Friday, 9 November 2018

The five stages of friendship - a handy guide to making story friendships

Image result for Friends Kathryn cave nick maland

When I was working in Foundation and KS1, the friendships I saw in these tiny children came and went like clouds in a Summer sky. TRUE STORY: Two boys who had known each other for all of five minutes and were best friends in the morning, came wailing up to me in the afternoon, accusing each other of 'being horrible' and 'I hate you now'. They both stood there, their lips stuck out and wobbling until one of them burst into tears and said, "my Mum's going to tell off your Mum". The other boy copied him and said it back. I must have said something placatory but I might as well not bothered because nano-seconds later, they were hugging each other and inviting each other for tea.
My point is that they went through the stages of friendship in a kind of condensed version. And came out the other side. It was intense. Friendship can be intense. Age is important of course but should not define the length or depth of a friendship. Some friendships last, others not. I thought it would be interesting to take a look at those stages and see if they could help to give a deeper meaning to children's stories about friendship.

Stage 1. Strangers - I don't know who you are

I've heard some people say, "Strangers are just friends you don't know". Apart from the fact that that sentence sounds like a horrible saccharin cliche, I want to shout, "OF COURSE - how else do you start off getting to know someone; if not by not knowing someone?" It is of course a jumping off point for story.

You have to think about why you want your protagonist to get to know a stranger. Maybe it's a choice they make because this stranger is physically attractive; maybe they're forced into talking to a stranger by well-meaning relatons - "here's a child, you're a child, off you go and make friends!" or maybe your protagonist might find themselves dropped into a situation where getting to know a stranger is a matter of school survival/actual survival and in any number of situations.

“Just follow me and run like your life depends on it. Because it does.”

― James Dashner, The Maze Runner
The sort of friendship your protagonist will go on to make is dependent on a number of things but to begin with it's first impressions. These can make or break a potential friendship. Or conversely can be the beginning of deadly enmity. Pick them with care.

Stage 2. Acquaintance - I know of you

Maybe it's someone your protagonist bumps into occasionally at a club, at school, they live on the same road, a friend of a friend. Thus far there's been no reason to get to know them better until someone forces them together or engineers a meeting or there's a chance encounter as for example in Jonathan Stroud's , The Last Siege, when on the snowy slopes of a castle moat, three lonely teenagers, Emily, Sion and Marcus spend a nightmarish night which forges and then breaks friendships.
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Stage 3. Casual friend - I know you

Now we start to become friends but things can still go wrong and a friendship can be scuppered at this stage before it has the chance to blossom. Casual friends are often the bit-part actors in stories; the red-jumper characters who can be disposed of without causing too much grief or just enough grief to make your protagonist change her mind about something important or follow another path or become the shared problem for your protagonist. They should serve a purpose.

Image result for There's a werewolf in my tent
You need a good friend when there are werewolves around
In Pamela Butchart's fantastic series about year 4 school buddies, there are a few casual friends who pop up outside of the core friendship group of Izzy and her friends. Gary Petrie who is annoying but a friend, turns out be Very Useful when it comes to solving the mystery in, There's a Werewolf in my Tent!

Stage 4. Close friend - I understand you. 

I have weathered the same circumstances as you and believe we have that in common. I believe what you tell me without too much questioning. This friendship is more difficult to break. I sometimes think it's like the 'being in a gang' kind of friendship, where you are bonded by shared difficulties and a shared purpose. Like, Just William and his gang, The Outlaws, who have constant problems with grown ups getting in the way of them having fun. What about Robin Hood and his Merry Men who must rob the rich to feed the poor and yet face constant danger from the Sherriff of Nottingham. In Tolkein's Fellowship of the Ring, friends band together to be rid of the Ring but must withstand death and danger.
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On a slightly lighter note, picture books have many friendships which reach this stage. The boy and the penguin in Oliver Jeffer's Lost and Found

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Give him a hug
Melrose and Croc - that wonderful friendship, created by Emma Chichester Clark.
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Good friends share bad times
Frog and Toad by Arnold Lobel
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You might even argue that all of these friendships have gone beyond just close friends and moved on to the next stage ...

Stage 5. Soul friends

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Samwise Ganges and Frodo Baggins - soul friends

Samwise Ganges and Frodo Baggins begin as acquaintances, become close friends and finally through their shared weaknesses and strengths become soul friends.
This stage is attained over time, through shared experiences, and, most important, through vulnerability. It is through vulnerability that a friendship reaches this stage. At this level, one has shared their deepest secrets such as their biggest insecurities and their biggest fears. It is from this level of intimacy that friends become connected soul to soul, and they commit to the development of each other's character and as people. This is the stage where one is considered a true friend. The saying that embodies the spirit of this level of friendship is by Aristotle in which he states, "a friendship is one soul occupying two bodies." These individuals truly understand each other.

There are some fantastic books which reveal this most moving of the friendship stages. Harry Potter and his friendships with Hermione and Ron are tested to near destruction. Not to forget that soul friends may even be a different species e.g Five Childen and It On the Western Front by Kate Saunders - the cumudgeonly, psammead, a sand fairy who begins as a stranger and ends as a soul friend.

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Being a soul friends means that with so much gained there is more to lose. The highs are higher and the lows are lower.
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One of my favourite books about YA friendship is Keith Gray's, Ostrich Boys. A bit from near the end sums it up for me; the incredible journey and lasting effects of going through so much and sharing weakness.

Kenny coughed, trying to mask that he was crying. 'I don't want him gone. He was my best friend. I want him here ... You know all the stuff we've been through? And it's all because of him. I'm telling you: we've got the best story ever. But he missed out. He's never gonna be able to tell it'. HIs shoulders shook and he wept. Ostrich Boys by Keith Gray

You could add a couple more stages (purely for the story!) - the break-up of a friendship and the making of an enemy. As a grown up, friendship can sometimes be tricky. I can involve compromise, understanding and negotiation and sometimes things are so tricky that it can be the end of a friendship.
The same feelings can apply to children and young people.

Beware jumping the stages. Too much, too soon and a friendship can shrivel and die. Then again, maybe you have a needy, manipulative, antagonist who does this ...  you can make an enemy.

How people make friends is a wonderful theme in our work. And like writing, friendship can be

difficult and tricky. It can come easily and blow away just as easily. You often have to work at it, share the good and the bad and the little bit boring. But the rewards are life enhancing.
Yes ... well, my best friend sent me this card. Nuff said.

Tuesday, 6 November 2018

How to Start a New Novel

By Candy Gourlay

My manuscript in progress has progressed.
Bone Talk is now available at all good
bookshops. Just thought I'd mention it.
Here I am, beginning again.

My manuscript in progress has progressed. It is out in the world now and all I can do is cross my fingers, keep myself whole by avoiding reviews and getting on with writing my next book.

I have written several novels now, I should know what to do when I get to the end of one and the beginning of the next. But my mind always goes blank. How do you start a new novel? How do you get the story motor up and running?

If there's anything I learned from all this, it's that I will always have much to learn about how to write the next book. It will want its own way of telling its story.

For now, it's about finding the way in.


I've gone back to scratch. Re-reading all my favourite novels and books on story structure, listening to podcasts, looking for inspiration.

And I'm not just looking for a way into writing my story. I'm looking for a way to tell my agent and my publisher about it, in a way that will excite them, get them on board for the next journey.

Meg LeFauve, co-writer of the Pixar movie, Inside Out, talks about an earlier career as a film executive, looking for scripts to pitch to her boss, the actress Jody Foster. "If you wanna pitch an idea to Jody, tell her, I wanna buy this script, you really need to tell her what is the big beautiful idea. What is the theme? What is the question this writer/director is asking? What is it about? Why do I care? If you can't tell her that there's nothing else to talk about."

Right. Well, I've got a little snippet of text I'm constantly working on alongside my manuscript – and it changes with my story as it begins to find its shape. What is my big beautiful idea? What is my story about? I'm not sure I know yet. I still have too many ideas fighting to be The One. But I know that as the book evolves, I will find out. Hopefully sooner rather than later.

I  have been synopsising and mind-mapping this story since I wrapped work on my last novel. I am now at the point where I know what will happen, I have a character, and yehey,  after some experimental writing, the character actually already has a distinctive voice (I think).

But where do I start? How do the random pieces I've already created fit together into a coherent, emotional whole? Here are some musings.


It is easy, when you are still building the world of your story, to be distracted by domestic detail and exposition. Why? Because you, the author, are still learning about the world of your story. Don't sweat it. Write it all in. At this early stage, you need it. But you should know better than to get too attached.

The story world for my new project is pretty epic. I have to confess I've loved researching it so much my self-awareness alarm bells are ringing. I'm definitely at risk of boring the reader with details that have not earned the right to be in my book. How do I avoid this? Character.

In The Anatomy of Story, John Truby writes:

'In good stories, the characters come first, and the writer designs the world to be an infinitely detailed manifestation of those characters.'

My favourite screenwriting vlog, Lessons from the Screenplay, explains this Truby nugget using the zombie comedy, Shaun of the Dead:


Sorry if you were born after 1992 and are unfamiliar with then presidential hopeful Bill Clinton's campaign slogan.

The point being, reading is all about the reader.

So ... I've got a character. I know her voice. I know what happens to her. I know what she looks like. And I've watched the Lessons from the Screenplay video. Is that enough?


What I need to do now is consider how the reader will experience my hero.  Ponder where to plant the seeds that would produce the emotional highlights of the book.

What does my hero believe and how will it change?

How can I test that belief?

What are the stakes?

How can I make the hero (and therefore the reader) suffer?

'To service the story you have to be worried about your hero. If you're not worried about her there's no ticking clock,' declares Meg LeFauve. 'You have to beat the crap out of your main character. A lot of youngwriters don't want to do it. They intuitively identify with them so they keep them safe. They wrap them in cotton and everyone around them has all the problems and they are just kind of floating through. That is not a story.'

Added later: In one bruising editing experience, my editor described one of my characters as akin to someone carrying a suitcase. The suitcase was a burden, yes. Getting heavier and heavier as things happened to her. But she was passive. She was not reacting. She was not changing. It's not a story unless characters act, react and change. If you hear someone muttering "action-reaction, action-reaction" at the back of a Starbucks, that's probably me wracking my brains over a character.


Inevitably, a book's success relies on the reader's last remembered experience of the story. It amazes me that so little seems to be written about how to end a story well, when that final chapter will dictate whether your reader puts your novel down with joy or disappointment. I've read many a fantastic book that fizzles out at the end as if the author just wanted to hand it in.

To truly begin a book well, you have to know your ending. 

Not every detail (she says to the horrified pantsers reading this blog post). But enough to plant the set ups and high stakes that will be resolved (or not) at the end of your story.

"Disappointing endings are fatal," says Anthony McCarten, screenwriter of Darkest Hour and The Theory of Everything.   "I don't embark on a movie or a project unless I know I have an ending – a good ending. If I don't find the ending, I don't do the project ... my creative life will be defined by 90 percent projects which I never knew the ending of and never made and never really explored, which might have been fine movies for other people. But (not) for me."

Additional thought: some people might take this to be: knowing what happens to the plot. More important at this beginning stage though is to know who your character is at the end of the story.

You might not know everything that is going to happen to her on the way to the end. But you should know what you are working towards. You should have an idea of how you want her to be at the end, when she has been transformed by her adventure.

If you know this, then you can design your plot and setting to achieve that end.


I have written a first chapter.

I'm gonna add in the setting later.

I don't think I can hear the distinctive voice I thought my character had.

I'm confident this chapter will look nothing like its first self in a few month's time.

But hey, I have a chapter.

Here comes a book!

Candy Gourlay's third novel Bone Talk is set in 1899 when the United States invaded the Philippines. It has been nominated for the Carnegie Medal. Her first picture book Is It a Mermaid, illustrated by Francesca Chessa, was nominated for the Kate Greenaway Medal.  Meg LeFauve and Anthony McCarten were appearing in The Q&A with Jeff Goldsmith podcast.

Saturday, 20 October 2018

Will Artificial Intelligence Replace Human Writers?

By Nick Cross

The media is full of hype about technology in general, and artificial intelligence (AI) in particular. The Robots are Coming for our Jobs scream the headlines, and tech luminaries like Elon Musk warn us that super-intelligent computers could exterminate the human race. In this febrile atmosphere, it seems that no domain is safe from the incursions of AI, as proved by the recent New York Times article about a writer who uses AI to help finish his sentences. This does not, on the surface, seem like a particularly noble endeavour - my wife and I regularly finish each other's sentences without needing expensive algorithms to help us. But it's indicative of a wider trend, as companies seek to automate the production of text without pesky humans being involved.

But what's the reality of current efforts to write using computers? And will they eventually supplant our own efforts?

In order to answer these questions, it's necessary for me to take a short detour by explaining what AI actually is. Don't worry, I'll try to keep this understandable for humans by including cute animal pictures!

Photo by Smerikal

What we currently call AI is actually a technique called Machine Learning (ML). There are a few types of ML, but the version most used is called Supervised ML. To understand how it works, imagine a guide dog. It starts out life as a puppy - cute but undisciplined. A human trains the puppy to follow basic instructions, walk in a straight line and react to the dangers that exist in the modern world. But the learning doesn't stop there. Once the guide dog is given to its owner, it will have to constantly appraise unfamiliar situations and hazards, and react appropriately.

The ML algorithm is like the puppy. Well, except it's a computer program, of course. The first stage of supervised ML is the training phase. A small set of training data is fed into the system, and the algorithm creates a certain type of output from it. A human will then assess that output, tweak the algorithm and run the process again. Once the human is satisfied (which can often take a long time) the algorithm is fed with real-world data (the more the better). Although the algorithm has never seen this real-world data before, it can make choices based on what it has learned during the training phase and create a completely new output from it.

Seen from this angle, ML isn't actually that clever. It relies on humans to write the algorithm, and supply the output format and training data. But the technology has been hyped to dangerous levels, as this Guardian article explains. The real strength of ML is that it can make decisions based on vast amounts of data that would take a human a lifetime to digest. If you subscribe to the theory that a writer is just the sum of their influences, the idea is that you could feed loads and loads of existing works into an algorithm and have a new one pop out the other side. In practice, it's rather more difficult than that...

In 2016, director Oscar Sharp and AI researcher Ross Goodwin set out to make a short film written entirely by a computer. Called Sunspring, it was created by an ML algorithm called Benjamin. The training data set was a series of prompts from a sci-fi filmmaking contest. The input data set was hundreds of sci-fi movie screenplays. And the output was a movie script, which was then staged and acted by professional filmmakers. Here's the result:

Well, that was "special". Not so much a script in fact, more a collection of lines of dialogue and action cut-and-pasted together. My favourite quote is:
"But I'm the one who got on the rock with the other two, and left a child."

I also love the fact that the film features an actual Chekhov's Gun, duct-taped to the wall. It's absolutely hilarious watching the actors doing their best to emote with a screenplay that is borderline gibberish, and it makes you realise how much an actor's performance brings to a movie.

OK, not so impressive a performance from our AI screenwriter that time. In June of this year though, the team behind Sunspring tried again, with the twist that this time they gave full control to the AI. As well as loading up the AI with movie scripts, they gave it green-screen footage of the Sunspring actors and actual public-domain movies and music. This is Zone Out, the short film that emerged from the process:

This one is much more interesting, possibly due to how bizarre it is. The results are a lot like watching a David Lynch film (Eraserhead springs to mind) but with freaky face-swap technology mixed in. Zone Out is genuinely unnerving in places, though it derives a lot of its power from the mise en scène of the original movie footage used (particularly The Brain That Wouldn't Die). However, one thing that has remained constant between the two films is the quality of the script - it is woeful!

On the evidence of these films and other experiments, ML has a long way to go when it comes to writing fiction. Meanwhile though, AI has been gradually creeping into journalism. Obviously, an algorithm can't write an opinion piece yet, but they are very good at cranking out copy based around predictable subjects. For instance, content generation firm AI Insights has this case study about their work with Yahoo Sports, claiming that 70 million sports reports and match recaps have been created using their technology. You might expect such writing to be bland, but AI Insights have given their ML algorithm a distinctively sarcastic voice, which helps to mask the fact that the content has been generated by a computer.

As we all know, technology moves quickly, and it's hard to be sure how it might develop. But what are some likely next steps for machine writing? This Deadline article by Arvin Patel has some fascinating but grounded ideas about how AI might affect Hollywood. A lot of them aren't about replicating tasks we already do, but creating new forms of content, like TV series that are uniquely created for your own interests (this idea of content personalisation can also be seen in the Yahoo Sports article).

Could we one day have a novel that rewrites itself to suit the reader's likes and dislikes? I actually imagined this scenario way back in 2013 for a short story called Mindworm, which you can read for free on my website. Luckily, nothing like this has happened for real, as yet...

Mindworm illustration by Mei-Li Nieuwland

I think a much more likely scenario for machine writing is the creation of new works by dead authors. You can imagine a situation where all of Jane Austen's novels, letters and half-finished manuscripts are fed into an ML algorithm to create an entirely new book in her authentic voice. Or how about a "previously undiscovered" Shakespeare play? The publishing industry have been churning out this kind of thing for years using ghost writers, so the idea they might do it with algorithms isn't too far-fetched.

As for the technology supplanting us living fiction writers, I reckon we can breathe easy for now. This is because a writer isn't just the sum of their influences - we absorb the content and then apply our own unique perspective to it. That perspective is formed by a cocktail of experience, consciousness and emotion that is currently impossible to synthesise. Existing ML algorithms can only remix existing content, they can't create something wholly new. To do that will require a computer that's able to think entirely like a human, and that technology is as far off as it ever was.


Nick Cross is a children's writer/illustrator and Undiscovered Voices winner. He received a 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.

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