A perennial question asked of authors is ‘where do you get your ideas from?’. I’m always tempted to return the question, because everyone has ideas, just as everyone has a dream-life where all kinds of strange associations are made and unconscious storylines plotted. And very often I’ll wake from my dream-world with an image in my head – one example being the image of a powerful robot carrying a child, which when fully conscious I imagined to be a kind of truant officer returning an escaped child to a school full of robot teachers. This was how Roboskool began.
Other ideas, however, come straight from real life. An example of this is a newspaper cutting which I kept for many years, about a village school which had ended up with just one pupil. Here was a story begging to be written, and like the best ideas, it kept coming back to me till I finally started working on it. The result was One Girl School, published by the OUP, which became my biggest selling middle grade novel despite barely troubling the bookshops.
For the inexperienced writer, the problem is in turning a good idea into a story. As always, it’s a good start to brainstorm: in this case, what activities require a number of people and would present seemingly insurmountable problems for one person to take part in? Team sports, obviously; an opinion poll; painting the person opposite in Art. Anything which is likely to be a disaster in real life is a potential subject for comedy in fiction, and each problem activity is a potential chapter. However, while a series of such scenes might suffice for a comedy animation such as Road Runner, it’s not going to make a satisfying book. For this, the main character needs a journey.
For One Girl School, I returned to the metamorphosis plot: an incremental change in the power relations between our hero, Bernie, and the teachers leading to the situation where she, not they, calls the shots and at the same time transforms from the school’s greatest critic to the person who saves it. Central to this is her struggle with the monomanic head, Mrs Whiffy, one of those characters we love to read because she does not have our moral qualms. The twist at the end is similar to those in my earlier book for Puffin, The Likely Stories, and hopefully as satisfying, so I won’t be describing it here!