Friday, 3 November 2017

The Insomniac Writer: cure or endure?

by Teri Terry

I often have trouble sleeping - it isn't anything new. In fact in a weird moment of synchronicity, here is a memory Facebook threw up at me from five years ago, just as I started writing this blog. 

I can actually remember the first time I had trouble sleeping. I was in year ten at school and there was a big maths test the next day. Some kids were stressing about it and our teacher said those immortal words: 

The most important thing is to get a good night's sleep. 

I call this the curse of Mrs Lutz. It began a lifelong pre-exam/pre-job interview/pre-first appearance at Edinburgh etc inability to sleep.

The curse of Mrs Lutz - the can't-fall-asleep-because-of-worrying-about-something-reasonable-to-worry-about sort of insomnia - isn't the most dominant sort for me now, though. 

Most of the time I fall asleep easily enough, sleep for about three hours, and then ... wake up. And often that is it - for hours. Butterfly brain flits and races in so many directions! From things I plan to do the next day - usually my nighttime list is beyond anything reasonably attainable - to past events - and almost always: my current work in progress. Plot tangle? Character issue? You name it, I'm on it. I'll be awake for two or three hours and then fall asleep for another one or two. The problem that comes is if I can't have that last hour or two because I have to get up for an event or to let in electricians or any other pesky matter of real life - then I get in a too tired to think sort of state where I'm not much use to anybody.

From comments on Facebook and Twitter it seems apparent that trouble sleeping is a writer thing: another area for collective comfort.

The insomniac writer is nothing new:

There is a really interesting article by Greg Johnson published in VQR in 2003, "On the Edge of an Abyss: The Writer as Insomniac" that catalogues a long list of literary heroes and their battles with insomnia. From D.H. Lawrence, Charles Dickens, Sylvia Plath, Ernest Hemingway, William Wordsworth, Walt Wiltman, insomnia seems to be a badge of honour, sometimes loved, often hated - a creative time or a hell of self-doubt and insecurity. And is it a case of not being able to sleep, or refusing to allow sleep to come in and take consciousness away?

Here more recently is Debi Gliori from brainyquotes, one I really relate to:
There are whole months at a time when my head is so full of ideas that I wake in the middle of the night and lie in the dark telling myself stories. There are also long, dark nights when I just know I'll never write another word.

Sometimes I'm so desperate for more sleep that I'd do anything ...

Is there a cure?

I went to a talk on sleep and dreaming at the New Scientist Live exhibition recently by psychologist and author Richard Wiseman. He gave top tips for better sleep, so here goes:

1. Napping: 
It is part of our biology to have a dip in alertness around midnight and around noon. If you nap when that dip occurs midday it will improve your memory and alertness and decrease heart disease! Sounds good. The trick is only about 25 minutes: any longer than this then you slip into deep sleep and feel worse instead of better when you wake up.

2. Get the length of sleep right: 
Sleep cycles - of light sleep, deep sleep, and REM (dreaming) - last about 90 minutes. For good health it is essential to go through these cycles: in light sleep you process psychological matters, in deep sleep you heal physically, and dreams work through your worries and concerns. You need to wake up at the end of the cycle to feel refreshed. So go to sleep in factors of 90 minutes, with about 15 extra to fall asleep. 

For e.g., if you go to bed at 10:45 pm, so hopefully are asleep by 11 pm, plan your wake up time at either 5 am (ouch) - giving 6 hours of sleep and 4 sleep cycles; or 6:30 am, which is 7.5 hours sleep, 5 sleep cycles; and so on. If you wake up at 6 a.m. or 7 a.m. you'd be in the wrong stage of sleep, and get that jarred awake feeling when the alarm goes and feel more tired.

I found this interesting because my nighttime bouts of insomnia always seem to happen about 3 hours after I go to sleep; and if I get more sleep later in the morning about 90 minutes seems to be about right.

3. Alcohol:
Having a nightcap disrupts deep sleep and dreaming. Avoid for 2 hours before bedtime.

4. Phones and laptops:
Don't use screens for 2 hours before bedtime: light disrupts melatonin and sleep. Ten minutes on your phone before bedtime is equivalent to a two hour walk in bright sunshine.

5. Reverse psychology:
If you can't fall asleep, try to stay awake instead! Keep your eyes open and you'll soon fall asleep.

6. Music:
The right sort of music can promote sleep. He suggests something called Night School Music which he said can be downloaded for free; I couldn't find it on line so I'm guessing it might be linked in his book. Personally I find when I'm staying in hotels if I can't fall asleep in different surroundings, I put Mark Knopfler on low and it helps me drift off.

7. Distraction:
If you wake up and your mind is racing, distract it. Do something like an alphabet game (where for e.g. you name an animal or a piece of fruit for every letter of the alphabet in your mind), or read. I used to play scrabble on my phone as I found it does the same sort of thing, but - whoops - no screens, no. 4 above.

8. Get up:
If you're awake at night for more than about ten minutes, get up and do something in low light for a while - e.g. read, do a jigsaw puzzle - something that takes your attention. The reason to get up is to avoid associating bed with sleeplessness.

Cure or Endure?

There are some great tips on the insomnia battle there. I'm not much of a napper but I'm with him on 2, 3, 4, 6, and occasionally (if I have to get up early the next day) can make myself do 7, though it is a battle of willpower to make myself do it. But I can't convince myself to try 8. And somehow I think I've finally realised:

I don't actually want to. I like being awake, thinking, in the middle of the night. I may regret it the next day, but I don't want to let it go.

I'm not alone:

In it's early stages, insomnia is almost an oasis in which those who have to think or suffer darkly take refuge. 
Sidonie Gabrielle Colette

I have patches of insomnia, and I'm fascinated by the otherness of the world at night. The stillness. Daytime preoccupations fall away, standards change, thoughts change. It's a canvass for reinvention ...  
Morag Joss

I prefer insomnia to anaesthesia
Antonio Tabucchi

p.s. I would have sprinkled in interesting images through the blog but I'm SO tired after missing my later sleeping slot to let in the electricians at stupidly-early-o'clock, I just couldn't manage it ...

Monday, 30 October 2017

A ghost from the past - Halloween special

by Addy Farmer
Think this is spooky? Wait till you read my post and see a 'real' ghost ...
Ghosts -  can definitely live without them but can you live with them? I really love a cracking ghost story and it being Halloween, it seemed a good time to bring back to life my post on writing ghost stories (plus I forgot to post anything - boo!).And to entice you into going to the trouble of pressing your finger down on the link and clicking through to my post, I can guarantee you a real ghost taken by my sister-in-law in a little used church in the middle-of-nowhere - REALLY.

Oh whistle and I'll come to you, my lad
And for your further spooky delight take a listen (but during the hours of daylight) to the excellent radio 4 extra programme on 'real' ghosts. At the age of eleven, Diane Morgan saw a ghostly figure in a bedroom at her nan’s house which sparked a life-long obsession with thenormal. For Radio 4 Extra’s Diane Morgan Believes in Ghosts, featuring Maxine Peake, Steve Punt and Toyah Willcox, Diane’s searched the BBC vaults for the best real-life tales of ghost hunting, hauntings, and unexplained phenomena.

The Mezzotint, by M.R James
And to finish my spooktacular introduction to you reading my old and haunting post you could take a look at the actual science behind WHY we like being spooked.

Happy Halloween ...

Friday, 13 October 2017

Why I changed my mind about Facebook Pages for authors

By Candy Gourlay

For the past two years now, I've been co-running a Boot Camp for debut authors with writing pals Sara Grant (Chasing Danger) and Mo O'Hara (My Big Fat Zombie Goldfish).

The three of us bring useful skills from our real lives: Sara has worked in public relations and talks about strategy; Mo is a stand up comedian and an actress and talks about performance and school visits ... and me? Well I'm a former web designer and an all around geek – my role is to discuss how authors can take advantage of the digital opportunities available.

Mo O'Hara discussing the art of the school visit.

Sara Grant showing off her author kit in front of a board scribbled with the hopes and dreams of our audience.
Here I am with a roomful of debut children's authors behind me.
In past years, I have written a lot about author promotion, dishing out practical advice about websites, building a platformhow to do Skype visitshow to do Google Hangouts, how impoverished authors can make their own book trailers (part 1 and part 2), how to plan a book launch party and Facebook pages.

The very nature of digital opportunity is so fluid, what with technology constantly changing, that the advice is never the same. Looking back at a 2011 post I wrote about building your own websites, for example, so much has changed in the online world that I should really put up a warning note at the top of the piece, pointing out that I wrote it six years ago. Six years is a long time in a digital world.

Ten years ago, when the internet was just beginning to pick up speed, everyone suddenly decided that  authors must blog. Well the graveyard of defunct author blogs is now full to overflowing as a result. Later, Twitter seemed to have The Power. Today, thousands of books are not getting written because their authors have become Twitter addicted. While Twitter is a social network that connects individuals, it's not a great place to actually sell books. And then there's Facebook, virtual hang-out to two billion of the world's population.

At the beginning, Facebook introduced the 'fan page' – a thrilling way for authors to connect directly with fans who are on Facebook. Soon though, Facebook decided to 'monetise' fan pages via what one pundit called a 'bait and switch' – hiding your FB posts from your fans so that you will pay for them to be shown.

I was so disappointed I wrote a piece declaring that there was no point having a Facebook page unless you're JK Rowling and your fans willingly visit your page instead of waiting for you to appear on their feed. So for the past few years, I've been using my personal FB profile, instead of an official fan page, to connect with my readers.

But I kept an eye on Facebook. It's a no brainer that anyone wanting to be discovered should cultivate a good FB profile. But how?

In December 2016, I noticed that under the relatively new button 'Following' on every Facebook Page, a new menu was popping up (pictured right).

It gave fans the following new choices:

• They could UNFOLLOW your page so that they didn't have to see your postings, even though they liked the page.
• They could tick DEFAULT and let the FB algorithm decide how much or how little they see of the page.
• Or they could select SEE FIRST so that they could see your all of the page's posts on their feed as soon as they are posted.

Suddenly the game changed.

Facebook was giving users a way to keep track of pages that they absolutely wanted to see.

Yes, FB is still trying to encourage us to pay for promotions. But the social network has also realised that they have been alienating the people who create the content that makes the network social in the first place.

For us authors, it gives us a fighting chance to be discovered.

Book launch guru Tim Grahl says never make it about you, the author ... he says:

'Always focus on helping the reader'.

With the new improved FB pages, we now have the opportunity to post such compelling content that our readers will want to click SEE FIRST because they do not want to miss out. Tthink about all the things you find so compelling that you are moved to share them on your feed: heartwarming videos, surprising facts, amusing quizzes, urgent news ...

So what content can you create that will persuade your readers to click that SEE FIRST button?

The answer lies in several things:

• Your identity as an author.

• How useful/beguiling/compelling your content is to your reader.

• How original your posts are

• How much value do you, as author, add to what you post

Considering your identity, it might help to see how other authors are playing themselves on Facebook - Junot Diaz posts about social and political topics, if you're a fan of Neil Gaiman, you get to hear that gorgeous voice and witness the disarray of his hair in his videosJohn Green posts about nerdy stuff, Kate DiCamillo (whose readership probably most matches mine) posts inspirational stories.

Me, I avoid politics but on my FB page, I comment on reading, writing and getting published (in childrens' books). As an 'author of colour' I am deeply concerned about diversity and inclusion. I use my skills as a former journalist to report on book events (you are welcome to read my blog post: Social Media: eight things we can learn from old-style journalism). It's also a chance to take photos and make videos (which I love!).

As for adding value – never post in a vacuum! Imprint every posting with the value of who you are – with a comment, a thoughtful reflection, a wise interpretation, a personal anecdote.

I only started my Facebook Page at the beginning of 2017 though I don't have a new book out until 2018.  I thought this would give me time to get to grips with the page, create fresh content and build an audience. If you're interested in following my progress, please like my page ... I really try to be useful. Oh ... and don't forget to click on SEE FIRST.

How is my FB page doing so far? Well, I'm feeling very positive.

Videos are a big hit, especially if they're about picture books. I am trying to do quickie interviews with the interesting people I meet – most recently, at the Pune International Literary Festival in India (see the playlist) where I interviewed a range of fantastic folk, from student volunteers to venerable literary stars.

The photo albums covering book launches (such as my friend Katy Dale's) and other booky events (like Melvin Burgess' nomination to the Hans Christian Andersen award, the Carnegie-Greenaway Awards, and the Dubai Literary Festival) attract many visitors (the secret is in the tagging – learn how to like other pages as your page). Some random visitors who come to look at pictures actually end up liking the page! I've noticed that the more original my posts – original here meaning, nobody else has posted it – the better it is received, with more likes, comments and shares.

As for links posting, I am always on the look out for interesting links, and so I find myself following good pages that serve up useful information that suit my page's personality. For example, I love the posts on diversity by Lee & Low Books (a multicultural publisher in the US) and have reposted some of their links. One of the most popular links I posted was an article by the author Grace Lin discussing Dr Seuss's early racism in his work and how he changed. I had more than a thousand hits in two days. A photo of my feet in Little Prince Socks on the day I went to my first day as a judge on Booktrust's In Other Words Competition got thousands of views though only eight likes! Why?

Still so much to learn. I'll report back in 2018 after my new books come out. Watch this space!

Candy Gourlay thought she could not become an author while growing up under a dictatorship in the Philippines and became a journalist instead – but she was wrong. Years later, her novels Tall Story and Shine have been listed for many awards including the Waterstone’s, the Blue Peter, the Carnegie and the Guardian Prize.

Monday, 9 October 2017

Getting to grips with a different genre - my switch to mystery writing

by Paula Harrison

I started my writing life dreaming up fantasy adventures for 9 +. These were the books I loved best as a child, particularly The Dark is Rising series by Susan Cooper and The Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Alan Garner. I wrote the Red Moon Rising trilogy, published by Nosy Crow, and the Robyn Silver books, published by Scholastic, which very much fall into that genre. But I also had eclectic reading tastes so it wasn't long before I switched age groups and switched genres in my writing too.  

I love trying out new things so I thoroughly embraced writing mysteries. My books are short mysteries, about 15,000 words long, and best suited to children aged 6+. But they're mysteries nonetheless. Writing them involved a slightly different process than a fantasy adventure and that's partly why I enjoyed doing them so much.

Firstly, plotting was different. I'm not a pantser - I plan out my stories before I start - but if you have a sudden inspiration in the middle of your adventure book or if you find that your plot isn't working, you can wing it quite a bit and write your way through the middle of your book. I've always enjoyed doing it. Some of the best inspiration comes when you are deep within a story and you can see that the artifice you set out to create at the beginning doesn't fit together as well as you thought it would. It feels a little bit daring, leaving the plan behind and thinking on my feet.

However, this does not work well for me when I'm writing a mystery book. For my mysteries I need the framework to be absolutely solid. All plot lines, suspects and red herrings must be worked out and thought through in detail before I begin, otherwise the whole thing can fall apart.

The second thing I found very different was the overall shape of the book. To me, the plot of a book has a shape and this is often the 3 act structure that most stories use. There is the beginning, an incident which heralds the meaty middle section of the book, and then a climax with a concluding section. When I started to write mysteries I was interested to find my 3rd act or concluding section much shorter than I made them in adventure stories. I wondered why this was the case and I decided  perhaps it was in the nature of mystery or detective fiction. The whole thrust of the book leads to the moment when the mystery is resolved and after that it works best if the story is wound up fairly quickly.

So here are my first four mystery books. The Case of the Stolen Crown and The Secret of the Silk Dress are out now with the 3rd and 4th books due out in January.


Friday, 29 September 2017

Why Writers Should See Reading as Research by Kathryn Evans

As part of Book Trust's Time to Read campaign, I've been looking out old photographs. So many of them feature members of my family and friends reading to my children.  I  clearly felt like these were important images to capture - intimate times,  moments to treasure.

Friday, 15 September 2017

Doing the Time Warp

By Nick Cross

Time Warp choreography animation by Luca Alberton, DensityDesign Research Lab

We talk a lot about certain aspects of writing a great novel - craft, voice, plot, characterisation etc. But one authorial choice that gets a lot less focus is that of time. The timeframe a novel is set within has a huge impact on the style and structure of the finished work. James Joyce’s Ulysses famously takes place on a single day, zooming in with microscopic precision to the individual thoughts and actions of its characters. Isaac Asimov’s Foundation novels couldn’t be more different, spanning the thousand year interregnum between the fall of one galactic empire and the rise of the next. Such a massive scope means the storytelling is much more fragmented, with the narrative sometimes leaping fifty years between chapters.

1976 editions of the first 3 Foundation novels with amazing Chris Foss wraparound artwork

Time is an endlessly malleable resource for storytellers. Consider the movie Groundhog Day or the recent children’s book The Never-Ending Birthday by Katie Dale - both present a narrative where the characters must relive the same day again and again. Or what about the novel One Day by David Nicholls, which takes place on the 15th July every year for twenty years?

Each of the Harry Potter novels is structured across a school year, which gives the series a very particular feel. Although there are lots of pulse-pounding set pieces that occur in a short time period, these are set against the wider boredoms of school life. The Harry Potter books are full of regular events: potions lessons, mealtimes, holidays, quidditch matches, detentions, end-of-year exams. JK Rowling’s genius is that she uses this repetitious structure both to show how attending school (even a magical one) can quickly become over-familiar, and to subvert our expectations when something unexpected happens within the predictable cycle.

My wife dislikes books that take place over a highly-compressed time period, because it seems that the characters never get a moment to rest, being pulled from one crisis to the next. When do they eat? Or sleep? It feels for her (like the characters) that she is never able to catch her breath, which can make for an exhausting reading experience. This was a criticism that was regularly levied at the TV show 24, whose lead character seemed to have a constitution (and bladder) of solid iron.

I’ve become acutely aware of time as I work on my current YA novel. As you might remember if you read my earlier blog post Living in the Past, I’m writing a story that parallels past events. My initial plan was to structure the book as a series of publications, each published a couple of months apart. At this point, the timeline of the book was going to span 3 years, which meant I could frame most of the incidents in the plot as a reaction to real-world happenings. The problem with this structure became very clear when I got a critique on the first 12 pages - although I was presenting the book as a first-person commentary, the fragmented nature of the plot meant I was unable to properly explore my protagonist’s rich inner life.

After a bit of head scratching, I switched to a diary format, which meant pretty much starting the book again. And with this narrative change, the timeline of the novel contracted massively. Instead of 3 years, my whole book will now happen in less than 10 months. On the plus side, this has left room for a sequel, on the minus I quickly realised that there were simply not enough real incidents to steer every plot event. Organically, I’ve compensated for this with more fictional characters and plot of my own, but tying these into the real-life political and cultural environment.

As well as compressing the narrative, the use of a diary format has also intensified it. Instead of scenes set months apart, I now have a scene or two per calendar day. The scenes themselves have also got shorter and leaner - which is the way I like it. I hope this all helps to communicate the rollercoaster rhythm of teenage experience, where every day is simultaneously the best and worst of your life.

Altogether, the changes have meant that the book has moved much closer to a highly-illustrated YA novel than the experimental graphic novel format of the prototype. I don’t have a big problem with that - it’s what's right for the book, and a familiar structure gives new readers a pre-existing reference point.

Photo by Sebastien Wiertz

Finally, there’s another aspect of time that strongly affects the writing process, which is how long it takes you to finish the book. Some authors like to produce a whole book over a very short time period, writing furiously. Others can take ten years or more to come up with the finished article. I’m somewhere in the middle, and regularly curse my slow progress. Taking the decision to illustrate as well as write this book has compounded the problem, since I’m now doing the work of writer, illustrator and designer. Additionally, my preference for regularly reviewing the process and resetting the book hasn’t helped me so far get to THE END, although I feel the format is now nearly right. Would I be more productive if I rushed out a full but imperfect draft, then revised it? Perhaps, but my mind seems to be best suited to my current way of working, as frustrating as that sometimes is.

In a recent Guardian Q&A, novelist Siri Hustvedt was asked what her greatest fear was. She replied:
“I’m afraid I will die before I finish whatever book I am working on.”
I totally get that, the feeling of time conspiring against our creative endeavours, and the race to the finish that might be required to outsmart it.


Nick Cross is a children's writer/illustrator and Undiscovered Voices winner. He received a 2015 SCBWI Magazine Merit Award, for his short story The Last Typewriter.
Nick is also the Blog Network Editor for SCBWI Words & Pictures magazine. His Blog Break column appears fortnightly on W&P.

Friday, 1 September 2017

What I intend to achieve on my writing retreat.

by Addy Farmer

Into the writing cave

(of an army) withdraw from enemy forces as a result of their superior power or after a defeat.
"the French retreated in disarray"

withdraw, retire, draw back, pull back, pull out, fall back, give way, give ground, recoil, flee, take flight, beat a retreat, beat a hasty retreat, run away, run off, make a run for it, run for it, make off, take off, take to one's heels, make a break for it, bolt, make a quick exit, clear out, make one's getaway, escape, head for the hills;

change one's mind or plans as a result of criticism or difficulty.
"his proposals were clearly unreasonable and he was forced to retreat"

synonyms: change one's decision, change one's mind, change one's attitude, change one's plans; More
an act of moving back or withdrawing.
"a speedy retreat"

withdrawal, pulling back, flight;
"a counteroffensive caused the retreat of the imperial army"

Sometimes running is a sensible option
So, you get the idea that this is about a retreat and why not? Well, I can hear all three of you SHOUTING, "Actually there are quite a few reasons why not!" Steady on. I understand. There are:

the children ...

I swear there were only 3 children ...

the job ...

work is fairly full on
the money ...
"Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen pounds nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds nought and six, result misery." Mr Micawber
Fair enough but if you can scrape together the means and you have the organisational skills of someone RIDICULOUSLY well organised (I do), then a retreat is a Good Idea. Why?

Sometimes you just have to go far far away in order to find the head space to get the job done and I have a job to do. That's my excuse anyway. I have been to 'writing' retreats with other people and found myself just having nice chats or admiring bees or thinking about what's on the menu. Because whilst there is time to write and often the stimulus to write, there is still too much going on for my tiny brain to actually get down to some Sustained Serious Writing. So I am retreating alone for seven days of no-one else and no bothersome other jobs tugging on my thoughts. I can eat when I want, write where I like, grow a beard, dispense entirely with personal hygiene and there's NO INTERNET. That should just about do it.

Sitting on top of a pillar in the desert could be your thing but poor old Simeon Stylites still had visitors
So, I am going to North Wales to sit inside a cottage and complete the first draft of my mid-grade VERY funny novel. Or, I am going to North Wales to sit inside a cottage and have nice chats with the bees, admire the walls and wonder where the next meal is coming from. In the meantime and to make you happy, I leave you with advice from lots of writers about writing. Which you may wish to read when you are not writing.

Wish me well and I'll see you on the other side of story mountain.

Friday, 18 August 2017

The Ninja Art of Writing

by Paula Harrison 

At this moment, around the country, writers are creeping ninja-like to their desks. They sneak downstairs early in the morning before anyone else is awake. They lurk at the computer late at night when the house is quiet. They smuggle notebooks into hand bags and rucksacks and hide them in bedroom drawers ready for that moment at 1 am when a really great plot idea will burst into their brain.

I should know. I've done most of the above and more.

There's no doubt that writing fiction is a little bit addictive. Maybe it's the experience of being in control of a fictional world the way we're never really in control of our real lives. Maybe it's the pull of trying to produce something beautiful or powerful or completely hilarious. Most of us pursuing these dreams need to create as much as we need to breathe. During times when I've taken a break from writing I've found myself *trying* to make music, throw pottery or paint pictures instead. The muse never sleeps.

Where does this urge to create come from? I've no idea but to me it feels like it's something divine. Before I wrote I felt as if something was missing from life. Once I began it was hard to understand why I hadn't started sooner! Since then I've been writing pretty consistently and only tried to give up once in 2010. The Undiscovered Voices competition (run by SCBWI) is an amazing thing and hats off to all those involved in running it. But for me as an unpublished writer, 2010 was the second time I'd failed to get anywhere and when the results came out I made a serious effort to give up writing entirely.
I was tired. I was fed up with form rejections and frustrated with not knowing whether I was any closer to getting published than I'd been ten years before. I was working mornings with young children who had just started school and I'd been spending every afternoon writing. Suddenly I had so much time! Housework was done. Phone calls got returned. Family members were fed new and delicious meals. I lasted two weeks until the itch to write became overwhelming and I gave up on giving up. I'm so glad I didn't succeed!

Why must we be ninja in our writing? When we're unpublished, people  - especially people who don't know us well - may cast doubt on our identity as a writer. Well you can't be a writer if you haven't got a book out, can you? Of course you can. If you're writing then you are a writer and no one can take that away from you. However, to avoid doubtful looks and comments of "So you want to be the next J.K. Rowling" it's good to be a bit ninja. Our nearest and dearest will usually be supportive but occasionally that's not the case. Most people have no idea how long it takes to hone our writing skills and get published. (For most people, including myself, it takes a really long time.) Also, if you keep your writer identity a secret from more casual acquaintances, it becomes easier to listen in on conversations and pinch snippets for your story. All the better to improve your dialogue with, my dear!

But how much time should we steal for writing? This can be an incredibly tricky judgement. Many of us have children or other family commitments. Many of us have day jobs. How can we take time away from our loved ones to write? I've struggled with this for many years. I think in the end, if we listen to our internal voice, we'll know whether we're either short changing our loved ones by writing too much or short-changing ourselves by not prioritising our own needs.

Ninja writing has many advantages.  If all you have is half an hour writing time during a baby's nap or an office lunch break, this can make you extremely focussed in your writing. Being able to pick up where you left off is a great skill and one I'm not so good at now that I have more time to write. Ninjas are masters of the surprise attack. This was very much my writing style in the early days when I had no more than a handful of minutes to scribble at a time. There was a definite thrill to it. Being able to write anywhere is also a skill to be nurtured. Train and car trips turn into an opportunity for scribbling and being out of the house can be very freeing. Stories that seemed stuck can be given a kick start by simply going somewhere else to write. New sights and sounds stimulate the imagination.

Various places I have written:
In a field, in a car park by a lake, in an airport, in a shopping centre, inside numerous cafes, on trains, in soft play venues (until the laptop battery ran out), on a ferry, on a hay bale, inside an ice sculpture (chilly) and in a royal palace.

So consider being ninja in your writing. You never know where it may lead. Now, if you'll excuse me, there's a computer I'd like to sneak off to.

Paula Harrison has published 25 books including the Robyn Silver series, the Tiara Friends mysteries, the Red Moon Rising trilogy and The Rescue Princesses.

Sunday, 13 August 2017

Blogger deleted my post so here's a video

I wrote a long, long post about how I'd just pressed SEND on my next book and what I had learned about the author I was and wanted to be.

It was a long, thoughtful post.

And then I pressed 'save' ... and the post was deleted.

I couldn't possibly remember everything I wrote this morning, but hopefully some of it will seep into my future writing. Sigh.

So in lieue of any wisdom, here is beauty.

I was watching these gorgeous birds from the deck of our holiday lodge in Coldingham Bay, Scotland.

Have a wonderful summer.

Thursday, 3 August 2017

The Importance of Finding Awesome People

By Jo Wyton

Maureen Lynas is one of those people. You know the sort.

You appear at a conference and suddenly someone’s behind you and there’s a pair of arms around you, but no need to wonder who it is - it’s obviously Maureen. You need some encouragement – it’s OK, Maureen will reply to your anxiety-ridden Facebook post. You need a smile – it’s OK, Maureen is right over there and she’s already heading your way. You need advice on a plot, a character, an exchange with an agent, a book title, a dispute, a pondering – don’t panic. Maureen's got your back.

And whilst she’s doing all that and supporting everyone and generally being everywhere at the same time and always her kind, warm self, Maureen is also working her butt off. Learning. Making mistakes. Trying new things. Over and over again. Evolving, never content to stay still. You try to pay attention because she seems to be navigating the publishing industry with all the grace you’ve never managed to summon, and you’re certain that what you are learning from her will come in handy.

And whilst you’re watching, Maureen is working, working, working.

One wonderful day in London town, you sit opposite her in a bar and she has this quiet smile on her face and you are instantly excited on behalf of this person who is always so excited for everyone else, and she tells you that she’s spent the last two days meeting multiple publishers, and that they all want her book.

And from that moment, marvellous things begin to unfold.

Bowie gets it.

You? You get to absorb it all and learn from it and be inspired by it. You get to watch all the pieces fall into place and see the spot every part of that learning curve has been leading towards, all this time.

Over on Facebook right now, there is a proliferation of people wearing multi-coloured witch hats. Go find them, they are brilliant. And they're there because Maureen has lots of Maureens in her life, too (in this case being herded in the right direction by the hat-tastic George Kirk). And today, they are celebrating the publication of Maureen’s first book: You Can’t Make Me Go To Witch School! 

Everyone needs a Maureen in their life.

As a writer, you need several.

Find them. Pay attention to them. You and your writing will be better for it.

(Congratulations, Maureen. You are really quite splendiferous, you know.)

From the Notes of the Slushpile crew (above) ... and all these others (below)

Friday, 21 July 2017

Coming Out

By Nick Cross

Photo by Ruffroot Creative

How long did it take you to pluck up the courage to tell someone you wanted to be a writer? I can remember it was a long while before I would admit to it in public, and there are still times when I’m not sure (usually when the writing is going badly). But recently, I’ve been troubled by an even bigger secret, something I’ve been dimly aware of for some years but also terrified of admitting:

I want to be a writer/illustrator.

When I revealed this information at the recent SCBWI Picture Book Retreat, I was surprised to find that nobody laughed at me. In fact, everyone was broadly supportive of my new creative orientation. So perhaps it’s only me who worries this is a terrible idea.

Friday, 14 July 2017

Home truths - writing about home and finding your way there

by Addy Farmer

A Place to call Home by the marvellous Alexis Deacon
I remember. I went to Italy when I was seventeen. I was going to learn Italian while I looked after two bambini for a Contessa in Turin. Let me tell you now, it was not all Prosecco and panini. I retain an impression of a thin and cavernous house. Inside it was all peeling wall paper and actual servants. The 'bambini' were 13 and 11 and HORRIBLE. I began to feel like one of Mary Poppin's predecessors i.e one of the rejected, loser nannies. The bambini hated me (dead rabbits outside my door/hateful little notes/a complete refusal to do anything I asked) and I loathed them back.

Friday, 7 July 2017

Who Is Driving Your Story?

By Em Lynas

When I first started writing I was under the impression that the protagonist was in the driving seat and I wrote mainly from that POV. I thought that they wanted/needed something and everyone else was pretty much there to either help or get in the way. That their story was the most important story in the book.

I've learned better. After all it's the wants/needs of each of the other characters that establish the big world and small world scenarios thus creating a space for the protagonist's story.

A protagonist has nothing to fight against or engage with if the other characters don't act on their desires.


For instance, In the soon to be published (Yay!) You Can't Make Me Go To Witch School! (By me!) Daisy is destined to be a Shakespearean actress. Nothing and no one is there to stop her. She will perform her Bottom, get another part, then another part, learn her craft and eventually grab the Oscar and make a tearful speech about all the help she's had. That's the story she's in the diving seat of, and the car is a slow moving sedan going in a straight line.

Pitch that to an agent!

So, another character has to put a spanner in the works, take the wheel, and send the car down a bypass.

Introducing - Granny Wart.

She dumps Daisy at Toadspit Towers School for Witches. Putting an end to Daisy's dreams of stardom. But why would she? Granny has to have her reasons. She has to be motivated by something. Love, desire, hate, selfishness, greed, etc. She needs a backstory that impels her to leave Daisy at school and then, Ms Sage, the deputy headmistress, needs a backstory which impels her to keep Daisy at school. Which means Daisy is then impelled to fight against them both.

The motivations and desires of others pushes the protagonist into their story. 

In Harry Potter, Mr Dursley prevents Harry from receiving his Hogwarts letter. His motivation is driven by a strong dislike of magic and magical people, and a refusal to allow Harry to engage in that sort of abnormal behaviour. So when Harry meets Hagrid, he has no desire to stay with the Dursley's and enters Hogwarts.

A beautifully illustrated version from Chris Riddell

In Francis Hardinge's The Lie Tree it's Faith's father's abnormal behaviour that triggers her actions through the book. I don't want to give any spoilers but it would be a book about a boring archaeological dig if he didn't have a secret to hide, giving her a secret to uncover. I loved it.

In Hamish and the World Stoppers by Danny Wallace, illustrated by the uber-talented Jamie Littler (who just happens to be my illustrator too) something is making the world stop. If it wasn't, then Hamish's dad would not have gone missing and Hamish wouldn't have a mystery to solve. Who or what is that something and what's their motivation for doing it?

In Anne of Green Gables by L. M Montgomery Marilla and Matthew are motivated to adopt a boy who can help on the farm because of Matthew's heart problem and they end up with Anne. The complication being she's a girl not a boy and so, because she doesn't fit their original motivation, they reject her. So she has to fight to stay.

In the excellent Netflix series Anne with an E Matthew and Marilla's backstories are given room and we see why they react to Anne in the way they do. We see what they lost and how much they gain by having Anne in their lives. Personally, I think the story is deeper for that. Purists may not agree.

I've filled in lots of character creation sheets in the past but they often focus on the superficial e.g. what they look like, what they're wearing etc. Please do share if you have any links to character creation sheets based on discovering motivations and personalities.

Meanwhile I'm asking these questions about all of the characters in my books.

How did they get to be the person they are at this moment in time?

What went right/wrong for them?

What do they want in the future? For themselves, the protagonist and the other characters?

What motivates them - status, money, value, safety, learning etc

Why don't they want the protagonist to get what the protagonist wants?

Feel free to add to these questions too.

This might make an interesting starting point for future books - Don't begin with the protagonist. Begin with the world of the antagonist and secondary characters. Then drop someone else in who doesn't want what they want.

The book that immediately springs to mind here is Pollyanna by E. H. Porter

The world of grumpy people is firmly established, each with their own reason for being grumpy, and then Pollyanna is dropped into it like a pebble in a pond. She could never have spiralled down into unhappiness if the other characters' actions hadn't been motivated by severe grumpiness.

So, who is driving your story?

by Em Lynas

Currently residing on twitter as @emlynas and fb as Maureen Lynas
Published by Nosy Crow. Represented by Skylark Literary.

Friday, 16 June 2017

The Scrumptiousness of Cake (do not read if hungry)

by Paula Harrison

It's fair to say that cake occupies a special place in many authors' hearts. There's the cake that keeps you going during the tear-your-hair-out stage of editing, there's cake eaten to ease the pain of rejection and just now and then there is celebratory cake when something special happens.

There's also (Shh... insider knowledge alert) quite a bit of cake wafting around publishers' office which is offered to hungry authors who might wander in off the streets. I've only been in one publishing meeting which didn't involve cake. Looking back, I feel this was a terrible oversight. 

Book cover cupcakes at the SCBWI 20th anniversary last Autumn
Cake also features heavily in children's books. There are lashings of them in Enid Blyton, with my favourite being the pop cakes in The Enchanted Wood:

She [Silky] brought out a tin of Pop Cakes, which were lovely. As soon as you bit into them they went pop! and you suddenly found your mouth filled with new honey from the middle of the little cakes. 

So it was inevitable that I would include some cake in my own stories. The Rescue Princesses have a particular habit of planning adventures and ninja moves over slices of cake. The Emperor's birthday cake at the end of The Stolen Crystals is one that sticks in my mind:

The twelve-tier birthday cake kept everyone happy, with its layers of chocolate fudge cake, cherry and sultana cake, ginger, lemon, toffee and many other flavours. Emily's little sister, Lottie, ate a slice from all twelve tiers and then had to sit very still on a garden chair to calm her aching tummy.

Cake is not just a food in children's books. It's something that brings characters together, lets them interact, celebrate and commiserate. It can be a tool for setting the scene and signalling characters roles in the story and attitudes to each other. It can be important to the plot.

Who can forget the floating pudding (nearly a cake) which Dobby uses to ruin Harry Potter's uncle and aunt's dinner party in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets?

Aunt Petunia's masterpiece of a pudding, the mountain of cream and sugared violets, was floating up near the ceiling. On top of a cupboard in the corner crouched Dobby...

Probably the most memorable cake scene in my opinion is Miss Trunchball's attempt to punish Bruce Bogtrotter by making him eat an entire chocolate cake in Matilda by Roald Dahl. She fails miserably.

She [Trunchball] glared at Bruce Bogtrotter, who was sitting on his chair like some huge overstuffed grub, replete, comatose, unable to move or speak. A fine sweat was beading his forehead but there was a grin of triumph on his face.
Suddenly the Trunchball lunged forward and grabbed the large empty china platter on which the cake had rested. She raised it high in the air and brought it down with a crash right on the top of the wretched Bruce Bogtrotter's head and pieces flew all over the platform.
The boy was by now so full of cake he was like a sackful of wet cement and you couldn't have hurt him with a sledge-hammer. He simply shook his head a few times and went on grinning.

So what's your favourite cake scene in a children's book?

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