Monday 18 December 2017

Holiday Greetings in 2017: we thank you very sweetly

We spent hours getting our costumes right!

Of course the lyrics of the song sung by the Munchkins from The Wizard of Oz film, when Dorothy's house lands in Oz and kills the Wicked Witch, actually go like this:

We thank you very sweetly for doing it so neatly
You've killed her so completely,
That we thank you very sweetly

Not exactly what we meant. What we at Notes from the Slushpile really want to say this lovely season – sweetly – is:

Thank You

... for being such kind, loyal readers in 2017!

We thought we would each offer you our book of the year and a top tip ... so here goes ...

PAULA HARRISON my book of the year was Letters from the Lighthouse by Emma Carroll which is a fantastic piece of historical fiction with themes of tolerance and friendship all wrapped up in a page-turning mystery.
Letters from the Lighthouse by Emma Carroll

Top tip: Keep trying different things, meeting new people, making new connections. At a time when the market is asking you for more of the same, writing something different on the side will keep you sane and who knows where it may lead!

ADDY FARMER Five Children on the Western Front by Kate Saunders. This was the book with a heart, worn feather-light on its sleeve. I loved how Saunders managed the delicate balance of funny stuff and profound sadness with the best, most wonderfully sad and satisfying ending EVER.

Five Children on the Western Front by Kate Saunders

And my tip? Write who you are and don't strain to find who you think you ought to be. I love to write sad stuff and I love to write funny and that is what I'm finally doing. Enjoy!

KATHRYN EVANS My book recommendation is Wonder by RJ Palacio, an absolute masterclass in character and how to control your readers emotions... I know I'm five years behind the curve but my TBR pile is HUGE.

Wonder by RJ Palacio

And my top tip is to set yourself writing targets – 500 words a day is honestly achievable no matter what else you are doing. In two months you'd have 30,000 words!

NICK CROSS I know that elsewhere in this article, Kathryn Evans complains of being off the zeitgeist. Well, the book that I found most inspiring this year wasn’t even published this century! But, reading The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky made me realise that it was OK to write a sweet but emotional coming of age story set in the 1990s. So I am!

Tip: Do something that scares you. And then another thing. This year, I have taken to the stage, decided to self-publish, begun learning to draw and come out as an author/illustrator. Frankly, it has all been rather terrifying, but I did it anyway. I’m not sure if that makes me brave or just stupid!

TERI TERRY My book of the year is Indigo Donut by Patrice Lawrence. It was far out of the usual stuff I'd read and I'm glad I got to know Indigo and Bailey: gut wrenching, realistic and ultimately hopeful.

Indigo Donut by Patrice Lawrence

My top tip: get a puppy! Being a full time writer it is easy to become isolated and to spend too much time in your own head - which isn't healthy for anyone. She's not doing much for my word count, but isn't Scooby ADORABLE?

EM LYNAS My book of the year is The Tale of Angelino Brown by David Almond and illustrated by Alex T Smith. A gentle story about an angel who appears in Bert Brown's top pocket one day and goes on to change everyone's lives in a warm and humorous way. The language was so beautifully understated and my favourite repetitive phrase was Angelino's, "I know nowt." To quote my daughter, "It's a hug in a book." I wish I'd written it.

The Tale of Angelino Brown by David Almond and illustrated by Alex T Smith

My top tip for writers is - join SCBWI and build an amazing group of friends and supporters who are willing to go daft and don silly hats on the publication day of your very first children's novel. As a surprise. It was a day of laughter and fun. I thank them all xxx

CANDY GOURLAY My book of the year is one I can't help looking at every chance I get. Town is by the Sea by Joanne Schwartz and Sydney Smith, a story of very few words and yet encompassing a life, its tragedies and the love that sustains it. And Sydney Smith's sparkling illustrations. I adore it.

Town is by the Sea by Joanne Schwartz and Sydney Smith

My top tip: my battle this year has been with the distractions that, like demons, needle me every time I look up from my writing. The meditation app Headspace recommends: "Know what you're doing next." So during any pause in my writing time, whether it's to go to the bathroom or answer a phone call or to have a quick look at Facebook, I scribble down what I'm doing next. It has really helped!

See you next year!

Friday 15 December 2017

How to Be a Writer

By Candy Gourlay

This is another one of those 'I pressed SEND' blog posts.

Douglas Adams: I love deadlines


I've been solidly working on final edits for a few weeks now,  interrupted only by the usual stuff that comes from actually having a life outside books.

Still, I was fairly confident that I would make the deadline, despite an unexpected intervention by Southwest Trains when I found myself spending a day riding cancelled trains and waiting on sidings for fires to be put out.

See, I had colour-coded my chapters on Scrivener, pink for FINISHED FOREVER AND NEVER TO BE TOUCHED AGAIN and blue for TO BE WRITTEN IN NICER WORDS. I could see that my manuscript outline was a sea of pink. There were only four items in blue. What could possibly go wrong? Well. Those blue chapters, it turned out, needed a complete revamp.

And so, dear reader, I did one of those marathon writing things where you write through the night, sleeping for an hour at a time when your eyes won't stay open anymore, while taking frequent showers to fool your brain into thinking it is still fresh.

My editor is usually kind about missed deadlines, but there was definitely a little frisson in her response when I sent her a grovelling message to say I needed more time.

Two days after my deadline had passed with that dreaded wooshing sound immortalised by Douglas Adams, I wearily pressed SEND and stumbled to bed, glancing at the clock on the way. It was 6.45 am.

I think I mostly did a good job in the end. Those are the key words: in the end. Because I spent the whole time on an emotional see-saw:

Fear, as the time ticked on.

Rapture, when I found words.

Despair, when I didn't.


Several times during this experience I asked myself what the point of it all was. Why I was doing it? What was I trying to achieve? Could I do it again and again? Why would I?

Did writing mean anything anymore?

To my readers?

To me?

When I woke up the next day, I  was so tired I found myself scrolling through wellness articles on the internet.

It being the end of the year, there was a bonanza of them: 8 Ways to Have a Better Relationship in 2018 ... 9 Ways to Live Healthier in 2018 ... 5 tips to Help You Figure Out What to Do With Your Life ...

That last one quoted this advice from Nathaniel Koloc, CEO of a recruiting services company:

Careers are long, so think long term. It's not about what job you want next, but what life you want.

How would all that apply to a writer who started writing books rather late in life? (I am 55 and have written only two books in seven years – in an industry where the consumer outgrows you before you've had a chance to build a body of work. )

Koloc advises workers to pay attention to four categories: legacy, mastery, freedom and alignment.


According to the article, legacy and mastery is about body of work, about 'what you want to achieve and the skills you want to cultivate and strengthen.'

Okay, so I'm putting a tick on that one. One thing you quickly realise when you begin writing books is that it is a life long learning experience.

I always quote Neil Gaiman quoting his friend Gene Wolf in the foreword to American Gods:  'You never learn to write a novel. You only learn to write the novel you're on.'

This is the part I love about being an author, the learning all the time, the figuring out how to do it, the craft.

But the other half of the question is what do you want to achieve?

When I started, what I wanted to achieve was to write a book that children will read and love.  I don't know that all my readers have loved my books, but some must have because they bother to tell me so.

But once you write one book, you have to write another one, don't you? Because author. That's what authors do. But what if my next book is the wrong one to write? What if I get halfway through it and it doesn't work? What if what if what if?

But that is not thinking long term. It's not about what job I'm doing next but what life I want, Mr. Koloc said.

Hmm. Something for all of us to think about.


The article defined freedom as 'the conditions you need to have the lifestyle you want, like salary, benefits, flexibility.'

The funny thing about being a children's author is that people are constantly offering you opportunities to promote yourself by appearing for free in a festival/book group/conference/talk. It always comes as a shock when they discover you want to be paid.

Most authors I know make their living from speaking engagements. The book itself does not make enough money to put socks on one's  children's feet. So in effect, this thing you had yearned for, that you created with heart and soul, turns out not to be the living you want to make. It's merely an entrance ticket to the world of paid performance.

But again, I am focusing on the next thing rather than the life. Where the money comes from is relevant, but what it's there for is to enable the life I want.

Hmm. There it is again.


Alignment, Mr. Koloc says, is about belonging. It's about culture. It's about values.

When I was still a struggling-to-be-published-rejection-punching-bag, I made one of the best decisions of my life.

I decided that I wasn't going to wait to be published to live the life of a children's writer.

I joined an organisation called the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators so that I could hang out with people like me. I love SCBWI. Even now as a published writer, SCBWI is where I continue to meet the best people to hang out with.

I attended every talk about writing children's books that I could find. I was learning. I was immersed.

And then, most important of all, I began to write, which really ... if you want to write, is the thing you have to do. You don't become a writer by saving it for when your children are grown/your job is easier/your dog is potty trained. You just have to do it – which I am proud to say, is what I did.

I suppose this blog post is me, after a particularly tough time, trying to remind myself of why I spent the last few days banging my head on a keyboard.

Yes, it's been hard ... but it was all part and parcel of enabling the life I want.

So many of my friends in the children's writing world tell me they feel fraudulent, that they can't call themselves authors until they've got that publishing deal. According to Mr. Koloc: that publishing deal? It's just the next thing.

Ask not how you can become an author, ask how you can live an author's life.

You're probably living it right now.

Candy Gourlay is the award-winning author of Tall Story and Shine. Follow her Facebook page to receive posts on reading and writing children's books. Visit her website to book her for school visits and other speaking engagements. Read Candy's previous Slushpile post: Why I Changed My Mind About Facebook Pages for Authors

Friday 3 November 2017

The Insomniac Writer: cure or endure?

by Teri Terry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The insomniac writer is nothing new:

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

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

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

Is there a cure?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cure or Endure?

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

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

I'm not alone:

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

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

I prefer insomnia to anaesthesia
Antonio Tabucchi

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

Monday 30 October 2017

A ghost from the past - Halloween special

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

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

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

Happy Halloween ...

Friday 13 October 2017

Why I changed my mind about Facebook Pages for authors

By Candy Gourlay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It gave fans the following new choices:

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

Suddenly the game changed.

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

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

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

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

'Always focus on helping the reader'.

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

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

The answer lies in several things:

• Your identity as an author.

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

• How original your posts are

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday 9 October 2017

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

by Paula Harrison

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday 29 September 2017

Why Writers Should See Reading as Research by Kathryn Evans

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

Friday 15 September 2017

Doing the Time Warp

By Nick Cross

Time Warp choreography animation by Luca Alberton, DensityDesign Research Lab

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Sebastien Wiertz

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

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


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

Friday 1 September 2017

What I intend to achieve on my writing retreat.

by Addy Farmer

Into the writing cave

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

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

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

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

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

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

the children ...

I swear there were only 3 children ...

the job ...

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

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

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

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

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