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MSLEXIA INTERVIEW

My first memory…. ‘Moving to London from Hampshire when I was three. There were empty metal milk crates and we were sitting on them, eating egg sandwiches. I was very unhappy about the whole thing and said that I wanted to “go back to the other Eastleigh”.’

Research is seductive, and potentially limitless. ‘But there comes a point where you have to start the story.’ Hoffman has clear ideas about plotting. ‘An unrelated series of ideas is not a plot – more a string of beads. My idea of a plot is a plait. With David and all my other books I start off seeding all sorts of things for which the payoff doesn’t come until quite late on, and interweave ideas in unpredictable ways, hopefully ending up with a satisfying ending the reader won’t have predicted. That exciting last third of the book is the one I most enjoy writing.’

She also relishes the plot challenges posed by the time slip scenarios in her Stravaganza books. ‘I gave myself an enormous bunch of headaches by not only going back 400 years, but also by having shifts in the time frame on either side of the portal, so that it’s day in their world and night in ours.’ But one day’s headache is another day’s plot solution: ‘I put obstacles in my own way, and solving them

'You have to know when an idea is just going to remain an unborn child that’s not going to come to full term'

is how I get to the next bit.’

Like most writers, Hoffman has a great fear of ‘not being able to do it again’ after each book is finished. But every new book she racks up on her shelves encourages her to believe in herself a little more. ‘If I have a bad day, knowing that I’ve done it before gets me through, and my husband reminds me too. He says “you’re always like that at this stage”. That’s very comforting.’

The question people invariably ask writers – ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ – baffles Hoffman. ‘I always have a logjam of ideas in my head and have to write them out. It’s not having ideas that’s the problem, it’s knowing the best way to bring them to fruition. You have to know when an idea is just going to remain an unborn child that’s not going to come to full term.’ And how does she know when one of her books has come to full term and is completely finished? ‘Ah well, as Michelangelo says in David: “You can’t. All you can tell is when you can’t do any more to it. And then you need to stop because if you don’t, you will spoil it.’’‘ ■

MARY HOFFMAN studied English at Cambridge, and has worked in reading, language and children’s literature all her life, including 18 years as Reading Consultant to the BBC’s Look and Read series for schools. She has written over 90 books, including the best-selling Stravaganza series published in the UK by Bloomsbury.

LUCY COATS has been writing children’s picture books since 1992, as well as poetry, stories and novels for children of all ages. She has an MA in English Literature and Ancient History, specialises in retelling myths and legends, and is a member of the Order of Bards and Druids. Visit www.lucycoats.com or catch her blog at Scribble City Central.

My first writing… ‘At primary school, I was writing a story about a little elf who lived inside a tree, and describing every room. That was my idea of how you did writing then. You invented a place and put in every detail. But I got as far as the bathroom, and had to ask the teacher how to spell ‘lavatory’. She thought I was being rude.’

Thanks to…. ‘Lavender Hill Library, where I used to walk with my dad every Saturday. I thought it was a fairytale castle when I was a child and I think it’s influenced my idea of books and literature ever since.’

The first book that affected me… ‘TheTaleofBaldurtheBeautiful, read to me by my sister when I was four. It conjured up a whole world for me. I could see that hall full of torchlight, and gods lining up to throw things at Baldur. I think I became every part of the story, I could imagine myself being the mistletoe spear. It was a total identification with that world and everything in it.’

100 WAYS TO WRITE A BOOK /49

The Hoffman method

■ You have a small kernel of an idea and read around it. The British Library is crucial but you aren’t snobby about looking for basic information on the internet either, as you think it’s a good starting point. ■ You search out people who know about a particular subject – a mosaicist, an authority on female troubadours. You wish you could find an expert to consult for every aspect of every book. ■ You have a faffing about stage, making notes. Your husband calls this ‘a dog turning round in its basket.’ There is a lot of swearing and cursing about not being able to find the right research in the Bodleian. ■ Then you go quiet and just write. Radio 4 has to be on while you work; silence is not an option. ■ You must have small necessities around you: black coffee, cats, the talisman that represents the book you’re working on. ■ While writing, you compulsively check email and Twitter, sometimes mid-sentence. You are disciplined but easily distracted and have an absolute need to keep up to date with your ‘internet territories’.

■ A supply of Papermate flexgrip clicky biros that write black is a must. You find blue really disturbing. ■ Apple has been your tech addiction since 1989. You write all your books straight onto its screen and can’t imagine doing it any other way. None of this new technology feels alien; you’re delighted to be in the age of Skype school visits. ■ You have a large plastic box for each book as you like to gather things and keep them all in one place. Also a chapter board, post-it notes, and card indices with different coloured cards to keep track of all your characters – vital in a series of novels. ■ The long middle section of a book is the hardest to write. ■ You write best in the morning, but towards the end of a book it’s more like all day and evening. You write between 6,000 and 8,000 words a week, and a novel takes around six months, not including editing time. ■ It’s very helpful to read the book chapter by chapter to your husband. Then he asks, ‘So what’s going to happen next?’ and you say, ‘I don’t know’. He finds that very frustrating!

Apr/May/Jun 2011 53