Children's Literature Interest Group: Interview with Justin Richards

Justin RichardsJustin Richards has written over twenty novels as well as non-fiction books. He is perhaps best-known for his series of children's books The Invisible Detective, and as Creative Director of the BBC's highly-successful range of Doctor Who books.
Where does your inspiration come from?

Inspiration is all around us – there are ideas everywhere. Again, having ideas for stories is something you can practice. Next time you see something odd, wonder what’s going on and why it’s happening. Or even something very ordinary – ask yourself what the story is behind it… A man getting on a bus – but is he escaping from somewhere, or off to a secret meeting, or an alien disguised as a human being? Who is he? What’s he doing? Where is he going? What’s his story?

What comes first – plot, character or situation?

That’s a tricky one, and the answer is really ‘all of them and none of them’. It depends a bit on the book. Sometimes my starting point is a character I have an idea about and want to explore, and other times it’s a plot point or a situation. For my novel The Chaos Code, it was the character of Julius Venture that intrigued me first, whereas for The Parliament of Blood I just decided I wanted to write a book about vampires – which was before everyone else was doing it too!

Once I have a starting point, then it all sort of happens together. I think about the characters and the plot and the situation all at once. My ideas for the characters might be determined by what has to happen in the plot, and the plot might change according to how I think the characters will behave. And all of them are influenced by the situation and environment – which is itself determined by who has to do what. It’s an iterative process – I change and refine one element and that means I see ways of improving something else, which has a knock-on effect on a third thing and so it goes on...

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

Not so far, I’m happy to say. I do get stuck, or spent too long staring at the screen and doing nothing. But that isn’t really writer’s block. Real writer’s block is like an anxiety attack – it’s when you just can’t believe you can ever write again and it’s really debilitating. It’s like if you fall off your bike, and then you just daren’t get back on it.
But usually when people talk about ‘writer’s block’ they mean ‘do you get stuck?’ And yes I do. But never for long. It usually means that I haven’t done enough planning – I haven’t done the work I should have done before I got to this point. So the solution is to go back and work out the detail and get to the point where I know what I’m doing and can get on with it.

What advice would you give to an aspiring writer?

Writing is a craft that you need to work at and practice. It’s like training for a sport – the more you do it, the better you get. So there are two things you really have to do. You have to write a lot – that’s the ‘training’. Try to write something every day – it doesn’t have to be pages of a huge novel. It could be a letter, an email, whatever. Keep a diary. Just writing every day helps you to know what works and what doesn’t, to develop your own style, to finds out about words and how they work.

The second thing you need to do is to read a lot – see what other people are writing. Don’t analyse it in detail, but pay attention to the words and the story. The more you read, the more you will come to understand what works and what doesn’t, how books and stories are put together.

And above all, enjoy it. If you really enjoy it, you’ll get better and better…

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

It’s difficult to say. I read a lot – children’s books and adult fiction as well as a lot of non-fiction, for pleasure and research (or both!). But there are writers that I greatly admire – be it children’s writers like Philip Pullman and Anthony Horowitz, or adult authors like Robert Goddard and Jasper fforde.

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

I always loved mysteries. So Enid Blyton’s The Famous Five were favourites of mine, and I enjoyed her stories about the Five Find-Outers and Dog even more – the first of those is The Mystery of the Burnt Cottage. They all start ‘The Mystery of…’ I loved them.

I suppose my absolute favourite, though, was ‘Doctor Who in an exciting adventure with the Daleks’ – which is quite a title! It came out again later as just plain: Doctor Who and the Daleks. It’s being republished later this year (2011), so look out for it! The book was written by David Whitaker from the original scripts of the very first Dalek story on Doctor Who, which was by Terry Nation. Both hugely talented writers who knew all about adventure and thrills!

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

I work with several editors, and it varies between editors and from book to book. I’m an editor myself, which I think means I’m quite good at being edited – I know what it’s like from the other side of the relationship and understand why changes sometimes have to be made. I say ‘have to be made’ but actually it’s rarely compulsory. Both the editor and the author want the same thing – the best possible book. Finally, it comes down to what the author wants – I tell the writers I edit that it’s up to them. I can give them advice which I think they should follow, but when the book is published it’ll have their name on the cover so it has to be their book.

So I get on very well with my editors. Whether they see it that way, you’ll have to ask them!

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

At its simplest, I write the sorts of books I myself would like to read. I don’t pretend I’m typical or representative in any way, but I reckon there’s an audience for what I like. If there is a tension, it’s more between what I write for myself – novels and series of my own devising – and what I write for other people’s series and lists (like Doctor Who books). That’s not a creative thing, and it’s not an imposition as I don’t write things I don’t enjoy writing. But it’s a question of balancing what is basically paid work against the work I may or may not be able to convince a publisher has merit.

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

All the time. I do scribble notes and ideas on paper when I’m just starting thinking about a project. But almost immediately I’m typing them into a laptop. I used to work for a large computer company as a technical writer (writing instruction manuals and user guides as well as on-screen help), so I’ve worked directly on computers since before most people had access to them.

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

This varies from publisher to publisher. I have ideas, and I’m not shy about saying what I think. Sometimes that makes a difference, sometimes it probably doesn’t. But I’m not a graphic designer or artist, so I know my expertise is limited. You have to trust the people who do know what they’re doing and just give them as much help as you can.
The text is a bit different. I usually end up writing the blurb that goes on the back cover of my books. Sometimes the editor sends me a draft of what they want, and I usually tweak that. But now they know I can do it, so they usually save themselves the effort and just ask me for it in the first place.

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

I have an idea while I’m planning and writing the book who it will be for, and that includes a notional age range. I usually think in terms of an age and above, rather than having an upper limit. I hope I don’t write any books that readers might ’grow out of’. Agent Alfie is notionally for seven and above – sort of, depending on how good a reader you are. But I hope and expect that mums and dads and anyone else of whatever age will enjoy reading those books too.

I don’t tend to write stuff that’s too controversial in age terms. We can quibble about the level of horror or scariness that’s appropriate for any age group, but that varies a lot according to the individual child anyway. I do moderate my vocabulary, particularly for the youngest readers. But mainly it’s to do with acting – all writers are actors in a sense. We become the characters we’re writing about, and flip between them as we write their dialogue or sort out what they’re getting up to. It’s a similar process with writing for a given age range – I think myself into that sort of age as I’m writing. I don’t explicitly ask myself all the time: ‘Is this appropriate for that age group?’ ‘Will they understand this?’ or ‘Is this funny?’ I just know. Or hope I know!

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

I’d still be working for a large computer company, I expect. Doing business-y things. When I left I was working on Corporate Strategy, which sounds very grand. So I guess that’s where I’d still be – or somewhere similar. So I’ll stay being an author, thanks!

At what stage did you know you wanted to become an author?

I’ve always been a writer – scribbling stories and telling jokes. Because jokes are a sort of short story really – they need a structure, a beginning, a middle and an end. But I don’t think I really believed that it was possible to be a writer as a job and career until I was quite old – probably at university. And by then I had an understanding of how difficult it would be, so it wasn’t where I looked to start a career. But writing something I’ve just always done.

Share this page: