Sunday, 24 July 2011

TM Alexander talks Tribers and Writing a Series for Boys and/or Reluctant Readers

* Hi Tracy and welcome to tall tales & short stories.  Would you like to tell us a bit about yourself?

I am not very tall, but swim very fast. I like cycling, because walking is too slow. I eat porridge every day, even if I’m somewhere hot like Greece. My favourite drink is tea and my favourite activity is laughing. I find it very hard to make myself sit down at the computer to write, and very hard to get up again once I’ve sat there.

The Tribe series


The Tribers get Copper Pie out of a heap of trouble when his catapult catapults something it shouldn’t. They sort out some bother in the alley and save a defenceless creature. They have a lot of fun, a few hairy moments, some disagreements and a run in with the Head.
It’s all part of the life of your average Triber.

Winner of the 2010 Hull Children’s Book Award.


No one can join and no one can leave, that’s what they agreed. So when Copper Pie disappears with the enemy, Tribe itself is threatened. When someone else wants to join that becomes another problem, and a thief in school adds to the trouble.
Can Tribe sort it all out?


It all goes from bad to worse. They lose Bee’s dog, Doodle, somehow get involved in a kidnap, get to know the local police sarge a bit too well and have a disaster of a birthday party (twice).
Can they come out on top after all that?


Nothing could make Keener bunk off school, so why is he slipping out of the school gates at lunchtime? Nothing will get Fifty in the river at camp so why is he standing on the river bank ready for action?
Being a Triber is sometimes tough, but it’s always worth it.

*  What inspired you to write the Tribe series?

I wanted to write about a group of friends whose characters alone provide much of the interest. Although the Tribers get up to all sorts of stuff, often going against authority, it was important to me that the adventures were plausible, not ridiculous. I liked the idea of an accessible story in a context that is universally understood, with characters that children can immediately relate to. I’ve never wanted to write fantasy as I come from that vein of writers that believe real life to be stranger than fiction.

* How long have you been pursuing your writing ambitions and what have you done along the way to improve your writing?

I didn’t write anything, fiction, non-fiction, or in fact Christmas cards, until I joined a writing group on a whim in October 2004. I went to escape the jobs that were piling up in the house. I’d avoided them before by working at Lloyds TSB but having taken a break from work I had no excuse. After one session I was hooked. The class was held every Wednesday and was the highlight of my week. I enrolled on the Bristol University Creative Writing diploma in 2005. People debate whether creative writing can be taught. I think other people’s experience can accelerate your learning.

*  Before getting an agent and achieving publication did you have to deal with rejection along the way? How did it feel to finally secure the agent and publishing deal?

I sent the first three chapters of my first book (which remains unpublished) to an agent and waited for a reply. She wanted to read the rest of the novel but decided against it. As I am optimistic by nature I continued to send the chapters to one agent at a time, believing each one would be the one to say ‘yes’. The fifth agent, Bruce Hunter at David Higham, was the one to do so.

Rejection is disappointing, but in the same way that not all would-be pop stars get their songs played on Radio 1, not all writers get to see their name on the spine of a book. I believed that getting published would be rightfully difficult, and might not happen, but that persevering was part of the process.

*  Do you use your own children or any others as a ‘sounding board’ for your books?

Absolutely. The children read everything I write. They’re very good at spotting words that children wouldn’t use. I also give the draft manuscripts to two boys I know who are great readers and don’t mind telling me which bits are rubbish! As they’ve read all the Tribe books they’re also very good at checking the characters stay consistent. I should pay them really.

*  How long did it take you from initial inspiration for the Tribe series to finally achieving the publication deal? Did you pitch the idea as a series?

The way the Tribe series came to be was slightly unusual. Brenda Gardner from Piccadilly Press asked to meet me after she read my (still unpublished) first book. She liked the writing but didn’t feel the story was strong enough to launch me as a writer. She asked me if I had any other ideas so I took out my little notebook and sketched out two possible storylines. Luckily Tribe hit the right buttons and I left the meeting with a brief to provide a synopsis and sample chapter. The assumption was that there would be a series, as long as the publishers liked what I wrote. There are four books so far, the latest being Monkey Bars and Rubber Ducks out in July 2011.

*  Do you plan your stories in advance, or do they happen on the page?

I know what is going to happen in the end and I may have some ideas for excitement on the way but largely the plot evolves from page to page. I’d like to make better, more detailed, plans but I can’t make myself. It’s boring. I want to get on with the writing. Since being published I’ve met lots of other writers and realised that there is no right way.

*  During the editing process what would you say are the most important things you’ve learned and that all aspiring writers should aim for when writing a series for this age group?

I love editing. It’s a joy, when the story has a basic shape and size, to spend time making it better.

I’m conscious that the story needs to keep moving so I look to cut any static elements, and if I can use dialogue to replace any explanation or description I do. There is a lot of dialogue in the Tribe books, but also introspection on the part of the narrator, Keener. You are taught to ‘show not tell’ and whilst I agree with that, there is still a place for passages of ‘telling’. As a reader I find those aspects of a novel rather relaxing.

*  What made you think ‘I want to write for children?’ Is it a genre you enjoy reading?

I didn’t decide to be a children’s writer. I started writing a book that would naturally appeal to a child more than an adult. I am currently writing what would be categorised as a Young Adult novel. At the moment the ideas I want to pursue are for children but I don’t think of myself as writing for a target group. The story I wrote for BBC Radio 4 was very grown-up.

I do enjoy children’s literature. Some of my favourite stories are by so-called children’s writers like David Almond. The distinction in the retail environment, and by publishers, does not exist in the same way in my head. I love a good story, whether it’s Goodnight Mister Tom or The Time Traveller’s Wife. Geraldine McCaughrean once said that she writes for everyone over eight years old. I like that.

As a child I read Enid Blyton, like most people of my age, but the books I remember most vividly are: When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, Z for Zachariah, Black Beauty and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

*  Words of wisdom and advice to any aspiring writer?

Keep going, you can edit it later, but first you have to finish the story. If I ever get stuck I write a few XXXs and carry on. Chances are I’ll be able to work that bit out on another day.

*  Any other comments/observations/general mind-blowing information you‘d like to add?

I didn’t want to be a writer. I wanted to be the 100 metre gold medallist in the Olympic Games.

Eight Observations on Writing a Series for Boys 
and/or Reluctant Readers

  • Writing for boys
I wanted to write for boys, particularly those that haven’t discovered the pleasure that reading brings. As girls will read books about boys but boys don’t want to read books about girls I chose a gang (Tribe) of four boys and only one (albeit very feisty) girl. I called myself T. M. rather than Tracy for the same reason.
  • Breaking it up
 Pages and pages of prose with no escape can seem so off-putting after reading the likes of Horrid Henry and Captain Underpants. I deliberately made my chapters short and broke them up by inserting text boxes with random facts about the Tribers, or the situation at that time. 

  • Keeping them reading
Although each Tribe book only covers a couple of weeks in the Tribers’ lives within that time frame there are two or three stories, providing gratification for the reader part way through. This is meant to encourage those that easily lose the motivation to find out what happens because the answer is too many pages away.

  • Dialogue
I use lots of dialogue. It keeps the story alive and moving. I think long descriptive passages can be tedious.

  • Humour
Everyone likes to laugh. Small boys definitely do. So I developed a particular type of quirky Keener (the narrator) humour.

  • Facts
Lists of facts are clear winners and boys non-fiction books are full of them. Wherever relevant I used a list, like ‘Advice for going to camp’ and ‘Stag Beetle Facts’.

  • Variety
A worry with a series is that there aren’t enough fresh ideas. Having five fully developed characters I had a wide choice of protagonist in each mini-tale. I deliberately made the Tribe a group of equals with no leader so that they could each take their turn. It’s not formulaic - some characters naturally appear more because of who they are.

  • Subsequent books
In each Tribe book I mention events or character traits that are then used to develop a story in the next book. I wanted Tribe fans to enjoy having ‘inside’ information that makes the read more enjoyable for them because they are ‘in the know’.



Rosalie Warren said...

What an interesting interview. T M Alexander's books are new to me but I will seek them out now. And I love the advice on writing for boys - will take this to heart.

Thank you, Tracys both!

Tracy said...

Thanks Rosalie
Glad you enjoyed the post.

Illy said...

Thank you.. Love the fact you are trying to aim for something slightly different to attract the attention of those little ones who havn't quite found their reading niche. You are now duly added to my futures for our little three year old who currently devours all reading material of a fun adventurous kind.

Stroppy Author said...

That's really interesting. I write for reluctant readers, too, and have just finished a series (out in March 2012) that also features a group of characters. I do all these things - except the lists! That's a good idea. I do lots of lists in non-fiction for reluctant readers :-)

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