I’ve been creating stories my whole life, even before I could actually write – when I was very little I would tell my dad stories and he would type them up on the Commodore 64 for me. As I got older, and learned how to write myself, I became very passionate getting my stories down – first on paper, and then typed up on the computer. Writing was so much fun for me, and a wonderful escape. This wound up being really very helpful, especially as a teenager. For example I went through a period one summer at a summer job where no one really liked me, and I would come home and just cry every night. So I started writing a pirate novel (yes, I’ve been writing about pirates for a long time J ) and that helped me escape from my frustrations at work. I could just disappear into the world I had created.
I took creative writing courses whenever I could, both in school and extra curricular. I wrote anything and everything, from book reviews, to poetry, to plays (I produced and directed one at both the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and the Summerworks Festival in Toronto). And of course I would always have a novel on the go. I never finished any of my novel attempts though. I’d get a bit bored with the story and just move on. ALEX was, as a matter of fact, the first novel I ever finished.
In fact it was the fact that I never gave up on ALEX that inspired me to look into how a person gets published. Up until that point I was far more focused on my acting career. Now at this stage I had directed and produced my play, but ALEX just felt different somehow. That book was a huge stepping stone for me, where I suddenly wanted to be a published author.
I don’t think I write for children really. And it was never a conscious choice. I just really love children’s lit, yes even as an adult, and I wanted to write what I liked. So really, I write for me, if that makes sense. If you’d like to read more on the subject, I have written a detailed blog post about it over at Agent Nathan Bransford’s blog.
I get my ideas from everywhere. From other books, from plays. I’m a huge fan of movies, so they are definitely a big inspiration to me. As are my friends, who find themselves in my books as heightened versions of themselves. I basically enjoy putting everything I like into one book.
So I like teachers, because my whole family are teachers. And thus we have Mr. Underwood. I love pirates, have loved pirates since I was seven and saw a production of The Pirates of Penzance by Gilbert and Sullivan. I wanted a strong female main character for my first book, so I created Alex. I love Agatha Christie books, and that inspired the train sequence in ALEX. My love of the special features on the Lord of the Rings DVDs inspired the Emperor and the Necklace sequence. I adore the actor Chow Yun-Fat and that inspired the entire Chinese pirates concept in TIMOTHY. Places I visit, art I see (this painting inspired the whole vacuum/Champagne bubble thing on the train), even the weather – I make a note of it all if it strikes me in my gut.
My father has always been my writing mentor. He taught high school creative writing, in fact it was such a popular course that students would stay an extra semester to attend it. It was one of those wonderful rare cases where someone taking his work home with him was a wonderful treat for his daughter. He taught me how to write many different kinds of things, like poetry (and always writes me and my mother poems for special occasions), encouraged me to write all kinds of fiction and was, and is, extremely supportive and proud of what I did. Also, importantly, he introduced me to many different and interesting authors by reading to me every night before bed.
I suppose my other mentor would have had to be Canadian playwright Djanet Sears who taught my playwrighting course in my last year of University. She was great. What I admired most of all was that she was able to be critical of a work and at the same time respect the genre and vision of the student, never imposing her own personal tastes onto our work. She was also the first person who ever told me that writing was something I could do as a profession. She said that she knew how focused I was on acting, but that she hoped I would return to writing someday because I was very good at it. It was the first time I'd ever considered writing as anything more than a hobby. It was a turning point for me.
Also, I will say that I’ve had many friends who have helped keep me motivated on the writing path as well. My friend author Lesley Livingston and I have competitive writing sessions where we sit together at one table with our laptops (or sometimes we do this over Skype) and just write together. Hearing the other person typing away while you aren’t is a pretty great motivation. And if one of us is having a problem solving a writing dilemma we can totally help each other. I know that she’s always a phone call away if I’m just not sure where to go next in my work (and also if I need the occasional pep talk).
Then there’s my friend Joanna, who I’ve known since we were seven. We always wrote together as kids, created plays, stories and radio shows etc. It was great knowing you weren’t the only one out there who loved writing. During the summer when we were teenagers, before email was super popular, she and I would send letters back and forth (yup, good old fashioned snail mail) about what we were up to and then, at the end, we’d include the latest several pages of the novel we were working on. It was a great motivation to keep writing, and also was such a treat to go and find the next bit of her story in the mailbox.
In all I’ve been very lucky in my life to have so many great influences and so much support, from all my friends and both my immediate and extended family.
I was initially inspired to write ALEX while I was living in London, UK, specifically when I taking weekend break in the town of Bath. I’ve always had something on the go writing wise – plays, short stories, and I’ve always wanted to write a cozy mystery, but I’ve learned I am not very good at writing cozy mysteries. But I had never considered writing a children’s book before. I’m not sure if it was Bath that made me want to write that kind of book, or just the getting away from the city and having a chance to think. But suddenly the decision to write a children’s book just sort of happened while I was there as I was doing a lot of walking and thinking and stuff.
I am a huge children’s lit buff, total Harry Potterphile, and wrote my thesis in my last year of high school English comparing Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan. Let’s just say I have read many great books in the genre. And I suddenly thought to myself, “Well I bet I could write one of these books.” Not because it was easy, but because I knew the genre so well.
Well whatever inspired the initial decision, it was definitely Bath that inspired so many particular details about the book. The doorknob shop was based on a doorknob shop I passed on my walk, the bridge that Alex and her uncle live on is based on the bridge in Bath with all the shops on it (which in turn is based on the Ponte Vecchio in Florence Italy) and so on.
Then as I thought more about the structure of the novel, I decided that Alex was going to be a love letter, an homage, to all my favourite children’s books. So the first Act, up until Alex leaves on her adventure, I consider very Roald Dahl (to me the Daughters of the Founding Fathers’ Preservation Society totally typify the sort grotesque characters he liked to write). Then Alex’s journey to Port Cullis is Alice in Wonderland, where she meets some interesting characters in a forest and has miniature adventures where she needs to solve problems before moving on. Lewis Carroll made fun of the world of his time in Alice, and I try to do something similar with this section. Lord Poppinjay, for example, is a composite of all the bosses I had as a temp. The third Act, Port Cullis and onwards, is Peter Pan, at least the part with the pirates. It also owes a lot to Treasure Island. There are other authors I reference as well throughout the book: the chapters all begin with “In which . . .” which is a reference to A A Milne for example.
I just really love these books, they were a huge influence on me growing up, and I kind of wanted to say thank you to them with ALEX.
As far as character inspiration goes, Alex, I have to admit, is loosely based on me. But she is braver than I am, that’s for sure. I even called her Alex because when I would play make believe as a kid that’s the name I would give myself.
I also cast a bunch of my friends in the book: Heather, Coriander the Conjurer, Fenelle the Scribe, Francesca, O’Connell, Shakespeare, Tanaka, De Wit. That was a lot of fun, and I know my friends think it’s pretty cool that they get to be in a book. The Extremely Ginormous Octopus is based on the classic British actors, like Alec Guinness or Peter O’Toole. And Steve and the whole Emperor and the Necklace section is based on my love of the Lord of the Rings movies.
Giggles is based on my cat I had in highschool, Ginger. He was a total attack cat, we had to lock him up when anyone came over because he would try to hurt them. But he loved us so much and was the sweetest cat with the people he cared about.
I really wanted to write another adventure and not a straight out sequel. But I did want to bring Alex back because she is totally awesome. So I came up with the idea of creating a sort of sequel but also sort of stand alone book. My idea was that both adventures (Alex’s and Timothy’s) would happen at the same time, and then half way through TIMOTHY he’d come across the end of Alex’s adventure and that’s where the sequel would start. So I could get the best of both worlds.
The character of Timothy came about in quite a straightforward manner. I decided to create someone totally opposite from Alex. Where Alex was adventurous, Timothy was not. While Alex was always eager to work with people, Timothy was not. Alex is an optimist, Timothy a pessimist. And while Alex was a girl . . . Timothy was a boy.
Of course this all made my life very difficult because it’s one thing to write an adventure story about someone who loves adventures, it’s quite another to write one about someone who would rather stay at home. Convincing Timothy to go on his adventure was pretty exhausting quite frankly.
The dragon idea came to me fully formed. I just wanted to write about a dragon. But the Chinese dragon idea came about only after I decided to write about Chinese pirates, and that came about, I must confess, after I learned Chow Yun-Fat had been cast in the third Pirates of the Caribbean movie. I am big fan of that actor, and the idea of him playing a pirate seemed so cool to me. Then the idea of Chinese pirates in general seemed so cool to me.
So I did some research on them, and that’s where I learned that they tended to work together in fleets. What excited me most was that unlike Western Pirates, women were commonplace in these fleets. In fact there was one woman captain who became so good at her job that the government had to bribe her to stop. She was the inspiration for Duchess Rose.
But back to dragons. While researching Chinese pirates, I also started researching Chinese dragons and found it fascinating that a huge part of the lore was that these dragons would take human form. That led me to create a dragon trapped in human form. I also learned that there was a legend that if Koi carp could swim upstream and then leap over the Dragon’s Gate, they would turn into dragons, and that, of course, inspired the basic transformation concept for Mr. Shen (Mr. Shen is named after the Shenlong dragon, which was the spiritual blue dragon that controlled the wind and the rain).
As far as other characters go: Evans Bore was a name that Lord Poppinjay mentions very briefly in ALEX, and I just always loved that name and thought it would be fun to expand on him in TIMOTHY. Timothy’s mum doing a pantomime theatre show references very slightly my personal experience doing panto in the UK (but it was a very different kind of show, not on a big stage at all. It was a small three person touring production).
Sir Bazalgette is inspired by probably one of my absolute favourite architects, Sir John Soane. His house was turned into a museum in London, England and it is one of my favourite places to visit whenever I’m in town. If you wonder what it looks like, I’d suggest you just read TIMOTHY as I pretty much just copied it when describing Sir Bazalgette’s home. I was also very inspired by Soane’s personal life, he had a son that greatly disappointed him and fractured the family, and that was definitely the inspiration for Edmund.
Writing TIMOTHY was both much harder and at the same time easier than writing ALEX. I found the research and the challenge writing about a different culture really tough, as was writing about Timothy as I said above. At the same time I had developed a tone for ALEX that I could then easily fit into TIMOTHY, and I’d learned so much editing and writing with writing ALEX that I didn’t make half so many mistakes that time around. In all it was a really interesting creation process.
That is a very long and detailed story. So what I’d like to do is link to the very long and detailed story over at my blog:
I’m a big fan of children’s lit, so I will always recommend the classics, Peter Pan, Winnie the Pooh, Alice in Wonderland, the books of Roald Dahl. I also highly recommend The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster – it’s fairly well known, but not as much as some other children’s books out there. It is brilliant and so funny. I am a Harry Potterphile as well.
As for grown up books, well I am a huge Douglas Adams fan. I would recommend The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (and its sequels) to anyone and everyone.
Also Shakespeare. Love Shakespeare. He manages to express certain ideas and feelings in a way that makes you think, “Yes, exactly, it’s exactly like that!” And it just feels great saying his words aloud. I get lines from Shakespeare struck in my head the same way people get songs.
I definitely think acting helps with the writing. As an actor you spend a lot of time on character development, no matter how small the role. The more three dimensional a character can be for you to play, the easier it is. Also the more rewarding. That definitely seeps through into the writing world. Even the smallest of characters come to my mind fully formed with extensive back-story. That isn’t to say I have a JK Rowling like glossary of characters (that woman is awesome when it comes to detailed world/character building), but rather that for some reason in my head I already seem to know all about the characters I write and their motivations. Some of the smallest characters in ALEX and TIMOTHY are some of my favourites because of that.
Also, having come from theatre, I see the scenes I write. I see a stage setting, and can place where everyone is in the scene and where and when they move around the space. Having come from writing plays, where as a playwright you need to visualize the piece on a stage as you write it, this technique has really informed my novels. I think that is one of the reasons people often tell me it would make a good film or television series, because when writing it, I already see it in more theatrical terms.
The act of starting to write is very tough for me. That sitting down in front of your computer and going, “Right, let’s write!” And it can feel torturous at times, the first few sentences typed out a word a minute. It’s the big secret about being a professional writer: Writing is hard! It isn’t about being inspired. In fact it is very rare that I sit down to write and I just have inspiration and the words just flow out of me. Most often it is a slog. And starting the slog, to me that’s the hardest bit. The discipline. Once you get going though, things start to come together.
Most rewarding? Well when people like the book, that’s pretty sweet! But I really really love making someone laugh. And when someone says that the book is funny, or when I show someone a piece of writing and they just start laughing, I swear there is really nothing quite like that feeling.
There’s also the bigger thing, the being an inspiration thing, which is almost too big a thing for me to really appreciate. I do get emails from kids, and even some adults, who tell me that my writing has inspired them in some way or another. That just overwhelms me. I’m deeply honoured that I can be that to people, and deeply humbled.
There is a whole host of advice out there on the web of how to get published and scambusters and all that, so I won’t go into that here. I guess from me, I would start by saying “write”. Don’t ask permission. Don’t worry if you don’t think you are good enough. Don’t worry if you think what you are writing is too dark or weird. Or not dark or weird enough. The first step in writing is . . . writing. Too often we get bogged down in the other stuff, the after the book is finished stuff. To finish a book in the first place has got to be the greatest challenge, and the most important.
Also . . . read. Read tons of stuff. Read your genre, and read everything else. Read the classical stuff, read the ultra modern stuff. Read graphic novels and plays. Read Dickens and Shakespeare. Read Harry Potter and James and the Giant Peach. Understand this world of literature you are participating in, understand that there are so many levels and games to play with as a writer.
And don’t get snobby. Don’t turn your nose up at any other genre, be it literary, SF, YA, Romance, etc. Respect the craftsmanship it takes to write in general, and understand that each genre comes with its own set of challenges and advantages. Open your mind and realize that even if you don’t like a book, it doesn’t necessarily mean the book is bad. And if it is truly bad, realize that there is still something to learn from that. Make your own decisions, and don’t follow trends.
Most of all write. Just keep doing it. Even if you think what you’ve written sucks, just keep going.
As they say in Galaxy Quest: “Never give up! Never surrender!”
I have tons of other more practical advice, about learning the rules and then forgetting them (as trite as that sounds, it is something I firmly believe in), about professionalism in the industry, and editing your “golden words”.
But the ones I listed here are the most important to me.
Above all things, be thoughtful.
As far as more pragmatic, step by step “what do I do to get published” advice goes, I’d advise people to check out my blog (www.ididntchoosethis.blogspot.com). The sidebar to the right has a whole host of links to posts I’ve written that offer general advice about the publishing industry and tips on writing.
However to start people off, please check out the following two entries: