Friday, 6 April 2018

Ten Tips for Dealing With Deadlines

By Kathryn Evans


I am neck deep in edits at the moment, and spending 8-10 hours a day typing, so I planned to write this post about practical ways to deal with deadlines.  I asked my fellow slushies for their advice and the very lovely Jo Wyton pointed out that this blog is primarily for writers still on the slushpile. Writers who long for a deadline.

How could I have forgotten? That was me,  until fairly recently. More of Me only came out in 2016 after many, many years of trying to get published.

Five years ago, if  I'd have read the post, I'd have wanted to say:


BUT we can give ourselves deadlines and I suggest that you do. You can make them feel real  by telling someone. I meet every month with a group of fellow writers from SCBWI. We set ourselves targets and know we have to own up the next month if we don't meet them. Though self imposed, this commitment  honestly helps keep you writing.

Deadlines can be really helpful. They give you focus and drive - sure, they can also make you panic and give you RSI.  So, if you don't have wether you have an imposed deadline or you self create one,  be positive about them and do these practical things  to keep your mind and body in good order!

Kathryn Evans' Top Ten Tips for Dealing With Deadlines.

  1. Get up and moving  every twenty minutes - walk, star jump, roll your shoulders -anything you like but for a few minutes, have a good old wriggle.
  2. Install a standing desk - sitting down too much is no good for your stomach muscles and they, in turn, support your back. Switching between sitting and standing  is so much better for you than sitting all day.
  3. Don't use caffeine to keep you alert -top advice from Paula Harrison - it'll leave you with headaches and a racing heart.
  4. Candy Gourlay uses Headspace, the meditation app. I use this too and find that taking 10 minutes out of my day to just breathe is really energising.
  5. Don't work at a computer screen for the  30 minutes before you go to bed, it won't help you sleep.
  6. Install f.lux on your computer It dims your screen at sunset and brightens it at sunrise helping to keep your body more in sync for sleep and preventing tired eyes.
  7. Get some fresh air - go outside and fill your lungs, look at the clouds, expand your view and free your mind.
  8. Eat well. Don't be tempted to stuff yourself with junk because time is short, your body needs nutrients. I keep a ready-cooked roast chicken in the fridge and bags of salad- super easy, healthy lunches - and I always have fruit in the house: fresh, tinned, dry and frozen. Frozen grapes are a delicious treat!
  9. Speak to someone who understands - letting off steam when you feel under pressure can really help.
  10. Take a minute to watch a cute animal video - they genuinely reduce stress! 


 Kathryn Evans is the award winning author of More of MeA gripping thriller with a sinister sci-fi edge, exploring family, identity and sacrifice. She loves faffing about on social media: find her  on Facebook and Instagram @kathrynevansauthor and tweeting @KathrynEvansInk.  

Friday, 30 March 2018

In praise of rights teams

by Paula Harrison

A small selection of the Rescue Princesses books that have been published internationally
I feel very lucky. I love my job and I don't have to climb bleary-eyed on to a commuter train to London at 7 o'clock each morning. Plus I get up to make a cup of tea whenever I want. This is no small thing.

Yet when I run a course for pre-published writers, as I did in London a fortnight ago, they've heard how little writers earn, how it's getting harder to make a living as an author. This is all true. The market is difficult. Celebrity writers are gaining a lot of shelf space. Many writers are hanging on through money from school visits or sometimes teaching writing to adults. BUT there is still a lot of excitement about debuts and a new author has that in their favour.

Another thing that makes children's authors very lucky is that UK children's publishers are simply excellent at selling foreign rights. Nosy Crow, the publisher of The Rescue Princesses (pictured above) has sold rights to those books in many languages including Italian, French, Hebrew, Japanese, Turkish, Romanian and Czech. The American publisher they sold rights to has published twelve books from the series.

If you pay attention to the children's book world you'll have noticed tweets and pictures coming from Bologna this week. Rights teams and agents fly out there every March and work incredibly hard. A huge part of the work (I am told) goes on before and afterwards, following up on appointments and so on. I'm massively grateful for their efforts and thrilled each time a book in a foreign language comes through.

Top: American and Polish editions of The Secret Rescuers from Nosy Crow
Bottom: French and Spanish editions of Robyn Silver from Scholastic
Seeing your story travelling round the world is an amazing feeling. I should also mention the fabulous work done by translators such as Nicolas Ancion who translated Robyn Silver into French and the amazing artwork produced by talented illustrators around the world including Alban Marilleau whose cover artwork is pictured above.

No doubt rights teams are wheeling their suitcases back home right now feeling pretty exhausted. Well, I would just like to say a HUGE


And Happy Easter! Apologies that the blog is a short piece this week - I blame the Easter baking! I will leave you with a picture of the new Rescue Princesses book out very soon. The Enchanted Ruby is the 13th book and publishes as part of a refresh for the series. The beautiful illustration pictured is by Sharon Tancredi.

Friday, 23 March 2018

Adventures in Illustration

By Nick Cross

Vintage book cover from the Baldwin Library of Historical Children’s Literature

Over the past few months, I’ve been taking my first steps to become an actual, genuine illustrator. This has primarily consisted of taking a weekly evening class in Oxford, studying Beginners' Illustration for Children’s Picture Books. The course is taught by Korky Paul, who many of you will know from his work on the hugely-successful Winnie and Wilbur series. Korky, a thirty-year veteran of the picture book industry, has run the ten-week course for over fifteen years. It’s also very affordable, thanks to being part of the Oxfordshire Adult Learning programme.

After my first term of studying art last year, I felt very apprehensive about jumping straight into something that sounded a lot more advanced. But my work colleague (and fellow SCBWI member) Imogen Foxell had been on the course two years ago, and she encouraged/bullied me until I signed up.

One of the prerequisites of the course was a portfolio containing at least five pieces of illustration work. This was a problem for me, because I don’t really have any prior work to speak of. So, a month before the course started, I decided to find a picture book story I could illustrate.

I’m not really a picture book writer, but I was very lucky that my friend Nick Bromley (Waterstones Children's Book Prize-winning writer of Open Very Carefully) is! Nick (not me, the other one) was willing to let me rummage around in his unpublished stuff until I found a text called A Sticky Situation. This anarchic, metafictional tale of subversive sticky notes really spoke to me, and I could see lots of creative potential for the illustrations.

With the text in hand, I started work on a couple of spread ideas for the book, which I supplemented with three spreads from the illustrated YA novel I’m also working on. Although I was immensely nervous the first week (and pretty much every week) of the course, I bravely took out my five A3 sheets and showed Korky what I’d drawn. In actual fact, it turned out that I knew quite a lot about the design and layout of picture books, even if I didn’t know much about the illustration side. Conversely, many of the other participants had a lot more artistic experience than me, but needed help to organise and present their ideas.

The objective of the course is that we should come out after ten weeks with three fully finished spreads and several roughs, suitable for submission to a picture book art director. I had already chosen my text to illustrate, but Korky also supplied a wide selection of alternatives, some in the public domain and others donated by writers specifically for the course participants.

Each week of the course follows a similar structure. First, we are all encouraged to bring in interesting picture books, which are then displayed to the class and discussed. Here are some of my choices:

As you can see, quite an eclectic selection - I wanted to be varied and explore some titles that weren’t typical picture books.

After the book discussion, we move on to an appreciation of the latest illustration work that the students have produced. Korky looks at our sketches, roughs and finished artwork, commenting on composition, layout and technique. The students are working on a wide range of subjects in several different media, and it’s fascinating to see how their work is progressing. Korky tries to treat the whole exercise like an editorial meeting, giving considered and professional feedback. He does like to draw all over the artwork as he is illustrating a point, but I’m quite protective and don’t like this, even on my roughs! But once I told Korky this, he was happy to draw on a separate sheet of paper instead.

After the editorial feedback, the final part of the class focuses on one of Korky’s own picture books. He has a whole room in his house for his archives, and each week brings in a giant folder containing all of his sketches, roughs and finished artwork for a particular project. It’s very instructive to see how ideas evolve, and Korky is always keen to point out areas that changed due to editorial feedback. Sometimes, an idea that he doodled in an initial meeting becomes the finished article, other times many drafts are needed to make the art director happy. The finished artwork is particularly exquisite - Korky has such finely-detailed penmanship and an incredible watercolour technique that I’m always a bit worried about ruining his paintings. Korky is also amazing at hand lettering - a necessary skill when he worked in advertising in the 1970s.

So far, we’ve looked at the archives for books such as Winnie and Wilbur Meet Santa and Sir Scallywag and the Golden Underpants, pantomime poster artwork for the New Theatre in Oxford, and even a couple of secret projects that I can’t talk about because they haven’t been published yet!

I always ask a lot of questions when I’m taking a course, and this one has been no exception. At times, I’ve wondered if that’s annoying for everyone else, but no-one’s told me to shut up (yet). Korky is always very patient with our queries and happy to explain all aspects of the publishing process.

There isn’t time in class for doing any actual illustration (though Korky did give us a watercolour masterclass one week). So that entails quite a lot of homework to make progress. I’ve settled into a rhythm of writing my YA novel during the week and doing illustration at the weekends. This seems to work well, especially as the larger artwork and materials aren’t particularly portable. I’m also very shy about my illustrations, so doing them in the privacy of my kitchen helps.

My chosen medium for picture book illustration is Windsor and Newton Promarkers. These are alcohol-based markers, which come in a wide range of colours:

They’re also readily available at art shops and even some branches of WH Smith, which makes life easier when one runs out at a vital moment. Promarkers are very similar to Sharpies or the Copic Ciao brand of markers - I love the vibrant highly-saturated colours you get from them. If you read my earlier post, you’ll remember how much I disliked mixing paint colours, so having something in a pre-mixed shade is perfect.

As with any new art technique, there’s been a significant learning curve. Windsor and Newton make special marker paper, with a coating that stops the ink bleeding through. However, as I discovered to my cost, this only works if you use the correct side of the paper! I ruined two carefully-inked pictures because of this, which was a “learning experience” for sure (interesting how "learning experiences" are often accompanied by a lot of swearing!)

I’ve also had problems with bleed from my ink work. To start off, I inked my pencil lines with a black Promarker, then used coloured Promarkers over the top. But although Promarkers are permanent on most surfaces, it turns out that the alcohol in the coloured markers reactivates the black, causing it to run into the lighter colours. I then tried a “waterproof” Faber-Castell Pitt pen, with the same result - waterproof doesn't necessarily mean alcohol-proof kids! Finally, after some research, I discovered that Copic make a special range of alcohol-resistant Multiliner pens, which should save me a lot of Photoshopping.

I’ve learnt a lot about my own creative process during the course. For instance, I’ve discovered that the way I draw is very similar to the way I write - I like to work iteratively. Starting in pencil, I ink the design directly on a lightbox, add colour and finally scan the page for fine-tuning in Photoshop. After Korky has given his feedback, I don’t generally want to redraw the whole thing, so I will return to the pencil work and correct it before inking and colouring again. Working digitally for the final pass makes it much easier to tweak and swap out elements, without going back to square one each time.

I’d never done any figure drawing or character design before I started the course, so it’s been a steep learning curve! I knew I wanted to do something quite cartoony - here I am trying out some designs for my main character, Charlie:

Because of my aphantasia (I lack a visual imagination or “mind’s eye”), I already knew that I was going to have to work from photos wherever possible. Google Image Search turned out to be a lifesaver here - I could literally type in a phrase like “woman wearing sunglasses in profile” and get lots of images to work from. Here are some snapshots from the evolution of one of my drawings, which shows Charlie’s mum having fun at the beach:

  1. My initial sketch. I did this completely out of my head, and you can see the results - poor body position, hands and legs.
  2. Redrew the body, legs and feet, and tidied up the hands. The bikini bottoms are much better here - she looked like she was wearing a nappy before!
  3. Inked the previous pencil drawing and coloured with Promarkers. The results are OK, although I didn’t really get on with the brush pen I was using - some of the lines, especially around the hands, are very thick. Someone on the course also pointed out that Mum wasn’t wearing sunglasses, which is the whole point of the drawing!

  1. Completely redrew Mum’s head by looking at a reference photo rather than trying to make it up. Sunglasses now present and correct.
  2. Re-inked the pencil drawing using Copic SP Multiliner pens. I used a brush pen for most of the lines and a 0.5 fineliner for some of the detail on the hands and face.
  3. The finished artwork, coloured with Promarkers

One thing I’ve struggled with is my pen control, or lack of it. I’ve found brush pens particularly frustrating - I never know how thick or thin a line is going to be until after I’ve drawn it. Fineliners are much more pleasurable and reliable to use, but they lack some of the organic flair of a brush.

Here’s the first finished spread of A Sticky Situation in all its glory:

Click to enlarge

At this scale, it probably isn’t obvious how many weeks of effort I’ve put into this! Hopefully, the following spreads will be a bit easier - in retrospect, having four separate pictures on the first spread of the book was rather ambitious.

The background gradients for sky and sea were produced by blending several Promarkers, which is quite challenging. I composited the backgrounds into the picture digitally, while still preserving a nice organic effect. Several people have mentioned to me that I could be doing all the colouring in Photoshop, but I’m really keen to learn the manual skills first. Also, a lot of digitally-coloured picture books look very glossy and artificial, an effect I’m keen to avoid.

Me and Korky Paul

Generally, I’ve been happy with my progress on the course, even if I won’t have the three finished spreads that were our objective. Whenever I’m getting impatient at my lack of skill, I have to remind myself that I’ve only been drawing for seven months!

After the course finishes, I’m going to take a short break from illustration to work on my observational drawing. I’ve bought a couple of great books on pen & ink drawing and perspective, but haven’t had much chance to try them out. I think some life drawing classes would also help with my figure work. So much still to learn, and a whole YA book to illustrate in the second half of the year. Wish me luck!


P.S. If you're interested in joining Korky Paul's Oxford course, it runs from January to March each year. The 2019 course dates aren't up yet, but they'll be published here later in the year.

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.

Monday, 19 March 2018

How can an author avoid turning into a greasy self-promoter?

By Candy Gourlay


I say that meaningfully. I have been absent from Notes from the Slushpile for some time.


I missed you! But my failure to blog is good news because it means I have managed to resist a constant compulsion to blog. I've had a tough few months of deadlines, and not blogging means that I have been writing.

Candy Gourlay holds up a copy of her picture book Is it a Mermaid?
My first picture book! Can you tell that I'm pleased?
The final edits and tweaks to my very first picture book (with illustrator Francesca Chessa),  Is it a Mermaid?, were finished before Christmas. An advance copy landed in England last month. The rest are on their way in a boat from China, and should be here in time for the 5 April publication date.

I spent the Christmas holidays and the first week of the New Year working on copy-edits to my new novel Bone Talk, the uncorrected proofs of which are this minute bouncing through the letterboxes of reviewers. It will be published in August 2018. Thrilled and terrified at the prospect!

Here I am signing uncorrected proofs (advance copies) to be sent to reviewers.

At David Fickling Books: left, Jasmine Denholm, PR and Rights Assistant and right, Carolyn McGlone, PR Manager

DFB Editor Anthony Hinton going over Bone Talk proofs with a fine tooth comb. 

I also wrote a short story for a small Christmas anthology (I'll tell you about it later this year).

And once I finished with the proofs of Bone Talk, I spent the rest of January and the whole of February writing another book (but I can't talk about it just yet).

After all that ...  I was done. No more writing books for me! (At least until I start working on my next novel in a few weeks time.)

It has been bewildering waking up in the morning and having no book to write. Though I have no shortage of things to do,  the absence of a book project makes me feel like a jigsaw puzzle that is missing a piece.

With two books coming out this year, though, my work is cut out for me. 2018 will be all about promoting my two new books.

I'm not the only one. My Facebook feed is a constant stream of book launch party invitations. All my friends seem to be in book-launching mode! I was about to blog about a Launch To Do list when I spotted that  Natascha Biebow (whose wonderful The Crayon Man, about the invention of the crayon, will be published soon) had already blogged about hers.

Natascha says she is tempted to crawl under a rock rather than promote her new book.

I don't blame her – sometimes, looking at my Facebook feed, it feels like the whole world is out promoting themselves. Promoting is a megaphone and a tinny bellowing in one's ear. All those tweets of 'Buy my book', all those sly posts casually linking to a purchase page. The last thing anybody wants to do is add to the cacophony.

Writing about self promotion many years ago, as publishers began to wake up to the power of the internet and self promotion, I begged readers, be human, be human!

But how does one raise awareness of one's book without coming across as obnoxious?

With my own Year of Promotion looming, it's an issue that nags at me. The trust people used to have in social media is fast declining as we hear stories of fake news and stolen data. In this divisive, embattled climate, coming across as a greasy salesman will not sell any books.

In this divisive, embattled climate, coming across as a greasy salesman will not sell any books.

Perhaps I ought to stop pondering social media tools for a moment. Perhaps it would help if I stepped away from Twitter and Instagram and Facebook and remind myself about what really matters ... the book.

It is easy, in the desperate rush to help your book sell more, to forget what your book is all about. To forget the years you spent writing it, the daily struggle to lay down words, to know your characters, to live their journey on the page.

Remember these things because they are part of your book's story – the story you are going to tell the world. It is story that the world wants, you see. And every tiny element of your campaign – whether it be the biography you post on Amazon, the presentation you craft for your school visits, the pitches you write to get to appear in festivals, the myriad emails you compose to beg the help of friends and influencers, the content you post on Facebook – should be telling that story.

My publisher, David Fickling Books, tries to create a sense of the special by wrapping uncorrected proofs in a paper wrapper printed with the words 'where good stories begin'. The proof becomes more precious somehow. A collector's item. A row of uncorrected proofs (advance copies) on the shelf of my publisher, David Fickling Books. Note that they are numbered with Bone Talk at No. 26

If you can capture that first, honest impulse that led to the creation of your book, if you can convey the powerful drive that sent you on your journey to publication, then your audience will see you as a storyteller, not a self-promoter.

And there's nothing more compelling than a good story.

It was a lovely surprise to find Bone Talk listed in The Bookseller's
100 of the most exciting books published between April 2018 and March 2019. Eek!

On 24 March, Candy Gourlay will be speaking at SCBWI's Picture Books: Discover and Be Discovered seminar where she will be discussing the challenges that confront picture book authors and illustrators in marketing and promoting their work. Her first picture book, with illustrator Francesca Chessa Is it a Mermaid? (Otter-Barry Books), is out in April. Her third novel, Bone Talk (David Fickling Books), will be out in August.

Friday, 2 March 2018

Buy My Book - But Only If You Really Want To.

by Em Lynas

I am so lucky. My first book You Can't Make Me Go To Witch School came out in August 2017, my next book Get Me Out Witch School is out in April 2018 and the third in the series Help! I Am Trapped At Witch School! is out in September 2018. But that's not why I am lucky.

Prior to the launch in August I prepared a Notes From the Slushpile post for You Can't Make Me Go To Witch School but it didn't go live because Jo Wyton wrote a surprise post, a big squishy hug of a post about me and my book baby. 

Then the amazing hat extravaganza began on facebook and twitter thanks to the fabulous George Kirk, Candy Gourlay and many others. I think Paul Morton put them all together.

I really can't thank them and all the other hatted folk enough, you really did get the message out there that the Witch School books are- All About The Hat! 

But I didn't get to post my book launch post so I'm sharing it now because the launch date of book 2 Get Me Out Of Witch School is coming up fast. In light of the awesomeness and madness of the first launch I think it's quite funny. This is what I would have posted.

The Dreaded Book Promotion! by Em Lynas

A long time ago I was persuaded to have a Tupperware party. I was supposed to drum up business, drag friends in off the street and get them to spend money they could probably ill afford. My Tupperware Party pitch went something like this

Er, I'm having a Tupperware Party but you don't have to come if you don't want to.

Every home had one!
Then, for some odd reason, very few friends came. The woman running the party (my best friend's mother) was not pleased and she was not the sort to hide her displeasure well. However, she cheered up when a newly married neighbour ordered a whole pile of stuff. Phew. I ordered a Party Susan out of guilt. It was probably the most expensive item in the catalogue (It stayed at the back of the cupboard until it turned yellow.) So, best friend's mother was placated.

But then the neighbour returned, within minutes of leaving, to cancel most of the items at the behest (great word) of her husband. They couldn't afford them. I told her it was OK, that she didn't have to buy anything if she didn't want to. My best friend's mother was not best pleased, yet again. Honestly, there was no pleasing her at all. I think she went to counselling.

I tell you this to show how bad I am at asking people to part with their money. After all, they could have a cappuccino and a cupcake for the price of my book.

link to lovereading4kids
So, I have been dreading trying to market You Can't Make Me Go To Witch School in case my pitch ended up something like this – Er, I've published a book, but you really don't have to buy it if you don't want to.

I fear this is an attitude that will not generate many sales and is not listed as a recommended technique on any Marketing Degree. But as we've discussed on Notes from the Slushpile in the past it's really difficult to get the balance right between saying, 'Hey! I'm having my book birthday', and 'You MUST buy my book.'

The first, 'Hey! I'm having a book birthday' is exciting. But the second, 'Buy my book' is so bossy and rude and like poking people with a big pointy stick that's been sharpened to be extra pointy and painful.

Then there's the launch party. Everybody has a launch party. So I should have a launch party but – see above - what if it's a repetition of the Food Container Catastrophe? 

What if I create a fantastic flyer to hand out but say, 'Here's a flyer about my new book but you don't have to take it, it is quite heavy and your bag looks full.'

What if I post about the party online but say, 'Come to my book launch. There'll be free wine and nibbles and you really are not under any obligation to buy my book just because you've eaten all of the cupcakes.' 

What if I take copies of my book to the launch venue but hide them under the table at the back. Ready to hand out if anyone should ask what the point of the party is.

What if I have a table in a corner with the books and a notice, 'Please take one and make a donation to the starving author only if you can afford it.'

What if I talk about anything BUT my book to anyone who came.
Things I would be comfortable saying:

How's your mum?
Did the plumber come?
Yes, Jamie Littler's images are amazing! Look at the one of Twink and Jess hugging, they're so sweet.
How was Menorca/Cyprus/Cornwall?
Yes, it's been fabulous working with the Nosy Crow team. 
What did you think of (insert authors name) 's book?
You don't have to stay long, you know. 
Yes, Agent Amber is fabulous, she's been amazing. 
Don't bother buying my book now, you have a drink in one hand and a Toadspit Towers titbit in the other, how could you possibly buy my book now? You're not a juggler. 

Things I would not be comfortable saying:
Anything about my role in the creation of the book. I would mumble thanks if anyone said anything complimentary and change the subject.

So, I thought, 'Maybe I need a book friend. Someone who knows how hard I've worked, someone who knows how long I've taken, someone who understands the suffering, the emotional turmoil, that is the roller coaster journey to becoming a writer.

What an excellent idea! If only I felt comfortable asking – 'Would you like to help promote my book?' I know I would have added the caveat, 'You don't have to.'

Ah well.

The End.

So that was it - my You Can't Make Me Go To Witch School book launch post, but it turns out I didn't have to ask for help to promote my book baby. My friends, my agent, my editor, the team of Nosy Crows were amazing at 'doing it for me'.

Big hugs to all and an enormous THANK YOU!

And, just in case you're interested and have a bit of spare cash that isn't required for cake and coffee, here's a link to the next book.

You can Pre-order from Amazon if you want to.

Or you could get it from a library.
Libraries are good.

Thursday, 22 February 2018

Should you go on a writing retreat? YES

by Teri Terry

Have you ever wanted to go on a writing retreat but weren't sure what you might get out of it? I love writing retreats! Especially the SCBWI variety. But the reasons why have changed over the years.

Back when I was unpublished and unagented, I wasn't sure I could justify the time or expense of a writing retreat...

It took me a year of thinking about it before I finally took the plunge and went to my first SCBWI retreat.

I didn't write at them very much the first few times - in fact, the first one I went to, way back in 2010, I spent all the scheduled writing time reading Jon Mayhew's Mortlock, which I'd brought along for him to sign, and having unscheduled naps and weird Mortlock-related-dreams. This was my very first retreat, and the last one in the midlands; one of the last few ably-organised by the very much missed Sue Hyams.

It still stands out in my mind all these years later: 

1. the sheer joy of being around other creative types for a whole weekend. I started to feel less alone. If other people out there talk to the characters in their heads all the time too, maybe I'm not completely bonkers?

2. a one to one with Lee Weatherly with a ghost story I still may go back to one day: she said my voice was just right for YA!

Lee's latest
3. a talk Lee gave also, where I still remember one of the things she said: that if you've had a full manuscript request somewhere - even if it's a no - it shows you can write; keep going, you'll get there. I'd been in just this position around that time and was feeling down about it, and she made me turn it around and see it for the encouragement that it  was.

4. a picture book talk with Pippa Goodhart! 
I wasn't sure why I was even going - I didn't want to write picture books - but I went along, and I still remember something that she said: that animals are often used in picture books because it makes it less scary than if it were a child. This is something I came back to in other contexts when I was thinking about the appeal of dystopian novels: put something in another world or in the future, and you can look at scary issues in a way that might feel too confronting in our world.

Retreats then moved to Dunford House in West Sussex:
I've been to every one, and even volunteered to organise it myself a few years. The reasons I went changed over time and the years merge together a bit in my brain:
my Dunford Houe library writing buddies in 2011:
Christian Colossi, Jo Wyton, Tina Lemon

1. writing time: more and more I was using the retreat to focus on my work in an intense way that can be hard to do at home with family & work commitments.

2. friends! Writing friends! No one else wants to listen to us agonise over a word or point of view choice or plot point like they will; no one understands the agony of rejection and dusting yourself off again like they do; no one else is quite the same cheer leading section.

3. it made me feel like a writer! Which can be elusive sometimes in those pre-published stages.

Then in 2011 I got a publishing deal, hurrah! Slated was published in 2012. Things were changing ...

Once I was agented and published, I wasn't sure I could justify the time or expense of a writing retreat...

Why go if I don't need one to ones, I'm less interested in going to workshops and talks, and now that I'm writing full time I don't really need the dedicated writing time away?

I kept going. I couldn't not go, somehow.

1. writing time! I still loved having this weekend to focus, away from home/family.

Writing buddies in Dunford House library, 2018
Dunford House
2. writing friends! I think I said it all above: they're the best.

3. Dunford House! more and more it was becoming a place I loved going to every year; an annual ritual; my favourite weekend of the year
Dunford House Conservatory one May

What about solo retreats?
Another point about retreats: I know authors who go away on their own for a week or two to write. This doesn't work for me; I've tried it. I get too morose being on my own 24 hours a day. The SCBWI retreats - also Charlie's residential retreats in beautiful Devon - work for me because I can write all day but have lovely chat with friends at meals and in the evening.

I almost didn't go to the SCBWI retreat this year: 
I've been travelling too much. I've got 
Scooby, the World's Cutest Puppy.
I did miss her dreadfully
some intense deadlines. We have a puppy. Lots of things were falling through the cracks and I didn't register for the retreat: it was sold out. I also didn't plan a book launch for Deception, the second book of my Dark Matter trilogy.

But Dunford House is closing soon so it was the last one there, and I found I couldn't stay away. Someone sadly had to cancel and I got their spot! And then I remembered my very first retreat, and Jon Mayhew bringing along bottles of bubbles after Mortlock was published ...
blurry Jon Mayhew pouring bubbles - back in 2010?
I think it was 2010
... and I had a cunning plan:

A book launch! Prosecco! a writing retreat!! What's not to like?

Prosecco! a glass! no free hands for the book,
but Susan Bain snuck in to help out
Thanks so much to everyone for being there! And thank you to Mel Rogerson and Alexandra English for organising everything so wonderfully. 
Thank you to editor Rosie McIntosh for coming along, and to Dom and Hachette Children's Books for the Prosecco, and to everyone at Dunford House for making this retreat - and my book launch - as memorable as all the others.

And thanks also to Candy Gourlay and Kathy Evans for making the trek, and for the photos!
Books! bookmarks!
from left: Kathy Evans, Nina Wadcock, me, and Candy Gourlay's selfie magic
Editor Rosie McIntosh saying lovely things

So cheers to SCBWI, Dunford House, writing retreats, and writing friends everywhere! 

Thanks to Sue Hyams, for talking me in to going on my first retreat.

the dedication page in Contagion

Please share: writing retreat happenings? things learned? writing retreat successes? haunted rooms? things forgotten/lost? hangovers?

Friday, 16 February 2018

Let's start from the very beginning

by Paula Harrison

Beginnings are hard. I've heard writers talk about how they get lost in the middle of their manuscripts or how they find it hard to finish a story the way they want to. But to me, beginnings are hard... although I still love writing them.

So how do recently-published books in the middle grade age range pull the reader in? I thought we should take a look...

First up - The Girl of Ink and Stars by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

They say the day the Governor arrived, the ravens did too. All the smaller birds flew backwards into the sea, and that is why there are no songbirds on Joya. Only huge, ragged ravens.

Bad omen alert! The symbolism of ravens - those dark, carrion-eating birds - instantly puts us on edge. But more than anything it's the image of the smaller birds flying backwards into the sea that sticks in my mind. Flying backwards is pretty unnatural! This story sets up a sense of foreboding right from the start. The information is told to us second-hand too and this introduces the importance of myths and old tales.

Next let's look at Tin by Padraig Kenny

Snow was falling from the night sky, and all the world was cold and hushed except for the regular metallic squeaking of Jack's joints. Christopher glanced at Jack, but the mechanical looked straight ahead oblivious to the sound.

The poetic feeling of this opening is quickly punctured by the end of the first sentence as the metallic squeaking contrasts with the snowy night-time setting. What is a mechanical? We immediately want to know.

And on to Letters from the Lighthouse by Emma Carroll

We were halfway through the news when the air raid started. It was a Friday in January: we were at the Picture Palace for the 6 p.m. showing of The Mark of Zorro. All month the Luftwaffe had been attacking us, their bombs falling on London like pennies from a jar, 

This book was one of my favourite reads of 2017, partly because it's fantastic and partly because it has a historical setting. I don't write historical myself which means I find it more relaxing to read. This opening has a simple style but that image of the bombs falling like pennies from a jar transports you straight into the mind of the main character and her life in war-time London.

And finally let's look at Wed Wabbit by Lissa Evans

It was such an ordinary evening, but every detail of it would matter; every detail would become vital.
This story had me at hello! My goodness - WHY would every detail become vital? I haven't finished this book yet so no spoilers please, but I had to add this book to my TBR pile after that. Also I love the voice of the main character and how you can tell that she's a young person from the slightly melodramatic way she's expressing herself.

All of these beginnings are authors absolutely in control of their material. We all know why beginnings are so important. Children can easily put a book down if they lose interest in the early pages. A well-crafted opening is a beautiful thing... then you just have to make the rest of the book as good!

Paula Harrison is the author of 5 middle grade novels and 22 young series books, and if you buy them you are welcome to analyse their openings! 

Friday, 9 February 2018

Love Thine Editor by Kathryn Evans

If you dream of being a published author you probably dream of being a published author.  There will be  a particular dream that motivates and inspires you.

I’d hazard a guess it’s one of these:
  • Seeing your book in a reader’s hands.
  • Seeing your book on a library shelf
  • Getting a big fat advance
  • Celebrating at a jubilant launch party
  • Holding your published book in you hands for the first time
  • Getting your first fan letter
  • Being nominated for the Carnegie medal

Am I right? Thought so. How do I know? Because I dreamed them all before More of Me was published,  and one more. One that topped my list. One that is still the single most thrilling and rewarding of the lot.

I wanted an editor. A bonafide, professional editor who would help me craft my book into something more.

My fabulous editor Sarah Stewart and me making a stupid crying face because she made my book better than I ever could on my own.

For an author, there is no greater gift than this. Your editor will love your book - they had to in order to pitch it to sales and marketing and get it through acquisitions. But they will see its faults. They will see where the pace drops, or the characterisation flags. They will see where your story is muddled, or where your have lost sight of the heart of what you’re trying to say.

They will go through your work, intimately, and gently tell you all the places you need to make it better. They probably won’t tell you how to make it better, but they will let you bounce ideas off them until you come up with an improvement. 

As a writer, what more could you ask for than someone as committed as you to making your book the best it can be?

I recently had my first editorial meeting for a Secret Project.  I got so excited at the new ideas it generated that the boss asked me to keep the noise down. Through a partition wall. I know, mildly embarrassing. But the book is going to be SO MUCH BETTER. Of course I got excited.

It does now mean I have a major rewrite on a moderately tight deadline but what a gift. I’m 14% in to the changes , I have direction and enthusiasm and a belief in the new book that only comes from the endorsement of people you trust seeing what you see. Potential.

If you get given this chance, embrace it. You will learn so much if you let go a little:
  • Don’t be too precious about your beautiful words - there might be better words. 
  • Don’t hang on too tight to characters you adore who just aren’t needed in this story - park them up for another story - maybe their own story if they’re that good. 
  • Remember you are not best placed to see where your story lacks ‘something’ , you know it inside out and may be mentally filling in blanks that the reader can’t see.

Be grateful that someone else wants to help make your story great. Love your editor like they love your story.  Remember, they’re pulling it apart for one reason only: so you can rebuild it. Better.

 Kathryn Evans is the award winning author of More of MeA gripping thriller with a sinister sci-fi edge, exploring family, identity and sacrifice. Find her  on Facebook and Instagram @kathrynevansauthor and tweeting @KathrynEvansInk. 

Friday, 26 January 2018

Drawing While Terrified

By Nick Cross

Click any photo to enlarge it

In last year’s blog post Coming Out, I revealed the fact that I wanted to upgrade myself from writer to writer/illustrator. Amazingly (to me anyway), it’s been six months since I posted that, so I thought I’d give you an update on my progress.

The title of this post describes my state of mind through much of the last half year when it came time to pick up a pencil or paintbrush. But I’m pleased to report that the terror has mostly subsided. When I sat down last weekend to create the hand-drawn parts of the image that headlines this post, I even managed to enjoy the process.

This enjoyment is either despite or because of the trial-by-fire that was the Beginners’ Drawing and Painting evening course I joined in September last year, which sped through various disciplines so fast that I almost got whiplash.

We began with gouache painting, which wasn’t an ideal starting point for a complete novice like me. In fact, everyone who I’ve mentioned this to has said “Why didn’t you start with basic drawing skills?” And truthfully, I have no idea - that was just the way the art teacher liked to do it.

To be fair, we did begin with a drawing, a big sketchy sketch on A2 paper to get the composition right. Knowing my control freak ways, I tried to be all loose and expressive with this and it actually didn’t look too bad. Then we started painting over the top, which is where I started to come unstuck. I’d never realised how HARD it is to mix paint. It feels like constantly chasing an impossible goal, adding first one colour, then another, then yet another. And then, once you’ve finally attained a rough approximation of the colour you want, it runs out halfway through the painting and you can’t remember how to mix it again!

The teacher had advised us that we could buy an expensive set of gouache paints costing £25, or go for something cheaper. I bought a Daler-Rowney set for a tenner, and sadly, it was rubbish. The paints came out of the tube all blobby (making them even harder to mix) and the coverage of my paint on the paper was a lot poorer than the other students. This was my first lesson in the quality of art materials - although two tubes of paint may look exactly the same, there’s a genuine reason why one costs twice as much as the other.

I also got tripped up by the quality of my initial sketch. Although it was impressively loose, there wasn’t enough detail in places to do justice to the subject. This is another big lesson for me - I’m not great at freestyling yet, so my finished picture is only ever going to be as good as my underlying pencil drawing.

OK, enough caveats - here is my finished gouache painting:

That strange brown thing behind the vase is a basket, BTW...

Next up was a tonal pencil drawing, and the one part of the course I really enjoyed. I had looked for an art course that was for drawing only, but had struggled to find one in my local area that wasn’t at 2pm on a weekday afternoon (for retired people, I assume). Although I found pencil drawing a real technical challenge, at least there was no colour mixing involved! Cross-hatching and shading were two concepts I was very aware of, and very aware that I didn’t know how to do them. There was a magical moment in the second week when everything just clicked and I could suddenly see (and reproduce) tonal range.

The drawing was another A2 composition, which meant a lot of paper to cover and a lot of graphite to accidentally drag the heel of your hand through. I’m very detail-oriented, so working at A3 is probably a better size for me. The teacher insisted on putting another blimmin basket in the still life, though I managed to render it rather better than last time. Overall, I’m very pleased with the finished result:

This used a range of pencil grades from HB to 4B. Another lesson I learnt (albeit one I should remember from primary school) was that pencils can be difficult to make really sharp without breaking the lead. If you’re not careful, you can quickly end up with just a stub! To avoid this problem, I’ve started using a mechanical pencil with 2B leads for most of my sketching.

The final task of the term was executed in an unusual hybrid of white gouache plus pen and ink. When asked what the style was called, the teacher replied “Oh, I don’t know. I just made it up.” This was typical of her somewhat “artistic” approach to the class. Rather than show us how to do a particular technique, she liked to throw us in at the deep end and see what we produced. As a total novice, I would have preferred more structured guidance, and found that I was constantly behind everyone else, struggling to catch up. I also found the two and a half hour session much too long to maintain such an intense level of concentration. When I’m working at home, the length of an album (around 45 minutes) is about the right amount of time to spend before I take a break.

We were using a dip pen and various coloured inks, which caused technical problems because of the variable quality of the nibs and the viscosity of some inks. Although it’s an expressive medium that allows variation in line width, working in pen and ink did make me yearn for some nice black fineliners. The subject was yet another still life - by this point, I was a bit bloody fed up of these!

The finished result remains, um, unfinished, because we ran out of time. And I’ve not yet felt motivated to buy inks and a dip pen to finish it:

Overall, my experience on the first term of the course was mixed. Although I made a lot of progress, it was not a pleasurable experience - I felt anxious and out of my depth most of the time. Just the fact that I didn’t bolt from the room screaming was an achievement. I learnt that I need space and time to do my best work, drawing little and often rather than trying to get everything done in a hurry.

This A3 drawing of a Star Wars X-wing is something that wouldn’t have been out of place on twelve-year-old me’s bedroom wall, if I’d been able to actually draw at that age. It’s also the first independent project I completed after the course ended. I think it's safe to say that I'm no longer a stranger to cross hatching!

No dip pens here, just an excuse to use the pack of various width fineliners that called to me from the shelf at WH Smith. Indeed, I’ve had the opportunity to amass a lot of art materials over the past half year. My previous marker pen obsession has grown to epic proportions, as this photo demonstrates:

As a writer, I have never been into exciting stationery, preferring a plain A6 notebook and a Bic biro. Clearly, the illustrator side of my personality is very different!

Finally, a quick progress check. At last year’s SCBWI Picture Book Retreat, we were given a postcard and asked to list our three goals for the forthcoming year. Here are mine:

1) Getting there. Thanks to this goal, I’ve set a target of the end of June to complete the manuscript.

2) Big tick. Some weeks recently, I have been drawing every day!

3) Eurgh - wish I hadn’t set this one. I look on Instagram and I think - “Why am I bothering when everyone is so much better than me?” and “Do they really have to use that many hashtags?” Expect me to join Instagram very quietly the day before this year’s Picture Book retreat.

So what’s next? Well, despite my nerves, I went to the SCBWI illustrators’ meet-up in London this week and had a good time (thanks to Louise Gilbert for organising that). As you’ve probably gathered, I haven’t returned for the second term of the evening class. Instead, I’ve signed up for an even bigger challenge: a course in picture book illustration with superstar illustrator Korky Paul! But more on that in a future post...


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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