Writers' Minds - Anthony McGowan

Illustration - 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.


He’s an award winning writer and all round clever clogs. His novel, The Knife That Killed Me was turned into a film and received its multi-platform premiere in July 2014. His most recent full length YA novel, Hello Darkness is published by Walker Books. He was responsible for my son being told to, ‘Stop reading under the covers – it’s bedtime!’ with his Willard Price Animal Adventure series. Drum roll please for Dr Tony... 

I’m super excited this month to have snared Anthony McGowan and to unpick what makes him tick. So, whilst he is struggling to escape from the net I’ve thrown over him, grab a cuppa and get inside his writer’s mind. 

Inspiration - are you a hunter or gatherer? 

Generally, I wait till things drop in my lap. I suppose it’s because I’m fundamentally lazy, and if things don’t come easily, then they tend not to come at all. So I feel more gathered than gathering. The only time I had a proper job, my first report said ‘Quite able, but tends to wilt under pressure,’ which was harsh, but true. An idea will half form in my head, and I’ll let it grow slowly there, like a tumour. 

Are you a plotter or pantser? 

Took me a while to get what you meant by ‘pantser’ – thought it was a misprint for ‘panzer’ or ‘panther’ to begin with. And yes, I am the panther, lethal, silent, sinister, beautiful … What, where am I? Oh, yes, I usually have a vague idea of the plot – a beginning and a rough end. But everything in between has to be dictated by your characters. Or it might not even be a plot, more a set-up – e.g. ‘teenage boy has a brain tumour that talks to him’, or ‘someone is killing the school pets. Johnny is always on the scene when it happens. Is it really him?’ and then I work through the logic of that situation. 

Shed sitter or cafe dreamer? 

I don’t have a shed, and I don’t like to work in café’s – I can’t eke things out, so I end up drinking nineteen cups of coffee, and then don’t sleep for three nights. I either work at home in a small and fetid room, writhing in my own filth and misery, or I cycle down to the British Library and imagine that the attractive Italian postgraduate students there are all in love with me. 

Any mottos or words of wisdom hung above your desk? 

Not really. I have photos of the kids to remind me that if I don’t get another book deal soon they’ll have to go to school in their pyjamas. But there is a post-it note on my screen, which says ‘How do you titillate an ocelot?’ and there’s another one that says, plangently, ‘Get milk’. 

Target word count per day or as it comes? 

I always used to write at least 1000 words a day. 3000 was a very good day. Alas I’ve used up much of my word horde, and now I’m lucky if I can squeeze out 500. But the words are better. Who am I kidding? The words are exactly the same. Or perhaps a little worse for wear. They have bad backs and a problem with trapped wind. 

Pen or Keyboard? 

Does anyone use a pen any more? I had a go at daubing marks on a cave wall with a stick and my own dung, but editors found it hard to work with that. I’m a Mac person, and tend to sneer at those Windows users who aren’t as cool and arty as me. Plus you get viruses, haha. 

Music or silence? 

I can’t write to music. Silence would be a luxury – there’s nearly always some masochistic scrote trimming the hedges outside my window. I think about murdering him, sometimes using his implements – ie trimming his arms and legs off, and leaving him to bleed to death while he looks down at his limbless trunk. Sometimes with mine – a quick blow with a sharpened pencil through the eardrum and into the brain. 

Chocolate or wine? 

Beer. I can sometimes get a last spurt out of myself if I have a glass of booze late in the day. It’s helped me to write this … 

Perspiration or inspiration? 

Neither is any use on its own. Ideas don’t write themselves – you have to sit in front of the damn screen and pound away at the keyboard. But I am, coincidentally, very sweaty. I have to take a change of shirt whenever I do a school event, or I sweat them into translucency, and you can see my dank nipples. And nobody wants that. 

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

I force Mrs McG to perform erotic dances for me, wearing a grass skirt and an elephant mask. Oh, sorry, you meant writing? No. I just sit down and get on with it because it’s my job. Actually, tea helps. Two or three cups gives me a little energy surge to get my fingers moving. I’m still talking about the writing – not the rumpy-pumpy. 

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

Not really. They come alive as I type them. What I do hear in my head are grossly comic descriptive passages. They come to me complete, as if by dictation. 

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? 

Always think, “Why should someone else want to read this?” I know that’s the opposite of the ‘I’m just writing for myself’ school, but I believe that literature is a conversation, and it’s bad manners to be boring. 

Anthony McGowan is one of the most widely acclaimed young-adult authors in the UK. His books have won several major awards, and been shortlisted for many more. He has also written highly regarded adult fiction, as well as books for younger readers. He has a PhD on the history of beauty, and has taught philosophy and creative writing. He lives in London with his wife and two children. Find out more about Anthony McGowan here

Louise Cliffe-Minns is the Events Editor and joint Features Editor for Words & Pictures. 

Contact: events@britishscbwi.org 


  1. Cracking interview, Louise, and thanks, Anthony. Late night beer & sweat, huh? Makes sense.

  2. Hilarious. I'm glad I'd finished eating my Blueberry bagel, while watching at Home with the Georgians - otherwise my old mac screen would've been splattered

  3. "It’s bad manners to be boring" - words to live by :-)

  4. This is hilarious! I am going to rush out to read Anthony McGowan.

  5. Brilliant! Made me laugh right through to the end . Hope I am not a bad mannered writer :-)

  6. Writing in its finest sense is more than just playing around with words to express one's views, opinions or objectively shout out product or service descriptions. Before a piece of writing can reach the hearts and minds of critically acclaimed audience, the grammar must first be flawlessly perfect. See more fragment sentence checker


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