This month we’re talking to best-selling author Karen McCombie, who has published eighty books!! Karen (like Jaqueline Wilson) started off as a journalist on teenage girls’ magazines, and the quirky humour and endearing characters in her novels have been inspired by her journalism, as well as her collection of childhood diaries AND a bad habit of listening in to conversations on buses when school is coming out…! Her hobbies include scribbling random observations in notebooks, brushing cat hair from the keyboard of her laptop and posting nonsense on Instagram.
So, Karen, did you write a lot as a child, or did you comer to writing later?
I had a false start with reading and writing when I first started school – an undiagnosed hearing problem meant I struggled badly. Once the problem was spotted, school and my parents really concentrated on pushing me (gently) with my reading skills, and I really took off! Of course, the more you read, the better your writing becomes. I LOVED losing myself in my own little stories and poems at primary school. I just wish I still had them all, but those old school-books vanished over the years and over the course of lots of family moves. (Boo…)
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 think sometimes people have a funny idea about being an author. I get the feeling they think authors drift around dreamily, then write for an hour or two a day, then drift off dreamily again. If we did that, then we wouldn’t earn enough money to pay for our rent/bills/food/cat treats! The thing is, writing is a lovely, interesting job. But it IS a job! So as soon as my daughter is off to school, I get to work. I work five days a week, about seven hours a day, just like lots of people’s parents. And sometimes I work in the evenings and weekends if I have a deadline looming, and an impatient editor waiting for my latest book!
Where do you write? Can you write anywhere or do you have a special writing place and it has to be exactly thatdesk, those pens, that kind of notebook?
OK, so Office No.1 is my weeny back bedroom. It’s cosy in there, especially if my fluff-ball cat Dizzy joins me. Then there’s Office No.2, which is the local garden centre cafe! I get restless stuck in the house all day, so a few mornings a week, I pack up my laptop and have a walk through the park to this cafe. It’s light and bright in there and smells of flowers and coffee and cake. I like both my offices very much, but No.2 DOES nudge ahead in my affections, ’cause of the cake, obvz!
Well, obviously! So, what’s the longest sentence you’ve ever written? (Or near enough)
Don’t know about my longest sentence, but I’ll tell you my longest/oddest title. It’s ‘Marshmallow Magic and the Wild Rose Rouge’. That whole title just pinged into my head out of nowhere, and I quickly scribbled it down in a notebook. And then I challenged myself to write a story to go with it! Years ago, when I was a magazine journalist, I wrote short stories for teen magazines. I often used that same challenge then; I’d stick on the radio, listen to the lyrics of the next song that came on, and then worked on a story to match. It’s quite a fun writing exercise to do.
That’s a great title!
Thinking about writing characters, how do you make people up? Have you used real-life models for any of your characters?
I think virtually every one of my characters starts with a little nugget of a REAL person I know, and then I just adapt them as I go along. And it’s important that you do change them, or friends might fall out with you! I once wrote a character that was a bit annoying as a friend, based on someone I was at school with. It wasn’t till I read the whole thing through that I saw I’d made the character look and act way too like the real person AND I’d given her a similar name! I wasn’t in touch with her anymore, but I worried that she might have a daughter who’d read my books and… oh, if she’d recognised herself in it I’d have felt SUCH a meanie!
Oh dear! Hope she never recognised it! With your other characters, do you have a very strong image of them in your head as you write? Do you know what their voice sounds like as they say things?
It gets spooky. Characters REALLY get inside your head, to the point that they feel like they could be teenagers who live in your street. Years ago, I was laughing at a cute animal in London Zoo with a friend, and said, “Ha! Tor would love that!” She asked who Tor was… and I had to tell her he was the fictional little brother of main character Ally, from my ‘Ally’s World’ series. (Doh!)
They can end up seeming very real, can’t they? (It would be even spookier if one of them came up and said hello one day…) Anyway, moving on (!) one thing new writers find most difficult is structure and planning. Do you plan or do you make it up as you go along?
If I started a book with just a vague idea and nothing else, I can tell you now I’d get so far along and then COMPLETELY PANIC AND GIVE UP! So once I have my vague idea, I then plot and plan like a maniac, even working out roughly what’s going to happen in every chapter. Once I’m happy with my chapters and how the story flows, I’m good to go. I can get on with writing, which is hard enough to do on its own, without worrying about getting completely lost and hysterical about what on earth is going on with my character.
One tip writers are often given is ‘show, don’t tell’. Can you give some examples of how you understand that?
OK, so “show don’t tell”… I was reading a book recently, and was really enjoying it. The main character had just found out something VERY IMPORTANT. Hurray! The next thing was, she had to explain this to her friend. The writer obviously felt it would be a bit boring to repeat the whole VERY IMPORTANT thing again, so instead they simply wrote that the main character was sitting and telling her friend. But suddenly I didn’t feel the story was real anymore. I wasn’t hearing words. I was just quickly informed that this conversation was taking place, without feeling like I was at that table, seeing the friend’s stunned reaction. So how should the author have written the scene to make it fresh, to “show” it, not “tell” it? Well, I don’t know. It wasn’t my story. But it’s the job of authors to solve problems like that. We have to make a little, lively bubble of something real between the pages of our stories and keep our readers right in there.
Openings can be really important in writing. Can you give us some examples of your favourite openings from your own or others writing?
Yes, yes, yes – openings are SO important! It’s that hook at the beginning that pulls people in, like a really good window display for the rest of the story. I say this all the time when I do workshops in schools. Here’s the opening for a new book I’m working on right now (you may, er, spot that it’s for one of my younger novels!)…
I’ve been staring at penguins’ bums for quite a long time now.
That might sound kind of fun, but fun things turn into boring things when you do them too often.
And we stare at penguins’ bums A LOT in our house. It’s ‘cause my mum’s a zoologist. You’d THINK that’d mean exciting stuff, like she’d take me to hang out with pygmy hippos or stroke jaguars or stingrays or ocelots or something.
But no. It’s all about penguins, penguins, penguins, and bums, bums, bums.
That’s brilliant! I definitely want to read that book!
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?
Best writing tip: Never chuck away anything you write, even if you got stuck on it. Stuff it away in a drawer or folder, and re-read it in a few weeks or months’ time. You could feel totally different about it, and realise it was actually pretty good. You might be able to see more clearly where it went wrong, and how you could fix it. Or – and this is what I do a lot – you might be able to recycle bits from it, like an interesting character or cool title etc. Even if you just look at what you wrote and think, “I write SO much better than that nowadays”, that a positive thing.
Thanks so much, Karen! Some great tips and ideas there. And good luck with the writing!