Friday, 26 May 2017

The Agony of Choice

By Nick Cross

Photo by Jared Cherup

Over the last month, I seem to have changed my mind on an almost daily basis regarding what this blog would be about. At the risk of sounding like a Friends episode list, there was:

  • The one about what writers can learn from tech startups
  • The one about how I got the first critique back on my new YA novel and how I've started the book again but it's OK because it’s actually much better for it.
  • The one about how I’m not going to send the completed book to any agents or publishers and have resolved to self-publish from the outset.
  • The one about mental health, mortality and suicide, inspired by the tragic death of my teenage hero, Soundgarden singer Chris Cornell.
  • The one about awards, because I realised that the Notes from the Slushpile team have an amazing FOUR Crystal Kite Awards among them and aren’t they all crazy talented?

Any and none of these may still become blog posts in the future, of course. But what I realised I actually wanted to blog about was difficulty of choosing between these options. When you have a surfeit of good ideas but limited time available, how do you choose the one idea to go forward with?

Friday, 19 May 2017

Making things up: finding the place for your story

by Teri Terry

Part 5 in Making Things Up: a blog series about the creative process

How do you choose the setting(s) for your story?

This is something I get asked about regularly, and honesty will make me admit: it isn't something I've always given the attention it deserves. With most of my earlier writing before I was published it was often the last thing on my mind. My characters and what was going to happen to them took centre stage, and where these (usually unpleasant!) things would happen was kind of by the by. As a reader I've also always had a horror of long descriptive passages, and describing where my characters were wasn't high on my list of writing fun. Being asked to use all five senses to describe a place in a writing workshop is kind of my idea of writing hell. 

It's fair to say I picked the opening setting for my first published novel, Slated - a village in the Chilterns - mostly because it was where I lived. To start with I had to remember to deliberately add some details of place to give the readers a picture of where the characters were, but felt I struggled to do it in a way that didn't feel I was just describing something for the sake of it. My character, Kyla, really helped me in this regard: having had her memory wiped, things were new to her. Therefore it was natural for her to notice details of place in a way a character generally won't if they are somewhere very familiar to them.

Somewhere along the way as I was writing Slated, something
interesting started to happen. The setting began to develop a life of its own in the story: the footpaths and canal ways became the other way to get around, unseen, for my characters, and this became vital for the plot. 

By the time I'd got to the third book of the trilogy, Shattered, I'd begun to expand how I used and related to settings. The scenes in Shattered in the stone circle at Castle Rigg are a good example. The feel the place evokes, the touch of the stone and so on were important to my character when she remembered going there with her father. 

The thing I learned wasn't to change how I approach writing, which is always from the guts of the character - but to accept that sometimes experiences and memories of place are part of the guts of the character. If they're important to my character, they're important to me.

Back then it was probably mostly serendipity that helped me along with the choice of settings. Now I have begun to approach it with more thought and deliberation, but I still haven't answered the question of how to make the choice.

To answer this question, another must be tackled first:

Is the setting another character in the story, or incidental to what takes places?

A story can take place in an almost unnoticed setting (like my pre-published stories often did); or it can be on the moors of Wuthering Heights. I know which I'd rather write!

Yesterday was the book birthday of Contagion: the first in the Dark Matter trilogy. When I started writing it I had the Scottish settings where the story begins firmly in mind. I've recently blogged on the Scottish book trust website on five ways to choose a setting, specifically in relation to Contagion. Rather than repeating myself I'll put a link below, but the more I think about it the more I think this: while the setting has to serve the story, it also absolutely must inspire me, the writer, to write it.
That is the overriding memory I have of writing Contagion: the sense of the
first time I went to Killin, and just knew: my character, Shay, lives here. This place is part of who she is.

Here's the linky*: 5 ways to choose a novel's setting, Scottish Book Trust website.
     *I apologise for linking to another blog rather writing anew, but I just moved house, have a head cold, and a zillion new book events: I hope you'll forgive me!

Contagion, on the beach:
it rather sounds like a dangerous sort of cocktail ...
... some things can't be cured, can't be killed, can't be stopped.

Callie is missing, and her brother Kai is desperate to find her. When Shay realises she was the last one to see Callie before she went missing, she contacts Kai. Together they race to find her, but can they outrun the epidemic?

A few weeks ago, at Cockermouth School:
 one of the very first school events for Contagion!

Friday, 12 May 2017

How to write with feeling - finding the still points of a turning world

by Addy Farmer

Just imagine that you died. Yes, I know, it's weird but you're a writer so indulge me. You died; in fact you knew you were going to die and you were definitely not going to go gently into that good night. You raged. But it went dark anyway.

I don't want to go

Then you came back to life.

number 10

You woke with all that knowledge of dying and the knowledge of how you didn't want to go. Just think how you would feel; all the big things and the small things would rush upon you. I can't articulate this better than a children's author called Amy Krouse Rosenthal.
When I am feeling dreary, annoyed, and generally unimpressed by life, I imagine what it would be like to come back to this world ... after having been dead. I imagine how sentimental I would feel about the very things I once found stupid, hateful, or mundane. Oh, there’s a light switch! I haven’t seen a light switch in so long! I didn’t realize how much I missed light switches! Oh! Oh! And look — the stairs up to our front porch are still completely cracked! Hello cracks! Let me get a good look at you. And there’s my neighbor, standing there, fantastically alive, just the same, still punctuating her sentences with you know what I’m saying? Why did that bother me? It’s so… endearing.
Can you imagine it?! All that relief and gratitude and love for life in all its variety, renewed and reinvigorated. Hmmm, I wonder how long that would last? I have never actually died and come back to life but that poignant piece in the excellent BrainPickings really made me think about how my child reader might begin to view her world - with joy, with amazement, with despair, with puzzlement, with a shrug.

What's going on again?

For me, writing for children is a remembrance of not just what happened but crucially how it felt when it happened. As adults we carry baggage of various weights and sizes but as writers we should be able to rummage around and find the bit which takes you to a place or a person or event when you felt something for maybe the first time.

Remembering anew

Italo Calvino would have us believe that, “every experience is unrepeatable,”. That may be so but as writers we must seek to use that experience and enhance our stories by recalling how it felt to be five or fifteen. Can you easily recall any childhood memories? Try a sample of mine from childhood:
  • remembering my grandmother's voice and how she once told me that curtains were the work of the devil 
  • waking up from a bad dream and seeing balloon monsters at the end of the bed and no voice to call out
  • a party ending and not wanting to go and being lovingly mother-handled down the drive
  • moving house and waving goodbye to my friends through the rear window of the car
  • getting lost on a birthday trip to London and being told off when I was finally found
I don't remember all of these incidents in detail but rather what sticks is how they made me feel - confused, terrified, furious, sad and relieved/unhappy/bewildered (that last one still gets me). It's not so much a case of write what you know but write what you feel you know.
Chris Riddell - tells a story every time

The still turning points

Occasionally the past can pierce the present. You might experience one of those amazing occurances where you just couldn't make it up (of course you can). They are what T.S. Eliot called 'the still points of the turning world'. Helen Shapiro writes:
At the end of the first evening at a large retreat, an old man approaches as I’m packing up my books and papers for the night. He looks at me with such warmth and love. Do I know you? Startled, I glance down at his name tag. I raise a hand to my mouth, then stand and hug him hard, wordlessly. He had been my first piano teacher.
The chance meeting took her back, without warning, to a happy time with a formative person in her life. Her reaction was wordless and all the more affecting because she felt it. Apart from this being classic, 'show and not tell', this is a lovely example of how a story can start or end ...

lost and found - Oliver Jeffers
Have you ever had a hand-to-the-mouth moment? Something which stirs a forgotten memory. Something powerful enough to transport you backwards in time to a once important person or a place?
  • A meeting with someone you knew or someone a close relative or a friend knew
  • A scent, a smell which brings it all back in an instant 
  • A found object which evokes a past you wanted forgotten or had forgotten you had - a photograph, jewellery, a lock of hair, a toy, a shabby item of toddler clothing ... the list is endless
  • A place, taking you somewhere awful or delightful
  • A song, a poem, an extract from a diary
So many ways to stimulate your story brain and it's all inside you!

Not all memories are pleasant

Sometimes we have to really dig around and find those memories. That sounds ominous. But you know what I mean. It's the suppressed memories - the ones you really have to mine for - that often provoke the greatest depth of feeling. It's a little bit painful to try and prod these into being. I did a writing exercise which made me think about this.
  • think of something you are ashamed of having done
  • why do you think it happened
  • who made you think it was shaming?   
I won't regale you with my shameful past. Although some of these 'shameful' episodes seem funny now. But at the time they made me hide my head ... all right, just one. I was playing outside in someone's back garden. We had a football and I used to pretend that I knew everything about football (such a lie!). Anyhow, I told my friend I could kick the ball further than him. I kicked it into his kitchen window (classic). His dad came out and raged at his son and I stood there and let him. He never dobbed me in but he gave me such a 'look' and never talked to me again. Now, that may not be exactly how it went but good grief I can recall the disappointment of losing a friend through being cowardly. It's fine - I forgave myself a couple of weeks ago.

So, I hope this helps a bit. Remember - you are an individual writer with individual memories and feelings. And this lovely baggage is what gives you your individual voice.

Friday, 5 May 2017

The Writer's Journey - How Long!?!

by Em Lynas

Last year was weird. I signed with agent Amber Caraveo of Skylark Literary and landed a 3 book deal with Kate Wilson of Nosy Crow.
Next year is set to be weirder as I write two more books in the Toadspit Towers series and promote the first.

It feels weird because it’s led me to do a bit of thinking and wondering about time: how it’s passed and how and why I kept writing over...
Eighteen years from ‘I think I’ll become a writer!’ to ‘I have a book coming out in August!’

Why did it take me so long? What were my steps? What led me to here? What led me to Toadspit Towers, School for Witches and the deal with Nosy Crow. If I'd known it would take so long would I have even started?

Let’s go back to 1999. Yes, the last century! Before the millennium! I was a teacher. A reception teacher who needed to get out.

I had A PLAN! Become a picture book writer and never suffer an OFSTED ever again!
I was obviously an expert in picture books (reception teacher remember) so, I wrote lots of picture books. They were bad picture books. They all lacked something. But not always the same something. They were amateurish.

Some of these books had:
No lead character, tick; no conflict, tick; no plot, tick; no theme, tick.

Comedy? Tick. Yes. They all had comedy.

I kept writing because:
I had great feedback from agents and editors. I even had a near miss from a big publisher. They kept Maybe the Baby for a year and then said no. That was a bad ending. The book’s ending was bad too.

What next? Stick to picture books and learn my craft? Of course not. Picture books were obviously far too hard (everyone said so) and I needed to try something different, something easier.

Aha! PLAN 2 Become a comedy sketch writer.
Link provided to
Lily's Tassels
 on request.
I signed up for a comedy class. It turned out to be less a class and more a boozy gang of very sweary comics (think VIZ but actual live people) led by a not-very-funny outspoken woman with a not-very-funny act that involved extreme piercing and tassel twirling. 

I kept writing because:
This group led to my friend and I meeting with a local comedian who had an idea for a comedy drama script.

Aha! PLAN 3 – Become a script writer.
We wrote the script for From Fags to Riches. Six episode outlines and one full script of episode one. That script is waiting to be discovered. It’s good. One day it may find a home.

This script has:
An interesting premise, tick; a well-structured plot, tick; believable characters, tick; loads of peril, tick; comedy and pathos, tick; well-known actors and actresses interested in taking parts, tick.

No production company deals, tick; it’s not my voice, tick.

I kept writing because:
I was getting a sense of my voice. I had my own ideas. They wouldn’t go away. I’d learned a lot about structure while we wrote the script. But what next? Stick to scriptwriting? Nope. I love books. I love comedy. Mmm. Comedy.

Aha! PLAN 4 Write a book. A comedy for adults.
Mother on the Mantelpiece. I still like this book. Brenda, school secretary, is a middle-aged woman being haunted by her mother who still ‘knows best’ and is ruling her life from the grave.

This book has:
an interesting premise, tick; an unrequited romance with the bloke downstairs, tick; believable characters, tick; comedy and pathos, tick; a beginning, tick.

No plot, tick; no ending; tick.

By now I’d been to a few scriptwriting courses and creative writing courses, and had begun to engage with other writers. I joined the online critique group You Write On and Harper Collins critique site Authonomy.

What a great procrastination! What an emotional rollercoaster. What a waste of writing time. BUT I did learn lessons. It was an introduction to objectivity versus subjectivity. ‘Your characters are so believable!’ ‘Your characters aren’t believable.’ ‘Love your premise.’ ‘Hate your premise.’ ‘Your plot is so well paced.’ ‘Your plot is too frantic.’

I kept writing because:
People at courses and online laughed. They found my writing funny. That was amazing.

Aha! PLAN 5 Write a different book. A really silly book for kids. The daftest book I can write.
I loved Tony Ross’s book Don’t Do That! About a kid who gets their finger stuck up their nose and it reminded me of the saying – If The Wind Changes You’ll Stay Like That! A warning not to pull faces.

And so Gurner Gobbit and the Bloodcurdling Bug-Eyed Jawbreaker was born. This was the first novel that I actually completed. I loved it. I loved Gurner and his recklessness, and his best friend Pete who was obsessed with reporting Gurner’s antics. It was whacky – set in an alternative Lancashire where extreme face pulling was the norm. But certain faces were BANNED as too dangerous. Pulling the BANNED faces had consequences.

This book has:
A ridiculous premise, tick; bonkers characters, tick; crazy events, tick; comedy conflict, tick; logical plot, tick.

Really poor set up of the events and ending, tick; a protagonist who can’t speak because his face is distorted, tick.

I kept writing because:
I joined SCBWI. Gurner won an honorary mention in The 2010 Undiscovered Voices. An editor saw the book on Authonomy and expressed interest. People thought it was funny.

Next plan. PLAN 6. 6! Get a book ready for the next Undiscovered Voices competition. Maybe twist a traditional tale?

To Destiny or Death! Prince Bob is turned into a frog by the evil Hagatha and it’s all King Fred’s fault!  I love King Fred and his food related idiolect. Another completed book! And it’s in my voice.

This book has:
A big heart, tick; strong characters, tick; a structured plot, tick; conflict and peril, tick; logical set up and motivations, tick; funny dialogue, tick.

A protagonist who can’t speak because he’s a frog, tick. There is now a pattern of non-speaking protagonists. If 2 makes a pattern.

I kept writing because:
To Destiny or Death! won a place in the 2012 Undiscovered Voices competition. I signed with an agent. I had publishers interested. It failed to get past sales and marketing.

Note the date. 2012

We’re now thirteen years into the journey to publication. I haven’t mentioned the other picture books I’ve written, the two teen books planned and not written, volunteering for SCBWI, setting up the poetry website the funeverse with SCBWI friends, joining the blog Notes from the Slushpile with even more SCBWI friends. I'd become very busy at being a writer.

Back to the timeline.
This was a dip time. A bit of a depressing time. I considered not writing. I felt I knew what I was doing now. I understood structure, set up, characterisation etc etc etc but I was failing at the last hurdle – being published. It was very difficult to maintain any enthusiasm for submitting and sharing my work with the publishing industry.

I kept writing because:
I still loved writing and I had another story. A story that still makes me smile. Florence and the Meanies – Cupcake Catastrophe! I also wrote book 2 Canine Calamity!

Based on the Cinderella dynamic, Florence and her two fairy godmothers must save the princes from the evil Meanies. Florence was a lot of fun to write, especially because the two fairy godmothers Hatty and Dotty are such contrasts of good and naughty. But having parted company with my agent I wasn’t sure I wanted to put Florence (and me) through the submission process. So I worked with my daughter Katherine Lynas to produce an illustrated version for the kindle and we did the layout for a createspace book too. I’ve since withdrawn the book because ... I have a plan for Florence.

These books have:
Everything I want them to have especially warmth, heart, my voice and my daughter's fabulous illustrations.

I kept writing because:
A new character popped up with a very personal and unique story. Daisy knew what she didn’t want. She definitely didn’t want to go to witch school. I wrote her story. I re-wrote it. I wrote it again. That was in 2015.
Then, in 2016 Prince Bob won a SCBWI BI slushpile challenge with Amber Caraveo and she said the magic words – what else have you got? And I answered – I have Daisy! She’s an actress who’s been dumped at Toadspit Towers, School for Witches, by her granny. Amber fell for Daisy. She fell for the voice.

Pg 93 in the catalogue! Click here!
You can read about Daisy on the Nosy Crow website. In August 2017 she will have her book birthday and I will be a published author.

So, EIGHTEEN LONG YEARS! Could I have done it sooner? Was there a short cut I missed? What if I’d done a creative writing degree? What if I’d done an MA? Would I have climbed the learning curve faster? Would I have been published faster? I don’t think so. No. Not me. There was so much to discover and learn. Not just about the techniques of writing but I had to discover my voice, discover what I cared about and discover what motivated me.

I thought comedy was the motivation, I thought I just wanted to make children laugh. But comedy is just the genre I use to write about the things I care about. It just took me a while to discover what those things were. 

What was the main thing that gave me the confidence to keep writing? SCBWI BI. Winning Undiscovered Voices and the Slushpile Challenge was incredibly motivating. I had to be doing something right if I'd won those. And you should never underestimate the power of SCBWI friendships. They just won't let you give up!

If you're writing for children and are a member of SCBWI BI (or Europe) you can enter these amazing competitions for free. Do it.

Em Lynas

Feel free to follow me on twitter and facebook if you are at all interested in books and writing for children. You can nip over to my website emlynas but I'm not often in.

Friday, 28 April 2017

How to Rewrite Your Novel To The Bitter End

By Candy Gourlay

Writing is rewriting. Rewriting is writing.


My writing friends repeat this sagely as we sit complaining about the children's book industry while slurping glasses of wine.

Writing is rewriting is one of the first epiphanies a wannabe writer must have to launch her on her way.

Until you accept that the first flower of inspiration that you lay down as text will not be the final version of your opus, you are not a serious contender. I learned this the hard way in my early days of trying to get published when I excitedly posted my first drafts to publishers seconds after I typed 'The End'. Even now, I hate sending early drafts of my manuscripts to my editor, knowing my story is still cooking.

Make no mistake: everyone has a different way of climbing into a story. For what it's worth, here is mine.


The first time I write my novel, it doesn't feel like I'm actually writing a novel. It's more like I'm posing a series of questions.

What is this story?
Why am I writing it?
What do I want to say?
How do I want to say it?
Who are my characters?
Why are they doing what they do?
What is happening? Why?

During this stage I know I can still get out. I can still say, no, I don't want to write this book. I can quit at any point and write another book. Three years ago, I tried to explain this process in a blog post:

When I start a book, I am a rabbit staring at several rabbit holes ... I dive into one rabbit hole. I go right in. Go as far as I can go. Write a few chapters. Do I want to write some more? Oh, that is an interesting thing. Shall I explore that? I keep going until I don't want to keep going. If I don't want to keep going, I climb out of the rabbit hole and dive into the next one.

And if I don't like that rabbit hole I climb into another one.

I keep doing this until I find the book I want to write. Then I write it.

This draft usually has a fantastic first chapter, because when I start thinking about a book, my first lightbulb ideas are always about how the story begins, how the hero gets launched into his adventure. (Mark ye this: you will rewrite that damn first chapter more times than any other!)

But at this stage – though I might have written some great scenes that make it to the final draft – I don't really know my characters well enough! My middle sags like a Pilates-free tummy. And my ending is cursory and forgettable.

THE SECOND TIME I WRITE IT (and the third, and the fourth etc)

“Writing and rewriting are a constant search for what it is one is saying.”  JOHN UPDIKE

Once a draft is down, then it's time to rewrite the story once more. You might love your first draft. You might hate it. You've got to rewrite it, whether you think it's good or not. It's not ready, trust me. Once is not enough.

And often, twice is not enough. Or three times. You have to write it however many times it takes.

When your spirit is flagging, think of bad reviews on Amazon or elsewhere. It will be easier to rewrite than to endure bad reviews for the rest of your book's life.

I do try to write nice words at this point. My friend Jane McLoughlin (The Crowham Martyres, At Yellow Lake) jokingly calls this 'writing the long words' – you know, metaphors, fancy words and literary sounding stuff that someone in the far future might quote.

But Structure must come before waxing lyrical. You can polish your words, your sentences, until they  shine, but if all those gorgeous bits don't add up to a coherent whole you've been moving deck chairs while the ship is sinking.

Structure is another thing a wannabe author needs to get his head around. Story structure is almost The Magic Bullet to getting published. All the published authors I know, understand – at the minimum! –  what a beginning, a middle and an end has got to do to deliver a good story.

Read all the books on story structure you can find. James Scott Bell is a good first stop, Solutions for Novelists by Sol Stein. Screenwriting gurus make fantastic reading – read Into the Woods: How Stories Work and Why We Tell Them by John Yorke; read Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee; Save the Cat by Blake Snyder. (They take potshots at each other! Yorke on McKee's ‘the negation of the negation’: 'I have yet to meet a writer who knows quite what he means.')

 I've read loads more, but these are the books that have sparked writing epiphanies for me.

The first thing you learn from these books is: it's not about you. It's about the reader.

The second thing you learn is: these gurus agree and disagree but every decision you make about your story should be about ... your story.

Not about whether you want to rant about the treatment of single mothers. Not about whether you want to describe a life-changing experience from your childhood. Not about whether you want to teach the reader a lesson about kindness. Not about whether you want to imagine a historical event in all its glorious detail.

It's. About. The. Story.

So for me, this stage ... it takes a lot of time. Sometimes (well, oftentimes) years. Congrats to all you guys who can do this in a few months. Me, I can't seem to juggle everything at the same time. I figure out what my hero wants, only to discover that this breaks the subplot with his best friend. I finally understand why a minor character behaves the way she does, but her story becomes so interesting it threatens to outshine the main story!

And so it goes. And it (I) have to keep going until I've worked out all the things important to my story. This means:

  • Writing scenes that might not make the final cut
  • Really, really, really getting to know my characters
  • My hero comes to life (this involves hearing voices. I knew that I was on to a good thing when while writing Tall Story I heard a voice in my head say: 'So many armpits, so little deodorant!')
  • All the threads of story are written down, whether they're going to be in the final draft or not
  • I know my way to the ending


“Your eloquence should be the servant of the ideas in your head. Your rule might be this: If a sentence, no matter how excellent, does not illuminate your subject in some new and useful way, scratch it out.” KURT VONNEGUT

I've just pressed 'SEND' on my next novel. My editor is reading it now. I think it's the final draft – I'm sure there will be comments, but I don't think I'll be completely rewriting scenes, or restructuring the novel, or changing the sex of a character, or anything major like that.

I think.

Writing this draft , the final one, involves:

  • Writing the words that your reader will actually see
  • Writing all those lovely 'long' words
  • Getting to the emotional core of my characters, of my novel
  • Creating an emotional experience for the reader
  • Making sure everybody in the book is alive
  • Really knowing what your book is about

This particular book was difficult because  historical/anthropological  details got in the way of my really understanding my story. So I did something I had never done with my previous books.

I took out all my favourite structure books. And then I spent a month working out how my story fitted into the structures advocated by each book.

It was hard work. What I was trying to do was ask every question I needed to ask about my characters and my story to get to the end. But how was I to know what questions to ask? I trawled my beloved books for clues.

When I came upon a pithy line like 'A character's facade is an outer manifestation of an inner conflict', I turned a critical eye on my characters' inner and outer manifestations. When I came upon a piece about Freud and Ego Defence Mechanisms and steps to how the immature becomes mature (intellectualisation, repression, regression, sublimation, rationalisation, isolation, projection, denial, displacement, reaction), I tried to work out how to apply this to my character arcs. When I read 'choices make character' in Robert McKee,  I reviewed the choices my characters made, and thought carefully about what these indicated about them

Here are just two examples – Into the Woods and Saving the Cat.

Reading Into the Woods again, I scribbled down how my story fitted into the outline Yorke discusses, in the process understanding the scenes I still have to write, for clarity, the set-ups that are missing from my story to strengthen and deepen the outcome.

1. 'Home is threatened.' How are my protagonist's ideas about his ordinary world threatened? Will my reader sympathise?

2. 'The Protagonist suffers from some kind of flaw.' What is my Protagonist lacking? Is it clear to the reader?

3. 'The Protagonist goes on a journey.' Do we feel the cause and effect of what comes to pass? Have I set up the impetus of this?

4. 'Exactly halfway through the story, the protagonist embraces for the first time the quality he or she will need to become complete' – what he needs to finish the story – sometimes it's a truth about himself.  They know what they need to do ... but do they do it?

5. 'On the journey back' the characters face consequences. Everything gets worse. The hopes and dreams at the beginning are all betrayed or crushed.

6. The characters face 'a literal or metaphorical death'.  This is an overwhelming moment, a time to write like you're a lead guitarist playing a riff. This is the part of your story that fans will be desperate to talk about and yet have to bite their tongues so as to avoid revealing spoilers.

7. The hero is 'reborn as a new person', 'in full possession of the cure', 'home is saved'. How does it end? What is 'home'? How is it saved?

Blake Snyder prescribes a 'Beat Sheet' in Saving the Cat. You can visit this website to read the Beat Sheets of various movies. But here are the steps:

1. Opening Image. This must set the tone, style and mood.

2. State the Theme. What is your story about? The main character usually doesn't get it so why not get a secondary character to ask the question that states the theme. (eg. Identity: Who am I? )

3. Set Up – Snyder calls this 'the six things that need fixing' – I actually made a list! Then I checked to make sure that my set ups were in place

4. Catalyst. Something happens that sets the story in motion.

5. Debate. For clarity's sake, it's good to have the characters discuss options. What are my choices? What do I do? Should I go? Should I stay?

6. Break into Two (the 'two' being the second act). A moment of decision when the hero walks through a door of no return.

7. The B Story. Snyder calls this the 'Breather' or the 'Booster Rocket', a subplot, sometimes/often the romantic story line.

8. Fun and Games, 'the Promise of the Premise'. Snyder says these are the moments that usually appear in the movie trailer! The scenes where buddies clash, where we think, yeah, this is why I'm watching/reading this, cool stuff.

9. Midpoint. By now the stakes are raised. The hero knows he's got a problem. But can he fix it? His view of the world changes.

10. Bad Guys Close In. Or one could also say, this is the time when the good guys lose it.

11. All is Lost. The old way of thinking dies. There's a whiff of death. Note to self: is my character suffering enough, as in, MORE than the suffering he's endured before? It's gotta be bad.

12. Dark Night of the Soul. What is the worst thing that could happen to your hero?

13. Break into Three (as in the third act). Another door of no return, a moment that leads inexorably to your ending. But what is it?

14. Finale + a Final Image that mirrors your first image.

“Reread, rewrite, reread, rewrite. If it still doesn’t work, throw it away. It’s a nice feeling, and you don’t want to be cluttered with the corpses of poems and stories which have everything in them except the life they need.” HELEN DUNMORE

Of course I still don't know if the draft I have just sent to my editor is any good.

Someone on Facebook told me, 'My editor says she'll tell me if it's my final draft.'

I will let you know.

P.S. 8 May 2014 - Just read this piece by Jess Lourey on Classic Story Structures, if you're looking to understand story structure more,  go read it!

Candy Gourlay is the author of Tall Story and ShineIf you liked this, you might like Candy's post The Final Draft: Looking for SatisfactionsVisit her website

Friday, 14 April 2017

Second Book Syndrome

By Kathryn Evans

Is it even a thing? Second Book Syndrome? Surely, once you've been published, your confidence is sky high and your second book just OOZES out of you.

Not in my experience. I am currently trying to turn my second book into something worthy of the name and it is HARD.  Especially as my wonderful editor  pointed out, it shouldn't be AS GOOD as the first book, it needs to be BETTER.

And she's right. I know she is.

 On paper, this is me:

Kathryn Evans, author of More of Me, winner of the Edinburgh Book Festival First Book Award, Nominated for the 2017 Carnegie Medal, shortlisted for multiple regional awards and translated across the globe.

In reality, this is me:

What If The Next Book Is Rubbish?

 I have readers who want to read what I write next because they loved More of Me. I need to blow them away with Book Two. It needs to be brilliant, to be different and fresh and full of depth and have amazing characters and a plot that zooms along and tension that keeps you turning the pages and..



Oh yes. Second Book Syndrome exists. You've got  expectations to fulfill.

So, I did what I always do in an MODP (Moment of Deep Panic), I turned to my writer pals for advice and reassurance. They did not let me down. Many, many writers have suffered Second Book Syndrome. Not Chris Priestley, just so you know, he's got his own Syndrome Syndrome in which he's worrying he doesn't have a Syndrome but THAT is a whole different story.

Here's what the others had to say:

Sue Wallman

Sue Wallman  is the author of YA psychological thrillers Lying About Last Summer ( Selected for the Zoella Book Club)  and See How They Lie

Sue Wallman

"2nd (or 3rd etc) book syndrome is for me a terrible panicky feeling that things aren't coming together. Sometimes I think it takes a long time to fall into your story because your heart still belongs to the characters in your last book, or you've simply forgotten how hard writing and rewriting actually is. The only solution I know is to keep chipping away and trust that you'll get there eventually."

That made me feel a little better until I read:

Rhiannon Lassiter 

Author of Void: Hex, Shadows Ghosts:

"Your second book should be entirely different from your first. It creates range and space and avoids being trapped in a box. That's not what I did, of course."

NOR ME!!!! Is that true? Please let that not be true!

Cath Pickles

 Author of the Worzel books:

"The worst thing you can do with a second book is think about it too much"


Jo Franklin

Help I'm an Alien author, is always practical:

"It's easier to write book 2 if it's a series, as you already know the characters and their world. Though writing for an editor, rather than yourself, brings a whole new anxiety. It's best to get Book 2 well underway before Book 1 is out. The anxiety about securing a second book contract is another matter entirely."

Tell me about it!

 Miriam Halahmy 
 Author of Hidden and Illegal:

 Miriam is now on her seventh book and says she didn't suffer from second book syndrome. She's now in the process of finishing her seventh novel.

 It's kind of nice to know it doesn't afflict everyone.

Shirley Mcmillan

Shirley's debut, A Good Hiding, came out last year.  The Unknowns will be published by Atom ( Little, Brown) at the end of 2017:

"I finished my second book a week before the deadline. How clever of me! I thought. And then, immediately, The Fear. The first book, A Good Hiding, was written during a Master’s degree when I had more time and fewer children, and, crucially, nothing at all to lose. The second was written under contract, with a small teething child and a first book to promote and OMG WHAT IF THE FIRST WAS A FLUKE AND THIS ONE IS SH*T AND MY LOVELY AGENT AND AMAZING PUBLISHER ARE ABOUT TO FIND OUT THAT THEY MADE A MASSIVE MISTAKE?! During that week I sent my new one off to several friends, one of whom read the entire thing, all of whom emailed their reassurance. At the end of the week, I let it go. That was the lesson- do your best, try to trust yourself, and then let it go."

That's better, I found that very reassuring - until I realised - she'd  written her second book before her first book was even out !!! 

Patrice Lawrence  

Patrice's debut Orangeboy was shortlisted for the Costa Book Award, and won the Waterstone's Older Children's Book Prize and is garnering accolades EVERYWHERE:

"You have a bubble of an idea. It gets bigger and bigger and then it bursts. You look around for more bubble liquid but either there's a big vat of it and you get carried away blowing loads of tiny bubbles, or there's a dribble in a bucket, far, far away. So how come the bubble turned out all right last time? Was it really this much work?"

Eugene Lambert 

Author of The Sign of One and Into The No Zone,  the first two books in a trilogy:

"As an inexperienced debut author, I signed up to write a trilogy, thus unwittingly walking into a lethal combo of second book syndrome plus middle book syndrome. The latter has at its conflicted heart the brain-numbing dilemma of trying to write a book that is ‘more of the same’ (so that it will appeal to the reader of the first book) while at the same time ensuring that it is sufficiently ‘different’ not to be a clone. Oh yeah, and it has to set everything up for the grand finale in book three, where everything is resolved. Or not. Whoever said that the middle book was the hardest to write in a trilogy was NOT kidding! 

My advice? Just have fun raising those stakes higher and higher …

Olivia Levez 

Star Kirkus Reviewed author of The Island and The Circus, due out in May but which I've already had a sneaky peak at and LOVED says this:


"I hit the wall at 30,000 words THREE times. Need I say more?"

Okay, that's better. If Patrice has bursting bubbles, Eugene has muddling middles and Olivia hit the wall three times and they still got there, I can do it too!

Kiran  Millwood  Hargrave 

 Author of the wonderful The Girl of Ink And Stars, winner of the Waterstones younger children's book award AND the overall winner :

"I wrote the first (short, terrible) draft of 'The Island at the End of Everything' at my grandparents' house in Norfolk, in three desperate weeks after 'The Girl of Ink & Stars' was put out on submission. Fuelled by ale and tears, I paused only to read the rejection emails pinging into my inbox. The Island at the End of Everything is quite different from 'The Girl of Ink & Stars', and maybe some of that is knee-jerk reaction to the feedback I was getting. In any case, I trusted my ability to finish a lot more because I'd finished one already - and that was something, even if the first wasn't going to be published. Two days after I finished my first draft, I got my offer from Chicken House."

Keren David

Keren has written many fantastic books including  When I was Joe, Salvage, Another Life and This is Not a Love Story.

"I had Third book Syndrome, not Second Book Syndrome, because my second book was a sequel and it was already half written when I got my first publishing deal. But my third book - Lia's Guide to Winning the Lottery - was harder. I had a deal, and therefore a deadline. My mum was ill, and my husband was considering a job abroad. I had a new narrator, and instead of writing a psychological thriller, I was trying a romantic comedy. It wasn't easy, and I ended up finishing the book i a massive rush - the ending had to be completely redone in the editing stages. Funnily enough, it's the book that has had the longest afterlife - we're adapting it into a musical, so I have been thinking and talking about those characters and that story for years now. I feel forever trapped writing and rewriting that third book - but loving it!"

Eve Ainsworth 

Award winning author of Seven Days, Crush and the newly published Damage :

"I found writing my second book difficult in that I had an editor now, and someone "to please" but Crush slotted in well with  Seven Days. Book three, Damage, was far, far harder for me - more challenging to break away from the setting and voice I'd already established."

So basically, this gets worse????
Somebody save me!

Friday, 31 March 2017

Can Acting Make You a Better Writer?

By Nick Cross

If you’ve been religiously following the news updates from Slushpile HQ (you have, haven’t you?), then you’ll remember that at Christmas I decided to book myself onto a drama course. I’ve now finished my first six weeks in the beginners' group and have recently advanced to “intermediate” (I know, I know, Ryan Gosling should watch out).

While acting my little socks off, I’ve become aware that being a writer sometimes alters my approach to the stage. So, with the help of a SCBWI friend whose acting credentials are far more impressive than mine, I’m ready for my close up. Erm, I mean I’m ready to explore the question of whether acting makes you a better writer...

Friday, 17 March 2017

The joy of small things - children's writing matters

by Addy Farmer

This blog is not a look at plot or structure although, goodness knows, I could do with looking at those things. But it sounds too tiring for now and I've just signed up to spend a year having a good old think about, 'where I go wrong and how I can put it right', so maybe more of that laterz on.

gratuitous photo of cat typing or maybe the reason why my plots end up with cats saving the day
Neither is this blog to do with setting or character or language. Crumbs, it's not even about ghosts which is my absolute favourite thing. Today, dear reader, my blog is about the small things in your young reader's life and why they matter.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

The Danger of Reading

Last week, I wrote If Books Are Mirrors, Where are Our Reflections? about a teacher conference that explored the importance of making sure children of all backgrounds and experiences are represented in the books they encounter.

Photo: John Christian Fjellestad | Flickr Creative Commons

Friday, 24 February 2017

Running a writing masterclass

By Paula Harrison

Me with fellow slushies Maureen Lynas and Addy Farmer in the pub afterwards (after eating a very large chocolate muffin)

Last Saturday, I went to Birmingham to run a session called A young series fiction masterclass which I'd offered to SCBWI members. By April, I'll have 20 young series books published over three different series (The Rescue Princesses, The Secret Rescuers and Tiara Friends mysteries) so I wanted to start sharing what I knew with other writers.

Friday, 17 February 2017

Writing for Children - Bryan Collier on Inspiration, Passion and the need for Diverse Books.

By Kathryn Evans

 I've just returned from the SCBWI New York conference. I know - get me! Gadding about the planet. It's huge too - over 1100 people attend and it's packed with very well known American book people this Brit has never heard of. One of them was the first keynote speaker: artist and picture book writer and illustrator,  Bryan Collier.

Bryan Collier and Kathryn Evans
He spoke about his passion:

"Your dream's should scare you they should be so outlandish - hold on to them."

His inspiration:

"Pay attention to all the little things that happen to you, even if it's painful," 
One of his great influences were the quilts his grandmother  had sewn when he was a child.  At the time, he hadn't taken much notice, but the way the patchwork was created became a part of him and a part of his art.

This resonated with me. As a child, I lived so much in books, they are as important to my writing as the laughter and the tragedy I've lived through. They make the patchwork of my books - stories about relationships with a sci-fi twist and a spoonful of horror.  When I embraced that, I found my voice.

He talked too, of his own oddity:

"The things you feel awkward about are the things that are special about you. That's your unique gift. Let that shine."
As a writer of pretty weird books, I wanted to cheer at this. We all have our own oddities - let them breathe.

On why he creates for children:

" There's nothing you can't touch and talk about in picture books."
Bryan's latest illustrations are for Daniel Beaty's story, Knock, Knock -  an intricate tale of loss.
 Knock, Knock

And his need:

Bryan first saw himself in Ezra Jack Keats " The Snowy Day." He was four years old and,

 "Peter was wearing my pyjamas".

Candy Gourlay has often said that she didn't think girls like her could be in books because she never saw Filipino children in books. It matters that all children see themselves in books. As Bryan said:

"Somebody is waiting for you to be courageous enough to say 'I have a story to tell' - that's what's at stake."

 You know, it didn't matter that I didn't know Bryan's work - his words brought me to tears and the entire audience to its feet.  And he finished with this:

 "Let's do this, lock the doors, get desperate."
Children are waiting.

Kathryn Evans is the award winning author of More of MeA gripping thriller with a sinister sci-fi edge, exploring family, identity and sacrifice. She is Co-RA of SCWBI British Isles. Find her  on Facebook and Instagram @kathrynevansauthor and twitter @mrsbung  More of Me will be released in the USA, June 2017

Monday, 13 February 2017

Diary of a Slushpiler: Project 200 Words

By Jo Wyton

On Thursday evening, I go to bed (at eight thirty, half an hour after I started to fail on the whole consciousness front) having written some words. They are not good words. They are, in fact, great words. Because they exist on a screen, which is an enormous step in the direction of Existing On The Page Of A Book. There are 221 of them. (I deleted four for not meeting my high standard of 'making any sense to anybody at all even after two glasses of Sauvignon Blanc'.)

I celebrated. Internally, of course, because quite frankly I had just put Baby in bed at the time, and fat bloody chance I was going to risk ten rounds of 'Hush, Little Baby' because of 221 words. 

As I wrote those 221 words, I had a glimpse of a reflection of myself, a vague recollection of someone I had intended to become, and viewed as it had been through sleepy eyes and what is, by now, a fairly feisty temperament brought on by a cabin fever-inducing routine, it was lovely. 

The next morning, in the shower, I ponder Project 200 Words. After all, I need something to replace the gaping chasm left in my life by the quiet exit of Project Goat (funnily enough, not the title of The Novel, though probably should be), and this seems to fit the bill. Every evening, once Baby is in bed and a sufficient volume of alcohol has been consumed, I will refrain from turning on the tv to watch reruns of Gilmore Girls (peace out, sisters) and will instead write 200 words of The Novel, and will celebrate finishing them by raising my laptop over my head and running in slow motion around the living room to the Chariots of Fire theme tune. I come downstairs to find the world's creepiest doll in the living room and my imagined celebrations are replaced with thoughts of being murdered in my sleep by this thing coming to life.

Friday comes and goes.

Then Saturday. Sunday happens in there somewhere, too, though it seems blissfully devoid of things that require a place in my permanent memory.

Of course instead of writing, other delights fill my time happens. I find myself cleaning all manner of bodily fluids from the depths of the carpet, scrubbing Weetabix from the radiator and wiping snot from the tv (always amazing how high up the screen it can get). None of which is entirely conducive to the imaginings of a Proper Writer. And the time that doesn't involve pretending I'm not high from the smell of carpet cleaner is so filled with all the best things in life, that I forget that there is a part of me not quite being embraced. 

'Just keep swimming' is the advice offered to me on Facebook, which would be great advice if I could only find my snorkel and flippers. Most likely they're languishing in the bottom of the wardrobe having been chewed on by the cat. 

Still, there is a deadline. A writing retreat in May. Surely it would be deemed improper to spend the first day and a half trying to remember where I saved the manuscript and where the charger cable plugs in to the laptop. It has occurred to me many time since I started with this writing malarky that one requires honest and somewhat ridiculous friends in life, and I am fortunate to have many who fit into both categories quite happily. One of them booked me onto this retreat as a surprise. Am sure I have fallen into an unspoken contract to provide alcohol and cake, but am embracing the imposition of a date in my diary as a signal to retrain my fingers in how to type. 

Of course, just as I finish typing this, Significant Other walks into the living room and says 'Are we going to put carpet cleaner on this sick or just leave it?'

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