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!

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.

Friday, 12 October 2018

Tuning in techniques for your brain!

by Paula Harrison

I've heard other writers say that they could never work on more than one story at a time. However I bet they actually have side projects in the backs of their heads - things they want to develop when there's time.

I make my living writing multiple things for multiple people. I currently have two new series (neither of which has been announced yet). I also have another idea lurking in my head that I'd really love to start working on. I also have a family and all the chores and responsibilities that go with that. I'm always finding out that my kids' trainers are falling apart or I haven't paid for their lunches or that we've run out of milk. So focusing on one thing and giving it that intensive concentration that makes a great book is a challenge at times. But there are quick cheat ways to tune your brain into a story so that each time you sit down to write you actually write rather than staring at the screen and thinking about whether to book a new grocery delivery slot. So here they are:

Use key objects
This could be almost anything that helps to key your brain into your story. Ideally it will be something smallish that you can keep on your desk. I find this a particularly useful technique when I'm using a real world setting as my inspiration. It works because I can bring something back that's meaningful to me.
A few years back I wrote a story inspired by the dark peak area of the Peak District. I brought back one pebble from the rocky cliffs around Curbar Edge and kept it on my desk. It was helpful to be able to pick it up and handle it from time to time. Its shape and rough texture evoked that place for me.
Curbar Edge was the inspiration for the setting in Pale Peak Burning

Have a key image as your desktop background
Choosing a key image and keeping it as your desktop or laptop background will launch you into the right mood for your stories as soon as you boot up your computer. This doesn't have to be a picture that evokes your setting. It could be something that links to your main character or theme. Last year I wrote a book for readers aged 6+ and I kept a picture of an otter that I'd taken at Newquay Zoo as my desktop background. I like this one as it looks like he's waving at me!

Create a mood board
I have to confess that I've never created a mood board but I know some writers love them. The advantage of this technique must be that you're not restricted to one key image to shortcut your brain into story mode. You can put together all sorts of images matching different characters and themes that evoke the complexity of your fictional world. With sites like Tumblr around this has become easier and easier to do. Just make sure that you don't spend so much time putting together a mood board that you never get round to writing.

Use music
If you asked me which of these techniques is the most useful to me I'd pick music. There's something about music that reaches our emotions instantly and let's us springboard straight into the right frame of mind for writing fiction. I've also relied on this heavily during times where there were family or personal issues going on, as happens to everyone from time to time, but putting writing aside was not an option because I was writing under deadline. This is another blog post really, but if shutting out all other things in your brain is a challenge then I really recommend finding a song or piece of music that connects with your story in some way.

Write little notes to yourself
To work well, I'd suggest keeping the notes short. Maybe just a few key sentences about what the central conflict is in your character's life. These notes could be in a notebook but sometimes I pop them at the top of the chapter I'm working on. Sometimes, if I'm keen to crack on, I'll write something in capitals in my manuscript about the things I need to expand on. That way I can carry on writing but remember my thoughts about editing the chapter when I come back later.

Pin up key phrases for your characters or themes
This is a similar idea to the one above, but in this case keep it REALLY short. In the past I've stuck key thoughts on the wall above my computer. The only down side with this is that your family and friends tend to come along and read them out loud and then stare at you in a quizzical way as if you've completely lost the plot!

Hopefully some of these will be useful to you! I've been thinking about the theory of different learning styles recently (I was once a primary school teacher) and I wonder if what's useful will depend on whether you're a visual, auditory, reading/writing or kinesthetic learner. I don't know very much about the theory but I do know that I'm a visual learner and I tend to think visually, so I nearly always use the desktop background technique with my stories as it works so well for me. Good luck!

Paula Harrison is the million-selling author of The Rescue Princesses. She has also written two more young series and five novels for readers aged 9+.

Thursday, 27 September 2018

Are teenagers - and their brains - different?

by Teri Terry

For a long time it was thought that most brain development takes place in the early years; that a teen essentially has an adult brain. 
But then why do they think and act so differently? 
For example, why do they - comparatively speaking - have poorer impulse control, take more risks in the presence of their peers, and generally find their parents excruciatingly embarrassing to be around? Why won't they just grow up?
Is it a societal thing - is it our fault - is it theirs?

Brainstorm is a play created by Islington Community Theatre (now called Company 3) and cognitive neuroscientist Sarah-Jayne Blakemore:

You say to me...
Your brain is broken. It's like an adult's brain that doesn't work properly.

Whether you are a teen, write for teens, live with a few or work with them by the dozen, watch this excerpt: it is powerful.

Brainstorm from Mattia Pagura on Vimeo.

When I started writing for teens years ago, it wasn't long after the time that YA fiction was becoming a thing

Around the same time I remember coming across this argument, one I've heard many times since:
No matter what you call them - teenagers, young adults or adolescents - the whole youth culture is a recent creation of an affluent west. YA fiction grew out of this: it is a market artificially created by publishing companies to make money.

So, are they real or did we make them up? 
Whatever label you want to use, are teenagers distinctly different from children and adults, or are they actually a recent invention? 
And why does it seem so socially acceptable to mock teens and the ways they are different, their likes and dislikes? 

I'm all too familiar with how dismissive people often are of books written for teens and those who write them, and the view that readers should go from children's stories straight to adult classics with no stops between; that giving them access to teen fiction they enjoy allows them to be lazy and unchallenged.

I went to a talk by award-winning cognitive neuroscientist Sarah-Jayne Blakemore at New Scientist Live last weekend: The Secret Life of the Teenage Brain.

She knows what she's talking about. This is her bio, from the New Scientist Live website: 
Sarah-Jayne Blakemore is Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at University
College London, Deputy Director of the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, Editor-in-Chief of the journal Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience and a member of the Royal Society Public Engagement Committee. She has won multiple major awards for her research, including the British Psychological Society Spearman Medal 2006, the Turin Young Mind & Brain Prize 2013, the Royal Society Rosalind Franklin Award 2013 and the Klaus J. Jacobs Research Prize 2015. She was one of only four scientists on the Sunday Times 100 Makers of the 21st Century in 2014.

I took LOADS of notes to do this blog, and then I found this: a TED talk! 
Well, Sarah-Jayne says it much better than I can, so here you go: 

So, there you have it. 

Teenagers ARE different; their brains are undergoing important work at making them who they are. This is the case across cultures; across centuries; even species. 

So, cut them some slack. 

And I'll keep writing, and know this: 
If I write a book that a teen connects with, one that makes them understand themselves or other people better, one that makes them feel that if a character their age can do something amazing, maybe they can, too - or even if it is just pure escapism from a difficult day - I know I've done something important.

Friday, 14 September 2018

Hello! I'm talking to you! Who's your reader?

by Addy Farmer

Let me tell you straight off that I opened this new post with NO IDEA what to write about. My fellow bloggers have done it all, really they have and done it brilliantly. So ... why bother? Why should I write anything at all? Am I just filling space? Honouring a committment? Fulfilling a self-aggrandising ambition which included seeing my name in as many places as possible? Um, maybe. And probably all three but it's also about a need to talk to someone out there about what the flip I'm doing being a children's author. It's about talking to people who understand that it's not all about launches and cake. Or wine and cake. Or cake.

Lemon drizzle - my favourite

Is anyone listening? Have I got your attention with CAKE? Well, if that's so then I must be talking to the vast majority of children's writers, because in my experience, rather alot of us like cake. I hope I know my audience. Why do we write with an audience in mind? For me, it's all about HEART.  The nine year old protagonist in my WIP is based on and written for a nine year old from a primary school I worked in. I want him to identify with my protagonist and feel that this book is for HIM alone (and the millions of other readers who will also buy it). And maybe, just maybe it can make a difference to someone.
Image result for kids audience
So not only do you excellent readers want to see cake in my blog but you also want a cracking personal story of ambition, struggle and eventual success. Give me a moment on that one.

Image result for mountain climb black and white
I've no idea what's going on her but it looks like a struggle to me
And call me a custard cream if I'm not correct in assuming that you also want a few TOP TIPS on how to make your writing shine by knowing your readership?

Well, here are some tips for you based on my writing for junior children with a school element involved...
  • find out what your chosen readership enjoys reading! Simples. Try seeing if a school will let you in - schools generally love volunteers. My WIP is 'funny and magic' - so many children love funny stuff - but if it doesn't suit you then DO NOT FORCE IT. Find another way - magic/football/pets/therearemore. Have combos e.g. funny magic; magical pets; footballing dogs.  
  • note quirks and habits which will make your characters stand out e.g. I noted so many children played with the wretched plastic trays placed directly under the tables or fiddled about with pencil sharpeners or took hours to wash up the paint stuff or gave out letters with a great deal of fussing ... it goes on
  • understand the way a school works - it's changed since you were young! School is such a massive part of a child's life that it's important to know roughly how stuff is taught and timetables
  • Know more about the culture in primary schools today or at least in the school you research! Schools have staff who specialise in nurturing pupils/teaching English as  foreign language/SENCO support/booster classes. So much! 
  • You don't have to include everything of course but any research will shine through and will help bring a story and characters to life and into the hands of your chosen reader

Identify books which are similar to yours
Once you recognize who your competition is, it may be easier for you to pinpoint your potential readers because chances are, you share the same target audience.

Having trouble identifying your target audience?
Ask other authors or industry professionals for help! There's a certain SCBWI conference coming up in November in Winchester ... it's a great place to find out about publishers' target audiences and lap up their knowledge. Also children's authors love to help fellow authors at these dos. 

Kids seem a bit happier in schools nowadays

Some stories that speak to their readers

Harry in his cupboard - alone and friendless except for 1 000 000 000 readers who felt his pain and his thirst for something more than this

Harry Potter by JK Rowling

Dogger by Shirley Hughes is about the terrible anxiety of losing a beloved toy, the unsentimental love of your hero big sister and the immense happiness of finding it again. It is the world of the four year old completely.

Then there are the teen/YA reads - the Guardian has a great list of books where readers have so identified with the story or the protagonist that they have saved lives. Can't say fairer than that.

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