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On The Table Read Magazine, “the best book magazine in the UK“, children’s book author Maxine Johone-Smith shares the inspiration behind her new book, Journey To The Name Maker, about how we get our names.
Written by JJ Barnes
I interviewed Maxine Johone-Smith about her life and career, what inspired her to write her new children’s book, Journey To The Name Maker, and her creative writing process.
Tell me a bit about who you are.
I was brought up and educated in Winchester, Hampshire where I studied art and drama before moving to London for a career spanning over 30 years in creative product development and design. initially in the fast-paced world of fashion, and more recently within the fragrance industry. I have always had a creative mind and vivid imagination and love to create things whether it’s designing a product, experimenting with a new recipe or writing a story.
When I am not writing I spend my spare time cooking, visiting farmers markets, local boutiques and catching up with friends. I currently live in Farnham Common Buckinghamshire, close to Burnham Beeches where I love to power walk in the forest where there are no distractions and I am free to let my imagination run riot. It is during this quiet time that most of my ideas take shape. I have a slight addiction to shopping and have far too many handbags, each one with a unique tale waiting to be told much like the stories I write!
When did you first WANT to write a book?
I remember my parents saying that the power of words was a gift, that a book can transport you to another world where possibilities are limitless. From a very early age, I always imagined that someday I would write a book, that I too would be able to capture all my imaginings and turn them into something tangible that others could share.
I firmly believe in the transformative power of stories. This belief is supported by a growing body of research, which suggests that reading to children has significant benefits for cognitive, emotional and social development. Some of my fondest memories as a child were when my parents read to me. I remember lying in bed listening intently to the stories, and letting my imagination take flight. I visualised the characters and allowed myself to live their adventures in my mind. I loved the closeness and attention I felt whilst being read to. As both my parents worked full time, these moments were very special to me. I think these early experiences ignited the writer in me!
When did you take a step to start writing?
Writing for me has always been a way to escape and to express my thoughts and feelings in a way that feels authentic and meaningful. And so, when the idea of writing a book first came to me, it didn’t feel like a decision but more of a natural evolution.
During the Covid lockdown, I was diagnosed with breast cancer, which completely changed my perspective on life. One of my lifelong dreams was to write a captivating children’s book, so I set about making my dream a reality and “Journey to the Name Maker” was published and launched in August this year.
I believe that when you have a passion for something, you owe it to yourself to pursue it with everything you’ve got. There will always be obstacles and challenges along the way, but if you keep that fire burning inside of you, you can accomplish amazing things. And for me, writing a book has been one of the most rewarding and fulfilling experiences of my life.
How long did it take you to complete your first book from the first idea to release?
Writing the story took around a year to complete but as the author of a book that’s meant to transport readers to a fantasy world, I knew that the illustrations were just as important as the words themselves. Working with the right illustrator was a crucial part of the process. That’s why I searched for an illustrator who not only had an incredible talent for drawing, but who also shared my passion for the story, understood the characters and their personalities, and was able to capture the heart of the story and bring it all to life in visual form. When I found Joanna Scott, an award-winning illustrator with a true gift for translating words into art, I knew that together we would create something magical. The total process took around 2 years from start to finish.
What were your biggest challenges with writing Journey To The Name Maker?
Writer’s block is every writer’s nightmare! It can be incredibly frustrating when you can’t seem to find the right words or ideas to move your story forward.
Writing is also a very personal experience, something that is ‘unique to you’, so having the courage to open yourself up to criticism is hard to do. Any type of rejection or criticism can be discouraging and demotivating but it is a necessary part of the process. Constructive criticism and feedback can be very valuable so it is important be receptive.
Writing is the easy part, but finding the right publisher and getting your work published can be challenging. Even if you have a great book, it can be difficult to get it noticed. The key is to stay focused, persistent, believe in your writing and be committed!
Who or what inspired you when creating your Protagonist?
The central character is inspired by my own teddy bear called Scruffy, whom I have had since childhood. We have been through many journeys and experiences together, and it is these authentic memories and experiences that were the inspiration. The foundation of the story is based on a memory from my childhood; My mother told me that she and my father couldn’t decide what to call me before I was born, my mother liked the name “Michelle” and my father liked “Maxine”. Because they couldn’t decide, they agreed to wait until I was born and see which name fit the best when they saw me. Apparently, they took one look at me and both agreed that I was definitely a “Maxine”. As a child, I found this a fascinating concept so wanted to create a story about how we get our names and whether they are the right ones for us or not!
Who or what inspired you when creating your Antagonist?
The story doesn’t have an antagonist as such, but you could say that the antagonist is the Name Maker. Because he eats too many letter S’s, he gets all his letters mixed up which results in confusion during the naming ceremony. The moral of the story being that we should lead a balanced life, eat a balanced diet and not over indulge in things that can cause problems.
What is the main conflict of Journey To The Name Maker?
The foundation of the story is about inner conflict and about feeling comfortable with who you are. Some ideas touched upon during Scamp’s travels are to follow your dreams and not be afraid to ask questions and look for answers. Through an adventurous journey it teaches us that there is not always a clear way of doing things, and that sometimes we need to look at things from a different perspective in order to overcome challenges, and get to where we need to go.
Did you plot Journey To The Name Maker in advance, or fly by the seat of your pants and write freely?
It was a bit of both. I had an idea for the story, the ending and lots of elements in between, but in order to piece them all together I let this happen organically and evolve as I was writing. I didn’t want to be too prescriptive about the process. Writing should come from the heart and feel authentic so I drew on a lot of personal experiences to create the characters and various chapters on the journey. As an example; the field of Lucky Cows, was based on an experience I had whilst renting a house in Tring.
One day I noticed that all the cows in the field backing onto our garden had numbers on their backs. As they sauntered past the back fence, I would take a note of the numbers and was convinced these were all lucky numbers and I was going to win the lottery! So, I formed a lottery syndicate at work which was named “the lucky cow’s lottery”. Every week I would jot down the numbers from “the lucky cows” and we would buy a ticket hoping that the cows would work their magic. We never won anything but we had a lot of fun trying.
Did you get support with editing, and how much editing did Journey To The Name Maker need?
I didn’t get any professional help with editing but I did a lot of research and used my network of friends and family to get valuable feedback. I think it is vitally important to get your target audience to read your work, in my case 7- to 8-year-olds. I used the feedback I received to make improvements and refine the story.
What is the first piece of writing advice you would give to anyone inspired to write a story?
Writing requires a lot of time and focus, it’s sometimes hard to find some quiet time and space, and be able to just sit and let the creative juices flow! I think all writers struggle with self-doubt, criticism, or the possibility of rejection. But all challenges can be overcome with persistence, practice, and a positive attitude! My top tips would include:
Read widely – The more you read, the more you learn about different styles, genres, and techniques of writing. Reading can also help you improve your vocabulary, grammar, and sentence structure.
Write regularly – Writing is a skill that requires practice, and the more you write, the better you become at it. Set aside a specific time every day to write, even if it’s just for a few minutes.
Write for yourself first – Write what you’re passionate about, and don’t worry about pleasing others or meeting their expectations. Your writing will be most authentic and engaging if it reflects your own voice and passions.
Be ruthless – Once you’ve completed a draft, go back and edit it with a critical eye. Look for areas where you can improve the characters, dialogue, and overall structure of the story.
Get feedback – Share your work with others, specifically your target audience, and ask for feedback. Use that feedback to make improvements and refine your writing.
Keep learning – Attend workshops, take classes, read books on writing, and continue to learn and grow as a writer. There is always something new to discover and ways to improve.
Can you give me a hint about any further books you’re planning to write?
Scruffy and Scamp will be going on more adventures together with Scamp causing mischief along the way. I want to write books that have some moral substance and are fun for children to read as well as for parents to read to children. I believe that reading stories that spark the imagination, but are also thought provoking, can have a positive impact on the development of language skills and the ability to connect with others. It introduces children to new words and encourages communication skills and confidence.
And, finally, are your proud of your accomplishment? Was it worth the effort?
The most enjoyable part of writing for me is the process of creating something new and unique. Whether it’s developing a character, crafting a plot, or exploring a new world, writing allows us to use our imagination and creativity. It is deeply satisfying to see your ideas take shape and evolve over time as you refine and polish your work. Also, writing is a form of self-expression and a way to connect with others. When readers connect with your writing and enjoy your story, it is a very fulfilling experience. I am very proud to have finally realised my own dream of having a book published and hope that people of all ages enjoy reading ‘Journey to Then Name Maker’.
Pop all your book, website and social media links here so the readers can find you:
Facebook & Instagram – Maxinejohonesmithauthor
Website – www.maxinejohonesmithauthor
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