By the age of six, British children’s writer Frances Hardinge had already written a short story that included a faked death, attempted poisoning, and a villain being thrown off a cliff – all in a single page!
She’s found her niche writing stories as dark as the black hat she always wears, it’s no surprise she’d always been intrigued by books that have a bit of “malice and danger”.
Not only did she play “elaborate imaginary games” with her younger sister, she also invented stories to put her sibling to bed every night.
The 2015 Costa Book Award winner was in town earlier this month for the 2018 Hong Kong International Young Readers Festival to share her creative insights with local students.
The Oxford graduate started writing at a very young age, but when she began to send her short stories off to magazine publishers at about 16, none of her submissions were successful.
“The best piece of advice I was ever given was to treat your rejection letters or rejection notes as trophies,” Hardinge told Young Post. “The more you have, the more you know that you’re trying, and that you are taking your writing seriously,” she explained.
Looking back, Hardinge can see why the editors had said no to her past work. “I wasn’t very good ... But it was good practice,” she laughed.
No stranger to rejection, Hardinge was also unsuccessful in her application to an English degree programme at the University of Oxford. But she knew she had to reapply the moment she stepped onto the campus for the interview. “I thought, I love this place. I have got to come here. I remember thinking I can think better here [in Oxford,]” she said.
Of course, her never-give-up mentality paid off in the end. She was accepted a year later and was able to hone her writing skills. But her life’s true turning point was when she decided to write with her good university friend Rhiannon Lassiter.
“She had seen a lot of my work, and suggested we try writing something together ... It didn’t quite work ... but we continued writing our separate books and kept meeting,” Hardinge said.
That was when she began to write her debut novel Fly By Night. After writing the first five chapters, Lassiter told her she should submit it to a publisher. Hardinge was reluctant to show her “experiment” to anyone. But her published author friend secretly took Hardinge’s work and showed it to her editor.
“To my surprise, her editor liked my chapters, and gave me a book contract, and then that book went on to win [the 2006 Branford Boase Award]!”
With all the unexpected rewards she’s received ever since writing with Lassiter, Hardinge advises young writers to form a little writers’ group with a friend or two.
“It gives you a deadline, so you’re more likely to get something done. But also, feedback is useful. It lets you know what’s not working ... [and] what is working.”
Hardinge added that it’s very easy to “start second-guessing yourself” and consider giving up while you’re writing, which is why it helps to have a friend to keep encouraging you along the way.
She also wants to remind young writers to not compare themselves to other writers. When you’ve read many great books, she says, it’s common to feel intimidated and think your book will never be as good as theirs. But when this happens, Hardinge remembers something Lassiter told her once: “Nobody else could write your book. You’re the only person who can write your book, so you better go and do it.”
She also encourages aspiring writers to keep writing to stretch their creativity and polish their skills. “No writing is wasted. Don’t be afraid to write rubbish, because sometimes writing rubbish is just something you need to do so that you are able to write [better].”
When Hardinge writes, she likes to write for her younger self. “I try to write a book that the younger me would have enjoyed, but which she had not read ... Something new for her, something to surprise her.”
After publishing eight books, including critically-acclaimed books Cuckoo Song and The Lie tree, she is now working on a new young-adult fantasy fiction that is set in an alternative world.
She said it’s still in the early stages when inspirations are “fleshing out this world”. We can’t wait to see where her imagination will take her this time.