Monday, 14 December 2015

Learning Story Structure from the Christmas Advert War

Festive Face!
Ahhhh, Christmas...mince pies, cosy fires, presents under the tree and the Christmas Advert War.
At their best, these adverts pull at our heartstrings and stick in our minds, at their worst they can leave us baffled or outraged  How do they stir up such strong emotions in such a short space of time? By using classic story telling - the tightness of the  structure, and some emotive tricks. Examining these tiny vignettes gives us a powerful insight into how story works.

Monday, 7 December 2015

Am I Repeating Myself? Am I Repeating Myself?

By Nick Cross

When I started writing this post, it was because I was in the dreaded state of being BETWEEN BOOKS. I waffled on for 500 words about how terrible it was to be BETWEEN BOOKS, but not as terrible as being homeless or liking Donald Trump, but still, it was a real pain not being able to settle to writing something, and isn’t it annoying all those people who always seem to have a hundred projects on the go and can’t resist rubbing your nose in it on social media?

But then I stopped, because I checked out my own blog and discovered that I’d already posted about this at least twice (here and here). And if there’s one thing I hate, it’s the thought that I’m repeating myself.

Monday, 30 November 2015

How To Be Discovered

By Candy Gourlay

Every year I help organise the highlight of my writing year: the SCBWI Conference for children's writers and illustrators in Winchester.

The irony of course is that I don't actually attend the conference. By being one of the organisers, my experience of the conference is that of sorting out the website, hustling behind the scenes, contributing to the programming, supporting the rest of the team, preparing panels, meeting and greeting on the day. But I get a huge kick out of watching something that was just a bunch of ideas turn into a successful reality.

Here I am emceeing the book launch. Thanks to Teri Terry for the photo. In the background celebrating their new books from left to right: Helen Moss, Tim Collins, Helen Peters, Ruth Fitzgerald, Janet Foxley and parrot.

Monday, 23 November 2015

The Fellowship of Writing

by Addy Farmer

Friends celebrate at the SCBWI conference!
A friend is a comrade, chum, compatriot, crony, advocate, ally, a confrere ( I like that word). The bond of friendship is forged by many and varied things - common opinions and values, humour, food, shared experience, even disagreement can bring us together as friends. Friendship can be lifelong or fleeting. We remember friends from when we were little - when everything was supposed to be a great deal less complicated but often was not. Then there's the primary playground where we fell in and out of love with our friends as quickly as the cloud moves across the sun. Then, in a teenage time of change we longed for or adored or hated our friends and most probably all at once.

Monday, 16 November 2015

Notes from the Critique Group - The Gap

by Maureen Lynas

This was a very interesting discussion at the SCBWI BI York critique group involving:
The space that's left for the reader when we SHOW rather than TELL

Leaving THE GAP gives the reader a role to play in the story as they infer and interpret the text. There's a balance to be had between showing and telling depending on the genre, age group, and experience of the reader.

Monday, 2 November 2015

Once Upon a Saga – Fables and the Art of Long-Form Storytelling

By Nick Cross

After 13 years, 14 Eisner Awards, 150 issues and almost 6,000 pages, the Vertigo comic book series Fables has reached its end. What began as a simple postmodern twist on fairy tales quickly evolved into a sprawling, beautiful, dark, engrossing, ambitious and occasionally frustrating saga. As I closed the cover on the final volume, I felt both exhilaration and the sad pang of loss. Under those circumstances, it seemed only fitting to introduce this tremendous grown-up comic series to a wider audience and also take the opportunity to explore the challenge of writing truly long-form stories.

Monday, 26 October 2015

Making things up: Getting Started

By Teri Terry

Part 2 in Making Things Up: a blog series about the creative process. like writing. You think you’ve got a knack for it, and you have some things to say. Or maybe you’ve written loads already, and the time has come to write something new, but you’re stuck. How do you get started?

Monday, 19 October 2015

The Many Faces of Diversity

By Candy Gourlay

So let's be honest. We authors are terrified of diversity in children's books.

Are we doing it right? Are we offending anyone by not including/including a character who is 'other' in our stories? Who is allowed to write about other cultures/races/sexual orientations? Who should be offended? Who should just keep their mouths shut?

I have publicly expressed some views on diversity (read Growing up I thought Filipinos were not allowed to be in books), but in the main, I have to confess I have been careful not to step in to the public spats that burn across the world of social media like brushfires that are hard to put out. I keep my counsel not just because I am so busy it feels like I'm drowning, but because the heat is intense.

And yet here I am, described by many as one of the UK's 'diverse authors'.

Monday, 12 October 2015

Can You See A Sunset Without Looking? Exploring the Visual Imagination

by Addy Farmer

I wonder if you can summon up the image of a glorious sunset inside your head? Can you capture the nuance of colour in the sky, the shape of the sun, the texture of the scene? I'll leave that one with you for now.

This ability is sometimes referred to as 'the mind's eye':

Monday, 5 October 2015

Here be Sarah Mussi - How to End a Story

Candy Gourlay interviews Sarah Mussi on the final stop of the Here Be Dragons Blog Tour

Candy Gourlay: I keep banging on about how the book industry is putting too much emphasis on pitch and opening hooks to the detriment of the rest of the work. What about the middle? I find myself complaining. What about the ending?  As it happens, my lovely pal Sarah Mussi has been stomping through a blog tour to promote her new book Here Be Dragons. In the course of the tour, Sarah's blogged about the way she structured her novel along the lines of the three-act structure. Viz:

So far, she's talked about The Hook, The Inciting Incident, The First Turning Point, The Point of No Return, The Darkest Hour, and Act 3 and The Climax. Notes from the Slushpile is her seventh and final stop. Lucky us, she's offered to discuss:

Monday, 28 September 2015

Frankenwriter: How to Bring Your Character's Voice To Life

By Kathryn Evans
Kathryn Evans - New Girl On The Blog

Learning the mechanics of story is pretty straightforward.  Basically you need a Beginning, a Middle and an End. OK, it’s slightly more complicated than that but there are many excellent resources that’ll break it down for you – our own Maureen Lynas tells you how in Five Bricks of Story and Life and Seven Steps for Plotting and Pacing 

You can even buy software programmes to help: the Snowflake method has been recommended to me on a couple of occasions.

You can learn all this, you can follow it to the letter, and then you can read your story and find it is a dead thing. You may have the mechanics but where is the heart? Where is the spark? Where do you get the bolt of lightening that allows your Frankenbook to rise from the table and live, LIVE, LIVE!

Monday, 21 September 2015

Notes from the Critique Group - Awesome First Lines

By Maureen Lynas

The second post highlighting literary issues raised in critique groups. This came up recently at our SCBWI BI critique group in York.

Awesome first lines

What are we aiming for?

I've written an awesome first line that will wow the agents and engage the reader.
I've written an appropriate first line that will wow the agents and engage the reader.

We've seen some amazing first lines in our critique group. Lines that have that wow factor. Lines that we've loved, admired and wished we'd written.

Unfortunately, they weren't always appropriate for the story that followed. They set a tone, an expectation, a hint of a totally different story, a totally different world, and genre. It's so easy to fall into the trap of creating a darling but a first line has a job to do so you may have to assassinate yours.

Monday, 14 September 2015

Making things up: because I’m a writer, and that’s what they do

by Teri Terry
Teri/computer hybrid
Making Things Up: a new blog series about the creative process

I haven’t blogged for Slushies in ages – sorry! One of the reasons – the main one, really – is because I’d hit a point where I felt like I didn’t have anything useful to say to aspiring writers, our original target audience. 

Note: please keep reading even if you fit another category – as a blog, we’ve grown!

Monday, 7 September 2015

Keeping the Darkness on the Page - a Writer’s Guide to Building Resilience

By Nick Cross

To the uninitiated, writing appears to be a simple process of putting words onto the page. But the fact that I’ve re-written the sentence you’ve just read six times seems to indicate that perhaps it’s not that easy. To write well requires us to make a deep personal connection with the material, and this is where the trouble starts.

Ernest Hemingway famously said:
“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

A trifle melodramatic, you might think, and just imagine the mess it caused to the internal workings of his typewriter! But we understand exactly what he meant. And there’s another use of the word “bleed” that is even more pertinent to the writing experience – the way that our daily experiences, ideas and emotions bleed into our work. Writing is not an activity that respects boundaries, in fact it actively thrives on recycling our happiest and saddest moments, tapping into our deepest fears and exposing our most shameful thoughts.

Monday, 31 August 2015

Winter is Coming

by Addy Farmer

About two minutes ago, the Summer Holidays stretched out like this ...

not a computer in sight
There were delicious plans afoot: After a suitable number of days lolling in bed followed by jumping about in the garden, me and my family would go on holiday, read masses, get into all sorts of scrapes, rescue anything that stood in the way and actually climb a mountain. Not only that but I would have loads and loads of time to WRITE.

Moominpapa could write whenever he wanted to
Inevitably, it didn't turn out like that. I will not bore you, dear reader, with the list of what got in the way of my perfectly reasonable expectations but it was mostly to do with not living in the 1950s. I did write, in snatches, but it was mostly editing and revising. It's good to have the quiet head-space for that full-on flowing and original story writing.

Never mind because in the end reading is the stuff of writing.

Monday, 24 August 2015

What We Authors Can Learn from Jackie Chan

By Candy Gourlay

One lazy evening, while googling Jackie Chan fight scenes (as one does), I found myself watching this video by Tony Zhou (of the Every Frame a Painting YouTube channel):

In his video, Tony points out that Hong Kong director and action hero Jackie Chan blends comedy and action in a way that Western directors do not. The film lists ways by which Jackie Chan manages to create action with a comic twist.

As I listened to Tony's pointers and watched Jackie Chan twirling gracefully through fight scene after fight scene, I found myself having little epiphanies - not about action comedy, but about writing.

Monday, 17 August 2015

Notes from the Critique Group

By Maureen Lynas

When Candy said - Would you like to start blogging on the slushpile again? - I said yes immediately. Then spent two months thinking – what about?

The size of my slushpile? Done. It’s even bigger than when I first blogged about it. It wobbles now. Sometimes it sways. It may topple.

The seven steps to pacing and plotting? Done. But I could talk about the steps for ever. So that theme was a possible.

The five bricks of story? Done.  I think I'm up to seven now.

Show not tell? Done, said Maureen as she exhibited frustration, annoyance and desperation through her body language.

To procrastinate I read Jennie Nash's excellent post on writing groups (on Jane Friedman’s blog) because our SCBWI BI York group was about to meet.

Monday, 10 August 2015

Surviving the Slushpile

A note from Candy Gourlay: Dear Slushpile Readers, we are so pleased to introduce you to our latest acquisition on Notes from the Slushpile, the swashbuckling and most divine, soon to be bestselling YA author, Kathryn Evans aka @mrsbung. Kathy has long been a fellow journeywoman on the rocky road to publication and we are thrilled that her novel More of Me is going to be published next year by Usborne. Kathy likes to say she's a farmer's wife but she does a lot more than wifery on that farm, I can tell you. The KidLit world doesn't know what's about to hit it ... we're all going to be hearing a lot about Kathy very soon.  

Monday, 3 August 2015

How to Self-Promote Without Losing Yourself in the Process

By Nick Cross

Whether you’re traditionally published, self-published or still trying, the pressure to promote yourself has never been greater. We’re exhorted to “get out there and build a platform” via social media and word of mouth. But while some authors manage this transition gracefully, there are others who undergo a Jekyll and Hyde transformation, turning into publicity-hungry monsters.

Monday, 27 July 2015

Pat Walsh - Keep Writing, Keep Reading and Never Give Up

Pat Walsh is one of my tip-top favourite writers. I relish her beautiful prose, I admire her sparkling story-telling and her characterisation is warm and real. I wanted to know about Pat, her life, her work, her address, the restraining order is an effective deterrent. So read on, for all about Pat and her TOP TEN TIPS for writers. Addy Farmer

Pat Walsh was born in Kent, and spent her early years in Africa and Ireland. Her family eventually returned to the UK and settled in Leicestershire. From the age of nine, she knew she wanted to be an archaeologist, and she still works in archaeology today. She live in Bedfordshire with her husband, three rats and two goldfish, and is the proud owner of two grown up children. Her first book for children, THE CROWFIELD CURSE, was shortlisted for the Times/Chicken House competition, the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize, and the Branford Boase Award. It was published in 2010 by Chicken House. The second book in the series, THE CROWFIELD DEMON, was published in the UK April 2011 and the US in January 2012. THE HOB AND THE DEERMAN, the first book in a new series (Hob Tales), was published in 2014.

Monday, 20 July 2015

How to Organize a Book Launch Party

If you follow me on Facebook, you'll know that I attend a LOT of launch parties.

At the spring launch of my pal Joe Friedman's warmhearted book The Secret Dog

I try to accept invites when I can. I know the agony and ecstasy of writing a book. I also know that without a launch party, the publication of a book feels like a great big non-event. It was in your head and then suddenly, it's out in the world. There is no fanfare, no applause, no big moment of passing from one state into the next.

Monday, 13 July 2015

Why we should all be more like Shakespeare

By Candy Gourlay and Moira McPartlin

This Wednesday, 15 July, at 6.30 PM at the Barbican Library, Candy will be in conversation with Scottish author Moira McPartlin at the London launch of Ways of the Doomed

CANDY GOURLAY: Moira, I've been reading Ways of the Doomed in preparation for our forthcoming event at the Barbican Library and the thing that immediately leaps out about the book is the inventive use of language. You play with words like a rock star riffing on his electric guitar - it is interesting, crazy making and pretty brave with lots of Scottish thrown in.

'For jupe sake,' one character swears mildly. He gets 'fair puggled' when he's tired. Another character 'puts his hands on the wall and takes a swatchie at the sky.'

The bending of language in young fiction has always fascinated me as an other-culture author who writes for a Western readership. When I'm writing my Filipino characters, I try to capture the music and humour of Filipino-ness without actually using Filipino words. It's a tremendous juggle, because not only must the Western reader get my character, my Filipino reader must see nothing askance.

Moira, is the creative use of language a signifier that this book is set not just in another culture but another, future time?

MOIRA MCPARTLIN: When I was writing it I knew three things about my book:

(1) It is set in the future, the year 2089 to be exact.

(2) The sixteen year old protagonist mean the book would be a good read for teens.

(3) Points one and two mean that I’d better play smart when creating a future world. The play smart device I used was language. Not a whole lot of gobbledygook, hard to remember language that often pops up in pure Sci-Fi. Nothing tech or geeky, just a smattering of different words, invented words, play-on words, and some good old Scots.

CANDY: Good old Scots! I'm still recovering from when Christina Banach taught me the word bahookie - as in 'shift yer bahookie'! From the sound of your book though, it's not just Scottishness that drives your playfulness with language.

MOIRA: I am no language expert, I failed my higher English after all! But language and vocabulary fascinate me. I love the way it evolves. New languages were introduced into Britain firstly by invaders and then by centuries of immigrants. English has moved from Old English, to the Middle English we can read in Chaucer and onward into Modern English. New words arrived from the days of the Empire, from the Colonies and are constantly required to keep up with technologies and with moving populations.

And words don’t just arrive, some words leave, take root elsewhere and return home. My particular favourite is ‘smashing.’ This word is thought to have come from the US sometime in the 20th Century, but some Gaels I’ve spoken to claim its origins are from the Gaelic phrase “is math sin” pronounced “sma shin” meaning good or fine. Could it be that this word left Britain during the Highland Clearances, settled in the US and made its back to us via WWII GIs or Television? There is some debate about this but the Gaels are sticking to their story and so they should, it’s a good one.

So this mishmash of influences can be used by any writer to invent words to give unique voice in our imagined worlds.

CANDY: I think you're very brave. English is my second language and I am often daunted by my non-nativeness. How dare I try to make a language not my own do my bidding!

What makes me keep going though is the fact that our readers are young people who have no hang ups about language. Almost ten years ago now, I attended a keynote by young adult author Scott Westerfeld on the subject of writing teen slang. Here's an excerpt from the piece I wrote YA Voice and Teen Vernacular:

“When you are a teenager you are still in the act of acquiring language ,” Scott told us. “One of the reasons I really like YA is that teenagers are more interested in voice than adults.”
Teenagers, he says, write more poetry per capita. They play more word games. They memorise more song lyrics. They like to spell things creatively. And a high percentage are in fact learning a language in school. 

Nine years later, re-reading my report on Scott's speech, I marvel not only at how USEFUL the talk was for us writers targeting teen readers, but how RESPECTFUL Scott was of the way teens use language, presenting the manipulation of language into slang as something to be admired. That's the kind of author I want to be, I thought.

Which is why I propose we writers of young adult and teen novels should be more like Shakespeare. Check out this video from 2007 of master YA author John Green (one of my favourite John Green videos) teaching his readers how to insult each other like Shakespeare:

Wasn't Shakespeare the master at making up words?

MOIRA: Shakespeare is reported to have invented over 1700 words currently in use today. He did this by changing nouns to verbs, joining words, using prefixes and manipulating words from foreign languages. By using these simple techniques he invented words that were exciting, surprising and, because of their familiar roots, were also easily understood.

Advertising, amazement, luggage, eyeball, monumental, moonbeam, bloodstained, undress, besmirched, discordant. discontent, premeditation - all words attributed to Shakespeare!

Incidentally, Shakespeare may not have invented the word ‘selfie’ but he has been credited as inventing the Emoticon. According to the Fifth Columnist Blog, in the First Folio of William Shakespeare’s plays : ) follows right after the naming of a character called Sir Smile.

CANDY: I like what Scott Westerfeld says about young people having no fear of recreating language. I think of Scott whenever I meet a teacher complaining about the way young people talk today!

MOIRA: In the novel 1984, George Orwell, famously invented Newspeak. Wikipedia describes it as “a controlled language created by the totalitarian state as a tool to limit freedom of thought and concepts (such as freedom and peace) that pose a threat to the regime.”

It is interesting that few Newspeak words have evolved into today’s language except the word Newspeak itself which has become the generic term for attempts to restrict disapproved language by the powers that be. Sadly we see more and more examples of this every day. It is fascinating to note that the two concepts from 1984 that have entered into our world as TV programmes and subsequently our vocabulary are Big Brother and Room 101.

CANDY: I could feel the influence of 1984 in Ways of the Doomed.

MOIRA: Well, I took my own advice and put the mishmash of influences to test.

The land where Ways of the Doomed is set is called Esperaneo so of course I use a few words from Esperanto, the universal language constructed in 1887 that today has over 2,000,000 fluent speakers worldwide 4.

CANDY: Yup, Scott Westerfeld warns writers not to use new slang for teen stories. It gets old too quickly. His advice was: steal it from really far away. In Uglies, he appropriated the 18th century word 'bogus' as slang used by his dystopic teenagers to mean 'no good'.

MOIRA: The easiest language for me to use is Scots or rather the mash up of Scots words I inherited from my parents. My family are from the Scottish Borders but we moved to Fife, just north of Edinburgh, when I was small. It wasn’t until I went to school in Fife that I realised that not everyone spoke like us. Words like speeder (spider), rummelled (a cross between rolled and pummelled) were alien to Fifers. Oh how they laughed!

But many other pure Scots words are wonderful to use in English text because of their onomatopoeia qualities, not just sounds but feelings too. Words like boak (to be sick) and stoondin (throbbing).
I also made up words from foreign roots. The black marketers in Ways of the Doomed are called the Noiri (noir being French for black) and one communication device that is placed in the ear is a Tympan from tympanic membrane or eardrum.

CANDY:  What fun! Okay, that makes me want to quote from that Scott Westerfeld article again:

“Teens are saying: I care about language, I am having fun with language; (slang) is pure emphasis on the joy and expansiveness of language. And that’s a perfectly good reason for slang.” 
When I was reading Ways of the Doomed, I could certainly feel your joy in expanding the language! But we've also got the gatekeepers to think about, don't we? When editing was almost done on my last novel, Shine, my editor emailed me saying something like, "Hey, you've only got one swear word (is CR*P even a swear word?) - take it out and your book could get a younger reader or two." The word was not particularly important to the story so we took it out.

MOIRA: In YA novels there is a risk that the over-use of swear words could put off many vetoing parents and teachers. I was conscious if this while writing later drafts so I duplicated some blasphemous words with the names of planets instead of gods, but I found this unoriginal. Then I discovered the army acronym SNAFU (you can google the meaning!) and came up with the swear word snaf. It works in most situation when an expletive is needed.

The most fun I had was making words from consumer goods. We live in a consumer world, in a world where Google has become a verb and Apples don’t always crunch. In my world old men have Brillo-brows, skin can be Areo’d and foreheads can Pringle. Once started the possibilities become endless. I am well into the sequel and already new words are appearing like speeder’s web on a Noiri man’s wallet.

CANDY:  Thanks for guesting on Notes from the Slushpile, Moira. Congratulations on another promising book. I hope gazillions of readers buy it!

MOIRA MCPARTLIN made a big impact with her debut novel The Incomers, which tells the tale of a West African woman moving to a small town in 1960s Scotland. It was shortlisted for the Saltire Society First Book of the Year Award and was a critical success. Moira is also a prolific writer of short stories and poetry, which have been published in a wide variety of literary magazines. She has delivered workshops to a wide range of audiences including Shell Oil executives, teenage singles mothers, refugees and asylum seekers and young offenders at HMYOI Polmont. She currently lives in Stirlingshire. Ways of the Doomed is the first book in the Sun Song Trilogy. It was published in June 2015 by Saraband.

Monday, 6 July 2015

Stats from the Slushpile: A Decade of Dreaming

By Nick Cross

Hello again, slush fans. As anyone who's seen my Museum of Me series will attest, I like to keep hold of stuff from my past and inflict it upon share it with my loyal readers. Now that I've been writing seriously for a decade (actually slightly more, but 10 & 3/4 years didn't sound as good) it felt like time to take stock of my journey so far.
And what a journey it hasn't been. Well, not in the way I expected when I started out. For much of the time, I was driven by the conviction that my current book would soon be published, and I'd be on my way to fame and fortune. I was desperate but not entirely deluded, and got damn close on several occasions. Yet, my route to actual publication (and a smidgeon of critical acclaim) has come via a magazine, which wasn't a medium I'd even considered when starting out.

In writing this blog post, I also realised how many unresolved "issues" I have with the publishing industry and my position within it as an author (my position as an employee is thankfully much more settled). I thought this would be an easier post to write than my piece on stepping outside your comfort zone, but it was much, much harder. The reality of being on the slushpile is something that confronts all of us in the modern publishing world, where books go in and out of print constantly. It's a harsh environment, with sudden, glorious highs and some sickening lows that make you want to jack it all in and do something sensible with your life.

And yet, I'm still here, still writing and contemplating yet another jump into the world of submissions, false hope and form rejections. So, in tribute to that heroic and inadvisable urge, I present some infographics to chart each book from my decade of dreaming:

(Click images to enlarge)

The New Janice Powley was my first attempt at a novel and (so far) my only YA. I didn't know much about writing a book, so I just sort of wrote scenes as they came into my head, hoping to stitch them together later. This turned out to be a considerable job, as when I started to type up my hand-written first draft, I discovered I'd written more than 140,000 words! Over many months, with the help of a friend who was a trainee editor, I whittled it down to 80,000 and (mostly) got it to make sense.

In hindsight, getting two full manuscript reads of a book that, nowadays, would be little more than 99p Kindle fodder was an amazing achievement. But of course, I didn't see it like that - I wanted to be published, dammit!

Back from the Dead (a zombie horror comedy) was my golden ticket - the book that was going to get me out of obscurity and onto the bestseller lists, allowing me to give up my job (which at the time I hated) and settle into life as a full-time writer. Clearly, none of those things happened, and there's a part of me that still blames myself for blowing my big chance (however unwarranted that criticism is).

After I won a place in Undiscovered Voices 2010, a lot of things happened in quick succession: I got an agent! I rewrote 80% of the book! I got a publisher interested! I rewrote half the book again! I became clinically depressed from all the stress and expectation I was piling upon myself! I had the worst year of my life!

Be careful what you wish for.

The zombies had died a death, but my agent wanted us to strike again while the iron was hot. Even though I was still horribly messed-up and depressed-down, I launched into a new children's novel. The setting for Die Laughing - a world in which no-one could laugh or be happy, for fear of sudden, violent death - closely mirrored my daily life, where I had become gripped by the fear that I was about to die (a common symptom of depression, apparently). Thus, Die Laughing became my magnum opus and possibly the last book I would ever write.

To be fair to my agent, I'm not sure how much of my mental state was visible in my emails to her, as I apologised at monthly intervals for missing my deadlines for delivery of the first draft. The irony being that, when I finally did finish it, she took her own sweet time to decide that she hated it and would not represent it unless I made significant (and in my opinion disastrous) changes.

Feeling confused and betrayed, I terminated our arrangement, wrote another draft on my own terms and sent it out to some editors who'd expressed an interest. But my confidence in the book had long departed.

SuperNewman and MegaBeth (a riot of slapstick superhero silliness with a bittersweet subtext about mental illness) marked the point where I got serious again. No more would I be weighed down by the fear of rejection - this book was going out to as many people as possible. But I didn't want to just go through the Writers' and Artists' Yearbook and send blanket queries to everyone, no matter how inappropriate - I would select the recipients carefully and tailor the submissions. As anyone who's done this knows, it's a lot of work! I also kept ever more detailed statistics, which you can see reflected in the infographic.

The average time taken to reply to an initial submission works out at 5.4 weeks, which was less than I'd imagined. Actually, most agents replied within a month, and there were just a couple who took a really long time, which dragged down the averages.

The rewrite story looks very similar to the one I experienced on Back from the Dead, but it wasn't really. Yes, the book still got rejected at the end of it, but unlike the fear and loathing last time, reworking SuperNewman and MegaBeth was one of the best writing experiences of my life. In just six weeks I took the book down from 45,000 to 15,000 words, replacing one of the main characters and keeping only the most awesome parts of the original story. There was something very freeing about that.

* * *

Consider all this, then, as an exorcism of the last ten years - the blog post I had to write before I could finally move on. The past is long gone and the future again twinkles with hope and expectation. Meanwhile, in the present, I'm taking every step to make sure my latest book doesn't disappear without a fight. A decade on from when I started, the options available to me as an author have increased dramatically, and there are all sorts of alternative funding and publishing methods available if the traditional gatekeepers aren't interested. It's time to stop dreaming and take my fate into my own hands.


Nick Cross is a children's writer, Undiscovered Voices winner and Blog Network Editor for SCBWI Words & Pictures Magazine.
Nick's writing is published in Stew Magazine, and he's recently received the SCBWI Magazine Merit Award, for his short story The Last Typewriter.

Monday, 29 June 2015

There's a Ghost in my House

by Addy Farmer

There's a ghost in my house but don't tell the children and especially not the child who's bedroom it seems to haunt. Gather round, reader and I'll tell you. For some reason (don't probe), I was sleeping in the guest room of our fairly big Victorian house. The previous owner had put a brass door knocker in the shape of a fox on the hall side of the door. In the early hours, I woke to hear a tap tap tap on the door. I shifted, waited and it came again. Tap, tap, tap. Not loud, just insistent. Like the sound a fox knocker might make. My guts shrivelled, I stilled myself to stone and willed it to stop. It did not. I crept out of bed on rubbery legs, lungs tight. Reader, I turned that handle ... onto an empty corridor. I breathed again. Maybe it was fanciful but I felt that in opening the door I had done the right thing. Contrary to what my head told me, I obeyed my heart and left the door open. The tapping stopped.

The next day I removed the knocker.

What is it about doors? My second ghost story also involves a doorway and the third one well ... but more of that later. I love a good ghost story but the reality of it scares me. I want to be the kid who goes into the haunted room, who dares to uncover the spooky truth but the reality is that I wouldn't have the courage. So, I do the next best thing and write about ghosts and fear so that I can make my hero do the squirm-making thing I would not do. I want my readers guts to shrivel. 

Well, I have gathered a few stories and some spooky thoughts and observations from our lovely slushpile readers. Even if you don't like them there are plenty of readers who do. Alice Hemming says, "I do not like reading ghost stories at all because anything too scary keeps me awake at night.  Despite this, for the past couple of years in October I have helped Year 6 at my local primary school with their spooky story writing project. They all seem to LOVE writing spooky stories."
So, maybe what follows will inspire the beginnings of a story or illustrate how to frighten yourself or your reader into an early grave. 


Tales of the supernatural have been around for a very very long time, right back to Pliny in fact.
"There was at Athens a large and roomy house, which had a bad name, so that no one could live there. In the dead of the night, a noise — resembling the clashing of iron — was frequently heard, which, if you listened more attentively, sounded like the rattling of chains," disturbances that led to the appearance of a specter "form of an old man, of extremely emaciated and squalid appearance, with a long beard and dishevelled, hair, rattling the chains on his feet and hands.
I'm not saying that I'd like to meet him but chain-rattling, shrivelled old man sounds more like a Halloween spook to me.

only scary if you are a cat or three years old
The ghost can come in as many forms as there are people (or animals) but a bit on the pale and still side.
 "I love ghost stories for the shiver of Otherness they bring - the tap on the door on a wild night when you don't expect anyone to call, the footsteps overhead in the empty house. I think less is more - you need to get the imagination of the reader really going - and I'm sure we all have creepy stories to share. Mine is walking home up an unlit country road at two o clock in the morning one very dark night and passing someone who was standing absolutely stone still in the middle of the road, who neither spoke nor moved as much as an inch as I hurried by." Katherine Langrish
No, I would NOT have stopped to warn that unnaturally still being about the dangers of oncoming traffic either because deep down, you just know about the 'wrongness' of some situations. Creeping realisation is a ghastly stomach-plummeting sensation. It is a, was-that-what-I-thought-it-was moment which lasts and becomes the stuff of re-telling.  

The best ghosts are the ones which are unobvious. 


Just why??

If I were in my right mind, I would go nowhere near this property, let alone think of buying it (It happens). Apart from the clear indication of massive spiders plus a lifetime of DIY, the place is clearly HAUNTED. That the house is stuffed with spectral goings-on, does not so much whisper in your ear as smack you round the head. I prefer a more insidious approach.
It would look perfectly normal except that one single thing, perhaps an angle between door and ceiling, would be wrong. One of my old homes. And the ghost there is my former self, or someone I left behind without realising it. Cliff McNish
You may live in such a house and you try and explain it to yourself as the creakings and grumblings of an old house or maybe the gurglings of the unfixed pipes or merely the sun failing to reach the shifting shadows which crouch in certain corners of certain rooms but still they just won't go away. Then they get worse until you have to accept the realisation that your house is a place for the dead and not for the living. Sometimes your worst fear is only confirmed once you have moved ...
I felt uneasy from the start, but dismissed this as I being strange (after living 17 years in the same house) and there being no street lights, so very dark. Odd things happen, like the radio in the kitchen turning itself on in the middle of the night on several occasions, until I turned it off at the plug every night. Things moved while I was out and I heard footsteps upstairs when no one was there. When my daughter - 22 at the time - came back from a year in New Zealand, she spend one night in the guest bedroom then said she wanted to sleep in the other smaller room. After a couple of weeks she confessed she felt there was something in the guest room she had moved out of. She said it was a man and described a lot about him. I knew there had only been one person who lived in the house before us and from what I knew the description could have been him. I asked my next door neighbour about him - without reference to anything about thinking he was still there. Everything my daughter had said matched, a lot of things that had happened tied up to his behaviour too, such as he spent most of his time sitting in the kitchen listening to the radio. Bekki Hill
Shudder. Yes, you lived with the dead for a while.

Of course, it doesn't have to be a house. It could be anywhere - an airport, a theatre, a pub or a hospital ...
"I grew up with a grandmother who told the best ghost stories, all of them supposedly true. That sense of things just out of sight and unexplained has always fascinated me and it was inevitable that the supernatural would crop up in my writing. One story my grandmother told me was about a time when she worked as a nurse in a small private hospital in Ireland, many years ago. She had become friendly with a dying woman and often sat with her when her shift was over. One day, when she was on the night shift, she came in to work and walked up through the quiet building to the ward where the dying patient had a small private room. As she reached the landing, she heard the woman calling her name and she hurried to see what the matter was. She found the room empty, and one of the other nurses told her that the woman had died several hours earlier, calling out for her. Whether or not you believe in ghosts, though, a good spooky tale is the perfect reading matter for a winter night by the fire. One of the best supernatural stories I've read in a long time is Dark Matter by Michelle Paver - the perfect blend of icy darkness and subtle threat!" Pat Walsh
It could be a place. Rosemary Sutcliffe in her ancient Roman Britain tale of adventure, The Eagle of the Ninth wrote one of the most chilling supernatural paragraphs of place. When Esca and Marcus enter the ancient temple ...

"The black darkness seemed to press against his eyes, against his whole body, and with the darkness, the atmosphere of the place ... it was horribly personal. For thousands of years this place had been the centre of dark worship... Marcus felt that at any moment he would hear it breathe, slowly and stealthily, like a waiting animal." Rosemary Sutcliffe

This a wild, ancient and threatening kind of supernatural. It is a haunted space based on fear of the unknown, on basic human instinct, in fact. It is an atmosphere conjured up by a common belief in a powerful, guardian spirit. But we're grown up now, aren't we? We're above all that ignorant, illogical nonsense? My head says, yes, of course but such stories still have the power to make my little heart beat faster.


The obvious time for all those ghoulies and ghosties is at night, in the deep dark, possibly midnight. It works for me.

The dark brings on all those primeval fears of the unseen, the unknown. The final dark that comes with death.
"The first one (ghost), that I remember, was when I was about 10 or 11 and staying at a friend’s house. The house was built round the turn of the last century and was quite a rambling place. I got up in the middle of the night to go to the loo, and on returning to the bedroom, saw an old man coming up the staircase. I knew immediately he wasn’t “real” but I didn’t think he was going to harm me, but he was pretty frightening – small and hunched over and seemed quite bad-tempered – so I hot-footed it back to bed!" Nicky Schmidt
Yet the daylight can bring more subtle and surprising fear. One of the best short stories I've read was called 'The Clock', I forget the author (don't hate me). It was set on a hot Summer's day and a young person had been given the seemingly innocuous job of fetching a clock from a particular bedroom for his Aunt. It all came together - the increasingly stifling heat, the blinding light, the just-emptied rooms, lingering creaks, the swollen wood of the windows he tried to escape from and the loud ticking of the unwound clock. I was so relieved that the hapless protagonist, clearly given the task by a scared relative, escaped. I shared his horror and relief as he looked back at the sunny face of the house. How had that been so terrifying? Probably because it shouldn't have been and is the nearest sensation to my second story for you, set in Summer and involving a doorway...

It's just upstairs - it won't take you a moment ...
It was summer and I was spending a couple of days at my grandmother's rambling old house. She asked me to go to the sewing room and retrieve a lampshade she was working on. I went up the main stairs and along the sunlit corridor, took the dog-leg creaking staircase up to the attic, up, up. There was only a doorway and the sunlit sloping-ceilinged sewing room beyond. On the tiny landing, there to my left, was a small square window over looking the garden. I glanced down and the lawn was empty but I became aware that someone else was beside me looking out. I froze. My breathing shallowed. I heard nothing, I saw nothing but I KNEW that there was something very, very close.
I forced myself through the doorway and grabbed any old lampshade from that well-lit, well used room and ran passed the window and down the stairs. I never went up to the attic again and my grandmother moved soon afterwards.


I think you need to give your ghost a reason to live; that it to say, a purpose in coming back. Many short stories are about the given notion that a place or a house is haunted and it is all about how your protagonist comes to stumble into the way of the ghost. Then the flesh on the bones of the story is how he or she reacts to it. Longer stories need to have reasons for why the ghost haunts. In fact, the ghost's story may well be resolved along with any issues the protagonist may have.
"I do come back to ghosts. I think it's because they are such driven characters. After all, they must be desperate for something if they've stayed behind. That makes them instantly intriguing, even when you have no idea who they are yet." Cliff McNish
I sometimes feel so sad for ghosts. They are the ones left behind and they don't like it. They are creatures of such powerful longings; lost love, snatched life, unresolved family doings. All these yearnings are sustained by powerful emotions like anger or jealousy or love. By staying behind it seems that ghosts have lost their more rounded emotions and are left trapped in a loop of FEELING and an inability to deal with it. Like, Lindsey Barraclough's, Long Lankin, the monster at the heart of the story has a sad history. It has twisted to become a consuming thirst for revenge. In this case our hero must discover his weakness and defeat him.

"No one but the dead can love life so much. It's wasted on the living." Cliff McNish


Some 'true' stories become the best written ghost stories.
"Take the curious case of Hinton Ampner. The abbreviated version goes something like this: in 1771, a woman named Mary Ricketts became so exhausted from a parade of inexplicable terrors that she packed her bags and quit her home. Apparitions of a man and a woman had appeared day and night, sometimes looking in through windows, sometimes bending over beds. That she felt her children were in danger is one of the many reasons why this is almost certainly the “lost” true ghost story that was supposedly related to Henry James by the Archbishop of Canterbury, EW Benson, one winter evening in 1895, thereby becoming the germ of the story that developed into The Turn of the Screw."
The academic, M.R. James invented a genre of his own, the antiquarian ghost story. In these, the protagonist is an elderly scholar who discovers some ancient artefact which brings down its wrath upon him. His stories are very much based on how he led his own academic life and his readings. One of my favourites is, 'Oh Whistle and I'll Come To You, My Lad.'

Behind you!

Another favourite is, The Treasure of Abbot Thomas. It is the story of a scholar who tells a rector the tale of how, while searching an abbey library, he found clues leading him to the hidden treasure of a disgraced abbot. All the way through I want to shake the protagonist by the shoulders and tell him to, "put it back before it's too late!" 

But of course, he does not listen, they never listen ...

There are so many wonderful ghost stories out there. If you don't have any true tales of your own then here's a list of of great ghost stories to start you off. I love a good list.
I would love to hear more ...

"I was writing the opening to BREATHE when, without me realising it, the winter light had faded outside, leaving the house dark. I left my study and went to turn the light on in the corridor. At the same moment I heard a really strange noise downstairs. It was very unsettling, like a word being uttered but not quite. I've never been able to explain it, or why it was so unnerving. It's my M.R. James moment." Cliff McNish

The ghost story is possibly the oldest form of story. It fascinates and repels. It delivers a frisson which makes you thankful for the life you have and slightly fearful of what is to come ...

SCBWI stalwart and no mean writer of ghost stories, Gill Hutchison, sums it up well when she says, 
" ... they tap into all of that eerie stuff that we know we don’t know, however hard science and/or religion try to explain and rationalise. The louder you laugh it off, the more you’re tempted to check -behind you. The fine line between what we consider to be unnatural and what just might be supernatural is in a different place for all of us." 
I love reading ghost stories because a good ghost story builds feelings of fear that imperceptibly creep up on you, drawing you in and leaving you checking the dark corners of your house even after you finish the last page. Bekki Hill
Okay. My final ghost story is a photograph. It was taken by my sister-in-law at Otterden Place in Kent. This is where my husband's grandparents died and were buried. It was only when she showed us the photograph that we noticed the presence of something that had not been there when the photograph was taken. It is seemingly a veiled woman with the distinctly linen feel of a Jamesian spirit. 
On the other hand it could just be a glitch in the camera  ...

Many thanks to all those wonderful contributors. I have just twitched the curtain with this blog, lifting the veil is another matter ...

Share buttons bottom