Are any of the spells in your books real?
Some of them are based on real spells and charms, for example the idea of putting a broom across the door to stop an evil-doer from entering. And the piece that Liz reads aloud in A Witch in Winter about a wife putting blood in her husband’s wine is actually an old voodoo spell (although in voodoo tradition you add the blood to his coffee). But some of them are straight out of my imagination (like the spell in A Witch in Winter where Anna eats earth and ashes) and the incantations are all made up.
What language are the incantations written in?
Old English – also called Anglo-Saxon. It’s a real language which was used in England before about 1000 AD.
How do you pronounce the words in the spells?
We don’t exactly know how people pronounced Anglo-Saxon – we don’t have any recordings from that time (obviously!) so scholars have had to make their best guess, based on things like how the words are used in poetry and how they changed to become our language today. In any case, like today, pronunciation would have varied from region to region. There’s some information here about how people think Anglo-Saxon was pronounced, but since no-one is around to tell you otherwise, just have a crack and make it up yourself!
Do you believe in magic?
Not really – but then neither does Anna at the start of A Witch in Winter. I’ve never seen anything that completely convinces me that magic exists – but I love the idea that there’s more out there than we know about. I guess part of A Witch in Winter is about not being too sure about what you think you know, not taking too much for granted.
Have you tried any of the spells yourself?
No. I’d be much too scared! Which, now I think about it, doesn’t really agree with my claim above about not believing in magic.
Why do the characters sometimes need spells and sometimes not?
Well, the way magic works in my books is that it’s partly a question of will-power and strength, partly a matter of training, and partly psychological. So whether you can do a piece of magic depends on how strong you are, how much you want it, and how focussed you are on the result. The spells are to help with the last part. Ultimately if you don’t have enough magic, you can’t make something happen, and if you have more than enough magic, you can do it without needing a specific spell. But for somewhere in between it can help to use a ritual to focus your mind – to force you to really analyse how much you want this, and what exactly you want.
All the witches in my book work in different ways – they all have different strengths and ways of working. Some of them prefer to work from spells and tried-and-tested methods, some of them prefer to work off gut instinct. The way I imagine it, it’s a bit like sword fighting – a certain number of fights you’re going to win just by being strong and quick, even if you don’t know much about technique. But for a really difficult fight you’re going to have to learn specific moves and parries. The stronger you are, the more you can just rely on power; the more difficult the fight, the more practice and techniques you will need. You might develop those yourself, or you might learn them from somewhere else, it just depends.
Certain types of magic do require specific knowledge – to call and bind demons you need to know their name, for example, so Anna couldn’t have called up the storm demon without using the Grimoire.
Are any of the characters based on anyone that you know?
No. Some of them share a few characteristics with people I know or have met, but none of them are based on a real person.
What advice would you give an aspiring author?
The first thing I would say is read lots and write lots. Nearly all the writers I know are voracious readers. I read somewhere that you have to write a million words before you become any good. I don’t know if that’s true, but I probably wrote a million words before I got published.
The second thing is find a story you want to tell. For me, what hooks me through a story (both as a reader and a writer) is questions. What happens next? Why would she do that? How will she react to this? I write primarily because I want to find out the answers to those questions, and I think I read for the same reasons too – I keep turning pages to find out why, or how, or who.
So with A Witch in Winter I had an immediately intriguing idea that set off lots of questions in my mind: a girl casts a love spell on a boy, and then can’t take it off again. The questions that crowded into my head are probably the same ones the reader is wondering: Why would she do that? What would she do next? How would he react?
Mostly my books start with a problem the characters need to solve. In A Witch in Winter the problem is that Anna needs to take the love spell off Seth. In Witch Finder Luke has to kill a witch, or betray his friends and be killed himself. What would that do to you as a person? How would you feel if you gave up? Worse – how would you feel if you succeeded?
So for me what works is to set myself or my characters a problem. Ask them questions. Find out the answers. And if you do that, you’re probably on your way to having a story.
How do you feel about fan fiction?
I’ve never written fan fiction, but lots of people really enjoy it, and some very successful writers started out that way. I think it can be a really good way to learn and experiment – you are sort of starting with some of the building blocks (characters and settings) in place, which allows you to concentrate on learning how to plot and move characters around. However it’s important always to be honest about where the inspiration for your book came from and of course for copyright reasons you mustn’t try to make money out of a book featuring someone else’s characters (except if those books are out of copyright – that’s why so many books are based on Shakespeare plays or Jane Austen novels – but even then it’s good practice to acknowledge your sources).
Can you read my story/manuscript and give me advice?
I am REALLY sorry but I can’t – much as I would love to, I just don’t have the time. My advice would be to get someone you trust – a friend or another aspiring writer – to take a look and give you their feedback. What’s even better is if you can swap manuscripts, because although getting feedback is really good, giving it is even more important. It really sharpens your eye for what you think works in a manuscript, and what doesn’t. Once you’ve noticed a quirk or a weakness in someone else’s work, it’s amazing how often you realise you’ve done the same thing in your own.
I have written a book – what advice can you give me about getting published?
Well the first thing to say – as per above – is to get someone trusted to read it and give you advice on it, and try to do the same thing to someone else’s manuscript. If you don’t have a friend you trust, maybe you could join a local writers group? There are also good online equivalents. You don’t have to take all the advice you’re given, in fact I suggest you don’t, otherwise you will go nuts trying to assimilate all the different and often opposing points of view, but it’s worth thinking about why someone is having trouble with that particular aspect. Maybe they are the wrong reader for the book – and that’s fine. But maybe they have a point that you should be addressing, even if you don’t necessarily go about it in the way they suggest. Or maybe their comment is a “eureka” moment – in which case there’s nothing wrong with doing exactly what they suggest!
When you have polished your book to the nth degree, it is really good practice to shut it in a drawer and leave it for a few weeks. DON’T look at it. If ideas come to you, jot them down and let it marinate. Then, when the time is up, get it out and have a re-read. It’s amazing how mistakes and problems will jump out at you, and you will have had time to really think about any problems and (hopefully) solve them.
Finally, when you think your manuscript is perfect, it’s time to show it to the professionals. I chose to go through a literary agent – which is what most writers do. There are good lists of literary agents online, or the Writers and Artists Yearbook lists many of the most reputable ones. If you aren’t sure where to start, try to find half a dozen current writers similar to yourself – by which I mean, similar genre, same nationality, similar intended readership – and find out who represents those authors. You can often do this by googling, or their agent may be listed on the author’s website, or you can try just phoning up their publisher and asking who represents them.
Check out the submission requirements for each agent on their website (they are all slightly different) and follow them! Then sit back and wait 🙂 DON’T pay money to any agent who wants to charge you for reading or publishing your manuscript. Legitimate agents take a percentage of your earnings AFTER they have sold your book to a third party publisher. They do not demand money up front and you should be suspicious if anyone asks you for this. This is different from manuscript appraisal agencies (of which more below).
Some authors prefer to go direct to publishers – but not all publishers accept direct submissions from authors, so do your homework if you decide to go down this route. If you do want to send direct to a particular editor, it’s best to start with a polite enquiry about whether they’re accepting submissions. Again, a traditional publisher does NOT charge authors up front – in fact they pay the author, in the form of an advance against royalties (an upfront payment based on how much they think the book is likely to earn). You should be very suspicious of any publishing company that says they want to publish your book, but asks you for money up front.
One final option is the various manuscript appraisal services (mentioned above). These can be a valuable last resort if you have got as far as you can with a manuscript and are getting a lot of good feedback, but no offers. They are not cheap (appraisals often run to several hundred pounds depending on the length of the manuscript) but they can sometimes help you put your finger on a problem which agents don’t have time to diagnose. There is no governing body for manuscript agencies – anyone can set themselves up as one and advertise for clients – so before you part with any cash, make sure they have a good track record and – preferably – a list of published clients prepared to endorse the quality of their services.
The most important thing is to develop a thick skin, but a willingness to take criticism. These sound like opposites, and in some ways they are, but they are both essential tools for a writer. Almost every writer I’ve ever heard of got a lot of knockbacks on the road to publication – even JK Rowling got multiple rejections! So you have to get used to people shutting the door in your face – and even after you get published, bad reviews and occasional stumbling blocks are par for the course. However you also have to be willing to learn from your mistakes, get back up, and do better. It’s not an easy balancing act – and it’s one that lots of published writers still find hard. But good luck 🙂
NB – the above advice assumes that you want to get “traditionally” published. These days more and more people are choosing to self-publish, and there are many successful writers who take this route, but it’s not something I’m qualified to advise on as I’ve never done it!
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