Modern heroines – kick ass or convincing?

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.

Ellen Page as Juno in the 2007 film Juno

Ellen Page as fast-talking quirky heroine Juno

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.

Katniss Everdeen heroine of The Hunger Games

Katniss, of course

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.

Clemency from The Mysterious Misadventures of Clemency Wrigglesworth by Julia lee

Clemency, as depicted on the cover by Ross Collins

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.


What kind of writer are you? Part Deux


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.


Bridget Jones big pants

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.

‘Let the back of your head do the work.’ Interview with YA author Nikki Sheehan.

My first guest author to be interviewed here is Nikki Sheehan, whose debut novel for 11-14 year olds, Who Framed Klaris Cliff? is out this week.

Here’s what it’s about: ‘Joseph is an ordinary boy in a world that’s losing the plot. Paranoia about the dangers of imaginary people have reached fever pitch and now Joseph’s association with Klaris has put him in the firing line. To save himself, Joseph turns detective, delving into the heart of family life and uncovering some painful home truths.’

Who Framed Klaris Cliff? by Nikki Sheehan OUP paperback

J:  Sorry, I know you will be asked this a lot, but I am really interested – where did the idea for this story spring from?

N: The idea came, as ideas often do for me, from a misheard fragment of conversation. In this case I had wandered into the kitchen, probably in search of coffee or marmite on toast, and someone on the radio appeared to say, ‘They killed his imaginary friend.’ Actually I had got it completely wrong, it was a conversation about football of fossils or something, but by then I was already thinking what if…

J:  Klaris gets into people’s heads and they don’t have much control over her. In my experience, imaginary friends are more often ‘friends of convenience’ – they were the one who scribbled on the bath, or who required their own helping of ice cream (“Oh, look, now it’s melted. I’ll just have to eat it, then.”) Have you had personal experience of imaginary friends? If so, what were they like?

N: Ha! Yes, they are particularly useful for such circumstances. I did have imaginary friends, three of them. Twins called Henny and Toddy (who only existed to bump me, as the youngest, up the family food chain) and a very alpha female older girl, Alfreece, who was big beautiful and very bossy, and an object of adulation for me while my own big sister was at school.

J: Alfreece is such a great name. You’ll have to use it in another book!

Can you tell me what the route was from – ‘ping!’ – first idea to actually getting published?

N: I wrote the book over about a year while working as a journalist and doing all the washing and cooking and arguing that having three kids entails. Then I printed it out and put it, literally, in a drawer. A few months later a good friend asked me to go with her to an event at the Brighton Festival where an agent and a publisher were doing a ‘publishing bootcamp.’ I really liked the agent, Julia Churchill, and so I took the plunge and sent her my first three chapters as soon as I got home. As we all know it’s impossible, if not harder, to get an agent, so I was stunned when she emailed me the next day asking for the whole book. She read it while she was on holiday, then asked to meet. After some revisions and polishing Julia sent Klaris out into the world where it was picked up by Clare Whitston at OUP and the rest is history.

J:  Did your own children read the book as it was being written? If so, did they make any contribution to how it turned out?

N: My elder two children both read the book, and my son Eddie who was about 12 at the time was particularly helpful, rereading various drafts and telling me when I’d got it wrong and showing me, from the expression on his face, when I’d got it right.

J:  Hmm, what’s his percentage??

I know this is your debut children’s novel. What does it feel like to see your story turned into a real book? And appearing in real bookshops??

N: The book started to appear about a month before the official publication date, but the moment it felt real was when I went into a Waterstones last week and found it on the shelf next to Darren Shan. I thought, play it cool, and walk past, but obviously I didn’t. Instead I stroked it a bit, then asked the sales person if I could sign it (fortunately I think they’re used to this sort of behaviour from over-excited authors). Then I took a photo and posted it on Twitter.

J: Oh, I’ve done much the same. The bookseller was very kind, but I had to wait until there was no one else at the counter in case I sounded a complete twit!

Next, are you in the Love Editing or the Hate Editing camp?

N: A bit of both. I’ve just had some edit notes on my next top secret project and I find it daunting at first. But once I start and it begins to fall into place and look nice and shiny I find it very satisfying.

J:  You’re in the Love Editing camp, then, really. I recognise that cold sweat feeling as you read your editor’s notes, so like getting your school report and then quickly adjusting to the horror of it!

Have you done other sorts of writing, and if so, is writing for children a different process in any way?

N: I’ve always written for a living. My first job was as a subtitler, then as a copywriter, journalist and editor. But children’s fiction is a completely different process. In fact I feel like I’m using a different, unconscious part of my brain. Hilary Mantel likened it to being a medium, and I definitely experience it in the same way. If it feels too conscious it usually means it’s not working and I should go off and do something else instead.

J:  I wonder if you’ve read Hilary Mantel’s memoir, Giving Up The Ghost ? There are lots of comments about writing in it which felt very true.

Do you know lots of other writers or is this a totally new world for you?

N: I was in a local writing group, then, about the time I got my agent I joined Twitter and met a lot of other people going through the same things. It’s been invaluable, both in terms of practical support and friendship, but also as a semi-valid way of wasting time when I should be writing.

J:  Ha! We met on Twitter. It’s a great writers’ resource for therapy and jokes, isn’t it? And daft picture of kittens, of course.

Moving on – what do you write in, on, and over? e.g. jimjams, i-pad, kitchen table…

N: It depends. The last book I wrote was written completely from my bed on a little netbook. Yes, often in my jimjams.

J:  Now I’m envisaging Barbara Cartland… I hope that’s jimjams and full pancake makeup, mascara and false lashes.

Next question – tea or coffee? What’s in the cup next to your writing? (I know it’s there.)

N: Lots of coffee in the morning, then I have to switch to redbush tea in the afternoons or I start shaking.

J: Writerly snack of choice?

N: Grapes, Wotsits and Marmite or stilton on toast.

J: You are definitely a savoury person! 

What is your typical displacement activity when you ought to be writing? Or are you going to say you are totally disciplined and never indulge this way?

N: Twitter is my displacement activity of choice. I prefer to write on my netbook because the internet connection is a bit dodgy so I don’t get too tempted. Also Hoovering, particularly when I get cold from sitting still too long.

J: Frozen Arse Syndrome –  know it well.  I have written in scarf, hat and fingerless gloves. Indoors. 

Next, if/when you get stuck in your writing, is there any one thing you do to get the imagination going again?

N: I have two big dogs, and walking them is vital in my process. In fact a very important element of Klaris came to me as a real eureka moment while walking my dogs. The other thing that often works is taking a long bath, or having a nap. I often get ideas in that space just before I wake up. They’re usually rubbish ideas, but not always. When I was very stuck on my Klaris edits my agent told me to let the back of my head do the work, which was great advice. For me, at least, trying not to force something always works better.

J: I felt that Annie and Henry, the dogs in Who Framed KLaris Cliff?, were really authentic dog characters. Now I see where this come from. And that’s a brilliant phrase of your agent’s. I am going to have to steal it. 

So – were you the sort of kid who always had their head in a book?

N: Yes, always. I spent all my pocket money on books. I still do.

J:  Were there any books that had a deep effect on you as child? And which writers particularly inspire you?

N: As a child I really loved the slightly creepy period books with extraordinary, but not fantasy events, such as A Little Princess and Tom’s Midnight Garden. So many authors inspire me, but at the moment I’m particularly into Sally Gardner.

J: How much of your reading is children’s fiction?

N: Over half of my reading matter is YA or MG.

J:  What are you reading right now?

N: I usually have a few books on the go, so at the moment I’m reading Big Brother by Lionel Shriver, Ketchup Clouds by Annabel Pitcher, and a wonderful debut MG by Emma Carroll, Frost Hollow Hall. Funnily enough it reminds me of all the spooky stuff I loved as a kid.

J:  What next? And how long do we have to wait?

N: Well, as well as all the launch madness I’m doing edits on the next project. I can’t say too much but I LOVE it, and I hope everyone else will too.

J:  Looking forward to it. Thank you for revealing the dark secrets of your writing process!

Who Framed Klaris Cliff? is published on 6th February 2014 by OUP.

nikki sheehan author

Nikki Sheehan is the youngest daughter of a rocket scientist. She went to a convent school in   Cambridge where she was taught by nuns. Her writing was first published when she was seven and   her teacher submitted a poem she had written to a magazine. She always loved English, but has a degree in linguistics. After university Nikki’s first job was subtitling the Simpsons. She then studied psychology, retrained as a journalist, and wrote features for parenting magazines and the national press. She now writes mainly about property and is co-founder of an award-winning, slightly subversive, property blog. She is married and lives in Brighton with her husband, three children, two dogs, a cat, and an ever-fluctuating numbers of hamsters.

Branford Boase Award

Yay! The Mysterious Misadventures of Clemency Wrigglesworth has wriggled its way onto the long-list for the 2014 Branford Boase Award.

Branford Boase Award logo

This is an award given annually for an outstanding first novel to a first-time writer of a book for young people. It’s unusual in that it also marks the important contribution of the editor in identifying and nurturing new talent.

This means that my lovely editors at OUP, Liz Cross and Helen Bray, get a well-deserved mention. Liz has not one but two books on the list!

The 2014 long-list contains amazing writers and wonderful books – it is very good company to be in and I am so thrilled to have landed there. If you want to find some excellent and very varied reads for children and young people, do take a look at the long-list here.

The Joy of Nitpicking – editing, the last stage

Once, afraid to press Send on a completed manuscript, I turned on Codes to show all the hidden formatting symbols in my 120,000 word document – spaces, paragraphs etc – and spent a happy, reassuring few hours just checking that I hadn’t typed two spaces between words instead of the usual one, or put a space between a speech mark and a capital letter. I even found a few! That is the soul of a nitpicker. I confess. But it put off the scary moment of sending my ms. off into the wide blue yonder and out of my hands. Is that a familiar feeling?

I’ve recently been doing the page proofs for my second children’s book. I know authors who don’t pay too much attention to this stage – it’s almost done with, after all, isn’t it? – but I can’t take that attitude. Not only do I have the sort of brain that generally spots typos in my own and other people’s work (yes, Sunday Times Bestseller List fiction, that all too often means you!) but it’s my last chance to right the niggly wrongs before my baby goes off to become a Real Book.

For those not familiar with the process, page proofs are exactly what your book pages will look like, fonts, page numbers, title page, credits and all, with marks to show the dimensions of the actual page. But they are still printed out on a stack of A4 sheets so in a way are not so different – yet very, gratifyingly, different – from the ms. you printed out yourself to re-read and edit earlier in the process. If you did that, which you should, of course, maybe more than once. (There’s a good blogpost about that here.) No book is ever going to be perfect, especially to its author (be very wary if you think yours is!) but it should be as damned near perfect as you can get it at every stage. Otherwise, what is the point?

Already, the manuscript has been copy-edited by some clever person with an even nitpickier brain than mine and an eagle eye for factual errors, logical errors, typos, grammar, punctuation, and, yes, whether I’ve used the word ‘squeeze’ three times in two pages. Doesn’t mean I can’t use ‘squeeze’ that often, I just have to be aware of it, that it’s through deliberate choice, not sloppiness, or ignorance of an alternative. I love copy editors who pick up on that level of detail. Long may they be employed by good publishers! I’ve just been reading some early Agatha Christie and she’ll use the same adjective or verb three times in a couple of lines, when there are other perfectly good choices around. It makes the writing drab – sorry, Christie fans.

But somehow even after copy-editing a few things that feel awkward to me do slip through and page proofs are my chance to change them, and pick up on tiny errors. My space-checking facility flips on. At every stage of editing I find it easier to do what I think of as ‘the housekeeping’ first – the routine, easy stuff, not the challenging imaginative decisions – and this is housekeeping. With a little bit of drama thrown in – last chance, last chance!

But reading a stack of A4 sheets is not the same as turning the pages of an uncorrected proof copy: this is the same version, but bound into a book-sized copy without the final cover artwork. The feel and rhythm of reading from page to facing page, then turning over, is very different; of seeing where a paragraph or chapter stops, whether a clue you’ve planted has space to really register, or a cliff-hanger just slips over the next page and ends on two short lines – will it work?

I’ve said goodbye to the page proofs now and posted them off before Christmas. I’ve got the bound uncorrected proof, so I can read it as a book. I can’t tot up how many times I’ll read a book between its first draft and its final appearance, but you have to be fond of your characters to spend that much time with them.

The Dangerous Discoveries of Gully Potchard ARC author Julia Lee Oxford University Press 2014

Bound-proof copy cover

(Of course, I just had to turn on Codes to check for extra spaces in this piece – and I found one – and deleted it. Happy now.)

The Dangerous Discoveries of Gully Potchard by Julia Lee Oxford University Press paperback children's book

The actual cover image for my next book.