Writers' Minds - Melvin Burgess

Writers' Minds
Image 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.


This month’s Writers’ Minds is a big deal for me. Years ago, when I was a high school teacher in London, I chose to study a particular book with my students. We’d sneak off under a tree and read as a class for pleasure. 

It was a controversial book, Junk, by Melvin Burgess. This book opened up conversations. Big conversations about BIG stuff. It made it okay to talk about BIG stuff. It was a book that spoke to kids - straight. 

Junk celebrates its 20th anniversary this year and I’m sure it will continue to touch lives. As an award winning author, Melvin Burgess needs little introduction. He is however, at this year’s SCBWI Spring Writers’ Retreat at Dunford House. Yes! It’s true. You could ‘Get in touch with your inner child’ with Melvin Burgess. Be smart and get your ticket early here

But right now, sit back, relax and let’s reveal what makes Melvin Burgess tick. What’s inside his writer’s mind? 

Inspiration - are you a hunter or gatherer? 

Both. Actually, I think I might be a spider. I like to set traps for the imagination. I’ll pose myself a query and then wait a while for the answer to come out of hiding, then grab it. Bath’s are a very good place for letting the unconscious do it’s work while you relax. So is sleeping. Walking’s good, too. The unconscious mind cannot resist a challenge. All you have to do is offer the challenge up... and wait. Like a spider, but with bait. 

Are you a plotter or pantser? 

Again, both. I like to know more or less where I want to get to, but not how I’m going to get there. Too much plotting and you get bored writing it, which will never do. On the other hand, you don’t want to get lost in the verbiage. I’ll start of by the seat of my pants but once I get going, everything becomes clearer and clearer. If it doesn't, I’m in trouble … 

Shed sitter or cafe dreamer? 

Oh, shed. I’m in it now. I like my own space. I can write anywhere, by and large, but I don’t like interruptions. 

Any mottos or words of wisdom hung above your desk? 

I have a bird feeder just out of the window in the garden – that does me fine. Words of wisdom are like sweets - suck em too long and you get fed up with them. 

Target word count per day or as it comes? 

If I do 2000, that’s good. But you know, it’s a bit irrelevant. When we used to send off printed MS, I loved picking it up and weighing it in my hands just before posting it – there was something so satisfying in that solid weight. But it has nothing to do with the quality of the end product of course, and word counts are the same kind of game. Some days are about just getting a paragraph right – finding the tone. Or getting a new character right. And if you have by the end of the day, you’ve done good work. 

Pen or Keyboard? 

Keyboard. I can keep up with my thoughts that way. I did write the first draft of something recently long hand tho – just for a change. 

Music or silence? 

Again, both! When I need to concentrate on something in particular, I need silence. But mostly I have music on. Something that doesn’t impinge too much. Bach is great, as is most Baroque music. Phillip Glass is also very good. I’ve got John Cale on at the moment – he comes on from time to time. The Portico Quartet – I could go on for ever. I love Spotify! 

Chocolate or wine? 

Both! What kind of fool says no to either. But I rarely drink while I’m working. 

Perspiration or inspiration? 

I think it was G K Chesterton who said; Inspiration. I get up every morning and make sure I’m inspired. That’s about right. 

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

I already mentioned baths. Post yourself a query and then go and lie in the bath. Like back, remind yourself what you want. Then - relax. Just before you get out have another think about the problem, Hey Presto! 

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

I can’t say I have. 

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? 

Just don’t stop. 

Melvin Burgess was born in Sussex in 1954. His first book, The Cry of the Wolf, was published in 1990, and was short listed for the Carnegie Medal. He has since won various awards including the Carnegie Medal and the Guardian Children's Fiction Award for, JUNK, which was also voted one of the top ten Carnegie winners of all time, and the LA Times Best Young Adult Book of the Year award for Doing It. His work has been widely adapted for stage and TV and film. Melvin lives and works in Hebden Bridge with his partner, Anita.
Have you tried a Krispy Whisper yet? 

Lou Minns is the joint Features Editor for Words & Pictures SCBWI BI and the new Social Media Co-ordinator for SCBWI San Francisco North & East Bay.

Contact: writers@britishscbwi.org 

 Follow: @LMMinns


  1. Fantastic insights, and questions, thank you both for this!

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