Dr Fantasy’s trip to Eridor island: Alison Gardiner shares writing tips and spreads the magic.
At her creative writing workshop held in Gibraltar as part of the Gibunco Literary Festival 2018, tweens’ adventure novelist and Dorset GP Creative Writing Competition 2017 winner Alison Gardiner spellbound children and adults alike, having them penning an elevator pitch and opening to their new novel in the mere space of one hour – and judging from the participants who dared to sample out loud, it was productive brainstorming!
Alison’s recipe for best-selling plots is simple, whether in fantasy or any other genre: after fashioning out the protagonists’ characterisation and back-story, set them in their historical and geographical background, whether real or make-believe, give them a goal to achieve or a mission to complete and riddle their path with obstacles to overcome and lifelines to grab.
So, here go the ingredients to make readers want for more after the first chapter (in fact, the literary submissions internet program Alison is a regular host to, Litopia, is geared to judge a book not by its cover but by its 700-word incipit): “Avoid giving too much information at the beginning, explaining how they got to the present situation. Start right in the middle of drama instead, and drip-feed the back-story in later. Prune out extra words: flabby prose is a turn-off. Anything that is an unusual take on an old theme has the potential for hooking new readers. Write what you are passionate about, not what seems to be popular or might be the next big thing.”
And whatever you do, never open with descriptions of the weather!
Alison favours the fantasy genre because “I can make absolutely anything happen or create what I choose: flying crocodiles, thinking mountains, ancient magical puzzles, lions that turn to stone at will… anything that my brain can conceive.” She adds that from the reader’s point of view, fantasy stretches their imagination too, and takes them to astonishing, magical worlds unbound by physics, convention or the mundane.
Furthermore, she believes that fantasy genuinely helps children to have a window to the world of reality: “They can see that basic moral values hold true including loyalty, friendship, commitment, love, truth and so on. The cloak of fantasy makes these more accessible as concepts, more achievable and in many ways more desirable. In many fantasy stories, including my own, it’s often reliance on these core values that will get a character through at the end, even more than the fantastical tools they’re given like spells, time travel, and ability to contact spiritual world. Children can learn that tackling problems can be hard work and uncomfortable, but that persistence, thinking things through, knowledge and teamwork will often give the desired result.”
If this allows for broader freedom of creation than other genres, the writer still has to abide the set of his or her own rules, whether on the limits of anyone’s magical powers, characters’ abilities, and layout of the territory they move in: “Consistency is paramount. It’s unsettling and unsatisfactory for the reader to have any problem solved by suddenly pulling out of a hat something disconnected to previous events, or finding that certain rules apply at one point but not at others, unless hints about these eventual outcomes were subtly planted in the previous chapters but went unnoticed until hindsight highlights them.”
Alison’s plots and the geography of the fantasy island of Eridor are influenced by her childhood in Jamaica, which explains her love for water and tropical settings. “A trip to Australia, which included going to a rainforest and contact with snakes, also had its bearing. There are flashes back my childhood – for example at one point in a chase the hero, Alex, is on a tree looking down at a mud filled lake. In Jamaica there was a tree-filled paddock and we used to climb one each to pretend we were in ships with the sea below.”
Many of her characters were inspired by Alison’s four children and family friends: “Generally I take parts of people’s character and meld them together with somebody else’s characteristics to make a new composite personality. I think it’s important not to try and recreate a real life person, as you can get quite restricted about what that person believes, or how they might react. Borrowing a range of characteristics, mannerisms, thought patterns can be fun and very fertile ground for creating someone new and believable.”
In fact she borrowed quite a lot from her own real world to build up her fantasy escape, by fashioning the heroes of The Serpent and Eridor, returning in Alchemy (Wishing Shelf Book Awards Red Ribbon Award winner and highly recommended by them) after the children on her school run: “My son Alex became the main hero Alex Weston, with his inseparable pet hamster Skoodle, a non-magical teenager who walks his own path but is fiercely loyal to his friends; my daughter Natasha evolved in Ikara the clever, supercilious snake, her friends Katie in Keeko the ebullient monkey, fierce in fight, and Claudia became Clawds the cat.
“I chose a teenage hero because he had to be old enough to be reasonably likely to undertake such a journey, but equally I didn’t want an adult hero, out of touch with my readership because young people generally enjoy a hero a little bit older than themselves, and my books target the 9 to 12-year-old market.
“The idea of animal companions for Alex arose when I realised I didn’t want him to encounter humans while adrift on a jungle island. My animals don’t have the stereotypical features of fables, because I created the character first, and later squeezed it in the animal body, whose salient features I kept, such as agility for the monkey, and rope-like muscles for the snake, for instance; just check out the unpleasant armadillo in Alchemy who is my most unconventional, being intelligent but uncooperative, irritating and vindictive.”
Alex, a mortal boy in a magic world, where he can fight evil only thanks to his qualities of “loyalty, quick wits and sheer cussedness”, is expected to be starring in a pentalogy, and he is half way there with the forthcoming publication of his third adventure The Goblin’s Curse, due for summer, followed by The Kaleidoscope of Time, in which readers might meet his love interest.
On a busy schedule as mother-of-four GP and medical appraiser in Dorset, Jersey and indeed Gibraltar, Alison undertakes school visits to give talks to years 5-8, and she also is a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and the Society of Authors.
She writes ‘on her feet’ by dictating her first draft to voice-recognition software or recorder so she can transcribe and polish it later: “Thus I can tell the story straight through without getting slowed down by thinking too hard about punctuation, adverbs, word repetitions or spelling errors. It means that editing the first to the second draft tends to be quite intense. But dictating gives me the freedom to think, talk and keep going, which is glorious.”
At the beginning of a book she needs two to three hours of quiet time for ‘blue-sky thinking’ to work out where she’s going with the story, but later her editing is done in bits and scraps of time like ‘late at night, on a train, first thing in the morning, Sunday after lunch’. Her family is supportive, reading her completed works and chipping in suggestions, so they all feel part of what she does: “I don’t like being interrupted if I’m building a story; while I’m editing it’s less disruptive. Cup of tea, cat, quiet house, pen. Perfect.”
Alison Gardiner’s novels are available from Waterstones, WHSmith, Amazon, Barnes and Noble or the publisher, Matador. Signed copies can be ordered on her website AlisonGardinerAuthor.com.