Monday 24 December 2018

Happy Christmas, one and all!

Dear Santa

All I want for Christmas is ...

a book deal
a good book to snuggle up to
a story to start

failing that, there's always ...


A very merry Christmas to all you readers and writers from all of us at notes from the slushpile. x 

Friday 21 December 2018

Is It Time to Face the Truth About Facebook?

By Candy Gourlay

We were supposed to post our Notes from the Slushpile Christmas greetings today but I've been so bothered by recent events that I thought I'd push our Christmas post to Monday and put this out today. 


A lifeline to the world. A boon to authors who are their own marketing departments. A way to meet like-minded folk, share information and grow friendships with people you would otherwise never have had the chance to meet in a million years.

I have really valued Facebook. It is not an understatement to say Facebook has given me the world.

But recent news has left me wracked with discomfort and guilt about my enjoyment of Mark Zuckerberg's creation.

We have known the harm that Facebook has been doing for some time. Its addictive qualities have eroded not just our productivity but our capacity for face to face, real life interaction. We discuss and debate this problem but most of us do nothing because our need for that Facebook Rush outstrips any concern for our own wellbeing – like just having to eat that chocolate bar when you're trying to lose weight.

As an author, I depend on Facebook to engage with readers. I try to curate a Facebook feed that does not just talk about my books but delivers meaningful content about reading, literacy and writing.

But recently, I have had to ask myself: at what cost?


Isn't it funny how we all got used to giving up our data in exchange for all the conveniences and wonders of social media? When the Cambridge Analytica debacle happened, maybe some of us tweaked our privacy and permissions settings but it didn't stop us using Facebook.

And then there were security vulnerabilities that resulted in up to 50 million accounts being hacked.

And then those trusted partners FB shares our details with? They included "such powerful global firms as the Russian search engine (and Kremlin partner) Yandex, Chinese phone maker (under sanctions for producing insecure devices that enable state surveillance) Huawei, Yahoo, Microsoft, Amazon, Netflix, Spotify, Sony (which suffered a major security breach in 2014), and the New York Times", writes Siva Vaidhyanathan, author of Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy. Says Vaidhyanathan:

... if it becomes clear – as it has – that multiple industries depend on exploiting the personal data of millions or even billions of people, the concentrated political power of organized, wealthy companies outweighs the distributed power of disorganized citizens. These most recent revelations show that while Facebook might be the most egregious abrogator of our trust, there are no innocents.


But I think the most inconvenient truth about Facebook is how it has been weaponised by certain sectors to spread disinformation, win votes, destabilise and divide.

At first, there was euphoria, as ordinary people realised social media could bring down authoritarian governments. But it quickly became obvious that FB didn't discriminate between good guys and bad guys.

Warned over and over by alarmed journalists and experts, FB did nothing. Watch the PBS documentary The Facebook Dilemma, Part One and Part Two – or listen to the audio track 1 and 2. A report about the documentary on CNN summarises it thus:
... there were plenty of people sounding alarms who were by all accounts dismissed or ignored -- practically "begging and pleading with the company, saying 'Please pay attention to this'". CNN

Oh sure, out in the west, we are hearing a lot about concerns for US democracy. But in big, strong, monied democracies there is always an opportunity for justice.

It is FB's effect on smaller, poorer, weaker states that we see profound damage. In the Philippines – where most mobile phones can view FB for free – a FB-enhanced election has led to a drug war (drawing its oxygen from yet more FB weaponising) that has resulted in tens of thousands of deaths. In Myanmar, killings incited on Facebook are being called a genocide.


Well ... are we?

Facebook thrives on us.

Wired Magazine quotes media theorist Douglas Rushkoff:

Ask yourself who is paying for Facebook. Usually the people who are paying are the customers. Advertisers are the ones who are paying. If you don't know who the customer of the product you are using is, you don't know what the product is for. We are not the customers of Facebook, we are the product. Facebook is selling us to advertisers.

Many of us think, but that's okay. I have nothing to hide. I don't mind being served those adverts on FB – I want to see most of them anyway!

And for authors like me, Facebook is such a godsend that so what if FB has shared my details with Netflix? I like watching Netflix and FB is so convenient, so easy to use, and most importantly, has such a MASSIVE reach ... I could never achieve that with a poxy little author website.

But but but ... how can we ignore the harm FB is doing? How can we shrug and say, 'nothing to do with me' when the harm FB does is all in our name?


Is Facebook going to change?

Facebook will not change unless we change.

But most of us have too much too lose. Family, friends, livelihood ... we are enmeshed in FB's ecosystem (which includes WhatsApp and Instagram).

The right thing to do is to #DeleteFacebook or at least deactivate your account ... here's how.

For authors like me (this is, after all a blog for children's authors), deleting FB will be a massive loss. It will demand a sea change in social media behaviour. An author who abandons FB will have to:

• Return to blogging (many of us abandoned our blogs for microblogging on FB). Do all you can to build your subscriber list (not for the lazy or faint hearted).

• Boost one's presence on Twitter (which has its own ethical issues) and other social media platforms like Goodreads and Tumblr. Twitter is stronger on the networking front so this would take creativity and is only useful in combination with other social media. It might be that Twitter will be forced to change to respond to the needs of a huge influx of FB refugees

• Look to traditional media – radio, print and TV – for a presence. Even though this has been a shrinking space, large numbers abandoning FB will create demand. But will traditional media respond?

• Use YouTube – video is powerful but demands skills and presence. But YouTube is part of the Google ecosystem, and we haven't exactly been happy about Google's behaviour either, have we?

• Improve one's website – but how to drive traffic to one's website?

• Seek and participate in literacy groups and teaching resources (like Teachit) sites or whatever special interest group that might appeal to one's particular books – online AND in real space

I am mulling all these (and more). It will certainly make my professional life harder. How do I make the time for all these while writing my books and doing the speaking engagements that are my bread and butter?

And to be totally honest, I am feeling reluctant. I have put so much of my life on FB. I love seeing my friends from across the world on my feed. I love my FB groups for authors and illustrators and and literacy and history and Philippine mythology enthusiasts. I have so much to lose.

But people are dying. Surely that is a good enough reason to get on with it? Isn't it time to ACT instead of complaining on social media and signing endless e-petitions that only help to feed the FB newsfeed?

Siva Vaidhyanathan is not optimistic about these revelations changing FB:
... while the most recent revelations of the depths of Facebook’s depravity shock the conscience, the deeper story is that Facebook’s position is more secure than we had feared. And Zuckerberg need not abandon his core principles as his algorithms continue to manipulate how billions of people make choices every day. 

Leaving Facebook will be one choice that Zuckerberg cannot manipulate.

But do I have the moral courage to do it?

Candy Gourlay's latest book BONE TALK has been shortlisted for the Costa Book Award. Her picture book Is It a Mermaid? illustrated by Francesca Chessa has been nominated for the Kate Greenaway Medal.  Find out more about Candy on her website and Twitter

Saturday 8 December 2018

What Next? Life After The Hook

By Nick Cross

Photo by Clare Helen Welsh

If you weren’t at the SCBWI British Isles conference last month, you might be asking yourself: “What is The Hook and why should I care about it?” Well, it’s a kind of X Factor/Dragon’s Den for children’s writers and illustrators. A bunch of attention-starved, approval-hungry lunatics stood onstage in front of four agents and 200 of their peers, and spent five minutes each pitching the hell out of their books. The whole crazy enterprise was ably coordinated by Zoë Cookson, with her presentational partner-in-crime Kate Mallinder.

Zoë and Kate

Anyway, I did it. I managed to get up on stage without falling over, kept pretty much to time and successfully synchronised my pitch with a complex animated slide deck. But (spoiler alert) I didn’t win - that honour fell to Catherine Whitmore and her excellent pitch for Too Big for Her Boots.

I could lie about it, but the truth is I was disappointed not to win. Desperately disappointed. I didn’t flounce off in a huff, but I did want to be alone in my defeat. I left the conference quietly and walked down the hill to central Winchester, the voice of my inner critic ringing in my ears.

I truly believe that these moments, the moments when we’re at our lowest ebb, are the ones where we really get to choose between winning and losing. I put in my headphones, put on my favourite music and by the time I was back at the hotel twenty minutes later I had a plan. Instead of sitting around my room, stewing in my own juices, I went out, got a coffee and spent the next hour doing some final edits to my book. That hour reminded me why my book is awesome and why my faith in it is well-placed. I got back on the horse.

No, no! That was a metaphor, you idiot!

The irony of doing something like The Hook, is that the five minutes when I was onstage pitching was genuinely the easiest part of the whole process. What the audience couldn’t see were the months of preparation that led up to that moment.

I first had the idea of entering The Hook back in February. I remember mentioning it in conversation at the Undiscovered Voices 2018 launch party, and again a couple of months later when I met Jan Carr (the original creator of The Hook) at a book launch. Jan cautioned me that even getting selected was tough, with the number of entrants increasing yearly. I took that information on board and began to evolve a plan about how I might deliver my pitch, sketching out ways to introduce the world of the novel. Even then, I knew that I wanted to do something ambitious with my slides, to maximise the visual opportunities afforded to me as a writer/illustrator.

In tandem, I was working on the book all through the year, writing and rewriting, designing and redesigning. Ideas for the novel and ideas for the pitch intertwined, in the same way that the writing and illustrating processes informed each other. I knew that the timing was right for me to be finished by November, or perhaps the deadline made sure that happened. Either way, I was itching to reveal the book to the world, but it seemed to be a long time before applications to The Hook opened.

Luckily, the previous year’s conference website was still live, so I was able to get all the entry details in advance. The length of the extract I needed to submit seemed incredibly short (600 words) and when I looked at my large format illustrated layouts I realised that would be less than three pages of content. So I made a smaller format (A5) version with six pages, especially for The Hook.

I was so ready that once the competition opened, I submitted everything a month before the closing date! But I still had to wait as long as everyone else to find out if I’d made it through. I was pretty confident, but I also knew that if I didn’t get selected, I wouldn’t have to tell anyone about it. Of course, I was selected (by a super-secret panel of Scoobies) and pretty soon everyone knew about it!

After the months of planning, I had just two weeks to finalise my slides. In theory, I had a further week after that to hone my pitch, but in practice the two were so interlinked that my pitch needed to be ready at the same time. I’ve calculated that I spent about thirty hours making the slides, which is an insane amount of time for a five minute presentation. Although I endeavoured to reuse as many of the graphics and illustrations from the book as I could, there was probably 50% new material that I had to create. And let’s not even talk about trying to make the animations work in PowerPoint!

But we shouldn’t forget that no-one was forcing me do all this work. And indeed, the number of slides presented had absolutely no correlation with who won the competition. But these kinds of opportunities don’t come along very often, and I wanted to embrace this one. Despite the work involved, I really enjoyed creating the presentation because I was able to tell a story visually in a very different medium, a bit like making a short film.

Here I am mid-pitch (photo by Marie Basting)

OK, I seem to have spent a lot of time talking about the period leading up to The Hook, thereby completely ignoring the title of this post! What has happened since?

One immediate side effect was praise. This doesn’t sound like a bad thing, but I’ve always struggled with taking compliments. I tend to deflect them by diminishing myself in some way. I got a lot of compliments in the hours and days after The Hook, some of them from people for whom the theme of my novel had genuinely touched a chord. And I managed not to respond with something like: “Shame it wasn't good enough to win though.” I just said “Thanks.” And that, for me, was real progress!

The “final” edits I needed to do on the book turned out to be more extensive than I expected, which necessitated another two weeks of writing and proofing. In parallel, I worked on reformatting the layout of the book based on a design review I’d had before the conference (but hadn’t had the time or headspace to put into practice). At last, it was all ready to submit, but I suddenly realised I had no synopsis.

If you're a sensitive writer type, you may want to stop reading. Because I'm about to make a SHOCKING CONFESSION.

Are you sure?

Last chance.

OK, here goes...

I love writing synopses!

I know that goes against all that is good and holy, but there you have it. I find the synopsis far, far easier than writing the actual book. Part of this may be because, by the time I get to it, I’ve been over and over the book hundreds of times in my head. Anyway, I polished off the synopsis in my lunch hour - one page, 660 words, job done.

So, was I finally ready to submit? You might think that, but what I decided I really needed to do was make a book dummy. This was using the skills I had newly learnt at this year’s SCBWI conference, involving several hours of printing, gluing and sticking. As a displacement activity, it was a good one, and the end result looks pretty awesome. I especially liked writing the back cover blurb and seeing the book as a real object, which makes it so much more tangible than pixels on a screen.

With all that done, the inevitable couldn’t be avoided any longer. I have started submitting to agents, or as I like to think of it, putting my baby into an email-shaped spaceship and launching it into the cold dark void of indifference (you know, like Jor-El in Superman).

Superman and Superdad (photo by marakma)

If I sound a tad conflicted about the process, it's because trying to get an agent and publisher was never part of my plan for this book. Burned by my previous experiences with the industry, I resolved that this book would be just for me - entirely self-published and what did it matter if I only sold 50 copies? To that end, I turned away from the market and just wrote whatever the hell I wanted, in the way I wanted to do it. And yet, here I am, neurotically chasing approval all over again. What happened?

Well, for one thing, people really seem to be engaging with the concept of my book, and the way it’s presented. If everyone had shrugged at my pitch, I might have retreated into my burrow for six months and finished the book just for me. But suddenly, people want to see this thing published, and I feel some responsibility to make that happen. Plus, it fits with my new mantra of trying to embrace whatever opportunities come along.

So, I will roll the dice with some carefully selected agents, and in the meantime I’ll continue illustrating and preparing the book for self-publication. Unlike my novel, the future is unwritten.


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.

Friday 30 November 2018

Finding Your Voice

By Em Lynas

Picture by Geoff Lynas
I have second book syndrome. I'm afraid that the voice of my next character driven book will have the same voice as my last character driven book. Daisy Wart's voice is so big and dramatic and opinionated that she's taken over my mind. I need to shush her and let other voices in. So I've been re-reading my VOICE mentor texts.

Reading these texts is like a wine tasting - I get - opinions, personality, syntax, tone etc. I’m just giving you a flavour of a few of my favourite voices. First up for tasting:

Georgina Nicholson in Angus Thongs and Perfect Snogging, by Louise Rennison.  

"I am fourteen years old, Uncle Eddie! I am bursting with womanhood. I wear a bra! OK, it's a bit on the loose side and does ride up round my neck if I run for the bus... But the womanly potential is there, you bald coot!"

I'm getting - big personality, loud, opinionated, comic, irreverent.

Use of Language:
The language is spot on teen plus there's the technique of adding a suffix to a noun. E.g. "I would like a proper amount of breastiness."

Bertie Wooster in The Mating Season by P.G Wodehouse.

"While I would not go so far, perhaps, as to describe the heart as actually leaden, I must confess that on the eve of starting to do my bit of time at Deverill Hall I was definitely short on chirpiness."

I'm getting- humour, a people pleaser and victim.

Use of Language: Wodehouse turns the ordinary into the extraordinary making us think and take part in the story with his use of analogy and metaphor.
Ordinary adjectives are replaced with amusing adjectives. E.g. "I mentioned this to Jeeves and he agreed that the set up could have been juicier." Juicier is so much more fun to say than better.
There's exaggeration e.g. "My Aunt Agatha, the one who chews broken bottles and kills rats with her teeth."

Mattie Ross in True Grit by Charles Portiss

“People do not give it credence that a fourteen year old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father’s blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day.”

I’m getting – unusual character, resilient, determined, an honest person with a strong sense of justice and fair play.

Use of Language: The book (and film which is true to the book) has an amazing voice that comes partly from the lack of contractions in the dialogue and prose (because it’s Mattie narrating) but also because the vocabulary is limited, there’s very little description and it reads like a list of facts and statements. E.g. “Tom Chaney said he was from Louisiana. He was a short man with cruel features. I will tell more about his face later. He carried a Henry rifle. He was a bachelor about twenty five years of age.”

I have other mentor texts but my favourite voice at the moment is -

Flora in Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons.

Not just Flora’s voice but everyone’s voice. Every character  in this book has strong opinions on every other character, their world, and the unfairness of Robert Poste’s child (Flora) turning up to (they suspect) claim her inheritance.

There are echoes of Wodehouse which is always a treat.
“Have you a plane, Charles? I don’t think an embryo parson should have a plane. What breed is it?”

These are just some of my favourite bits that delve into character.

Flora has decided to live with relatives rather than work for a living and the Starkadders of Cold Comfort Farm are the only ones available.

Flora on – not working: “Well, when I am fifty-three or so I would like to write a novel as good as Persuasion, but with a modern setting, of course. For the next thirty years or so I shall be collecting material for it. If anyone asks me what I work at, I shall say ‘Collecting Material’.

Flora on – going to live with the Starkadders - “On the whole, I dislike my fellow-beings; I find them difficult to understand. But I have a tidy mind and untidy lives irritate me. Also, they are uncivilized.”  

Flora on Amos – He was encased in black fustian which made his legs and arms look like drainpipes, and he wore a hard little felt hat. Flora supposed that some people would say that he walked in a lurid, smoky hell of his own religious torment. In any case he was a rude old man.

Seth on women – “Women are all alike – aye fussin’ over their fal-lals and bedazing a man’s eyes, when all they really want is man’s blood and his heart out of his body and his soul and his pride…”

There is so much to mention, too much for a blog, and I'm still analyzing for techniques, but these are a few of the things that hooked me. 

I love that the Starkadders call Flora, Robert Poste’s child, throughout the book. I love that Aunt Ada Doom doesn’t come out of her bedroom because, “I saw something nasty in the woodshed.” I love that the cows are called Graceless, Pointless, Feckless and Aimless which sets the tone so well for the condition of the farm and animals. I love that Seth goes mollocking and I don't know what that means but I can have a good guess. (I have looked that up and my guess was confirmed.)

I love so much in this book. If you haven’t read it yet just read this last bit (too long to type!) and you’ll be hooked too.

Happy reading!

See part 2 of Finding Your Voice here 

Em Lynas is the author of the Witch School Series published by Nosy Crow

Wednesday 28 November 2018

Why you should go to the annual SCBWI conference!

by Paula Harrison

Ten days ago I came back from the annual SCBWI (UK) conference in Winchester. It was a weekend of awesomeness! It was my 10th conference. I joined SCBWI or Scooby (which stands for the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) in 2007, and have been to conference almost every year since then.

This year I was asked to run a workshop on the Saturday afternoon which was an absolute honour. I have to own up to having a rather large wobble when I found out I was delivering the session in the auditorium as I had pictured myself standing in front of 30 or so fellow writers/ illustrators in a classroom (a place of safety for an ex-teacher!) In the end, I reassured myself with the thought that if anyone hated the session they'd probably be too polite to say! I had several people tell me it was helpful, so if I helped a few people that's good enough for me.

First of all, an apology as this will be a shorter blog than normal (and also it's late - sorry Candy), but I wanted to share with you what is so brilliant about the conference. It's not cheap to go, of course, but it's so worth it in my opinion and there are a couple of bursaries you can apply for if needed.

The conference is amazing BECAUSE...

  1. I credit it with being the most useful thing I did on the road to getting published. The combination of talks and workshops by authors and industry professionals taught me so much about writing and the publishing industry.

  2. There is also the opportunity to have your work critiqued by a professional or, if that sounds a little scary, try the Friday night peer critique session.

  3. There are lots of competitions to go for such as the badge design comp and the 10 line pitch!

  4. You can make friends for life!

  5. You are finally among people who are just like you! (just as daft as you - as evidenced by the array of party costumes!)

  6. The party cake - covered with characters from the books launched that year - is a thing of beauty.

  7. You can take advantage of great opportunities such as appearing in The Hook like my brave friends George Kirk and Nick Cross!

  8. You can squeeze in seeing a bit of Winchester. The Christmas market is usually open and the cathedral is beautiful.

    So I'll finish with a few pics of the weekend including the cake, the costumes and the friends for life! If you haven't been to the conference I thoroughly recommend it.

Me and the one and only Kathy Evans!

Nick Cross telling us all about Riot Boyyy in The Hook

Janet Foxley won a costume prize!

How do they make the cake look so great?!

Me with Teri Terry and Sally Poyton (unicorns DO have more fun)

Winchester Cathedral

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.
Image result for the last siege jonathan stroud
Add caption

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.
Image result for the fellowship of the ring

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

Image result for oliver jeffers books
Give him a hug
Melrose and Croc - that wonderful friendship, created by Emma Chichester Clark.
Image result for melrose and croc find a smile
Good friends share bad times
Frog and Toad by Arnold Lobel
Image result for frog and toad are friends

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

Image result for the fellowship of the ring book
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.

Image result for five children and it on the western front

Being a soul friends means that with so much gained there is more to lose. The highs are higher and the lows are lower.
Image result for ostrich boys

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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