Below are my answers to some of the great questions I've been asked by readers & young writers since The Ability came out. If you have any other questions, please do get in touch (Contact) and I'll try to answer it on here.
How long does it take you to write a book?
I plan everything out first in my notebook. When that's done, I try and write 1,000 words a day. I find if I take a break from writing it can be hard to get back into it, so I try not to miss any days. In general, I spend about 2 months planning and 4 to 5 months writing.
(pages from my notebook for The Ability)
Is it hard to write books for children when you're not a child yourself?
Well, this may say more about me than I'd like but, when I'm writing, I'm not thinking about writing for a younger audience, I'm just trying to write a book that I'd like to read myself!
Saying that, I was a teacher for ten years - teaching mostly boys between the ages of 8 and 14, many of whom had struggled with their behaviour and work at their previous schools. At the start of every year I made it my mission to try to find a way to get every student excited about reading, particularly those who started the year 'hating' books. As a result, I became an expert in finding books that featured boxing, motorbikes, football (soccer), ninjas, war, horses, planes and, for one particularly student, pigeon-racing! I can't help but think of my past students when I'm writing and whether or not they'd relate to whatever it is that I'm working on.
Where do you write?
The great thing about writing is that you can do it anywhere! I write in cafes, in the park and at the library but mostly here, in my apartment, in front of the fire.
Do you have any writing rituals?
Only two that I can think of!
1) I have to start a new notebook for every book idea. This means that I have quite a few notebooks with only a couple of pages of writing! However, I know one day I might end up going back to the idea, so I like to keep them just in case.
And 2) When I start planning a book, I always call my protagonist (if it's a boy) - Jack. When I first started writing - about twenty years ago - I loved the name Jack but no ideas that I worked on ever seemed good enough to use it! Then, over the years, it became a habit; now I always start with the name Jack and then change it at some point down the line when I think of a good alternative.
Do you listen to music when you write and, if so, what music do you listen to?
I do! I listen to classical music when I'm writing as I find it relaxing and there are no lyrics to distract me...with one exception! There is a scene in The Ability 2: Mindscape which takes place at a heavy metal concert. To get in the mood, and because it was full of fast action, I played Metallica at full volume while writing - I had to apologize to the neighbors the next day! (one of my favourite questions - thank you Andrew!)
How did you get published?
I sent in my manuscript to twelve agents in London that I picked out from a book called 'Writers & Artists Yearbook'. I chose those 12 because I liked the kind of books they represented. I sent it out to three agents first - ones that I liked but didn't know that much about. They all rejected it and commented on my synopsis not being very good! So I rewrote the synopsis and sent it out to the other nine, and five said yes! As I was driving back from my meeting with my now-agent, I saw this t-shirt in a window - it seemed so timely that I had to pull up on the side of the road and take a picture!
After that, my agent suggested a few changes to my book and, when that was done, she and her co-agent in the US sent the manuscript out to publishers. Simon & Schuster bought the rights a few weeks later (best phone call of my life!).
Do you have any tips for aspiring writers?
Write! It sounds obvious but, since I got my publishing deal, I have met so many people that say they wish they could write a book too - as if it were some crazy idea that's out of the reach of any normal person. That was me! The thing is, writing a whole book can seem like a daunting prospect initially but actually, if you write 500 words - which is probably not far off the length of a standard email - then another 500, and then another, you'll have the book written before you know it! The hardest part is getting started but then the more you do it, the easier it gets.
Also, be honest with yourself and then be brave. If you write something that you know isn't quite right, delete it and try again. Deleting writing that you've invested so much time and effort in is HARD but, in the end, it really is worth it - you'll end up with something that you can really feel proud of. And, to prove that I don't just dish out advice without following it myself - The Ability is approximately 81,000 words long. If I were to include all the sentences/passages & chapters that I deleted (I kept them all in a separate file), the book would be 147,000 words!
About The Ability, sequels and other books
How did you come up with the idea for The Ability?
I was a teacher and working with children with emotional and behavioral difficulties. A boy in my class was going through a tough time at home. One day, things at home came to a head and I ended up sitting with him in the school office for a few hours waiting for social services to arrive. He was understandably scared about everything that was happening and I remember wishing there were something I could do to help him feel more in control of his situation - such as being able to tell him about a secret power that he didn't realize he had. That night, I couldn't sleep, so I took my notebook out. By the next morning, I had the outline for The Ability.
Will there be a sequel to The Ability?
Yes! The Ability 2: Mindscape will be out 11th March 2014. I don't know if I'm supposed to say this - but it is my favorite! In The Ability, I was able to create characters and places from scratch - which was incredible. In Mindscape, however, I had already introduced everything so I was able to explore those characters and ideas much further - I had a lot of fun, particular writing about the different types of mind cities!
Are you thinking of writing any more books after The Ability and The Ability 2: Mindscape ?
Yes. I'm working on a completely new idea at the moment which unfortunately I can't say too much about right now, other than it will be for the same readership as The Ability and will be published in 2015. I will also be writing The Ability 3 next year - that will be the last of the series, though at some point down the line I would love to write a prequel to The Ability; the story of Anna Willows.
If you could go anywhere and use that as your setting for a book, where would you go?
Tough question! I would have said inside a mind, but I've already done that so I'll say another galaxy. Or maybe somewhere sunny by the sea (though that might just be a good excuse for a vacation!).
Did you think you were going to be a writer when you were younger?
No, not at all. I loved (LOVED!) reading but didn't start writing until I began my teacher training when I was 19. Even then, though I would say that my dream job was be to a writer, I actually only saw writing as a hobby, not as a career option. I think this is because I didn't do particularly well in English at high school - we didn't do any creative writing and I struggled with how to structure and write essays. It was only when I got to university and started to get good grades that I began to gain confidence in my academic abilities, and that's when I started writing stories.
Do you have any hobbies?
I love making things, such as flat-packed furniture, houses out of cardboard for my daughter and elaborate feathery toys for our new kitten! I also love computer games, music from the 1950s and 60s, drawing cartoons, playing cards, learning the lyrics to complicated songs, and making cake-pops (here are some that I made for Halloween last year). And I really like reading - there's a surprise.
Who is your favorite author/what is your favorite book?
I've been asked both these questions a lot and I still don't have two good answers - there are too many to choose from! So I'll cheat - as this is my website and I can get away with that kind of thing - and give you a list instead (which I'll probably end up changing regularly!).
Boy, The BFG and Charlie & The Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl.
Five On A Treasure Island by Enid Blyton
Harry Potter & The Goblet of Fire by JK Rowling (I like them all, but this one's my favorite).
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
On Writing by Stephen King
The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham
Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers
The Dice Man by Luke Rhinehart