You have written around 40 fiction books for children and teens. What are some of the most important considerations when writing accessible and entertaining fiction?
Actually, only 29 of them are fiction, the rest are non-fiction. But I do prefer writing fiction. When writing for kids or teens, I always try to think back to the sort of stuff that I used to read when I was that age. I try to write things that I would have liked reading as a kid. My current novel, Gamers’ Quest, is probably the best example of this. As a teen, I loved playing video games on my Atari console (yes, I’m a child of the 80s) and I was really in to computer game movies, like TRON and The Last Starfighter. So I ended up writing a novel that is set entirely within the multiple worlds of an elaborate virtual reality computer game… exactly the sort of book I would have loved as a 13 year old.
How do you develop the initial concept for a story?
The initial concept is usually something that has grabbed my attention at the time. I figure that if I find a concept interesting enough to want to write about, then there’s bound to be someone out there interested enough to want to read it.
Could you give us an overview of the process you went through writing one of your novels?
Gamers’ Quest actually began life as a short story called ‘Game Plan’, published in Trust Me! (Ford Street Publishing, 2008), an anthology edited by Paul Collins. I was inspired to write the story by a documentary about online gaming, which showed how people all over the world were immersing themselves in fantasy games to the detriment of their real lives, which they considered boring. I wanted to turn this around and ask: If a person lived in a fantastical world full of exotic dangers, what sort of computer games would s/he play?
It was only after fellow author, Meredith Costain, suggested that it would make a good basis for a novel that I stopped to think about it. And once I did stop to think about it, there was no turning back — the characters and the environment seemed well suited to a longer story. It was at this point that it occurred to me that I could set the entire story inside a computer game and write a novel that the 13-year-old me wanted to read.
So I plotted the whole thing out and wrote the first few chapters plus an outline, which I sent to Paul Collins at Ford Street Publishing. Paul gave me some feedback and from there I wrote the first draft — a rather rough version with just the basic plot and not too much detail. Then I went on to develop the characters and situations a little more, and I started to think about overlaying a kind-of computer game structure to the first part of the novel. This including having no sense of the passage of time, with characters progressing from one challenge to the next without eating or sleeping, without any progression of day to night. Then I set out a series of rules, which were different for different characters depending on where they were in the hierarchy.
When I finally had a readable draft I gave it to my wife to look at. I never send anything to an editor without her reading and commenting on it first. She has an amazing eye for detail and is also very good at suggesting story directions I wouldn’t necessary think to include. Then, of course, there were more drafts as the manuscript went back and forth between me, Paul and the editor. Nine drafts in total before I had something that was worth publishing.
What is the key to packing value into such a short piece of writing, such as a short story or a children’s book, to make it special and stand out from others?
The key, for me, is cutting out the waffle. I try to make descriptions succinct and, where ever possible, part of the action. I try to get to the heart of the story as quickly as possible.
What are some of your favourite fiction books (other than your own) and what makes them stand out?
I love pretty much anything written by Carole Wilkinson. She wrote the Dragonkeeper series of children’s books and, most recently, the YA novel Sugar Sugar. With Carole’s work, it’s her ability to paint a scene and create vivid characters with an amazing simplicity that attracts me. Her style is straightforward and unpretentious and completely captivating.
I also love much of Richard Harland’s writing, particularly his YA Heaven and Earth trilogy and his recent Worldshaker. With Richard’s writing, it’s his completely bizarre yet totally believable characters that grab me.
There is a current obsession with vampires. The best vampire book I’ve read in recent times has been Narrell M Harris’s The Opposite of Life. I love it because it is not a typical vampire novel. It creates certain expectations and then twists them. I also love the fact that it’s set in my home-city of Melbourne.
Other books I’ve really enjoyed recently include Chrissie Michaels’ historical novel In Lonnie’s Shadow and Shirley Marr’s contemporary high school novel Fury.
What is it about science fiction that attracts you to writing in that area rather than writing other types of fiction?
I’ve enjoyed writing in a number of genres, from contemporary realistic through to fantasy, but time and again I find myself drawn back to science fiction. It’s the genre that first ignited my interest in reading and then later in writing. It’s a genre of infinite possibilities. I guess that, at heart, I’m just a little kid who still loves pretending that he’s out in space, flying a spaceship.
You also do some acting. Has this had any distinct benefit for your writing skills?
Yes, it has. I did three years at the National Theatre Drama School in Melbourne and the greatest thing I learnt was confidence and the ability to take risks… two qualities that are necessary as an actor and also as a writer.
What is the top piece of advice you would like to give to new writers?
It’s that old clichéd bit of advice that writers always give out (because it’s true): Read lots and write lots! The more you do of these two things, the better your writing will become.
What is next for your fiction writing?
I’ve been writing really short stories of 200 to 300 words for a set of literacy assessment materials for the US education market. That’s been a lot of fun. Stories that are so short really means you have to focus on getting to the point asap.
I’ve also started working on a new novel, tentatively titled Tornado Riders. Whether that will ever see the light of day remains to be seen.
I’ve also been jotting down notes for a bunch of other things. My mind tends to be like my work space — cluttered and in a complete jumble. I always seem to find myself jumping from one project to another. It keeps things interesting!
The Australian Literature Review