Writers' Minds - Toby Forward

Illustration by Wizzy 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. 


This month I’m interviewing Toby Forward, who is a long established author, most recently, of the Flaxfield Quartet (Bloomsbury), the forth book in the series, Starborn, is available now. Toby writes for children of all ages, his picture books list titles such as The Christmas Mouse, The Wolf’s Story, and The First Day at School. His junior fiction spans the classical world of Peter Pan in Neverland, the Wyvern Quartet, illustrated by Michael Foreman, and non-fiction titles such as Shakespeare’s Globe. Toby also writes for adults and spent a year as the writer in residence at a prison in Yorkshire for the Arts Council of Great Britain. 

So, Toby, are you ready for our quick fire questions to reveal your writer’s mind? 

Grab yourself a cuppa and settle down as we delve deeper… 

Inspiration - are you a hunter or gatherer? 

I’m neither, most of the time. 

I’m a birthday boy. Everything is a present. 

I don’t go looking for stories and I don’t pick them up as they appear during the day. I daydream, I suppose. It’s a bit of a curse, because I have such a low boredom threshold. 

It was bad at school because I found a lot of the things easy so I would lose interest just as the hard work part started, and I’d drift off somewhere else. Either that or start to behave badly. 

When I had a job, I had to go to lots of meetings and that was torture, because I got bored there as well. 

If I was chairing a meeting it wasn’t too bad, because I could crack on and get it over with soon. But if I was just a member of the group it didn’t work out too well. 

I now always refuse to join group and committees because I know that after a maximum of seventeen minutes I’m going to say something inappropriate, just to relieve the boredom and amuse myself. 

But being bored is a great way to let ideas and stories float into your head, I find. 

Are you a plotter or pantser? 

I’m neither. 

Writers get asked this a lot and I’ve finally come up with a metaphor for how I work. 

It’s like taking a journey. When I get an idea for a book I know whether it’s going to be a trip to the shops or a long-distance drive. That tells me how far I’m going with this idea. 

Then I know where I’m going to start and where I’m going to finish, and what places I’m going through on the way. Those are more or less fixed, although events may mean that some of them change. On short journey not much changes to the plan. But I always find that on a long journey, that is, in a long book, there are places I thought I’d like and they turn out not to be so good, so I miss them out, and there are nice places I didn’t expect to go through, so I linger there. People pop up unexpectedly. And some of the people I took on the journey with me aren’t as nice or as interesting as I thought they might be, and new people are fascinating, so I take them along as well. 

So, it’s plotted, up to a point, but it’s also an adventure of discovery, and sometimes the diversions are what makes it worth while. 

Shed sitter or cafe dreamer? 

Most of the time I work in the same place In my house, but from time to time I get stir crazy, take the laptop and sit in a coffee shop and work there. 

I really love that freedom. 

Any mottos or words of wisdom hung above your desk? 

I’m afraid not. 

However, a good quote from Tchaikovsky that all aspiring writers should have on their desk is: "I sit down to the piano regularly at nine-o'clock in the morning and Mesdames les Muses have learned to be on time for that rendezvous." 

Target word count per day or as it comes? 

When I’m really into a book and know that it’s going to work, I rise early, breakfast and get to work. I have to write 500 words before I am allowed coffee. That’s a real incentive. After that, I have to write another 500 before I can call it quits for the day. After that, I’m allowed to write a little more, rather than brutally chop off in mid-sentence. But not much more, or I’ll write myself out and not be able to write the next day. 

Pen or Keyboard? 

I used to write in a library, with a fountain pen in a hard-cover notebook and type it out daily. But since the arrival of lightweight laptops I now use mine pretty much exclusively. 

Music or silence? 

I’m very particular about this one. I can’t write with music on. I need the sort of silence which is just the everyday noise of the world. The fridge whirring, traffic going past, clocks ticking. I can even write in a public place with chatter and the noise of the coffee machine, but music is somehow its own demand and I have to listen to it. So I never have it on in the house when I’m working. 

Chocolate or wine? 


Perspiration or inspiration? 

I find it’s no good trying to write if I haven’t got a story I want to tell. And it’s no good having a really great idea if I can’t be bothered to sit down and slog it out. So, both. 

To get into the Zone, do you use any techniques or triggers? Anything truly weird and eccentric? 

I’ve had some really bad times when I haven’t been able to write, but I’ve never worked out how to get out of them. It just happens. 

The best trigger for me is a commission. Demand and deadline from outside always does the trick. 

Do you ever hear your character’s voice in your head? 

Not the voice, but I do find myself having the conversations in my head when I’m away from the laptop and I have to be sure to catch them or I forget them. I also find it’s useful to start the day’s writing in the shower so that when I sit down at the keyboard I’ve got the first couple of sentences ready. They’re always the hardest of the day if I haven’t got them before I start. 

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? 

I have no wisdom, I’m afraid. 

But I do have some advice for younger people who want to write. 

Read everything you can. 

Turn off the television, the wireless, the game console, the music – everything. 

Be on your own. 

Don’t always seek out company. 

Go for a walk. 

If there’s never any space in your life which isn’t filled instantly with outside noise and chatter, how will you ever let the people and the stories come in? 

by Toby Forward
US Edition

If you were to fold the twentieth century in half and open it out again, you would see that I was born on the crease, 23rd February 1950, the day the second Attlee government was elected. Before that, the century was marked by two world wars, a general strike, Gracie Fields, the depression, bad haircuts, rationing, and the terrible winter of 1947. After that, it was peace, prosperity, the Beatles, the welfare state, the white heat of the technological revolution, the flourishing of the grammar schools, the end of apartheid, the new universities, and rights for women and gay people. Modesty prevents me from saying that this new age was entirely because of my arrival in the world, but it looks like more than just a coincidence, don’t you think?

Lou Minns is the Events Editor and joint Features Editor for Words & Pictures. 

Contact: events@britishscbwi.org writers@britishscbwi.org 

Blog: Louminns.blogspot.com 

Follow: @LMMinns


  1. Whisky. Great answer! Really enjoyed reading this lots of really nice insights, thank you Toby and Lou.

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