Joe Cotterill Interview
Jo Cotterill has been writing stories and songs since she could hold a pencil. Growing up in Oxfordshire, she took out as many books as possible from the library each week and drew pictures on her bedroom walls. She can resist buying almost anything except books. Successful careers in acting and teaching were fun but nothing is as great as seeing your name on the cover of a book or enthusing kids about stories. Jo has published over twenty books and has far too many ideas for the number of hours available to write them. She lives in north Oxford, likes making cards and cakes, and believes passionately that there should be more female superheroes.
Jo, can you tell us about your latest book, Electrigirl, and where the idea came from?
Electrigirl is the story of Holly Sparkes, nearly twelve and a fidget. She loves being outside and turning cartwheels, hates having to sit still in the classroom and worries that she doesn’t have much of an imagination. She has a best friend Imogen, who is arty, and a younger brother Joe who is obsessed with comics and superheroes. As the story starts, a new high-tech mobile phone company has opened its HQ in Holly’s seaside town and put a mast on the hill where she plays. Due to an unusual set of circumstances, Holly is accidentally hit by lightning bouncing off this mast – and wakes up with the power to create and direct electricity. It takes her brother’s superhero knowledge to get it under control – and then Imogen, her best friend, disappears. There’s action, adventure, mystery, bullying, technophobia, mobile phone addiction – and pages and pages of comic strip, because this book is told not only through prose but also (when Holly is using her powers) through pictures, drawn by the amazing Cathy Brett.
The idea came from two places really: my frustration at the general lack of high-profile female superheroes, and my interest in writing a story that could be partially told through illustrations.
How long did it take you to write?
Not long. But then my agent made me rewrite it. And rewrite it. And rewrite it. And then it sold to OUP, and they wanted me to rewrite it again. And once more. And a bit more after that. From idea to finished book = three years.
It’s illustrated by Cathy Brett? Do you know Cathy in ‘real life’?
Haha! No, she’s a figment of my imagination…! Actually, I ‘met’ Cathy through Girls Heart Books, the multi-author blog I run. I fell in love with her artwork and just thought her style would really suit what I was trying to do. We met in person after she’d said yes to the project!
How do you organise your writing day? For example, where do you write? And when?
My writing day is organised around my kids, who are seven and three, so writing time is limited and precious and often erratic. I’m lucky enough to have a study in my house, which is not just for writing but also houses all my craft and sewing stuff – oh, and my musical instruments! It’s a packed room… And I mostly write between 9am and 3pm, but not every day because of limited childcare. I’m not good at working in the evenings; I find I’m too tired.
Do you use a computer or write long hand?
A computer. Very, very rarely, when I’m at the ideas stage of a book, I will create mind maps and start opening chapters longhand in a notebook. I type fast – if I’m on a roll in a first draft, I can do a thousand words in an hour.
Do you edit as you go along? Or at the end of the first draft?
Do you find rewriting difficult?
I edit as I go along. I tend to do quite tight first drafts, which means that rewriting is incredibly painful for me as I have to undo all the threads I’ve tightly woven. I’m much better at editing than I used to be but I’d still prefer not to do it, ha! Having said that, I know that my books are MUCH better after they’ve been edited!
Do you use the internet for research? What research tips can you give writers?
I do, yes. For the first Electrigirl book, I read up a lot on electricity – how it works and how lightning behaves. For the second book (Electrigirl and the Deadly Swarm, out in August 2016), I watched a lot of video footage taken down Cornish tin mines, because I wanted to set part of the book in one and I’d never been to one myself! The internet is absolutely invaluable. But as for research tips, you can’t beat talking to real people face-to-face. The internet only takes you so far, but if you’re researching something that is going to impact on a character, or a personal or psychological issue you have no experience of, I’d always recommend talking to someone who works in that particular area or who’s been through it themselves.
How did you get your first book published? Was it difficult?
My first was a picture book, Moondance, picked up off the slush pile at Andersen Press. I suppose I’d been submitting various stories for a couple of years at that point – I certainly had well over fifty rejections. I just kept plugging away. And after my next twenty or so picture book ideas were rejected, I switched to writing teenage novels. Even then, it was only my fourth novel, Red Tears, that snaffled me an agent – so, looking back, I’ve been pretty tenacious. And many of my ideas are still rejected – I haven’t discovered a magic secret!
Do you have an agent? And if so, how did you find her?
I don’t at the moment. My agent and I parted ways last January when she left the agency she was working for. We’d had ten years together and she was absolutely instrumental in getting my career off the ground. I found her through Cornerstones, the literary consultancy, with whom I’d been working as a picture book consultant. They looked at my fourth novel and subbed it to three top agents, two of whom wanted to meet me. It was VERY exciting! At the moment, I have good relationships with several editors, so I submit direct to them.
What type of books do you like to read? Do you have a favourite book?
I read almost exclusively children’s and teenage fiction. Both because it’s very useful for my job but also because they’re stonkingly good reads. Recently I’ve read Eve Ainsworth’s new Crush (excellent) and I’m currently halfway through Fallout by Gwenda Bond, a DC-approved teen novel about Lois Lane at high school. I’m loving it – really exciting and clever. Favourite book has always been Good Omens, by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. A masterclass in plotting, big ideas and humour.
What is the best thing about being a writer?
Seeing my name on the front cover of a book. That never gets old.
The periods when no one wants to publish you and you start to wonder if you should pack it all in and go work at Sainsburys, where the pay is better and you get a pension.
And finally, do you have any advice or tips for writers?
I think, really, if someone is meant to be a writer, they will find a way somehow. Yes, reading is important. Writing is important (obviously). Taking criticism is important (sob). BUT when it boils down to it, if you want to do something passionately enough, the only person who can make it happen is YOU.
Thank you, Jo, for sharing your writing life with us.
You’re so welcome! Thanks for having me!
Find out more about Jo here: