Friday 18 January 2019

What Makes a Writer? Busting Myths About Authors ( or not)

Recently Piers Torday, winner of the Guardian Prize for Children's Fiction, made a shock confession on twitter.

He Doesn't Have A Note Book Obsession.

Or even a notebook.

What?? Piers Torday, writer extraordinaire?

What other well-established  myths about writers just aren't true?  Myth by myth, we shall discover the truth through the power of Twitter. I asked fellow writers a series of questions and received nearly a thousand responses - quite astonishing really and proof that number two is beyond question despite the only 71% who owned up.

1. All writers are stationary addicts:

 81% said 'gimme all the notebooks' but very many of that 81% said that they also use technology, such as their phone, to take notes. I fall into that category. I'd love to be a tidy writer who starts a new notebook for every new book but basically, I scrawl notes in one giant notebook but  I use Siri a lot  - especially when I'm driving - I might accidentally write a novel one day called "Hey Siri, take a note..."

Kathryn Evans and her book of scrawl.

2. Born procrastinators, writers spend 90% of their day on social media:

Only 71% of writers confessed to being procrastinators with the remaining 29% split between those who were pretty disciplined and those who had to be disciplined because writing pays the rent.

The figures say one thing but the evidence says another. I genuinely thought I'd blogged about this already but it turns out, I started two posts on the subject and never finished them because I got distracted...YOU SEE, this is evidence based science happening RIGHT here. Also some actual tips to stop procrastinating:

1. Writing a novel means WRITING a novel. Lower your sights,  it's not going to be brilliant first draft. But it's not going to be anything if it's no draft at all.
Get it writ then get it right.
Said someone way cleverer than me.

2. Use an app to help you focus - like Forest.

It costs 1.99 but you can find free versions. You plant a tree and as long as you're working, it'll grow. If you switch off the app you will kill the tree and then you'll be an:
who hasn't got any work done.

3. Writers are social hermits whose greatest desire is to have a writing shed:

Image result for writing shed

56% of respondents needed peace to write with 19% wanting their own writing shed. I was surprised at how low that number was  and at the 44% who could write anywhere with 11% actually preferring to be out. I should have asked if they were going to coffee shops...
But look, the truth is,  we can't all have our own writing shed. You write where you can and when you can - but nothing can stop you dreaming so have a little read of this lovely Book Trust post . After you've done your work.

4. It is impossible to write without caffeine:

MYTH BUSTED 44% said they didn't need coffee to power their work and of the remaining 56%, 24% were tea drinkers.

I can't even function without tea though so who these weird people are, I've no idea.

Never far from a cuppa

5. Bad grammar makes us shudder.

This was true for 66% - of the remaining 32%, half pleaded a seventies state school education  which left a generation of adults unable to position an apostrophe, including me. Fortunately, Philip Ardagh  is like a Facebook Grammar Vigilante. A combination of humilation and practical advice led me to a copy of Strunk and Whites Elements of Style sorted me out. I still add in random apostrophe's ( ;) ) just to annoy him but at least I sort of know what I'm doing now.

jacket, The Elements of Style

6.Writers block is real

56% of people agreed with this. I'm not sure I do but I do get stuck. A lot. I walk it off. Take the thoughts out and walk and walk until you've resolved your plot issue or until you've got a scene that will start your novel. Sometimes it take a long time. That's not writers block, that's process. Try and trust it.
Thinking is work for us, it's not all about words on the page.


Turns out writers are a mixed bunch, so do whatever works for you. We're all different,  a bit like people really. Imagine.

 Kathryn Evans is the award winning author of More of Me. Her new book, Beauty Sleep, is out in April 2019.  Kathryn loves faffing about on social media: find her  on Facebook and Instagram @kathrynevansauthor and tweeting @KathrynEvansInk.  

Friday 11 January 2019

Making the Most of an Opportunity

By Candy Gourlay

Amazingly, my novel Bone Talk was shortlisted for this year's children's Costa Book Award.

Unfortunately (for me) the other three shortlisted titles –– The Skylarks' War by Hilary McKay, Orphan Monster Spy by Matt Killeen and The Colour of the Sun by David Almond – were pretty magnificent books. The winner, announced last Monday, was the uber-talented Hilary McKay.

On the night, my daughter cheered me up by awarding me with her own version of the Costa. And then we watched laughing baby videos for the rest of the evening.

To be honest, when the shortlist was announced. I was under no illusion about the possible outcome.

But there was no time to waste.

The shortlisting had created an opportunity. There would be more people paying attention to my book – many of whom would not have heard of me before. How was I going to make the most of the time between the announcement of the shortlist (in November) and the winner (in January)?

Opportunities happen all the time in this job. Tiny opportunities that are the building blocks of a platform. I'm not just talking short-listings and prizes. Opportunity also comes in small packages: completing a manuscript, learning a skill, attending a conference, the launch of a book, a positive review.

How do you make the most of your opportunities?

Don't Wait.

I suppose I could have waited until the winner was announced. But the shortlisting was THE opportunity. The winning might never happen (and it didn't). So whatever I decided to do, I needed to do it right away. No putting it off.

We all procrastinate, don't we? I can build that website later, post those photos later, work on those resources another day.

As a former journalist, I am keenly aware of the ephemerality of the news. Something in a blaze of attention today can turn cold and forgotten overnight.

Making the most of an opportunity means doing something while people are still paying attention. They're still receptive, still ready to share your good news. If you get the timing wrong, it will be too late. And you'll never get that white hot moment back.

Reach out to True Believers.

Like many authors, I am my own one-person marketing department. One thing I've learned is you just don't have time to go door-to-door, selling your goods to every individual you meet. Most people don't get this, hence the many invites to do free events because "it's good publicity!". Random targeting is a waste of time better spent writing another book.

Don't go door-to-door, go find True Believers. True believers, in marketing parlance, are people who are already interested in what you have to give. They want to know about you, and they will talk about you to their friends, who are likely to have the same interests. I quoted Seth Godin in a recent piece over on my author blog:

"You put an idea in the world. Not to everyone in the world, just to people who want to hear it. And then maybe it spreads. And if it spreads it grows. And if it grows you get to do it again ... The goal is to go the people who care. To invite them in and to tell them something they didn't know before ... Not with a grand opening but with a whisper. Here, I made this. That's our work."

I've discovered over the years that the people who really make a difference to my book getting read were not the individual punters I met at a festival, nor even the child readers who write me fan mail ... not even my large family in Manila, who have been known to create shortages of my titles by buying up all the stock in local bookstores. The people who make word of mouth happen about books are the children's librarians who champion books and put them into the hands of readers they know will love them. After librarians are the literacy advocates. And then maybe teachers.

Realising this, the challenge is: how do I connect with the people who want to hear about my ideas? Perhaps learning about them is a start, getting to know what makes them tick. This will give me the wherewithal to create work that truly matters to them – carefully considered essays, videos, etc –  rather than just fly-by sound bytes.

Make something that will last.

Yes, social media has made it easy to be our own marketing departments. But beware, the scrolling news feed and the disappearing Instagram story are only good for the moment.

Twitter and Facebook are superhighways that don't stop moving. It's all about reach, but not necessarily about engagement.

To make the most of an opportunity, you need to create things that have lasting value – something that adds to the sum of your public profile, ideas you will be building on, something that you and your audience will learn from, something that readers will continue to discover over time.

It might be a well-written essay filled with nuggets of wisdom that people are always searching for. It might be a How To video that anyone in search of guidance might access. It might be a podcast that can be shared and revisited over and over again.

My years of blogging on Notes from the Slushpile, for example, have made me a better author. They gave me a chance to reflect on the issues of publishing – and thinking is never wasted time. They had the incremental effect of helping me formulate opinions and ideas that I continue to refer to in my writings and presentations. More currently, I find that my writing on blogs and other platforms, has been helping me learn about diversity, cultural appropriation and other issues that, as an author of colour, I am frequently invited to comment on.

For the Costa shortlisting, it was important, I thought, to create something that would outlive the Costa buzz. Something for the immediate audience here in the UK, who are already familiar with the Costa. And something for the audience back home in the Philippines, who do not know about the Costa but who would be so pleased that a home-grown Pinoy was up for the award.

So I recruited the assistance of a couple of videogenic friends – fellow author Sarah Towle and Pinoy artist/editor/writer pal Joy Watford – to create interview videos about Bone Talk.  We made two – one in English, with Sarah, for British readers, and the other, with Joy, in Taglish (Tagalog and English) for Filipino readers.

Filming a Taglish interview with my friend, Joy Watford. We filmed it using the selfie camera of my Android phone  attached to dual lavalier microphones. As you can see, we forgot to tidy the book case behind us.

They were not short videos so I published them on my YouTube channel, which is a platform where people take more time to watch longer form stuff (unlike Facebook and Twitter where a minute is a long time, and people zoom through videos,  often not even bothering to turn up the sound).

The videos are not for casual passers by. I made them for people who are prepared to make the time to watch – maybe someone who's read and loved my book, a teacher who would like to teach it, a librarian who wants to know more so that she can share it with more readers, a bookseller who would like to hand-sell the book.

I'm not expecting masses of traffic. And I'm not hoping for an instant spike in views either. I'm happy for people to discover the videos over time.

"The goal," Seth Godin said, "is to go to people who care." I know this is going to be a quality audience.

Make it matter.

We authors do so much for scrolling newsfeeds. Partly because it's compulsive. You can't help yourself when you feel the the newsfeed's siren call. We pretend that it's work, that it's all in aid of the author platform our publishers expect us to have. But deep down, we know our posts are destined to be forgotten. The social media superhighway moves too quickly and too many people are on the highway already.

So how do we make an impact on social media?

How do we make what we do matter?

Slowing down is one way. Posting less, and leaving your posts there for enough time to be found, to gather attention.

Another way is by being more selective about what you share and when you share it. The less dross you post, the more people take you seriously and want to see what you have to say.

It also means taking the time to put your post into context, so that it's value is clear to the audience. Why am I sharing this? What does it mean to me and my books? Why should it be of value to you?

For the past few years, I have favoured Facebook and Twitter, neglecting my websites and blogs for the ease of microblogging and the instant gratification of the scrolling newsfeed.

But now I want to invest effort into making things that last,  that continue to be relevant beyond the spark that led to its creation. This year, I'm going to test this by using platforms that aren't ephemeral: platforms that won't scroll away and disappear.

I'm ready for a change.

I'm ready to make the most of every opportunity.

I'm ready to make it matter.

Candy Gourlay is leaving Facebook. Read why here and here. Please stay in touch via Instagram, Twitter and via her website

Friday 4 January 2019

And so it begins ... Our Notes for You in 2019

There's no denying that every year is a roller coaster, and for every glowing review, there is always a crushing rejection. Published or not, the struggle goes on. And we all know that next year is not going to be any different. But we are Slushpilers and the one thing we must do is keep on keeping on.

So here we are in reverse alphabetical order, digging deep for some wisdom to share:


The author is on the right.

Teri Terry fans spent 2017 in the grip of her new thriller, Contagion, and then were rewarded with more tension with the publication of the second and third in the series, Deception and Evolution. A prequel to Teri's breakthrough novel Slated will be published in 2019: Fated.

All achieved while tending to the cutest cockapoo in the world.

Her fellow bloggers on Notes from the Slushpile are amazed that Teri has yet to use the perfect title based on her output: RELENTLESS. Congratulations, Teri!

Teri's advice for 2019:

It’s important to say yes sometimes, but even more important to get in the odd no: the trick is working out which is appropriate at a given moment. I’m still working on that.


In 2018, Em Lynas cheered up the world with two books Get Me Out of Witch School! and Help, I'm Trapped At Witch School!, published by Nosy Crow.

"I've loved doing my school visits and one of the biggest thrills has been seeing kids dressing up as Daisy Wart. Plus getting positive mail from kids and parents. And I joined @bookpenpals run by the fabulous Kate Scott and Sara O'Connor. And this year I'm working on a completely different magical feast which is a total secret to everyone (including me on some days)."

This is Em's thinking face.

Imagine your audience and ask: What do they want from you? What are you able to give them? Which emotion do you want to leave them with? How scared do you want them to be? Is that age appropriate? Is there something of 'them' in your story? What will they relate to? Will they bond with your characters? Why? Is the plot age appropriate? Will the story help them understand something about themselves? Will it make them think/create/play? Will your story stay with them? Why?


In 2018, Paula Harrison's thirteenth and fourteenth Rescue Princess books dazzled the shops – The Enchanted Ruby and The Star Bracelet. In 2019, she will be launching two new series for young readers. The first will launch this spring and the second in the autumn. She is currently working on a novel for middle grade readers with a great deal of mystery, enchantment and severe weather.

At SCBWI's yearly fancy dress party: Paula as a Unicorn. Kathy as a tardis. Typical.

Says Paula: "My one tip that's helped me as a writer in 2018 is...
Always expect the unexpected! Be open to new directions both in your story and in your writing journey. Change will come whether we're ready or not and it can really boost your creativity.

"... actually that sounds way too peppy ... Can I replace it with: Drink wine and take long naps. Your manuscript always reads better after one or the other."

(Fact check: Paula doesn't actually drink wine. So just take naps.)


Candy Gourlay had a banner 2018 with two books published, a novel, Bone Talk, and her first picture book, Is It a Mermaid?  Says Candy: "The best thing about 2018 was that with a picture book, I am at last being invited to speak to little people – and I LOVE IT!"

Here is Candy early in 2018, visiting a Kindergarten class in North London Collegiate School in Jeju, South Korea. After she finished reading to them, she asked, 'What shall we do now?' The boy in the middle shouted: "Let's be DINOSAURS!"

"With two books out, 2018 was a year of saying YES to everything, and I have to confess despite all the smiling selfies, it really took its toll.

Though I know I'm not going to slow down in 2019, I have decided to leave Facebook, which has been the core of my public life for many years (I explain why I'm leaving here and here). Apart from ethical concerns, I hope departing from its disposable, micro-blogging superhighway will make me creative in a more meaningful and lasting way. So that's my tip:
Whatever you do in 2019, MAKE IT MATTER.


In the summer of 2019, Addy Farmer published her fourth picture book, the sweetest rhyming space adventure you will read this year, A Place Called Home. What's on for 2019? "I'm working on an exciting project with a theatre, going picture-book mad and hoping for an agent to love my mid-grade novel enough to take it on."

... and here's Addy battling 92mph winds on the story mountain!

Top tip?
Make sure your story is well structured which may sound obvious but it's taken me some time to truly get to grips with plotting. After that, have a thematic backbone which you can always refer to and make sure that you're on track.


Rose among weevils or (according to them) Five Go Wild at Broughton Hall: Kathy poses with strange authors at the Broughton Hall Literary Festival. Left to right: Jamie Thomson, AF Harrold, Kathy, Ciaran Murtagh and Sam Gayton

For Kathryn Evans, 2018 was all about editing, events and sitting on news she’s still not allowed to talk about! In 2019  Beauty Sleep will be published, there are lots more events already scheduled and – fingers crossed – she can finally let the secrets out!

Kathy's top tip:

When you read over your work and a line sticks out , or a plot line hiccups, or your character is out of character, don’t ignore it. Something is wrong and you need to fix it, your instinct will probably be right so listen to it. If you’ve noticed it, so will other people, it’s not going to disappear. Put it right or It’ll bug you forever!

Nick Cross

Like the other Slushies, Nick Cross had a busy 2018. So busy! He wrote a YA novel, learnt to be an illustrator and designer, got to grips with lots of new software and even took a course in improv drama.

Nick's marker pen obsession grew to epic proportions in 2018

Somehow, he also managed to hold down a day job amongst all the creative madness, and his tech wizardry helped to launch dictionary websites for six languages he doesn't even speak: Greek, Quechua, Tajik, Telugu, Tok Pisin and Turkmen. But since millions of people worldwide do speak these languages, he's totally fine with that.

Photo by Marie Basting

To cap off a whirlwind year, Nick surprised everyone by bringing his illustrated YA novel Riot Boyyy to life for The Hook at the SCBWI-BI conference (read lots more about that here). What can he do in 2019 to top that? He's not sure, but he's damn well going to try!

Nick's top tip:
Write what you love. That may sound totally obvious, but for years I wrote what I thought would sell, and then none of it did. My new novel Riot Boyyy may not get traditionally published either, but at least I've made something awesome that I wholeheartedly believe in.

A happy, creative, productive if not painless 2019 to one and all! (And well done, congratulations and chocolates to the Slushpile team for another hardworking year!)

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