Children's Literature Interest Group: Interview with Cliff McNish

Cliff McNish photograph

Cliff McNish is a writer of fantasy for young adults. His books include The Doomspell Trilogy and the Silver Sequence trilogy.

When you start to write a book, do you know how it will end?

I always like to have a good idea that I have an ending that seems worth heading towards. Without the security of that, there’s a risk that it can all fall flat – and I find that really undermines my confidence so I don’t take it. Having said that, the final ending is often totally different from the planned one. That’s different, though  - jettisoning a better ending for what seemed like a good one, and now looks merely adequate, is strangely confidence building.   

Do you base your characters on real people?

Not specifically, and not consciously – though Rachel in my Doomspell fantasy books was based closely on my real daughter (for whom they were written), and characteristics of people I know do get fed into the books, inevitably. Mostly the heroes are alter-egos of me, of course.

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

In my experience so-called writer’s block falls into two main categories: in amateurs it usually occurs because they have a deep-seated psychological fear of finding themselves less brilliant than they hoped to be. Finishing a piece of writing will prove the case one way or another, and so they hesitate ... and become stymied. It’s a very common problem, especially in the most gifted starters. Amongst professionals, ie they’ve written a few published books already, it usually occurs when you can’t decide what to do with your characters or storyline. ie it’s an artistic/aesthetic problem, whose heart is the story itself. If you can get past those character/plot hurdles it’s amazing how quickly writer’s block evaporates ...

What is the hardest thing about being a writer?

The irregular and poor money. Also having to rely almost entirely on your own resources for ego support. In the standard workplace people have daily contact with other people that tends to be supportive. I was there for 20 years, working in computer consultancy.

Writers are often on their own all day for weeks or months on end. After a number of years, having to depend so much on your own inner resources can wear away a little at your nerves.

What is the best thing about being a writer?

Being in the sustained creative moment. It’s the purest pleasure on earth.

What inspired you to write?

Initially I wanted to write a story for my daughter, who liked scary witches. Since then ...  a kind of self-sustaining wish to be elsewhere, in my own created world, rather than this one.

Do you follow the same process each time you write?

More or less. I start with a few notes, amplify them, wait for little stabs of inspiration, write a few more notes, start to piece together key scenes, ask if it feels good ... return to the start an endless circle. After a few days of this I’ll then try to get a scene by scene synopsis of main scenes. 4 out of 5 stories just get bogged down here – they don’t quite work, for reasons that are often mysterious. Occasionally one just keeps feeling good. If so, it gets mocked into a more detailed synopsis. If I’m still happy at that stage I talk to my editor ...

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

When I write the synopsis – ie almost right away.

How much does your editor change what you write?

Of course a good editor merely makes ‘suggestions’! Sometimes entire characters and approach have been fundamentally altered by my editors, whole tranches of the book removed. It’s like major surgery much of the time.
If you’re luckily – occasionally – about half of it works the first time around... but I have always spend more time revising than original writing.
What do you think you would be if you weren't a writer?

I would still be working in IT and deeply unhappy by now.

What is your attitude to Kindles and e-books?

They’re handy for readers and here to stay. There’s no point bemoaning their existence. Books are still books, whatever the reading format.

What was your favourite book  when you were a child?

The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis

What advice would you give to an aspiring writer?

Read, read, read across as many genres as you can. A good writer is always first of all a voracious reader.


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