Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Interview: Jo Cotterill

Today I have the fantastic Jo Cotterill here on Writing From the Tub with an interview about her latest series of books, aimed at younger teens. The first book in the Sweet Hearts series is Star Crossed and I loved it - my review will be up soon but it's a brilliant summer read!

I'd like to thank Jo again for taking the time to do this interview as I know she's incredibly busy at the moment! So - onto the questions...

1. In case any readers haven’t read the book yet, can you tell me a little bit about Star Crossed and the rest of the Sweet Hearts series?

The Sweet Hearts series combines real life with romance – that all-consuming feeling you have when you fall for the boy in your class, or your brother’s best friend, mixed in with all the other things you have to deal with, like friends and family issues.

Each book focuses on a different girl and her particular interests, and in ‘Star Crossed’ the central character is Fliss, a girl who dreams of being an actress. She also dreams about the boy on the bus, Tom – and then he is cast opposite her in Romeo & Juliet!

The story follows Fliss as she tries to find the confidence to tell Tom how she feels and also stand up to her mother, who thinks acting isn’t a good career. She also has to deal with Samantha, a glamorous girl who wants Fliss’s role and Tom for herself!

2. Talk me through an average day when you’re working on a novel. Do you have a set number of words you have to write per day or do you set yourself different targets?

Working on Sweet Hearts is a bit different from what I’m used to because I no longer work on just one book at a time. So at the moment, I’m half-way through writing Book 4, but I spent last week editing Book 3 – and of course Book 1 has only just been published, so I’m doing lots of publicity stuff for that!

However, when I’m just concentrating on writing the one book, I try to do two thousand words a day. That sounds like a lot, but I only work part time because my daughter is still too young for school, so I have to fit my writing around her. When she goes to nursery, I get straight on the computer and write as much as I can.

I usually do my best work in the morning – by the afternoon, my head tends to be fuzzy and lacking energy. If the writing is going well, I often forget about lunch – occasionally it can be 3pm before I remember to eat! I write until my daughter and husband come home and then I stop – but if I’m on a tight deadline I sometimes work in the evenings too.

3. In young adult fiction in particular, it’s important that readers bond with the characters - what do you think is the most important thing to get right when you're creating a character?

Dialogue. I think dialogue is hugely important – everyone knows that you can’t write exactly how people talk because it would be so difficult to read, but I do think a lot of a character’s believability comes from the way they talk. For example, in Star Crossed, Mari says things that Fliss wouldn’t say, and vice versa. You want your readers to recognise themselves and their friends: ‘That’s exactly the sort of thing I would say!’ etc.

4. Theatre and acting are important in Star Crossed. Did you draw from any of your own experiences in acting while writing this book?

Yes, although I hasten to add no one ever tried to injure me in a production! But when I was acting, I loved rehearsals – possibly even more than the performance. I loved finding out what costume I was going to wear; it helped me get into character. And I loved highlighting my lines in the script. I just loved the whole atmosphere; being in a play can be more exciting than anything else. And sometimes I found it easier to be confident on stage as a character than myself.

5. What are the three most important things you need to be able to write?

Imagination, self-discipline and an understanding family!

6. Some writers relate take great inspiration from music while they’re writing. What about you? If so, what artists/bands do you like to listen to while you write?

Ooh, this is a good question! I like to listen to music while I write – well, I say ‘listen’ but actually most of the time I barely notice it. I only notice when the CD has come to an end (I do have an MP3 player but I prefer CDs) and so I put it on again – sometimes three or four times!

I love film soundtracks – ‘Jurassic Park’, ‘Titanic’ and ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ are particular favourites. But if I’m writing a scene where people are yelling at each other, I might listen to Avril Lavigne or Evanescence!

7. I heard you’re a big fan of cheese – me too! What’s your favourite kind of cheese and can you give us fellow fans a cheese-based recipe to try out?

Gosh, this is hard…my favourite cheese depends on my mood! I love Brie, though, and really strong Cheddar.

I do have a favourite cheese recipe though, it’s one that my husband made for me once! You get a Camembert and cut a large chunk to fit into a ramekin. Oh, and you poke slivers of garlic into it – just a few, unless you want to frighten off everyone around you! Fill up the ramekin and then bake in the oven until the cheese is all melty and bubbly (about ten minutes I think). Serve with thinly-sliced toast, rubbed with a raw clove of garlic – heaven! Sort of like your own personal fondue!

8. Did Star Crossed always have this title or was that something that came later on?

Titles can be really hard – I don’t know any writer who hasn’t struggled with a title at some point. However, this title was one that we came up with in a brainstorming session at Random House (the publishers). There were about nine of us sitting round the table and we had to come up with a series title as well as titles for the first three books – it took us about an hour to get them all!

The title for Star Crossed was actually thought up by my editor, Ruth – and once she’d said it, we all went, ‘Of course! It couldn’t be anything else!’ Quick bit of trivia – the Sweet Hearts series was originally called Heart Beats!

9. What advice would you give to writers who want to make the leap from writing as a hobby to actively pursuing a career in writing?

Don’t give up the day job. It takes a long time, possibly never, to earn enough from your writing to live on. But I have two other tips too – READ. If you’re writing historical fiction, read everything you can find in that genre. If you’re into 7-9s humorous series fiction, then read that. And keep it current.

I now read almost exclusively teen fiction published in the last five years – partly because I need to in order to keep up with what’s out there, and also because I love it! And my final tip is – don’t put all your eggs in one basket.

Send out your manuscript, but get going on something else. Keep writing – the more you write, the better you will get. Don’t invest your whole life in one book in case it doesn’t work out.

10. Are you a Shakespeare fan? If so, which is your favourite play? If not, which playwright do you consider the greatest?

I am a HUGE Shakespeare fan. I like the comedies best, though I did study King Lear at school and thought it was amazing. My favourite play is A Midsummer Night’s Dream, though Twelfth Night comes a close second.

11. As well as books for teens, you’ve also had picture books published. Do you find writing for teens or younger children more of a challenge and why?

Only one picture book! Hah, and when it was published I thought, ‘well, I guess I’m a picture book writer’ – and then my next twenty texts were turned down. Seriously – at least twenty different stories all rejected! Which goes back to my point about not putting all your eggs in one basket.

I found I was actually better at writing longer books for teens. I don’t write for younger children any more – maybe at some point in the future I will again, but not for the moment. Writing picture books is INCREDIBLY hard and I admire those authors who consistently turn out amazing picture books.

12. There is a lot of argument within the young adult market as to what is appropriate for teens to read. Where do you stand on this matter? Do you think teens should be protected from reading about taboo subjects or do you think they should have the freedom to choose their own reads?

I wrote a long and complicated answer to this and then deleted it because actually I think that by the age of thirteen, young people are quite capable of choosing their own books and shouldn’t be ‘protected’ from anything. I feel quite strongly about that.

13. Thank you so much for your time, Jo. Before you go, could you tell me about any upcoming projects you have in the pipeline we can look out for?

The second Sweet Hearts book, ‘Strictly Friends?’ will be published in September, and the third one, ‘Ice Dreams’, will be out in February next year. Then there are three more books still to come! So that is keeping me quite busy enough for the time being!

Many thanks for the interview! I love being asked questions!


  1. Great interview! I'm going to start Star-Crosse tonight and I'm really looking forward to it.

  2. Interesting interview! I will have to check these out. Very helpful writing advice also.

  3. What a great interview, Carly! Thanks to Jo. I must check out this book!

  4. We have a html problem over here lol (made me smile as html sucks right)

    Great Interview its a book im looking forward to reading

  5. Lovely interview. I loved her honesty about age and censorship of books

  6. Enlightening interview. Thanks! One thought: just because in English "teen" is part of the numbers 13-19 doesn not mean that being 13 to 19 years old categorizes you. I agree that 13-year- olds can choose on their own what to read. When one's children reach puberty, one can no longer control what they read. That's the reality. Please visit my website and blog and search my name on YouTube! Thanks.


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