Therese and I are beyond pleased to be able to bring you this interview of Victoria Holmes, author of four titles and editor of several successful YA fiction lines. Not only is she one of the hardest-working people in publishing today, she is a total delight. Our association with Victoria began when we interviewed the writing duo of Cherith Baldry and Kate Cary, who, as Erin Hunter, write the enormously popular YA fantasy series WARRIORS. What we didn’t know at the time, and have learned since, is that WARRIORS is the brainchild of and edited by Victoria. As if shepherding WARRIORS titles through the publication process isn’t enough work, she finds time to write a popular series of her own. During the course of our two-part with Erin Hunter, we realized that we had so many questions for this author/editor that we knew we had to pick her brain clean and find out what it takes to work both sides of the publishing aisle.
Q: One of the things that amazes us is that you edit several successful lines for Working Partners LTD AND write children’s fiction. How do you manage to juggle both responsibilities?
VH: I guess I’m just greedy! Editing takes up by far the lion’s share of my time, with writing squeezed into days off and weekends. I’m lucky to have long lead times for my manuscripts which helps relieve some of the pressure, although I confess I’m the sort of writer who ends up doing 8,000 words a day the week before the first draft is due. My math has improved enormously since receiving my commission for the four historical horse stories, especially long division: at the start of the schedule I think, “Ah, lovely, 2,500 words per weekend for the next four months will be a breeze,” and by the end I’m thinking, “Okay, I should just make the deadline if I can do 7,384 words a day for the next week.” In the future, I’d love to spend more time writing but right now I can’t bear to give up any of my editorial work because I love it so much. Plus I work with a great team at Working Partners and I’d miss them like crazy if I was stuck at home on my own all day!
Q: What drew you to children’s fiction?
VH: Interesting question, because the answer is that I don’t really know. I have always loved writing stories, and was known as “the girl who is good at English” at school, but I never thought about writing for children in particular. I grew up reading obsessively but didn’t stick to children’s fiction – I devoured James Herriot’s veterinary memoirs when I was five or six, and hoovered up the contents of my parents’ bookcases with a quite alarming lack of discrimination. After university, I worked with horses for a year before becoming an English teacher, which was clearly not the right career for me; I adored my subject, but couldn’t understand why my students didn’t feel the same. With hindsight, I think I’d have made a much better Math teacher because I would have been better able to explain the processes involved. To me, things like punctuation and grammar are obvious: “Why does the apostrophe go there?” “Because it just does, okay?” Anyway, from teaching I moved to an editorial position for a schools-based book club, which introduced me to a wide and delicious range of contemporary children’s fiction. My greatest treat was going down to the warehouse when everyone else was at lunch and sitting on a stepladder among the shelves to read the latest deliveries. After that, a move into children’s publishing seemed like an obvious step. I applied for the post of Commissioning Editor at Working Partners and six years later, I’m still here. I couldn’t imagine working in any other field of publishing now. Books for grown-ups seem way too long and difficult!
Q: As an editor, what do you look for in a strong project?
VH: We come up with all our own project ideas at Working Partners in order to retain moral and intellectual copyright, which means I get to stretch my creative wings on a daily basis as well as honing my script-editing skills. It also means that I commission writers, not projects. I think the ingredients of a strong children’s fiction project remain the same across age ranges and genres: into the cauldron you need to put strong, interesting (and interestingly, not necessarily sympathetic) characters, a lively and easily understood plot, and a sense of relevance to the readers’ lives. This doesn’t have to be the sort of jaw-dropping contemporary social realism that I worship in Jacqueline Wilson’s books, but the characters do need to tackle issues that can be identified in twenty-first century life. For example, a lot of the fanmail we receive for Warriors mentions how much the readers sympathize with Firepaw’s struggle to fit in with the Clan when he first arrives in the forest. Also, and somewhat to my surprise, Ravenpaw remains enduringly popular because so many of the fans understand what it’s like to feel shy and awkward in group situations. I must confess I adore Ravenpaw too for this precise reason – there’s a lot of me in him, plus he’s the person I’d like to be because he always acts with such dignity and honor toward his old friends.
Q: It seems that series dominate the children’s/YA market. Is this trend going to continue?
VH: Working Partners achieved its first major success with Animal
Ark, which is still going on after more than one hundred titles and has generated a huge following all over the world. Clearly our fans have large bookcases! But a few years ago, publishers seemed to move away from buying series and focused more on single titles or trilogies. The feeling seemed to be that the fashion for series had waned and children wanted quicker fixes in their reading matter. Happily for us, the trend for series has never really gone away, perhaps because young readers are veritable magpies when it comes to collecting books. The Harry Potter phenomenon is the obvious example, but look also at the success of Phillip Pullman’s backlist, following the publication of his fabulous Northern Lights trilogy. Warriors was originally devised as a single, stand-alone title; this stretched to six when we came up with too many ideas to fit into the first story. Then came The New Prophecy, which was a trilogy right up until the first manuscript was delivered, when we realized it would make more sense to do another batch of six. And now we’re working on The Power of Three, with no sign of stopping after this batch… As far as my own books are concerned, they have remained as single stand-alone titles but I can’t help coming up with adventures for my characters to have in future stories while I’m writing each manuscript.
Q: And speaking of the WARRIORS juggernaut, you were the brainchild and editor of this enormously popular series written by Erin Hunter. Have you been surprised by the devoted following it’s generated?
VH: When I started work on Into the Wild, I had only been an editor for a few months and it just felt like a rather complex and unwieldy feral cat fantasy that would bring some sort of badge of honor if I got to the end of the first manuscript. I have never been a fan of fantasy fiction or stories about animals (even though I was brought up on a farm and love, love, love all four-legged furry creatures), so while I gave the script my all, I never imagined it would conquer the world. I can clearly remember the point when I thought, “Hang on, this is turning into something special.” It was when I came up with the back story for Book Three: Forest of Secrets, in which Bluestar had given up her kits to RiverClan in order to become deputy of ThunderClan. I recall sitting at my keyboard, tapping away to unpeel the layers of emotion that must have led to her momentous decision, and suddenly realizing how real and vital the Clans’ world had become to me. From then on, the storylines seemed almost to write themselves as the characters played out their dramas on their wooded stage, and I guess I figured that if the action excited me then it would probably excite a fair few other people as well. And of course I have the honor of working with two incredibly talented writers in Kate and Cherith. They make editing each script a joy, and we share a lot of laughs and moments of inspiration before each book is put to bed. They each write so exquisitely that my cheeks turn green with envy, and I’m thrilled that so many readers appreciate them too. But I never imagined we’d beat Harry Potter one day!Q: Storylines for the children’s/YA market seem to be getting edgier. Are tastes changing, or have kid’s stories always been edgy?
VH: No one could deny that contemporary children’s/YA fiction embraces some pretty stark subject matter, such as drugs, relationships and imploding families.
Q: What advice would you give to someone who wants to pursue a career writing for children? Is having an agent important when trying to break into this market?
VH: Read everything in the children’s section of your local library, especially popular contemporary titles. That’s by far the best way to get a feel for what the marketplace wants today. Too often, aspiring authors write in the style of books they loved as children, and that’s just not commercially viable now. Publishers look for modern, lively voices that can speak the language of twenty-first century children, even in genres like fantasy and historical novels.
Think about the perspective of your story: nearly all children’s books are written from a limited third person perspective, which means we can see into the thoughts of the central character but no one else’s, and we only see things when he or she is around to witness them. This is a big difference from adult fiction, which often splits the narrative between several different third person viewpoints.
Make sure that the story is as much character-driven as plot-driven so your protagonist is always in the thick of the action, making things happen around them. Children tend to identify with characters before plot or historical setting, so the individuals in your story need to leap off the page as rounded, sympathetic and adventurous characters whom readers can easily imagine as their friends.
Check that the length and structure of your story match successful examples in the marketplace. It’s very common to receive a generally well-written manuscript that is much, much too long for the intended readership. Publishers have fairly hard and fast rules about how long a book can be for each particular age range, so there’s no point sending them a script that’s way off target. For example, Warriors books are 70-80,000 words long, which is as long as most scripts would ever be for the children’s market. First chapter books, for new readers aged 4-6, tend to be nearer the 3,000 word mark.
Finally, remember that if you read your script to a child that knows you, you will invariably get a rave review. Children love being read to, and respond enthusiastically to the idea of hearing a brand new story from The Person Who Wrote It! This is not a reliable critique, unfortunately, so be prepared for some much sterner responses from Commissioning Editors.
Agents definitely open doors where mere mortals can only tap feebly from the outside, and they are also in a great position to advise a writer on shaping their manuscript to make it the best possible commercial prospect. There is a truly alarming amount of competition in the world of children’s fiction and having an agent could help a writer avoid the slush pile of unsolicited scripts and make it onto someone’s desk. I’d recommend approaching agents with a good track record in children’s fiction, although not necessarily representing authors offering the same style and genre you have chosen because that could become cannibalistic. Listen to their advice because even though judging fiction is wholly subjective, if you find that several agents say the same thing about your script, they’re probably right.
Q: Your own books are historical novels centered around girls and horses. What drew you to writing these types of stories?
VH: Is it too simplistic to say that I love horses, and I love history? To be ruthlessly honest, I was never intended to be the writer for this series; I developed the concept and came up with the original storylines as part of what I do every day at Working Partners, in response to a rise in interest from publishers in new horse-themed fiction. At the time, historical fiction was also enjoying a wave of popularity, and I had just been on vacation in the English county of Dorset where my imagination had latched on to tales of smugglers and wreckers and beautiful hills overlooking long stretches of stony beach. The storyline for RIDER IN THE DARK more or less fell into my lap intact – girl on stunning dark brown horse won in her father’s game saves ship by relighting sabotaged beacon on stormy night. The others took a little more thought, apart from HORSE FROM THE SEA which had been pottering about in my head ever since a visit to Western Ireland with my best friend Joe; I clearly remember standing in the middle of the Connemara mountains and saying, “One day I will write a story set here.” I enjoyed working on the storylines so much that it made sense for me to try out, anonymously, alongside other writers for the Working Partners commission. So I landed a publishing deal for four hardback books with one of the biggest publishers in the world without having written a full-length script in my life. Be careful what you wish for!
Q: You’ve set your books in a variety of historical eras: RIDER IN THE DARK, 18th century Britain, HORSE FROM THE SEA, 16th century Ireland, and your upcoming release, HEART OF FIRE, set in the aftermath of WWI. How do you choose which era to write about, how much research do you do, and how do you decide what level of detail a young reader will accept?
VH: I am inspired primarily by a sense of place – Dorset for RIDER, Galway and Connemara for HORSE, the country estate in Berkshire where I grew up for HEART, and now gorgeous Dartmoor in the county of Devon. (I should add at this point that I have never lived in Maddie’s mansion in HEART – my father owned a restored gamekeeper’s cottage in the pine woods by the canal on the edge of the estate.) I know that I want to write about a particular location when I can’t stop the stories tumbling into my head as I look around. The historical era is dictated partly by notable events that happened here, which meant the sinking of the Spanish Armada for HORSE and smuggling for RIDER, and partly by times that hold a particular fascination for me. This accounts for the post-WWI setting for HEART and the English Civil War/witchcraft theme for the next book. I research different aspects of the period – clothing, food, daily life, politics, entertainment, transport – until I feel confident that I know what would be going on in each scene and how the characters would feel about it, and I wouldn’t hesitate to include any level of period detail in a story. It’s the tiny details that bring a story to life, and I’ve never had a reader complain that they learned too much about Helena’s meals in RIDER, for example! My golden rule is that the story must move forward on every single page, and as long as that happens I can pack incidental information tightly around the action.I use a number of different methods for research, starting with reading, although too much of this makes me feel like I am taking my History exams all over again! Visiting is the most important, and most enjoyable, methods for me – visiting locations, museums, historical exhibitions, people who use traditional crafts. I take dozens of photos that I can surround myself with when I start writing, so describing a scene is simply a matter of looking at a picture and writing down what I see. The towerhouse of Murray na Doe in HORSE is a real place, still standing and beautifully restored by a heritage trust. Before I visited, I had no idea that Murray had built a trapdoor beneath one of the flagstones in his dining hall – as soon as the guide told me about it, I knew it would become an integral part of my story.
Q: What is your writing process? Do you start from character, plot, or the historical moment? And are you a plotter or a pantser?
VH: I am a PLOTTER. Right down to the tone of conversations and the lighting in the scene. The storylines I provide for my Warriors writers are a good example of this: the synopsis for Firestar’s Quest, the stand-alone title which comes out next summer, runs to over 30,000 words which is nearly a third of the entire book! I imagine each scene so vividly that I can’t bear to leave out any of the details. The only rule I set myself is that I won’t write any of the dialogue in full, but I rewrote this rule long ago to mean “no speech marks”. So there are plenty of conversations in the synopsis, but you couldn’t spot them just by looking.
Q: With four books under your belt, how have you evolved as a writer?
VH: I love doing research – how can anyone not love learning new things? – but I did far too much prior to writing RIDER, and ended up trying to bend the plot to accommodate everything I had learned about Georgian candlesticks. For subsequent books, I read a couple of general accounts of each historical period before planning the story in as much detail as I could, and then went back to do more detailed research to fill in any gaps. I hope that my pacing has improved – some of the sentences in RIDER take forever to come to an end! – and I’ve stopped worrying so much about the life histories of peripheral characters. I came up with names, ages and occupations for every single person in the village of Roseby in RIDER, which seems like a waste of energy when some of them wander onto the page for only the briefest moment. The one thing I haven’t improved on is my reluctance to write happy endings – in the initial synopsis for my next book, I left my heroine bereft of all family members, standing in the ashes of her burning home. My editor pointed out gently that I should probably leave her with some grain of hope for the future…
Q: This may be a ridiculous question since you have so many projects going, but do you get writer’s block? How do you overcome it?
< VH: Oh yes! Many’s the time when I have sat glaring at my computer screen, trying to figure out what should come next. Not in terms of action (see above), but in terms of how to say it. I get into terrible frustrated tangles in my head – the words are going to appear on the page sometime, so why not now? Then I read an interview with a hugely successful author who said that her mantra is “Don’t get it right, get it written”. And that is the truest thing about writing I have ever discovered. When I get stuck, I force myself to stop wrangling over the precise selection and order of words and just write down what is meant to happen, like “Nora ran across the bog, jumping from tussock to tussock”. That might not be right but at least it’s written, and I tell myself I can always go back and rewrite it more prettily later on. And you know what? Nine times out of ten, when I read the script over I can’t even spot the bits that were just “written”.And for those times when I can’t even just get it written, I storm away from my computer and make furious cookies or clean the house from top to bottom, so that in the end going back to my keyboard seems like a nice thing to do.
Q: What are some of your literary influences?
VH: I don’t think I could pinpoint one particular writer or genre that has influenced the way I write now. I grew up on my mother’s books from her childhood – lots of pony stories and masses and masses of Enid Blyton, who may be less fashionable now but whatever you say about her gender politics, she was a tremendous storyteller. The book that sticks most in my imagination is TALES OF THE PUNJAB, a collection of Indian folklore translated by Flora Annie Steel in 1894. These stories were so vivid, exploding with color and movement and a powerful sense of location, as well as the tiniest details of human behavior. When my sister Kate read RIDER IN THE DARK, she said afterward that it reminded her of TALES OF THE PUNJAB which I took as the biggest compliment! I still read voraciously and visit my local library at least once a week to restock because I could never afford my habit if I had to buy every book I wanted to read. I love thriller writers such as Kathy Reichs and Karin Slaughter because they show me how to weave an intricate plot around believable and sympathetic characterization. Diana Gabaldon’s extraordinary Cross Stitch series (Outlander in U.S. markets) has taught me that I’ll never be able to write historical fiction as well as she does, and anything by Jacqueline Wilson is an object-lesson in how to communicate with young readers about the most torturous subject matter. The only topic I wouldn’t read for pleasure is straight romance – this won’t be a surprise to the Warriors readers who should know by now that the only romance I allow in the stories has to be doomed from the start!
Q: Tell us about your latest release. What’s next for you?
VH: The fourth book in the historical horse series (catchy series title, no?!) is set in the south-west English county of Devon during the English Civil War. As well as seeing how this far-reaching and interminable conflict affected ordinary people, I want to explore the theme of witchcraft as well. My heroine’s grandmother Willow is a “wise woman”, who knows about the healing properties of plants and herbs and is consulted by the local people when they get sick. At the time, this sort of knowledge was barely distinguishable from black magic in many people’s minds, and I want to show how this affects my young heroine, Holly. It doesn’t matter whether Willow is a conventional sort of witch or not – to be honest, I don’t even know myself – but what is important is how people react to Holly, and how she feels about carrying on her grandmother’s legacy of healing. One of my big personal preoccupations is the concept of faith, and the consequences of believing in something; if Holly believes she is capable of black magic, does that mean bad things will happen? This is a theme I love exploring in Warriors, too; Cloudtail is my archetypal “good atheist”, a brave and loyal warrior who doesn’t believe in StarClan, while Tigerstar is the “bad believer”, a cat who has absolute faith in the existence of his warrior ancestors but uses their tenets for evil purposes.
As for what I’ll do after Holly’s story, this hasn’t been set in stone yet, at least as far as my personal writing is concerned. I keep telling myself I should write something set in the present day because I wouldn’t need to spend so long reading historical tomes, but I find historical moments and artifacts far more inspiring than most things I encounter in everyday life. I would love to go even further back in time, to when famous standing stone monuments like Stonehenge were first built. I am bewitched by standing stones and would relish the chance to breathe fictitious life into the personalities behind these constructions.
I have a much clearer idea about what comes next in my editorial box of tricks. Erin Hunter has titles commissioned all the way to Fall 2010, which I try not to think about too much because it makes me scared. What if I run out of stories in 2008? Cats and horses aside, Working Partners has a constant stream of new projects in which I can dip my toes, so I don’t imagine I’ll give up creating stories or editing for a long, long time yet.
Now we’ll open the floor to some readers:
Sophie, age 9: Why are you writing about different girls in different times instead of staying with one girl’s story?
VH: When these books were first commissioned, the publisher specifically asked for “stand alone” stories, which means that each book is self-contained and the characters don’t appear in other books. This seemed like a great idea at first because it enabled me to explore more than one historical period and create four entirely separate heroines. Because I spend my editing life working on series, I liked the thought of finishing with one set of characters and locations at the end of a book and moving on to a new set for the next story. However, I didn’t realize how attached I would get to each of my heroines, and I have found it really hard to let them go at the end of a book and conjure up a different girl. I miss (RIDER IN THE DARK) Nell the most because I think there was quite a lot of my own character in her personality, although I share (HORSE FROM THE SEA) Nora’s shyness and feelings of clumsiness at crowded parties. It has also been quite difficult to forget all my historical research for one period in order to make room for the next lot. I get scared that there is only a limited amount of room in my brain, and it might be taken up with details about Georgian candlesticks when I need to squeeze in some information about English Civil War uniforms.
So I guess the answer is that I write stand alone stories because that was what I agreed with the publisher, but in the future I’d love to write at least two or three books about the same set of characters because it would save having to say goodbye to them too soon.
Q: I really liked Nell (RIDER IN THE DARK). Are we going to get more stories about her?
VH: I’d love to write more about Nell because she was my first heroine and I feel as if I got to know her very well over the year that I carried her around in my head. But these books were always intended to be one-off stories, so unless a publisher asks for a spin-off, I’m afraid the rest of Nell and Jamie’s adventures will happen out of sight.
Q: How come HEART OF FIRE had both a sad and a happy ending?
VH: This is a great question! And I’ll let you into a secret: I really struggle to write happy endings. None of my books end with “happy ever after”, and in the book that I’m currently working on, my editor pointed out that every single person who matters to my heroine ends up dead. I had to rewrite the storyline so that at least one of them survived, otherwise her future would have been very bleak indeed. In HEART OF FIRE, I wanted Firebird to triumph in the show-jumping competition because she is a truly exceptional little horse with the heart of a lion. But at the same time, there was no way Jonathan could come back to live with Maddie and her family because of the terrible lie he had told. He needed to go off and forge his own life to regain some self-respect, but I think we can be sure that he never forgot the friendships he forged at Sefton Park.
Q: Are you going to write books about other animals?
VH: I can’t say too much about this because I’m currently developing an Erin Hunter series featuring a completely different animal than cats or horses, and it’s in the very early stages so it’s all a bit hush-hush right now. As far as my own books are concerned, I think I’d like to write exclusively about people for at least one series, because I’m running out of new phrases to describe horses!
Sarah, age 10: I really liked your book set in Ireland (HORSE FROM THE SEA). Are you going to write more books from there? Are all your books going to be in England?
VH: Thank you, I love HORSE FROM THE SEA too. I would love to write more books set in sixteenth-century Ireland because it is an exceptionally beautiful country and a very interesting period in history, when the English were trying to break the spirit of this proud and unusual nation. My best friend Joe is Irish and HORSE FROM THE SEA was my tribute to him and his ancestors who suffered so much from the conquerors sent over by Elizabeth I. However, I have no plans for more stories set in Ireland right now. My next book is set in the county of Devon in south-west England, another place that is very important to me. For my historical stories, I write about places that mean a lot to me and have lots of interesting history attached to them, which is why I’ve set these books in Ireland and England. But I’d love to write about Scotland and Wales, too!
Q: Why do you like writing stories about horses?
VH: Because I love horses so much, I guess! I was very lucky because I grew up on a farm with plenty of grazing for ponies, plus my mum loves horses too. I rode before I could walk (well, there are photos of me as a baby perched in my mum’s lap on her big paint horse Dobbin), and had my first pony, a palomino Welsh pony called Perky, when I was eight. It’s always easiest to write about things you know well, and horses fall right into that category for me. There are also so many different types of horse – show-jumpers, racehorses, heavy horses – that it seems like I could write stories forever about them and never run out of ideas.
Q: Will you write books about boys and horses?
VH: I think the answer is that I already do. There are strong male characters in all of my books who are as closely involved in the horse action as my heroine, even though Jose needed riding lessons from Nora in HORSE FROM THE SEA! I don’t believe that girls are any better at riding than boys, nor do they feel more strongly about the horses that they meet, but more girls read horse stories than boys so it makes sense to have a heroine rather than a hero at the centre of the action.
Riley, age 10: Are Jamie and Nell (characters in RIDER IN THE DARK) secretly in love?
VH: Well, I think they’re a bit young to be properly in love (they’re both fifteen), but they are certainly very good friends. And, even more importantly, they live at a time when it would have been very difficult for them to be boyfriend and girlfriend because Nell is the daughter of the lord of the manor while Jamie is a lowly stable lad. Social class was very rigid back then and there was no way a young lady like Nell could have married a servant! Nowadays, social structure is less rigid but there are other things that get in the way of relationships, like culture or the color of your skin.
Q: How do you think up names for your horses?
VH: It’s the best part of writing my books! I used to invent whole yards of imaginary ponies when I was a child, and I still find notebooks in the attic full of made-up names and descriptions, right down to the sort of bridle the horse would be ridden in. Sometimes I use horses and ponies that I have met in real life, although I’m starting to run out of those now. The name of the horse from RIDER IN THE DARK, Oriel, actually means a type of window but I thought it sounded like a perfect name for a beautiful dark brown horse. Lir in HORSE FROM THE SEA is named after the Irish god of the sea, which seemed appropriate. In HEART OF FIRE, Firebird is named after a high-spirited Arab mare I used to ride. In my next book, the Dartmoor ponies have simpler names like Bracken and Myrtle (which is a type of plant) because my heroine has named them after things she sees around her on the moor. Sometimes I get completely stuck for a name, and then I just ask the nearest person for ideas. And thinking up names for the cats in Warriors is way, way harder because we have to use natural things and it’s very hard not to be repetitive.
Q: What should I do if I want to write books?
VH: Read everything you can, from the back of cereal packets to the dustiest books in your school library. You have to figure out what sort of stories you’d like to write for yourself, and what sorts of writing don’t appeal to you at all. Then just write! Poems, short stories, letters, articles for your school newspaper, anything at all. I didn’t know that I wanted to concentrate on children’s fiction until long after I had left school, but I learned a lot from writing for the school magazine, writing competitions and even essays when I was at college. Writing for a living can be tough, dull and lonely so you need to get lots of practice at working your way out of writer’s block without having to abandon your keyboard altogether. I love writing letters and e-mails and find it’s a great way to warm up before I tackle the next chunk of a manuscript. Plus I like to think that someone will publish all my letters when I’m really famous and make a fortune!
Thank you, Victoria, for the fantastic interview!
All of Victoria Holmes titles are available at online and brick booksellers everywhere. Heart of Fire releases October 1, 2006.