Tuesday 20 September 2011

The Big Break with Helen Moss

 I am happy to welcome Helen Moss to the blog today, who is the author of the Adventure Island series. I reviewed the first book in the series here and hope to review  the next one really soon.

Firstly, can I thank you for joining me today on my blog.
It’s a pleasure. Thank you for inviting me to drop in. And thank you for your lovely review of The Mystery of the Whistling Caves, the first book of the Adventure Island series. It was one of the first reviews that I saw and I was so delighted (and relieved) that you liked it!

What career did you have before you began writing for a living?
I‘ve always been interested in language and the brain and so, after a degree in PPP  (which stands for Philosophy Psychology and Physiology, not, as you might think, Prevarication, Pottering and Partying) I went on to do a PhD in psycholinguistics.
My PhD was about how people understand the meanings of words as we listen to speech in real time. It’s something most of us do all the time without even thinking about it – apart from the occasional ‘slip of the ear’ - but it’s extraordinarily complex and fascinating.
 I went on to work as a researcher and a lecturer for more than fifteen years. I studied people who have problems with understanding meanings following brain injury or disease and also used brain imaging techniques like fMRI to look at the brain in action. Some of the most interesting disorders that can happen after damage to certain areas of the brain are ‘category-specific deficits’; people have much more difficulty with words and concepts in one category – for example, animals – than other categories. I was lucky enough to be able to work with some fascinating patients with this type of problem.
I loved being a scientist, but when I moved to Oregon with my family for a year in 2005 for my husband’s work, it suddenly seemed like time for a change. I’d always had a secret yearning to write fiction and had written a lot of stories when I was younger - and I had a kind of if not now, then never feeling.
Being a scientist probably sounds a million miles away from writing children’s books, but actually it was great training.  Designing an experiment is quite similar to plotting a story. And there’s a huge amount of writing involved in research – with proposals for funding, scientific articles for journals and lectures for students.
The only problem with writing about research is that the experiments don’t always turn out how you thought they would – that’s what makes science interesting, of course, but it was always frustrating when you had a lovely story worked out, and the facts just didn’t let you tell it. That’s why fiction is so liberating for me; if a thread or a character leads down a blind alley, I can just change or even ditch it completely! I can make it up as I go along. You don’t get to do that very often in the science lab.
Being a scientist is also great preparation for the critique and review process. When you publish in scientific journals, your paper is always reviewed in detail by several other researchers in the field. And let’s just say that they don’t usually pull their punches! Whereas my wonderful editor at Orion, Amber Caraveo, might say something like, ‘I love this scene but it may be a little too long. Perhaps shorten to move action along?’  in the old days I was used to comments like NOOOOOOOO! THIS IS WRONG! WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT?
I used to spend quite a lot of time crying in the toilets, but it helps to develop a thicker skin and in the end just makes you more determined to rewrite and prove your point!
Sorry, that was a very long-winded answer!

How long did it take you to write each book in the series?
The deadlines for the series were quite tight. From writing the plot outline to having a finished first draft was little over a month for each book. That probably doesn’t sound like long, but I worked on the books full time. More than full time. Absolutely flat-out.  I wrote the first six titles back to back. My house disappeared under a tide of dog hair and my boys lived on a diet of supernoodles and tinned rice pudding (Luckily they love supernoodles and tinned rice pudding. They thought this was the upside!).
I had a bit of a break and am now writing four more books for the series. I have a little longer this time, but or some reason life doesn’t seem any less hectic!

What was your first reaction when you found out that your ‘Adventure Island’ series was to be published?  
I was lucky because I was asked by Orion if I’d be interested in writing a mystery series. They knew my writing from having seen the manuscript of my first try at a children’s novel, The Sea Cucumbers’ Revenge (it’s still not found a home – I’m keeping my fingers crossed for next year!) and also a ‘packaged’ series I worked on under the name Isabella Cass, called Superstar High.
I was so excited that I almost fell of my chair jumping at the chance. I love adventure and mystery books, so this was the perfect opportunity for me!
But, of course I still had to do lots of sample chapters and write plot summaries for each book and have lots of discussions before it was all confirmed. When I got the go ahead I rushed out bought a new pair of shoes to celebrate!

Who did you tell first?
My husband, Mac, who is always 100% behind me. And he’s very forgiving of the whole supernoodles-and-dog-hair situation too!
Then my sons, who said something like ‘That’s good.  What’s for dinner?’

 Why are all the books in the series being published so close together?
Well, that was in the hands of the publishers! I do think it’s lovely that readers can collect them all without having to wait too long. I used to hate waiting for a new book in a series. Still do, in fact!

How long did it take for your book to reach publication after the initial agreement? 
It was about a year from getting the go-ahead to start writing.

What was happening to your manuscripts during this time?
Most of that time was spent writing the books, so manuscripts were flying back and forwards between me and my editor, Amber. With such a whirlwind schedule, I’d interleave writing the draft of one book, refining the plot of the next and doing the second draft of the previous one. Because there are line drawings at the beginning of each chapter, there were also briefings to write for the fabulous illustrator, Leo Hartas. It was frenetic but also very exciting, and a pleasure because Amber and Leo were so great to work with.
How have you kept yourself occupied as you wait for publication day?
There really wasn’t a lot of time between finishing the last stages of copy-editing and proof-reading and publication in July. I spent that time hoovering dog hair, cooking huge elaborate meals for my family to try to make up for all the supernoodles and tinned rice pudding. Then I worked my way through all the boring stuff I’d put off while I was so busy; dentist, tick; haircut, tick; optician, tick....
I was also very busy working with a web design company to produce a fun interactive website for the series: www.adventureislandbooks.com
I thought I’d have a lovely rest for a few weeks before going back to work on The Sea Cucumbers’ Revenge  - which had been stuffed back in the drawer when Adventure Island came along - but then Amber called and said Orion would be interested in another four titles!
That was very exciting! Although slightly daunting to plunge straight back into the full-on work schedule. It was a bit like having a baby. For a while afterwards you think NO WAY ON EARTH AM I EVER DOING THAT AGAIN. Then somehow a few months pass and you find yourself thinking that wasn’t so bad, in fact, I’d love to do it all over again! 

How will you celebrate on publication day?
Publication day for the first two books was July 7th. The most exciting part was going into a bookshop and seeing my books on the shelf. I was thrilled to find that by an alphabetical accident I am next-door neighbours with Michael Morpurgo! I still can’t resist taking photos of my books when I see them on shelves. I wonder if I’ll ever get over it! I bet Michael Morpurgo doesn’t lurk in WH Smith with his camera!
Tell us what a typical writing day would be like?
In theory it goes like this. After I get my two teenage sons packed off to the school bus I tidy up, take the dogs for a walk (we have two border collies), feed the hens, put a load of washing on, make a cup of tea, and try to be at my desk by 9.30. I then write until the boys come home shortly after three, when I stop for a while to chat with them. That’s usually followed by a spell of ferrying people around to and from football/scouts/basketball/cricket/rugby. I always have the laptop and the dogs in the car with me so I can fit some more writing and/or dog walking in around the taxi-schedule. I can usually get a couple more hours to work later in the evening too (often editing what I’ve done during the day).
Some days I find I can’t sit still at my desk so I take myself off to a cafĂ© or library to write for a few hours. When I work at home I always work in silence (other that the dogs sighing impatiently under my desk, waiting for the next walk) but sometimes I like the buzz of activity around me instead for a while.

Of course, when I say this is a typical writing day, I mean a typical ideal writing day. One where I don’t get a call from the school nurse to say someone has broken a tooth or thrown up, when the car doesn’t need an MOT, the central heating boiler doesn’t break down, the dogs don’t sprain a paw...
What advice would you give to aspiring and unpublished authors?
Don’t give up! You may feel as if you are slogging away and getting nowhere, but it only takes one person out there to read something you’ve written and love it to get the ball rolling. 
My second tip would be to get a dog. They are great for making sure that you take long walks so that your legs don’t wither away. And I find that stomping through the countryside is really helpful for mulling over plot twists and running through dialogue. Just make sure you pick a breed that doesn’t moult constantly so you avoid the tide-of-dog-hair issue. That definitely rules out border collies. I’ve heard labradoodles are good!
Oh, and stock up on supernoodles!

Thank you very much for inviting me to answer your Big Break Questions. I owe thanks to so many people for my big break. I’ve already mentioned my long-suffering and supportive family, of course, and my editor, Amber Caraveo. My fabulous agent Jenny Savill, of Andrew Nurnberg Associates was the one who gave me that magical first big break of taking me on as a client.  All the team at both A.N.A. and Orion have been hugely helpful at every step of a very exciting journey.
PS. I’ve just noticed supernoodles and labradoodles make a wonderful rhyming pair. I’d love to be a rap artist just for the day so I could make use of that discovery!

Thank you Helen for an entertaining post! I look forward to reading more of the books in the series. 
All six books in the series are available to buy now. If you would like the chance to win all SIX books in the set, then please enter the competition below. The competition is for UK entrants only this time and will close on the 27th September 2011.


Hiya, thanks for stopping by, it is always nice to hear what you have to say, so do leave a comment if you have time.