and I just wasn't connecting. Usually I can hear a clear voice in my head, but me being the omniscient narrator meant that Cleopatra was getting lost in everything that was going on around her, and I felt very distanced from her. At that point I nearly gave up. I tried to unpick what I'd written and rework it, but it was no good. It was pretty terrifying to have done all that work for nothing and it gave my writing confidence a knock. Could I even do this? Did I even want to (since I was writing the novel 'on spec')? But I gave myself a kick, took a deep breath, and binned the lot, planning to begin again when I had time.
There was then a gap of several months while I wrote four books for my already-contracted (and therefore paid for) middle-grade BEASTS OF OLYMPUS series, but the Cleopatra book was always fermenting and bubbling at the back of my mind. By about April 2013 I had this teenager in my brain shouting at me to hurry up and write down her story. That was the moment Cleopatra became Cleo. As soon as I started to write that second time, I knew it was right, even though what was coming out scared me silly. My Cleo's voice is not historical-courtly-old-fashioned. It's incredibly modern (though I hope not anachronistic - no LOL or ICYMI!). It was a big risk to write her that way, but I wanted the teenagers of 2015 to be able to connect with her on the level of a girl their age. There are so many layers of legend laid over Cleopatra (mostly emanating from the Romans, who didn't believe any woman could possibly have done what she did without the aid of sorcery or witchcraft). I decided to strip all that away. At the beginning of the story - the first two chapters are a sort of prologue - she is ten, later on, she's fourteen. She's just lost her mother. Her sisters want to kill her (history tells us that the Ptolemy family were a murderous lot). Her father has (as she sees it) run away to Rome. All that was fertile territory for showing her emotions, and for teasing out what she might have been like as a person - insecure, scared, wondering what Isis has in store for her (and occasionally complaining about it), friendless apart from her bodyservant, Charm - and much too intelligent for her own good. That bookish (scrollish?) intelligence also gave me the chance to write about the long-lost Great Library of Alexandria, and to make Cleo's first-love interest a hot librarian-scribe spy boy called Khai. (At first he was called Ash, but I soon realised that there are FAR too many Ash boys and girls in YA lit already!) I have to confess that I did start off making Cleo a bit older, because of the convention that the character must always be older than the intended reading target audience (a loose 13+). However, it niggled at me. It was historically inaccurate. She was eighteen when her father died and she took the throne with her younger brother. Her father came back from Rome three to four years before that... So fourteen it was, and damn convention.
I had just started the second bout of writing (now using the amazing Scrivener app, which has literally revolutionised my writing life), when I went to the SCBWI retreat. Into every writer's life a little serendipity must fall. During that retreat I went to a talk given by the amazing Lucy Christopher, which spurred me on to rework a passage I'd been having trouble with. That night I read it out to the assembled group. In the group was an editor from Orchard Books. She took me aside and said she'd like to see more. I only had about 13,000 words at that point, but after discussion with my agent, we sent it off, together with a synopsis for not one but two books. I kept on writing over the summer, slowly piecing things together, and in August I got the wonderful news that I had a two-book deal. Delivery was set in March 2014 for the first book, which went through several title changes before it became, quite simply, CLEO, because that was what we'll all been referring to it as from the beginning. Sometimes the most obvious solution is the one which works.
A good chunk of the book was written in a friend's beautiful palazzo in Venice, and I was getting on really well, when writing disaster struck. About three-quarters of the way through, in January 2014, I got stuck. I knew where I was going, but suddenly I couldn't work out how to get there. I had a total panicky crisis of confidence meltdown and a bout of black depression. Depression is something many writers struggle with - and I believe in being up front about mine, which is longterm. It's part of who I am, an illness I have to manage, even though it isn't as visible as a broken leg or an appendix scar. When it strikes, I know to get help fast, so that's what I did. Up to that point, I'd aways been the 'pantser' kind of writer, having a rough plan, but not much more than that. I'd used mind maps for small scenes before, but not on a large scale. I'd also used a technique called 'creative napping' for years to solve writing problems. Once the depression was manageable and under control again, I took a long creative nap, and then constructed a mind map for the remainder of the book while my brain was still in that fuzzy creative space. After that, I did what I'd never done before. I immediately sat down at the computer and teased out the small plot clues in the mind map. It was a startling revelation - like unfolding of one of those tiny cubes that turn into a huge flannel and finding unexpected gold. Nine pages later, I had a really detailed plan, and I was able to write the end of Cleo's story in a way that worked. The fact that it ends on a massive cliffhanger is not going to please everyone - but at going on 85,000 words, it was the right place to stop for both me and the story, and I don't regret torturing my readers one little bit!
The publication process is, of course, very slow. So over the next year I worked with my editor, danced with joy when I saw the beautiful cover art, planned publicity, talked about the book to a lot of people - and most importantly, got on with researching and writing the sequel, which is called CHOSEN, and will come out in March 2016. How I finally wrapped up Cleo's journey to pharaoh is, of course, another book story entirely.... Expect more hot-Khai scenes, a good dose of gods and murderous sisters, some jars of ripped out hearts, a near-fatal trip to Rome - and a sprinkling of lecherous but fascinating Mark Anthony!
Cleo is published by Orchard and available to buy today.
Her precious mother is dead - and it isn't an accident! The young Cleopatra - Pharaoh's illegitimate daughter - must flee the royal palace at Alexandria or die too. As her evil half-sisters usurp the throne, Cleo finds sanctuary at the sacred temple of Isis, where years later she becomes initiated into the secret Sisters of the Living Knot. But now Isis's power is failing, Egypt is in danger, and Cleo must prove her loyalty to her goddess by returning to the Alexandria she hates. She must seek out the hidden map which is the key to returning Isis's power - on pain of death. But will she be able to evade her horrible sisters? And will she find dreamy Khai, the über-hot Librarian boy she met as she fled Alexandria years before? Cleo's powerful destiny is about to unfold...
To find out more about Lucy: