Jennifer Killick is author of the trouser splittingly funny series, Alex Sparrow. Jennifer's second book, Alex Sparrow and the Furry Fury has just been released and chosen as the #PrimarySchoolBookClub book of the month for June.
Jennifer talks to us about her popular series, writing process and journey to become a children's author.
I usually write in my favourite spot on the sofa, with a cup of tea on the window sill next to me, and my dog lying on my feet.
Alex Sparrow actually began as a 1000 word short story (homework for my MA), but once I started to develop it into a full-length novel, I realised that there was a lot I could do with it. The story of ‘The Big Stink’ definitely needed to come first, so I wrote it as a complete story in itself in case a sequel or sequels were never to happen. I had an outline for Furry Fury written before ‘The Stink’ even went out to publishers, and an idea for book three. And then came an idea for book four…
I loved writing the animal characters in ‘The Stink’, so Furry Fury was an opportunity to explore a whole different world, while still keeping the action in Cherry Tree Lane. Animals are behaving strangely – ninja squirrels stealing people’s iphones and howling foxes keeping everyone awake at night – so Alex and Jess volunteer in the local animal sanctuary where they meet lots of funny, scary and cute characters, including Mr Prickles the hedgehog.
We see the friendship between Alex and Jess develop, Bob preparing to move in with Elle, and a new, softer side to Alex, which was a joy to write. And of course lots of silliness and mischief.
(WNV: Alex Sparrow and the Furry Fury is available from Amazon and other good retailers.)
I watched lots of documentaries and YouTube clips, and best of all, I spent a day in a hedgehog rescue and rehabilitation centre called Poppy’s Creche. The brilliant volunteers at Poppy’s take in sick and injured hedgehogs, and abandoned hoglets and give them the very best care. When I visited they were caring for more than 50 hedgehogs, and through the winter they had over 100. They’re completely self-funded, and the incredible Ann who runs the centre works 24/7. I got to meet lots of hedgehogs, including some that were very poorly and injured, and I was allowed to hold a beautiful hedgehog called Grace, who has recently been released back into the wild. It was a humbling experience and it inspired me to try to use Furry Fury to help our hedgehogs.
Once I have an idea that I think is strong enough to develop, I spend a couple of months thinking it through and asking lots of questions (usually while I’m writing or editing something else). I make notes (scribbles) and do a bit of research and give the ideas time to grow.
After that, I plan the plot and characters in detail on a spreadsheet. I usually start with the key scenes – those scenes that are so clear in your mind that you can see and feel them – then build around those. Once there’s enough detail on the plan, I write a first draft (usually over four to six weeks). I write fast and I don’t look back.
Then I put it away for a couple of weeks and go back to re-plotting in my head the parts that I don’t think are strong enough. Next I print the whole thing out, read it through and scribble all over it, then edit. At that point I’ll probably ask my husband to read it (he’s very harsh, so he’ll point out every flaw), and also the lovely Vashti Hardy. I’ll make a few more tweaks based on their input, then send it off to my agent and publisher.
Both the MA and working with Golden Egg helped me enormously. When I started the MA, I was full of bits and pieces, but nothing whole. The MA helped me to turn those ideas into full stories. It was also where I discovered my natural voice and style. When I started the MA I was planning to write tragic women’s fiction, and that obviously changed completely as I’m now writing funny children’s adventures. It was also where I first got the idea for Alex Sparrow and developed it into a longer story.
Golden Egg helped me to tighten my plot and structure in a way that made my story sellable. I was completely stuck with what to do with Alex Sparrow when I met Imogen, and she worked with me to bring out the real story and the characters in it. And equally importantly, Golden Egg introduced me to some of my now very best friends.
The support of wonderful Eggs has helped me more than I can explain. I couldn’t have managed without Lorraine Gregory and Vashti Hardy, in particular, but there are so many other lovely Eggs who have been incredibly generous with their time and kind words. I’m so grateful.
The marketing and promotion can be tough, and it’s such hard work. I’ve had some dreadful experiences and learnt lots of tough lessons over the past year, but there have been many, many wonderful moments.
Not every school visit goes brilliantly – in the early days in particular, many seemed to have forgotten they’d booked me and didn’t appear to really want me there. I still have the odd visit like that. But there have been so many that have been beyond wonderful. When I’m really connecting with a class, and there are children who apparently hate reading and writing, suddenly full of enthusiasm and joy because of the things that I’ve said, it just makes everything worthwhile.
There are some children who I’ve been lucky enough to meet several times because they’re big fans of Alex Sparrow and try to attend lots of my events, and I can see how happy my books and events make them. It’s the most beautiful responsibility and I always try so, so hard to make sure they know how important they are to me.
Oh gosh – so much. It is way harder than I expected – not the writing part, but everything else. The pressure to sell books is enormous and so much is outside of your control. Like most people, I think, I always believed that getting published was the hardest part, and I have since discovered that none of it gets any easier!
I’m just starting on draft two of Alex Sparrow and the Zombie Apocalypse (book three) and hoping to have a draft ready to send to my publisher and agent in June. I’m also thinking about the story I’ll be working on next – I have an idea for a Christmas story that I’m quite excited about, so it will probably be that.
Just keep going. I almost gave up so many times, but in the end the love of writing kept me going. It was only when I stopped obsessing about being published and just wrote because I wanted to that I actually finished that first story and made it to the next step. If you love what you’re writing, it will seep into the pages.
I think because I write humour, I really admire authors who write in that beautiful, poetic way. Vashti Hardy’s writing makes me sick – she paints pictures with words in the most effortless way. Lorraine Gregory writes stories that are so recognisably her own, and she’s a master at plotting and world-building in such a clean, uncluttered way. I’d love to be able to world-build like either Vashti or Lorraine. I also love really quirky, warm stories. I wouldn’t mind being a bit more Kate DiCamillo or Horatio Clare – they’re both absolutely brilliant.
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