Gytha Lodge is prolific. She's an award-winning novelist and playwright. 1.8 million people have read her latest book The Fragile Tower, making it the number 1 fantasy read on writing mega-site Wattpad. At just 31, she's already got 11 plays and two novels under her belt. We caught up to talk writing, stories and serendipity.
Gytha, so many people dream of writing full-time. How did you make it happen?
To start with, I wrote plays, set up a theatre company and went on tour – all alongside working in marketing. Then, after winning some national awards, I bit the bullet and went into touring full-time.
But I've always, always wanted to be a novelist. I was midway through the Creative Writing MA at the University of East Anglia, when I went along to what turned out to be a truly awful literary event. I gave up on it and walked outside. I had three extracts from my first novel – The Butterfly Catchers – on me, so I figured I'd look up the nearest literary agents' offices and just turn up with them.
The only problem was that I'd only written 50 pages of the book. So when two agents called me the next day asking for the rest of it, there followed possibly the most productive – and definitely the most intense – four days of writing I've ever managed.
After that, I gave myself a couple of weeks to rewrite the novel, and realised I should go for the agents I'd always wanted. I'd previously met Viv Schuster in the ladies' loos at Ely Cathedral. It's not quite as weird as it sounds – I was singing there. I dropped her a line, and the very satisfying result has been working with her and the equally wonderful Felicity Blunt at Curtis Brown, and more recently with Lauren Pearson, who represents my children's books.
What would be your advice for new writers getting started?
Write for the theatre. There is no better way to get instant feedback from your actors, audience and critics. It forces you to think about how people really speak.
These days, in all my writing, I go for absolute reality in what someone says, rather than writing dialogue purely for entertainment. I'm not sure I always achieve it, and I do think writing of all kinds has to entertain, but I know how much I cringe hearing characters speak in ways no human has ever spoken.
I've also found Wattpad to be a fantastic place to share writing, precisely because of the level of feedback you get. The set-up allows readers to comment, message you, and generally get involved in the whole process of writing. Given that you usually end up uploading a chapter at a time, it's not only useful, but also the most incredible motivational boost.
I shared my children's/teen fantasy The Fragile Tower there first, and it's been just awesome seeing the engagement from readers of all ages. It still surprises me when someone comments and references their own children. Often I'd been assuming they were in their teens, but it's a great thing to know that your work is engaging people of all ages.
I think my final tip would be: push for complexity and originality in a book, but keep a strong story. I think a lot of people have an idea for a book, but forget that a book is in fact lots of ideas woven together into an arc. I need to think through my characters and my context before I begin, and more than anything, I find I need to know where the story is going – or I can't write it.
In your experience, what makes for a brilliant story?
Emotional engagement. If something doesn't draw out a really strong emotion in you or if the characters both good and bad don't elicit sympathy, then it probably won't work. Think about a story that you've really loved. What feeling did it give you? How can you create that same feeling but somewhere new?
I want to encapsulate a whole world in my writing. If you can't picture that world in detail, then I'm not doing my job properly. If I'm writing about a schoolgirl, I'll ask myself: how does she get to school? Does she get a lift? Does that mean she's alone for a little while every day, because all her friends take the bus? Does it isolate her? If you're missing these details, it might be that you're too eager to plot at the expense of authenticity.
I normally keep an idea in my mind for about six months before committing anything to paper. I really believe in editing, but it's much harder to edit once you've written something – anything – down. Lots of editing can be done beforehand in your head.
You're editing The Fragile Tower, so that it's aimed at preteens. What has the process taught you about writing for a specific audience?
I mostly try to imagine myself at that age. I'll think about what adventure means to someone of that point in their life. Romance, for example, just isn't as important. 9 to 12-year-olds often like a touch of it, but they're not really fussed about passionate scenes until they're a little older.
I'm hoping readers will grow up with my characters as the series goes on. I wanted Grace, the main character in The Fragile Tower, to be a strong and convincing personality, but I didn't want to over-characterise her. I've tried to leave room for her to be the person reading.
I also think about the language I use, so that I'm not talking down to the children reading, and am always trying to stretch them a little. Having a 4-year-old son helps. I'm always thinking about how to communicate with him, and I do the same in my writing.
I've always loved – and still love – fantasy fiction, which is probably what drew me to the genre in the first place. Writers like JK Rowling, Philip Pullman and Markus Zusak have definitely proven that children's books aren't just for kids. Or at least, that's what I tell myself when I'm halfway through one of them.
What are you working on next?
I'm working on the sequels to The Fragile Tower, which is the first book in the Cold Lands series – brimful of love, loss and magic. I'm also working on a brand new novel called 1983, as well as a Wattpad fantasy romance for young adults called The Cupid Touch.
The problem with all of this is income, as all writers will know. While I wait for publishing contracts, I want to keep followers engaged and keep producing work at a good rate. So I've set up a Patreon account, which is like Kickstarter but for ongoing projects.
I'll be releasing The Cold Lands – the second book in the series – chapter by chapter on there, and patrons can support it for as little as $1 per chapter. I'm hoping this will enable me to spend plenty of time writing, and, you know, keep my little boy in Lego.
You can read The Fragile Tower on Wattpad and you can find out more about Gytha Lodge on Facebook or at her wonderful blog Satire Spot.
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