Q) Which comes first for you, plot or characters…. or something else?
A: The initial idea, usually. With Ways to Live Forever, for example, I thought ‘I wonder how I would go about writing a book about a child who was dying?’ and then the plot and the character came from that. I wanted the book to look at the philosophical questions surrounding death, so I needed a character who was philosophical and scientific, but I also wanted it to be a funny book, so he needed to have a sense of humour. Similarly, I wanted the book to look at the rituals surrounding death, and for Sam to see a death first-hand, so the plot developed from that.
With Season of Secrets, I just fell in love with the story of the green man. He’s a summer god who’s born in the spring, grows through the summer, dies in the autumn and is reborn in the spring. I wanted that cycle to structure the story, so I decided to use it as a metaphor for the grief-story of a child whose mother has died. The novel begins in autumn when the world seems very dead, then gradually things start to feel more hopeful as spring comes back. The ideas for the plot came from that story.
Q) How do you go about writing a book?
A: I rarely think in finished stories. I think in scenes. When I used to make up stories as a child, they were never ‘once upon a time …’ stories. Instead I would take characters – people I’d invented, or stolen from other books – and tell incidents from their lives. Sometimes the incidents would fit into a larger story. Sometimes they wouldn’t.
When I started writing Ways to Live Forever. I thought, ‘This is going to be a scrapbook sort of book. There’ll be lots of lists’, and I wrote some lists. Then I thought, ‘Maybe there should be stories too’, and I wrote some stories. Then I thought, ‘I should probably work out how it’s going to end’, so I wrote the ending.
Ways to Live Forever’s plot is very simple. I knew roughly what was going to happen, and I had a rough idea of where every chapter I wrote would fit. I got ideas for scenes and subplots as I wrote. One day it snowed and the world looked so wonderful that I wrote in some snow. Another day I saw a television programme about Dr Duncan MacDougall and decided to put him in too.
Q) How did you turn those scenes into a finished book?
A: I wrote until I had every scene I thought the book needed, then I rearranged the chapters into roughly the right order. Then I sat down and read it. I was appalled. Some writers like their first drafts, but I always hate mine. My beautiful book that I’d spent nearly a year writing – and it was awful.
I sat around for around for a week moping, then I set about fixing it. I rearranged a lot of chapters. Some I deleted (I usually delete nearly as many words as I keep in the book). Other chapters I rewrote entirely. I read it again and changed some more things. By the time I read it through for the third time, I was surprised to discover that I almost liked it.
Q) Can you tell us the name of one of your characters and the story of how you found their name?
A: Usually when I start writing about a person I assign them a random name, which I change when I get to know them better.
The main character in Ways to Live Forever was called David for most of the time I was writing. This was fine until the other students on my MA started complaining that David was too girly. I changed the character to make him more boyish, but now he felt like a different person. He looked different and acted different – more like a Sam than a David. So I changed his name to Sam.
Sam’s sister started out as Katherine, which didn’t suit her at all, so I changed it to Tilda. Tilda suited her really well – but I don’t much like it and you have to like your characters’ names. I changed it to Ellie, which I do like, but which is much softer and gentler. I felt she had to have a sturdy name, so I changed it to Ella, which stuck.
Sam’s best friend is called Felix and has been ever since he walked onto the page. It’s a quirky, unusual name and it means happy, which suits him perfectly. It’s one of the only names that I never changed.
Q) Where do you write?
A: Most of the time I write on a laptop on my sofa, but I’ve written great scenes on trains, in fields and in pubs. I have a friend who I’ll make ‘writing dates’ with, or I’ll go and write all day in a coffee shop. I find I write differently wherever I am.
Q) Does music help you write? What are you listening to at the moment?
A: I almost always listen to music when I’m writing – it helps me block out the rest of the world. I’m currently listening to a lot of Regina Spektor and Belle and Sebastian, but it varies.
Q) Do you write the sort of novels that you enjoyed reading as a child?
A: I do try and write the sort of books that I would have liked as a child. The things that I liked then – families, love, damaged people, bits that make me laugh – still interest me today. I always knew that I wanted to be a writer and when I was a child I had very definite ideas about what sort of books I would write. I wanted them to be real. Often, when I’m writing, I’ll hear that ten-year-old voice saying, “But that wouldn’t happen!” or “Put that in, that’s real.”
Q) Do you ever experience writer’s block? How do you overcome it?
A: Sometimes I find it easier to write than other times. And sometimes I don’t know what’s going to happen next. But I can always write something, even if that something isn’t very good. I find it helps to remember that a page of bad words is better than no good words and that first drafts are supposed to be rubbish.
Q) Do you keep a notebook or journal?
A: I love the idea of a writer’s notebook, but I’ve never managed to keep one. If I have an idea for a new scene in my book, I usually just write it straight away.
Q) What is the best piece of advice about writing that you have been given?
A: My creative writing tutor, Julia Green, told me to the write the book that only I could write. She pointed out that I would only ever be a second-rate J K Rowling, but I was the best Sally Nicholls that anyone could ever be.
This has been taken from the book “Writer’s Secrets” (Hodder 2008)