Two sisters. Two books. One release date. Kate Forsyth and Belinda Murrell talk about writing and their latest books The Wildkin’s Curse and The Ruby Talisman.
Do you think writing is something that can be taught?
Kate: I often talk about what I call the Three Ts of Writing – Talent, Technique and Tenacity. Talent is a gift that you are born with, and manifests itself in a love of books and words and writing. Technique can be taught – and indeed, all writers go on learning their craft all of their lives. Tenacity is the determination to keep on going even when your faith in yourself is shaken to its foundations – and often it is not the most talented writers who end up making a career as a writer, but the ones who keep on trying.
Belinda: It’s the old Nature versus Nurture argument. I used to believe that good writing was a talent you were either born with or not. But I’ve come to realise that there are many skills and strategies you can learn to improve your writing. I’ve also learnt that in addition to talent, writing also requires a great deal of passion, drive and sheer hard work.
Are there any writing reference books you would recommend?
Elements of Style by Strunk & White
Steering the Craft by Ursula le Guin
Take Joy: A Writer’s Guide to Loving the Craft by Jane Yolen
What is the best piece of advice you could give to young writers?
Kate: Get into a regular writing routine and then stick to it. And be brave! You need courage to write truthfully and powerfully, and you need courage to show your work to the world. Have faith in yourself and keep on dreaming.
Belinda: The best advice I can give an aspiring writer is to write, write, write. Write every day. Keep a notebook with you at all times so you can jot down ideas, descriptions, interesting names and quirky thoughts. Try to make your writing the very best you can – crisp, clear, beautiful. Write what you love. Finally read lots of books, because all fantastic writers were fantastic readers first.
What do you know now that you wish you knew then (when starting out)?
Kate: That I really could make a living as a writer! So many people told me it was impossible and I’ve proved them all wrong.
Belinda: That being a successful author requires so much more than just writing a good book – it also involves marketing, promoting, networking and performing.
Do you ever suffer from writer’s block or a shortage of ideas? How do you overcome it?
Kate: I never have a shortage of ideas but then I make sure I keep my well of inspiration full – by reading widely, by listening to people’s stories, by going to the ballet or the theatre or concerts, by being always curious and aware and interested in the world. I sometimes get stuck in a story, not being sure how to move forward, but I have immense faith that the answer will come to me in time, and so I keep working on other aspects of the novel, until inspiration strikes again.
Belinda: Yes – usually when I am tired or distracted – like now after several weeks of festivals, school visits and promotional events. The only cure for me is to get stuck back into the writing, to reconnect with my story and start chipping away at the writing word by word, until it starts to flow again.
Have you always written or is it something that happened over time? When did you know for sure that you wanted to be a writer?
Kate: I’ve always wanted to be a writer. I think I was born wanting to write! I wrote stories and poems from the time I first learn to hold a pencil, and have never stopped since.
Belinda: As a child I loved to write, but I also wanted to be a vet like our dad, because I loved healing animals. By the time I was an adult my decision was made for me – I could write, but I couldn’t do maths, physics and chemistry!
Is there one book you read as a child that can be directly linked to your decision to become a writer?
Kate: ‘The Story of My Life’ by Enid Blyton. This book belonged to my mother and I read it when I was a child. It describes Enid Blyton’s life as a writer, with photos of her beautiful old house ‘Green Hedges’. It had the most beautiful big garden with roses and apple trees and swans. I remember reading this book and wishing with all my heart that I could be a writer too, and live in a big old house with a big old garden and lots of animals, and write stories all day long.
Belinda: As a child, the book that most fired my imagination was The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis. I loved its enticing mixture of adventure, action and fantasy. Kate and I would dress up in silver chain mail, with swords and bows and arrows, and play Narnia. I was enraptured by the idea that it might be possible to pass through a secret door into a magical world, full of talking animals and adventure.
Kate, you’ve written adult fiction as well as young adult fiction. Which is harder and why?
I don’t think one is more difficult than the other – they’re just different. Before I begin writing a book I always know who I’m writing for – the story demands its own shape and its own audience, and so I adjust my style accordingly. A lot of it is intuitive, though during the editorial stage I do spend some time thinking about the age group the book is for, and trying to make sure it’s not too simple or too difficult.
What do you love most about writing? What do you like least?
Kate: I love every aspect of writing. I love the early stage, when I read and daydream and wonder and make notes to myself, and let the story unfold in my head. Then I love the actual writing of the story, even though it can be hard sometimes to keep on going. I love the final stage as well, the editing and rewriting and cutting and polishing. The only part if don’t really enjoy is the final proofread because by that time I’ve read every word so many times. However, I know the next step is holding my beautiful book in my hands and I LOVE that!
Belinda: I love the research into so many fascinating topics, I love getting lost in writing a story and how it almost seems to write itself and I love getting feedback from kids who love my books. The part I find difficult is juggling the demands of writing and marketing and having a family of three children, a husband, a house that won’t tidy itself, and lots of demanding pets – all into a day with only 24 hours!
Why do you write fantasy as opposed to other genres?
Kate: I don’t always write fantasy. I’ve written picture books, historical fiction, contemporary fiction and poetry. I do, however, love books that have magic and adventure and mystery in them and so most of my books have these three ingredients.
Belinda: Like Kate, I do write other things including picture books and historical fiction, however I have always loved books that are full of adventure, history and a twist of magic. Fantasy is a true escape from the humdrum reality of work and school, housework and chores. I have always loved fleeing into a world where children are empowered to change their worlds, to fight for good, to overcome evil, to be strong and brave and clever.
Belinda, Kate shared a bit about her writing process in the video link below. Could you tell us a little about your own particular process?
Usually something will inspire an idea in my mind like a tiny seed. Over time the idea will sprout and shoot into the start of a story. This could be an evocative setting, something I’ve read or a chance conversation. Once the idea has seized my imagination, I spend three or four months researching background information, thinking, planning, jotting notes and plotting out my rough story. I usually do a synopsis which maps out the overall story, then start writing. The writing itself takes about the same amount of time, followed by another three or four months of editing, polishing and proofreading.
Do you share your work with each other during the writing process?
Kate: No, I don’t show any part of the book to anybody until I have a complete first draft, as perfect as I can make it. Then I show it to my publisher and my editors, but no-one else gets to read it until I have wrought the best book I possibly can – not even my own children!
Belinda: Kate and I tend not to read each other’s manuscripts until they are finished. We do help each other in so many other ways, whether talking through a difficult plot problem that is bothering us, helping to look after each other’s children or giving each other a stern talking-to, when we are doing too much, or getting stressed from juggling the many demands of motherhood, career, family and writing.
At what point in the process of writing your last book do you begin working on your next?
Kate: When I have completed my first draft, I send it to my publisher and they will keep it for quite a long time before sending it back with an editorial report. I usually begin working on my next novel during those months, though often I don’t do much writing – just a lot of daydreaming and reading and researching. Then, once I have finished the rewrite and sent it back to my publisher, I begin on the new novel in earnest. I’ll have to stop to do the final proofread but that doesn’t usually take very long – a few days or a week – and then I immerse myself in the new book again.
Belinda: I find ideas pop up all the time which might form the basis for a good book, so sometime I’m guilty of daydreaming about a new idea while I should be writing my current book. This new idea needs to be jotted down in my notebook, then firmly set aside until I’m ready for it! When I finish a book, I usually need a few weeks to re-organise my life, house and finances before I start on the next project, but I find the ideas in my notebook start to resurface and take over my thoughts.
Have you ever considered writing a book together?
Kate: No, I think we have enough ideas of our own. And our styles are quite different – we’d have to work really hard to keep a consistent voice throughout the book and be constantly reining our own voice back. I’d rather write my own books and then have the pleasure of reading Belinda’s!
Belinda: Kids often ask us that and we joke that we might end up throttling each other!
Could you tell us a little about your most recent books The Wildkin’s Curse and The Ruby Talisman?
Kate: The Wildkin’s Curse is a fantasy adventure for readers aged 12+, set in the same world as my earlier book The Starthorn Tree (though it can be read on its own). It tells the story of two boys and a girl, whose people have been enemies for centuries, setting out on a secret mission to rescue a girl who has the power to enchant with words. She is kept muzzled, locked away in an impossibly tall crystal tower, by a cruel king who seeks to use her powers for his own evil ends. It is filled with danger, excitement, mystery and romance.
Belinda: The Ruby Talisman is an exciting time slip adventure where my modern day heroine, Tilly, falls asleep wearing an old ruby pendant and is magically transported back in time to the glittering and opulent court of Queen Marie-Antoinette and King Louis XVI. Tilly wakes up in Versailles on July 14th, 1789, the day the peasants storm the Bastille, sparking violent uprisings against the aristocrats all over the country. Tilly sets off on a series of terrifying adventures throughout France to help her aristocratic ancestor Amelie-Mathilde escape the dangers and chaos of the French Revolution.
Kate shares her writing process