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 ...

Saturday, 20 June 2015

Three Cheers for Independent Bookshops!

by Teri Terry

It is Independent Bookshop Week, 20th June - 27th June!

We at Notes from the Slushpile LOVE bookshops in all shapes and sizes. Both as readers and writers, they are an essential part of what we're about. Ordering a book online doesn't give the same thrill as browsing and finding 'the one', and taking it home, and probably reading it on the way.* 
Writers are huge book buyers; we have the power to make a difference. You might think you need to save a little, whether it be time or money. But don't you want that thrill of seeing your own books on the shelves of your local one day? So today is the day for us - and some friends - to tell you about some of our favourites.
*not advised if you are driving

I'm going to start things off with not one, but TWO. 
I've always been a bit greedy.

The Book House, Thame, Oxfordshire - by moi (Teri Terry)

Lovely, inviting children's section
This is my local.I love the quirky shop, the friendly, knowledgeable staff, and it really has one of the BEST children's sections. Plus - the teen section is elsewhere, not cosied up to early readers. This is good. And when I told lovely Luise that we were dropping in - there was a table of our books ready to sign when we got there!

From left - Lee Weatherly, Paula Harrison, Teri Terry

SilverDell Books, Kirkham, Lancashire - also by moi (Teri again)

On the Mind Games tour!
SilverDell Books is Elaine and Sue's baby, and they really know how to run author events. Nothing ever goes wrong: it wouldn't dare!
They've been stuck with me a number of times, from my very first publicity tour - when I was absolutely terrified - and my last one for Mind Games, when I was less so. It really felt like coming home to see them again. I hope I'll be back in Lancashire soon!

Lindum Books, Lincoln - by Addy Farmer

Lindum Books sits on Bailgate in Lincoln's Cathedral Quarter. It's a gem of a bookshop; compact and inviting and run by the knowledgeable and enthusiastic Gill Hart and her team. The books here are CHOSEN for their excellence as well as their ability to sell. No bargains or specials. There's even a room at the top for our SCBWI group to meet. It's more than worth the (often) sweaty climb up Steep Hill to reach it.
(Addy, is that you in the window on their Twitter image?!)

The Children's Bookshop, Muswell Hill, London - by Candy Gourlay

THE Jacqueline Wilson visits The Children's Bookshop
As a young mother, one of my favourite things was to take the latest baby up to Muswell Hill on the 43 bus to visit the Children's Bookshop on Fortis Green Road. I'd read to the toddler at the far end of the little shop, then browse the rows of shelves that displayed only the best and the most wonderful of children's books. Later, I queued with my daughter to meet our idol Jacqueline Wilson, whose ring-laden fingers made a big impression. Years later, as an author, I was amazed to see my own books given prominence on the book cases. The Children's Bookshop opened its doors more than 40 years ago, and its current owner Kate Agnew remembers visiting as a young girl and chatting about books with the then owner Helen Paiba, as blogged here. Kate's mum, Lesley, bought the shop and Kate has now taken over the business - literally taking children by the hand and introducing them to the books and authors they will love forever. Thank you to The Children's Bookshop, you've added joy to many a childhood (and motherhood).

Tackle and Books of Tobermory, Island of Mull, Scotland - by Debi Gliori

Photo by John MacPherson
My favourite indy bookshops tend to be heavily influenced by how welcome I feel crossing their thresholds. So, my choice is always going to be purely subjective and based on emotion rather than the excellence of the bookseller's range of titles or exquisiteness of display. That said, I love the diversity of approaches to bookselling, the influence that the location has on the stock and the general vibrancy and quirkiness of indy shopkeeping. Currently, my all-time favourite is Tackle and Books of Tobermory on the beautiful island of Mull. Duncan Swinbanks is the front-of-house/ owner and is a champion of small presses and indy publishers and lately, of my own Tobermory-based titles, which pass through his capable hands at an unbelievable rate ; who knew there were that many book-loving, cat-adoring, children's-book-purchasing tourists and locals in Tobermory? Duncan is affable, knowledgeable, full of brilliant ideas for more titles he'd like to see written and illustrated, suggestions for the perfect book for the season, the place and its history, and is a fount of many intriguing stories about the island and its people, past and present. One of my happiest moments was arriving in his shop on a freezing November afternoon and being told - quick, get your pen out, we've delayed the ferry back to the mainland so that these tourists could get their books signed! He also organised the absolutely Best Ever launch for The Tobermory Cat and somehow managed to finagle BBC Scotland to come along and film us all launching the book.

Tales on Moon Lane - by Mo O'Hara

Have you seen the new window at Tales on Moon Lane?” You hear that a lot in Herne Hill. Maybe not quite as much as , ‘The trains are delayed.’ Or ‘The cash-point at Sainsbury’s is out again.’ But it’s pretty common all the same. That’s because Tales on Moon Lane, Tamara Macfarlane’s fab independent children’s bookshop in South London, has a reputation for absolutely beautiful and enticing window displays. Currently it’s a Mad Hatter’s Tea!

When I first moved to Herne Hill ( before I even had kids of my own) the window lured me inside to a treasure trove of kids’ books and gifts. Tereze, Leah and the amazingly knowledgeable staff make it a perfect place to shop and to just talk books. One of the best things about Tales on Moon Lane though is their events! My daughter’s first ever Author Event was at TOML with the hilarious Steve Hartley and his giant knickers. And we have been to many, many , many more over the years. Chris Riddell to Judith Kerr, TOML is where the stars come out in Herne Hill! Come and see for yourself!

Formby Books - by Jonathan Mayhew

I remember sitting in the foyer of the high school where I launched my first book, Mortlock, wondering what I’d let myself in for. Tony Higginson came barrelling through the doors with a trolley stacked with boxes. The rest of the morning was a blur of talking, signing, watching enthusiastic children clutching books and Tony’s irrepressible, non-stop banter. Over the years, I’ve watched the storm that’s hit independent bookshops nearly drown poor Tony too but somehow, he’s bounced back. Sadly, his shop, Formby Books is no more but I know Tony will still be promoting the joy reading in the area and a new venture Write Blend, run by writer Bob Stone has opened its doors in nearby Bootle. Good luck to all.

Blackwells, Oxford - by Candy, and me!

Finally, Candy said you must include Blackwells at Oxford. She was very taken with the way they run a book launch: they put together a table of books written by people coming to the book launch! I had my launch for Mind Games there, and this is the photo of books of friends.

Please, please, please: support your local independent bookshop!

Every time you buy a book online, a fairy cries (it's true). Imagine a world where you can't go to lovely places like the ones we've highlighted here today? Where you can't touch and feel and smell new books, and pick up something you've never heard of before that becomes a new favourite - either because it caught your eye, or a bookseller who knows you knows that you'll love it and guides it into your hands? This is one dystopian future that I don't want to contemplate. So go there, and find a new treasure. 
You can find out more about Independent Booksellers Week hereFind your local indy - and IBW events in your area - here.

Think before you click!

Monday, 15 June 2015

We are Liars. And Editors are Just Readers

By  Candy Gourlay

Here's a report from the AFCC's first retreat for writers and illustrators on Bintan Island in Indonesia, which I attended as a mentor.

'I hope this retreat will help you to get to the truth within the lie,' Sarah Odedina told a roomful of writers and illustrators at a retreat in Indonesia last week. 'I think all good literature has message and meaning. But the message and meaning is hidden in the story.'

Sara speaking at the Retreat. From my comic sketchbook.
View more of my notes on my author site

It was an interesting beginning to her talk on publishing. I don't think I'm making crazy generalisations when I say that, while there are exciting developments in children's publishing in Asia, many educators and parents in the region still regard reading and books as educational tools.

Many educators and parents still regard reading and books as educational tools

It was a constant refrain from publishers, writers, illustrators, and teachers I met last week at the Asian Festival for Children's Content that followed the retreat in Singapore. Far too many educators and parents in this region believe that reading for pleasure -- comics, funny books, books with farts in them, magic, fantasy -- should take a back seat to moral and other lessons.

The job of the editor, Sarah said, is to help authors get the story from inside their heads into books. Never mind the moral lessons. Focus on the story.

'Children are our future. Literature can give them confidence about being part of the world around them,' she said. ' Literacy is not just about being able to read the words on the page but being able to decipher the meaning of a story. The message of a story can be immense but expressed in the lightest way.'

Retreat members and faculty in Singapore before boarding the ferry to Bintan, Indonesia

It was the first retreat ever organised by the Asian Festival of Children's Content. It was as diverse a group as I've ever seen - twenty-six people representing Hong Kong, Singapore, the Philippines, Indonesia, Canada, Macau, India, the United States, England, Australia and Portugal, ranging from beginners at the craft of children's books to experienced, multi-published authors.

Held at an Indonesian resort just an hour's ferry ride from Singapore, the retreat was led by mentors that included Sarah, illustrator Catarina Sobral and writer-agent Andrea Pasion-Flores and me. Here's the view from one of the lecture rooms, just to make you jealous:

Banyan Tree Resort, Bintan

I remember meeting Sarah Odedina more than five years ago at a talk at the Bologna Children's Book Fair. I'm sure she doesn't remember me as I was one of the cowering unpublished then.

Witch Child by Celia Rees
At the time she was editorial director of Bloomsbury Children's Books and famously part of the Harry Potter publishing team.

In those days I had no idea about her Harry Potter connection. What thrilled me was the fact that Sarah had edited Witch Child by Celia Rees. A gazillion writers discover the audience they want to write for through books like How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff and The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness and Witch Child was one of those breakthrough novels. I would count it as one of the books that spurred me to write for young people.

More recently Sarah was editorial director of Hot Key books where she published Carnegie winning Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner before moving to One World, where she's overseeing its Young Adult and children's publishing.

Sarah's retreat presentation ranged from tips for aspiring authors to a thorough explanation of genres in children's books.


  • Complement don't mimic a publisher's list. Don't look at the publisher's list and say they published Harry Potter therefore they will want another magical boarding school book. Research publishers, try to get a real sense of what they publish. "What publisher publishes the kind of work you want to be associated with?"
  • Smaller publishers vs big publishers? Big publishers have clout in distribution and marketing terms but small publishers will be far more flexible.
  • Get an Agent. Literary agents have their foot in the door. Publishers will look at submissions from literary agents first on the basis that they have already been filtered from the vast sea of manuscripts.
  • Be Professional. Follow the stated guidelines. If the publisher's website says send the outline and the first three chapters, that is what you do. Don't say, 'I showed it to my grandchildren and they loved it.' Include any practical information that reveals your seriousness and professionalism (eg. you've been a member of a critique group for several years, you are a paying member of a respected organisation like the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators).
  • Sorry, reading submissions takes time. Send material ... then be prepared to wait. Don't expect an immediate response. Sometimes it could take many weeks. Don't badger the publisher, don't call every week - wait maybe three months before following up. "We can't cope with feeling that we are keeping people in suspense."
  • Know your genre. It's not enough to write a story and say that it's for a ten year old. Go into a bookshop and see what is being sold on the shelves, and how they are being categorised. "Read, read, read. Become familiar with publishing in the children's book world ... children of a certain age can take information in a particular way."
  • Think of how you present yourself to the public. Websites. Social Media. Look at how others do it and note when things are done well. Do you have another persona incompatible with your children's work? Create a strong presence.
  • Take part in the conversation. The children's book world is very conversation driven. Get involved. It would be a terrible mistake to only go out on social media when you're selling books. "On Twitter I have not chosen for you to sell me something. I am there to talk to you."
"The process of getting published involves different levels of commitment at different points of the journey," Sarah says.

Choosing a book involves a team. Commissioning editors will commit first. Then the sales team must commit, having decided that yes, they can sell this book. "Every step of the way, it's about faith. It's about trust. There's no golden rule."

Every step of the way, it's about faith. It's about trust. There's no golden rule

If you'd like to submit to Sarah. Here's what she says about her acquiring philosophy:
  • I am looking at books as a reader.
  • I read everything that comes in.
  • I am looking for a good relationship with an author. 
  • It's about not losing faith, it's about us doing our best for you. Like a close friendship, your relationship with your editor/publisher should be guarded.
  • I like plot-driven books
  • I acquire really simply. If I like it, I will take it to the sales team.

So there you have it. As authors we must be skilful liars, our essential truths concealed in our fiction. Meanwhile editors are just readers who must like our lies in order to publish them.

Candy Gourlay's latest book is Shine, an atmospheric ghost story whose heroine is a hidden away girl who lives her life on the Internet. Nominated for the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize 2015. @candygourlay

Monday, 8 June 2015

The Devil is in the Detail: Writing Villains

Candy Gourlay chats with author Cliff McNish, whose new book My Friend Twigs is out now.

CANDY: Hey Slushpile people, meet author Cliff McNish. Back in 2013, Cliff talked to us about Deepening Character - it was one of our most popular blog posts of that year. Lucky us, he's agreed to come back to talk to us some more. Cliff, you're known mainly for your creepy teen fantasies and ghost stories but recently, you've written two tender and funny animal stories for 8-12 year-olds. Why the change?

CLIFF: Actually, it all started when my wife passed away three years ago. We’d been together for twenty-two years, and I couldn’t find any peace of mind. I’d been commissioned by my published, Orion, to write another ghost story, and I just felt weighed down by it. I kept trudging on, but day after day I wrote less and less until finally ... I just stopped. I didn’t want to be in this dark place. I had enough darkness going on in my life.

CANDY: What did you do?

CLIFF: For about two months I was just numb, writing nothing, doing nothing. Or at least I can’t remember what I did. The first sign that anything was changing was when I started to get these strange little funny ideas in my head – imagine a rabbit who lost his nose, or a polar bear that got tired of fish. Picture book territory, I guess. I didn't know where this stuff was coming from. But it wouldn’t go away. I kept pushing it back, but sillier and sillier ideas continued coming into my head.

CANDY: Which leads us to your current extraordinary authorial character change.

CLIFF: Yes. My wife, Ciara, had forever been asking me to write a warm story. 'How about one involving dogs stuck in a rescue home,' she’d said many times. 'You know, something heartfelt and funny. You can do that, can't you?'

Since we'd spent over two years fostering rescue dogs I had plenty of stories to use, though I never took the suggestion seriously. Other people wrote those sort of poignant, funny stories much better than me, didn't they?

But now the idea returned. And once I remembered it was her idea the characters took on an instant, vivid life. I could see Ralph, Bessie, Mitch and Fred barking away. I knew exactly what their stories were.

CANDY: I loved Going Home ... it's a real about face to write a book for seven to 12 year olds after your last scary thriller, The Hunting Ground, which has an age warning on the back. And now, you've done it again for the same age group as Going Home, with a mad cockatoo and a girl. What made you write an animal story about a bird?

CLIFF: I was trawling the internet when I came by chance across film of a pet moluccan cockatoo screeching non-stop. Moluccans are huge birds, and so noisy that I wondered how anyone could stand them.

And then I wondered what would happen if a girl ended up having to look after such a bird? What would their friendship be like? And, if that friendship became deep enough, what if her father decided he couldn’t live with the bird any longer? How strongly would she fight for him?

Moluccan cockatoos are fascinating creatures, actually. They’re not suited as pets at all, but many of the ones that get shackled that way end up with characteristics more human than those of cats and dogs. They can dance, for a start. They sing and talk. And, unlike dogs and cats, they live almost as long as us. Even their hearts beat at the same slow steady rate as a human heart. With their endless noisiness, their constant chatter, to me Moluccan cockatoos seem very human indeed. So it was fun to write a warm-hearted and hopefully funny story with a bird at its heart.

CANDY: And here, my dears, is the cover of Cliff's new book: My Friend Twigs. Ready ... steady ... AWWWWWWWW!

Last time Cliff visited the Slushpile, he gave us some great ideas on how to create a really powerful hero or heroine. But what about the VILLAINS?

Cliff’s fiction is full of memorable ones, and I wanted to pick his brains about how to create one. After all that warm-heartedness, here's what he offered me.

Writing Villains with Cliff McNish

Enemies, opponents, antagonists, villains. Whatever you like to call them, we love to hate them! Try to imagine your favourite books or films without the evil guys. How about Harry Potter without Voldemort or Draco Malfoy?

Or Lord of the Rings without Sauron and the orcs? Where wouldTwilight be without the James Coven? Or the Baudelaire children without Count Olaf?

Readers adore enemies in stories because it’s a secret pleasure to explore the darker side of our imaginations. But the reason we DEMAND them is because the nasty things they do to our heroes and heroines help us to love them so much more.

A good villain makes you sympathise with the hero so completely that the reader becomes desperate for them to succeed. Below are 18 top tips on creating great enemies in your own stories.

TIP 1 - Make your villain cause pain and suffering to characters we either like or who are innocent or defenceless.

This is the easiest and most effective way to make your reader hate a character. The more sadistic/merciless they are, the more we despise them. Voldemort attacks the defenceless Harry Potter when he’s just a tiny baby, instantly achieving villain status. Darth Vader destroys an ENTIRE PLANET.

As world-leading novelist Stephen King says: ‘To create a great opponent, make them hunger for other people’s suffering. That way they become the embodiment of pure evil.’

Tip 2 – Make them strongly want something the reader will hate them for.

In the Lion King, Scar wants to be head of the Pride. In Stormbreaker Herod Sayle can’t wait to kill as many school children in England as possible. In Lord of the Rings Sauron wants to enslave the world. We automatically detest him for it.

Tip 3 - Give the enemy control over your hero’s life.

Miss Trunchbull in Matilda locks kids away in the vicious ‘chokey’. Put your own villain in charge where no one can stop them.

Tip 4 - Make them appear more powerful than your hero.

Harry Potter is just a school boy wizard, but Voldemort is a master of the dark arts. The reader becomes consumed with fear for the hero.

Tip 5 – Ensure they break promises.

In Stormbreaker, Nadia Vole pretends she’s going to free Alex – then dumps him into a tank with a giant jellyfish. ‘When a character breaks a promise or betrays a trust, the audience takes that betrayal personally,’ says Orson Scott Card, award winning SF writer. ‘The villain has achieved true villain status, and readers will be longing for their downfall.’

Tip 6 - Make them a coward.

Malfoy’s always hiding behind Crabbe and Goyle or the influence of his family name. A hero never does that.

Tip 7 - Make them stuck up and condescending towards others.

We hate characters who think they are superior to us, people who sneer or treat powerful, influential, rich people better than the poor and powerless.

Tip 8 - Make them boast.

A hero remains modest. When things go right for villains they take all the credit whether they deserve it or not.

From Kids With Children

Tip 9 - Keep them humourless.

A heroine retains a sense of humour. When things go wrong for opponents, have them whine. Or, if they do joke, always make it at someone else’s expense.

Tip 10 - Have them blame everyone but themselves.

When things go wrong, villains always accuse and criticize others. Ensure yours do the same.

Tip 11 – Emphasise their vanity.

We automatically dislike anyone who brags about their looks, strength, deeds or the amount of money they have. Think of Moriarty.

Tip 12 - Make them cheats and liars.

Heroes are honest. Villains can’t be trusted.

Tip 13 - Give them no regard for other people’s feelings.

A hero is self-sacrificing and considers other people. Villains don’t care what happens to anyone else. They only help themselves. Think of the contempt the James clan in Twilight have for all humans.

Tip 14 - Make them petty instead of noble.

When Harry meets Ron on the train to Hogwarts he shares his food with him – he’s generous and warm-hearted. But what does Malfoy do? Cracks jokes about Ron’s poverty and talks about his ‘useless’ family. We despise him for it.

Tip 15 - Make them ugly OR exceptionally handsome.

We tend to distrust both. Think of the lovely but cruel step-mother in Snow White. Or Gaston in Beauty and the Beast.

From Disney via Giphy

Tip 16 - Villains rarely doubt themselves.

In Twilight hero Edward is constantly worried that he cannot trust himself with Bella. That makes him more human. In Hercules, Hades is only looking out for Number One. Himself. Villains just pursue their own interests and don’t question themselves or care who they step on.

Tip 17 - Build up the suspense by not revealing the villain too soon.

Sauron in Lord of the Rings is just a vast eye – and all the more alarming because we never really know what he looks or sounds like. To create real fear, keep you reader guessing for as long as possible. In Toy Story 3, cuddly Lotso Huggin Bear turns out to be a megalomaniac.

Tip 18 – Have people talk about your enemy fearfully.

The importance of this final tip is often neglected, but not by great storytellers. Characters are so afraid of Voldemort that they won’t even say his name. Sauron hardly appears in Lord of the Rings, but when you read the novel you always feel his presence. The reason is that even tough warriors like Aragorn never stop talking about him apprehensively. When great and brave characters like Aragorn and Gandalf regard Sauron as immensely dangerous, readers automatically get nervous. Have your own strongest characters do the same. Use them to stoke up the fear of your enemy. It works beautifully.

These tips come from workshops that Cliff performs at school visits. If you are interested in Cliff's Villains Factsheet, you can contact him on his website and he'll be happy to send you one. Notes from the Slushpile thanks you for this brilliant guest post, Cliff!

Monday, 1 June 2015

A Guide to Stepping Out of Your Creative Comfort Zone

STOP PRESS! Nick has just won the SCBWI Magazine Merit Award for his work in Stew Magazine

A note from Candy: Slushpile readers no doubt are marvelling at the sudden rise of activity here on our previously somnambulant blog. Yes, dear reader, we're trying to liven up this unreliable blog (we only blogged 11 times last year). How to do this? Why, find someone more reliable than us to blog of course!

Ladies and gents, please welcome the latest member of Notes from the Slushpile,
Nick Cross!

Nick is a winner of the Undiscovered Voices and has written short stories for Stew Magazine. He also blogs (somewhat reliably) on Who Ate My Brain and much more reliably for Words & Pictures, SCBWI's online magazine, for which he is Blog Network Co-ordinator. Here is his first Slushie appearance.
Welcome, Nick!

Thanks, Candy - it's an honour to join the team. My favourite slushie is blue raspberry flavour, but I'll try not to get brain freeze as I launch into my debut post:

Appearing at the Cannes Film Festival last month to promote his 50th movie, Woody Allen briefly discussed the TV series he’s making for Amazon Prime Video. Although he’s no stranger to angst, Woody seemed to be genuinely worried that he’d got in over his head this time – he described the decision to take the commission as a “catastrophic mistake” and predicted the show would be a “cosmic embarrassment.”

(photo by Colin Swan)
Seventy-nine-year-old Allen is famously technophobic – he still uses a typewriter for all his scripts and only adopted the use of stereo sound for his films in 2007 (some 70 years after the rest of the movie industry). He didn’t know who Amazon was until very recently and admits to not understanding how streaming video works. The odds would seem to be stacked against him.

And yet, I’m going to make a wild prediction:
I think that these six half hour TV episodes will be the best thing that Woody Allen has written or directed in years

For too long, Woody Allen has been trapped in a comfortable creative prison of his own making. With no apparent trouble securing funding, he churns out one underwhelming film per year, then moves onto the next without pausing for breath. Occasionally (such as with 2013's Blue Jasmine) he comes up with something halfway interesting, but most of the time it feels like he's rehashing his greatest hits.

It’s my belief that art made entirely within an artist’s comfort zone is at best familiar, and at worst deeply mediocre. In order to achieve something new and surprising, we need to perch on the edge of our comfort zone and work from there. This is not something I’m very good at myself – I prefer the familiarity of routine and writing about subjects that come easily to hand. So, I hope the following activities will give both you and me (and possibly Woody Allen) a nudge in the right direction.

1. Write What You Hate
A great way to stretch yourself is to pick a style or genre that you dislike and try to make it yours. For instance, in the days before Game of Thrones conquered television, I used to hate high fantasy stories. I hated the massive books, the pages of maps at the front and the predictable storylines about lunkheaded male heroes, magical jewels and dragons. So, for my first Stew Magazine short story Princess of Dirt, I felt compelled to find a new feminist angle on the traditional fantasy narrative and subvert as many of the reader’s expectations as I could.

(illustration by Jayde Perkin)

2. Don’t be Afraid to Upset People
The aforementioned Princess of Dirt had a horrifying ending that stretched the reader’s sympathies to breaking point. It upset a lot of people (including my own children), but from an artistic point of view, I’m glad I did it. More recently, I’ve written children's stories about such cheery subjects as child labour, Armageddon and Ebola, and I’ve just finished one about immigration and bigotry that won’t be a big hit with UKIP supporters.

Many writers are, like I once was, far too eager to please. They want readers, other writers and - most especially - agents and publishers to love everything they do. So they bend towards the market, edit out the uncomfortable and change things that were fine to start with.

I had a weird experience recently when I was unexpectedly introduced to an agent. She asked me what I was working on and, despite being caught off-guard, I managed to give her a fairly good pitch for my book. Unlike some of my other work, it’s a pretty uncontroversial middle-grade humour novel. To my surprise, a look of genuine disgust passed over her face. I had a moment of crisis, followed by sudden clarity – it didn’t matter if this woman didn’t like the idea behind my book, because there were plenty of others who would.

3. Don’t be Afraid to Upset Yourself
The strongest writing comes from the things you feel strongest about. Sometimes, these are positive emotions, but they can also be your darkest memories or fears. When you reach down into the dark places, yet also exercise control in your writing, you can make some amazingly powerful things happen.

4. Change Your Technique
Stepping out of your comfort zone isn’t just about challenging what you do, but also how you do it. If you’re a plotter, try pantsing. If you normally fly by the seat of your pants, try plotting whole sections before you write. It will feel wrong - like putting your trousers on backwards – but you may gain a whole new technique for your writer’s toolbox.

(photo by Per Erik Strandberg)

5. Change Your Audience
Some writers are very eclectic about the kinds of age group and genre they write for, while others find one that suits them and stick with it. I’m definitely in the latter group and find myself drawn to middle grade fiction. I will tell myself that this is because I variously find: picture and early chapter books too restrictive, YA too angsty and adult fiction too pretentious. But these broad rationalisations are also keeping me firmly in my 9-12 comfort zone.

Writing for a different audience requires research, different stylistic choices and lots of trial and error. But who’s to say it wouldn’t also be fun, or lead to an entirely different writing career?

6. Make Catastrophic Mistakes
OK, so I’m channelling Woody Allen with the wording of this one. And obviously, you can’t plan to make a mistake. “Nobody ever set out to make a bad movie” as the film industry mantra goes. But you can plan for how you’ll cope when things go horribly wrong with your writing and how you’ll learn from that.

To quote another mantra, this time from the technology startup sector: “Fail early. Fail often.”

7. Keep Pushing Through to the Other Side
I write blog posts all the time, but this has been a particularly tough one. Yet, I’ve kept going and we’re nearly at the end (I promise!) It’s hard to acknowledge that you need to change, especially when it seems that you’ve only just become comfortable in your writing. It’s even harder to push that change through, while confronting the things that scare you. To achieve all this, you'll need flexibility, drive, bravery and tenacity. Luckily, these are also the same attributes that are needed to make it as a professional writer!

Don’t feel that you have to change everything at once, or move so far out of your comfort zone that you don’t know which way is up. Like Woody Allen, maybe all you need is the right challenge to push you into the unknown.


Nick Cross is a children's writer, Undiscovered Voices winner and Blog Network Editor for SCBWI Words & Pictures Magazine.

His latest short story Hacking History can be found in issue 8 of Stew Magazine.

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