Back in October 2011, I interviewed author Helen Moss for my WordPress blog. I hope you enjoy it...
Welcome to the one hundred and sixty-eighth of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, bloggers, autobiographers and more. Today’s is with children’s author Helen Moss (aka Isabella Cass) whose author spotlight went live at the end of September. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further.
Morgen: Hello again, Helen. Please tell us something about yourself and how you came to be a writer.
Helen: I always loved writing stories as a child, but I only started writing seriously about five years ago. After school I did a degree in psychology and philosophy, and then, after a year in London doing all kinds of jobs (including being a waitress at Ronnie Scott’s jazz club and cold-calling for a photocopier sales company and almost going to Hong Kong with a dance group) I opted instead to do a PhD in psycholinguistics (which is way easier than trying to sell photocopiers over the phone, I can assure you!).
Morgen: I don’t like the hard sell so am the world’s worst salesperson “you don’t want it? Oh, OK”. :)
Helen: After that, I worked for many years as a researcher and lecturer, studying the way the brain processes and represents language, and how this can be affected by brain damage or disease.
Helen: I loved my job, but when we returned to Cambridge after a year in Oregon (my husband’s work took us there) I felt it was time for a new challenge. I’d always harboured a dream of being a writer (writing scientific papers was, of course, a big part of being a researcher, but I longed to write something where I could make stuff up. That doesn’t tend to go down too well in the world of science!). It was probably a bit of a mid-life crisis but I decided to give it a try.
Morgen: Which would make me think you went for writing science-fiction but as we know…
Helen: I took a creative writing evening class and was totally hooked. Over the following year, I wrote a science-based mystery thriller for 9-12 year olds, called The Sea Cucumber’s Revenge, and sent it off to some agents. I was lucky enough to be taken on by Jenny Savill at Andrew Nurnberg Associates.
Morgen: Ah ha, a mix of the two. What genre do you generally write and have you considered other genres?
Helen: I write for children in the 8-12 age group, often referred to as ‘Middle Grade'. It’s a great age to write for: children are really enthusiastic and sophisticated readers at this age and are interested in such a wide range of topics – they are real book-sponges. I’ve written a stage school series for girls and a series of mystery / adventure books. In the future I’d like to try my hand at writing for teenagers and also shorter books for younger readers, but I think ‘Middle Grade’ will always be my first love!
Morgen: Like me and short stories rather than novels. What have you had published to-date?
Helen: I wrote four books for a series called Superstar High, under the pseudonym Isabella Cass. With this series, the publisher already had the concept and gave me the main character profiles and outline and then I had to write the books to those specifications (children’s series fiction is quite often written this way). It was a fantastic learning experience. (Published by Random House’s Corgi imprint, Superstar High came out in 2010 and 2011)
Then I was lucky enough to be asked if I’d like to write a series of adventure / mystery books. This series, called Adventure Island is published by Orion Children’s Books. The first six titles came out this year (July-September, 2011) and I’m currently working on another four to come out in Spring / Summer 2012. They are in the grand tradition of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five adventures, but brought right up to date.
Morgen: Wow, that’s some going. I feel positively underachiever by comparison. :) Can you remember where you saw your first books on the shelves?
Helen: When I saw the first Superstar High book on the shelf of Waterstones in Cambridge I had to restrain myself from ambushing everyone who passed and making them look. I took lots of photos instead. You’d think that the thrill might wear off with later books, but it doesn’t. I still go into bookshops just to gaze in wonder at the M shelf! And I soon realised, I couldn’t have picked a better name, because I am usually next door to Michael Morpurgo – so I hope that lots of children will see my books out of the corner of their eye when they are looking for their favourite Morpurgo classic!
Morgen: I don’t know how many books Michael has written but it sounds like you’re catching up. Have you ever seen a member of the public (whom you don’t know!) reading your book… in any unusual locations?
Helen: Recently I’ve been doing a lot of school visits and I’m always thrilled to see copies of my books on the children’s desks, alongside a Jacqueline Wilson or a J.K. Rowling! Or a Michael Morpurgo, of course!
Morgen: :) How much of the marketing do you do for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Helen: As a series, it seemed important to establish a brand identity for Adventure Island. The main thing I’ve done so far is set up a website (with the help of a web designer – I started out trying to do it myself but quickly realised there are some things that are better left to the professionals!).
Morgen: I’ve had some problems with my website (the software drove me nuts and I’ve done html programming for Barclaycard!) so it’s a static page with pointers to my blog (the WordPress software is not only a breath of fresh air, it’s a tornado :)).
Helen: The books have a lovely ‘retro’ look due to the gorgeous cover art by Roy Knipe, and this has been used as the theme for the website. Orion have been great at marketing the books with promotions in book shops and I do as much as I can with school and library visits and workshops.
Morgen: That sounds like fun. :) Have you won or been shortlisted in any competitions and do you think they help with a writer’s success?
Helen: I’ve not entered any competitions. I’m not sure I’d dare!
Morgen: I think they’re great if you’re stuck for ideas. Sometimes I write especially for a competition and even if I don’t get anyway I know I’ll have a story at the end of it to send somewhere else (or make into an eBook). :) And of course a win or shortlist looks good on the CV. Do you write under a pseudonym? If so why and do you think it makes a difference?
Helen: The Superstar High series was written under a name chosen by the publisher. I think it can be helpful to use one or more pen-names if you write very different styles of books, to help readers know what to expect – especially when you write series fiction for children.
Morgen: It works for Joanna Trollope (Caroline Harvey), Ruth Rendell (Barbara Vine) etc. You mentioned earlier that you have an agent? Do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
Helen: Yes, my agent is Jenny Savill at Andrew Nurnberg Associates. I know that some authors are very successful without an agent but a lot of publishers only read new submissions from agents. For me, it has been absolutely vital and Jenny has looked out for me every step of the way!
Morgen: Are your books available as eBooks? If so what was your experience of that process? And do you read eBooks?
Helen: All the books are available in Kindle format on Amazon. That was all handled by the publishers so I’ve remained blissfully ignorant of the process. I love physical books – I like to have them piled up on my bedside table and shelves all over the house groaning under their weight. I find myself browsing their covers, remembering the ones I read at different times in my life. But I am thinking of getting an e-reader soon. When I travel, there’s usually a big battle for suitcase space between extra shoes and extra books – with an e-reader I can have both!
Morgen: Absolutely, that’s what they are to me, I’d never not have books around although my house would be less ‘lived in’ without them. :) What was your first acceptance and is being accepted still a thrill?
Helen: My first acceptance was to be signed up by my agent Jenny. It was so exciting I could hardly breathe all the way home from London to Cambridge! That was the turning point for me, when the possibility of being an author started to feel like a reality.
Morgen: That’s how I feel about getting my eBooks out (which I will in the next few days), although to a lesser extent of course. Have you had any rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?
Helen: Oh yes, of course! I sent my first manuscript out to lots of agents and a few publishers before Jenny said she was interested. They were all very nicely worded, but they were definitely thanks, but no thanks!
Morgen: At least they were nice (some aren’t and some don't turn up at all). What are you working on at the moment / next?
Helen: I’m just starting Book Ten of the Adventure Island series. It’s going to be called The Mystery of the Invisible Spy and will be really fun to write! After that I hope to start re-writing The Sea Cucumber’s Revenge, and I also have at least three other books or series bursting to make it out of my Ideas File!
Morgen: Sea cucumber, I love that. :) Do you manage to write every day? What’s the most you’ve written in a day?
Helen: Yes, almost every day. I aim to write about 1500-2000 words, which doesn’t sound a lot to show for a whole day’s writing! That’s because I edit so much as I go along – so for the 1500 I end up with, I’ve probably written 6000 and deleted them (and then written them again and deleted them again!)
Morgen: Oh dear. Even 500 words a day is 182,500 words a year so no wonder you’ve written so much. What is your opinion of writer’s block? I guess you never suffer from it? If you do, how do you ‘cure’ it?
Helen: I do sometimes get a bit stuck as to how to bridge between two events, or there’s a scene I know I need to describe but can’t quite figure out how to get it started. My solution is to write the bits on either side of the troublesome section and ambush it in a kind of pincer movement, so that there is a smaller and smaller section left unwritten. And if all else fails, I just write in something basic like “then they all decided to do the next thing”, highlight it in yellow and come back to it later. I think the key thing is not to get bogged down, but to keep moving forward and then go back again.
Morgen: I write ‘more here’, works ever time. A question some authors dread, where do you get your inspiration from?
Helen: Here, there and everywhere! When I’m doing school visits I often show the children a powerpoint slide that has a picture of David Attenborough, Lisa Simpson and Bear Grylls side by side (everyone recognises Lisa and Bear, and there’s usually at least one child in the class who’s watched enough wildlife programmes to recognise David too!). I tell them how these three characters inspired Book Seven of the Adventure Island series (out next Spring!). One day I heard David Attenborough doing a short talk on the radio about a boy (it might have been himself; I was only half listening!) who’d loved exploring the local quarry for fossils and had found a brand new species and it had been named after him. I thought that the three kids in my books would love to have a species named after them! Then a while later, I saw a Simpsons episode in which an ‘angel skeleton’ is apparently discovered in the excavations for a new shopping mall. I started thinking about what happens if you are a property developer and a really interesting archaeological find turns up on your site. A criminal-minded developer might be tempted to try to prove the find was a fake, to prevent the building project being delayed or even stopped altogether if it’s an important scientific site. Those two elements fed into the main plot of The Mystery of the Dinosaur Discovery. And then I saw Bear Grylls digging a snow cave on one of his survival programmes and I knew I had to set the adventure in the middle of winter and have the kids stranded in a blizzard on the moors and have to dig a snow cave! I joke with the children in the class that next time they’re told off for watching too much telly they can say they are just researching their next book! There are so many amazing ideas for books out there, it’s just a case of keeping your eyes and ears open and being very, very nosy!
Morgen: Which is writer is allowed to do… in fact I think it’s in our Terms & Conditions. :) Do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?
Helen: The first book I wrote, I had only the vaguest idea of where it was going when I started and the plot kept changing as I went along (this book is not yet published – this is quite possibly why!). With the Adventure Island series, I’m working to very tight deadlines, so it’s vital that I have a good plot outline to start with; there’s very little time for wrong turns.
Morgen: Ah deadlines, don’t you just love them (“as they woosh by” as Douglas Adams is quoted as saying). They’re the best thing for me. I’m pretty good at sticking to them, in fact they’re often what get me writing.
Helen: Also, being mystery stories, you really have to know what the crime is and how the investigators are going to solve it before you start writing, so you can place all the clues and red herrings in the right places. So for each book I write a detailed plot outline of about 10-20 pages. I then discuss it in a long phone conversation with my editor at Orion, who is absolutely brilliant at spotting the massive plot holes I’ve missed (characters knowing things that haven’t even happened yet, being in two places at once, etc) and coming up with suggestions for adding more action / suspense / fun along the way. Once I’ve honed the outline to take all that on board, I try to mark in the chapter boundaries, so I have some idea of how it will all fit in to 30,000 words. I have a terrible habit of wittering on, and keeping the word count down is my perennial problem!
Morgen: I guess that's the joy of a series is that you can take out a sub-plot and make a new book out of it. :) The characters must be so important in your stories (not that they’re not anyway). Do you have a method for creating your characters, their names and what do you think makes them believable?
Helen: I pinch attributes from friends and family – but never base a character exactly on one person.
Morgen: Because they’d probably realise. :)
Helen: I try to give characters little unexpected twists that I hope make them more real (a rock star who loves to knit, a gossipy old lady who plays on-line poker, a farmer’s daughter who is doing a computer science degree and so on). Names are interesting. Sometimes a name presents itself out of nowhere. Other times I have to really search for the right one. I trawl for names in the Births, Deaths and Marriages columns in the local paper, the credits of films and TV programmes and also maps.
Morgen: What a good idea – a baby names book will only give you the first name.
Helen: In the Superstar High series, for example, there is an elderly dance teacher called Miss Toft (Toft is a village near Cambridge) and a gardener called Mr Woolfox (I’ve never been to Woolfox but it’s signposted off the A1 and I knew I had to use the name!)
Morgen: And it’s a great one. Are you involved in anything else writing-related other than actual writing or marketing of your writing?
Helen: I don’t have time to do much else at the moment, except from school visits. I do author talks or writing workshops with children in Year 3-6.
Morgen: How lovely. Maybe I should start writing children’s… :) Who is your first reader – who do you first show your work to?
Helen: Usually it’s my lovely editor at Orion, Amber Caraveo. My younger son often reads the manuscript too, or I read bits out to him - although now he’s thirteen he’s getting a bit old so I may have to recruit a friend’s child!
Morgen: I have a family with three children next door ranging from mid-teen to three so that would be handy. Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Helen: I always edit as I go along – I can’t help it, I’m an inveterate fiddler! I have to force myself to stop, otherwise I’d spend hours faffing around with a single line and never make forward progress!
Morgen: That’s the trouble, you can keep going. I tend to do two or three edits (four at most) then it goes off to my editor Rachel. One of my Monday nighters can spend a week on one short story. The quality proves it but she does say she changes then reverts, changes, reverts… I wouldn’t have that patience. How much research do you have to do for your writing? Have you ever received feedback from your readers?
Helen: Writing the Adventure Island has involved researching lots of interesting things; cave acoustics, the Boer War, art fraud, carbon dating to name but a few. My science background comes in useful here – I love trawling the internet and library for background information. I have to stop myself getting so immersed that I lose track of time. I’ll have a lot of explaining to do if anyone ever decides to investigate the search history on my computer, as I’m always checking out poisons, firearms, forgery and espionage! And because the setting for Adventure Island is a (fictional) small island of the coast of Cornwall, it’s always a great excuse to go and visit my sister who lives near Penzance! My sister often helps by sending me photos and descriptions of Cornish locations – like the ice works in Newlyn that appears in Book Six.
Morgen: Isn’t Cornwall such a wonderful setting for books (Daphne de Maurier being a classic example). What is your creative process like? What happens before sitting down to write?
Helen: I get the boys packed off to the school bus by about eight, then I run around putting the washing in, tidying up, walking the dogs, feeding the hens, replying to e-mails…and try to sit down at my desk to write by about 9.30. I have a little office off the hallway. I try to write all day, fuelled by copious amounts of tea and biscuits. I stop for a while when the boys get back from school. I usually write again in the evening and at the weekend too – and I always have my laptop and notebook with me when I’m ferrying the boys around to football / basketball / rugby / swimming / scouts, just so I can always be writing if I have time to spare. In fact, I’m writing this in the car at Waterbeach Recreation Ground, waiting for my older son’s football match to kick off! I find that walking the dogs is also a great time for thinking over plots.
Morgen: Me too (I write, edit or read when I’m out with mine). Do you write on paper or do you prefer a computer?
Helen: When I’m plotting a new book I use pen and paper at the beginning – covering a sheet of paper with a splurge of words and phrases and arrows and circles. I also keep a notebook in my handbag and by my bed at night (otherwise I keep myself awake half the night trying not to forget something that seemed like a brilliant idea at 4 am - more often than not it was a rubbish idea, so really not worth loosing sleep over anyway!) Otherwise, I always work on my trusty laptop. I don’t think I’d be able to keep track of everything on pen and paper – I hop back and forth a lot in the manuscript as I write, and I think I’d spend all my time trying to find my place if I worked on paper.
Morgen: Me too, although I prefer to edit on paper. Some writers like quiet, others the noise of a coffee shop etc. Do you listen to music or have noise around you when you write or do you need silence?
Helen: When I’m working at home I like silence – although I can usually hear a dog or two sighing impatiently under my desk. They like to remind me that it is time to go for a walk. Now and then I get restless (or fed up of dog sighs!) and take myself off to Cambridge to work in a café or in the library for the day – then I find the background noise of people talking and music quite relaxing. I also love working on trains. I just have to be careful not to get distracted by listening in to other people’s conversations. I’m a terrible eavesdropper!
Morgen: Ah but that’s great fiction fodder. Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
Helen: The first book I wrote hasn’t found a publisher yet, but I’m hoping that when I’ve finished working on the Adventure Island series, I’ll have time to go back and rewrite it and that it will have a chance of getting out there one day. (It’s called The Sea Cucumber’s Revenge and is a science-based mystery thriller). I’ve also written some short stories – for adults rather than children – and although I’m quite fond of them, I have a feeling they might live out their days quietly in the desk drawer!
Morgen: Ah yes, the sea cucumber… yes, you must re-write it, it sounds hilarious! What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life?
Helen: I love just about everything about being a writer. I enjoy the quietness of working on my own all day, being completely absorbed in my own world, and the thrill of creating something all the way from a vague idea to a complete book. I also really enjoy going into schools and talking to children about books and reading and writing. There’s not much I don’t like. The only bad thing is that something bizarre happens to time when I’m writing – hours just disappear like seconds. I’ve been working to very tight deadlines to write the ten Adventure Island books and I really need to slow the clock down so I can write all day and have a life!
Morgen: A life? What’s that? :) I think it’s the computer that eats the time… now there’s a story. If anything, what has been your biggest surprise about writing?
Helen: The most surprising thing is that I’ve been so lucky and had the opportunity to be published! A few years ago it was just a very fanciful dream. I wouldn’t have dared believe I’d ever get this far. I’m also surprised that it is so much about deadlines! Before I started, I had a naïve idea that the writing life would be a rather leisurely affair, involving a lot of sitting around in cafés thinking great thoughts and jotting down the occasional perfectly turned phrase with a beautiful fountain pen. I’m still waiting for that part to happen!
Morgen: I’m sure it happens like that for some writers, the ones who take years to write a novel. I couldn’t be like that; I’m too impatient. I have too many stories queuing up to be written that they’re almost pushing the current one out the way. What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Helen: Don’t give up. It just takes one person to read something you’ve written and love it and that can be all it takes to get the ball rolling. For children’s writers, I would also recommended joining SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators). They provide all kinds of support for both published and unpublished writers. You very quickly feel as if you are part of a community.
Morgen: Like I find with LinkedIn. :) What do you like to read?
Helen: I read all kinds of fiction – I particularly love detective novels and great big fat Victorian novels. I don’t read a lot of non-fiction, although I do like books about mountain climbing and the history of science. My favourite authors include Rohinton Mistry, Anne Tyler, Barbara Pym, PD James, and Jane Austen – they all make writing seem so effortless – you believe in every character and you just can’t see the seams. I read children’s fiction too of course. There are some absolutely fantastic writers for children and young adults.
Morgen: What do you do when you’re not writing?
Helen: I do a lot of walking (with two border collies, I don’t have much choice, but luckily I love it).
Morgen: Ah, I grew up with border collies.
Helen: I enjoy taking photographs, playing badminton, and whenever I have the chance to be near a mountain (there aren’t a lot of them near Cambridge!) I love ski-ing and climbing.
Morgen: So I see from your photograph. :) Are there any writing-related websites and / or books that you find useful and would recommend?
Helen: As I mentioned earlier, SCBWI is a great resource for anyone writing for children: http://britishscbwi.jimdo.com.
Morgen: I have the Children’s Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook (albeit a 2005 one) and presumably there’s a Writers’ Market equivalent in the US. Are you on any forums or networking sites? If so, how invaluable do you find them?
Helen: I have joined several writers’ groups on LinkedIn and I enjoy reading the discussion there, although haven’t had much time to participate much – but it did lead me to your blog, so that was a good result!
Morgen: Ah excellent! Well, done LinkedIn. I must admit that I read the comment emails when they come in and only tend to go on the website and comment when something grabs me or I can answer someone’s query, which at the moment has been about blog vs website – I said “both” as they’re two ways for someone to find you rather than one and they serve different purposes; a website being static / informational and blog more fluid and interactive. I suggested that one could be writing-related whereas the other could be about other things (but then added that I’m sad enough to have no life outside writing so both mine are purely writing-related). Where can we find out about you and your work?
Helen: I have a website (including a blog) at http://web.me.com/helenmoss and there is also a website for the Adventure Island series at www.adventureislandbooks.com – that has lots of fun activities for readers.
Morgen: Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
Helen: I’d just like to thank you for inviting me to join you today. You have a great website and blog. It’s fantastic to be able to read about so many different writers from all different genres in one place. Oh, and good luck with NaNoWriMo (you see, I knew you’d worked out that time trick!)
Morgen: Ah thank you. I’m actually not sure this year where I will find the time as my previous (three) NaNos and May’s ‘Story a Day’ were both blog. Well, SaD wasn’t, I created the blog end March this year but it really kicked off with the interviews mid-June. We shall see. I’ll do the 50,000 words because I just will but I suspect that the circles under my eyes will get a shade darker. Is there a question you’d like to ask me?
Helen: I have a feeling you must have cracked the time-speeding-up-when-you-are-writing problem, as you manage to do so many things. So please tell me, how do you do it and can you tell me the secret!
Morgen: <laughs resembling the Wicked Witch of the West> the aforementioned dark circles could explain. I should get more sleep but I’m lucky in the respect that I’ve been a secretary since I left school so I can prioritise (sadly my writing’s down the list a bit) and I type quickly. The secret to my ‘success’ is a nerdy Word table which tells me when the enquiry came in, the author’s name, the number of interview / spotlight / blog etc., what genre they write, when I sent the info. pack, when I received the text back, when it’s due to go live and any other comments (such as where they learned of me, if known), their nationality (handy if I oversleep and I know I’ve got a few hours to play with, although I do try to stick to the 7am / 7pm timings) and each line is colour co-ordinated (interviews are white, spotlights green, guest posts blue, my posts yellow, flash fiction grey). As I said it’s very nerdy but it really is my ‘bible’. Needless to say I back it up very often. :) I’m leaving my job at Christmas so I’m hoping to get more sleep (and housework, DIY, park walks) but I have a sneaking suspicion that time will go just as quickly but I still can’t wait. :) Thank you Helen.
Helen Moss writes fiction for the ‘Middle Grade’ age group – young readers between about seven and twelve years old. Her series, Adventure Island, is set on the fictional island of Castle Key, and follows the adventures of brothers Jack and Scott Carter, their friend Emily Wild and her faithful dog, Drift, as they solve a series of baffling, exciting – and often perilous – mysteries.
Born in 1964, Helen grew up in the beautiful rolling countryside of Worcestershire, interspersed with spells in a remote corner of Saudi Arabia with her family. After completing a PhD in psycholinguistics, she spent many happy years researching and lecturing on the way our brains process and represent language, and how this can be affected by brain injury and disease. She has lived in London, Glasgow and Oregon, but now lives near Cambridge with her husband, two teenage sons and a menagerie of dogs, hens and other animals.
Update July 2012: "My website / blog has now moved to http://www.helenmoss.org.uk. I'm currently writing Book 12 of the Adventure Island series, which has to be done by the end of the month, and then two more to go - I think we're going to stop at 14, at least for a while!" :)
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