Writers' Minds with Joanna Nadin

Interview with @joannanadin
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 I have the joy of interviewing Joanna Nadin


Since turning her hand from broadcast journalism and political speech writing, Joanna has written more than fifty (yes fifty) children’s books. She is a strong, present voice within social media and beyond. If you haven’t followed her before, now is a good time to start!

You can catch Joanna at the Bath Children's Literature Festival with Sir Chris Hoy and Flying Fergus illustrator Clare Elsom on Sunday 2nd October. But before she flies off, let’s pry inside that writer’s mind.

Jo, make yourself comfortable. Readers, grab a cuppa.
*Switches on lamp*
*Sharpens pencil*

Joanna Nadin, what’s inside your writer’s mind? 

Inspiration - are you a hunter or gatherer? 

Gatherer. I steal the seeds of stories from all over the place – television, other books, newspapers. I borrow the names of friends and the deeds of enemies. And then I write them down or paste them into a notebook. Joe All Alone came from seeing a homeless schoolkid walking down Rye Lane with a sleeping bag on his back like a snail. Solomon Smee is based on a newspaper article in which small monkeys invaded a town hall in India and the mayor really did employ bigger monkeys to sort them out (which of course they didn’t). Penny Dreadful is based on my own daughter and her catastrophe-prone best friend.

Are you a plotter or pantser? 

Plotter. To the nth degree. I spend at last half as much time plotting as I do writing (which saves me months in the end), and I don’t start writing until every chapter is blocked out, and a lot of the dialogue set as well. Obviously things may change over the course of the book but only by a margin. So I only ever write a single draft before sending it to an editor. To me pantsing would be like setting out to drive from here to Timbuctoo with no satnav or map or even clue why you were going. I don’t have the time to pants. Writing is a job for me, not a pastime, and I have deadlines.

Shed sitter or cafe dreamer? 

Café. Always. I need people around me or I start to get cabin fever. I also need someone to bring me tea at intervals. Cafes are good like that. Sheds not so much.

Joanna's Desk

Any mottos or words of wisdom hung above your desk? 

Many. My wall is covered. From “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose” from Friday Night Lights to “What Would Buffy Do” – a line from Xander I think, originally. There’s Wordsworth’s Daffodils, some Plath, lines from The Breakfast Club. And this by Keats. This is what my head feels like – a soup of stories, and I’m scared I won’t get them all out in time:

When I have fears that I may cease to be 
    Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain, 
Before high-pilèd books, in charactery, 
    Hold like rich garners the full ripened grain; 
When I behold, upon the night’s starred face, 
    Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance, 
And think that I may never live to trace 
    Their shadows with the magic hand of chance; 
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour, 
    That I shall never look upon thee more, 
Never have relish in the faery power 
    Of unreflecting love—then on the shore 
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think 
    Till love and fame to nothingness do sink. 

Target word count per day or as it comes? 

At least a thousand. But if the going is good, or a deadline is short, I can happily go up to two or three thousand. I work from 7.30 am when my daughter leaves for school until my head hurts basically.

Joanna's words of wisdom pinned above her desk

Pen or Keyboard? 

Pen when plotting, keyboard when writing. I can barely read my notes as it is – hugely frustrating at times.

Music or silence? 

Music. Or the television – preferably with some kind of bad daytime makeover show on that I can tune out. I’m used to writing in newsrooms or press offices, with people shouting, and several TVs tuned to different channels. I need noise and buzz, then I get the buzz.

Chocolate or wine? 

Tea. And scones.

Perspiration or inspiration? 

Both. But mainly sweat. I don’t have the luxury of waiting for some mythical muse to strike. Writing is hard work, but you just have to get on with it and get something down, even if you fiddle with it later. I come from a journalism background and then politics – you write the number of words you’re told in the (short) time you’re given and while they don’t have to be “I have a dream” every time, they had better be halfway decent because thousands of people are going to hear them. Those years of practice were invaluable. Writing now is half muscle memory I think.

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

When I’m plotting, which I think is probably first draft for a lot of people, I cycle, or sit in a steam room, and let the characters try scenes out. If they work, I’ll write them down later, if not I try something else. But I need to be zoned out basically for that to happen.

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

All. The. Time. Not because I’m channelling some kind of spirit – this isn’t witchcraft for me – but because I put them in my head; I’m playing them, acting them out, working out what they’d do and what they’d say in any situation. Three years of drama school didn’t get wasted after all.

If there was 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? 

Make your character care. Like, really care. If they don’t, nor will the reader.

Joanna Nadin is a former broadcast journalist and special adviser to the Prime Minister. Since leaving politics, she’s written more than fifty books for children and teenagers, including the award-winning Penny Dreadful series (Usborne), the bestselling Rachel Rileydiaries (OUP) and the Flying Fergus series with Olympic champion Sir Chris Hoy. She’s a winner of the Surrey Book Award and the Fantastic Book Award and has been shortlisted for the Roald Dahl Funny Prize, the Booktrust Best Book awards amongst others, and thrice shortlisted for Queen of Teen. Jo also freelances as a speechwriter and lectures in creative writing at Bath Spa University where she is in the final stages of a PhD in Creative Writing focusing on mutable and multiple self in young adult novels.

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

Contact: writers@britishscbwi.org 

Follow: @LMMinns


  1. I always enjoy reading about how others get the job done. I too am a plotter but I need quiet, not necessarily silence but I am easily distracted! I don't understand pantsers who argue that plotting robs them of their creativity. My creativity comes in when I'm dreaming up concepts or themes, at the plotting stage and while I write. Little bits and bobs come to me while writing (and I'll often add those thoughts in) but the primary structure stays the same in an attempt to keep the pacing, character and plot arcs, etc where I think they need to be. I imagine I'm inside my characters looking out and describe what 'I'm' thinking and seeing, etc. I very much visualise my scenes as if they were playing out on screen in front of me. I only wish I had more time to spend this way! I absolutely love the creative process.

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