Let me introduce you to…
Alexandra Browne – Author!
Anyone who has spent more than a few seconds on this blog will be aware that, as well as writing, I enjoy a bit of astronomy and the occasional effort at astrophotography (very occasional considering the current trend in cloudy weather in the UK). Through a forum dedicated to astronomy you meet lots of interesting people and, in one thread, I even discovered some who shared similar non-astro interests. The forum is the Stargazers Lounge by the way, in case you fancy having a look.
Alex was one such person who also turned out to be an author and was just in the process of getting her first book self-published. “I’m not Smelly the Pirate” was the first publication from Alex in a planned series of “I’m not….” books that includes spiders and snot monsters – sure to be a hit with the kids.
So I thought it might be fun to “interview” Alex about her writing, her approach to her work and her advice for up and coming writers. While I know a children’s book is a very different entity from a Screenplay, I am sure there are plenty of similarities when it comes to the tools and tricks of the trade.
I sent Alex a series of questions and below you can find the full interview with her. I hope you find it as interesting as I did. And please do check out her book and website to explore her world!
So, Alex, can you introduce yourself?
I’m 54 years of age but never grew up! I’m a civil servant and have one child, a beautiful 17-year-old daughter called Maia. I’m a mad amateur astronomer with a passion for imaging. I hate staying up late, have poor night vision and little technical ability, which are slight set-backs in this hobby! So why take it on? It’s the most fascinating, frustrating and rewarding hobby, and I guess I’m a sucker for punishment! I love exotic animals and invertebrates and have kept praying mantids, horsehead grasshoppers, stick insects, giant Madagascan hissing cockroaches and more. Oh, and fancy rats. My menagerie is now limited to two with a giant African millipede called Georgie and a baby corn snake called Sprite. I wish I had the time, money and space for more! I have also just got into imaging microscopic subjects (I used to be a path lab technician in light and electron microscopy) especially pond life and have been blown away by the variety of creatures we never see with the naked eye.
So what drove you to writing?
I think it’s in the blood. My family all love writing. I used to tell ghost stories when I was a kid, to the younger children of the village, making up the story as I went along. The stories were often about underground tunnels and glowing red eyes! I occasionally wrote short stories, usually sci-fi or horrors, when I was young. My brother hopes to publish his own children’s stories which I will be illustrating for him.
And what made you want to write for children?
It started with a book for my then toddler daughter, Maia, to teach her about astronomy. It’s called ‘Maia and the Shooting Star’ and even has a little foreword from the late and great Sir Patrick Moore, but I never published it. With the advent of self-publishing and the excellent CreateSpace from Amazon, I will revisit the book and publish it. I just loved it so much that I had to do more, and that’s when the ‘I’m Not . . .’ series of books came to mind. At first, it was a book to stop children being scared of spiders, which I love (anything with an exoskeleton!). But when I started writing it, it just didn’t work. Something was wrong. Then I realised it was too sweet and twee. That’s not me at all! And, with a now older child, I realised how much kids like poo, snot and farts and all sorts of niffy stuff! So the spider became very much a scary spider trying to convince various terrified people and animals that she isn’t, in fact, scary and all hell breaks loose. The writing then started to flow and I spent most of my time giggling. That will be my third book. The next is the very snotty ‘I’m Not Cute the Snot Monster’. ‘I’m Not Funny the Chick’ is still in its infancy and will be weird!
You’ve published the first book in your “I’m not…” series of children’s books, how does it feel to be published?
I feel so satisfied after all my hard work to see it finally in print and looking so colourful and professional! I’m also very aware of how difficult it is to be seen among the masses of self-published books, so I’m having to do some leg work to get it noticed. I got an article in my local newspaper, the Buckingham and Winslow Advertiser, on 22 June (see here). I have approached schools if they would accept my reading to the children and hopefully do book signings. Then there are book fairs etc. It’ll be initial financial outlay for hopefully some recognition.
Are there any particular authors or books that you feel have been a big influence on you?
My world view was changed by the also late and great Sir Terry Pratchett. I still hurt desperately at his loss. His Discworld series are a parody of our own world and are hilarious but also often very deep and meaningful. I read his books most nights as relaxation therapy. I read a lot of stories about dystopian worlds and magick and the paranormal. I got into these from urging by my now teenage daughter. I started with ‘The Hunger Games’ by Suzanne Collins and have moved on to others. I love the ‘Twilight’ sagas and ‘The Host’ by Stephanie Meyer which are very well-written. The ‘Maze Runner’ series by James Dashner and the ‘Divergent ‘ series by Veronica Roth are other favourites. I also read books by Susan Kaye Quinn, Anna Carey, Lauren Oliver, Marie Lu and Alyson Noel. I try to read ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and ‘The Hobbit’ once a year. Reading takes me deep into other worlds where anything is possible.
What would you say has been the most difficult challenge to you in your writing?
Writer’s block is a very real problem. I’ve been getting that with my latest book for young adults. It usually means the whole idea is wrong, as it was with the original Spider story, but it’s starting to move again. I have dyspraxia so have difficulty with seeing related subjects. I’ll be writing and then realise that something can’t occur due to the facts that preceded it, but I don’t always see it straight away and have to go through the whole book making corrections. It’s very hard work and can be a bit demoralising. I’ll get people to read the story when it’s done to check for inconsistencies. It’s a lot easier to write for little kids as the stories are so simple, usually. It’s the illustrations that are hard, but incredibly fun. I close my eyes and picture a scene and then start scribbling, and invariably giggling! The characters come alive and are part of my family now.
How do you balance the rest of your life around your writing?
With a full-time job I have little time to write and draw, but try to squeeze them in when I can, often during my lunch break. I colour my illustrations in Photoshop which is very time-consuming so I tend do it at weekends. Oh, for some more time!
Do you have any special routines for writing?
Close my eyes, transport myself there and start writing. Then worry about mistakes and cleaning up later. That’s it! I’m a bit of a put-my-head-down-and -charge kind of writer!
What do you do when you are stuck?
I ask my daughter! She has a brilliant and creative brain. She’s often helped me when I’ve got stuck or I’m not sure about something and she has very good ideas.
How did you find the process of self-publishing? Would you recommend it to fellow writers?
I was told about CreateSpace by a publisher friend, Peter Kavanagh, who writes the lovely ‘Art Myatt’ children’s stories. I was very relieved and excited as I would have had to have spent £500 for a publishing company. CreateSpace is brilliant and pretty easy to use. They have the whole service set up very well, with lots of advice to hand. I would most certainly recommend them. You have to do your own self-promotion, though, and that takes time. But it’s fun.
So what’s next? You have your “I’m not…” series, but do you have any plans for other stories? Maybe for older children? Adults?
I am also writing a spooky novel for older children, ‘The Dreams of Lucy Lee’, which is proving very difficult and is on hold for the time being, until something occurs to me! I hope to get [The Dreams of Lucy Lee] finished as it’s preying on my mind! I hate leaving things unfinished. I hope the ‘I’m Not . . .’ series will continue until I run out of ideas. Suggestions welcome!
Is there anything you would do differently if you were starting out again now? What would you tell your younger self, just starting out with the advantage of hindsight?
Plan, plan, plan. It’s hard with a Specific Learning Difficulty but I would have told myself to keep trying. Get the main points of the start, main story and ending sorted out on paper, then fill in. It can be done with practice and I would have tried that when younger if I’d had a helping hand from a professional. Every school should have a writers’ club!
What advice would you give to any aspiring writers out there, especially those that might be wanting to write, but don’t think they can do it?
Write about a subject you love and know well. Don’t write about something because you feel you should or that others tell you should, and hate it. I produced a music book, ‘Diatonic Liaisons’, for the diatonic accordion, as I used to write special notation when teaching a friend and he suggested I write it. It’s been very successful but took about ten years to write and I hated every minute of it! But, to contradict myself, I’m glad it’s done. I would recommend writer’s groups. I’ve never been to one as would feel rather intimidated! But I should have done from the outset. I may well yet. Also, read lots of stories in the genre you’re working on and see how the successful ones are written, but don’t lose sight of your own style. See how long books are as in number of words/pages, although that’s just a guide as yours will be as long as it needs to be, just not too long or too short (except short stories which are a different kettle of fish and really fun!). Do get advice and send drafts to friends and family to ensure you’re on the right track and to correct spelling and grammar. Don’t be hurt by criticism. This is an essential part of your development as a writer. Test your limits and have fun. Be brave! It’s a wonderful journey and opens whole worlds, real and imagined. Oh, did I say plan, plan, plan?! And good luck to you all!
So, I hope you enjoyed learning about Alex and her writing and maybe even found a little inspiration?
Big thanks to Alex and good luck to her with her writing – and astronomy – clear skies and all that!