I always assumed my writing would improve as time went on, though I have to say I wasn’t sure how that would happen. With 13 titles out in the world now, it got me thinking about what I’d learned from each of my books and how that affected subsequent creations. I’ve only included my middle-grade books here, since I reckon these have made the most difference to my writing.
The Devil’s Porridge Gang
This was my first novel so naturally I’m very proud of it. However, since I’d mainly written stage plays up til then, I wasn’t even sure if I could write a novel, so my main challenge was to see if it was possible. And also to see if I enjoyed it.
When I started, all I had was the title and this way of working has stayed with me – make a title, write the book. Like many authors, I don’t want to know the ending before I get there, since I’d be bored before I started. What interests me is finding out what happens. It’s worth saying I wrote this book over the span of several years, though the bulk of it was written over a two-month period.
What I learned from Devil’s Porridge is that I hate working on something that takes a long time – I want to start it and finish it within a reasonable time frame. In addition, it hadn’t occurred to me to open the story with a bang, and instead I rambled away about stuff I thought was quite interesting but didn’t actually move the story forward.
Lessons: Set a deadline. Don’t ramble.
The Architect’s Apprentice
Immediately after finishing Devil’s Porridge, I started this one. I’d already written two or three pages a few years previously (for a writing competition), but didn’t have much idea about where it was going. Planning to write as fast as possible, I gave myself a deadline and managed to finish it (near enough) within three months.
Although this is a children’s book, I discovered I’d focused quite a lot on the adult characters. In most of the kids books I’ve read, this doesn’t happen and I realised I’d have to be careful not to leave my heroes behind, or my readers might get a bit hacked off. My biggest challenge was sorting out the time-frame, as my characters were moving back and forwards in time. I did get terribly confused towards the end and had to move several chapters around for it to make sense. Phew.
Lessons: Stay focused on the main characters. Stick to chronological – it’s easier.
The Hounds of Hellerby Hall
I started a new series ‘The Christie McKinnon Adventures’ as soon as I’d put the previous novel to bed. I’d come up with the title years before when I was trying to write a comedy radio play. However, that project didn’t work out and I stored the title away for a rainy day. I began with a female protagonist this time and though I concentrated more on the children’s characters, I found I was still veering away from them a little too often. I also introduced more characters than I needed and at one point began to wonder if I’d created a monster. In the end, it worked out fine, but my job would have been easier if I’d been a little less generous in inviting all and sundry to join in.
Lesson: Stay focused on the main characters. Again.
In the follow-up to The Architect’s Apprentice, I assumed because I’d already created the characters etc, it would be easier this time. Wrong! The problem started with the fact I’d created a world of time-slips and needed to develop this without getting too caught up in how the phenomenon actually worked. As with its predecessor, I had to move chapters around for the story to make sense, and I found the restrictions of focusing on one place (Dr Dee’s house at Mortlake) a bit too restrictive. Nevertheless, I also managed to surprise myself when a character I wasn’t expecting turned up out of the blue. (This is why I don’t plan – it’s more exciting).
Lesson: Make sure the premise can sustain the story.
The House That Wasn’t There
With the follow up to Hellerby Hall, I stared with a ‘puzzle’ title – I wanted to tell a story that began with a mystery: someone is stealing children and taking them to a mysterious house on Deadman’s Lane – except, the house isn’t there. I worked out the solution, but couldn’t be sure if it was just a bit too farfetched. On the positive side, I did focus on the main characters much more, but towards the end of the novel, I needed an additional character for the whole thing to make sense. Doing a fair bit of re-writing, I was able to make it work, but it would have been easier if I’d spent more time thinking about the plot and less time doing my usual seat-of-the-pants thing.
Lesson: Sometimes it pays to plan.