Today is the day! Gully Potchard leaps into the world… with too many people on his tail for comfort.
I posted this on Girls Heart Books last month, so as keen recycler, here it is for a slightly different audience…
Whenever I’m asked if I base my characters on real people I always reply firmly ‘Nooo!’ But when I was creating a key character in my next book, I found my knowledge of a real person creeping in. Not someone I actually know, but a girl who lived in Victorian times, when the book is set.
Agnes Glass is one of the leads in The Dangerous Discoveries of Gully Potchard. To start with all I knew was that she was lonely and isolated, over-protected and ‘in delicate health’, as they used to say. I tend not to work out everything in advance. Once I begin writing I find that the characters muscle in of their own accord, giving me information about themselves that I’m not necessarily expecting. (I love this aspect of writing!)
When I wrote Agnes’s first scene, it suddenly became clear that her favourite time of day is when…
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A week ago I was in a very sunny London at The Booktrust Best Books Bash to celebrate this new prize and – da-da-dah! – hear the winners announced. (And, no – sob – it was not me.*)
But it was a fantastic event, hosted by Mel Giedroyc, who was one of the judges for my section, and with lots of starry guests from the world of children’s books.
Yes, I chatted to Michael Morpurgo and stood right next to children’s laureate Malorie Blackman for a whole two minutes. I saw the actual beard of Philip Ardagh live and watched Chris Riddell draw wonders on the art wall.
I also met a number of the other shortlisted authors and illustrators, including Kate Cain and Jonathan Stroud, my UK rivals in the age 9-11 category.
And an amazing total of 307 children and teenagers came to the bash, from a range of participating schools all over the country, while others watched the ceremony live-streamed into their schools.
It was all very thrilling. The children roamed freely, hunting down favourite authors and gathering autographs. As Mel said from the podium of a particularly excited group, ‘I wouldn’t want to be their coach driver on the way home!’
*If you must know, Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Hard Luck won Best Story Book for 9-11s on the readers’ vote.
The Mysterious Misadventures of Clemency Wrigglesworth has been shortlisted for another children’s book award, in Stockport this time. The lovely people who organise the awards sent out questions to all the authors on the list so that they could post the answers on their website.
I don’t know about other authors, but I always enjoy being interviewed about books and writing (especially if I’ve got time to work on the answers!) and the questions asked of children’s writers are generally much more fun than those asked about writing for grown-ups.
Here is what they asked, and what I replied:
What was your inspiration for this book?
The names Gully Potchard and Clemency Wrigglesworth popped into my head from nowhere and I had to explore who they were. They sounded like characters from a children’s book (I was writing for adults at the time) and old fashioned and slightly comical, so that gave me the tone and setting. After that it was fun all the way!
What was your favourite book as a child?
So many but I will opt for the Just William books by Richmal Crompton, because they still make me laugh, and Anna Sewell’s classic Black Beauty, which I read over and over, although it still makes me cry!
What were you like at school?
Very well-behaved and responsible at junior school (a prefect, always in choir and orchestra, dance clubs etc) but this tailed off soon after I went up to ‘big’ school and I was more of a rebel and class comedian.
What advice would you offer to budding writers?
You’re only a writer if you write – having great ideas is the easy bit! Getting them down, shaping them, and finishing is much harder. Daydreaming is good, and so is being bored – believe it or not – it makes you use your imagination. Look at the world around you like an anthropologist, or an alien, and see what you see. Read lots, including books outside your usual comfort zone. I would say that, wouldn’t I?
Can you tell us about any new projects you are working on?
My next book, The Dangerous Discoveries of Gully Potchard, is complete and will be out this August. Now I’m writing a detective story with an unlikely comic heroine, set in the 1920’s, and a historical novel that isn’t funny at all.
What has been your favourite children’s book this year?
Again, so hard to choose. Um…Frost Hollow Hall by Emma Carroll, and Small Change for Stuart by Lissa Evans, although the last one is not brand-new.
The Stockport Children’s Book Award was launched in 1995. The aims of the project are:
My new book, The Dangerous Discoveries of Gully Potchard, will be out in six weeks. And it has a brand new cover. This is the da-da-daaah! moment. (It took me at least two minutes to decide how best to spell that.)
Beady-eyed readers will have spotted that there was already a cover image out and about for this book. It was red and flame-yellow. But the team at OUP Children’s had second thoughts and came up with something far more spectacular. The cover of a book is so important: it’s crucial to get it as right as it can be. There’s still a dog, a sinister baddie, and a hatchet involved. But now it’s a stunning night-time blue and there’s one helluva chase for my hero, Gully, an ordinary boy who finds himself in extraordinary circumstances.
Last week was pretty exciting – and busy.
First of all, I learned that The Mysterious Misadventures of Clemency Wrigglesworth has been selected for the shortlists of two further book prizes, Oldham Brilliant Books 2014 (you can see the whole list here) and now Stockport Children’s Book Award 2014.
As Clemency has already been shortlisted for the 2014 Rotherham Children’s Book Awards – winners announced on 10th June! – I am feeling very warmly towards this part of the world.
And I’m so pleased that councils, schools and library services still put funding plus loads of enthusiasm and hard work into making these fantastic Reading For Pleasure initiatives happen. Encouraging a love of reading in children and young people is crucial: these are the readers – and writers – of the future. We need them!
Next, I began a season of regular posts on the lovely Girls Heart Books blog, starting with that essential writing tool: coffee.
And finally, in the run up to the culmination – and final voting – at the very thrilling Booktrust Best Book Awards, I’ve posted something about my writing process on their blog, too, along with pictures of my scribbly writer’s notebooks. A true reflection of my scribbly mind, no doubt.
When writing for adults I’ve been perfectly happy creating flawed, even unlikeable, main characters. I still like them! But it seems to me that in writing for children there’s a complex responsibility to writing heroes – and even more so heroines.
Much as I love quick-thinking smart-mouthed lead characters, I think most people are only smart-mouthed in their heads. Me included. That witty put-down, that perfect quick-fire response? Half an hour too late. Always.
Much as I love strong, skilful, intrepid heroines, I am not and never will be one of them. Me and most of us, I think. (I would love to write a thriller about someone who can’t drive and is useless at climbing over chain-link fences! But it may not even be possible…)
I have never like mimsy* good-girl heroines, particularly the needlessly self-sacrificing type, and I quickly tire of them being strikingly beautiful, too. I don’t think that’s a desirable role-model.
So, my choices about creating lead characters I, and I hope readers, can identify with – though not extensively and perfectly thought out – are going to be loaded with these thoughts, feelings, intuitions.
Currently my children’s repertoire is historical, slightly over-the-top, adventure stories. However exaggerated some of it may be, this world must have its own logic. The emotions, strengths and weaknesses of the main players have to be convincing. (Ok, for the sake of my argument I’m selectively forgetting a sprinkling of psychic powers.) When I began writing The Mysterious Misadventures of Clemency Wrigglesworth I had the set-up, some of the twists and turns, and I knew that it needed to turn out well in the end. Somehow. And of course it was up to me to make that happen.
So, how do you solve a problem like Clemency? She’s small, unworldly, and isn’t used to speaking up for herself. She’s had a conventional childhood in colonial India: brought up by servants, educated by English governesses, and pretty much ignored by her parents. Privileged, yet neglected. And she has never kicked against this system, partly because before the start of the book she’s never known anything else. Then – due to the dastardly interventions of the author – she finds herself parentless, penniless, and far from home.
Writers are advised not to create passive heroes. They’re much harder to prise out of their difficulties, and readers find them unsympathetic if they’re too pathetic. But Clemency was already Clemency in my mind, and besides, just how kick-ass would a typical middle-class Victorian girl be? I couldn’t make her a superhero or give her a personality transplant. How could I turn her around without breaking the bounds of the story’s internal logic?
As events progress Clemency finds herself in deep and perplexing danger. She needs help. But I felt very strongly that I didn’t want a heroine who simply got rescued. However much I rallied the cavalry (almost literally) on her behalf I still wanted her in some way to rescue herself. She doesn’t start out with much in the way of resourcefulness, unlike some of the other young characters who have had to be self-reliant, persistent, and cunning, just to get by in life. Yet the working title of the book was originally The Wrigglesworth Rebellion, because I knew that eventually she rebelled against all that had kept her a quiet, polite, obedient Victorian child.
What could I do with her? When she was trapped, cold, lonely and hopeless, what could she do? What would I have done as an 11-year old? Cried, of course. Fallen in a miserable heap, probably, and never got up again. Not heroic at all. But falling apart at the seams wouldn’t be exciting or uplifting to read about, and I needed hope.
My lifeline came when I began to think about injustice. Clemency has been treated very unjustly, and I believe that all children feel very strongly about this. It might be personal injustice – remember how incredibly frustrating it was when your whole class was punished because of something one person did and wouldn’t own up to? Or it might be witnessing someone else being treated unfairly and feeling furious on their behalf. Children burn with a sense of injustice. And it’s helpful for girls and women to make use of their anger, even though they may be trained not to, rather than turn it inwards and feel depressed. Clemency gets angry – she can’t do anything yet but her burning rage stops her from dissolving into a waterfall of tears and actually physically warms her up when she most needs it.
From there I had my key to getting her up and active, finding her voice and answering back, running risks. And then discovering that, although it’s often scary, taking matters into your own hands is energizing and sort of fun. It’s certainly fun to write about.
There’s also a kind grown-up who Clemency meets early on, an expert on how children’s minds work and how adults often discount them. In the edits I was able to plant some more positive thinking into Clemency’s head from the encouraging words Mrs Potchard says to her about having ‘inner resources’. Not super powers, or some kind of unjustifiable ninja skills, just inner resources. A growing self-belief.
Throw in an increasing circle of friends and supporters, a happy coincidence or two, and a weapon I hadn’t even realised I’d placed there, all ready. Clemency had definitely become an active part in her story’s resolution.
*Mimsy is not in my dictionary or thesaurus. Who cares? It’s a good word.
Here’s another idea about contrasting writing methods posted by Cavan Scott on An Awfully Big Blog Adventure –Planners or Pantsters?
I think it’s basically the Architects vs Gardeners argument again – control versus less control – but flying by the seat of your pants sounds potentially chaotic and very scary to me, while gardening sounds gentle and wise.
A solution, thanks to Bridget Jones?
Not so gentle, of course when it comes to ripping out the weeds, squashing the snails, and hard pruning. Or editing, as it’s called.
I’m always interested in how other people write, so I loved this analogy from Ian Beck, illustrator and children’s author. He was speaking at last weekend’s Federation of Children’s Book Groups Conference and I was lucky enough to be in the audience.
He spoke of writers as either gardeners or architects. An architect makes blueprints and models, and work proceeds from these. Everything is planned in advance, and in detail. The finished building is (fore)seen before construction begins.
A gardener, on the other hands, plants a seed, waters it and waits to see what happens. The seed grows, and changes as it does so. Hopefully, it flourishes.
Ian said that he is gardener, and only discovers what a book is about when he has written a draft.
I’m a writer and a gardener, literally. I’ve been doing both for most of my life, and learning all the time. I tend to think of the imagination as a compost heap. Stuff goes into my brain – all kinds of experience, first-hand and second-hand – and sinks down slowly, mixing and mulching away, turning into something rich and strange. When it’s ready, I can use it. But what comes out will not be easily recognisable as what went in.
Now I have another horticultural metaphor to use, thanks to Ian Beck. As a writer, I am definitely a gardener. I wouldn’t want to read a book where I knew exactly what was going to happen, chapter by chapter, so I wouldn’t be keen to write one either. It would take out much of the fun and all the mystery.
Getting a story idea is like planting a seed. You have to nurture it, but also give it time. What grows may surprise you. You certainly can’t guarantee the outcome from the start, irrespective of the picture on the seed packet.
As it is National Stationery Week I thought I’d reblog this piece from last summer (my first blog-post anywhere!) I don’t know any writers who are not more or less obsessed with stationery. Even though we’re highly reliant on techie bits and pieces these days, we’re still very partial to an inspiring notebook and a good pen. And so can pretend we’re Virginia Woolf sitting in her garden writing room at Monk’s House and finding the perfect phrase…