Erika McGann catches up with us about what it was like to write her first novella, The Fairytale Trap, for World Book Day 2015, as part of her award-winning magical series.
I had an inkling of an idea for a fourth novel when the possibility came up to write a short book especially for World Book Day. I didn’t know yet if a fourth novel was wanted, or if I wanted to write it, but when I was asked to do a novella for WBD in March it seemed the sensible thing to follow it with a new book in September.
So I sat down to write the novella – about 10,000 words – thinking it would take no time at all. But I had a problem with the story almost right away. I liked it, and the more I jotted down notes and possible twists in the plot, the more I thought that this story would do better as a novel. Having my school in Dunbridge engulfed by a real-life fairytale had loads of scope for subplots, character development, funny scenes and scary moments; but I couldn’t do that in 10,000 words. So I switched storylines. The fairytale plot became the fourth novel, and the fourth novel plot became the WBD novella.
So I sat down to write the novella, thinking it would be dead easy. Until I hit a problem with the story. I liked it. A 1930s-style carnival arriving unexpectedly in the dead of night – withered and fading tents, a creaking ferris wheel, a sinister ringmaster, a bearded ballerina, a haunted music box and a wicked hex – had lots of room to take the storyline wherever I felt like taking it. And the more notes and ideas I scrawled in my notebook, the more I realised I couldn’t fit it all into 10,000 words.
So I switched storylines. Again. The fairytale went back to being the novella, the carnival the novel. I won’t bore you with the details but suffice to say I switched again, more than once. I remember sitting outside in the sunshine, the cursor on my laptop flashing impatiently, worried that whichever story I picked to be the shorter, I’d regret it.
In the end, I realised I had to be sensible about it. The carnival was on Dunbridge Green, so the carnival story would feature the town, the school and probably the girls’ homes. The fairytale story trapped the girls in school – although it would take on the appearance of a medieval village, the school grounds would be the only setting. The carnival had to feature an array of new and strange characters. The fairytale plot would include references to Red Riding Hood – the granny, the wolf, Red Riding Hood herself – but it had to be limited in terms of new characters. In the carnival story the girls’ magic lessons would continue, meaning the introduction of new spells and skills. In the fairytale story their powers would be bound, and they would have to escape their predicament without the help of their usual repertoire of magic tricks.
It was obvious the fairytale story lent itself better to a novella.
So I sat down to write this short book, presuming that any challenges were now overcome. I hit the first problem a couple of chapters in. There was a clear opening for a lovely little subplot, so I began writing it and, after a few hundred words, realised it was eating into my word count. So, pained, I deleted the subplot. The next issue arose barely a chapter later, when a new character caught my fancy and I decided to expand on him. Until he started chomping through my word count. I deleted him too.
I determined that writing a short book is constrictive and terrible, and no-one should ever do it ever. Like a sulky teenager I slaved away on this cruel project, adding nothing extra, allowing no superfluous words, sticking only to the main storyline. Embracing my inner angsty teenager, I decided I was a literary martyr.
About halfway through, I began to enjoy my martyrdom. Without distractions and subplots, I had to rocket through the story, my characters leaping from one scene to the next like action heroes. What had been frustrating became a bit like a rollercoaster ride – I moved so quickly through the plot that I was tired but content every time I closed my laptop.
My writing got neater too. Keeping the number of words to a minimum meant my descriptions had to be clear and to the point, no waffling on and getting caught up in the moment when describing a pencil. I abandoned those naughty little adverbs that you know you don’t need, and cut out incidental characters that added nothing to the story.
I’ve since determined that completing a novella is binding and difficult, and everyone should try it. It is excellent practice, and guaranteed to show you where you’re liable to veer off the point and get a little sloppy. In short, it was a great writing experience.
The book was humbling, and took some getting used to, but The Fairytale Trap was a joy to write. And I hope that makes it a joy to read.
Erika McGann was the winner of the Waverton Good Read Children’s Prize 2014 for The Demon Notebook, the first in her magical series about Grace and her four friends.