Nicki Thornton did no less than win the Times/ Chicken House Children's Fiction Competition in 2016. Her winning manuscript has resulted in her debut novel The Last Chance Hotel which has just been published by Chicken House Books.
Nicki talks to us about her writing kids' books, what's happened since 2016 and her writing process.
I love books and the idea of trying to write one myself was always appealing. Not very surprisingly my career choice was a journalist, writing all day and telling other people’s stories.
I wish I had a writing routine as I think I would get a lot more done. Someone once told me you won’t go far wrong if you stick to the 5-5-5 rule – either 5 pages of editing or 500 words, for five days a week and it is true, because writing has to be squeezed in with everything else in life. So as long as I get something done I try not to get cross with myself.
It was amazing. I hadn’t really thought I was at the stage where I should start submitting, so to find my book was going to be published was a surprise to say the least and I had a lot to learn. I had very little knowledge of the whole publishing process and how a book goes from manuscript to production, so it has been an exciting journey of discovery. It was an enormous privilege to work with the team at Chicken House, who have steered it so successfully through every stage.
The editing process was a brilliant learning curve, particularly on narrative and structure. Every month has brought something unexpected – seeing the book jacket, hearing my book is being presented at international book fairs, that it will be published in the States and translated into several languages – these are things I never even dreamed about. Then there was learning that a special edition would be printed for Independent Bookshop Week – and seeing the publicity going out and the first (very kind) reviews coming in.
Having done many book reviews myself I never appreciated how lovely it is when someone says something nice about your book – even if it’s just a tweet to say they have bought it! It has been a magical journey I couldn’t even have imagined two years ago. I really cannot believe my good fortune, and most of that is appreciating the team of professionals that are working on my behalf.
We ran Mostly Books in Abingdon, near Oxford and it was a life-changing experience in so many ways. From a writing point of view, meeting so many authors meant I learned that pretty much no-one wakes up in the morning, writes something and sits back thinking that is rather brilliant. It certainly made me think that perhaps I might become an author one day, even though I was never very happy with my own attempts at writing.
The Last Chance Hotel is a murder mystery set in a magical world. As magic is involved, it’s a how-dunit as well as a whodunit. Suspicion falls on kitchen-boy, Seth, who must discover all about magic in order to find out who, how and why someone killed a rather important sorcerer. Investigation is by an inspector from the magical police (Inspector Pewter from MagiCon) who is very unpredictable, so Seth decides he had better rely on himself to clear his name.
The idea came from talking to so many children about books and what kept them reading and realising that although mystery and magic came up often, they seldom appear together in books.
I thought it was probably because it would be very difficult to write a book where the murderer was magical, because they would just get away with it too easily. But it was one of those ideas that wouldn’t go away and gradually the world and the story started to form that I thought might work. It’s a world where magic is rare and quite dark and rather dangerous.
My wonderful publisher, Chicken House, has printed a special limited edition to celebrate Independent Bookshop Week (starts June 16), which is a week-long chance to remember what a totally brilliant job bookshops do for the book trade in general and authors in particular. So the particularly beautiful edition is available from independent bookshops, which makes me feel very special and proud. The artwork was done by Matt Saunders, to whom I am also indebted. If you can, why not go and buy it from an indie – and appreciate everything they do.
I have always been a bit of a scribbler and have lost count of the number of book ideas started, abandoned in despair in the bottom drawer. Luckily no-one will ever have to read them.
It is a journey and for me, definitely it was finding writing friends. Meeting other people trying to do the same was so helpful, not just getting over that dread thing of letting other people see my work, but I learned so much, about writing, submitting and editing. I joined SCBWI and a children’s crit group, which was brilliant and I did gradually start to believe in myself and that I could do this.
Another breakthrough was joining the Golden Egg Academy. Even getting accepted made me feel I was getting there. It was also the first time I’d had professional feedback, which gave me further hope. It’s as if my whole journey has been assembling pieces of a puzzle that started out as an urge to write.
How do you start to do it well? It’s a tricky business. Don’t try to do it alone.
I think it’s that chance, even if it is a small one, of being able to do this full-time and to make some sort of a career out of it. I love writing and I have too many stories in my head. If other people want to read them that would be beyond brilliant.
I am writing another book about the magical world of The Last Chance Hotel, which features another murder mystery, plus more investigations by Seth. This time he has to get to grips with a different type of magic. And I have also been writing a science fiction story which is basically a murder-mystery, set thirty years in the future among the first children to live on the Moon. A thriller more than a whodunit. And something fun with cats!
The list is huge! I love reading and I constantly find authors I think are just brilliant and want to shout about. Finding the right book for the right child means you need to have a lot of different books at your fingertips and there is a secret alchemy to it, but luckily there are so many terrific books published for children.
I think those I really hold very high are those who create a world that children just long to dive right back into, such as the Skulduggery Pleasant series by Derek Landy, Harry Potter, Murder Most Unladylike (Robin Stevens) or Wimpy Kid (Jeff Kinney). Many of those writers have made readers of children who are easily diverted into other things and that is really a special talent I would love to have.
Thanks for the questions Writing NV
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