Friday 31 May 2019

The Writer's 4 Stages of Learning

by Em Lynas
I'm a big fan of the Four Stages of Learning and I apply them to EVERYTHING, Life, Learning, Writing etc. 

They keep me on track, stop any feelings of being overwhelmed, help me keep a balance between the intensity of learning new skills and relaxing with old skills. I've talked about them before on the Slushpile but for those who have never heard of them, here they are:

Stage One
Unconscious Incompetence

I don't know what I don't know but I am going to... Write a book/learn to drive/start a relationship/take up skydiving etc

Stage Two
Conscious Incompetence.

I have had a reality check and I am learning what I don't know (which is taking much longer than I expected) so that I can... Write a book/learn to drive/start a relationship/take up skydiving etc

Stage Three
Conscious Competence

I know what I need to know and now I am going to practise applying it so that I can... Write a book/learn to drive/start a relationship/take up skydiving etc

Stage Four
Unconscious Competence.

At this stage I may have the impression that I'm an expert. I've reached the top of the learning curve and embedded the learning so I can... Write a book/learn to drive/start a relationship/take up skydiving etc
When I began writing I was obviously at Stage One. I had no idea what I needed to learn (lots). I also had no idea where to go for help. (SCBWI BI). I had no idea how steep (or how long) the learning curve was going to be but I went through the stages and, eventually, published a series of books with Nosy Crow.

So now I am at the beginning again. Writing a brand new thrill a minute, surprise a second, series. And I started thinking about the Four Stages and where I was with this new work because I feel I am right back down at Unconscious Incompetence in everything.

But that can't be right. I'm an author. I can write. I have proof! Look!

So, I've made a list to get a sense of perspective and hopefully a bit of confidence in the new stuff.

Things I am Unconsciously Incompetent at:

  • This new plot.
  • This Story.
  • Who the characters are.
  • Their motivations.
  • Their voices.
I still don't know what I don't know but as the story develops I will discover this and need to research the things I don't know such as the world I set my book in. Currently reading:

So there's a clue as to what's coming next, hopefully.

Things I am Consciously Incompetent at:

Writing the synopsis
Urgh! Yuck! Please no. Don't make me do it!

Verbally pitching
I recently attempted a verbal pitch to my agent, Amber Caraveo.
Me: blah blah blah
Agent Amber: Er ? Er.
Me: I'll write it down and send it.
Agent Amber: I think that's best.

The marketability triangle.

Nailing age group plus length plus subject matter is easier said than done and there are lots of rules about different lengths re- chapter books and middle grade books.

Time management.

  • Should I have a daily word counts and stick to it?
  • Should I have a time slot and stick to it?
  • Should I sit in the sunshine with my 'thinking face' on and tell everyone - this is WORK people - WORK!

I can't get the hang of formatting when compiling and switching to Word. The width doesn't match and the text disappears off the right hand side.

Ignoring the REAL BIG WORLD that is going crazy at the moment. I struggle to hide in my story away from the harm that is being done to the world.

Things I am Consciously Competent at:

Plotting using plotting cards.


  • Using the Hero's Journey as a base and (hopefully) disguising it.
  • Kicking the protagonist into Act 2.
  • Escalating the plot and story
  • Planning from the midpoint.
  • Kicking the protagonist into Act 3


  • Creating personalities.
  • Creating relationships.
  • Using idiolect.

I may be weird but I love writing the short pitch.
Em wants to write a book but her incompetence gets in the way. Can she crawl up the learning curve in time to meet the deadline? Of course she can!

Things I am Unconsciously Competent at:

The tools of the trade

  • Grammar
  • Punctuation.
  • Syntax

Analysis: I LOVE analysing mentor texts looking for:

  • Structure
  • Voice.
  • Characterisation.
  • Openings
  • Endings
  • Midpoints
Editing: I LOVE editing.

  • The big edit for structure.
  • The big edit for consistency of character and motivation.
  • The close edit for clarification.
  • Then the proof-reading - picking up those little things like - Twink Toadspit has six brothers and I've listed seven! That was a close call.

It's been a huge learning curve but luckily it was one step at a time over a few years so now I know, among lots of other stuff:

  • The norm for submitting
    • Font - Arial or Times New Roman, 12 p double spaced.
    • Layout - Don't indent first paragraph, indent the rest at .5cm
    • Write THE END so agent/editor knows for certain - that's it.
  • To BACK UP!
    • Whether that's on Dropbox, Google Drive, OneDrive, Memory Stick (Beware -some can deteriorate), emailing to myself, printing off.
  • How to create a website and blog.

So - are we always In Stage One: Unconscious Incompetence?
I think so. I'm published but I still devour the How To Books, I go to kidlit conferences, I sign up for courses, I attend critique groups.


Because I still don't know what I don't know and the authors, course leaders, conference keynotes, fellow critiquers might know what I don't know and the great thing about Kidlit authors is they will share what they DO know. Then I'll know it too. What a fabulous profession to be in.

Em Lynas is the author of The Witch School Series staring Daisy Wart aka Twinkle Toadspit and published by Nosy Crow.

*Reference from Wikipedia
Management trainer Martin M. Broadwell described the model as "the four levels of teaching" in February 1969.[1] Paul R. Curtiss and Phillip W. Warren mentioned the model in their 1973 book The Dynamics of Life Skills Coaching.[2] The model was used at Gordon Training International by its employee Noel Burch in the 1970s; there it was called the "four stages for learning any new skill".[3] Later the model was frequently (but incorrectly) attributed to Abraham Maslow, although the model does not appear in his major works.[4]

Friday 24 May 2019

Further Adventures in Illustration

By Nick Cross

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

It’s been a whole year since I last shared my experiences as a budding illustrator, so I thought it was high time to inflict more of my art on you give you an update.

The submission process for my illustrated YA novel has been taking its toll (see my previous post for more about that), and my writing has been on hiatus recently. To the extent that I’ve started to dread that question you get asked at writing events: “So, what are you working on?” Anyway, to compensate, I’ve been devoting more time to my art and illustration work.

Since I started illustrating two years ago, I’ve found my slow progress frustrating. A reasonable person might say it takes time, effort and patience to learn a new skill, but clearly I am not that person. As a type A perfectionist who is starting to feel the sands of time running out, I want instant results and I want them now! This intolerance for imperfection is, frankly, not helpful when trying to learn a complex new skill.

Do I enjoy drawing? Sometimes, although I still find it very difficult. I remember a long period of writing where I couldn’t make the words on the page come out how I wanted them to, and drawing has been the same. Except with drawing, I felt extra pressure because someone else could look at the source photo and see just how far my representation had fallen short.

Because I wasn’t enjoying drawing, I also wasn’t doing the one thing that everyone recommends, which is to draw every day. I would draw half-heartedly occasionally but never with a consistent goal. It occurred to me that working in Oxford, I had all these fabulous museums on my doorstep, including the Ashmolean, Natural History and Pitt Rivers. I resolved to take my pen and sketchbook, and spend a couple of lunchtimes every week drawing stuff.

There were pros and cons to this approach. On the plus side, there are lots of things to draw - you can pretty much wander into the Ashmolean and find something totally new every time. On the minus side, there are a lot of visitors and tours - I would regularly look up from my sketchbook to find a group of people blocking my view! But I did learn some important things about my method. Take these drawings of the same statue as an example:

The sketch on the left was something I did very rapidly, just as a warm up. I found that once I had got some of the perfectionist anxiety out of my system, I could concentrate on really “seeing” the subject. The sketch on the right (though the proportions are a bit iffy) reflects that enhanced concentration.

Although I went museum sketching for a couple of months, the very public nature of the process started to grate on me. I’m intensely protective of my creative process, and didn’t like the fact that people could watch me as I worked. Rather than use it as an excuse to show off, I became intensely paranoid and my work started to suffer. It was time to pivot again - I started booking empty conference rooms at work during the quiet lunchtime period, and working in seclusion.

This worked a lot better for me, removing prying eyes and the pressure of working quickly. I decided to stay with similar subject matter, selecting photos of Greek and Roman statues to draw from. Here are a couple of my sketches:

I was much happier with these, though at the end of the hour, the desk was always covered with grey crumbs from rubbing out. However, I read a recent interview with the late, great, Judith Kerr where she said (after a very long career as an illustrator) that she still rubbed out more than she actually drew. So maybe I’m not such a weirdo after all.

I started to realise that I wasn’t interested in landscapes or architecture like I'd thought - I wanted to draw people! My wife and I were watching the Sky TV show Portrait Artist of the Year, and I was encouraged by the contestants who used gridding to transfer the dimensions of a subject’s face onto the canvas. I decided to attempt a portrait (something I had previously thought way beyond my skill level) with a grid built using a helpful online tool. The photo itself was something I found on Unsplash, which is a copyright free image site:

I found using the grid to be a revelation! By reducing the size of the problem, it allowed me to concentrate on just what was happening inside each square. Any preconceptions I had about the shape of a person’s face could be safely ignored - I just had to draw what was in front of me. Once the pencil sketch was done, I wanted to shade it using fineliners, but it was clear from my tests that it would take a long time. So I opted for Winsor and Newton ProMarkers, which I had used for my earlier illustration work. Here’s the result:

It’s good, right? I was a bit amazed when I finished it to be honest! It was the first time that the lines on the page actually seemed to match the photo.

For my next drawing, I resolved to do a bit of fan art, based on the noughties TV show Veronica Mars, which we were rewatching. Kristen Bell is totally awesome in that show, and it was fun to try to capture her likeness. With the gridded pencil sketch done, I made a photocopy to try out different ProMarker colour choices:

I’d recently bought some Bristol Board to try out, so I used it for the finished picture. As well as being fairly expensive, It’s also quite shiny, but the alcohol-based ProMarkers work on practically any surface. The best thing about Bristol Board is how easy it is to rub stuff out! Despite the cost, I may have found my perfect medium.

I was less satisfied with this final artwork than my earlier portrait of the butterfly guy. Although the likeness is recognisable, something about the face just isn’t quite right, though I couldn’t tell you exactly what! It’s definitely much harder to draw someone whose face you’re very familiar with. I also had a lot of trouble with the blonde hair - in retrospect the black hair of the previous subject was very straightforward.

I did start a third portrait, but had to put it to one side because I wanted to tackle the optional task for a recent SCBWI illustration masterclass called The Wonderful World of Non-fiction Illustration. I’m also writing a review of the session for Words & Pictures, so I’m working on both posts simultaneously to avoid repeating myself!

The task was to make an A3 double page spread showing a creature in its natural habitat. That meant museum time again - I went to the Oxford Natural History Museum and took photos of various specimens.

I decided to pick the Japanese spider crab, because I liked the bright colours and the way it would fill an A3 page. The brief made it clear that the research was as important as the finished work, so I made various sketches and an A4 dummy.

To mimic a lift-the-flap book, I made the artwork in two layers. The top layer was drawn on tracing paper:

So you could lift it away to see this underneath:

In order to get everything to line up, I scanned my pencil sketch, added the text in Photoshop and printed just the text on the tracing paper. Then I added the crab’s body and missing leg on the top sheet in ProMarker. This allowed me to keep the bottom layer drawing as just the pure artwork. Working on top of tracing paper was still quite difficult though - if I’d had more time, I think it would have been better to draw the body and leg on a separate sheet, scan them in and composite the top layer digitally.

The bottom layer was drawn on lightweight marker paper rather than Bristol Board, as I needed to roll up the drawing to take it to London.

Later, as I inspected the other illustrations at the workshop, I had to wonder why I'd picked something so terrifying to work on rather than a nice fluffy mammal. There were a number of occasions while researching spider crabs that I had to stop Googling them because the photos were putting me off my lunch! And yet, my chosen style and medium wouldn’t have worked half so well on something with fur or feathers.

I pushed myself really hard with the task for the masterclass, even working on it the morning of the session (by which point I was terrified I would screw it up). I knew that I wouldn’t be able to avoid comparing myself with the other illustrators, so I wanted to make a good show of it. Which I feel I did in the end, and I got some useful feedback from the tutors. I was pretty exhausted that evening, as you can imagine!

I feel that I’m slowly becoming better at illustration and that’s a positive thing. Honestly, all I’ve ever aspired to be is competent! I’ll keep you posted on where the muse takes me next...


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 10 May 2019

Tips for being a jobbing children's author

You are a writer.

There. Feel good? It made me feel good when I heard it; actually not just good but floating-on-air good. Beverley Birch told me that I was a writer at a writing workshop and I don't care if she told everyone else because the lovely, brilliant writer, Beverley Birch read my pre-published work and she told ME. It fuelled me for the slog ahead.
me, looking writerly
Post BB; I am published - yay! But mostly, I write in the hope that an editor or agent will say, 'yes'. Rejection is completely normal. I finished a novel recently and approached everybody in a systematic fashion. It led to four full reads but no takers. I think it was my stage 3 friend, Nick Cross, who said that receiving a rejection now causes a mere blip in his day. I mostly feel the same way and that is because taking rejection to heart, Can Cause Madness. I continue to hope and to write because a life of not-writing is unthinkable. I am a writer after all.

But hope isn't quite boundless and it doesn't pay the bills and I sometimes feel the need for a validation top up. So, what's to do? You could do what I do and embrace the creative life. I try and enjoy the ride and find my writing hits in as many tangential ways as possible.

Writing in a different genre

I love poetry. I love children's poetry. It can say a great deal or it can say nothing. It can be serious or sad, funny or rude or any other thing and you can write it in any way that appeals. I wrote a blog on giving poetry a go here.

children's TV
Anyone go to Kate Scott's excellent Winchester masterclass on writing in for children's TV? I loved this idea of using my writing talent to write for a visual medium. I started my post uni career off by having a crack at film production and had huge fun with a bunch of other young hopefuls (two of whom now live in LA and are Something Big in film).

Norsey Woods in Essex, filming, 'Sword'. Clue - I'm the only girl
Kate's workshop fired me up so much, I decided to give it a proper old go. Naturally the first thing I did was to invite the generous and immensely inspiring Kate up North to give a talk to SCBWI Central North. From there, I came up with ideas to develop. I found that writing dialogue with only the barest context can be a joy! It's another skill but it's allied to what I already do as a writer. Not forgetting that many stories already written can be adpated for this medium.

If you choose to follow this path, I can't recommend the BBC Writers' Room highly enough. It has writing opportunity windows three times a year - the comedy writing slot has just passed (wish me luck). These windows include writing for children in radio or tv or film. What I like about the opportunity is that the BBC will take writers to develop. They want to see the best writing you can offer (no change there) but they will choose the writer and not necessarily the story. Okay, the odds are still STACKED but that's nothing new so why not?

It's also worth checking out the other opportunities that the BBC Writers' Room highlights. These include many theatre companies actively looking for plays including plays written for children which brings me to ...

children's theatre

Seeing your story text brought to life through the work of an illustrator is truly wonderful.
Louise Gardner's Pirate from Mars. from A Place Called Home
But I have also been blown away by how my stories have been adapted for storytelling and stage performance.

Addy Farmer's Pirate from Mars, Baths Hall, Scunthorpe

This came about as a result of writing, A Bagful of Stars with my birthday twin, Bridget Strevens. The Rotary Club were looking to commission Julia Donaldson to write it but obviously I offered first - hem-hem. From there, the awesome Kirsty Mead, artistic director of Rhubarb Theatre in Lincoln adpated my stories for storytelling and for the stage. Not to go crazy but I can't wait for Hollywood to ring. Sometimes, it's good to just do it.

Finding work in unexpected places

I am on Linkedin which I always thought would be a waste of time but actually it's worth joining for the occasional useful contact. I'm sure, there are those of you out there who would be able to use it to its fullest potential. From Linkedin, I was approached by a start up company and paid to write a story world for their product. I was also asked by a Chinese animation company to write a pilot for new series and through a series of contacts I ended up booked to do a spell making workshop at Grimm and Co.

Image result for grimm and co
Grimm and Co. Rotherham - think Diagon Alley

Workshops - the bread and butter stuff

You can of course join Authors Aloud or other organisation which will find you work. Or, you can go your own way.

Running workshops is a crowded market and there is not a great deal of money around ... so you have to do your research, make contacts and find a way in which works for you.

I now offer mostly outdoor workshops. I actually like working outdoors and don't mind about the weather (I always have a back up plan!). I joined up with a local mental health charity called Natural Choice to deliver poetry and story for families, in outdoor settings. It's fun! In October, I'm running a Halloween witchy session IN THE WOODS! I love woods, I really do.

Here's a little video I made doing a poetry walk (paid!) on Crowle Moors.

From this, I went and had a chat with our Landscape Partnership people in the council and offered workshops to discover the stories and deliver creative responses to the landscape round here. So far, I've run medieval stories from a castel mound, been fairy-in-chief on a fairy poetry walk (in the woods!). I'm going to be painting poetry onto bog oak later in the month and then ... becoming a Neolithic priest-type person as I lead children onto a replica Neolithic trackway ... oh yeah. Try finding a costume for that on e-bay.

Sometimes it's good to team up with like-minded people. I teamed up with my pal, Juliet Clare Bell and we offer, 'I am a work-in-progress', workshops to build a positive mindset and resilience in primary schools. 


It is worth thinking about funding work with a grant. Two of my picture books have been commissioned and Arts Council funded but this is not for the faint hearted and it demands a great deal of thinking about why you are doing this and what you are aiming to achieve.  Should you, like me, want to develop your own creative practice by attempting a different medium, you should think about applying for the Arts Council DYCP grant which is a relatively easy form to fill in with a six week turnaround.
Image result for quill pen

Right now, I am in the middle of a fairly painful Arts Council project grant application to put on a children's theatre production. But you'll be overjoyed to hear that I am reprising my role as the Pirate from Mars from A Place Called Home, with Rhubarb Theatre in October at The Gainsborough Arts Centre.

Look around for local grant funding as well; e.g. we have loads of windfarms in North Lincolnshire with a lot of pots of money for local projects.

Mine your own interests for creative opportunities

I am interested in how bereavement affects families and through my lovely friend, Clare Bell, I have found a charity to work with in order to create a story which will hopefully make a difference.

Entering any and all competitions

To date, I've entered:
WriteMentor  - result, an unexpected offer of a beta-reader for my wip, Moth-Eaten
New Writing North, Hachette Debut Novel Award - result, embargoed until June
Times/Chicken House - result, no idea
BBC Writers Room - result, longlist in June
Other writing competitions

Image result for moomin papa writing
Moomin Papa - I had to get a moomin in somewhere

Other ways to be in the writing life

- Join the SCBWI - simply the best way to make like-minded friends, to hone your craft and to be part of a writing life. You could even volunteer - there's so much to be gained! I'm just going to mention that the lovely, GREENAWAY SHORTLISTED, Chitra Soundar, will be joining the equally lovely SCBWI Central North for an event at the Newark Book Festival on July 13th. Did I say she was GREENAWAY SHORTLISTED?
- Accept opportunities you think may be beneficial. I was offered the role of Chair of North Lincolnshire Children's Literacy Trust. While, this is a volunteer role, it also helps if I want to approach schools for workshops and is good for some grant applications.
- Festivals - find your local book festival and offer a workshop! This coming July, I'll be at the Newark Book Festival where I'll be offering one-to-ones for picture book and mid-grade work.
- Use your hard-won skills to the max. I am very happy to be a picture book editor and mentor for Manuscript Feedback

So, follow the creative life, enjoy the ride and find your writing hits wherever you can. Being published is WONDERFUL but it's not the whole story.

You are a writer. How brilliant is that?

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