Interview: Manda Scott on writing

Manda ScottManda (MC) Scott was a veterinary surgeon and anaesthetist, specialising in neonatal foal intensive care before she turned to writing as a full time profession. Her first novel, Hen’s Teeth was a contemporary thriller and was short-listed for the Orange Prize. Her fourth novel, No Good Deed was similarly short-listed for an Edgar Award in the States. Since then she has written primarily historical fiction, starting with the Boudica: Dreaming series which have been translated into nearly 20 languages, and the Rome series of ancient spy novels which explores, amongst other things, the historical basis for Christ. She lives in south Shropshire with her competition dogs and competes in agility whenever she can.

Who and what inspired you to become a writer?

Reading in my youth was the inspiration. I grew up living in the worlds of Rosemary Sutcliff and Alan Garner, of Dorothy Dunnett and Mary Renault. The Last of the Mohicans by James Fennimore Cooper was the first book I bought with my first ever book token and it’s still one of my favourites.

What attracted you to the genre that you write in?

That’s more or less answered above. I started in contemporary crime because that’s the field where I was able to write effectively without doing the kinds of research that are required for historical writing. However the Boudica series gave me the time and the money to spend the hours in the library, talking to living archaeologists and re-enactors, and to go and spend the nights in a round house: all things I couldn’t have done when I was teaching at Cambridge. So history is my main genre, although I still enjoy the contemporary thrillers: they make for a great change of pace.

Who do you most admire in the literary world?

In terms of her writing, Hilary Mantel is streets ahead of almost any other living historical (or literary) author. In terms of sales, I admire J.K. Rowling. In terms of their ability to market themselves and to write for the market, I admire Val McDermid and Ben Kane – both are people I’ve got to know fairly well and both are outstanding role models.

What, in your opinion, is the most pertinent attribute of a good writer?

The ability to throw work away. Which presupposes an instinct for knowing what will work and what won’t and being able to cut the latter until what’s left is the former.

Have you any sage words of wisdom for anyone wishing to become a writer?

I’d offer the two most important bits of advice I was given by Fay Weldon when I was a baby writer: Find your voice. Get a good agent. Both are vital. A good agent is your safety and sanity, your protector, help-meet and friend. Of course, finding your voice gives you the authenticity and integrity to write good work.

What is the worst aspect of writing?

The RSI. I recently read of ‘walkstations’ which are apparently the answer to RSI and am trying to figure out how to fit one into my tiny 14th century cottage.

Recommend a good example of writing both in your genre and outside it.

For good historical writing, look no further than Wolf Hall. If that’s not to your taste, almost anything by Robert Low, Andrew Taylor, or Robert Wilton is amazing. The latter won the HWA/Goldsboro prize for debut historical novel. If you want to read really, really good first novel, read it, or any of the other three on the short list: Mistress of my Fate by Hallie Rubenhold, Partitions by Amit Majmudar, or The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno by Ellen Bryson. If you want to know more about them, I wrote a blog about them here. If you’re interested in historical writing, come along to the HWA (Historical Writer’s Association) forum.

Outside of historical writing, I am particularly fond of Neal Stephenson and Neil Gaiman, although both are somewhat of an acquired taste. I’d point anyone towards Robert Wilson for amazing crime thrillers, while Maggie Stiefvater’s new novel, Scorpio Races is one of the best YA novels I’ve read in a very long time. Patrick Ness’s series that starts with The Knife of Never Letting Go is similarly mind-blowingly good. There is a lot of YA writing that is broaching new ground now, and is fascinating.


If you enjoyed part one of our interview and want to read Manda Scott’s fiction, please consider clicking through to our Amazon Affiliate links and purchasing a new book today. If you do you’ll help keep the Armed With Pens ship afloat with some very welcome remuneration.

Manda Scott fiction (UK)
Manda Scott fiction (US)

Interview: Lil Chase on language, editing and routine

Sam Bonner recently caught up with Lil Chase, a fellow Creative Writing classmate of his from London Metropolitan University, to talk about writing and editing. Since leaving university, she has gone on to publish two books for teens with Quercus, Boys For Beginners and Secrets, Lies & Locker 62.

Lil ChaseWhat is your writing routine and do you have a set amount of words to write or time to spend per session?

Sticking to the writing routine is the hardest thing about being a writer. I have a part-time day job so on the days that I’m working I come home from work, walk the dog, eat dinner, then head up to my desk at 9pm. I tell myself that I only have to write for twenty minutes, but when I get there I usually write for an hour or two. I also spend one day of the weekend working. I have heard that some people aim for word count targets, but I find that too intimidating. I accept that there are some days when the words won’t come, but if I stick to a routine no matter what, I’ll be back again writing the next day, when hopefully the words will be back too.

Explain how the use of language affects the pace of a YA book. What are some of the genre trappings you try and avoid when writing?

Language affects pace in all books: every word choice is crucial. It’s hard with YA because teens use so much slang in their speech, and slang is always changing. I try to use slang that is unlikely to date, and also invent new slang; that way it will never date. Inventing slang is also a good way to avoid swearing. So Gwynnie, in Boys For Beginners, says ‘What the flan [am I going to do?]’ quite a lot. Maya in Secrets, Lies & Locker 62 uses variations of the word ‘hideous’ and makes that her thing that she says.

How much do you edit after you have finished the first draft? And how much do you have once a new editor comes aboard?

I have said many a time, “I’m not a very good writer, but I am a very good editor.” The writing is done quickly, over a few months, and I overwrite like mad: the first draft of Secrets, Lies and Locker 62 was 74,501 words. The final draft was 49,396 words(!). By cutting back that much you can make sure that every word is a good one.

Outside editorial feedback is essential, and my editor at Quercus is amazing at picking out the parts to change to make the book more cohesive. I’m always amazed at how each round of edits improves the manuscript and I have never disagreed with a suggestion she’s made…even if it hurts to hear it at first.

What literary tools do you employ to engage with a reader?

I took a BA in Creative Writing and some of the most helpful modules were the poetry modules (there is a little poetry in Secrets, Lies & Locker 62, but that’s not really what I mean). Poetry is a really good way to learn how to use language effectively: how an image can convey so much more than a statement (essentially, show, don’t tell). How the last word of a sentence should be the word with the most punch. How ‘less is more’ is always the best policy. I wouldn’t ever advocate ‘flowery prose’ in novels, especially not for teens, but being aware of the power of each one of your words is terribly important.

What, in your opinion, distinguishes your writing from your peers in your genre?

Hmm, this is a tricky one. I write in the first person – which many YA authors do – but I really work hard to make that young teen voice authentic. When I write a sentence I ask myself, “can I imagine a 13 year old saying that?” When was the last time you heard a 13 year old use the word, ‘exclaim’ or ‘retort’ or ‘pondered’. Actually, when did you hear anyone use those words outside of a book?

But there are plenty of writers who get this spot on: Louise Rennison is an obvious choice. Chris Higgins is another. Melvin Burges for slightly older readers. Their writing feels 100% authentic, and teens love it.

Explain how you learned the craft of writing, and what you believe have been the most integral areas of this learning process.

Practice, practice, practice. Keep reading – to learn what styles you’d like to emulate and what styles you don’t want to emulate. Keep writing – to develop your voice, and to get in the habit of the writing routine. Keep listening to criticism – it’s always useful, even if you ignore it. If you are not able to take a degree in Creative Writing as I did, then read Story by Robert McKee. It’s about screenwriting, but it works for novel writing too. It is, in my opinion, the most useful book on storytelling available. His focus is on moving your story forward so as not to bore your readers. And he gives you the techniques on how to do just that.

What books would you say you learnt the most from with regards to your own writing style?

Before writing my first teen book – Boys For Beginners – I read Louise Rennison’s Angus, Thongs and Full Frontal Snogging. It is unbelievably funny. As an adult, you read it with such nostalgia thinking “Yes! Yes! That’s exactly what it was like.” I genuinely did not know that books for teens were allowed to be that good, that kind of no-holds-barred funny. It was an inspiration.


Learn more about Lil Chase.

If you enjoyed our interview and want to read Lil Chase’s fiction, please consider clicking through to our Amazon Affiliate links and purchasing a new book today. If you do you’ll help keep the Armed With Pens ship afloat with some very welcome remuneration.

Lil Chase fiction (UK)
Lil Chase fiction (US)

Interview: Pat Cadigan on Writing

Pat CadiganPat Cadigan is the author of fifteen books, including two non-fiction books, a young-adult novel, and the Arthur C. Clarke Award winners Synners and Fools. She lives in North London with her husband, the Original Chris Fowler. Most of her work is available electronically as part of SF Gateway, the ambitious electronic publishing program from Orion/Gollancz.

Who and what inspired you to become a writer?

I’m one of those lucky people who always knew what she wanted to do–I don’t remember not writing. It runs in the family. When my mother – known to anyone acquainted with me on Facebook as Old Unkillable – graduated from high school, her teachers tried to talk her into going to university to become a journalist. This was during the Great Depression, however, and her family had lost everything; her oldest brother offered to put her through school but she didn’t feel she could. Anyway, she started reading aloud to me before I was a year old and I learned to read by osmosis. I got my first library card before I was three.

Reading made the world – the universe – bigger for me. I read everything I could get my hands on and if I didn’t understand it, I kept reading anyway because sooner or later it would become clear to me in some way. As soon as I understood that books didn’t simply appear by magic, that they were written by human beings, I knew that I was going to be one of those human beings.

What attracted you to the genres you write in?

Once again, that was something that just happened. Every story I started to write, even as a little kid (Old Unkillable gave me her ancient Underwood typewriter), had a fantastic element. I had no interest in writing slice-of-day-to-day-life.

When I finally got my adult library card, I discovered Judith Merrill’s best SF of the year anthologies. In those days, the genre wasn’t as stratified as it is now – SF meant SF, fantasy, what we now call Magic Realism, and even horror. Good old nuts-and-bolts SF by people like Ward Moore was side-by-side with odd little pieces by Bernard Malamud and even John Cheever and Tuli Kupferberg. I thought this was wonderful. So when I started a story, I never thought, I’m going to write a science fiction story or a fantasy story–I let the story tell me what it was.

Who do you most admire in the literary world?

The thing about the literary world is, there are plenty of admirable people in it. I admire every editor I’ve ever worked with – Gardner Dozois, Ellen Datlow, Jonathan Strahan, Nick Mamatas, Ian Whates to name the ones I’ve most recently done original work for (I’d name everyone but I know I’d have a senior moment and leave someone out and the guilt would eat my liver till the day I die). I admire George RR Martin for hanging in all those years and never giving up, and I admire his wife Parris for hanging in there with him–there were a lot of lean years when she worked to keep them afloat. In fact, I admire all the spouses/partners, especially mine. Without my husband Chris, I’m not sure I’d be able to get anything done.

I admire William Gibson. Every time I read a new book by Bill, I fall in love with his work all over again. And he’s a truly lovely person.

I admire J.K. Rowling for persevering with Harry Potter. Her success blossomed directly from her readers–she wasn’t an insider, her first manuscript was rejected at least a dozen times and it was plucked out of the slush-pile. It tickles me to death that the richest woman in the UK is not just a writer, she’s a fantasy writer–a YA fantasy writer. Yeah, I know she’s just written her first book for adult readers–I have no idea whether it’s fantasy or not but I’ve pre-ordered it. I want to read it.

And finally, I admire Stephen King more than I can say. I love his work and he’s given a great deal to his community in Maine. I’ve met him several times and interviewed him twice, once just before The Stand came out and again after he’d gotten so big he could barely go anywhere without being mobbed. He’s the same guy.

What, in your opinion, is the most pertinent attribute of a good writer?

Perseverance. Over the years, when I was in school, and when I was first starting out, I met a number of people who were more talented, who wrote far better as beginners than I did. But I can’t tell you their names because I don’t remember them – they gave up or they just weren’t interested enough to continue. Talent can be developed, it can be improved, but only by hard work.

Have you any sage words of wisdom for anyone wishing to become a writer?

See above. Don’t give up, don’t let anyone tell you what you can’t do, and listen to your editors.

What is the worst aspect of writing?

I don’t know…I never thought about it. Seriously.

Recommend a good example of writing.

I’m currently re-reading John Brunner’s Stand On Zanzibar. It’s fascinating to compare the future as seen from 1968 with the present that came to pass.

N.K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is wonderful – go read it!

I’m glad Lauren Beukes’s Zoo City won the Arthur C. Clarke Award – it’s great.

Tricia Sullivan’s Maul and Lightborn will bitch-smack you – I mean that in the best possible way.

Mike Carey’s Felix Castor books are a great example of how to write a series without letting any tedium creep in.

‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King is the definitive modern-day vampire story. With vampires that are frightening monsters, not just misunderstood and too beautiful for the common people.

If you can find any of Judith Merrill’s best of the year anthologies in used bookstores – mail order or online is probably your best source – grab them and read some of the finest short fiction ever. I mean, EVER.

And while I’m at it, short fiction readers and writers should be reading Asimov’s and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine taught me a lot about the structure of good short fiction.

And if that still isn’t enough, go read my stuff. It’s a thankless job, but somebody’s got to do it. *chuckle*