Children's Literature Interest Group: Interview with Beth Webb

Beth WebbBeth Webb is an author and performance storyteller who has published over a dozen books for children and teenagers. She has been teaching writing to young people since 1990 and has some invaluable advice for writers on her website.

Where does your inspiration come from?

Everything and anything. In ‘The Dragons of Kilve,’ I was inspired by the rock formations on Kilve beach in north Somerset. They looked like dragon bones and dragon eggs ready to hatch, and my son asked me to write a book about the dragon who used to live there.

My ‘Fleabag’ books were inspired by a friend’s three-legged black cat with matted fur and rather a lot of fleas. I put my friend’s personality into the cat and created my mischievous hero!

‘Stormwyrm’ (which I’m working on at the moment) comes from a Scottish folk tale.

Anything can get me going – I always keep a notebook in my bag in case I get an idea.

What comes first – plot, character or situation?
Sometimes I think of a fun or interesting situation, then I imagine what sort of person would be likely to be there (or who would be the most unlikely person!), and I think how they’d react to what’s going on.

Other times, a character pops into my head, then I work out what setting and situation would suit them, or if I’m feeling mischievous, what would irritate them?

Plot usually comes last. Once I’ve set the characters loose within their setting and situation, I let them ‘play’ and see where they end up.

Lastly I tidy up these meanderings into a plot.

Do you ever get writer’s block? What do you do about it?
Yes, I’ve got it at the moment for book four of my ‘Star Dancer’ series for teens.

I read lots of books, (all sorts of books, about anything!), go to the cinema, go for long walks and do some gardening. I talk to friends about my ideas (or lack of them).
Most importantly I take plenty of time to daydream.

Do you have favourite authors or books yourself? Who are they?
My favourite authors this week are Ursula le Guin, Susan Cooper, Philip Reeve, Diana Wynne Jones, Neil Gaiman and Katherine Langrish. In truth, I have too many favourites to mention, but if I had a book token to spend, those are the authors I’d look for.

What was your favourite book(s) when you were a child?
Ancient myths and legends. Oh, and Alice through the Looking Glass, I used to be able to recite great chunks of it. Winnie the Pooh, and Narnia, (but I only came across CS Lewis as a teenager, does that count?)

How much does your editor change what you write?
I’ve got two or three editors, and they ask me to change things rather than change them for me. They are quite demanding and don’t let me get away with anything.

What relationship do you have with your editor?
My editors are rather like scary English teachers – but we got on well. I know they are trying to help, but it can be disheartening with a manuscript comes back with marks ALL over it! When a manuscript comes back, I go into a corner for a couple of days and eat chocolate and feel sorry for myself, then I come out and get cracking.

Do you feel a tension between writing what you know will sell and writing what you would like to write?
Yes, definitely. I have so many ideas, but there’s no point trying to turn them all into novels – because they aren’t ‘fashionable’. I write them anyway, but only for fun! I love my stories: they are like my children. I can’t say ‘I won’t write you because no one will love you,’ I just keep the unfashionable ones to myself.

At what stage in your writing process do you use a computer?
I begin by making lots of notes in a big book, then when I have a rough ‘shape’ of where the story might be going, I put everything onto my computer.

What control do you have over your book cover (and your illustrations)?
With March Hamilton, I am very lucky, we have very similar ideas. In the past, there have been some disasters. Most publishers aren’t evil, if you make a point in a clear and friendly way, they (sometimes) listen.

Do you write with a particular age group in mind? How does the target age group affect your writing?
That’s a really big question.
Sometimes I start writing, then decide who the story might be for.
I decide the target readership quite early on, because it’s important for an author to mould the language and ideas around the reader’s interests.

What do you think you would be if you weren’t an author?
I’d paint lots and lots of pictures I couldn’t sell and starve in a garret, or I’d become a silversmith, or I’d run a café where people could buy cake and tea with a story, or I’d LOVE to be a radio presenter.

At what stage did you know you wanted to become an author?
I was about 3.
However, I didn’t know how to become and author (there wasn’t the help and advice there is now), so I tried journalism (radio and newspaper) and I’m also a psychological illustrator (I illustrate books for adults with learning disabilities). When I was about 40, a story popped into my head that worked and I’ve never looked back.

What advice would you give to an aspiring writer?
Read everything.
Write daily.
Daydream whenever you can.
Share your stories around. Listen to what people say about them, and love your stories enough to work on them.

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