A Lesson in Plotting (AKA how to fix the James Bond movie with 3 new scenes)

So, I saw No Time to Die. And I have a lot of thoughts, not necessarily good, about the script. It made some errors which are so incredibly basic – and so easily fixable! – that I haven’t been able to stop rewriting it in my head. Let’s do some script doctoring.

Spoilers below for the whole movie.

Problem 1: From beginning to end, this is a romance. The whole story revolves around the audience’s investment in James and Madeleine’s relationship. It’s the thing that’s supposed to tie this story together and make it compelling. But we never see anything that makes us care about them as a match. Following on from this, we don’t care that he has a daughter, because none of the characters care (except Rami Malek’s villain Safin, who cares immensely).

Problem 2: James clearly has PTSD, trust issues and suicidal tendencies as the result of his spywork, and this is his biggest flaw, causing him to self-sabotage his relationship with Madeleine and isolate him from all his friends for 5+ years. But is never addressed by the plot. It should be his downfall.

Problem 3: His death is not a tragedy, it is an inescapable torment. The director said, of the ending: “I think the important thing was that we all try to create a situation of tragedy. The idea that there’s an insurmountable problem, there’s a greater force at play, and there’s nothing anybody can do about it.

That is not the definition of a tragedy! That’s just a depressing, grim, dark finale. A ‘tragedy’ means there is a way out, but due to the characters’ personalities, they can’t let themselves take it. For example, in Romeo and Juliet, the teenagers could easily have left Verona and lived happily. But by nature of their melodramatic personalities, they killed themselves instead. So it is a tragic ending, not an inescapable one.

Different characters would have made different choices; they drive the plot and have agency in what takes place. Their deaths were not prophesised because the universe is a cruel place, but created by their own doing. In James’ universe, fate is cruel. But all the jigsaw pieces are in place that could allow him to cause his own downfall, we just need to assemble them. By all means, kill James Bond. But for gods sake, do it with some meaning.

I’m going to fix all of those problems by adding three scenes to the already staggeringly long 2hr 45min movie. (We can cut the useless, milquetoast scenes with Ana de Armas instead.)

Scene 1: Honeymoon Phase

Firstly, I’d add an addition during Madeleine and James’ romantic holiday prologue, which ends with James attempting to commit suicide by refusing to defend them both against an assassination attempt in a car. He then breaks up with Madeleine because his trust issues convince him she is working against him.

We need a scene here which shows why these two people are together. It will establish early on that James struggles to trust Madeleine despite how well he knows her. This scene could be about almost anything, but frankly, both characters also need an injection of more personality. They’re entirely blank canvases in the current movie, so much so that I have to assume it’s partially intentional.

Changing this won’t take much (it’s a low bar to cross). I don’t have much to go on, personality-wise, beyond the fact that James likes fishing and Madeleine is a psychiatrist. But here’s my pitch.

Madeleine and James are gathered around a desk of papers, with a map of the coast of the Mediterranean littered with pen marks. They're both in high spirits.
James: - and if we sail along the coastline, we can drop anchor in this cove on the evening of the 29th -
Madeleine: The 29th? There's a meteor shower that night. If I bring my telescope, we can watch the stars!
James: (mock dismay) You want me to stay up 'til 1? I was going to get up at 5 to go fishing.
Madeleine: As if you don't stay up until the small hours watching videos on how to make fly fish lures anyway.
James: Oh, that reminds me, don't throw out the leftover salmon, I can -
Madeleine: It's already boxed up with your fishing kit. Do you think  if we dock here for long enough, we could 'Pavlov's Dog' the fish into turning up at noon each day for feeding, before you cast out your line? 
James: I tried that once in Peru on a prison guard. Convinced him he needed the bathroom whenever I coughed. Escaped after only three days.
Madeleine: That's all it took? I wonder if that works even with an open Placebo. Could you condition me even if I knew you were doing it?
James: Let's find out!
Madeleine: (teasing) Just don't manipulate me into getting rid of the telescope. I need that - it's secretly a rifle grenade.
James looks over at the telescope, assessing it.
Madeleine: (laughing) James! 
She stops laughing and realises he's serious. 
Madeleine: You've seen me use that telescope I don't know how many times over the last five years. 
James: (embarrassed) I know it's not a weapon. But my brain just . . . niggles, sometimes.

This scene could be about nearly anything. But the key things to establish here are that:

  • These people have activities they enjoy doing together (besides sex). They have fun together! Their lives apart would be pale imitations of their life together.
  • They know each other’s routines and interests intimately and take the time to do small, specific kindnesses they know the other will appreciate.
  • They spark each other’s imagination, intellect and good humour.
  • They have the kind of private rapport and inside jokes that come with long familiarity.
  • They are particularly well-suited together. They make each other better people.

It has to do a lot of heavy lifting to get us through the next two acts. Ultimately, this scene needs to convince us of the thing that the movie tries desperately to tell us, without ever showing us: that if we want James to be happy, we want him to be with Madeleine.

The James that opens this movie has to be so different from any version of him we’ve seen before that it’s almost visceral. We have to realise, as an audience, that this is the first (and last) time we’ve ever seen him genuinely content and happy. Finally, of course, this scene needs to firmly establish the key element of James’ personality that will be his downfall: his inability to trust due to his trauma.

Scene 2:  Baby Daddy

In the movie, when James finally finds out Mathilde is his five-year-old daughter, it’s from Rami Malek’s villain, and he doesn’t visibly react. He never sees either Madeleine or his daughter again. There is no element of emotion, surprise or catharsis to any part of this storyline: it’s glossed over mid- villain monologue.

Madeleine lies to James about the paternity, for no reason that makes sense to her motivations (what are her motivations? ever? why did she ever keep her history with Safin secret from James at all?). We have no indication that Madeleine cares, or James, or Mathilde. So why are we supposed to care when they inevitably lose each other?

Instead, we need to see Madeleine tell James the news herself – and crucially, for him not to believe her. This needs to come at a moment when they are tentatively finding their way to their old rapport, in the scene after they put Mathilde to bed in Madeleine’s childhood home in Norway.

James: It's nice here. Private. Defensible.
Madeleine: I can see you're itching to install some high-security locks.
James: It might be nice to get some high hedges. More enclosed, for the little one.
Madeleine: You always did give good hedge.
James idly plays with one of Mathilde's toys - a mini telescope that twists into a gun. 
James: Did you get her this to make me think she is my daughter? 
Madeleine: (stating the obvious) She is.
James: (taken aback) You'd have come to me if she were. For money, or help, or - it makes no sense, strategically, to keep this a secret. You have no chance of winning that way. 
Madeleine: This is real life, James. There's nothing to 'win'. You told me to leave. I left.
James looks back towards Mathilde's room, doubtful.
Madeleine: You wouldn't even believe a paternity test, would you? You'd think someone in the lab had doctored the results.
James: It's happened before. Twice.
Madeleine: You're still struggling, then. After all this time. 
James: I don't know what you mean.
Madeleine: You're analysing every move I make. I can see it. Sometimes a yawn is just a yawn. I'm not lying to you.
James: They always say that. You know I'd give anything for her to be mine. But it's better for all of us if she's not.

Scene 3 – Time to Die

Finally, the big one. James’ death needs to come at a moment where Madeleine has the opportunity to save him during the fight with Safin. If James can simply trust her to [activate the missile/fire a final gunshot/some other Bond-esque plot mechanism], then he can get to safety and survive the final battle. Perhaps it relies on her using a telescope to mark the path of the missile, to bring things full circle.

Madeleine: James, I love you. I want our daughter to have a father. What reason would I possibly have to betray you? Let me do this.
James: I love you too. It doesn't mean I can trust you. 
Madeleine: (furious) They did this to you. Their training broke you down to nothing and built you up into a one-man army. 
James: You have no idea what I've been through. What I see at night when I try to sleep. I'm broken, Madeleine.
Madeleine: (in tears) No one is ever broken. And no one has to die today. Please, James, just look into my eyes. Can't you see I'm telling the truth? I'm on your side.
He stares desperately into her eyes as the missiles get closer. He wants to believe her. He looks away.
James: I can't. I'm sorry. I could never live with myself if I judged this wrong.  
Madeleine: You can't live with yourself either way. 

James fights against his trust issues and loses, choosing to die in order to guarantee the mission is completed. Tragedy, in its simplest form: perfectly escapable, if only he could change his entire personality.

IN SUMMARY:

  • create rounded characters and relationships we can invest in 
  • give your plot reveals the weight of the emotional payoffs they deserve
  • follow through on established character flaws
  • create moments of catharsis for the audience
  • make it bittersweet, not grimdark
  • let actions have consequences
  • give your characters agency in the plot instead of being driven by outside forces 

Three scenes! This was such an easy fix! It’s killing me that such a high quality movie, with such incredible production value, failed by such a minor dramatical element.

James Bond producers, I am available to you and anyone else for editorial critiques at any time. Just putting that out there.

Heartstopper mini-comic script!

A few months ago, I wrote the script for a short 12 page comic story set in the world of Alice Oseman’s graphic novel Heartstopper (Vol 1 or read online, if you’re somehow new to the series!).

The story came about because I idly asked Alice who the boys would have celebrity crushes on, and she admitted she had no idea. I took it upon myself to create one for them – a classics documentary presenter mix of Professor Brian Cox, the physics TV presenter, and Henry Golding, who used to present on The Travel Show. I immediately became obsessed with my creation. Alice was kind enough to let me make Henry Maddox, TV presenter and classics nerd, an official part of the Heartstopper universe.

Alice and I have been friends since 2013, so I’ve been discussing Nick and Charlie’s journey with her for a long time, and I know the characters really well. It was really easy to write in their voices, and I had so much fun with it (mainly because I got to make Nick a bit of a cringe disaster!).

You can read the mini-comic here, and the Goodreads listing is here.

Alice and I thought we’d share the script I wrote too, so you can see how much was me, and how much was her. It’s amazing how much she managed to create exactly what was in my head, but add that extra special Oseman something to it. All of the amazing character expressions add a whole other layer of hilarity to the story.


The Ethics of Infatuation Dynamics by Lauren James – script

Page 1: 

Tao and Nick are waiting for Charlie outside the school entrance. Nick is bouncing a football.

Tao: Hey, can you find out if Charlie is free on [date near Charlie’s birthday]? 

Nick: Sure. How come? 

Tao: I’m getting him tickets for a classics talk by Henry Maddox for his birthday!

Nick: Who?

Tao: He’s this TV academic presenter guy. He does deep dives on, like, why the demise of the Roman Empire is a warning sign for the future of capitalism. 

Nick: Oh, yeah. I think Char’s mentioned him. 

Page 2:

Tao: Charlie is a full-on stan for Henry. He knows his star sign. He’s got push notifications enabled for his insta. 

Close up of Tao’s phone, showing a picture of a Henry Golding-type, nerdy glasses and sweater-vest, speaking in a fancy Oxbridge-style lecture hall with DARK HAIR and BLUE EYES:

Reference picture

Wiki text: 

Henry Maddox (classicist) 

Henry Maddox FBA, FRSL (born 1987) is an English scholar and former musician, who is best known as the presenter of history programmes. Before his academic career, Maddox was a keyboard player for the Top 40 pop rock band Spare Parts. He also completed the Dakar Rally in 2019 with his brother . . .

Nick, amazed (this has never occurred to him): Charlie has a celebrity crush? 

Tao: Nick. You were literally talking about how much you fancy Zooey Deschanel this morning. 

Nick: Yeah but this guy is 1940s Hollywood handsome! And smart! And he looks nothing like me.

Nick slumps, despairing, football forgotten at his feet. 

Nick: I can never be him. 

Page 3:

Tao: I doubt Charlie cares. Not all of us have such a specific type. 

Nick: What?

Tao points at Charlie, walking towards them and waving dorkily. 

Tao: Mate. Dark hair and blue eyes? Kinda dorky?

Charlie, overhearing this: Are you talking about Zooey Deschanel again, Nick?

Nick, blushing. Tao, smug.

Nick: Shut up, Tao. 

Page 4: 

Nick and Charlie lying on the sofa with a dog. Charlie is scrolling through Henry’s Instagram

Close up of Henry Maddox, shirtless, nerdy glasses, lounging with a classics book:

Reference picture

Horny comments left by people: 

  • Simonk aeschylus and chill? 
  • laurenjames down bad for the hellenic scholar like an absolute fool
  • Underhill93 talk mycenaean to me

Nick: Would you, er, say you’ve got a type?

Charlie (absently): O negative.  

Nick: Not blood type. Type of person you fancy. Like that thirst trap professor. 

Charlie: He doesn’t – that wasn’t – I appreciate him for his mind!

Nick, doubtfully: Oh yeah? 

Charlie: He has really radical takes on the discourse around Sophocles, Nick!

Nick, sulking: I could have radical takes on Sopha – Sopho – Greek stuff too. 

Page 5: 

Charlie puts his phone down. 

Charlie: What is this about?

Nick: My celebrity crush is basically you, but a girl. And yours is literally the exact opposite of me, in every way. 

Nick throws a dog toy petulantly. 

Charlie: Okay, so . . . who I do or don’t fancy isn’t a sign of how compatible we are.

Nick: But you’d be happier with Henry Maddox!!

Charlie: In the hypothetical universe where we’re the same age and go to school together, you mean? 

Page 6:

Nick: I would just feel better if you fancied one of the Hemsworth brothers or a rugby player or something. Someone I could actually be, one day. 

Charlie, squinting: I don’t want you to become anyone else. 

Nick, standing up: I’m going to find a new crush who’s nothing like you. Then you’ll see how it feels!

Charlie, shouting after him: This isn’t a thing! Stop making this a thing!

Charlie stares at the dog, who looks equally confused at Nick’s departure.

Page 7:

Nick grumpily scrolling through a webpage of ‘WORLD’S HOTTEST CELEBRITIES’ (e.g. Zendaya, Jensen Ackles) on his laptop. 

Nick waiting at the printer as an image prints out. 

Nick pulling down a poster of Zooey Deschanel from his wall and taping up a poster of Ariana Grande.

Reference picture

Nick’s mum, walking past his door with a basket of laundry: Aww. Same dimples as Charlie! 

Nick stares at the poster, despairing. 

Page 8:

TWO WEEKS LATER:

Nick and Charlie queue up outside the British Library alongside a group of well-dressed academic types. Charlie is holding two tickets for HENRY MADDOX TALK.

Charlie: I really hope he talks about his new book! I just preordered it. 

Henry, in a tweed waistcoat on stage, looking charming while leaning against podium:

Reference picture

Henry: – but we all know you can’t trust a Mesopotamian to source your copper ingots!

The audience all laughs, including Charlie. Nick frowns in confusion. 

Henry: Any questions? 

Charlie, hand in the air: I was wondering if you could recommend any books on Greek Sexuality?

Henry: Wow, great question. 

Charlie looks pleased and giggly as Nick folds his arms, slumps down in his chair. 

Page 9:

Nick and Charlie waiting in the queue for a book signing. Charlie is excited, standing on his toes to peer over the crowd at Henry. 

Henry signs Charlie’s book. 

Charlie: Thank you so much. I’m such a huge fan. 

Henry (to Nick): Anything for you, love?

He winks at Nick (super charming – maybe sparkles/stars around him to show how handsome he looks)

Reference picture

Nick (flustered): Oh! I don’t, er, think so? That is – um –

Nick rubs the back of his neck, suddenly bashful.

Henry: Well – enjoy the book!

Nick: You too! I mean, er – 

Reference

Nick, backing away, trips over a chair. Charlie catches his arm, leading him away. 

Nick (starstruck): I guess he’s not so bad. 

Charlie (embarrassed): Oh my god. 

Page 10: 

Text thread between Tao and Charlie: 

Charlie: NICK FANCIES HENRY MADDOX 

Tao: wat?

Charlie: I know!! he thinks he has a nice laugh. “It’s all posh but gruff too?” – direct quote.

Tao: you two have shared custody of a crush on this guy. w o w. 

Charlie: at least he’s not jealous anymore??

Charlie: tho i had to stop talking about the new book because nick kept trying to defend henry’s honour. even though he knOWS NOTHING ABOUT CLASSICS.

Tao: save the review for your fan account. 

Charlie: you cannot tell nick about that!!!!1!

Charlie: thank you for the tickets, by the way ❤

Instagram post by Nick: 

Nick and Charlie posing for a photo with Henry at the signing table. 

Nick’s caption: 😍

Comments

Charlie: 😍!!

Tao: dark hair. blue eyes. dimples. dorky.

Nick to Tao: I HATE YOU.

END

I hope you enjoyed seeing behind the scenes on this! It was SUCH a fun project, and receiving the pages every day from Alice as she drew them was the most delightful thing ever.

In summary:

I WOULD DIE FOR HENRY MADDOX. Look out for his cameo in my next book….

Read the comic here!

Best books of 2021 + yearly round up

2020 favourites | 2019 favourites | 2018 favourites | 2017 favourites 2016 favourites | 2015 favourites | 2014 favourites

A Psalm for the Wild-Built by Becky Chambers – set in a future world where humans live alongside nature in green, adaptive cities with vertical farms. Out in the wilderness, the descendants of robots from the ‘factory-age’ live in freedom, after developing sentience. This is sci-fi I’ve been craving for years. It was such a breath of fresh air to read about goodness and human kindness, while addressing our flaws and failings as a society running on fossil fuels.

Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones – From the Queen of fantasy, this 1985 release is a weird and wonderfully unique fairy tale remix. It’s dreamy and romantic, and worthy of an annual reread.

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell – Writing so good you can taste it in this historical fiction about the children and wife of Shakespeare during an outbreak of the plague. Slightly magical, and very dryly aware of Shakespeare’s historical impact without ever directly referring to it, it’s brimful of herbal witchery and country folklore.

Winter’s Orbit by Everina Maxwell – A incredible sci-fi romance with royal fake dating, ice-torn wilderness survival and sneaky political manoeuvring. This one is for fans of Lois McMaster Bujold (AKA, I adore it and need 17 more…)

Dessert Person by Claire Saffitz – I’ve made so many of the recipes from this book multiple times, including the apple cider tart, oat and pecan cookies, coconut thumbprint cookies, and gruyere cheese puffs. Really delicious and well written recipes.

Fireheart Tiger by Aliette de Bodard – A noblewoman in a fantasy pre-colonial Vietnam falls in love with a princess, befriends a fire spirit and has to decide what her future will be. I loved the inter-country political negotiations. A novella with bite.

A Marvellous Light by Freya Marske – I was super excited to read Freya’s debut, since it hits all of my favourite tropes – country houses, historical magic, evil nobility and interior design. It truly surpassed my expectations – Freya’s writing is so beautiful on a prose level, with sentences sparkling like poetry.

Lore Olympus by Rachel Smythe – I read the entirety of this long-running graphic novel series in three days. It was immense (there are over 180 ‘episodes’). A retelling of Hades and Persephone where all the Greek gods live in a modern, tech filled version of Olympus, while mortals live in classical times on Earth. This is so cleverly done, with some great takes on the more problematic elements of mythology. It doesn’t shy away from the sexism and immorality of the gods, and treats the trauma with respect and dignity. So creative, romantic and immense!

In 2021, I have:

  • published the climate thriller Green Rising (September) and the dyslexia-friendly sci-fi adventure novella The Deep-Sea Duke (February)
  • sold two new projects (more on those soon – one is the novelisation of An Unauthorised Fan Treatise!)
  • sold four backlist title options/rights in various formats
  • developed two original concepts for screen with speculative scripts/treatments
  • developed proposals for two new novels ready for submission

I was expecting that list to be really short, because it feels like 2021 was another year spent mainly working at home and trying to avoid going anywhere with high COVID levels. But actually, I did a lot! And set up the groundwork for a lot of huge projects which I can’t talk about, but are deeply exciting. Like, insanely, massively exciting.

Here’s to hoping that 2022 brings better health for everyone. Merry christmas and a happy new year, all!

-lauren

Writing to a soundtrack

I’m a big fan of music when I’m drafting a novel – I have playlists for all of my projects, and I listen to them when I’m writing or thinking about my book. It helps me get really excited about my characters and see things from their point of view. When I was writing Green Rising, I listened to one band in particular – The Amazing Devil.

The book is told from alternating points of view between Theo and Hester, who start off as enemies and then fall in love. The band is a male and female duo, and a lot of their songs are angry duets where they’re yell-singing at each other. It fit Theo and Hester’s dynamic perfectly, and I typed out a lot of fast-paced arguments to their album.

Here’s my playlist for Green Rising, which includes more than a few The Amazing Devil songs, as well as others which resonated for me with the story. Hester’s complicated relationship with her father is represented in a lot of these, as well as Gabrielle’s chaotic law-breaking activism, and Edgar’s capitalistic space-race misdeeds. Enjoy! You can listen on Spotify here (or add me as a friend!).

Pruning Shears by The Amazing Devil


So we’re at this shindig everything’s going on they’re so filthy rich
Comparing oil rigs, how their girlfriend’s new car is so kitsch
And they’re discussing champagne
The latest and greatest lame campaign, and how their brothers own shares one
Day it’ll make them millionaires


Vienna by Billy Joel


Slow down you crazy child
You’re so ambitious for a juvenile

But then if you’re so smart tell me,
Why are you still so afraid?


Wasteland, Baby! by Hozier


And when the stance of the sea and the absence of green
Are the death of all things that are seen and unseen
Not an end, but the start of all things that are left to do?
Wasteland, baby


1 step forward, 3 steps back by Olivia Rodrigo


It’s always one step forward and three steps back
Do you love me, want me, hate me?
Boy,
I don’t understand


Seashore by The Regrettes


You’re talkin’ to me like a child
Hey I’ve got news, I’m not a little girl
You’re talkin’ to me like I’m dumb
Well I’ve got news, I’ve got a lot to say
Fight fire with fire and you’ll get burned
Hey I think right about now is your turn


Farewell Wanderlust by The Amazing Devil


All those letters unsent and that garden ungrown
I’m the captain of courage that you’ve eternally lacked
Our Gods have abandoned us, left us instead
Take up arms, take my hand, let us waltz for the dead


Riptide by Vance Joy


Oh, all my friends are turning green
You’re the magician’s assistant in their dream
Lady, running down to the riptide
Taken away to the dark side
I wanna be your left hand man


The Horror and the Wild by The Amazing Devil


Welcome to the storm, I am thunder
Welcome to my table, bring your hunger
Think of all the horrors that I promised you I’d bring


The Quittin’ Kind by Eleisha Eagle


There’s a corner you painted yourself in
I’m not sure what was your intention?
Now you’re trapped alone on an island and you can’t swim
Take it nice and slow my baby
Everything is OK and you’re doin’ fine
You’re not the quittin’ kind


Home by Cavetown


Get a load of this train wreck
His hair’s a mess and he doesn’t know who he is yet
But little do we know, the stars
Welcome him with open arms


Papa Was a Rodeo by The Magnetic Fields


Before you kiss me you should know
Papa was a rodeo
Home was anywhere with diesel gas


Restless Year by Ezra Furman


I’m the dusty jewel in the thrown-out crown
Got a bus pass to make my way
From hideout to hideout in the heat of the day
And when you catch my coattails I’ll be miles away


Battle Cries by The Amazing Devil


Our devils broke rank and out of the depths came an army
And as I walk away I know that I’ve been through the wars
But that creaking you hear in my bones, it’s not pain, it’s applause


The Fine Print by The Stupendium


The conglomerate’s got you in lock and key
We put the dollar back into idolatry
If you’re upset, you can rent an apology
We are a family forged in bureaucracy
No “I” in “team, ” but there’s “con” in “economy”


London Boy by Taylor Swift


You know I love a London boy
He likes my American smile
Like a child when our eyes meet, darling, I fancy you

Discussion Guide for Green Rising

For book club and school readers, my publisher has prepared some questions to help guide a climate change-focussed discussion using my new novel Green Rising. You can also download a book club guide PDF. Let me know if you have any questions about these, as I’m happy to adjust and adapt for use!

  • Did the book expand your views on climate change? What were your main takeaways? Did you learn anything that surprised or shocked you?
  • How did the layout of the book – including all the online comments, news articles, etc — affect you as a reader? Why do you think Lauren James chose to include all these extra elements? What do the extracts say about how information disseminates across the internet?
  • Do you think Lauren James made the world of the novel feel realistic and plausible? Why or why not?
  • Are any of the characters purely ‘good’ or ‘bad’, or do they all have some shades of grey? Characters that might be good to discuss include Hester, Theo, Gabrielle, Edgar or Mr Daleport.
  • What are some of the negative repercussions of the Greenfinger powers that the book considers, both in the story and the extra asides?
  • “This whole planet is screwed. It’s impossible to do anything without hurting someone, somewhere,” (pages 193-194). Is it challenging to always do the right thing by the environment in your everyday life? Is it even possible?
  • How is Hester’s relationship with her parents different to Theo’s relationship with his? How has that helped shape the people they’ve become, for better or worse?
  • The novel has two key voices: Hester and Theo. Did you connect with either character more than the other? While we hear a lot from Gabrielle, we never get her voice: why do you think Lauren James might have decided to focus on Hester and Theo instead?
  • How does the novel use Hester and Theo’s individual Greenfinger capabilities to explore various things they’re struggling with, like belonging, insecurity, and emotions?
  • “This isn’t the end of anything,” Gabrielle said. “You can’t think about it like that. We’re going to continue living here for ever, however bad Earth gets. Calling this an apocalypse just leads to fear paralysis. It gives people yet another reason to avoid acting. But this is happening; it’s real. Set your old ‘normal’ aside and start working on building a new one,” (page 223). What are some possible strategies,
    big or small, Green Rising suggests individuals and communities could utilise to come together to help combat climate change?
  • If you could spend Edgar Warren’s fortune, what would you do with it?
  • How is the concept of geoengineering presented in the book? Are these solutions a good or bad idea?
  • Where do you think the characters will be in ten years’ time? Do you think they’ll have colonised Mars?
  • The Greenfingers powers are amplified when the teenagers work together. What do you think this is an allegory for?
  • How would you use Greenfingers powers if you had them?
  • Some of the Greenfingers ideas go badly wrong. Do you think the urgency of the climate crisis justifies making mistakes in the name of experimentation – or should we be more cautious than Theo and Hester?
  • The characters in Green Rising often have grey morality, breaking the law in pursuit of their cause. Do you think this is acceptable? What do you think of Gabrielle’s comparison between climate activists and the suffragettes?
  • What do the roles of the parents and children in the novel say about different generations’ perspectives on climate change? Do you believe that activism is undertaken by young people alone?

Plant magic & the climate

Laura Lam, author of sci-fi Goldilocks, interviewed me about my new climate thriller Green Rising, out now with Walker Books.

Laura: I zipped through Lauren James’ Green Rising when I was offered it for a blurb. It’s a perfect call to arms for teens (and adults) for climate change, while also being a rollicking good read! After I finished, I interviewed her for my YouTube channel, C.Y.O.Topia, which I do with my friend Dr. Sinead Collins, along with marine biologist Dr. Johanna Vad. This has been linked on this newsletter before, but thought it’d be a great excuse to link it again if you missed it last time. We delve more into the science side of things. 

I’m excited I can now ask some more questions about Green Rising I didn’t have a chance to ask in the interview or else it’d be too long. 

What were the different challenges and opportunities you faced while writing Hester, Theo, and Gabrielle?

 I really wanted to capture a mix of responses to the climate crisis, but without having any characters be totally uneducated about the topic – I feel like that’s unrealistic in this time, when we’re all very aware of the future we’re facing. Hester starts out the novel as someone who is against climate action, but she considers herself very educated and engaged on the topic and can debate very well on it. She’s been raised by an oil tycoon, so she knows all of the economical and political background of the climate issue.

Meanwhile, Theo is a fisherman’s son, and he is aware of the need for climate action but isn’t very educated about the topic. He just knows that action needs to be taken, even though he doesn’t know what or how it would be possible.

Gabrielle is a climate activist, and she knows what needs to be done, and specifically is willing to break the law to do it. She sees it as an ethical responsibility.

Their views all change over the course of the book, as the three of them start being able to grow plants magically, and use that power to tackle the climate. It was difficult to construct the character arcs for them that felt realistic and built into their cultural upbringing. I wanted it feel genuine to the experience of becoming more involved in climate issues.

If you could grow plants from your hands, what kind of plant would you want it to be?

Since researching rewilding for the book, I’ve become so aware of wasted land spaces, particularly in cities. I wish I could seed-bomb them all with wildflowers! It would be great to do that magically.

I always find it weird when you write things in near-future SF (like my book Goldilocks, set in a future in environmental collapse) and then see a version of it come true. What are some developments in climate change news since you wrote the book have really struck you?

 Oh, it’s been so depressing. There are lots of news articles in the book which include headlines for climate articles. I read lots of non-fiction about the future, and a lot of these events were inspired by predictions of the future. I was trying to pitch things happening a few decades from now, but several of them happened during the writing process itself. In particular, I remember reading about a spate of mystery elephant deaths in Botswana, and adding it into my draft as being a result of climate change. A few months later I checked the news and found out that there it actually was due to algae blooms in their water sources from heat waves.

Did you have to kill any darlings you wish could have made it into the book, i.e. some of the research that just couldn’t fit into the story?

Oh, gosh. So much. It’s such a huge topic, effecting so much politically and economically. I really wanted to dive more into how fossil fuel investments effect the US political system, but it was too far away from the main plot. I think I cut 50,000 words from the first draft to the final version.

I also really wanted to dive more into how we could use plants to deal with plastics in landfills, but it felt too small an issue when there are so many bigger, greater threats!

What’s the main thing you hope teens take away from Green Rising?

As individuals, we can’t do anything. But as a collective we have the power to make change. Make sure you are adding your name to that collective, so the people doing the active work have enough clout to get noticed. It takes around 3.5% of the population actively participating in protests to ensure serious political change. That’s such a small amount. We can do this.

Some important things you can personally do, right now:

-check your bank/savings/pension scheme isn’t investing your money in fossil fuel companies

-change your energy supply to a green energy tariff

-find a climate action group in your profession & sign up for their newsletter

Good luck!

You can find out more about Green Rising here.

Top 5 Uplifting Climate Fiction Novels

I love books which move beyond depressing dystopias set in the near-future, to show a more positive and active approach to the climate crisis. Like my new book Green Rising, all of these books are positive and uplifting, and inspire readers to take action. The future isn’t hopeless, and this fiction represents that.

The Summer We Turned Green by William Sutcliffe

It’s the summer holidays, and thirteen-year-old Luke’s life has been turned upside down. First his older sister Rose moved ‘across the road’, where a community of climate rebels is protesting the planned airport expansion. Then his dad followed her.

Dad only went to get Rose back, but now he’s out there building totem poles, wearing sandals and drinking mead (whatever that is) with the best of them.

Can Luke save his family when all they want to do is save the planet?

The Nature of Witches by Rachel Griffin

In a world where witches control the climate and are losing control as the weather grows more erratic, a once-in-a-generation witch with the magic of all seasons is the only one who can save earth from destruction. But as her power grows, it targets and kills those closest to her, and when she falls in love with her training partner, she’s forced to choose between her power, her love, and saving the earth.

A Psalm for the Wild-Built by Becky Chambers

It’s been centuries since the robots of Earth gained self-awareness and laid down their tools. Centuries since they wandered, en masse, into the wilderness, never to be seen again. Centuries since they faded into myth and urban legend.

One day, the life of a tea monk is upended by the arrival of a robot, there to honor the old promise of checking in. The robot cannot go back until the question of “what do people need?” is answered. But the answer to that question depends on who you ask, and how. They’re going to need to ask it a lot.

Wolf Light by Yaba Badoe

When copper miners plunder Zula’s desert home in Gobi Altai, and Adoma’s forest and river are polluted by gold prospectors, it is only a matter of time before the lake Linet guards with her life is also in jeopardy. How far will Zula, Adoma and Linet go to defend the well-being of their homes? And when all else fails, will they have the courage to summon the ancient power of their order, to make the landscape speak in a way that everyone will hear?

The Ones We’re Meant to Find by Joan He

Cee has been trapped on an abandoned island for three years without any recollection of how she arrived, or memories from her life prior. All she knows is that somewhere out there, beyond the horizon, she has a sister named Kay, and it’s up to Cee to cross the ocean and find her.

Read The Deep Sea Duke for free!

You can currently read The Deep-Sea Duke for free here as a part of the #COP26 Virtual Book Showcase, alongside a range of other eco-themed books.

This is a short, romantic novella which you could read over a coffee. The Deep-Sea Duke is a mermaid/android romp at a royal alien court on an underwater planet. The aliens are facing a climate crisis as refugees from a nearby planet keep arriving. It’s a scavenger hunt, a love story, and a drama of courtly intrigue in the nobility.

Goodreads

“Curious and anarchic fun . . . themes around diversity, equality and the environment that are treated in a light touch fashion and without being preachy.” – The Letterbox Project

“A rich and brilliantly bonkers story of aliens and androids. Its themes of social justice and equality really set it apart in the sci-fi genre.” – The Belfast Telegraph about The Starlight Watchmaker.

Hugo is spending the holidays on his friend Dorian’s home planet, Hydrox. Although thrilled at the invitation, Hugo is still astonished that Duke Dorian could possibly want to be friends with an android watchmaker like him. But when the pair land on Hydrox along with their friend Ada, they soon discover that there are much bigger problems afoot. A race of butterflies from a neighbouring star system have evacuated their now-uninhabitable planet, and Hydrox is struggling to find space for the growing number of refugees. Meanwhile, deep in the seas beneath Dorian’s home, a strange creature is on a path of destruction… Can the unlikely trio step in before the crisis gets out of control?

Particularly suitable for struggling, reluctant or dyslexic readers aged 12+, this is a sequel to The Starlight Watchmaker, which was shortlisted for the STEAM Children’s Book Prize 2020 and nominated for the Carnegie medal.

Positivity in the apocalypse: can a climate fiction novel be uplifting?

As a former physicist, my writing is always science focussed. I’ve written a book about space travel inspired by special relativity (The Loneliest Girl in the Universe), a post-apocalyptic novel based on extinction and evolution (The Quiet at the End of the World), and multiple other stories with scientists at their heart.

From the beginning of my writing career, I’ve wanted to write about climate change – but I could never find a ‘way in’. It’s such a huge, complex topic that I didn’t know how to tackle it in a way which felt uplifting. My writing is primarily character and story focussed. It’s funny and romantic. That tone felt impossible to capture in a book about climate change, a topic which is discomforting at best and soul-destroying/terrifying at worst.

And while it’s a huge issue that should be treated seriously, the best stories are those which are enjoyable to experience. Those books reach the widest audience, having a better chance of spreading awareness of the climate crisis.

Eventually, I realised that I needed to focus on writing about characters who are actively working to slow climate change, rather than writing a story showing the terrors to come. I’m not interested in dark dystopias about a climate-ravaged planet. We know the dangers already. I want to read inspiring, optimistic stories that show a future where we’ve done things right.

The climate debate needs to move beyond fear at rising sea levels and pollution towards a more solutions-based view on climate change. I feel strongly that we should not be telling a generation of children that their future is unavoidably broken. Change is possible. The climate crisis is an urgent, yet utterly solvable issue. Our fiction should reflect that.

In Green Rising, the characters are teenagers who can grow plants from their skin. They use their powers to rewild the planet, and stand up to the profit-hungry corporations who want climate change to continue (because the end of the world is going to be very profitable to a lot of people). It shows the positive changes we can make to the environment which will help store carbon in huge quantities, often through plants: kelp forests, peatlands, reforestation.

I expected the writing process to be depressing and mentally exhausting. But, in fact, immersing myself in the climate debate helped me to stop feeling anxious and helpless about our future. I could see all the things that needed to be done to fix the future.

Instead of trying desperately to ignore the monster looming in the corner of my vision, I was facing it head-on. It was a lot less scary than I’d imagined. I felt like I was doing something to actively help (from writing the novel and another climate novella, The Deep-Sea Duke, to setting up the Climate Fiction Writers League, a group of over a hundred authors writing about climate change). I was no longer a helpless observer.

My research involved a lot of books (my favourites: The Future We Choose: Surviving the Climate Crisis by Christiana Figueres & Tom Rivett-Carnac, Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming by Paul Hawken and This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate by Naomi Klein).

I’m not great at reading scientific publications – it feels too much like homework. But I am good at wasting time on social media. So I tricked myself into researching climate change through online resources like the Heated newsletterLights On newsletterInkcap Journal, and Green Light by The Guardian newsletter, as well as the How to Save a Planet podcastDrilled podcast and Hot Take podcast.

My research clarified what I wanted to do with my writing. I was surprised by how many aspects of the climate crisis I didn’t know about. Often, the science behind the issue has been obscured by politics or fossil fuel smear campaigns and ads. I decided to focus the story on some of those factors. I trust my readers to know the basics of climate change, but they might not necessarily know about the other discussions in progress.

A big thing which is going to become increasingly topical over the next decade is geoengineering – the idea that we can take measures to slow the temperature increase while continuing to burn fossil fuels. This might include dramatic sci-fi concepts like using a solar mirror in space, or chemicals sprayed into the atmosphere, to reflect light away from the planet. These ideas are supported by the oil industry, who would be able to continue selling their products while supporting climate action. However, we have no idea what knock-on effects geoengineering might have on the planet.

I wanted to explore Juliana V. US – an ongoing legal case where young plaintiffs argue that the US government have violated their constitutional rights by failing to act on climate change. I’m interested in the way youth activist groups like Extinction Rebellion are treated by the press – as extremist terrorists and moral heroes standing up for the planet, often simultaneously.

I wanted to explore how billionaires are investing money in accessible space tourism, rather than fixing Earth. How the new, trendy NFT art and bitcoin use huge amounts of power to create cryptocurrency.

I wanted to highlight the issues related to carbon emissions, like metal poisoning from coal ash, microplastics and the garbage patches in the ocean.

And I wanted to do it all in a positive way, in a book for teenagers. It was a lot to tackle.

I tried to look at both sides of debate, because the way that climate deniers talk about the topic can often be really helpful for creating narratives (because why not let them do the hard work of being creative with arguments?). Books about climate change need characters who are working against climate action, just like in real life.

Those people – whether that’s the CEOs of an oil company, a billionaire trying to launch a space mission, or a politician with investments in fossil fuels – won’t see themselves as the ‘bad guys’. They’d be really surprised if you accused them of being one of the key people destroying the planet. To them, they’re community-builders, providing jobs and energy to keep the world running. I researched their perspective as much as possible, trying to put myself in their shoes so I could write characters who felt that way.

In general, I studied the way people discuss climate change on social media. The very human ways we interact with this topic, from fear to anger to ignorance to defiance, can be a great starting point for creating characters dealing with climate change. I subscribed to a very niche geoengineering forum, where scientists debated what should happen in future. Eavesdropping on their highly technical bickering gave me a lot of insight into the people working at the forefront of this issue, on both sides of the equation. I kept track of memes and viral Twitter threads about climate change, trying to isolate the core ideas and concerns that people were sharing online.

Once I’d taught myself as much about the topic as possible – from the science, to the politics, to the economics – I started writing. I tried not to get bogged down in the science, even though I was overflowing with anger and frustration at the world. Story always has to come first. It’s useful for me to be aware of all the context, but the reader only needs to know the things that are relevant for that particular scene or plot point. The rest can come later.

I look for the ways I can tie science into interesting ideas from other fields, like archaeology or linguistics. If you can discuss a big, often boring topic like atmospheric chemistry through the lens of something fun, it can be an exciting way to bring the reader on board.

In my books, characters explore caves full of treasure after an apocalypse, discovering cold-storage seed caches in a Doomsday Vault. They might have to deal with an outbreak of the Black Plague, after the melting permafrost thaws animal corpses which bring bacteria back to life.

I keep an eye out for interesting, well-known concepts – for example, the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park is a science experiment which everyone knows well. It’s emotional, uplifting, and hits you right in the heart. A common idea like that is a great way to talk about something more complicated, such as how large predators can impact climate change through balancing the ecosystem.

I look for debunked or disproven theories in science, which can lead to really creative thinking. In Jurassic Park, the dinosaurs are huge, terrifying reptiles, but we now think that dinosaurs were more likely to have feathers. But a movie about a giant, fluffy blackbird-like T-Rex wouldn’t make for a very good film.

In the fifties, fossil fuel companies investigated other uses for their products, such as burning oil to blow away smog; coating land in asphalt to change rainfall patterns and avoid drought; and spraying oil droplets onto the ocean surface to divert the paths of tropical storms. These ideas seem ridiculous now, but they tell us a lot about people’s knowledge level – and motivations – at the time.

I try to think about big concepts in terms of historical events: how can we look at archaeology to get a new perspective on climate change. How might the present day look from a far-future or far-past point of view? Has something like this ever happened before on Earth?

Ultimately, climate change is a political topic – it has to be. It’s unavoidable. The end of world is profitable. My characters are angry they’re being told to reduce their climate footprint, that they’re being made to feel guilty about their personal pollution when industry is responsibly for the vast majority of emissions.

I wanted to create a book for young people who are anti-capitalist and pro-revolution, who are changing the world at an incredible pace against the enormous weight of the existing establishment.

From a legal perspective, there were things I couldn’t do – I wasn’t allowed to mention real life companies or people by name, and had to create fictional versions of certain things. But in Green Rising, I tried to capture the feeling of being part of the ongoing green revolution, to show what it feels like to grow up in a time of unprecedented existential fear. I wanted to write about young people turning that fear into hope and action.

It feels impossible to comprehend the scale and immensity of the dangers of the climate crisis. But with every book we write, we get a little bit closer.   

My top tips for writers who want to include climate change in their work:

·       Read as much climate fiction as possible – in a variety of genres, not just SFF! Check out the database on the Climate Fiction Writers League website for ideas.

·       Include the activism going on outside the very vocal UK/US groups. The countries who will be most affected by climate change have amazing activists whose hard work is often ignored by the media.

·       Inspire activism, but don’t imply individuals are at fault – readers don’t want to be made to feel guilty about not recycling!

·       Convey the seriousness of the situation without making it seem futile. Climate change is a solvable issue, and fiction can demonstrate that better than anything.

·       Show how imminent this crisis is – climate change is no longer a long-term issue for the future, but something happening right now.

·       Use your anger and frustration to drive your writing, but don’t write an angry book – people don’t want to read that.

Remember that hope and optimism will inspire more action than anything else. Fiction can inspire a huge amount of empathy, and that’s a force that we can use collectively to inspire change on a global level.

Green Rising 

In a climate catastrophe, resistance is taking root . . .

Set in a near-future world on the brink of ecological catastrophe, Lauren James’ novel is a gripping, witty and romantic call to arms.

Gabrielle is a climate-change activist who shoots to fame when she becomes the first teenager to display a supernatural ability to grow plants from her skin. Hester is the millionaire daughter of an oil tycoon and the face of the family business. Theo comes from a long line of fishermen, but his parents are struggling to make ends meet.

On the face of it, the three have very little in common. Yet when Hester and Theo join Gabrielle and legions of other teenagers around the world in developing the strange new “Greenfingers” power, it becomes clear that to use their ability for good, they’ll need to learn to work together. But in a time of widespread corruption and greed, there are plenty of profit-hungry organizations who want to use the Greenfingers for their own ends. And not everyone would like to see the Earth saved…

As they navigate first love and family expectations, can the three teenagers pull off the ultimate heist and bring about a green rising?

In Conversation with my editor

Last year to celebrate the launch of The Reckless Afterlife of Harriet Stoker, Emily and I did a chat about writing, editing, and everything that goes on behind-the-scenes of book publishing.

I had so much fun getting to quiz her that I asked if we could do it again for Green Rising.

I’ve been working with Emily and Walker Books since 2014, on seven novels, so our editing process is very streamlined. It was a pleasure to discuss it with her. You can follow Emily on Twitter at @ems_worth, or catch her tweeting under the @walkerbooksYA account.

Emily: I know this is a book very close to your own heart. Could you give us a brief summary of what Green Rising is about?

Lauren:  Teenagers who can grow plants from their skin use their powers to rewild the planet, and stand up to the profit-hungry corporations who want climate change to continue, for their own devious ends.

Emily, I love how the cover for Green Rising fits in the ‘brand’ of my other titles, but feels fresh and unique too. What was the process behind designing this at Walker?

We always begin the process with a cover brief, which provides an overview of the story, as well as where it will sit in the market. It’s a great opportunity to make sure that different departments such as editorial, design, sales and marketing etc all have the same vision for what we want to achieve with the cover and how we want it to look.

The images of hands and plants felt central to the story and also the cover, so Beci Kelly, who illustrated the cover, started looking for different ways to incorporate the two. This early selection shows some of those ideas.

The concept was really well liked, and as you can see the final cover is a kind of hybrid of options 3 and 4. Beci did a brilliant job of blending the tree and hand so that they work really harmoniously.

One point of discussion was the colour way for the cover. Your last book, The Reckless Afterlife of Harriet Stoker, had a green cover, so we didn’t want the two books to look too similar. I love the autumnal burnished colour that we chose for the final book – and it looks so stunning with the coppery foil.

I think Beci and Chloe Tartinville, who designed the overall cover, did a superb job of creating a cover that has a striking simplicity to the concept, and yet is so rich and detailed at the same time. It feels “on brand” for you, and yet original at the same time.

Where did the spark of an idea for the book come from? And what sort of development work do you usually do in the early stages after you’ve had an idea for a story?

I’ve always wanted to write about climate change – but I could never find a ‘way in’. It’s such a huge, complex topic that I didn’t know how to tackle it in a way which felt uplifting. I was reading about the rewilding of abandoned urban areas when the idea for magical plants came to me. It was immediately an idea which felt like it had the legs to talk about such a scary topic in a way which matches the tone of my books – I could see the comedy and fun in that scenario, despite the serious debate at its heart.

I pitched the idea of teenagers with magic tackling climate change to my agent Claire Wilson, and we had a long discussion back in November 2018 about the idea, which I originally called ‘The Green Earth Preservation Society’. Claire is really passionate about climate change, and had a very clear vision in mind for what the book needed to do thematically. I was really excited by the idea of the magic (I had all these ideas for having a sentient talking cottage that holds Theo’s family hostage, and a rainforest plant monster that Gabrielle takes around with her!) but Claire kept pulling me back to the central message: that the magic needs to be a tool to help the teenagers stand up to powerful organisations, and highlight the power of collective action. She also made sure there was a clear antagonist, and it didn’t feel too much like ‘wish fulfilment’ – that there would still be work for the characters to do in the long term, and I hadn’t fixed every issue on Earth immediately.

We played around with lots of different pitches for the concept, honing in on one which would give us the maximum amount of drama and betrayals between characters. I’m hugely grateful to have an editorial agent like Claire – if she hadn’t helped me isolate the key issues that might crop up in the early stages, I would have wasted a lot of time writing and rewriting down dead ends before I realised the issues myself.

Emily, you really pushed me to expand on the logic and evolution of the plant magic powers. Do you find that this is a blind point for authors when building fantasy worlds – that they don’t fully build the laws of their magic systems? I struggle with this a lot, and have to think about it in a very scientific way to get my brain to work through the concepts behind magic!

I think authors often know the worlds that they have created so well – it’s so familiar to them – that perhaps some of the simplest details or parameters of that world don’t quite make it to the page. It can’t be an easy job spelling out all of the ideas in your head! So as an editor, I try to ask questions and dig a little deeper to ensure that readers will have a full understanding of the world they’re reading about. Often authors know the answers to these questions immediately, so it’s just a case of then incorporating that into the story.

In the case of Green Rising, we obviously had to think about how the plant powers would develop and evolve, and make sure that at each stage it was clear to the reader what the characters could and couldn’t do with their powers. But once we found that logic it really helped tie everything together.

You did an incredible amount of research when writing this book, and it has certainly paid off. How do you structure your research so that it doesn’t become overwhelming? Do you make notes as you go along? Or do you read a lot and then give yourself some time to digest it all?

It was really tough! There are so many issues at play in the climate debate – from science to politics and economics. I really had to give myself a crash course in everything so I could trace the problems that needed fixing to their sources (and then find a way to fix them using plants!). For a while it definitely felt like the more I read, the more confused I got, but that actually helped a lot, because my characters felt the same way. I could channel some of the questions I had about climate politics into their perspectives.

I use Workflowy to keep bullet point lists of notes as I’m planning a story:

Then I compile it all into a Word Document with my outline and try to organise points in places in the story I might need that information. Often I’ll start writing and then there’ll be a specific scene I need to do research for, so I’ll go away and read up on what it’s like on an oil rig, making notes for the scene like this: 

Emily, how has your relationship with climate change evolved as a process of editing the book? I know mine changed a lot while researching and writing. I’ve become a lot more politically engaged with the issues.

It was a real eye-opener for me! I was of course aware of the climate crisis, but I hadn’t fully understood the impact that certain industries are having. I’ve learnt so much, and like you have become a lot more engaged with the issues, as well as doing my best to keep making differences in my own lifestyle.

While you were writing Green Rising, you also set up the Climate Fiction Writers League. Could you tell us a little more about this project?

The Climate Fiction Writers League is an organisation of over a hundred climate writers. I run a biweekly newsletter of essays about climate writing, in order to encourage readers and writers to take action. I think it’s made me feel a lot less scared about the future too, because I’m doing something positive to help. I started out primarily just wanting to create a database of climate fiction, because I couldn’t find any online when I was research Green Rising. It’s grown a lot since then, and I’m hoping to build out the group even more and start offering support to developing writers.

This book is a lot more political than my others. Was this something you were concerned with when editing it?

I think you’ve tackled such an important subject and done so in such a unique and innovative way that I always knew how important it was to get this book out into the world. As an editor I of course felt a certain responsibility to help you do the topic justice, but the level of research you’ve put into this book shows how committed you are to getting that right. It’s been an honour to try and play my part.

This is your sixth young adult novel! Does the process of getting a first draft down get any easier with each book, or is it always nerve-racking when you’re facing a blank page?

I definitely panic a lot less these days, because from previous experience I know that it is possible to finish a novel, even when it feels insurmountable from the midst of it!

I wrote the first draft in 14 weeks, working from a detailed 20,000 word proposal which I’d been researching for 6 months. That included 30 days of active writing, averaging 2,400 words a day. Here are my stats:

The first draft of Green Rising was 110,000 words, and you helped me get it down to 80,000 words without losing anything significant – something I’d thought was impossible! Do you have any tips for writing concisely to the word counts required for YA?

I don’t think writers should be afraid of having a long and messy first draft, because once you’ve got that first draft down on paper, you’ve got something to work with. I’m sure some people find it helpful to edit as they go along, but if that’s not you, there’s always plenty of potential to cut the length down in the editing process.

As an author, it’s vital to make sure that everything scene counts – that each one is serving a purpose. And to think about how you reveal information to your audience – too much exposition can easily bog a reader down. Focusing on those two points can quickly help to bring a word count down. Sometimes you do have to be ruthless – just because you like a scene or a character doesn’t mean it’s serving an overall purpose. Coming back to your manuscript with fresh eyes can be one of the best ways to help self-edit.

You’re always brilliant at taking on board editorial feedback. Did this book present any new challenges for you that you hadn’t encountered before? How did you find the editorial process?

I really wanted to capture a mix of responses to the climate crisis, but without having any characters be totally uneducated about the topic – I feel like that’s unrealistic in this time, when we’re all very aware of the future we’re facing. Hester starts out the novel as someone who is against climate action, but she considers herself very educated and engaged on the topic and can debate very well on it. She’s been raised by an oil tycoon, so she knows all of the economical and political background of the climate issue.

Meanwhile, Theo is a fisherman’s son, and he is aware of the need for climate action but isn’t very educated about the topic. He just knows that action needs to be taken, even though he doesn’t know what or how it would be possible.

Their views change over the course of the book, and it was difficult to construct character arcs for them that felt realistic and built into their cultural upbringing. I wanted it to feel genuine to the experience of becoming more involved in climate issues. As I became more educated around the topic too, I struggled not to put too much of what I’d learnt in the story – I know you had to rein me back there a lot!

But editing with you (and the whole team at Walker) is always such a pleasure – it’s very fun and laidback, even when we’re planning to tear apart a whole storyline!

Emily, you’re a big fan of sharing manuscripts with other editors to help find issues which have become blind spots after rereading a book so many times. Have you noticed anything in particular which tends to be missed by people close to the story?

Haha, it’s amazing how we can miss plot holes when we’ve read a book so many times! I’m always so grateful to have a fresh perspective. I think world-building and character motivation are often two things that authors have very clear in their heads but might not have translated into the story quite so clearly.

As well as all of your research into the climate crisis, you also did a huge amount of research into the oil industry to create Hester and her dad. Was Hester a fun character to write? I personally love her, and feel so invested in the journey she goes on through the novel to gain a whole new perspective on the fossil fuel industry.

She was so much fun! I loved writing her at the beginning of the book, when she’s totally focussed on success in business, and really oblivious to anything outside her very upper class, 1% bubble. She’s really been indoctrinated into a certain way of thinking, and over the course of the story her entire world view basically collapses around her. I think it takes a lot of bravery to face something like that head-on, and not repress and deny it all. She really sacrifices a lot during the story, and I hope I did her character arc justice.

One thing we talked about a lot when editing Green Rising was the relationship between Hester and her father, which is really complex and nuanced. You have a really strong grasp on character dynamics, and you helped me get the things in my head onto the page in a way that was clear to the reader. What kind of issues do you usually see in books, particularly in the relationships between characters?

Relationships play such a key role in character development, so this is always something I’m looking for. Hester’s relationship with her dad was a really interesting one, as there are so many different emotions tied up there. She’s in awe of him and wants to be just like him at the start of the book, but she’s frustrated too. We had to tease out those different elements to understand what she goes through over the course of the story.

I think character relationships are a key area to try and ensure you’re showing the reader as well as telling them what the dynamics are. And embrace subtlety and conflicted emotions. It all helps to make a character feel more authentic.

Speaking of parent–child relationships, Theo has had a very different upbringing to Hester, but they are both close to families. Parent–child relationships are something you write about in quite a few of your novels – is it something that particularly interests you?

There’s a joke in kid-lit that the parents always die in books, because that’s the easiest way to get your young protagonists out on an adventure. And I tried to stay away from that trope, because I think there’s so much you can learn about a character through meeting their parents, and seeing how they were raised into the person they’ve become – for good or for evil!

I think there’s a way people talk to their parents which is very different from how they talk to anyone else in their life. Emotions always bubble closer to the surface, and it’s a lot easier for conversations to go disastrously wrong – or be really therapeutic and rewarding. That’s a hugely valuable tool in storytelling if you use it right. 

For Theo and Hester, I intentionally built in a lot of similarities in their upbringings. At first, they can’t relate to each other at all, and think they have nothing in common. But their experiences mirror each other in a lot of ways, even across the divide of culture, opportunity and wealth. It was a lot of fun playing with that. 

One thing you flagged up in edits was that I don’t really describe my characters’ physical appearance, particularly for side characters. I think I’m probably not a huge visual writer – scenes usually arrive for me as emotional beats rather than things I can picture immediately in my head. I definitely have to go away and find an actor who fits a character, and then I can describe the character’s appearance on the page. Is the focus on visual/emotional/logistical etc elements something that varies from author to author, and for you personally?

It definitely varies from author to author, and I don’t personally feel that I need to have every character’s appearance described in detail to me. But sometimes just having a sense of a character’s physical presence and appearance can really enhance a reader’s perception of them. Sometimes there’s a moment where I’d just love to know how someone looks!

Finally, without giving too much away, could you give us a little hint as to what your next YA novel is going to be about?

I’m working on the novelisation of my online story An Unauthorised Fan Treatise, which you can read for free. It’s a contemporary YA (a first for me!) about a fangirl who gets involved in the murder of one of her favourite actors. It’s really fun – but slightly scary to be doing something without any magic or time travel!!

Can you tell us what books you’re working on right now, Emily? I’m really excited for Ann Sei Lin’s upcoming book Rebel Skies!

Oh I’m so excited about Rebel Skies! I got to read an early draft and it’s brilliant.

One of the other books I’m working on that I’m really excited about is a middle grade novel by Justyn Edwards called The Great Fox Illusion. The Great Fox is a world-famous magician who has died, and our protagonist Flick Lions has entered a competition to win his legacy. It puts a whole new spin on magical middle grade and is such a gripping read. Plus I’m loving finding out all about the sleights of hand that make magic tricks so convincing. It’s publishing next April and I can’t wait for people to read it.

Emily McDonnell is a senior editor at Walker Books. You can follow her on Twitter at @ems_worth.

Emily and me at YALC 2017!