Friday, 13 December 2019

Ten Years On by Sheena Wilkinson

Ten years ago this week I signed my first publishing contract. Taking Flight was published nine months later, in September 2010, and thus began the career I had dreamt of ever since I was nine. 

In March 2020 my eighth novel will be published. Here are ten things I’ve learned over the last ten years.

1.     You will earn less money from your books than you could ever have imagined.
2.     You will make a living from writing despite this, by doing all sorts of workshops, school visits, Arvon tutoring, university teaching, etc.
3.     Much of this income will come from the Royal Literary Fund, and you will bless the day you first applied to be an RLF Writing Fellow.
4.     Being a Northern Irish writer means you can feel cut off from both the Irish and the British literary scene, but if you are prepared to do the running, you will eventually find your place in both.

Charney Manor

5.     Children’s writers are a pretty great bunch of people, and through groups like the Scattered Authors Society you will make many friends and hang out with them in wonderful places like Charney Manor. 
6.     Just because you have been published doesn’t mean you won’t still get rejections. You will, and they will still hurt. 
7.     You will fall in love with historical fiction, and write books you didn’t expect to write.

Of course writers never have favourites. But if  I had a favourite it might have been Star by Star.

8.     Your most successful book, Star by Star, will be the one you most loved writing. 
9.     Bookshops, once beloved, will become fraught places where you fret if they don’t stock your books. 
10.  You will finish every book thinking you don’t have another one in you. Then you get the throb of a new idea.

Thursday, 12 December 2019

The Importance of Food by Vanessa Harbour

I can remember hearing the wonderful Barry Cunningham talking about the importance of food at a Golden Egg Academy workshop many years ago and it is something that has stuck with me ever since. He spoke about how food and meals are something that a child can empathise with. Children understand food.

Food can be used as a powerful tool in writing. It can illustrate so much so easily, adding depth. Regardless of what sort of genre your story is that you are writing – realist, historical, fantasy, sci-fi etc – you need to consider your food or how people are going to be sustained. Use it effectively and it can have a real impact. Lifting your narrative. Food can be used to show social standing, poverty, wealth, celebrations, emotions etc.

I believe J.K. Rowling with her Harry Potter stories is the master. I get my students to read her work to see how cleverly she uses food and meals. Think of the meals at the Dursleys in comparison to meals at the Weasleys. One might not have as much money but the meals are full of love. Then, of course, there are the feasts at Hogwarts.
Image result for harry potter and the philosopher's stone book

Elizabeth Goudge’s The Little White Horse is another author who was brilliant with food. I remember it from when I was a child and there was a tea scene that stuck with me. Her description was extraordinary and so evocative. I dreamt of having a tea like that. (It never happened)
Image result for the little white horse

I love the way Vashti Hardy describes food. She is another one who writes really evocatively: ‘Their parents made delicious pumpkin soup and pie, spiced with cinnamon; it tasted like autumn.’ (From Wildspark published by Scholastic, 2019)

Wildspark: A Ghost Machine Adventure
When I write I try to ensure that the reader can get truly involved in the experience and it is something they can relate to. It is part of the dramatization. With Flight, I did a lot of research into what they might be eating at the time. My current work in progress I have been writing some scenes where the characters have been involved in preparing food.

I am sure you all have your own favourite ‘food’ books perhaps in the comment section below tell me about them.

I was going to write a different post today as it is election day. I felt I ought to write something about hope but in all honesty, I am terrified. I am worried about today and what is going to happen. All I am going to say is that we have got to keep writing children’s books that show there is hope, there is a way out and that there is a way that they can take control. There are stories they can escape into.

 Keep writing and may today’s result be the one you want it to be.

Dr Vanessa Harbour

Wednesday, 11 December 2019

Shh! I have a plan - Kelly McCaughrain

I have recently undergone a religious conversion. Having been an Orthodox Pantser all my life, recently I’ve been having doubts (forgive me, St Kerouac for I have Planned).

When I think about it, was I ever really that committed to Pantsing? If asked, I’d have given the standard answers about why I write by the seat of my pants. Ie:

  • Story comes from character
  • If I plan it, I’ll lose interest in writing it
  • Planning leads to formulaic fiction

In the Plantser Wars, Pantsers have tended to be disparaging about Planners. Stephen King said, “Outlines are the last resort of bad fiction writers who wish to God they were writing masters’ theses.” Margaret Atwood said, “I couldn’t write the other way round, with structure first. It would be too much like paint-by-numbers.”

I honestly did believe all the above reasons for my Pantsing. Flying Tips really did feel to me like it was written by my main character, I was just along for the ride. But, as Pantser Pierce Brown says, this kind of writing is great when it works. “I sit down at my computer every day praying for a lightening strike.” The thing about lightening strikes is they’re rare (and actually, never strike the same place twice? Which might explain why I’ve been having a nightmare for the last couple of years trying to recreate that experience.)

Also, I suspect my first book was written that way because I had no idea how to plan a novel when I wrote it. It was only after I finished it that I discovered things like Midpoints and Inciting Incidents. Never heard of them before (despite having studied an undergrad degree in creative writing – universities don’t believe in Planning. They’re firmly on the snooty side of the Plantser Wars and only teach you how to write beautiful sentences and esoteric short stories and experimental prose poems that you can send off to all those publishers just crying out for such things. Oh no, wait…)

Chuck Wendig suggests, “…some writers are natural pantsers, others are pantsers-by-default, pantsers-by-laziness. They do not plan, they do not outline. They don’t because it’s hard. And frustrating. And irritating. That’s why I didn’t used to do it.”

I may have been a Panter-by-default, purely because I didn’t know any other way of doing it.

Somehow I got lucky with Flying Tips. The structure was fine without me thinking much about it. I suspect that all writers do know intuitively how to structure a story, and I’m not saying that it’s something you need to go and learn.

What I am saying is that, if you’re doing it without consciously thinking about it, then it’s like being let loose in a city, in rush hour traffic, blindfolded, having been told to find a Starbucks, as opposed to being given a map and a bus pass.

And make no mistake, you are doing it. 99% of even the most experimental fiction by the snobbiest Pantsers has exactly the same bones as genre fiction. So if you’re going to end up in the same place anyway… why not take the map?

(And anyway, we’re writing for kids, and if there’s one thing we know about kids, it’s that they like structure. They’re psychologically damaged by the lack of it in their lives, so maybe they like a bit of it in their fiction too? You can write scary for kids, but you have to do it within a safe structure.)

I think the fear of Planning is rooted in a fear that the story will become cardboard if you overthink it. I get that, and I’ve avoided planning for that reason. But I've also spent the last few years stumbling around blindfolded, being hit by trucks and expending much time and energy trying to magically stumble onto the right path and the truth is I am tired and bruised.

So I read Into the Woods by John Yorke.


 And Lo...

First of all, the book is just a fascinating read. Even if you’ve no intention of planning your novel, you should read it, in the same way that artists study human anatomy with no intention of ever performing surgery. We all know that something in our brains is hardwired to find certain structures satisfying. This book explains why and how those structures work, and it uses a lot of film examples (because everyone is familiar with them) so it’s easy to follow.

I’ve had an idea for a story in the back of my mind for years now. I’d written about 30K words, I knew who the main characters were and, very roughly, what would happen. But I hadn’t launched into it, mainly because I was struggling through something else, and partly because I was just overwhelmed by the idea of putting on the blindfold and heading out there again. 

This is an extremely inefficient way to get around

But as I read Into the Woods, I started thinking about it. And taking notes. In the chapter about plot points, I identified all of mine and wrote them down. When it talked about symmetry and mirroring, I examined my plot and discovered how I could do that. I ended up writing 25 pages of notes on the plot.

As well as clarifying my idea, this also filled in several gaps for me. For example, my story seemed to fit the 5 Act Structure really well, but I’d assumed a particular event would be my Third Turning Point. Having read Into the Woods, I realised it wasn’t, it was my Midpoint. Normally I’d have tried writing it, got to the 60K word mark, decided it didn’t work (I do this a lot) and gone back to the start, over and over, wasting months of my life and getting more and more tired before I stumbled on the right answer.


My characters also became clearer. I knew how I wanted one of them to emerge at the end of the novel, but that meant she had to be the opposite of that in the beginning. I could have written most of the book without realising this and had to start again.

I took my notes off to a hotel in Galway for a few days. I brought Into the Woods, my notes, all the research I’d done (I spent a month just reading about the subject matter), and an old roll of wallpaper and a pack of index cards. Three days later I emerged with 5 acts, laid out in order, each act containing its own mini-inciting incident, crisis and climax. 

Et Voila!
I’ve identified all the ways the characters/themes/scenes mirror/foreshadow/highlight each other. I know what the purpose of each event is in relation to the whole novel. I’ve made sure the character arcs are complete and keep pace with each other. I know that the ending answers the questions posed in the beginning. I know which questions to ask in the beginning. I know which themes to emphasise and where to emphasise them and I’ve identified which threads/characters didn’t go anywhere and now I won’t waste weeks writing them.

And I still feel enthusiastic about writing this book. In fact, I feel more enthusiastic because I don’t have that sense of dread and ‘what if I’m about to waste a year of my life’ going in. I’ve never felt so confident and excited about beginning a book.

Pantsers like to say that Planners write plot-based novels as opposed to character-based ones and that they’re too reliant on plot rather than emotional development or actual writing. I actually think it’s the opposite.

I think I’ve always avoided planning because I’m not that interested in plot. I hate trying to develop plot, I find it really hard. The idea of writing a whole plot in advance is scary. So I’ve always launched into character and let the plot unfold in its own torturously bumpy way.

But having created a plot plan in advance (and had the help of a guide to do it) has taken all the pain out of that process and I feel like I’m now going to be able to really enjoy the writing and the characters because I don’t have to think about plot. For the first time in a long time I feel really excited about getting to write something, and that feels incredible and long overdue.

The emotional arc of your characters is as subject to structure as anything else. The reason a character’s emotional journey feels believable, feels ‘right’ to us, is because it follows that structure. The reason we find certain structures satisfying comes from psychology. Structure doesn’t constrain the character’s emotional journey, it’s a product of our innate knowledge of how believable human beings react to things.

I am absolutely not saying that I’m married to this plot plan or that you can’t break the rules when you start writing. And I didn’t start making the plan until I had the characters' voices established and I’d written the opening and knew roughly where they wanted to go. Character will always be more important to me than plot, but I doubt any Planner writes their plot plan before they create their characters.

Probably everyone's somewhere on the Plantsing spectrum. Apparently a lot of committed Pantsers are also Pants-on-fire-sers. 


Vonnegut claimed he wrote his books in one-off sessions, but his son says that he’s found loads of planning notes and drafts among his papers. Kerouac’s stream of drug-induced consciousness actually took him nine years from conception to actually sitting down to write.

Plans for The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Plans for a short story by Jennifer Egan

Norman Mailer's Character Timeline

Faulkner's outline for his Pulitzer Prize winning story 'A Fable' on his office wall

Joseph Heller's Catch 22

and of course, JK's Order of the Phoenix
See, they're all doing it.

I guess everyone has to just do what works for them. But it’s crazy to say you’re a Pantser just because you’ve never actually looked into story structure, and vice versa. Stephen King compared Planners to “bad fiction writers who wish to God they were writing masters’ theses.” Well, the thing is, I’m really good at academic writing. I wish I were writing a masters’ thesis. Because that’s a process I’ve always been able to handle. But I went into fiction writing thinking it must be very different. ‘Real’ writers never make notes or graphs, surely. That’s for our sworn enemies, the mathematicians. Real writers turn up in a floaty nightie, light a candle, sacrifice a small animal and let the muses come. 

Remember to also be pretty and use a typewriter
But why shouldn’t I use a process that I know works for me? (And what’s wrong with academic writing anyway? The best non-fiction writing is as much about structure and storytelling as fiction is).

So my crisis of faith has led me here, to a point where I have a plot plan ready to go and I’ll be starting to write over Christmas (taking occasional breaks to evangelise all my writing friends). I’m hoping it’ll save me time, energy and tears. 

Of course, this is all theoretical and a big experiment so far and I won’t know if it works until I actually write the book, but I’ll keep you updated on my progress (I think you could hardly avoid hearing about my progress, soz).

Wow, this was a long post. Would love to hear your thoughts. Sorry I’ve rambled on! I didn’t plan to.

Kelly McCaughrain is the author of the Children's Books Ireland Book of the Year,

She is the Children's Writing Fellow for Northern Ireland #CWFNI

She also blogs at The Blank Page