Tips for Young Writers #5 – with Nick Green

This month we have a brilliant interview with the very talented Nick Green. Nick has published eight books, including both children’s and YA fiction. They include The Cat Kin trilogy (The Cat Kin, Cat’s Paw, Cat’s Cradle), The Storm Bottle, The Firebird Trilogy (Project Firebird, Firebird Dawn, Firebird Radiant), and Mythwinter. I personally love Nick’s writing – he reminds me a little of another favourite writer, Robert Westall, and he writes brilliant books with great characters, taut, exciting plots and unexpected twists. For fans of The Hunger Games out there, I thoroughly recommend the Firebird Trilogy.

Nick Green Author Portrait_A2Zoom

Do you particularly try to find more interesting adjectives/adverbs to replace simple ones like ‘good’ or ‘big’ or ‘quickly’ or do you just use what seems right and not worry about it?

I think there are four stages for the developing writer. They go like this:

  1. The sky was blue
  2. The sky was a brilliant burning blue.
  3. The sky was a perfect azure
  4. The sky was blue

Young children write simply, and many seasoned authors write very simply too. BUT I think you need to go through those stages in the middle in order to discover why simple is often better (and when it isn’t). There’s a saying that a true gentleman is a man who knows how to play the bagpipes, and doesn’t. You might also say that a writer is someone who knows how to use fancy words, and doesn’t. (Or only peripatetically.)

Project Firebird coverThat’s a great way of describing the process – I think you’re probably right, we do need to try out those more complex ways of writing before we learn to simplify. So, while we’re on the subject of complexities, do you have any tips for how to invent fresh and original similes or metaphors?

Katherine Langrish (Troll Fell, Dark Angels) shared a good tip with me. She recommended taking a noun and turning it into a verb. So in a first draft you might have ‘Clouds were making the hills gradually disappear.’ In the second draft you might spice this up a bit with a simile: ‘Clouds were slowly erasing the hills like an artist’s sponge.’ Katherine would suggest taking this to a third level, so in the final draft you have, ‘Clouds sponged out the hills.’ ‘Sponge’ becomes the verb. And now you can almost see it happening, can’t you?

Indeed we can! That’s a great tip.

There are bits of characters writers often find they tend to always focus on when they describe them (e.g., eye colour, height, age, hair). Mine is eye colour – I have to go through afterwards ruthlessly stripping out mentions of people’s blue or brown eyes! Do you have any?

I don’t go in much for physically describing characters. Unless they have a particularly striking or significant feature, I leave most of it to the imagination and just focus on them as a person. It’s not really interesting, is it, whether someone has brown eyes or blue eyes, or a pointed or square chin? I might do it to distinguish characters in a group, before we’ve got to know them. If you are going to describe a person physically, I suggest picking out just the most striking feature, and omitting almost everything else. In any case, a general impression (‘He dressed like a tramp’) is often better than overloading with details. When we see someone in real life, we form impressions very quickly; we don’t go through all the details in our heads. It’s instant – so a description should try to be almost as quick.

thestormbottle_coverCan you give an example of one of your characters you really liked writing? Why were they fun to write?

My favourite of my characters is Bibi Somers from The Storm Bottle. Odd, really, as it was my first time writing in the first person (‘I did this…’ etc) and she’s a girl, and she also has Bermudian speech patterns (her accent is similar to American and much of her vocabulary is unusual). So she should have been a nightmare to write, but she wasn’t. I could just write in her voice for hours, like taking dictation from a ghost. That’s never happened with any other of my characters.

That’s interesting. She certainly is a great character.

One thing new writers find most difficult is structure and planning. Do you plan or do you make it up as you go along?

Some people are natural planners. Some aren’t. Go with the way that suits you best – don’t adopt someone else’s method. Just do what works. When I started I was a total planner, I mapped out everything, but over the years I’ve become a bit more free-wheeling. Part of that is because I know that most plans get torn up along the way, and you’re having ideas through the whole story-writing process, not just at the start. A plan can help you feel confident that you’re going somewhere, but if you can’t plan, just start writing your first idea and see where it goes.

These days I just write a very broad synopsis, fill it out with as many notes as I can, and then jump in, hoping I’ll think up the rest along the way. I’ve changed my planned ending in about half my books.

Firebird Radiant coverOne tip writers are often given is ‘show, don’t tell’. Can you give some examples of how you understand that – what’s showing and what’s telling and do you yourself consciously avoid telling?

‘Show don’t tell’ is a pet peeve of mine. It’s the most popular tip and is also the most misunderstood, I think. If you read any great fiction writer, you’ll notice that they ‘tell’ all the time, giving back story, describing events that happen elsewhere, skipping chunks of time in which nothing much happens, and so on. A lot of people think ‘show don’t tell’ means telling us every single detail, and giving equal emphasis to everything. The messy truth is that there are times when you describe exactly what’s happening, and there are times when you just say, ‘It was a beautiful day’. The tricky part is learning when those times are.

My personal tip here is, ‘Fiction is like memory.’ It’s not like a perfect snapshot of reality, it picks and chooses like a memory. It only focuses on the important stuff and skips over everything else. So perhaps the rule should be: ‘Show the things that need to be shown. Tell the rest.’

Yes, I agree – like so many things in writing, it’s about finding the balance – and especially, finding your own balance, because everyone’s got a different style. So, just to finish, what’s the best tip you ever got on writing and is there another good one you’d like to pass on?

My favourite tip is: Writing is rewriting. Seriously, it really is. The biggest mistake you can make is thinking that what you’ve written first is the finished product. Look at how an artist creates a picture. First they sketch in pencil, rough shapes. Gradually they fill in details, erase lines, fine-tune others, add colour, and so on. It takes many different stages. Why should a story be any different? When I finish the first draft of a book, that’s when I feel I’ve started. Only just started. The text I have at that point, I call the ‘dirt pile’. I think of it as a big heap of mud, out of which I might – eventually – carve something worth having.

Thanks Nick – some very useful things to think about there. And good luck with your writing – Mythwinter looks fabulous, I shall head off to download it right now!

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