Today I interview Heled Laycock. Helen is a frequent contributor to CafeLit and is a prolific writer. Over the next few weeks I'll be featuring some of her books.
1. What do you write? Why this in particular?
I don’t fit very neatly into a writing niche (#rebel) which is a shame (I like making lists and designating categories)!
In ascending size order (as I’m a bit OCD), I write flash fiction, serious and humorous poetry (for children and adults), short stories (again for children and adults), plays (more rarely) and children’s fiction up to about 40 000 words.
When I am inspired, I write, whatever the form.
2. What got you started on writing in the first place?
As with most writers, I started as a child. Reading books and writing stories was my favourite thing in the world! I would get lost in them.
I didn’t know if I was any good at writing until I started to get feedback from teachers at secondary school. By then, I had started writing poetry, too. I was encouraged to have my writing published in the school magazine, I also found myself winning school-based competitions and by the sixth form I had put together a folder of all my writing which my English teacher showed to an English professor; he sent back a detailed report which glowed with positivity and I thought, ‘I can do this!’
When I became a teacher, I adored teaching creative writing. It rekindled my own passion for exploring language and ideas. It was during my second teaching post that I wrote my first children’s book ‘Charlie Chumpkins’. The children had been writing poetry about what the world would be like if they were tiny, and that sparked off the idea. I had never imagined that I would be able to sustain the process of writing longer fiction, but this was an easy way in as each chapter focussed on a different adventure, so it was like producing a series of stories.
After this, though, I got the bug. I gave up teaching and went on to write several more children’s books with more complex structures, as well as other forms of writing. I began to get poetry, flash and short stories published in magazines and anthologies. I also had a few near misses from traditional publishers with my children’s books.
3. Do you have a particular routine?
I am definitely better at writing in the morning, but when I am writing a book, time ceases to be, and I can find myself tap-tapping away until the early hours. I keep a notebook beside me where I scribble new ideas as they come to me – plot points, twists and details which will need to be included somewhere, but if I’m in the middle of a gripping scenario, I can’t stop until it’s finished.
I like to finish the first draft of short stories and poetry in one go. Afterwards, I will tweak and tweak until I feel I have done all that I can. This is especially true of poetry. I think it’s a beautiful art form with so many elements working together, both in language and structure. I will spend much longer perfecting a poem than a story.
4. Do you have a dedicated working space?
Absolutely! I have a fantasy about being one of these writers who sits typing in a coffee shop all day, swathed in velvet and wearing a jaunty hat and quirky scarf… but I can only work in my study. The chair is the right height and provides the right level of comfort. Everything I need is around me, and the screen in huge which means I can look at two A4 pages side by side.
5. When did you decide you could call yourself a writer? Do you do that in fact?
Despite now having a catalogue of published work, I have never been comfortable calling myself a writer. I always dilute it (and trivialise it?) a bit by saying ‘I write’. However, I just have secured myself a writing job (Hooray!), and because it is paid work, I have now given myself permission to say those words (I think). I haven’t tried it yet…
6. How supportive are your friends and family? Do they understand what you're doing?
It’s not really something I talk about with friends. It seems a bit embarrassing, as though if I mention it, I expect them to read my stuff! I don’t think non-writers really understand about the road to publication, what editing is, or how important promotion is. I don’t even think they consider me a ‘real’ writer!
I sometimes inflict a funny poem upon my husband – and get annoyed if he doesn’t roll about laughing, choosing instead to question a ‘fact’! My uncle writes, so it’s good to share news with him. It was great having two daughters to read to in instalments as I wrote my children’s books. They still make the right noises when I tell them about a writing achievement, even if they are more interested in listening to Spotify!
What I have found great is being a member of an online writing forum. Other writers really ‘get it’ – the disappointments, the necessity of finding the right word or punctuation, the joy of acknowledgement – and they are always very generous with their praise when reading my writing, or when there is good news, plus they are a great resource themselves.
7. What are you most proud of in your writing?
Lots of things! My first competition win, for example, for a poem in 2005, my first inclusion in an anthology, my wealth of written material.
I feel a great sense of achievement at having created believable fictional worlds in whichever genre. Writing something good is like finding a unique recipe using totally new ingredients. The taste test is putting it ‘out there’, offering it to strangers and waiting for a reaction. A high point for all writers is finding a wonderful review* or feedback from a publisher. It means so, so much.
*I wish I had more reviews!!
8. How do you get on with editing and research?
I love editing. First, I get it all down in a great big whoosh. I am as careful as I can be not to make mistakes as I write, but, of course, I always edit afterwards. It’s therapeutic and rewarding to find mistakes (I feel like a detective!), or to be hit by a flash of inspiration as to how something could be improved.
I choose an element to edit and only work on that, like typing in time clauses so I can check the subsequent comma, for example, or looking at spacing. I use the highlighting function a lot in Word so that I can quickly locate areas where I want to change something, or I will write something in red if it’s a hint to be pursued elsewhere in the story. I made a big chart for my last book as there were lots of characters and storylines which needed continuity within a time frame.
In a long piece, I will edit as soon as I have written a complete section, but I lose track of the number of times I go through everything with a fine toothcomb.
I don’t find research too onerous; I don’t write historical or highly factual fiction. If I am aiming for realism, I’ll Google things. For example, in ‘Mandrake’s Plot’, a children’s boarding school mystery set in the Scottish Highlands, I had to find out about local plants. For ‘Glass Dreams’, a circus mystery, among other things, I re-read Enid Blyton’s (dreadful) Mr Galliano’s Circus. ‘Salt’ is set at a fictional Cornish town, so, naturally, we had to take a Cornish holiday! The memories and photos proved very useful in creating the backdrop to the mystery.
9. Do you have any goals for the future?
I have short term goals – a list of writing and submission opportunities. I used to enter competitions, so I’d like to get back into that.
I have a newly-finished humorous children’s book which I’d love to get traditionally published.
And I’d generally love to be better known as a writer. This week I read a review which said, ‘Helen Laycock is one of my favourite children’s authors’ and last year, when I ordered a piece of artwork as a gift, the artist wrote, ‘I know your name. Are you an author? I think I’ve read one of your books.’ It doesn’t get much better than that!
10. Which writers have inspired you?
I’d love to write thrillers like Linwood Barclay or Tess Gerritsen. I started one and have a few ideas for others, but, so far, I have put them on the backburner. I think Roald Dahl was a wonderful children’s author (and now, in a similar vein, Julian Clary and David Walliams) but our writing styles are different. The only book of mine which nods in a slightly similar direction is ‘Martha and Mitch’, where some of the characters are larger than life. Probably my biggest influence was Enid Blyton. That sense of adventure which child protagonists experience during freedom from adults has stayed with me.