writing

Tips for Young Writers #6 – with Chris d’Lacey

This month we are talking to the wonderful Chris d’Lacey – and my son is hovering in the background as he absolutely loved Chris’s first dragon books (starting with The Fire Within) and bought each one in the series the minute it came out. He wasn’t the only one – the series sold over four million copies worldwide! Chris is a regular speaker at schools, libraries and book festivals, and he has two new series currently available: paranormal thrillers The UNICORNE Files, and a new fantasy series called The Erth Dragons. The first Erth Dragons book, The Wearle, came out in paperback in April.  The third and final book of the UFiles series, A Crown of Dragons, is out in paperback this month.You can read more about Chris by visiting his website www.icefire.co.uk or his blog www.erthdragons.wordpress.com

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Did you write a lot as a child, or did you come to writing later?

I didn’t write a thing as a child. Seriously. Only essays etc. in English classes. I wrote my first story at the age of 32 – as a Christmas present for my wife. It later became my first published book.

That’s great to hear – I think a lot of people feel you have to have had writing in your blood from the very beginning, so it’s heartening to find out that’s not the case!

How do you work – do you write every day, or when you feel like it, or when you have a deadline? How long do you generally write for? 

I write every day except Saturday. I normally work for about five hours in the morning, though I will often come back and re-read passages or edit them in the evenings.

books 1Where 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?

When I began writing, I was still working full time at Leicester University and used to write in my tea breaks, anywhere I could. Nowadays, I have a desk in a spare bedroom at home. I usually go there because it’s quiet and everything’s in place. But it’s a big house and I will sometimes take a laptop into a sunny room or even out into the garden.

Do you use a lot of adjectives or adverbs in your writing or are you someone that likes very simple prose?

I’ve heard people shout down other writers for using adverbs. My response to that is, “Why do we have adverbs in the language if we’re not allowed to use them?” I aim for a sensible balance. But it’s important to know when to reach for the thesaurus. Sentences full of pretty words will not make a bad story good. For me, the worst example of word replacement happens in dialogue. I once read a page of (published) text where a character uttered, muttered, gasped, murmured, stammered and whispered his way through a page of speech. Eighty percent of the time ‘said’ is the only attribution you need – if at all.

millfieldSo, 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?

Here’s a little passage from my latest dragon book, The Wearle.

Galarhade was old. It showed in the furrows around his eyes and in the hairs which grew unflatteringly long from the base of his jaw. These days, his tail rarely stood straight, but lay curled around his creaking legs (to warm the failing joints, some said). His breast, once as bright as the fresh ice around him, was slowly losing its colour, the first indication that death’s scale had set forth to shadow his eyes.

That’s lovely! Do you have any tips for our young writers on how to invent fresh and original similes or metaphors?

Writers need to be observant. If you have a keen eye for noticing how the world works you’ll be able to write sentences like, “His heart thumped like the sound of a radiator cooling…” Okay, that’s a pretty rubbish example – but you get the point. And everything has to be in context. You can’t be on a planet of dragons, for instance, and write, “The dragon’s tail was as long as a football field.” Unless you’re of the opinion that dragons invented football.

Zookie giving adviceBeginner writers often find it hard to write characters. Have you used real-life models for any of your characters?

David Rain, the hero of The Last Dragon Chronicles, is based on me. I was daft enough to attempt to rescue a one-eyed squirrel once (don’t try it, they’re quick!), which is what he does in ‘The Fire Within’. A long time ago I wrote a book called ‘Fly, Cherokee, Fly’ that featured a couple of men who kept pigeons. As part of my research I visited a pigeon loft and met a wonderful character who became ‘Alf Duckins’, pigeon fancier. But it’s rare for me to model characters on real people.

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

I’ve always liked writing feisty females. Girls with attitude rock! People tell me I’m very good at mums, the type who are good at putting their children in place with a cynical quip. (See Darcy Malone in any of The UNICORNE Files books.) My favourite female character was Annabelle, in a book I co-wrote with Linda Newbery called ‘From E To You’. It’s a slightly dated story now about two teens emailing one another. Linda wrote the boy’s messages and I wrote Annabelle’s. It was fascinating to look at the world from the point of view of a fourteen year old with a bit of bite. Girls used to come up to me at signings and ask, “How can you know what we’re like?” My answer was I read my step-sister’s diary – strictly for research purposes, you understand. That gave me all the insight I needed!

What’s a good tip for how to write characters who seem real?

Put interesting words into their mouths. If you try too hard to create ‘real’ characters they often come out as dreadful stereotypes. Try to think about their basic nature and how they would genuinely respond in a given situation. This applies to characters in fantasy stories as well. Someone once asked me if I’d been a polar bear in a previous life because I described their movements so well. You have to step into that character’s head and look through their eyes for a while.

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What are your tips for developing a good ear for dialogue?

Don’t try to reproduce the way people speak in real life. If you were to write down a conversation between two people talking on a bus, it would be like the worst story EVER. Really good dialogue moves the story along quickly. Try not to give too obvious a response to the previous line. It’s not easy to do at first, but it comes with practice.

That’s good advice. So, to finish, what’s the best tip you ever got on writing and is there another good one you’d like to pass on?

The best tip I ever had was to write what my heart wanted to write, not something I thought would be commercially successful. My personal tip to a budding writer would be: Believe in yourself. No one gets it right first time, but if a story you’re writing genuinely excites you or moves you to tears, there’s every chance it will have the same effect on a reader – so keep at it.

Brilliant – thanks, Chris. And good luck with the new books!

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