Hello everyone! It’s time for the regular ‘Writer’s Tips’ post for this month, and as promised I am alternating my own thoughts on writing with some interviews with other children’s authors. This month we are talking to Heather Butler, author of the wonderful “Us Minus Mum”, as well as Joan Lennon, author of the Slightly Jones mysteries.
So, did you always write, or did you come to it later?
HEATHER: When I was at school, writing was my absolute favourite lesson. The down side of being good at writing was that I often had to stay in at playtime to copy my story out then illustrate it to go on display. I had an answer to this – write shorter stories that would take less time to copy out.
JOAN: As soon as I could figure out which end of the pencil to use, I was writing stories and poems, but I didn’t start doing it as a full-time job until about 10 years ago.
Where do you write? Can you write anywhere or do you have a special writing place and it has to be exactly that desk, those pens, that kind of notebook?
HEATHER: I write anywhere and everywhere. I like trains and supermarkets for observing people. Coffee houses too are great places to watch and jot down notes about what people are up to. If I am writing all day I start at my desk then progress to the dining room table and by mid-afternoon I’ll be on the sofa with my lap top.
JOAN: I can write most places/most situations. I mean, if you were sitting there trying to have a conversation with me, then I wouldn’t be able to write. Or if you’d fallen over and were bleeding copiously, I’d have trouble concentrating on my story. But as long as I’m someplace where it’s major-distraction-free, I can usually be getting on with the job. It’s nice if it’s comfy and there’s coffee and a cat on hand. Nice, but not essential.
Next month, I’m going to be looking at using adverbs and adjectives. Do you use a lot of them, or do you like to keep your writing simple?
JOAN: Sometimes lots of adjectives and adverbs, lots of description, lots of metaphors and similes are exactly what you need. Sometimes something pared right down to the bone is what the story requires. There’s no simple, single answer for how to write. I love all words, and that includes simple ones!
HEATHER: My writing is always sparse to start with. Us Minus Mum remained sparse and that was the book’s style. But normally I write sparse then drop in adjectives and adverbs afterwards – I use my thesaurus all the time to find the very best adjective or adverb. I might put a word like ‘big’ in a first draft, but I know I will always replace it.
Can you give us some examples of descriptive sentences where you think you’ve managed to use adjectives or adverbs or figurative language to what you think is good effect?
JOAN: Okay, here are a couple from my books:
There was a shadow. It was small and silent and it was moving up to the door of the Spirit Building with all the quiet confidence of a soft-pawed cat. (Slightly Jones and the Case of the London Dragonfish)
She found herself focusing on one snowflake, just one out of the growing crowd. She marvelled at the alien beauty of its construction, tiny and perfect and cold, and at the same time the thought came to her – beyond a shadow of a doubt – that what she was seeing, was death.
If it touches me, I will die.
And then … I’ll know … (Silver Skin)
Do you have any tips for how to invent fresh and original similes or metaphors?
JOAN: One way to come up with similes or metaphors is to jumble up the senses – so an apple smells red, or an orange tastes like the sun, or a cat’s purr is warm.
Do you consciously pay attention to the length of your sentences and the rhythm of them, or does variation and rhythm tend to just happen as you write?
HEATHER: I think carefully about length of sentences in the second draft. The first draft is all about getting ideas down on paper. and often the length of sentences just ‘happens’. Then comes the hard slog (which I love) of crafting what I’ve written. I tend to use short sentences if I want something to stand out or if a character has an afterthought about something.
JOAN: I use my ear to tell me where sentences should be long and when they should be short – not much help as it’s attached to my head! But here’s an exercise you can try – write a description of a scene from a movie you like. Write it first ONLY USING LONG SENTENCES. Then re-write it ONLY USING SHORT SENTENCES. Then re-write it one more time with A MIXTURE OF LONG AND SHORT SENTENCES. See which version you like best and see if you can tell why?
Do you read your writing out loud? How does this help with your writing?
JOAN: Yes, definitely. You can hear all the clunky bits that way, and all the bits where the rhythm is working just right. And you can hear if your characters are speaking in their own voices.
HEATHER: I always read my writing out loud. It helps me realise where my sentences are too long and if the writing is fluent. It also makes me think harder about all the words.
Do you have a very strong image of your characters in your head as you write? Do you know what their voice sounds like as they say things? Have you used real-life models for any of your characters?
JOAN: All my characters will have bits and pieces from real people jumbled up in them somewhere, but they do tend to walk into my head fully formed and demanding to be written. From there it’s my job to find out more about them, and I do that by putting them into situations and places and dilemmas and seeing what happens.
HEATHER: Characters are blurred to start with. I sort of know what I want them to be like but it’s not until I’ve worked with them that I begin to get to know them. They don’t jump off the page and become my friends until I’ve thought hard about them. I sometimes imagine they are sitting on the passenger seat in my car and have an imaginary conversation with them.
Can you give an example of one of your characters you really liked writing? Why were they fun to write?
HEATHER: I loved Ryan (AKA Rhino) in The Milkshake Detectives. I had the idea for him in a coffee shop in the Arndale shopping centre in Manchester. A badly behaved boy had a strop outside the shop demanding his mum bought him a drink and muffin. He literally lay on the floor and kicked her until she gave in. I was in the coffee shop already and was delighted when they sat opposite me. The little boy was angry and fed up and all his mum did was text her friends and ignore him while he slopped hot chocolate on the table. I wanted to make the boy happy, but couldn’t because he was nothing to do with me. But I could make him happy in a book – which I did.
What’s the best tip you ever got on writing and is there another good one you’d like to pass on?
JOAN: Keep writing. You have to, because the stories in your head aren’t in any one else’s. If you don’t tell them, they won’t get told. And that would be a crying shame.
HEATHER: Read as much as you can and never ever write THE END when you have finished a story. You can always, always improve it. Last tip – love editing!
HEATHER BUTLER was born in Stoke-on-Trent. She went to University in York and taught there and also in Durham, Nottingham, Lewisham and lastly in Buckinghamshire. So she has moved around a lot! She still teaches two days a week at a school near High Wycombe and loves to visit schools leading writing workshops and helping children write creative stories. She also loves chocolate and spending time with her family (eating chocolate WITH her family is the best thing ever!) Heather’s website is HERE if you want to find out more.
JOAN LENNON lives and writes in the Kingdom of Fife, overlooking the River Tay, with a view of trees and slate roofs and a skyscape it would be hard to better. Also resident in the flat are an unruly crowd of characters, including a Victorian detective girl, a miner boy from an alien planet, a ferret princess, a medieval orphan, a talking gargoyle, a short Viking and the occasional flying horse. She enjoys their company and does her very best to keep up with their stories. Joan’s website is HERE if you want to find out more.
Next month I’m looking at descriptive writing AND talking to Anna Wilson – who will have some copies of her fab new book, The Parent Problem, to give away!!