Sue Palmer talks about writing, reading and the publication of her new book…
I live in the UK. I moved from Lancashire to The Cotswolds at the age of 7 and have been living in rural South Oxfordshire since 1995.
I’ve had a really exciting time over the past few months visiting schools, libraries, bookshops and festivals to talk about what’s happening in space right now and about my May’s Moon children’s books. It couldn’t be a more dynamic time to be looking at what begins about sixty miles above us.
The second book in the trilogy, May’s Moon: Fortis Mission is out this week. Children will find out how Michael May’s adventure continues and how he deals with the challenges he has to face. I’m currently only a few chapters into writing the third story but am already enjoying putting my characters into new, perilous situations.
Like most writers, my first stories emerged at school. In my early teens, I filled notepads with poems of teenage woes and the odd short story or two. I loved escaping into fantasy worlds and making up ‘what if’ situations for characters. Much later, having lived in the sometimes-serious adult world, picking out books for my children gave me my sense of adventure back and I started to pen my first children’s story. I love the eternal optimism of children and their absolute belief that dreams can come true.
This is a well-debated question. I think if you write stories, poems, books, or articles on a regular basis and you have an audience, you can legitimately be described as a writer. Writing became my primary focus about four years ago. With two books published, two being edited and regular visits to schools, libraries and bookshops, I’m finally comfortable using the term ‘writer’ to describe myself.
My first story came about as a challenge to myself. I wanted to see if I could write a full-length children’s story. After nearly a year the answer was ‘yes’ but unfortunately the writing world’s answer was ‘no’. I went back to the drawing board, read a lot about writing, asked a lot about writing and spent a lot of time writing. My second attempt benefited hugely from my first naive venture.
The inspiration for this story came from a school trip with my then 8-year-old son to the National Science Museum in London. The ‘space’ exhibition and the children’s reaction to it gave me the idea of sending a child into space – the premise for May’s Moon.
I know I like to get inside the head of my main characters. I know that he or she represents some of the worries and concerns and hang-ups that I had as a child and I know I want to share those with my readers, but I can’t really comment on my own style. Reading children’s reviews is probably the best judge of what they get from my stories.
My main character is Michael May and his biggest dream in life is to go to the moon. I did have a working title of Michael May goes to the Moon, but that was soon shortened to May’s Moon.
Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?
There are several messages in May’s Moon that I’d love readers to pick up on:
I’ve tried to make the astronaut training that Michael May goes through as realistic as possible, to make the book appealing to children who like to learn about space. The facts about g-force, planets and other space-related stuff is real, but details of the next mission to the moon is fictional.
With so much information about space exploration, future plans and past triumphs I’m never lacking in research materials or astronauts to meet.
Some of the characters have the traits of children I have met, but the rest is purely fictional.
As a child, I was mad on Enid Blyton’s The Faraway Tree, Mallory Towers and The Famous Five. I loved Clive King’s Stig of the Dump and Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking. Huckleberry Finn and Swallows and Amazons were also big favourites – anything with adventure or strong, unusual characters getting themselves into trouble.
As an adult, lots of the advice given by Stephen King in his On Writing resonated with me, as did Dorothea Brande’s 1938 Becoming a Writer. David Almond’s Skellig, Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights and Li Cunxin’s Mao’s Last Dancer all drew me in completely to their very different worlds.
It would have to be someone called “Pullman King Funke”.
I’m reading the magical, mysterious, The House with a Clock in its Walls by John Bellairs, alongside the second in the Wundersmith series, The Calling of Morrigan Crow, by Jessica Townsend– a must read for children who love feisty female characters, adventure and magical worlds.
I enjoyed reading The Dreamsnatcher trilogy by Abi Elphinstone – a great story woven with gypsy secrets and mystery.
Sarah Crossan’s, Breathe was something different for me. Brutal, tense and unsettling, it has an adventurous and dystopian feel that makes you want to read on and put it down at the same time.
I’m currently writing the third May’s Moon story, planning my school workshops, library and festival visits for the new academic year…and have a new manuscript ready to go out into the publishing world.
I’d have spent more time planning in the early days, which would have saved me a few months of re-writing and editing. Some of the techniques I now use for setting out plot, scenes and character development would have been really useful back then.
I’ve been on two courses with a UK Literary Agency to refine some of my writing skills and techniques but I didn’t know what I needed at the start of my writing journey.
All these have made my writing process better and quicker but, at the end of the day, the only way I can get to know my characters and what motivates them is by spending a lot of time with them.
It probably came from my junior schoolteachers, Mrs Jarvis and Mrs Evans. They were keen on reading the right things and writing as much as possible. I was encouraged to think up new ideas and be as creative as possible, without ridicule or criticism. Television, at the time, gave my friends and I countless subjects for letters passed around in class. I was always writing little scenarios, which were born out of what I saw and read.
I’m currently speaking to publishers about a new manuscript that has nothing to do with space. Set in Cornwall, it tells a story of new friendships, family secrets and war time adventure.
I’m constantly working on my writing skills. Making sure my writing ‘shows’ rather than ‘tells’ is really important. Starting scenes with action is also key, as is having characters that, despite their flaws, have something special about them. I am constantly trying to view my writing from a child’s perspective, which is sometimes quite difficult.
Editing is probably my least favourite, yet most crucial part of writing. I am particularly slow at this. Writing a trilogy has been a challenge. In order to complete my character and story arcs, my office is awash with maps, plans and notes.
I learned a lot. Having ideas is a fantastic start, but getting them down in a fun, coherent and interesting way is far more difficult than I thought.
I’ve also learned a huge amount about space exploration and am determined to keep up to date with what’s happening up there after the final book in the May’s Moon trilogy is published.
I’ve learned that we all worry and I’ve had fun exploring how my characters deal with things that children face on a daily basis.
Above everything, I’ve learned that to write a good story you have to keep writing, rewriting, editing, writing, rewriting…until you get the best story you can.
Plan well. Read a lot. Write every day.
May’s Moon: Fortis Mission by S Y Palmer 27th September 2019.
https://sypalmer.com for details, extracts, other books and Sue’s blog.
Martyn Beardsley, author of The Ghosts of Blackbottle Rock
“This is the kind of book I know I would have loved to have discovered when I was teenager. The space parts are realistic, and readers will find themselves rooting for Michael May, the young astronaut hero of the story. There’s plenty of mystery and drama, with unexpected twists and turns thrown in…the novel moves along at a fast pace and keeps you guessing until the end.”