The Golden Egg Writing Process Questionnaire with Children’s Writer SF Said

The Golden Egg Writing Process Questionnaire with Children’s Writer SF Said

Introduction

If you’ve been reading our blog for a while you’ll know that here at Golden Egg we love helping writers with talent write their best possible story.  Our fascination with story and the writing process means we’re always very interested in what writers have to say about their writing process and the story of their developing talent.

SF Said is author of the much-loved children’s novels, Varjak Paw and Phoenix.  Varjak is a Mesopotamian blue kitten who learns martial arts, using them to survive in a city full of dog and cat gangs.  Phoenix is an incredible festival of imagination about a boy who one day wakes up to hear the stars singing to him.  SF Said is a generous writer, having not only contributed to a Golden Egg workshop, but also being kind enough to answer our GE writing questionnaire.

Thanks SF.

Andrew Wright, currently mentored by Imogen Cooper

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 When did you know you wanted to write?

My first memories are memories of books.  I remember being read The Cat In The Hat and The Little Prince as a child, and later reading books like Watership Down on my own.  They were a massive part of my childhood, shaping my imagination and my view of the world.  I think I was in love with stories from the very beginning, and I always wanted to make my own, one day.

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What did you write first?  Did you show it to anyone?

I wrote lots of short stories at school.  I remember copying my best ones out into an exercise book in my neatest handwriting, photocopying them in the library, and trying to sell these photocopies to people as “my first book”.  I managed to sell one copy, to my mum…

I tried to write adult literary fiction in my teens, but I was never satisfied with it.  Then, at university, I re-discovered children’s literature through authors like Ursula Le Guin, Alan Garner and Susan Cooper.  They’d done exactly what I wanted to do: write great big mythic stories that dealt with the biggest questions in the most entertaining way.  They’d written books for everyone, accessible to children, but profound and multi-layered enough to work for adults too.

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I sent my first two attempts to every publisher and agent I could find in the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook.  They were rejected by every single one.  I had about 90 rejections, before my third attempt, Varjak Paw, got picked up.  So I think my experience shows that perseverance is the one quality all writers must have.

What is your writing method?  How do you go about making up the stories and, crucially, finishing what you start?

I write in drafts.  Many drafts. Varjak Paw took 17 drafts over 5 years. Phoenix took 13 drafts, which sounds like an improvement, but because it’s such an epic, it took 7 years to do those drafts.

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I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this approach!  The truth about writing is that everyone does it differently.  It’s not like science, where if you follow the formula, you’ll get predictable results every time.  The important thing is to find out what works for you.

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At the heart of my process is own my experience as a reader.  I try to write the books I would most like to read.  Before I wrote Varjak Paw, there were no books about cats doing martial arts.  Before Phoenix, there weren’t any epic myths set in space for young readers.  I wanted to read those books, so I had to sit down and write them myself.

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When I’m reading my work through, I pretend it was written by someone else, and then ask all the questions I would of any other book.  I know it’s finished when I’m completely satisfied by the experience as a reader, and when the editors, agents and other readers I show my work to all agree.  That’s the heart of it; but if you want to know more, I’m doing a series of writing tips on my blog

What are your writing habits?

I write in my local library.  If I try to work at home, I just spend the whole day on the internet – a problem that started when I got first got broadband, during the writing of The Outlaw Varjak Paw, and got worse when I started tweeting!  (It’s @whatSFSaid if you enjoy procrastination too.)

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In the library, I never waste time, because their opening and closing hours impose a deadline on me.  Like many writers I find that helpful.  Also, what could be more inspiring to a writer than working in a cathedral of books?

I write every weekday.  I think it’s important to do it every day.  Momentum is everything with a novel.  I set myself an achievable minimum goal for each day – on a first draft, it might be 1,000 words; on a later draft, it might be editing a particular scene.  If I want to do more, I can, but that doesn’t mean I can do less the next day.  There always has to be something to show for every day.  I can’t live with myself otherwise.

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How do you capture your ideas?

I keep notebooks: different notebooks for different projects.  I like the notebooks to be somehow related to the project.  So here’s one for my current work in progress.  Can you guess the title?

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What are you working on right now?

As you might have guessed from the last answer, I’m working on a book called TYGER.  It’s a story about tygers… and magic…

I can’t say much more than that, because my work changes a lot as it develops, and I’m only 2 years into writing it.  I’m hoping it won’t take as long as 7 years this time, but I’ve come to accept that it takes as long as it takes to make a book as brilliant as it can possibly be!

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What books have helped you in your writing process?

Some of my favourites are Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott; Steering The Craft by Ursula Le Guin; and Zen In The Art Of Writing by Ray Bradbury.  Each has given me something different.  Lamott is brilliant on the emotional experience of writing; Le Guin has lots of fantastic technical insights; and Bradbury reminds me of why I wanted to write in the first place.

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What are you most proud of?

I think I’m a better writer now than when I started out.  I think I’ve learned something from each book I’ve written, and each one has been a step up on the last.  It’s never been easy for me, but when I look at the books I’ve published so far, I see almost nothing I want to change.  That makes all the hard work feel worthwhile.  The same is true when I hear readers say they enjoyed my books – and perhaps most of all when other writers say that, because they know the truth of how books are made.

Who inspires you in your writing?

All the writers I love, and all the readers I hear from.  I’ve had amazing messages from people in their 20s who read Varjak Paw when they were kids, and have kept the book and re-read it as adults.  It reminds me of how I feel about Watership Down.  The idea that my book might mean something like that to a reader is just incredible.

SF Said’s latest book Phoenix has just been published in paperback.  Here’s a book trailer made by the illustrator and film-maker Dave McKean: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p5yQjwqDFXA

In Conclusion

What an amazingly comprehensive series of answers, a humbling account of the diligence of a hard-working children’s writer.  Thanks SF what an amazing blog.

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