Studying the craft of writing with Mark Dark

Award winning actor and writer Mark Dark interviews best selling children's writer Caroline Lawrence

 

A writer of children’s books set in Ancient Rome and the American wild west, Caroline’s Roman Mysteries have sold over a million copies worldwide in 20 languages. It was also one of the most expensive BBC children’s TV series ever made in the UK.

 

 

M Caroline, BIG thanks for agreeing to be interviewed. Can I ask, what’s the most difficult part of the writing process for you?

C Finding the self-discipline to sit down & write for a few hours every day!

 

M Do you have a set time when you write, or a set word or page count?

C I try to write for three hours a day in the mornings first thing. To avoid distraction of incoming emails etc I use a program called Freedom. It stops me browsing for a certain amount of time.

 

M When did you first realize you had a talent or love for writing?

C I don’t know if I have talent but I love stories so it seemed the right thing to do. It was a decision of the will.

 

M Your books have sold over a million copies so I think it’s fair to say you have talent! How did you learn the craft?

C Sales = luck + timing + public whimsy! But I like the word ‘craft’. To me, writing a book is like making a beautiful couch. First build a sturdy frame, then add the stuffing, and finally the cover and cushions. That makes a place where you can curl up and lose yourself in another world.

 

M Was there a moment in your learning process when you made a particular breakthrough?

C My big breakthrough came when a friend told me about John Truby‘s story structure class for screenwriters. I’d found my mentor.

 

M Ah, yes, I’m a Truby advocate myself! So, how does cracking story structure help?

C When you get the structure right, the rest isn’t too hard. Truby talks about 22 plot beats but I find his seven essential beats most helpful for keeping me on track.

 

M How long have you been following Truby’s principles?

C For the past dozen years I’ve been mastering Truby’s structure as I write. I also love the Hero’s Journey as interpreted by Chris Vogler. And recently I’ve discovered Blake Snyder’s marvelous ‘Save the Cat’ trilogy.

 

M But aren’t these structures for screenwriting?

C Although these three approaches (Truby, Vogler, Snyder) are geared to screenwriting, I find them perfect for my fast-paced kids’ books. I’m always learning and re-learning the craft of writing. Here are some of the things I’ve learned: romanmysteries.com/writing-tips

 

M You clearly know a lot about screenplay structure. Do you ever branch out into screenwriting?

C lol! I have a couple of screenplays on my hard disc but nothing to get the Weinsteins excited about!

 

M I’m sure they’re brilliant! The Roman Mysteries was a BBC TV series, right? Were you involved with adapting them for TV?

C Sadly, I wasn’t involved with the TV adaptation of my Roman Mysteries, having no screenwriting credits to my name. But I think the fact that all 17 books in the series were written according to filmic plot structure made them more attractive to the producers. www.bbc.co.uk/cbbc/romanmysteries

 

M So would you recommend budding novelists to study screenplay structures ?

C Yes! I think story structure is the most exciting aspect of writing & also the hardest to master. Like Truby & Snyder, I’m obsessed with it.

 

M Are there any novelist / fiction writing teachers you can recommend?

C Not really, because I haven’t attended a straight novel/fiction writing session in years. But you’ll find my five fave books on writing on this page: romanmysteries.com/get-published

 

M Thanks. That’s a great page with great advice. Can I ask you about your characters? The Roman Mysteries have a group of 4. Are you into character archetypes?

C Yes, I created them as archetypes: the hero (Flavia), the faithful sidekick (Nubia), the funny one (Jonathan) & the Wild One (Lupus). Each is linked to one of the four elements. Flavia = AIR; Jonathan = EARTH; Lupus = WATER; Nubia = FIRE.

 

M Wow. Cool.

C But I also based each of them on someone known to me. Flavia is me. Jonathan is my son Simon and a bit of Xander from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Gentle Nubia was based on a year 6 girl named Chantal whom I once taught. And Lupus is that part of all of us that sometimes just loses control!

 

M Your new hero, P.K Pinkerton, is a kind of lone ranger cowboy kid – how did you decide on him ?

C For the hero of my new “Western” books I wanted to do something completely different. After writing a book about a gang of four, I also liked the idea of a “loner hero” which fits the formula of “Wild West” literature. But of course no hero lives in a vacuum. So P.K. gathers his/her own sidekick, funny one, wild one and mentor(s).

 

M P.K is also something of a misfit: gender ambiguous, slightly Aspergers, half Sioux Indian and half white; emotionally stunted; psychologically wounded.

C Gender ambiguous?!

M I liked the idea that the reader would not be certain whether P.K. was a boy or a girl.

 

M I loved the first book, and P.K’s character. You wrote this in 1st person but The Roman Mysteries in 3rd person. Which do you prefer to write in: 1st or 3rd ?

C 1st person is definitely more challenging, but I’ve enjoyed it. I’m not sure which I’ll use for my next project.

 

M Why do you find 1st person more challenging?

C Because you have to put yourself completely in the persona. Also you are restricted in being able to show the world. Most of my books are mysteries where the hero has to put together clues to work out a problem.

 

M When I had four characters I could have each of them contribute to the solving of the mystery and this allowed the reader to be ahead of the characters because they could put together clues before the four conferred.

C It’s harder to have the reader realize something the protagonist doesn’t when the story is being narrated solely by the protagonist. In other words, I have to create a narrator who doesn’t realize something that he/she is telling us about, but the reader gets it!

 

M Could you elaborate on that? I find 3rd person more challenging. Isn’t it easier to see a world through one person’s eyes, as we do in real life? Isn’t one head easier than four?

C For me, third person is just first person a little removed: the camera looking over their shoulder and sometimes into their hearts and minds. Characters removed from my own personality are a challenge to write, whether it’s first person or third. I found it easy to write Flavia – who is bossy and impulsive like me – and harder to write Nubia, who is gentle and animal-loving! But in the end I found my ‘inner Nubia’. (That’s part of the fun of writing: the author has to inhabit different personalities.)

M To finish, have you any advice for writers hoping to get published?

C I have a whole page of advice: romanmysteries.com/get-published but here’s something I don’t say: find your weakness and work on that.

 

M Would you say you have a weakness?

C My weakness has always been plot. That’s why I put in so much time studying Truby, Snyder, Vogler etc. I still find plotting hard but now plot-structure is one of my favorite things to think about, talk about and teach!

 

M Truly awesome interview, thanks, Caroline. All the best for your future projects. Looking forward to the next P.K !

C Thank you! Good luck with your writing!

©Mark Dark

 

http://markdark.com/2013/01/20/int-caroline-lawrence/

 

To find out more about Caroline Lawrence, check her website here: www.carolinelawrence.com

 

To read more interviews and writing tips by Mark Dark, check his website here: http://markdark.com