Tips for budding writers from Charlie Higson

This year, Port Eliot Festival is delighted to launch a young writers competition.  In collaboration with best-selling children’s book author (and national treasure) Charlie Higson, we’re inviting budding young wordsmiths to write a short story, themed around this summer’s festival (enter that here, by the way). While we were chatting to him, we were lucky enough to ask him a few of our most burning questions – and here’s what he told us.

You’re best known to some readers as the author of the Young Bond books. How did you find out that you’d got that gig, and how did you feel?  

I was approached completely out of the blue and very secretively by The Ian Fleming Estate (IFP). I’d written 4 adult thrillers in the early 90s and my editor was an amazing woman called Kate Jones. She ended up working for IFP and suggested to them that I might be the right person for the job. She knew I was a big James Bond fan and had three boys the right age to enjoy the books she also thought that my writing style (I’m a big fan of stripped back, hard-boiled American crime writing) would work well for younger readers. I told IFP how I would approach the series and luckily they like my ideas and let me loose. It was a blast, but it was only once I started writing that I thought “Oh my god! What have I taken on? This is James Bond for God’s sake – the biggest action adventure hero in the world.”

Were you a fan of the films and stories yourself? And were you more influenced by Ian Fleming’s books or by the films?

I grew up in the 1960s which was the era of James Bond. The first film I remember going to see in the cinema was Thunderball. Later on I got round to reading the Ian Fleming books, which are still outrageously entertaining. The brief from IFP was to stick as closely to the Fleming books as possible, rather than the films. They wanted to remind people where Bond had come from. But of course you can’t write a Bond book today without being influenced by the films.

Where do you tend to start when you’re writing a book?

Call me old-fashioned but I start at the beginning. I will have thought of some key scenes and incidents and will have a rough cast of characters and most importantly of all I will have an ending in mind, a destination I can hit towards, but I start on page 1 and set off on my adventure. Sometimes, though, I’ll jump ahead to a later section because I’m excited about it and want to get it down while its fresh in my mind.

How much of the writing process is actually going back and re-writing?

Somebody once said that all writing is rewriting. The most exciting stage of writing a book is when you have your first draft. The hard work is done and you have a proper sense of what the book is and how to make it better. Rewriting is very pleasurable. You’re like Michelangelo with a rough cut lump of rock vaguely in the shape of a young man and youstart chiselling, and polishing, getting rid of the parts you don’t need, adding detail until you’ve got the perfect object – a statue of David (if you’re lucky). You should always rewrite your story at least once.

What is the best piece of advice you can think of for an aspiring young author?

Enjoy yourself. Write what you want to write. Don’t write to please your parents or your teachers or anyone else. Just write the sort of story that you would like to read. And remember there are no right and wrong ways of doing it.

Did you read a lot as a child? And what were you favourite books or authors? 

I read a huge amount. The 60s was a golden age for kids historical fiction with writers like Geoffrey Trease and Henry Treece and Rosemary Sutcliffe(many of whom are not read any more). I also read lots of books of mythology – Greece, Rome the Norse gods – and stories about King Arthur or Robin Hood. If the hero had a sword in his hand I was happy.

How did you encourage your own children to read?

Hah! What gives you the idea that my children read? I read to them a huge amount as kids and our house is filled with books. They read a lot when they were young but now 2 of the 3 hardly ever read anything. But the 3rd does, which is ironic because he was severely dyslexic when he was growing up. But he shares my love of fantasy and science-fiction.

How do you think children’s books are standing up in an era of video games and great TV?

It’s a struggle for all books to survive in this climate. I just came home on the tube and where in the past everybody would have been reading newspapers or books or magazines they were all sitting looking at their phones. What I try to get across when talking about this is that it’s not an either/or thing, though. It’s not about whether kids should either read a book or play a video game, or watch something online, they should try to do all of them. Books will survive, though, because nothing compares to the immersive experience you get from reading.

You recently wrote a fighting fantasy book, an interactive storytelling experience where the reader can interact and chose plotlines as the story goes along. Did you enjoy the process? Did you learn anything new about storytelling and plotting?

I loved writing ‘The Gates Of Death’ but it totally fried my brain. Your story keeps branching and spreading in all directions as you have to keep giving the reader options and choices and decisions to make, as well as battles to fight and objects to use. And you can get tied in knots. I got completely stuck inside an angry dwarf’s cottage for a week trying to work out how the hell to get out there! I ended up having to do pages and pages of maps and charts and diagrams to make it all work. But it really made me think in a fresh way about creating stories and how they work and how to involve the reader in what they’re reading

You’ve written the Young Bond series, as well as the zombie apocalypse Enemy series for younger readers. Do you have anything new in the pipeline?

I’ve been working on a big fantasy series for a few years now (in fact I started it when I was a teenager) but it’s nowhere near completion and I’ll only release it into the world when I’m sure that I’ve got it right. In the meantime, for a bit of light relief,I’ve written a funny book for younger readers about a very shy boy who goes on holiday with the family of a school friend. It’s a book for anyone who has ever been on holiday.

You’ve had a career that’s spanned the worlds of music, acting, comedy and writing. Which has given you most pleasure? 

Well, if people ever ask me what I do I always say I’m a writer. Everything I’ve done has started with writing, and when writing is going well it’s the greatest feeling in the world, losing yourself in your fiction and going off and having all those amazing adventures with your imaginary friends.