A couple of weeks ago, me and Sarah had the opportunity to interview Alwyn Hamilton, author of the Rebel of the Sands series! It was so wonderful to be able to meet her and ask questions and we honestly learned a lot and took away some brilliant writing advice. She is a lovely human being and we had such a wonderful chat! We wanted to know mainly about writing and Alwyn’s process when writing her books. A big thanks to Kimi at Teensgate for the opportunity!
What does your average writing day look like?
At the moment, I’m on deadline so I’ve been writing everyday, and I’ve been writing a lot everyday which doesn’t usually happen. Normally, if I’ve written a lot in one day, I get burned out the next day so I’ll alternate days on like, I’ll write on Monday, and then on Tuesdays I’ll do my emails and my accounting and all the other stuff involved with being an author that is not making words!
I always go to a café because I find I can’t work at home because there’s too many potential distractions – my bed to take a nap in! Or I should do that laundry, or a thousand different responsibilities that somehow become really important. I’ll sit so I can’t see the till so I don’t get distracted so I don’t think ‘I want a muffin!’
On a really good writing day, I’ll get 5000 words done, that used to be my record until this week when I got 6000 words done in a day. So, I’ll basically sit there with music on, usually the same song on repeat and do a messy draft as a first draft which is just making sure I get the structure out and the basics. Then I’ll go back to the beginning and clean it up as many times as I need which is a slower process because you’re not making words but it is making more sense.
Do you detail a plot first or write wherever the story takes you?
It’s sort of a mix. A lot of people say that there’s two types of writers – a plotter and pantser – and I disagree with that. I think a lot of people are somewhere in between. I tend to say I’m a daydreamer, so I will daydream up quite a bit of a plot, or scenes or an idea, and I get a lot of that in my head to link up and then start to put that onto the page and that’s where you see the holes in what is in your mind. At this point, I move onto paper and start bullet pointing being like ‘She does this, and therefore this person reacts in this way and therefore she has to do this in order to not die and therefore this situation.’
It was sort of something I realised subconsciously but had not articulated until my friend, Cecilia Vinesse, who wrote Seven Days of You, articulated that her editor said to her ‘do an outline and make sure that every word has ‘and therefore’ at the end of it and not ‘and then’’ so it would be like ‘she goes here and therefore this happens’ rather than ‘and then this happens’ so have it all be a consequence so that’s something I’ve tried to enact in my own writing. So this has to happen as a direct result of something that happened before it.
Do you normally get the characters or plot first?
It’s varied; for Rebel, Amani came first and then the world came second and a lot of the plot came out of the world, in that case. For the new thing I’m writing at the moment it was definitely the plot came first, or the stakes came first, then the characters that would be interesting to be in conflict in this scenario came next so I think it varies a lot of the time and kind of builds one or the other.
I think I realised when writing the new thing that one of the characters was very isolated in her plot line so I was like, this person needs to be brought in, and I need to just pull another character out of thin air at this point to participate in her plot line so she’s not totally isolated from everyone else. I think it really does vary depending on the needs; it’s a bit like a puzzle that you build as you go and then pull pieces out and you’re like ‘okay it’s still standing without that character!’ or whatever it might be, and then you de-complicate it a little bit.
Do you write characters you know will fit/not fit well together or do you create them and then figure out how they will fit together?
Most of the time for me, characters are filling a role in the story. The main character is slightly different as they’re kind of guiding the story through, but for the side characters, [for example] I very specifically created Imin in Rebel of the Sands to be a shapeshifter because I knew what was going to be that character’s ultimate fate and I needed them to serve that plot purpose of saving another character with their powers…and then you have to fit it in in different ways.
A lot of the time, a natural structure builds up around them, especially when you’re writing YA, as they probably have parents, so what are those parents like and do they have siblings? Or I need someone to be this person’s friend or guide through this new world if they’ve entered a new city or new environment so I need the type of character who would be the type of character who would be friendly.
Did you start off wanting to write YA?
I think I did subconsciously but I didn’t know that I did. I read a lot of YA when I was an actual YA; there wasn’t as much when I was a teenager even though it wasn’t that long ago and so I started reading adult fantasy and things like that. Then I went away to university for a while and I started working in YA but it took me a minute to come back to it because I’d read so much adult fantasy that I wasn’t quite sure how you’d write fantasy for teenagers anymore and I think when you start writing…you tend to use what you’re reading as an example of like ‘Oh that’s how you do it!’ and you’re kind of learning as you go.
I started reading a lot of crime stuff so the first thing I tried to write was crime but the main characters were like 19 and 20 – it was like as young as I could make them and them still be adults! So I think it was me subconsciously wanting to write YA so then I pretty quickly moved into writing actual YA. Then I started reading it again…and then you learn to find your own style and your own voice.
What are your favourite aspects of writing for YA audiences?
I love how passionate teenagers are about things because I don’t think you’ll ever be as passionate about something as an adult as you were when you found it as a teenager, like the first band that you loved or the first artist that you loved.
I also love that you get to talk about a lot of firsts when you’re writing for YA, and I don’t necessarily mean like, first kisses and things, like the first time you realise your parents aren’t perfect, first time you were betrayed, first time you lost a friend, all these big firsts and moments. I think those are really important and informative in writing a teenager whereas if you’re reading a book with an adult in it, they will be looking back on those like ‘oh, when I was a child I was traumatised by this’ whereas if you’re writing them as a teenager, you’re like ‘here’s the actual trauma that will lead them to be this adult.’
I really enjoy this immediacy and that people will tweet me like ‘Oh my god, best thing ever!’ or ‘Oh my god, worst thing ever!’ there’s no even keel reaction…which I love.
You said you listen to music a lot when you write; do you have a playlist for your Rebel of the Sands series and what would the top three songs be?
For Rebel, You Give Love a Bad Name by Bon Jovi, Bulletproof by La Roux – they’re very obvious ones – and then Chasing Twisters by Delta Rae. Those would be some of my top ones. I really like when I’m writing, from a practical point of view, really pacey songs that don’t have an obvious lead in and build. If a song is really repetitive it can play 50 times and I won’t notice that it’s played 50 times so I don’t notice time passing so it’s a lot easier to keep up the momentum of writing for me.
In the last few days for the new book I’ve been listening on loop to A Little Party Never Killed Nobody from the Great Gatsby soundtrack; it’s just really high energy and just goes forever!
What happened one time, I think it was when I was drafting Hero of the Fall, I realised I hadn’t moved for 8 hours and it was a Nicki Minaj song in that case, and I was like I just have to have silence for a while! When I came back into my body I was like ‘and we’re going to walk home without headphones and everything is going to be quiet and we’re not going to listen to Nicki for a while!’
It’s a lot of gun songs for the Rebel series!