The significant difference between writers and non-writers is that when we have a dream we don’t just ignore it, we mine it for material; when someone asks us that odd question that gets us thinking, we don’t shake that off either. We follow our daydreams rather than try to get ourselves back to ‘sensible’ thinking. — T.C. Shelley
I recently interviewed Western Australian author and teacher T.C. Shelley to find out more about the story behind her book The Monster Who Wasn’t (published by Bloomsbury in August, 2019). T.C. Shelley will be appearing at Scribblers Festival in Perth and I am so looking forward to finally meeting her! In the meantime, please enjoy this candid and informative interview with middle-grade fantasy writer extraordinaire, T.C. Shelley.
NLK: Does a love of poetry help in writing narrative?
TCS: I love poetry and the way language works, I also like the way poetry is all about ‘showing, not telling’, which is the editor’s catch-cry. Readers want to be immersed in a story, they want to be carried away. If you tell too much, you break that magic. I say ‘too much’ here as I believe sometimes it’s okay to ‘tell’ in narrative, but predominantly you really need to ‘show’. Learning poetry, learning to write something that encapsulates a scene, a setting, an emotion, is something that translates well into prose and drama. W. Somerset Maugham said that ‘the crown of literature is poetry’. I believe it is the foundation.
NLK: When you began writing The Monster Who Wasn’t, did you know the story would be a series? How did you know you were writing a series?
TCS: I had an inkling about half way through that my ‘Imp’ was creating as many problems for himself as he was solving. When I went with my agent to Bloomsbury to pitch ‘Monster’, we showed up with ideas for what would come next.
NLK: What do you most enjoy about writing for children?
TCS: I think writing for children has got to be both good and fun. You hear it all the time, children are fussy readers, but they do expect that a story will be exciting. I think the other thing with writing for children is that the themes written are no different to the ones written for adults. We cover life, death, belonging, honour, wisdom, dissolution and so on, just like writers for adults, but we have the task of breaking it down in a way that children can relate to. It’s important to not patronise children, they understand all those concepts well enough, they just need them packaged in a way that is also enjoyable. I enjoy writing grand themes with pixies thrown in.
NLK: Does your day job help with writing fantasy fiction?
TCS: To be quite honest, when people are at their best they are creative. A robot can build bridges, but humans have to conceive and design them. When we enjoy our work, humans are almost always creative (I feel a Marxist rant coming on). I’m a teacher and when I’m allowed to be creative, I have the most fun, but I think I brought my creativity to my job, not the other way around. I’ve even heard of ‘Creative Accounting’, I’m not sure what that means, but I’m sure it’s more fun than the other kind.
NLK: What is the most challenging thing about world building?
TCS: Word limit. When I first wrote ‘Monster’ it was 100K long. It could have been 100K more. The characters, scenes, settings that have been discarded to maintain a tighter story. Wah! I miss my leprechauns the most. See my answer to the second question. I hoard characters in my head and writing a trilogy means some can still make an appearance. I think that’s why epic fantasy is so …epic. It also means that for a children’s writer my greatest talent is not writing itself, but editing.
NLK: What’s the biggest thing you’ve learnt about publishing since The Monster Who Wasn’t was published last year?
TCS: Publishers have their own jargon and they talk to you like you know it too. Straight away. They think in numbers, while writers think in words, which is why we need each other. I don’t just mean numbers in terms of sales (although there’s that), but in time, in deadlines, in ages, in length of chapters and books. I think the really successful self-publishers are the ones that can think in both words and numbers.
NLK: What advice would you give to emerging writers?
TCS: Write. Write well. Write rubbish. Write consistently. You will write an awful lot of rubbish, which is the leading cause of ‘writer’s block’. You will realise it is rubbish too and want to stop. Don’t stop. And make sure you read. If you read you will develop the taste you need to know when your writing is good and when it is dreadful. The writers who write beautifully first time have generally developed a really good sense of taste, they have practised and practised until their instincts kick in straight away. You have to read and write for years to develop that.
NLK: Can you share anything about your creative process?
TCS: I eat two fairies on Weetbix every morning and bathe my feet in the tears of small children. To be quite honest, if I knew I would tell you. I have dreams, I eat bananas before bed and this gives me some odd ones. People ask me questions and this spurs ideas. I think the significant difference between writers and non-writers is that when we have a dream we don’t just ignore it, we mine it for material; when someone asks us that odd question that gets us thinking, we don’t shake that off either. We follow our daydreams rather than try to get ourselves back to ‘sensible’ thinking.
NLK: Can you please share an excerpt of The Monster Who Wasn’t?
When [the imp] arrived on the pinnacle, the winged figure sat stretched out with one wing around Wheedle and the other squashed and tucked up trying to avoid touching Bladder.
‘It’s an imp,’ Bladder was saying.
‘A gargoyle,’ Wheedle added.
‘No! Really? Made from misery?’ The figure leaned forward, pulled the imp boy closer and sniffed his hair. ‘Unbelievable! You smell human. Well, not quite. There’s a touch of baby laugh, and … other smells, but the mix is perfect. You could pass for human. You certainly fooled me.’
‘Are humans made of last sighs?’ the imp boy asked.
‘Humans are born,’ the being said.
The gargoyles sat up at this question and stared at the winged figure intently. The figure opened his mouth, closed it, held up a finger then put it down again. It pulled a face, then blushed. ‘Maybe another time.’
The gargoyles groaned. ‘He’s never gonna tell us what that means,’ Wheedle complained.
About T.C. Shelley
T.C. Shelley lives in Perth. She has been teaching English for over twenty years and her first school was classified as the most remote in Australia. She began writing novels to entertain her daughter, who wisely suggested that she try to get them published. The Monster Who Wasn’t is her first book, and the first in a fantasy trilogy.