What a champion! The endlessly energetic Alexander Gordon Smith took some time out from working on his new series to talk to us about getting his big break, marketing kids books, running a publishing company and film company, and writing 80,000 words in a week. It’s exhausting just reading this interview: inspiring stuff!
Take it away Gordon!
Hi Cristy, thanks for the invitation to answer some questions on your blog!
- What kind of stuff do you write?
My first series was called The Inventors, and I wrote it with my little brother Jamie. He was nine when we started, which was brilliant as we set out to write exactly the sort of book that somebody his age would enjoy. The Inventors is about two young inventors (there’s a surprise!) who win a scholarship to work with the billionaire genius Ebenezer Saint, and who ultimately have to out-run, out-wit and out-invent the world’s greatest inventor! Jamie and I both love adventure stories, they’re so much fun to read, and even more fun to write. It’s that spirit of adventure, of excitement, that I find so compelling when I write, I just love it!
Gordon and his brother and co-writer of The Inventors, Jamie Webb
I also love horror, I always have done, and my new series Furnace definitely falls into this category. It’s a very dark story about a fourteen-year-old criminal called Alex who is framed for murder, and who is sentenced to life without parole in Furnace Penitentiary, the world’s most secure prison for young offenders. Very soon Alex realises that the sadistic guards and bloodthirsty gangs are the least of his worries. Something very bad is happening in the prison, something that is turning the inmates into monsters. And he knows that if he doesn’t find a way out, he’ll be next… Furnace is a dark, relentless and violent book, but at its heart I guess it’s all about the adventure, the thrill of a prison break. It certainly isn’t for squeamish readers…
I have a couple more books planned once Furnace is finished (it’s a five-book series), and they’re all very different. That’s one of the brilliant things about writing: you have the spark of an idea and it just grows and evolves inside your head, and you really have no idea where it will take you until you sit down and start to write. As cheesy as it sounds, every blank page is a passport to a new adventure, and the feeling is addictive!
- Why did you start writing?
To use a much-loved cliché, I’ve always wanted to be a writer. In fact it’s the only thing I can remember ever really wanting to be (apart from the usual childhood fantasy list of helicopter pilot, policeman, ninja assassin, truck driver and emperor of all the world). I used to love reading, but I guess like most very young kids I thought that books were these magical things that appeared in shops and libraries by themselves. It was only my mum and dad telling me their own stories that made me realise normal mortals could write books. My Uncle Frank went one step further and actually printed out his dragon stories on paper, which was just like a book! From that moment on I wanted to see my own stories in print, so I just used to write all the time and make little books by myself.
My first efforts – masterpieces like ‘Super Carrot’ and ‘The Valleys of Olaf Karnoff’ – weren’t up to much, but I kept at it and wrote my first novel when I was eighteen. It was a horror novel, funnily enough called ‘Furnace Asylum’ (very different plot to the new series), and every agent and publisher I sent it to bounced it right back saying it was too gory! I guess that put me off for a while, but I kept playing with ideas and harbouring that dream of being a writer, and came back to it in my mid-twenties. It was the chance to work with Jamie on The Inventors that really made me fall in love with writing children’s books.
- Your first book, The Inventors, grabbed the attention of publishers when it was shortlisted in the 2005 Wow Factor Competition. How important was this for your career as a writer? Had you already tried other ways of drawing attention to your writing?
We were so lucky with the Wow Factor Competition, and it almost didn’t happen. Jamie and I wrote the first three chapters of The Inventors in the summer holidays of 2005, and Jamie spotted a competition in Waterstones to find ‘the new J. K. Rowling’. We entered our chapters on the last day, with about ten minutes to go, and although we carried on plotting the book, and developing the characters, and even building loads of the inventions ourselves, we didn’t get around to writing any more of it. A few months later we got a call from Waterstones to say The Inventors had been shortlisted, which was amazing! But we had to get the rest of the book to them exactly one week later or it wouldn’t be shortlisted. At first I thought it was impossible, but then I realised that this was our best shot at getting published. So we sat down and wrote 80,000 words in a week! Luckily we already had so much of the book planned out in our heads, otherwise we never would have been able to manage it. But it did almost kill us!
Covers for some of Gordon's books
We didn’t win the competition, Sarah Wray’s excellent The Forbidden Room did. But Faber loved The Inventors, and offered us a deal the week the winner was announced. It was the best news I’d ever had! There’s no doubt that the Wow Factor was my big break, and I was luckily enough for it to be my first proper shot at drawing attention to my writing. The great thing about competitions is that they are a way to fast track your manuscript to an editor’s desk, which is far and away the most difficult and frustrating part of the publishing process. But more than this, if the competition had never pressured us to finish The Inventors then I doubt we ever would have – the first three chapters would probably be lying forgotten in a drawer somewhere.
With The Inventors, Jamie and I did quite a bit of the publicity stuff ourselves, which was great fun but extremely time consuming and expensive. Fortunately with Furnace Faber took over and had the website and game built. I had quite a lot of input into it, especially with the game and the editorial content. The best thing about it was seeing the Furnace in my head suddenly come to life on screen, especially with the game and the images. It was a very, very small taster of what writers must feel when their books are turned into films – watching something extremely personal to them suddenly grow into something much larger, something communal. It’s a great feeling!
Generally I like to lock myself away and write the books, it’s what I love to do. But the marketing stuff is so important, especially with children’s books. Websites, promotional items, school visits, authors tours, blogging and social networking, communicating with fans – these things may be the total opposite of the introverted writing process, but they are absolutely vital. You’re not just promoting a book, you’re promoting yourself. I find it difficult, as I’m not a natural extrovert, but I know that if I get myself out there and build up a presence then readers won’t just recognise the names The Inventors and Furnace, they’ll recognise the name Alexander Gordon Smith. It’s what so many of the most successful children’s authors have done.
I hate being bored! I guess part of it is that ever since I learned that ‘ordinary’ people wrote books I realised that even the most extraordinary things are done by normal, everyday people. Which essentially means that anything is possible. I’ve heard so many people say that they’d love to do this or that, but that they just can’t. But they can! I started Egg Box when I was at university, because I loved books and I wanted to publish them. I used my student loan to set it up, and to publish our first book. We publish new poets, so there is no money in it, but it’s great fun, and very satisfying. I don’t really have much to do with the company any more, it’s run by my great friend Nathan Hamilton, but it’s still fantastic to see new Egg Box books on the shelf every year.
Fear Driven Films came about in the same way. My sister, Kate, wanted to make a horror film, and so we said ‘why not?’ Yes it’s hard work, and at times it seems impossible, but it’s an adventure, and it’s fun. I get that same tickle of excitement starting a new project that I do starting a new book. I just love that sense of being at the beginning of something, of facing a challenge. It doesn’t always work out – I’ve had plenty of failures – but so long as you learn something from it then it’s never a total loss.
I would say to anyone who’s got a dream but is nervous about going for it – just go for it! Adopt the ‘why not?’ philosophy. It may be tough, but it’s never impossible.
- How different is it writing a series from writing a one-off (like The Inventors first was)? How much of the series do you plot out in advance, and how much do you make up as you go along?
I never really set out to write a series, usually it just turns out that way! With The Inventors, Jamie and I got to the end of the book and realised that although part of the tale was complete there was another half of the story to tell, so we left it on a cliffhanger. The same thing happened with Furnace. It’s really a 1,500 page story that is being split into five books. I just reached a point with the first book, Lockdown, where it felt natural to have a break. The same thing happened with the rest of the books, which is lucky!
There’s also something really nice about being able to return to the same characters for another book. Writers get very attached to their characters, and I know I’m not alone when I say that finishing a stand-alone novel can be upsetting because you know you’re never going to get into the heads of those people again. Writing a series really gives you a chance to see how characters develop and evolve and grow.
I have to confess that I don’t spend much time plotting. I haven’t got the patience for it! I just like to leap right into the writing and let the story tell itself. I used to try and plot, but it’s amazing how much changes when you’re actually writing – characters tend to do their own thing and throw your carefully laid plans out of the window. I absolutely love that, though. It turns what would be writing-by-numbers into a wild ride where you have no idea what’s going to happen! Saying that, I do have a rough story arc of key points when I start writing. If I didn’t then I’d end up getting totally lost!
Thanks! I’m glad you enjoyed it. It was a great day. I haven’t done very many workshops, I tend to do events with larger groups which makes sessions like that one quite difficult. I’d love to do more of them, though, so if anybody is interested in organising a workshop at a school, club or library, or a larger talk, then just email me at firstname.lastname@example.org!
- Favourite part of being a writer?
It’s a dream job for so many reasons, but the best part for me is the writing itself. The moment that you start a new story is unlike anything else. It grabs you and carries you along with it and even though you’re writing it you feel like you’re part of it, like this is your adventure as much as it is that of the characters you have created. It’s like you’re right there alongside them. And for the next few weeks I’m just utterly absorbed – the real world might as well not exist – until I fight my way out the other end of the story. It really is an incredible sensation, and I’d do it now even if nobody was publishing my books!
- Least favourite part of being a writer?
I hate editing! For me it’s the opposite of writing – stilted rather than spontaneous, crawling along instead of flying, and just so boring! But it’s essential, every book needs edits, so I just put my head down and do it.
- One bit of advice to new writers?
Have fun. Pick a story that really appeals to you, an adventure you wish you could have. That way you’ll be engrossed by the story, and it won’t really feel like you’re writing at all. You’ll be living it. Don’t do what so many writers do, and pick an idea you think will sell, or that you think will fit the current fiction market. Your heart won’t be in it, and a reader (and a publisher) will sense that. Be brave, go with the ideas that you find exciting, let yourself be carried away.
Also don’t worry about making it perfect first time. Let the story pull you along at its own speed, get the first draft finished, and there will be plenty of time to polish it. The writer and the editor inside your head don’t work well together – if you let them do their jobs separately it will lead to a much more rewarding experience, and a much better book!
And read! As much as you can!
THANK YOU GORDON!! We can’t wait to check out the rest of Furnace!
And PS: Fergus is nearly one month old! Amazing! He’s growing out of the “size 1” nappies and several of his cutest outfits (not that he cares what he wears, nappies included).
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