A huge welcome to Steve Voake, children's author and Senior Lecturer in Writing for Young People at Bath Spa University. Steve is talking to us today about writing kids' books and how he balances that with his teaching. Steve lives with his family in Somerset.
I always loved writing stories, right from when I was in primary school. I recently found some stories in the loft I had written when I was around nine or ten, and they were all about undercover cops driving around in fast cars, catching criminals and eating pizza. I was a big fan of ‘Starsky and Hutch’ at the time, so that may have had something to do with it.
It’s true I used to get up early. When I was writing my first novel, ‘The Dreamwalker’s Child’, I was still a Headteacher and we had two young children, so I used to get up at about 3 or 4 in the morning just to find the time to write. It was mainly at weekends, because I didn’t want to miss out on time with the family during the day. But now my children have grown up and left home and I stopped being a Headteacher many years ago, so there’s no need to get up early anymore – hooray!
Nowadays, as long as I’m at my desk by nine o’clock, I’m happy, although if there’s a deadline looming it’ll probably be a bit earlier. I usually stop at around 1 and go for a bike ride and have some lunch, then do a bit more in the afternoon, but the main work tends to get done in the morning.
In the early days I used to be obsessed with getting 2000 words done before I stopped for the day, but nowadays I‘m happy to go with the flow a bit more. As long as I’ve made some progress with whatever the current project happens be, that’s good enough for me.
Ah, the 64 dollar question. It could be from anywhere, to be honest. I think when you’re starting to think about a new story, your mind is subconsciously more open to the world and you start to see connections between things that you wouldn’t normally see.
For example, when I wrote ‘The Starlight Conspiracy’ I’d been to Glastonbury Festival with my school to sell hot potatoes as a way of raising money and I thought it would be a good place to set a story. I also found a map of America with a red line across it showing all the places I had travelled during my time there. I then remembered how I used to cycle past a travellers' camp on my way to work. So as I was thinking about a new story, all those elements came together and I wrote a novel about a traveller girl who goes to Glastonbury Festival and then ends up travelling across America while being chased by the FBI, a terrorist organisation and a group of Hell's Angels, all of whom want to get their hands on a package that she has been told to deliver by an old man who saved her life. But I didn’t know any of those things about her until all those elements started sparking off each other inside my head…
I’ve just finished the edits for a third book in a series for younger readers about a dog called Maxwell Mutt (‘Maxwell Mutt and the Biscuit and Bone Club’) which will be out this summer. I’m also (hopefully) going to finish the latest draft of a novel for older readers with the working title ‘The Visitors’. Once that’s done, it will be time to start thinking about new projects, which is something I always look forward to.
I’ve been a teacher of one kind or another all my adult life, so it’s a huge part of who I am. I thought that being a full time writer would be the ideal life, but when I did it for two years I just really missed teaching. My father was a teacher, and my brother too, so I guess it’s just in my DNA.
When I was offered a job teaching creative writing at Bath Spa University, it was the perfect combination. I love working with new writers - it’s a real pleasure to help them find their voices and talk about different approaches to writing, so I never see it as a chore.
Having written my first two novels while still a Headteacher and with young children at home, I find it much easier these days to get a balance between the two. I tend to have set days for university work, so I try and fit the writing in around those and it generally works pretty well. Having said that, I’ll probably have a different answer when all the assignments arrive for marking!
A few years ago I wrote a series of books for younger readers about a little girl called ‘Daisy Dawson’ who finds she can talk to animals. I like her innocent confidence and the way she tries to sort out all the animals’ problems for them. The artist Jessica Meserve illustrated them beautifully and they were particularly popular in the U.S. so I still get letters from children across the water enclosing pictures they have drawn and telling me what they say to their pets, which is lovely.
I like the messy dreaming part at the beginning, opening up a new notebook, playing with ideas and watching a new story start to take shape.
It was when my agent called me to tell me there was going to be an auction for my first novel, and realising that people who weren’t related to me actually liked my book and it was going to be published.
Frank Cottrell-Boyce has a way of writing books that are not only funny but also wise and occasionally heart-breaking . To do that as skilfully as he does while making it look effortless is a rare skill and, as if that wasn’t bad enough, he seems like a really nice person too.
Particularly for young aspiring authors – keep a diary. It will help you notice things even on days when it might seem at first as if there is nothing to notice. As you pay attention to the world regularly in this way, you will begin to develop your own unique voice that says, ‘Here I am. Listen to me: I have something to say…’
Before I started writing my first novel, someone told me to write the numbers 1-30 down the side of a single sheet of paper. Against number 1, write an idea for a possible opening, against number 30, an idea for a possible ending, and against some of the other numbers, ideas for interesting scenes. For the first time, I was able to see the shape of my novel begin to emerge on a single side of A4, and it gave me the confidence to get started.
Steve, thank you so much for joining us and giving us such a fascinating insight into your life and career as a successful writer.
The Maxwell Mutt series is published by Walker Books and the third book in the series 'Maxwell Mutt and the Biscuit Bone Club' will be published on 4 July 2019.
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