Today I have the pleasure of welcoming Helen Stringer to The O.W.L. She has a fantastic new book out The Midnight Gate
sequel to Spellbinder
(you can read my review of Spellbinder HERE
). Watch later today for my review of The Midnight Gate
Welcome to The O.W.L. I’m very excited to have you here today talking about The Midnight Gate as well as writing in general. Let’s get started.
In The Midnight Gate – what part/character/event are you most excited/proud about?
I really enjoyed writing the Queen of the Abyss. She was originally going to appear in Spellbinder, but I had to put her off until book two. I love characters that are not quite what they seem. It’s so common to make snap judgments about people based on their appearance and that’s something you can really have fun with in the fantasy genre. The opportunity to find out more about Steve was great, too. Too often people assume that kids who don’t do well in school are stupid, when their curiosity might just show itself in other ways. Steve is having to deal with the disappearance of his mother as well as his new-found skills, but when push-comes-to-shove (that’s an English expression, do you use it here?) he usually makes the right decision.
Tell about your writing process. How long did it take you to write your current book from idea to finish? Please tell about revision is you can!
Boy, can I tell you about revision — Spellbinder was originally around 650 pages long! I had been looking for an agent for a while when one of the people who read it said that it was too long and that it should be half as many pages. I did what I always do – went off in a huff. Lots of mutterings along the lines of, “She doesn’t get it! Lots of books are longer than that! I can’t cut anything! It’s all absolutely crucial!” Eventually, I just looked at the stack of paper, split it in the middle and had a look where that was. I then wrote a completely new ending and wound up with a much better book. And my critic became my agent! I had hoped that the half that I cut would be book two, but the changes that I made to Spellbinder meant that very little survived – except, of course, the Queen of the Abyss.
In general, though, I start writing when I have the germ of an idea, without any plan or outline. I need to explore the characters a little, see who they are and how they speak. After I’ve written a couple of chapters I read them aloud to friends and family. It’s a really good way to tell if something is working – their responses (and silences!) really let you know whether something is working or not. I may prepare an outline once I’m about four or five chapters in, but it’s always fairly fluid. I’ll get other ideas while walking around, watching TV, or having a shower and the whole story will have to change. Sometimes I’ll go back and adjust the stuff I’ve already written, but more often I’ll make a note along the lines of “Don’t forget about the lighter!” and carry on, only going back to make the changes when I have a complete draft. Once the draft is complete, I send it to my agent who will respond with pages of notes (more grumbling), then I’ll revise and send it back. This might happen several times. Then it goes to the publisher who will send yet more pages of notes (even more grumbling). Eventually it ends up in the hands of a copy editor who sends notes about grammar and punctuation, most of which I will agree with (after the requisite grumbling, of course!).
I think one of the things to remember about revision is that everyone’s goal is to make it a better book. I also suspect that working in the film and television industries really helped me to appreciate that. A movie is very collaborative – nothing gets made without everyone working together. A screenplay is only a blueprint which the producers, director, actors, cinematographer, designers, composer, gaffers and grips (to name but a few!) bring to the screen. Everyone is working towards the same goal – making a good movie. It might not be as obvious when you are writing a book, but all of those notes and comments, from the first glimpse that you give your family to the last suggestion that perhaps a comma would be good just there, help to make your story the best it can be.
Is the story and/or characters based on anything/anyone in your real life?
Some parts of the story were based on real life. Some of the things that happen in school, for example. Quite a lot of the places were based on real ones, though. The school is based on the school I attended back in Liverpool – it really was made up of three Victorian houses joined together. It’s still there, of course, but they have added a lot of newer buildings now. Arkbath Hall is based on Speke Hall just outside Liverpool, the House of Mists on Croxteth Hall where I worked for a while, and the ruined Fenchurch Abbey on the spectacular Furness Abbey just outside Barrow in Cumbria. Not all the places are based on ones in England, though – Evans’s Electronics was inspired by something I saw on a tour of the old theater district in downtown Los Angeles. It was a tiny electronics shop, all blaring TVs and flashing lights, but once you go through a small door in the back of the store you find yourself in a beautiful old vaudeville theatre, built in 1912 and still complete with velvet curtains and gold-painted angels!
As to characters…Belladonna is largely based on my sister, Becky. She was always very clever, but terribly shy. Miss Parker was definitely inspired by the headmistress at my school – a very daunting lady who swept along the corridors wearing her black academic robe, which billowed behind her like the wings of a giant bat.
How much say did you have in the cover of this book? What is the process for creating a cover (my students are always curious about this!)
I didn’t have much say at all. The publisher designs the cover and sends me a draft. If there’s something I strongly object to they would probably change it, but they usually design the cover to appeal to particular readers. Publishing companies do tons of research on things like that, so I think it’s wise to defer to their expertise.
What kind of student were you? Was English your favorite subject in school and did you always write?
I was the kind of student who gets remarks along the lines of, “Helen has a great deal of potential but must work harder.” My sister always got great grades but I could generally find reasons not to do my homework and was miserable at anything science related – which is odd because I’m really fascinated by it now. Basically, I did well at the things I was interested in: English, history, art. I was also always planning things: plays, films (once I got my first camera at 13), and really, really complicated games that went on for days. I was constantly making up stories. Having a younger sister helps in this. Becky is only 15 months younger than me and we shared a room, so every night I would tell stories until she fell asleep. This was my first experience of rewriting, too – if she didn’t like the way a particular story was developing she’d tell me and then I’d have to start a new one!
History was (and still is) one of my favorite subjects. The stories always gripped me and sent my imagination flying. I would picture myself living in past times or speaking to the people we were reading about, and I would wonder whether I’d have done anything differently if I’d been there. I reference quite a lot of English history in my books, as well as the myths and legends of various countries, and I make a real effort to get the facts right just in case someone is interested enough to want to find out the whole story about (say) Charles I or the Viking invasions.
And because it’s the owl my standard question always is: WHOOO do you admire when it comes to writing? Whoooo are your favorite authors now and when you were growing up?
I think the two writers I admire most are Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. Austen because she chooses her words so carefully – she always says exactly what she means. I can remember when I hated her stuff. At 13 I thought her books were glorified romance novels and couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about. But the very fact that she is still being read today when most of her contemporaries are long forgotten shows that her way of looking at people was so accurate and true that even though it is nearly 200 years since she last set pen to paper, which still recognize her characters in those around us. As to Dickens…well, it’s easy to forget if you haven’t cracked open one of his books in a while, but he wrote cracking good stories. If people have never read him, I usually recommend Nicholas Nickleby to start – mysterious, adventurous, funny and touching.
When I was growing up my favorite author was Alan Garner. He isn’t very well known here, but it’s definitely worth hunting down books like The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, Elidor and The Owl Service. He was the first fantasy author I read whose work was grounded in a world I recognized. One of my favorite American authors is Raymond Chandler – he has real fun playing with language, which I think is so important.
I have to ask the last question about Spellbinder. Where did the idea for the giant cockroach like creatures on the ceiling come from??? I still shudder at them!
I have no idea! Though there’s nothing worse than noticing a spider on the ceiling above your bed just as you turn out the light. Insects on ceilings – ugh!
Thank you so much for agreeing to be interviewed on The O.W.L. I particularly loved your view on why we revise – with the goal to make it better!
It’s a pleasure!
Now for the giveaway!
Spellbinder series giveaway! Three lucky winners will receive one copy each of THE MIDNIGHT GATE and SPELLBINDER along with some bookmarks! To enter, send an e-mail to SpellbinderSeries@gmail.com
. In the body of the e-mail, include your name, mailing address, and e-mail address (if you’re under 13, submit a parent’s name and e-mail address). One entry per person and prizes will only be shipped to US or Canadian addresses. Entries must be received by midnight (PDT) on 6/17/11. Winners will be selected in a random drawing on 6/18/11 and notified via email.
For excerpts, games, links, and more, visit Helen’s website at: http://www.helenstringer.net/
Read Helen’s blog: http://helenstringer.net/blog/