Alexander Gordon Smith: “Writing with my Nine-Year-Old Brother”

Posted January 27, 2011 by Sara | Novel Novice 2 Comments

Today, we’re delighted to be hosting a guest blog from Escape from Furnace author Alexander Gordon Smith!

Hi, it’s great to be back on Novel Novice! I’m taking a break from Furnace today because I’d like to talk a bit about my first book, The Inventors, and how I wrote it with my nine-year-old brother!

I owe my writing career to my little brother, Jamie. I sometimes deny this when I’m talking to him, because he sees it as an excuse to ask for all my royalties. But it’s true. I’ve always been a writer, ever since I can remember – I’ve still got a copy of my first book, which I wrote when I was six or seven – but without Jamie I’m not sure if I’d ever have had a novel published. I certainly don’t think I’d be making a living out of my writing now. And I definitely wouldn’t be enjoying it so much!

Jamie was nine when we started writing together. We’ve always been very close, and we would make up our own games and stories on a daily basis. But it wasn’t until the summer holidays in 2005 that we decided to try and write a book. It was Jamie’s idea – we both loved reading, and he wanted to write a story of his own. I thought it was a brilliant idea, so we looked back over all the games we’d played, all the scenarios and characters we’d created, looking for the one that we loved most.

People say that writing is a very solitary profession, one where you talk to yourself and your characters and your cats or your goldfish more than you talk to real people. But it doesn’t have to be. One of the most fun and exciting parts of the writing process is the sharing of ideas, because when you bounce ideas between people they really have a chance to grow, to become more than the sum of their parts. I think that’s especially true when you’re writing with a child, because their imaginations are still blazing, still going through that phase of incredible atomic fission and fusion. Nothing is impossible to a child, there are no rules, the universe is literally theirs to play with. Creating a story with a young co-writer opens up possibilities that never would have existed if you were writing by yourself.

So Jamie and I came up with an idea for our first book, The Inventors – two inventors who have to save the world from an evil genius. We set to work immediately, deciding who our heroes and our villains were going to be, thinking about what could happen to them, what kind of trouble they’d get into, how they’d meet the bad guy, who their friends and family were, what kinds of clothes they wore, what they liked and what they hated, everything! The more we chatted, the more the world of the story began to take shape around us. One of us would have an idea, then the other would run with it, turning it into something different then passing it back. These little flashes of inspiration would go through a wonderful process of evolution, becoming things that neither of us would have dreamed of on our own. Our fictional world came to life because we were sharing it, because we were building it together.

We were also living it. Jamie wanted the story to be as real as possible, so he decided to become an inventor himself while we wrote it. He was only nine, but he loved building and experimenting with things and he had the ambitious goal of attempting to create every single invention in the book for real. I thought it was a great idea. The most important thing when you’re writing is to know your characters as well as you can – better than you know your friends, maybe even better than you know yourself. And what better way to get into the mind of your protagonists than to actually live their life!

I wasn’t keen on the idea for long, though… Because Jamie decided that he wanted to test his inventions on me! It all started one afternoon during the holidays. Jamie told me he wanted to use my kitchen to make an invention. He wouldn’t let me see what he was doing, but a few hours later, towards the end of the day, he emerged. I went into the kitchen and it looked like a bomb had gone off in there – sawdust everywhere, all but one of the cupboard doors off their hinges, even a saw half way through the kitchen counter! But Jamie wouldn’t tell me what he’d been doing. He claimed he needed to come back tomorrow to finish off his invention. It was quite late, so he went home (he lives just down the road, with my mum) and I went to bed. I got up in the middle of the night for a midnight snack (something I do a little too often), trod zombie-like into the chaos of the kitchen, opened the only cupboard door left (which was where I kept the biscuits) and all of a sudden I heard a blaring alarm and a voice yelling ‘Put down the cookie!’ It almost gave me a heart attack!

What Jamie had done was buy an infrared spy device (he hadn’t made it, he was only nine!), one where you could record your own message and which was triggered when the beam was broken. He had then dug out a little channel in the cupboard shelf and planted this device in it, knowing that sooner or later I’d open the door and be scared half to death. He experimented with loads of gadgets like this, putting traps in the house and the garden and building a remote control insect (from a kit) which he used to try and stick pencils up my nose. We even built a pair of gunpowder-propelled rocket boots together (which he wanted to test on me). But it was great, because when it came to writing the book we knew exactly what it was like to be an inventor, to design and build and test things. We knew what it was like when these inventions worked, when they went wrong, when they blew up in our faces. We had lived the same life as the characters in the book, so we could write about them easily and naturally. It was an amazing experience, and one which hopefully makes the story feel so much more alive to a reader. It certainly made the book more appealing to a publisher, because we got a deal for it straight away!

Jamie is fourteen now, fifteen next month, and although we haven’t written a book together for a while he still helps me research (he locked me in an underground medieval dungeon when I was writing Furnace to help me experience what it was like to be buried alive)! And I hope we’ll work together on a story again soon. Although I do enjoy writing by myself, it’s nowhere near as fun as working with Jamie! But I really recommend it to every writer out there – don’t feel like you have to go it alone, that it’s you and your story versus the world. Work with someone, share your ideas and see what happens when you let them bounce back and forth between you – especially if your co-writer is your child or a younger relative. You’ll be amazed at how much your original vision expands and blossoms, how your story becomes a world of endless imagination. Just don’t forget to share your royalties!

Sara | Novel Novice

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