Children's Literature Interest Group: Interview with Andrew Lane

Andrew LaneAndrew Lane is the author of some twenty books, including the Young Sherlock series. Andrew lives in Dorset with his wife, his son and a vast collection of Sherlock Holmes books, the purchase of which over the past twenty years is now a justifiably tax-deductible expense.

Where does your inspiration come from?

It comes from all kinds of places - things I read in the newspapers, things I read in books that I've bought (I tend to buy things at random because they look interesting) and from daydreams that I have. I like to start off with a strong visual image, and daydreams are very good for that. I get lots of good ideas when I'm driving, because my subconscious can just wander. I used to get a lot of good ideas when I was swimming lengths, but I don't do that any more. Perhaps I should...

What comes first - plot, character or situation?

The "smart" answer is that characters should come first, and then the plot and situation come afterwards. In reality that's not always the case. I find that plot and character tend to develop hand-in-hand, but situations come first. I like to have three or four good key situations for a book plot, and then I use character and plot to weave them together. In Death Cloud the situations were (i) the climactic sword fight between Sherlock and the villain, (ii) the fight on the barge and (iii) the fairground and the boxing ring. Using those as fixed points I tried to work out something that would link them all together.

Do you ever get writer’s block? What do you do about it?

I don't so much get writer's block, which is an inability to put anything down in writing when you're sitting at the keyboard, but I get a massive reluctance to actually sit down and write if I don't feel confident about the plot. My advice for anyone with writer's block is to just write anything. Anything at all. Don't try to make it good, write stuff that you know is wrong. The key thing is to exercise that mental muscle - warm it up ready for the real writing.

What advice would you give to an aspiring writer?

Read a lot - partly to find out what's already been done (after all, if you wrote a novel where Martians attack the Earth using giant mechanical tripod walkers you'd look pretty silly when people told you that H.G.Wells got there first) but also so that you can see what tricks writers use to make characters and situations come to life. And -- this is the key -- read some stuff that's bad, as well as good. People will often tell you that particular writers are great, and you should read them, but there's nothing like reading a really badly written book to make you think: "I can do better than that!" and to show you what mistakes to avoid.

Do you have favourite authors or books yourself? Who are they?

My favourite authors at the moment are Tim Powers (an American who writes fantasy novels), Jonathan Carroll (another American who writes novels that start off in the real world and then slide off into very strange territory) and Dan Simmons (yet another American who writes mostly horror and dark science fiction).

What was your favourite book(s) when you were a child?

All of the Sherlock Holmes books by Arthur Conan Doyle, but in particular The Hound of the Baskervilles. The Hobbit, by J.R.R.Tolkien, of course. Stig of the Dump. The 'Tripods' Trilogy by John Christopher (The White Mountains, The City of Gold and Lead and The Pool of Fire). Anything by Hugh Walters or Captain W.E.Johns. And Sargasso of Space by Andre Norton.

At what stage did you want to become an author?

I know exactly when it was. I was ten, and the Radio Times had just published a special magazine to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Doctor Who starting on TV. The magazine had a Dalek story in, written by Terry Nation (the man who created the Daleks). Before then I'd assumed that things like books and stories just came out of nowhere, but seeing one that used some monsters from Doctor Who but written without the Doctor made me realise that it was just a step up from the kind of things I was doing in the playground - telling stories and getting people to listen. If Terry Nation could do it, I could do it.

At what stage in your writing process do you use a computer?

All the time. even plotting. It's been so long since I hand-wrote anything that it would look like Chinese writing.

Do you feel a tension between writing what you know will sell and writing what you would like to write?

That's a very good question for any writer. The answer may change as I get older, but the simple truth is that at the moment I am writing the kind of stuff that I would like to read, so no, I don't feel any tension at all. If my publishers wanted me to put zombies, or vampires, or supernatural romance into the books in order to increase sales then I would feel a lot of creative tension (followed by a lot of financial tension as I refused to do it and they stopped paying me) but at the moment I don't think I'm making any creative compromises in order to increase the popularity of the books.

How much does your editor change what you write? What relationship do you have with your editor?

I've had two editors on the Young Sherlock Holmes books so far - Rebecca McNally and Polly Nolan. Both have been very good. We have the kind of relationship where they tell me to cut stuff out and I cut it out. I trust them implicitly to know what's best for the book. By the time a book is finished, I'm too close to it. I can't see the bits where it's too slow, or where I need more explanation. They can, so I do what they tell me to do. In the first book we cut out about 3,000 words, largely to do with the funfair scene. I went into too much detail on what was there, because I'd done all the research and I wanted to show it all off. Rebecca very sensibly trimmed it back. And on the third book Polly made me chop out two entire chapters (10,000 words) because they were a complete distraction from the rest of the plot (I've had my revenge, though - I've rewritten the 10,000 words as a short story which comes out for the Kindle e-book reader for Christmas, costing only a pound or so).

What control do you have over your book cover (and your illustrations)?

On the first book Rebecca went through Hell trying to get a good, striking cover design. Sensibly she didn't let me know about any of that - she just showed me the final result and asked me if I liked it. I did, so they've gone with similar designs ever since. What tends to happen is that I suggest the weapon that Sherlock should be holding, and they decide what the image is behind him, and then they commission an artist to do it. With Black Ice the covers were done early, and when I saw that the background design incorporated a bird's claw I went and put a bird as an important element in the book. The same thing happened on Fire Storm - the golden skull was added late in the day to the book after I'd seen the cover.

Do you write with a particular age group in mind? How does the target age group affect your writing?

The truth? I write for me. I try not to actually write for a particular age group, because (a) that can result in writing "down" to their "level", and (b) because I think young adult readers are quite sophisticated in their use of language, and if they come across a word they don't know then they'll either work it out from context or they will go away and look it up. What I do do is to make sure that the plots of my books are straightforward, with no sub plots and no distractions, and to make sure that the motivations of the characters are very clear. That's not an "adult diction" versus "kids' fiction" thing - it's because I want to write books that move fast and aren't cluttered.

What do you think you would be if you weren’t an author?

I would either be working as a scientist (I got my degree in Physics, strangely) or I would be trying to earn a living as a stand-up comedian. And failing.

 

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