‘My name is Finlay McIntosh. I can see OK, can hear perfectly fine and I can write really, really well. But the thing is, I can’t speak. I’m a st-st-st-stutterer. Hilarious, isn’t it? It’s like the word is there in my mouth, fully formed and then, just as it’s ready to leave my lips . . . POP! It jumps and ricochets and bounces around my gob. Except it isn’t funny at all, because there’s not a thing I can do about it.’
Finlay’s mother vanished two years ago. And ever since then his stutter has become almost unbearable. Bullied at school and ignored by his father, the only way to get out the words which are bouncing around in his head is by writing long letters to his ma which he knows she will never read, and by playing Scrabble online. But when Finlay is befriended by an online Scrabble player called Alex, everything changes. Could it be his mother secretly trying to contact him? Or is there something more sinister going on?
LETTERS, WORDS… AND SCRABBLE!
Guest Post by Kim Slater
Since my new book, ‘A Seven-Letter Word’ was published, a question I keep getting asked is, ‘Did you write about Scrabble because you love playing the game?’
And my answer to that is, ‘Yes, I do love Scrabble’ but between me and you, that isn’t the only reason it became a major theme throughout the story.
I’d better start at the beginning.
When I’m planning a new book, I always get the main character’s voice through before anything else. I then bolt ideas on to this and the story begins to grow.
So there I was, back in February 2015, staring at my blank screen. I had my main character, Finlay, a fourteen-year-old lad whose slight stammer had become severe ever since his mum left home without explanation two years earlier.
I began imagining how it might feel to have a really bad speech impediment and have to go to school every day. The horror of having to put yourself at the mercy of bullies and others, who don’t understand that just because you have a problem getting your words out, it doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with your brain.
Then I started playing ‘what if’ with myself.
What if Finlay struggled with words in one sense but was brilliant with words in another? Yes, I thought . . . I like it!
OK, what if he was a brilliant poet or writer? Hmm, this didn’t feel quite right. I wanted something a bit different, more dynamic . . . but I didn’t know what.
Was there something physical he could excel at that involved words but no speaking?
And my very mixed-up mind squawked, ‘Scrabble!’
Then I spotted online that a brand new edition of the Scrabble dictionary would be coming out in 2015 and adding thousands of new words.
I knew then I’d made the right decision (I’m big on signs) and I began to research the UK School Scrabble Championships in earnest.
What really interested me about integrating Scrabble into the story was that it gave Finlay a way to manipulate and control letters and words in a way he couldn’t hope to do verbally.
“I like the tinkling sound as the tiles tumble out. The hard black letters on the soft cream-coloured plastic feel solid when I run my fingers over them. […] The letter tiles stay exactly where I put them on the wooden slate. They don’t morph into different words that other people can’t understand.”
Excerpt from ‘A Seven-Letter Word’.
I didn’t want the use of Scrabble in the book to simply be a gimmick. It served a number of purposes.
The Scrabble board was a tool I gave to my protagonist so he had some control over the very things that made his life such a misery; words.
The game became an integral part of the plot in that Finlay believed his missing mum might see him in the press if he became the youngest boy ever to win the UK School Scrabble Championships.
It gave Finlay some respite in getting away from his problems by getting lost in his love of playing the game. And it also added some tension to the storyline when he meets a mysterious character online.
After writing the first draft, I sat down one morning with my personal Scrabble game and mocked up on the board all the games in the story so I could be sure the scores and use of bonus squares were correct.
I emailed Nottingham’s official Scrabble club several times and asked if I could spend an hour watching a few games, asking a few questions but sadly never received an invitation.
So, to all the Scrabble enthusiasts out there, I apologise if I made mistakes but I hope I at least captured the spirit and intricacies of the game.
And after all, ‘A Seven Letter Word’ isn’t about how to play better Scrabble, not really.
It’s about courage and determination and about pushing hard through the toughest times until you get to a better place.
You know, that wonderful thing we call life.
Kim Slater honed her storytelling skills as a child, writing macabre tales specially designed to scare her younger brother! A self-employed education-budget manager across several Nottinghamshire inner-city schools, she gained a first-class honours degree in English and Creative Writing from Nottingham Trent University at the age of forty and went on to pursue a MA in Creative Writing. Taking her literary inspiration from everyday life, Kim’s debut novel, Smart, brings a brilliant new voice to the world of children’s books.
Kim lives in Nottingham with her partner and has one grown-up daughter.