This post is part of the My Writing Process Blog Tour, and I was invited to participate by Safie Maken Finlay, who is the author of The Galian Spear, and who has reviewed my first two books, SeaBEAN and SeaWAR, on www.theswallowsnest.net
a) What am I working on?
I’m currently working towards finishing a first draft of SeaRISE, which is the third part of my children’s adventure trilogy, due out in November. Unlike SeaBEAN (book 1) and SeaWAR (book 2), the third instalment, SeaRISE, is set in the future in 2118, so it presents new challenges for me as a writer to imagine a distant time, as well as giving the reader the reveals they are waiting for as the story unfolds towards its conclusion. It’s set on the island of St Kilda, the remotest part of the UK, west of the Hebrides. Setting a story on a real island has been a good decision for a trilogy that traverses the past, the present and the future, especially as St Kilda has the most amazing history to draw on but is currently uninhabited – it meant I could imagine a new community going to live there a few years hence, and also draw on its World Heritage status in a very positive way.
b) How does my work differ from others of its genre?
As contemporary children’s books go, there are some pretty defined categories and features dominating the market. A lot of books are highly gender specific which is evident immediately from the cover designs. But it’s also quite polarized in terms of content too: at one end of the spectrum you have the light, comedic everyday variety epitomized by Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and then at the other end of the spectrum you have these dark dystopian, frankly quite bleak and depressing narratives, perhaps exemplified by books such as The Mazerunner and The Hunger Games. I wanted to write something that would appeal equally to boys and girls, so my main character Alice is a strong feisty girl but her best friend Charlie is a boy who’s a year older. I also wanted to write something that was a totally absorbing adventure with some funny moments, but where the characters all learn, grow as people and ultimately take responsibility by taking action in the situations they find themselves embroiled in. I like to think that my characters have more agency than many children’s books for the 8-14 age group. They are not owned or beaten by the system so to speak, but come to see the system for what it is and how they can operate within it.
The other thing that sets my trilogy apart I suppose is that it falls into a new sub-genre of science fiction which people are calling ‘Clifi’ – short for climate fiction – that is to say, fiction where climate change is a big part of the story dynamic. Others might call it eco-fiction, but it usually focuses on the state of the planet as the characters find it, and how they figure out what to do to deal with or reverse the devastation.
c) Why do I write what I do?
I want to write stories that let children see a side to existence they wouldn’t normally experience first hand – and that puts my work into the world of magic realism – some things are just as you’d expect and then there are one or two elements in the story (often bits of weird technology in my case) that shift it onto another level. I love that as a reader, so I hope my readers do too.
The environmental aspect of my writing stems from my own frustration with our current reluctance to face up to the changes we have wrought on our own planet and in our own lifetime – there is no bigger challenge for this generation I am writing for, so I suppose I am motivated to present climate change as a compelling fictional scenario, but in a non-preachy way, where the children in the story make sense of the world as they find it, have a lot of fun in the process, and then arrive at their own conclusions about what to do about it – which is what I hope readers might also do.
d) How does my writing process work?
I write most days from nine in the morning until three in the afternoon, and on a good day I might manage 2000 words, unless I realize I’ve got a plot problem and then I end up having to backtrack and lose a day! But my plotline seems to be working well this time, leaving me just enough freedom to manoeuvre when I want to, but still functioning as a tight plan nevertheless. When I wrote SeaBEAN, the first book, it was a diversionary lunch-time activity, while working in Greenwich in 2009. I just followed my nose and I don’t think I even attempted to write a synopsis beforehand! Then with SeaWAR – book 2 – I decided to approach the process a little more professionally and ended up pinning myself down too much to the structure. That’s when I realized that I can’t even stick to my own rules, let alone anyone else’s! When I hit a roadblock so to speak, it’s usually because I need to do a bit more research – but the internet is a wonderful tool for writers and most of what you need is right there at your fingertips, so I can usually fix such problems as they arise. I am also a firm believer in testing out the story on your target audience before you even let your publisher see it. So when this draft is ready, even though there will be lots of polishing and editing to be done, I will read it aloud to my own kids (aged 14, 12 and 8) and also give a couple of copies to some other discerning, young, avid and opinionated readers I know, so I can tell if the basic storyline is working. Draft one of SeaWAR had a section in the middle where readers reported hitting a lull, and I knew that I had to up the ante there, and make it much more action-driven and dramatic in the rewrite. So you have to be very thick-skinned when you get bad feedback from these kids. They are also great at telling you whether the chapters end on enough of a cliffhanger – if you look back at books by Enid Blyton and Arthur Ransome, which I grew up on, the kids are usually tucked up safely in bed at the end of each chapter, and there is no compulsion to read on. Things have changed!
The other thing I’ve learned about my writing process since signing a book contract (it’s different when you’re writing your novel but nobody really knows yet, that’s a lovely delicious secret) is that I am more mono-focused than I realized. So I have to either carve out a few weeks just to write and do nothing else, or commit to a few weeks of school visits, workshops, and promotional work. I can’t mix the two. And I especially can’t do a bit of both on one day!
I would like to nominate these three lovely authors to post about their writing process next week:
1) Chris Norton
Chris has written screenplays and adult fiction, as well as being a professional copy writer and creative director. He is currently working on his first children’s book, which he is co-authoring with another writer.
2) Lisa Devaney
Lisa is an American indie author who lives in London. Her novel In Ark: a Promise of Survival has just been published. It is set in New York City in the year 2030, and also falls into the category of clifi.
3) Hannah Robinson
Hannah is about to start filming a feature film entitled Fireworks set in Scotland and dealing with a family facing up to a serious mental health issue. She has written and directed several other award-winning screenplays and is also a freelance director, writer and script consultant, most recently to comedian Lenny Henry.