|Ilustration: Whizzy Barr|
Ever wondered what makes a writer tick? What cogs of creativity whirr to bring stories to life? We take a peek into the minds behind the craft and probe for creative rituals, routines and inspiration hunting.
My 10 year old’s favourite series is written by this month’s author on the Writers’ Minds couch. He said, ‘Mum, you seriously need to interview Piers Torday. Hunt him down, Mum.’
So I did.
Winner of The Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize and former judge of the award, Piers was also nominated for the CILIP Carnegie Medal and the Waterstones Children’s Book Award – AND he’s also an SCBWI member, so watch this space!
Piers’ next book for children is There May Be A Castle (Quercus, 6th October) and he will be introducing the book at the Henley Literature Festival in September.
Piers, thank you for joining us. Are you ready to give away your inner-most creative workings? The secrets of what makes you tick?
Readers, grab a cuppa and crack open your best biscuits as we look inside this writer’s mind…
Inspiration - are you a hunter or gatherer?
It depends what stage of the writing process I am in. At the moment, I am planning a new trilogy. That’s a lot of words. And all I have so far is a title and a subject area, and a couple of voices ticking away in my head, with a story that needs to be told. But I don’t really know what those stories are yet or how they are going to link up. So I’m gathering. I’ll read about 10 novels on the same theme, a mixture of classics, recent releases and oddballs no-one else cares about that caught my eye. And the same with non fiction. The weird thing is, though, I bet the best ideas will come from the other books, films, box sets, plays and exhibitions I experience for pleasure. The focused reading will simply give those flashes of inspiration a context in which they can acquire meaning. Then, when I start to write, I will definitely become a hunter – obsessively reading up on subjects and worlds as they approach in my own narrative, to try and keep me completely “in the world.” Whatever that turns out to be!
Are you a plotter or pantser?
My first book, The Last Wild, took forever to write, about four years. This was partly because I still had a full time job, and partly because I had never written a novel before so had literally no idea what I was doing. So I planned very little, and wrote where the story took me and got into a total mess, wrote thousands more words than I needed to, lost faith – and if it hadn’t been for unswerving belief in me from the agent who had taken me on based upon three early chapters – I would have given up. I got there in the end, but man, it was a slog.
So now I always plot. It’s agony and the hardest part. How can you plot when your characters have yet to utter a word, or take to the stage, when that stage is not even dressed? Well, you just follow your gut, for better or worse, and if it isn’t right, you adjust as you go along. But at least its something. A plot is like Google Maps – the signal may fade, it may sometimes lead you to a cul-de-sac by mistake, but in the end I’d rather have it than not, when wandering unknown lanes.
Shed sitter or cafe dreamer?
Touring festivals and visiting schools, I’ve learned to write pretty much anywhere, and a Macbook Air is light enough to make this possible, but in an ideal world at home in my study, surrounded by the books which inspire me the most, looking at our garden when not at the screen, and a steady stream of music in my ears which won’t annoy anyone else!
Any mottos or words of wisdom hung above your desk?
Er, the mortgage repayment schedule....
Target word count per day or as it comes?
Scrivener – the indispensable (for me) writing software that I use, calculates my daily target backwards from submission deadline, and it tends to hover around 500-600 but then can jump scarily as we approach deadline to 1000 and above. I always try and do minimum 500 a day when I’m writing, because that is always doable and always feels like an achievement to be proud of.
Pen or Keyboard?
I wish I could say pen, because I have some beautiful ones, and some gorgeous notebooks, but as a left hander who holds his pen funny, it is never going to happen. Unlike many writers, I never carry a notebook around with me because I can never read what I’ve written. If an idea is too good not to note, I record it on my iPhone. Frankly, I love the calm, serene illusion of order that software, screens and typed text can impose on my utterly disordered mind.
Music or silence?
I have to have music when drafting. I am a Spotify addict, and create a playlist for each book, and each chapter in each book, with additional playlists for certain generic landscapes (arctic, jungle etc) or scenes (chase, deathbed, opening) and they are all mainly from movie soundtracks. I can’t listen to other peoples’ words while writing, and classical is too distracting and often too high minded for my purposes. But the right soundtrack – designed, after all, to be background to drama – can help me find not just the pace and tone of a scene, but source the inner emotion to lift it up a level.
Although, of course, the music fades once I am in the thick of it, and I have to edit in silence, because then music is at best misleading, and at worst, delusional.
Chocolate or wine?
Coffee is my main writing drug of choice, and I have to have a substantial elevenses, and equally I need tea at teatime with a hot cross bun or toast. Essentially my utterly schoolboy tastes fuel me when writing in the mind of one! On occasion I will write with a beer in the evening if I am really, really blocked and frustrated. But only one!
Perspiration or inspiration?
Both. Although writing is a marathon not a sprint. Steady as you go, so not much excessive perspiration, and you can’t get all the way without the inspiration moments...
To get into the Zone, do you use any techniques or triggers? Anything truly weird and eccentric?
The soundtracks, as I said, and also movie trailers. The first coffee. Clearing yesterday’s inbox (at least of easily clearable emails) helps. In the end, it’s not only a job but potentially a very pleasurable one -and you just have to get on with it!
Do you ever hear your character’s voice in your head?
Always – can’t write them if I don’t. The voice always comes first and then I work out how to turn it into a character, or if I do invent the character first, they are always ‘dead’ to me until I can hear the voice.
If there one key piece of advice, one gem of wisdom about the craft of writing, be it character development, re-writing or plot vs story, what would that be?
Accept and trust. Accept your own ideas, your own style, and your own talent. They may not always be what you expected or hoped for, but they are your own, and all good readers seek is something authentic – not a lesser reflection of work they already know. Accept your characters, they may not always turn out how you imagined, and that’s called originality. Trust the process. When your mind says rest, have a rest or walk away for a while. When your mind says read, you need to stop writing and pick up a book for research or inspiration. When you have the urge to write, don’t delay! Equally, no book was ever written in a day, never worry about the weeks or even months you lose to anything from other work to illness or anything at all – the work will keep. No-one else in the world has your ideas, your story and your vision of it – remember that, and you will always be able to fill the blank page.
PS And one technical note, never repeat yourself. Never repeat too many similar sounding words on the same page, never repeat phrases or structural tropes over a book, and try never to repeat a scene or character you have experienced elsewhere. Reinvent not repeat.
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In regular demand as a speaker at schools and festivals, Piers is also a reading helper with Beanstalk, a former judge on the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize, a Patron of Reading at Heathmere School and a trustee of the Pleasance Theatre.
Born in Northumberland, he now lives in London with his husband and hopefully a cat. Website Twitter Facebook Instagram:piers_torday