Friday 23 December 2016

Happy Holidays from Notes from the Slushpile!

2016. 'It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness. It was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity' ... doesn't Charles Dickens describe this outgoing year to perfection? Rather than dwell on the worst, the foolish and the incredulous, we thought we'd celebrate the festive season by looking back on our personal highlights and reflecting on the inevitable lessons learned. May the holidays be a time of friendship, love and creativity for all our lovely readers. 

Monday 12 December 2016

Drifting Away

By Nick Cross

Photo by Horia Varlan

What does it mean to be a writer? It’s a question that I’ve been grappling with a lot this year. And it’s a question that seems to naturally spawn many others:
  • Do I need to be published?
  • Do I even enjoy writing anymore?
  • What would happen if I stopped writing altogether?
  • What would my friends think of me?
  • How much of my personal identity is bound up in my status as a writer?

Thursday 1 December 2016

A Silly Tale From the Slushpile by Em Lynas

Em Lynas as The Author
Many publishers as The Acquisitions Monster
Candy Gourlay as The Internet Fairy
Amber Caraveo as The Agent Angel
The Nosy Crow Team as The Awesome Publishing Guru

Once upon a time there was an author tip tapping away in a lonely garret writing rubbish. Total rubbish - but funny rubbish. Over many years, as her slushpile grew, so did the rejections and eventually she developed SYMPTOMS. Nervous tics, blank stares, twitching fingers and, worst of all, doubt.

Sunday 27 November 2016

A twin blog! Crystal Kite & all things Scooby, AND the Awesomeness of a double Carnegie-winning line up

by Teri Terry

Me, almost
over the jet lag
I haven't blogged in absolutely ages: sorry! There's been writing, editing and SO SO much travelling. In fact, I tried to do a google map of the last few months to show you, but google maps refused to cover it all on one map. But I'm staying put for a while, and promised Candy & the Slushies that I would do it this time, oh yes! But the problem is this: there are TWO things I want to blog about. I thought about clever ways to make them look like they belong together, but then just resigned myself to having twins.

Monday 21 November 2016

How to Eliminate Your Writer's Tics by Kathryn Evans

Kathryn Evans, tics? You betcha.

So...You have a writer's tic?
So...have I.

And they are HORRIBLY, HIDEOUSLY noticeable when I am editing...and editing...and editing.

Of course some tics are not tics, they are your writing style, or "voice" if you like. A "tic" becomes a "tic" when it happens waaaaaay too often - so much so that it looks like you are  having a laugh at your own expense.  I'm pretty sure you've spotted at least two of mine in this short introduction.

Starting sentences with So..And... But...
And these........
I also do love to use "-" instead of ",".

Monday 7 November 2016

Publishing Secrets by Em Lynas

Have you ever noticed how many secrets have to be kept in publishing? 

My children's author friends are forever spilling the beans with a - Don't tell anyone but... Either face to face or in secret groups on facebook. 

For instance:

Don't tell anyone I'm on the Undiscovered Voices longlist until the Official Announcement.
Don't tell anyone I'm on the Carnegie shortlist until the Official Announcement.
Don't tell anyone my book has been optioned (film/tv deal) until the Official Announcement.
Don't tell anyone I'm the Children's Laureate until the Official Announcement.

Monday 31 October 2016


by Paula Harrison

Me and a crowd of monster-loving children on the growl!

Fortuitously, it falls to me to write the Halloween blog. Lucky, of course because my new book Robyn Silver: The Midnight Chimes is about a girl who is born on the stroke of midnight. Being a 'Chime' means she can see monsters that no one else can see.

Monday 24 October 2016

The Modern Nomad – A Guide to Writing Away from Home

By Nick Cross

I’m sure there are many of you who spend the day in your home study, joyously scribbling, typing or slapping plot-related post-it notes on the wall. Or maybe you are like our very own Teri Terry - who retreats to a shed in her garden - or perhaps Jonathan Frantzen, who famously rents an office with no phone line or internet connection, and has uninstalled everything from his PC apart from a word processor. These are writers who have made themselves a permanent workplace, a semi-domestic environment that nurtures their creativity.

But not everyone can or wants to work this way. If you’re someone with a fulltime non-writing job or responsibilities that take you out of the house, then your writing time will inevitably become fragmented. You’ll find yourself grabbing 20 minutes in a cafe or trying to write on a crowded bus. Even domestically settled writers sometimes need to travel to school or literary events. How then, to balance the act of writing with the unavoidable movements of the day? Grab your coat, Oyster card and (most importantly) your brain, as I explore the opportunities for writing on the move...

Friday 21 October 2016

Diary Of A Slushpiler: In Which I Discover Amazing Plot Twist

By Jo Wyton

The day begins with wake up call number one as the cat's wet nose finds its way onto my face. Cat is shoved gracelessly to the floor. An hour later, wake up call number two provides a familiar feeling of disorientation brought on by a dream in which I finally figured out my much-needed Amazing Plot Twist. Sense of almost being able to recollect it shattered by piercing cry from the nursery as Baby telepathically realises I'm thinking about something other than honing Excellent Parenting Skills.

At eight thirty, I realise I am running late. I am due in London to meet disturbingly talented writing pals and haven't so much as entertained the notion of a shower for three days. Shove hair into ponytail in hope of fooling all of London into thinking I'm making an excellent fashion statement instead of hiding the butternut squash and pea purée lovingly mangled in by overly excited Baby last night whilst I was paying too much attention to Eastenders.

Monday 10 October 2016

Q&A with Inbali Iserles: How to write a series about magical foxes

By Candy Gourlay


Last year my beautiful friend Inbali Iserles managed not only to work as a lawyer, but to have a baby, mind her dog, move house, keep a partner … and write her fantastic Foxcraft trilogy. Not just write. She also did the dreamy black and white illustrations that pepper the books (all illustrations below are by Inbali from the Foxcraft books). Inbali was born in Israel but grew up with coyotes, road runners, snakes and gila monsters in Arizona, which may account for why she’s written reams of books starring animal characters. Welcome to the Slushpile, Inbali. Have you anything to say to prevent our readers from slamming their laptops shut in a fit of jealous pique?

Lovely to join you here, Candy! Thank you for your kind words. I fear the reality is a little less impressive. For instance, I’ve actually written a book a year, rather than all three at once; the house is so messy that my dog’s furballs have their own furballs; there are still unpacked boxes in my study and no pictures on the walls (though I finally got round to getting bookcases put in – priorities, people!); and I’m a *smidge* late on my Foxcraft 3 edits.

Monday 3 October 2016

Word Counts: A Practical guide to Trimming, Tightening and Telling Your Tale by Kathryn Evans

By Kathryn Evans

Word counts matter. Less for some things than  for others - in picture books,  a low word count is generally considered essential, in YA, you can get away with a few thousand words above or below the average, in job applications and personal statements, they are critical. So how do you know your targets and how do you keep within the guidelines?

Monday 26 September 2016

Guardians of the Galaxy - formula or formulaic?

by Addy Farmer

Yeah, yeah, I know it's a film but Candy Gourlay's done it so I thought I'd have a go as well. Let me, declare an interest here - I LOVE 'GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY'. There it is. I also like science fiction and fantasy and am proud to say so.

So, what makes this story a winning formula and what can writers learn from it?

The Story

For those of you unfamiliar with GOTG, it tells the story of our hero, Peter Quill and his stumble into finding a meaning to his life and coming to terms with the death of his mother. It is all wrapped up in action and humour and friendship.

Monday 19 September 2016

Exposition: it's about emotion not information

By Candy Gourlay

Have you written The End yet?

Nooooooo I haven't!

Despite recent pronouncements that The End is nigh, I'm still plodding along. I can see it coming, but right now, what's on my mind is EXPOSITION.

See, this book I'm writing, it's got a historical element (meaning, it's context is a real time and place). Also an anthropological element (meaning, it is set amongst a real people who didn't write down their history).

It's a tricky book to write because there's a lot of explaining to do. Nothing about the history or the characters will be easy peasy for most readers. The onus is on me to explain what it's all about. Exposition. But how do I do that without boring people?

Tuesday 13 September 2016

Notes from the Critique Group - Meet the Agents! by Em Lynas

On Saturday members of our SCBWI BI York critique group headed up to Seven Stories in Newcastle for a mini Agents Party arranged by our lovely NE organisers Marie-Claire Imam Gutierrez and Cathy Brumby.

I was feeling very lucky as the agents appearing at the event were my agents - Amber Caraveao and Joanna Moult of Skylark Literary. They were coming up north so I got to see them and catch up on how our Witch School Sucks submissions were going. Very exciting!

Monday 5 September 2016

The World according to Robyn Silver

by Paula Harrison

Dear Slushpile readers, I had a book published last Thursday called Robyn Silver: The Midnight Chimes and I'm more excited than a child who's eaten too much sugar.

A whole box of Robyn Silvers from Scholastic!

Monday 29 August 2016

Spam from the Slushpile

By Nick Cross

Here at Notes from the Slushpile we love comments, especially on this post (hint hint). But, whilst enabling comments on a blog helps to inspire debate and bring the readers closer to the content, there is also a downside. Sometimes - shock horror! - people disagree with us, or they have technical problems on their device that prevent them from commenting, or (even worse) they spend ages writing a comment that Blogger then swallows forever. And there is a group of commenters who we don’t want on the blog under any circumstances – the spammers.

A successful blog like this one receives a large quantity of spam comments. How large, I hear you ask? Well, at the time of writing, there were 3745 messages in the Notes from the Slushpile spam folder:

Now, this would be a nightmare for us to administer, were it not for the fact that Google (who owns Blogger) has a very clever algorithm for automatically detecting spam comments. So, for the most part, you can go on surfing our blog without ever having to know about the turbulence below the surface.

But, as writers, we all know the feeling that what we’re writing is falling into a void. We send out streams of queries to agents and publishers, with no idea if anyone is even reading the material, let alone responding with anything more encouraging than “meh.” Do the spammers feel that way too? Maybe they’re sending thousand upon thousand messages out there in the hope that one – just one – will connect with a living human being.

Spammers of the world, it’s your lucky day! Because I’m here to dig deep into the spam folder and provide the critique that your unique work so richly deserves...

Wednesday 24 August 2016

Breaking Bad for Children's Writers

By Candy Gourlay

So today is supposed to be Teri Terry's turn at the blog but she's, like, having her nails done (see left), buying new teddy bears and appearing in the Edinburgh Festival, as you do when you're a bestselling young adult author. She asked the rest of the Slushpile team if anyone wanted to blog in her place. Of course I immediately wanted to. But, I told Teri, I knew I  really shouldn't because I was supposed to be finishing my book. So we agreed to see what happened when the week rolled round.

Sigh. Here I am. She who never knowingly does not procrastinate.

But enough about me.

Last Spring, my husband and I binged on all five seasons of the super excellent TV series Breaking Bad. It was created by American writer Vince Gilligan, who also wrote 30 episodes of the hit series of my teenagerhood The X Files, back in the 1980s.

If you haven't watched BBad and still hope to do so, then sadly for me you ought to click away from the Slushpile now. Come back when you've watched all five seasons. BBad is really good. I don't want to spoil it for ya.

'Breaking bad' basically means going bad ... which is the show's premise. Walter White, a mild-mannered-verging-on-dull Chemistry teacher discovers he's got terminal cancer and — with the help of his reluctant, foul-mouthed, failure of a former student, Jessie — uses his chemistry super powers to become a crystal meth cook.

If like me, you spend all your waking hours reading books about character arc, the premise is clear: this goodie is going to become a baddie to end all baddies.

How the series writers achieve this, how they make us love their vile characters, how they make us hunger for the next episode, is the joy of watching all five series in a compressed period of time.

Now writing a TV series is not the all-by-your-lonesome experience we children's writers have to endure. On series like Breaking Bad there are scores of writers who do all the tough work together. They brainstorm. They work out the plot. They leave no plot hole unfilled. They must have a lot of fun (she says enviously).

Back in 2013, just before the series screened its wham bang finale, the Guardian did us all the favour of publishing an excerpt from Difficult Men: From the Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad — the part where the writing team spend an entire day working out the details of a banal plot point.
Nearly every discussion in every writers' room, Gilligan explained, boils down to one of two questions: "Where's a character's head at?" and "What happens next?" Ideas v action. Text v subtext. This, as it happened, was a "What happens next?" day.

I do a lot of 'Where's a character's head at?' and 'What happens next?' days too. But being a solo act surely couldn't possibly match the creative ability of the team of brains behind BBad.

On the wall behind Gilligan was a large corkboard. Across the top were pinned 13 index cards representing the 13 episodes of the season. In rows beneath them, more neatly printed cards ... contained detailed story points. The cards looked like a pile of leaves that had faced a stiff, left-blowing wind, clustered deep under the early episodes but gradually thinning as the as-yet-unwritten season progressed. Under 413, the final episode of the season, there was only one single, fluttering card. It read in bold, matter-of-fact Magic Marker ink, "BOOM."

When the watching was over, I was so bereft, I went off and binged on the BBad spin off,  Better Call Saul, which basically features all the loveable baddies from BBad before they broke bad. The agent Donald Maas,  in Writing the Breakout Novel, noted:

Delight your readers with your own brand of story, then continue to delight them in a similar way (only better) on a regular basis. That is the way to build an audience. It is the only way to become a brand name author.

Basically: familiarity breeds, not contempt, but success.

Better Call Saul was a different story from BBad. But it was fascinating how it snagged the loyal BBad fan in me with carefully crafted grappling hooks. It was unmistakeably a product of the same stable. It's a lesson on continuing success for any writer who has published a first successful story. (Thinking critically of course one wonders whether it will expand BBad's devoted audience or cater to the already converted? But that's a discussion for another blog post).

I watched both series with my notebook in hand, trying to pick up some writing ideas. Here's a list of the top five plotty things that caught my attention:


Broken objects as framing device. In a hospital men's room, we see a dented hand dryer. Walt is going to punch it later in the movie. But it is revealed to us before any of the action takes place. In Better Call Saul, an episode opens with a crumpled dustbin. Later, we are shown how Saul kicked it in frustration.

Note to self: how could I do this in a book?  In the medium of words, framing a chapter with such a foretelling, that object will have to be super distinctive.


Walter White spends all five seasons of Breaking Bad trying to hide his nefarious activities from his wife, Skyler. But somehow, Skyler always seems to know what's really going on.  It makes Skyler a wonderful character. She is innocent. But once she knows, she is culpable. In BCS, Saul is presented as a small time con-man devoted to his accomplished big brother, Chuck, who is Mr Righteous. Chuck, like Skyler, can see through Saul's every lie. His bitter flaw is that he cannot bear his kind, con-man brother to be successful.

Note to self: It's almost a super power, isn't it? The ability to see through the subterfuge of the hero. What a fun secondary character that would be. And what about if that character were the baddie? Woah!


This is dialogue in which only one character actually talks. Making plans, dreaming dreams, explaining stuff. The other character just listens. And in the face of the listener, we can see the frailty of the talking character. There is nowhere to hide. Many times in the five seasons, Walter White patiently explained to another character some devious plot or some plausible explanation to cover up a lie. And in the dead eyes of the listening character we could clearly see that a deception has not passed unnoticed. Who held the cards now?

Note to self: what a clever way to do exposition! So often, there is a need to explain that something has happened or to make sure the reader understands some important point. You see this poorly rendered in many books when two characters converse just to reveal expository points: "Superman cannot be near kryptonite ." "The alien mineral? The one that has the power to deprive him of all his powers?" The one sided dialogue on the other hand generates such an emotional charge that your reader absorbs information but is too busy feeling for the characters to notice. Expository sleight of hand. Cool!


One of my favourite characters was Hank Schrader, an agent of the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) and brother-in-law to chemistry teacher-turned-meth-cook Walter White. Hank spent Breaking Bad's five seasons hunting down meth kingpin Heisenberg, Walter's handle in the drug world. But he never, never, EVER suspected his mousy brother-in-law and even enlisted Walter's help in chasing down leads. Blind spot.

Note to self: a character's blind spot creates a cat and mouse, will-he-won't he? tension. It's just delicious, like that moment in a horror b-movie when you're shouting, 'Behind you! THE MONSTER IS RIGHT BEHIND YOU!' And the characters blithely continue on. How do I plot something like this into my story? How do I make my reader sweat?


Time passes. Things happen. BBad tried very hard to follow thriller writer Elmore Leonard's advice: ‘Don’t write the parts that people skip.’  (I did mention this in my last blog post, it's good advice)

The movie montage has to be the tried and true method of getting quickly through a massive bit of exposition. There are plenty in the five seasons of BBad — notably the murder montage, when Walter hires hitmen to simultaneously (and gruesomely) murder targets in several jails; and various meth-making montages — Walter and Jessie learning to work together, Walter working with a new partner in a new lab, and in one climactic episode, Jessie manufacturing meth in chains.

Note to self: Montages are not a bad way to get from one plot point to another. But they can be done very, VERY badly. Just remember that they're like guitar riffs. They've got to be the sort of thing that makes your reader, sit up, take notice, burst into applause. Because you're doing so much in such a short time, your montage have got to be better than 'And then and then and then', you've got to show off a bit, make the scene sing.


That's all I've got time for now. If you haven't seen Breaking Bad or Better Call Saul, I hope this has persuaded you to do so. Even if it's not the kind of show you like to watch, I can guarantee you'll learn something from the series.

It's such a struggle, enjoying movies and TV when your brain is hardwired to pay attention to plot and character technique. That's what I loved most about BBad: I was so absorbed I completely forgot to think about writing. I had to watch it again to take notes.

Till next time.

Candy Gourlay is the author of Tall Story and Shine, books that have been nominated for prizes like the Carnegie, the Guardian Children's Fiction prize, the Blue Peter and the Waterstone's Book Award. Read her last post on Notes from the Slushpile: Getting to the End

Monday 15 August 2016

Panels, Pals and Prancing About: the Serious Business of Promoting Your Book by Kathryn Evans

By Kathryn Evans

This is a heart on sleeve blog post. You may hate me after you've read it. You have been warned.

My debut YA novel, More of Me, was released in February this year. It took me a long time to get published - fifteen years in fact, during which time I accrued quite a gang of fellow journeymen through Facebook and SCBWI.

Monday 8 August 2016

Wearing the Write Stuff or What to Wear at Your Book Prize Ceremony

by Addy Farmer

It's Summer and there are things to do
Because it is Summer and nobody is going to read this and crucially, I wear clothes, I have decided that I am qualified to give advice on the important matter of what to wear at a prize ceremony.


Monday 1 August 2016

Getting to The End

Greetings from the Philippines where I am currently sitting on the verandah of a grass hut staring at this:

And wondering idly if now is the time to enjoy this:

These past months have been SO hectic what with trying to finish my manuscript while getting through a packed schedule of speaking engagements. I’ve been a very, very bad blogger. I missed my turn on the Slushpile rota last month and I didn’t even realise it until a day later!

My Slushpile colleagues have been very forgiving. After all, here on the Slushpile, we are authors first, bloggers second. I am on the home stretch of my next novel. ‘Home stretch’, you must note, does not necessarily mean I’ve almost finished.

 It means: The End is in sight.

It means: so near and yet so far.

In the author’s roller coaster quest to write a book, I am at a kind of final reckoning. You see, I have written my story several times already, explored many versions of the narrative. But this is my final draft. This is the story that my reader is actually going to read.

In this final drive to The End, I am no longer searching for my voice or bringing my character to life or figuring out plot. This final quest is not a pursuit of a story but for The Book itself.


In a screenwriting lecture, playwright David Hare said:

It’s only the great films that move towards the end so the incredibly simple rule of writing a screenplay is always to end-load it, always to write something where the outcome is more important than the proposition. All Hollywood is interested in is propositions.

The idea of Proposition vs Outcome resonates at a time when finding the Hook that will get you published has become a kind of Holy Grail for fellow authors who have yet to be discovered. For the past few years, there has been a glut of events catering to the wannabee author focusing on hook and proposition. How do you catch the eye of a publisher? How do you write a first page that will keep an agent reading? How do you come up with a Big Idea so compelling that editors clamor to publish your book?

In his lecture, Hare described how a film based on a proposition degenerates as it proceeds: ‘The first 30 minutes you are having a completely wonderful time and going, “Oh this is absolutely marvelous”’ – only to find that vitality dissipating as the film proceeds as the idea is exhausted.

I’ve been experiencing this a lot recently. Picking up a book with a compelling cover and blurb, thinking ‘What an amazing idea! I’ve got to know what happens in the story!’ only to find myself disappointed as the story thins in the telling.

I’ve picked up a book with a compelling cover and blurb only to find myself disappointed as the story thins in the telling.

With screws tightening more stringently than ever before, the publishing scene is now driven not just by editors but by accountants and marketing departments. In this scenario, a good Proposition or Hook equals a Publication Deal equals Sales equals Success.

But will your book actually get read? Do you care if it does or doesn’t?

In this sense, The End is also The Outcome.

“I avoid and never accept any movie that is a proposition.’ Hare said in his lecture. ‘I am only interested in what I call outcome movies.’ He described an outcome movie as one that gave you no reason to panic because you were confident that the outcome would be profoundly satisfying.


This is the question that has been keeping me up late at night, the question that
hangs over my head, like the sword of Damocles, as I write everyday.

It is not about writing to impress my way into getting published anymore. It’s about adding to my body of work as an author. It’s about installing another building block to my career. It’s about writing the book someone might fall in love with.

Ultimately though: it’s about the story.

Have I told it to the best of my ability? Have I learned what I needed to learn as a writer to give it a good chance of being read?

I have often quoted Neil Gaiman quoting his friend Gene Wolfe: ‘You never learn to write. You only learn to write the novel you're on.’ Have I learned to write this book?

The truth is, I’ve written three novels to which the answer to the profoundly satisfying question is ‘No’. No, publishers saw no spark in them. No, they weren’t written well enough. No, they weren’t ready for the reader. These sit quietly in my desk drawer, waiting for the day when I decide to take them out and reimagine them. Their time will come. But what about this novel? Have I served it well?


We like lists here on Notes from the Slushpile. It’s always helpful to have action points and tips and checklists. So here is a list of thoughts for any author who, like me, is on a quest for The End.

1. Inciting Event vs Crisis 
(If you don’t know what an inciting event or a crisis is then skip this blog post and read a few books on narrative structure.)
It’s been three years since I began writing this book full time (It's been five since i sketched out some trial chapters and a synopsis). Three years since I first penned the inciting event that launched my characters into their adventure. As I take my characters to crisis for the very last draft, it’s a good time to revisit the Inciting Event, that moment when my character first walked through the fictive door of no return. Because writing a book takes years (well, for me), it is so easy to forget the triggers that sent your hero on his journey. It’s so easy to get lost down wormholes and distractions. Now is the time to look at your story with eyes that see. And if you see something that doesn’t work? Well. You gotta fix it.

2. Have I said what I wanted to say? 
Andrew Stanton, the writer/director of many great Pixar films, said: “You should have something to say in a story”.

When I was a child in the Philippines, my teachers taught me that every story had to have a moral lesson. Interestingly, I still get ‘fan mail’ from children in the Philippines asking me, ‘What is the moral lesson of your story?’ So perhaps Filipino teachers are still asking the same questions.

Be that as it may, as authors, ‘having something to say’ lies at the heart of our storytelling. In Into the Woods, John Yorke explains:

That doesn’t always mean a message. It means truth, some value that you yourself as a storyteller believe in, and then through the course of the story are able to debate that truth. Try to prove it wrong. Test it to its limits.

The hope of course is that one has said what one wants to say with subtlety. So the drive to The End is a good time to check if you’ve been beating your reader on the head with the stick of your conviction.

3. Unexpected themes you had not originally meant to explore. 
One of the magical experiences of writing a novel is the unintentional emergence of themes. You may have decided on an overarching theme, but somehow as the story comes to life and your characters find their feet, baby themes emerge and evolve. Now is the time to pay attention to them. What are they? Did I miss them? Did I build on them? Did I neglect them?

Discovering a particularly resonant theme can mean a lot of extra work. My current work unexpectedly developed an underlying theme surrounding friendship that grew and grew to such an extent that I realised I should downgrade my previous main theme and rebuild my narrative with the friendship theme at its core. Yes. It meant an extra month of writing. But if I’m seeking Profoundly Satisfying then I have to do the work, right?

Here’s Yorke again, in a discussion of giving shape to a story:

'It is only through fiction that facts can be made instructive or even intelligible,’ said George Bernard Shaw. ‘[The] artist-poet-philosopher rescues them from the unintelligible chaos of their actual occurrence and arranges them in works of art.’ The facts change to fit the shape, hoping to capture a greater truth than the randomness of reality can provide.

4. Writing for meaning, cutting for pace. 
Many times, attending critique groups, I have found myself suggesting that an author write more – more scenes that reveal the character of the hero, more writing to clarify a scene, more dialogue to establish a character’s voice, more writing to pay out a scene, heighten the drama, unfold the reveal. The person receiving the critique inevitably protests: ‘But I thought I was writing too much! I actually cut that scene down! The word count is already way over!’

In the drive for Profoundly Satisfying, there is no editing for word count, there is only editing for meaning. And if that means you have to write more, then so be it.

But what if I’m OVER writing, cries the panicked author. Then do as the thriller writer Elmore Leonard says: ‘Don’t write the parts that people skip.’

At this stage, the story is already laid out before you, it’s the magic carpet ride you are about to offer readers. Your job is to make sure you enhance and retain the magic.

The beginning novelist will stress about whether the publisher/agent/editor will reject their story because the word count was over. She is focusing on the wrong thing. Publishers/agents/editors reject on the basis of story. So write for meaning, cut for pace. Word count? Pah! Word count is not story!

5. Looking for Joy.
The long journey to The End can be a dispiriting one. There is so much that can eat into your confidence. The rejection of new projects you are pitching. Unkind reviews of your existing work. Exhausting day jobs. Real life. Unsupportive friends and family. It is not uncommon for these knock-backs to creep into your storytelling.

So while flying towards The End, watch out for those little tell tale dips. In Write Your Novel from the Middle, James Scott Bell devotes a whole list to tips for getting joy into your writing. He recalls a Writer’s Digest column by Lawrence Block on why Stephen King has been such a successful author:

When you read Stephen King, you feel like you’re reading an author who loves writing, loves making up tales to creep us out, enjoys the very act of setting words down on paper. Because when you’re joyful in the writing, the writing is fresher and fuller. Fuller of what? Of you. And that translates to the page and becomes that thing called Voice.


Writing about story structure, Yorke (can you tell that I’ve been reading Into the Woods a lot? It's so therapeutic) writes:

As protagonists journey towards completion, they learn to heal the duality in their nature, between inner and outer worlds, want and need, façade and flaw. 

My journey to writing this novel has certainly been that. I have fought and despaired and learned and grown.

Sitting here, on a Philippine island, watching the sea, away from the hustling and bustling of my daily life in London, I can see The End very clearly on the blue horizon. I just need to keep writing until I get there.

Gratuitous photo of 'black beach' (it's actually brown) where we're staying ... the volcanic island of Camiguin.

Candy Gourlay is the founding member of Notes from the Slushpile and the author of Shine and Tall Story. Her books have been listed for the Guardian Children's Prize, the Carnegie, the Waterstones, the Blue Peter and many other prizes. She loves babies, dogs, photography, gardening and drawing. She also blogs on

Monday 25 July 2016

How not to choke as a writer

by Paula Harrison

A children’s writer encounters many obstacles on the way to publication - learning their craft, understanding the children’s book market, finding an agent and publisher who love their writing. Before reaching publication, many of us believe that once we find that Golden Ticket marked You Have Got a Publisher, the journey is over and we will simply float away on a fluffy cloud into a blissful published heaven.

Monday 18 July 2016

On Being Edited by Maureen Lynas

I’m currently experiencing my first experience of being edited by an experienced editor (Agent Amber) and it has been an extremely interesting experience.

Note: Being edited is nothing like being critiqued.
Being edited has made my story

One big plus is that I now have insider knowledge on how publishers view school based stories. So I shall share one insight that had me hitting the research button.

Monday 11 July 2016

More Films about Writers

By Nick Cross

I’ve been busy at work recently. Really busy. So I haven’t done much writing or blogging or tweeting or anything like that. All I’ve really had headspace for over the last couple of months has been working, worrying about my daughter’s GCSEs (now finished), worrying about the EU referendum (now it’s us that’s finished), and slumping down in the evening to watch TV or a film. Accordingly, you’ll have to excuse me if I recycle the theme of my earlier post and jump back into the fascinating world of films about writers.

There were lots of suggestions after my February post about films I could have included, and I’ve tried to cover some of those here. But I’ve also watched loads more that I’d like to tell you about...

The Front (1976)

This is a little-known farce that’s interesting precisely because it isn’t about a writer. Howard Prince (played by Woody Allen in a rare non-directing role) is a politically apathetic barkeep with an unsuccessful bookmaking racket on the side. But Howard has friends who are writers, and in 1950s America, with communist witch-hunts and the blacklist in full swing, they can’t sell their scripts to make a living. Meanwhile, the TV studios (forced by a culture of fear to toe the McCarthyist line) are starved of good material for their shows. Enter Howard with a simple plan: he will “front” the other writers by pretending to have written their scripts, kicking back the proceeds of the sale (minus his percentage, of course). Naturally, things don’t stay uncomplicated for long, as Howard is quickly intoxicated by both his sudden fame and a beautiful, idealistic script editor played by Andrea Marcovicci. As events escalate, he is investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee and finds himself forced to take an unlikely political stand.

Written, directed by and starring several people who were themselves on the blacklist, The Front was an unlikely vehicle for the first Hollywood film to deal with the communist witch-hunts. Given the weight of the subject matter, it struggles to be truly funny and comes off as more of an amusing drama. But the cast (especially Allen) are great and it’s definitely worth a watch if it pops up on TV in the middle of the night.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) / Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson (2008)

I’m giving you a two-for-one deal on these films, which I think is appropriate given how closely Hunter Thompson's life and writing were aligned. The first is a Terry Gilliam directed big screen version of Thompson’s signature novel, which for many years was considered “unfilmable.” The second is Alex Gibney’s documentary on the man himself. Beyond the source material, there are considerable links between the two, not least the presence of Johnny Depp. In Fear and Loathing, Depp plays the lead role of Raoul Duke, a thinly-veiled version of Thompson himself. For Gonzo, he acts as narrator, reading from Thompson’s work. Depp is such a Hunter Thompson superfan that he also appeared in a third film adapted from his works called The Rum Diary (which I haven’t seen), and even funded Thompson’s funeral in which the late author’s ashes were fired into the sky from a cannon!

For those who have yet to be exposed to its lunacy, the (very) basic premise of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is that journalist Raoul Duke has been sent to Las Vegas to cover a motorcycle race, and taken his “attorney” Dr Gonzo along for the ride. But it quickly becomes a quest to find the heart of the American Dream, fuelled by the most excessive ingestion of illegal narcotics this side of Scarface. Terry Gilliam is the perfect choice to capture the visual textures of drug use, and he creates some wonderfully disturbing imagery to accompany the characters' hallucinations. It’s a film that is often riotously funny, providing fish-out-of-water humour as Duke and Gonzo act in violation of all accepted social norms. But the humour gradually pales, with the film turning nastier in its final third. Despite copious voiceover, Fear and Loathing struggles with a story that is utterly dependent on Thompson's voice to succeed on the printed page. Without that, the characters (especially the repellent Dr Gonzo) become more monstrous than they are amusing.

The Gonzo documentary is more successful, indeed how could it not be given such a dynamite central character in Hunter S. Thompson and a background of 1960s America, one of the most turbulent and eventful decades in modern history. Thompson’s canon seems inseparable from the times in which it was written, embodying the central concept of Gonzo Journalism, that the journalist themselves becomes part of the story.

The documentary interviews figures as disparate as Ralph Steadman, Jimmy Buffett, Tom Wolfe and Jimmy Carter in its quest to discover what made Thompson tick. The portrait that emerges is of a volatile genius, frequently intoxicated and as happy taking down the system with words as he was letting off one of his many automatic weapons. This apparent paradox - the fiercely patriotic libertarian left-wing dropout - is what fuels the best of his writing. Watching Thompson being interviewed also confirms what lengths Johnny Depp went to in order to capture his voice and mannerisms for Fear and Loathing. Sadly, recent media stories about Depp’s booze-fuelled rages suggest that he may be taking Thompson's life lessons a little too close to heart.

Stranger than Fiction (2006)

Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) begins hearing a voice in his head, narrating his every thought and action. It’s a voice not unlike this one actually, except rather than hack-novelist and occasional blogger Nick Cross, Harold is hearing the voice of reclusive literary superstar Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson). For her part, Karen doesn’t realise the story she’s writing is about a real person, but she’s very clear on one point: Harold must die at the end of her book.

From this clever magical-realist conceit, Stranger than Fiction spins out an amusing comedy-drama which is part character study and part metaphysical “what-if?” Ferrell is surprisingly effective as the repressed, obsessive-compulsive tax clerk who realises he needs to get on with living his life before he dies. The chain-smoking Emma Thompson, meanwhile, portrays one of the most neurotic authors ever seen in a movie, under pressure to deliver her first novel following a ten-year writer’s block. The “death at the end” concept is a brilliant ticking clock that drives the narrative – we simultaneously see Karen’s need to be rid of the book she hates and Harold’s need to persuade her not to kill him. I won’t spoil the ending by telling you who wins!

Young Adult (2011)

Welcome to the first post-Twilight movie about writing. Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) is a wildly successful, wildly self-hating writer of packaged YA fiction, struggling with the final volume of her Waverley Prep series. Mavis’s career choice (the film implies) has stunted her emotional development and left her in a state of permanent adolescence, even as she careers towards 40. Her absorption with teenage matters is so pronounced that she embarks on a delusional quest to win back her childhood sweetheart, despite the fact he is happily married with a new baby. Like Grosse Pointe Blank, the film is especially good at evoking the experience of returning to your home town after a long absence and finding yourself baffled both by what has changed and what hasn’t.

Aside from an amusing scene where Mavis tries to sign books against the store’s wishes, the writing aspect of her life is mostly presented as an ironic voiceover. This is a clever device, with Gossip Girlesque romantic prose juxtaposed against Mavis’s increasingly unhinged real life campaign to reclaim her sweetheart.

With its borderline psychotic lead character, Young Adult is not a film designed to give you the warm and fuzzies. But this defiantly sour and uncomfortable movie does offer a few laughs, and a kernel of truth about the human condition - even if I’m not convinced by its central thesis about children’s writers!

Goosebumps (2015)

R.L. Stine (Jack Black) has a magic typewriter. You may recognise this trope from Ruby Sparks, which featured in my previous round-up. But Stine’s typewriter doesn’t manifest an attractive manic-pixie girlfriend. Instead, it spews forth all manner of frightening (but PG-friendly) monsters. Stine’s absence from the publishing world since his 90s heyday was not, it turns out, because he had flogged the Goosebumps concept to death. No, he needed to protect his now-teenage daughter from the horrors he had unleashed. No prizes for guessing that said horrors are quickly unleashed again to terrorise a sleepy Delaware town.

Goosebumps the movie is equal parts 80s & 90s nostalgia (hello Gremlins!) and modern meta-snark. Jack Black gives a terrifically deadpan performance as Stine – he somehow manages to be hilariously funny just by looking serious and disapproving throughout. But it’s a double triumph, as Black also gets to unleash his wacky side by playing the voice of his nemesis, Slappy the evil ventriloquist's dummy. The film is sometimes a bit over-stuffed, throwing every Goosebumps monster it can find at us, but better too much ambition than too little!

Trainwreck (2015)

I didn’t realise that this was about a writer when I sat down to watch it. But look, there’s Amy Schumer’s character (imaginatively named “Amy Townsend”) working for the most appalling men’s magazine possible, under the frightening stewardship of alpha female editor Tilda Swinton. The whole movie is structured (somewhat shambolically) as a voyage of discovery, in which Amy learns how to do grown-up stuff like having a monogamous relationship and writing from the heart. But the paper-thin plot is excused by the fact that it’s frequently very funny and because the characters are completely adorable. Amy Schumer, in particular, exhibits genuine vulnerability in the lead role, to the extent that I wanted to step into the frame, give her a hug and be the decent father figure she never had.

So there you have it – seven more fascinating films about writers. It’s an eclectic mix, though poor Misery missed out again because I didn’t have time to rewatch it before the deadline. Another notable omission was Crimson Peak, a film where the main character is a writer, but it seems to be merely a convenient character device to set the plot in motion and is then forgotten for much of the film.

Until next time (when I’ll have to come up with a new idea), happy viewing!


Nick Cross is a children's writer and Undiscovered Voices winner.
Nick's writing appears in Stew Magazine, and his most recent story is The Man Who Bought the World in issue 14. Nick received a 2015 SCBWI Magazine Merit Award, for his short story The Last Typewriter.

Monday 4 July 2016

Notes From a Critique Group by Em Lynas

Picture Book Tips for Me

We’ve had an influx of new picture book writers to our critique group in York and, as I began my author journey as a wannabe picture book author, it took me back to my first SCBWI meeting in 2008 (approx). 

I was so nervous! I was about to meet authors! I think there were four people there. Addy Farmer, Rebecca Colby and Catriona Tippin and me but I can’t be sure. I bombarded them with the outlines of at least six books. They were very kind.

I remembered submitting the same six pb texts to a publisher - all in one document. The covering letter makes me hide behind a cushion with embarrassment. I had no writing credentials to add to the letter but I had been a reception teacher for years so I estimated how many pb’s I’d read and included the number in the letter to show I knew my subject. I didn’t.
I also asked a local artist who does landscapes if she would be interested in illustrating one of my stories. I wouldn’t be able to pay her, she could have royalties. She sensibly and kindly declined.

So, it got me to thinking, after eight years of being a member of, and volunteer for, the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, after 4 conferences and numerous courses – What advice would I give my former enthusiastically naïve self and would that be a help to our new members? So I’ve written a letter to the me of 2008.

Dear Em
Just because you’ve read a lot of pb’s doesn’t mean you understand how they are created. You’ve been reading as a reader. Now you need to analyse as an author. I recommend climbing the following learning curve:

Identify your interest/genre

  • Do you want to write stories, concept books, educational, non-fiction books?
Research - What's a concept book?

Ok, stories it is. Buy 2 copies each of your favourite pb stories (Or borrow from the library, scan them and print out). Rip them up. Lay them out. Get the highlighters out.

Investigate structure.

  •  Is there an Act 1, 2 and 3? 
  • Where does the story begin? 
  • On the first page? No? Then where? 
  • Where does the story end?
  • Is it a question and answer format?
  • Is it a journey?
  • Is it a joke with a punchline? 
  • Check out the Gruffalo
  • Is there a midpoint? A change?
  • Is the structure more or less symmetrical? 
  • Does it use the power of the three? 
  • Would it have been more effective with four? Five? Six? Or not?
  • Find more books that use the power of the three. 

Check the plot

  •  Is it age/audience appropriate?
  •  At what age will the children relate to the premise?
  •  What subject matters are covered by pbs?

Not sure? Go to the library. Go to the bookshop. Research, Em! Make a list. Here’s a start – bedtime, food, fears, love, relationships, growing etc

Pacing - highlighters at the ready.

  • Where are the emotional ups and the downs? The oo's, the ah's, the eeks! 
  • Where are the impact pages?
  •  How do the page turns work?
  • How is anticipation used?
  • How does the language and rhythm pace the story?

Research - What's an impact page? How many ............ in an ellipsis. What's an ellipsis


  • Who is the story about?
  •  Does the protagonist have a problem?
  •  Does the protagonist solve the problem?
  •   Does the protagonist always solve the problem in a picture book?
  •   Do you have an emotional response to the protagonist? What is it?
  •  How have the author and illustrator created this emotional response from you?
  •   Why are so many pbs about animals?

More research. Get back to that library!


  • Is the target age reflected in the word count and word choice?
  • Is the text rhythmical? Is it in prose? Is it in rhyme?
  • Why is it in rhyme? Is it more effective in rhyme than prose? Would it have worked in prose?
  •  Is the word choice interesting and challenging?
  •  Is there alliteration, quiet words, loud words, sound words e.g. We’re Going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury. Why?
  • How do the words encourage page turning?
  •  Is it fun for a parent or teacher to read over and over and over and over and over and over…

Who is the reader?

  • Is this a book to be read by an adult to a child? (See last point)
  •  Is it a book that can be read by a child once they are familiar with it?
  • What age is the child? 
  • Who is the child reader? Boy, girl, shy, extrovert, nervous, brave etc 
  • Are they in need of reassurance? 
  • Are they in need of comedy?
  • Are they in need of adventure?
  • What emotion are you trying to trigger in the child? 

Why are you the author?

  • Why do you need to write this book?

Do you need an illustrator?

  • No, Em! And don't even think about doing your own! 
  • You submit the text. The publisher finds the illustrator. 

Hope this helps.

With much love and hugs from
The future Em

PS I know you’re wondering why your picture books haven’t been snapped up, when so many of the rejections are encouraging. Well, you will one day put your picture books through this simple checklist from James Scott Bell

Does the story have a:
A strong Lead Character
A clear Objective
A Knock out ending

They will all fail the test.

Keep it up though, you’ll get there. One day.

PPS Read everything on The Picture Book Den. They are the experts.  

Join SCBWI. As soon as possible. Volunteer. Build relationships. Get an agent.

Future Em Lynas is now represented by Amber Caraveo of the Skylark Agency and is currently editing Witch School Sucks! Which is not a picture book. It is funny though.

She posts funny poems on the funeverse and is the author of the Action Words Reading Scheme

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