Post-NaNoWriMo: An Inspiring Interview with Helena Coggan

The author shares some insight for young novel-writers

Hear what inspires her to write, what she's writing now, and tips for ridding yourself of writer's block!



Our own NaNoWriMo competition ended last year but many of us may still be remembering all the typing, editing, and organizing that invovled! Our Movellians worked incredibly hard in this competition to produce a massive amount of pages that we are in the awesome process of judging now :-) So now that this challenge has ended, you all may find yourself searching for good advice or rather, some writing inspiration! We thought hearing from Helena Coggan would be helpful and encouraging in talking a bit more about just what young writers go through in novel-writing.


Below is our interview with Helena - who we'd like to thank again for taking the time to chat with us!


Why do you write?

In short: I write because I love it. I’m guessing that’s true for most of you guys as well, especially if you’ve written fifty thousand words in a month (I’m just reading that back now- fifty thousand? In a month? An actual, honest-to-God, thirty-day-long month? That’s it. I’m leaving. I’m out of this. I clearly do not make the grade). I also write, more recently, because I have to. I don’t mean that in a negative way, as in, ‘I have to make this particular word count or I get my contract terminated’. I mean it in the sense that after more than three years of working full-on on various novels, writing is as integral a part of my life as learning at school, as seeing friends, as reading. Whenever I stop writing for any extended period of time, and I have nothing else to work on (which is admittedly rare in the sixth form) it is almost unendurably suffocating. I could no more just stop writing than I could stop speaking. My thoughts would have nowhere to go. And I’m guessing that is also true for you guys, as well.


What does your writing process look like?

It looks like what I look like at the moment - sitting at the dining-room table in our house, next to the window so I can see our cats half-heartedly attempting to stalk pigeons in the garden when I look up, earphones in, typing. I don’t write longhand, or I do only when I’m forced to, because I do the vast majority of my schoolwork longhand and after a while I suppose I’ve compartmentalised the two ways of working. I don’t leave post-it notes around for myself to look at; I keep it in my head, partly because I find it easier to think in mental snapshots of scenes than I do succinct on-paper ten-word summaries of them, and partly because I do so much of my work in communal spaces that relying on leaving notes for myself is almost a guarantee of forgetting everything I’ve planned. I never have the Internet up on my laptop (though I often have Buzzfeed or something of that ilk open on my phone); I prefer working in the evenings to working in daylight, though I obviously do most of my work in the daytime anyway because, y’know, sleep. I realise this makes me sound much more organised than I am, and I apologise for that. I don’t want anyone to read this and try to copy it because they think it’s ‘how novelists work’. It’s like revision methods - different ways of working suit different people. These are just my preferences; the only things I really need to write are Microsoft Word and, ideally, Spotify. Everything after that is optional.


Do you write every day, 5 days a week, or every day? If every day, do you aim for a set amount of words/pages per day?

I used to write every day, but that’s changed with my circumstances. I’m in the Sixth Form and I’m doing the International Baccalaureate and both of those things severely limit your free time. Sometimes there are days and weeks where I just can’t write because a day only has twenty-four hours and I need to spend at least some of those asleep, and this is where I am lucky in having a publisher which has been kinder and more understanding with deadlines than I had any right to expect or deserve. I write mostly on weekends and holidays and in my two free periods and one free lunchtime a week. When I do get to sit down and write, I try to get at least a thousand words done, two at weekends. And again, I can’t say this enough- only very rarely does this feel like work. Editing feels like work, yes, or at least the bits of it that don’t involve me getting to write new scenes, but writing itself does not, because I love it. If I ever lost the joy of writing I would just… stop. This is why I always get flustered whenever people ask me how I get all the work done. I don’t, because writing isn’t work to me. I am very lucky in that respect.


Do you work to an outline or plot or do you prefer just see where an idea takes you?

That depends. I’ve just written the first draft of my third novel, and for various reasons it isn’t told in chronological order, so that was a rare case in which the plot and characters were worked out before the first scene was written and this scaffold was fairly strictly adhered to through the whole process. But, as I say, this is unusual for me. For my first book, The Catalyst, I had a good idea of what positions the characters needed to be in by the end, but those ideas changed and developed as the book did and at any rate I had a lot of freedom in how they got to those positions. And anyway, the whole revelation that I had a workable, novel-worthy idea at all was so radiantly joyous that I was more than happy just to take things as they came. This approach led to some of the happiest days of my life, but it also led to a 160,000-word manuscript, and thereafter to a dull February afternoon in which 70,000 words had to be cut away from the book like mould from a sculpture. So after that I learnt to show a bit more restraint.


Have you always liked to write?

Yes. I’d say I liked to write even before I was literate- I loved to make up stories when I was little, was read to every night by my dad, lived for playing adventure games with my friends… And in that respect, of course, I was like everyone else. I just never grew out of it. There was never a moment in my life when the fabric of imaginary worlds did not feel as real to me as true reality; that never receded with age and what rudiments I possess of maturity. When I started to actually read, and thereafter almost immediately to write, I did so because it was the closest I could bring the stories in my head to reality, to prove they were real to everyone else. I still have some of the stories I wrote, aged five or six, in sprawling handwriting in aged notebooks; I have the poems I wrote aged nine, sat huddled in the corner of the playground. (Oh yes, as a side note - this is not a fast-track route to school popularity, guys. Consider yourself warned.) All the stories I wrote were about kids picked out of ordinary lives into imaginary worlds - stories, in other words, obviously written by a child - right up until I had an idea just after I turned thirteen, about a girl already living in a post-apocalyptic world divided by magic, raised on the secrets she kept between herself and others. And that idea became the foundation for The Catalyst.


Just as your writing inspires others, what authors have inspired you to write?

You are very kind. Have I mentioned how kind you guys are? You are very, very kind. The honest answer is that I had many authors who influenced me, the general YA SFF circle - Derek Landy, Cliff McNish, probably Suzanne Collins on some level - but it was actually TV that made me truly need to write. Specifically, it was Steven Moffat. I remember, as I suppose does everyone, the first episode of Doctor Who I watched- The Eleventh Hour, third of April 2010, aged ten- and the immediate, unprecedented, astonishing hold it had over me. I was addicted at once. (I promise this had nothing to do with my equally-immediate-and-unprecedented crush on Matt Smith.) I remember hating that this approach worked on me - that I was rapt and spellbound and powerless - and hating, with bitterest jealousy, the person who had control of the characters which had such control over me. I remember thinking - I have to create characters like that. I have to at least try. I have to have an imaginary world that belongs to me, that I can be proud of. It made me want and desperately need to write. 


What was the hardest thing about writing your latest book?

Two things. One, that The Reaction is the final book of a duology, and its ending has been set in my mind more or less since I started writing The Catalyst, which meant I had significantly less freedom in what I could do and where I could put the characters- in other words, it forced me to be organised. Secondly, I finished the book in the shadow of looming GCSE mocks and what turned out to be a very very weird first two months of 2015. For context, I sent off the book on the 10th December, and my interview (and two-and-a-half-hour photoshoot) with the Observer was on the 17th.


Do you ever get writer’s block? Any tips on how to get through it?

Yes I do. I made the mistake of trying to start the rudiments of my third book fairly soon after I finished the second, which meant that any illusions I might have been able to hold onto that I actually had a workable idea dissipated within months. There followed an increasingly panicky better part of a year, which spanned about half a dozen failed drafts of various stories. In my experience, though, there is something good in every story you write. There is something that interests you, something that makes you want to write, even if it isn’t enough to carry a novel. The idea for the third book which actually thank God worked is made of the interesting bits torn from at least three such failed drafts, all of entirely different stories. And, if you’re as-yet-unpublished, enjoy the luxury of being able to walk away and leave it and let your subconscious work on it - instead of, as I did, anxiously chivvying your subconscious to get a move on with eyes flickering to approaching deadlines.


What are you writing now?

I have just handed in the first draft of the third book. It’s come in significantly under - 65,000 words - and will of course need to be extended, but until I get that email, I’m sneaking a bit of a break. Which is to say: school work. I have a history essay on Italian unification I need to get done, if that counts…?


What writing advice do you have for other aspiring authors?

I’m always nervous about this question because I want to be so much more help than I actually can be. I know when people ask for advice they’re looking for some key piece of information that will suddenly make everything easier - will give them an idea, let them find the time to write, give them the sheer luck you need in order to get published - and that is not within my power to give, much as I want to. I have these: let yourself relax, enjoy writing as a hobby rather than a job, don’t put all your hopes for your future in your career as a writer, because the Internet is killing us off one by one and won’t stop any time soon, don’t wait for an idea to come to you gift-wrapped but take a mediocre idea and force it to be good… And talk to other people. Writing has the potential to be intensely, profoundly lonely, to trap you in unspoken worlds within your own head, and you don’t want that, trust me. You live in the age of the Internet. Talk to people as much as possible, bounce ideas off people. And if writing stops making you happy, stop.


Oh yes, and: congratulations. You’ve just found the closest anyone will ever come to true magic. Enjoy it.

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