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On The Table Read Magazine, “the best book magazine in the UK“, author JJ Barnes shares the inspiration and creative work that went into her new urban fantasy book, Gracemarch, written based on a script created in partnership with Jonathan McKinney and Cliff Thomas.
Written by JJ Barnes
After spending the last few years interviewing authors about their work and promoting their books, I have today turned these questions on myself to spread the word about my new urban fantasy novel, Gracemarch, and the work that went into developing it from idea, to script, to novel.
Tell me a bit about who you are.
I’m JJ Barnes, co-founder of Siren Stories and editor of The Table Read Magazine. I’m an author, a screenwriter, a blogger, an artist and a mother. I live with my partner, Jonathan McKinney, with whom I co-founded Siren Stories, and our three children, our dog, and our cat.
When did you first WANT to write a book?
As soon as I worked out what a book was. Seriously, I was very little. I was trying to write books before I was capable of writing properly, so I drew pictures to make comic book stories. Everything about books was magical to me. I loved my mum reading stories to me at bedtime, I listened to audiobooks on long car journeys, and as soon as I was capable of reading to myself, I was hidden under the duvet with a torch reading until I fell asleep on the pages.
When did you take a step to start writing?
As soon as I could, but those were of course just simple childish stories. But I was proud of them. I carried a notebook everywhere with me to scribble stories in that I then made my parents read and comment on, and bless their patient hearts, they were (mostly) willing.
In high school I was passionate about my English literature classes, throwing myself at any creative writing project with passion and invariably massively going over the word limit. Write a story over 3 pages? I’ll write 30. My poor teachers were busy enough, they must have dreaded the stack of work I kept handing in. But, I have to say, they were good to me. I remember one teacher, Mrs Speedman, writing that I had breathed life into the bare bones of a story outline. I was thrilled.
How long did it take you to complete your first book from the first idea to release?
About a decade. I first came up with the idea of Lilly Prospero And The Magic Rabbit when I was about 20 years old. I wanted to write a children’s book about a little girl who’s drawings came to life. I was going to illustrate it and aim it for children about 8 years old. However, when I was writing it, I couldn’t help but get lost in the concept that these drawings that came to life were now living, breathing creatures with their own consciousness and right to life. That power over life felt too big and important to properly explore the consequences of in a children’s book.
From that, I developed it to aim at teenagers. Lilly went from being a little girl to a fifteen year old, and faced not just the challenges of a magical power, but also more adult problems faced by teenage girls.
It wasn’t until I met Jonathan McKinney in 2014 and we shared our passion for stories and writing that I was able to develop this book I had been writing and editing for such a long time into a complete novel worthy of reading. We talked story craft, story structure, and characterisation incessantly. We shared our story ideas, worked out what was missing, and spent hours reworking our books. Lilly Prospero And The Magic Rabbit came out when I was 30 years old.
How long did it take you to complete your latest book from the first idea to release?
This is a question with two possible answers because of the way Gracemarch The Novel came about.
The story itself was started in 2017, so in some ways it has taken six years. Gracemarch began as a script which was put into production by Cliff Thomas at Artisan Films in 2018. I came up with the original concept and wrote the original script for a short film, but after Cliff picked it up and the script was read by others, he asked if I could develop it into a feature film or a TV series. From here, Jonathan became involved and we took my ideas and characters and original script, and grew it out into a complete story, with ideas and concepts from Cliff too. It was a real team effort.
This was an incredible experience because when actors began signing on we were sent audition tapes, Ross O’Hennessy who was in Game Of Thrones asked for a part, Viginia Hey from Farscape signed on. Incredible actors were saying our lines and telling our story and we got to spend two weeks driving around the country to different locations, being on film sets, and living a dream.
Then we move onto part two. Due to various delays (I’m looking at you global pandemic), the film production had to be paused and we had no idea if or when we could restart. So, in 2021, I took that original script and began developing it into a novel. I worked with the original script, added scenes to grow the story beyond what could be told in two hours on screen, turned stage direction into prose, and explored character interiority. Now, we have a novel that was written by me, but includes ideas, words and concepts from my team mates, Jonathan and Cliff.
So another answer to this question is that Gracemarch The Novel took two years.
Focusing on your latest release. What made you want to write this book?
I wanted to write a scary story, and I always like to write about women, so I created characters where their relationship was just as intrinsic and interesting as the scary things that were happening around them. I chose sisters because there are fantastic dynamics to explore between siblings; old rivalries, jealousies, but also the fearless loyalty that comes from that blood bond. To me, family is an incredibly important thing, so giving these sisters a mystery about their family that gets scarier and scarier worked well. The ideas developed from there.
What were your biggest challenges with writing it?
Making my own mark on this novel while still respecting the source material that wasn’t all written by my hand. For instance, the scene at the very beginning of the story between Jane and her boyfriend Kevin was written originally by Jonathan. My only involvement in that scene was in the editing process, so it is very much his work and his words. I had to take that scene and develop it, explore Jane’s thoughts and actions, and add extra dialogue and action in a way that felt natural to me, and was clearly in my own voice, but while making sure not to corrupt the words he had written.
Who or what inspired you when creating your Protagonist?
Jane and Cassie are both aspects of who I am, but also aspects of who I aspire to be. Jane Waters is neurotic and anxious, suffers with imposter syndrome and feelings of irrelevancy, and guilt about not achieving as much as a more successful sibling. Basically, I inflicted all my worst traits on her. However, she is also tough, smart, and takes no crap from anybody in a way I just don’t manage. I’m a pushover, and I struggle to stand up for myself. If Jane thinks someone is an ass she has no problem treating them like they’re an ass. I aspire to that.
Cassie Waters is a writer, so in that was she is obviously inspired by me. She’s the older one and, similar to how I mother my daughters, she feels very responsible for Jane and tries to hide any pain from her so that it’s not Jane’s problem. She carries a lot of responsibility to be stable so that Jane can be free to live without the pressure. However, where Cassie is aspirational to me is that she’s a genuinely glamorous, successful author in a way I have not yet achieved!
Who or what inspired you when creating your Antagonist?
This is a tricky one to answer without giving too much away.
There is one antagonist I will keep secret. However, there is also Alexander Silverstone, a high up official in a secret, magical organisation called The Commission. He has Jane and Cassie spied on, and has no problem sharing the fact he is willing to have them killed. He was inspired by the way some people view other human beings as less than human, something that they can use and dispose of without thought or concern if it is convenient to them. He will be your lover, your friend, your colleague, but the moment you stop being of use to him, he will turn on you.
We may not all have someone who is that ruthlessly murderous in our lives, but we’ve probably all met someone who has used us and cast us aside like an object.
What is the inciting incident of your book?
When Jane and Cassie’s mother Christina dies. Prior to that, Jane is living her mundane life, working as a waitress, and very unhappy and unfulfilled, but not doing anything to change it. Cassie is living a glamorous life jetting around the world, but treated badly by her boyfriend and feeling lonely. When their mother dies unexpectedly, the sisters are forced back into each others lives, and back into their family home. That’s when the story really begins, and when they start to learn the truth about their mother.
What is the main conflict of your book?
The sisters are on a journey to discover power they had no idea existed, and The Commission are on a mission to take that power from them.
There is also the conflict between the sisters and their relationship, and the spooky goings on in their mother’s house that are causing problems in their lives.
Did you plot your book in advance, or fly by the seat of your pants and write freely?
The script was planned in a basic outline, then we wrote scenes and worked out what needed adding and developed from there. We had huge white boards where we mapped key moments that had to be hit, and what characters wanted in each scene.
The novel was written following that script.
Did you get support with editing, and how much editing did your book need?
ALWAYS. I am notoriously bad at spelling and grammar. I get so caught up in the words I’m writing and following the pictures I see in my head that I rush, typing quickly and making silly mistakes. My main editor, Jane, is incredibly patient. She reads my work, and sends back a document filled with little red lines, then she reads it again, and sends back the ones I’ve still managed to miss.
What is the first piece of writing advice you would give to anyone inspired to write a story?
Work out who your main character is, work out what they want, work out why they don’t have it, and then send them after it.
Can you give me a hint about any further books you’re planning to write?
I have so many manuscripts on the go. Lilly Prospero Book 3, a follow up to Emerald Wren And The Coven Of Seven that features the characters left behind not Emerald, a YA book about a teenage ghost hunting club, a women’s fiction book about a woman named Meg who is bridesmaid at her best friends wedding, and so many more. SO MANY MORE.
I have so many stories in my head that I struggle to get them all out. And I have so many things I am trying to do every day that I have no time to get them all done as quickly as I want. It’s very stressful!
And, finally, are your proud of your accomplishment? Was it worth the effort?
I really am, actually. I get so nervous before people read my work, and always expect the worst, but I am actually really proud not only of the story, but the work I did to turn that script that I was already proud of into a book.
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