Monday, 16 September 2019

The Things You Have to Do by Claire Fayers

I was talking to a friend about writing recently. She wanted to know how long it took to write a book, what I did all day, the usual questions. I told her about the drafting and editing and editing and deadlines, the hours spend sat at a desk. At the end of it, she looked at me open-mouthed and said. "You mean it's a bit like having a job?"

Well yes, it's exactly like having a job, except that it's more like you have at least ten different jobs and you're not properly trained or competent to do any of them.

It goes without saying that children's authors also have to be entertainers, public speakers and teachers. But that's only the start of it. I thought I'd have a bit of fun and list some of the jobs I've taken on since becoming an author.


Even if you hire an accountant to sort out your tax, you still have to keep records, send invoices and track receipts.


A confession: I hate admin. If I could afford to pay someone to do it, I would. I tend to leave everything until I have a pile of paperwork on the edge of my desk and then I have an admin afternoon, followed by ice-cream.

Animal Handler 

(Only applies if you have pets). My cats have learned to come and tell me if they need something. Loudly and with claws if necessary. I have also almost perfected the art of typing one-handed with a kitten balanced across my chest.


Your characters have to live somewhere. Mine seem to spend half their lives standing about in kitchens. It's useful to know the layout of the house in case they need to escape from a terrifying monster.


Obviously you have to sell your own books. But I have developed a dreadful compulsion to leap at customers in the children's sections of bookshop and recommend everything I've read in the past six months. Sorry, customers!

Events organiser

Book launches, school events, celebratory parties. Someone has to be in charge of them.


Because you can't sit in front of the computer all the time. My favourite place to escape is my allotment, which is a constant learning experience and has made me far more aware of the weather and the changing seasons.


I've heard terrifying tales of authors who have gone onto Google to look up a single date, only to emerge years later, giddy-eyed and babbling about all the hidden wonders of the universe. Writing fantasy, I thought I was safe from research. Until I had to design magic systems, know how fast boats could travel and how the economy of a small island might work. 

Transport Designer

How long is an average submarine? How many decks does a pirate ship have? Can a dragon to power a hot-air balloon? It's important to know these things.

Website Designer

I'm now very lucky to have a super smart website designed by a friend, but before that I had a wordpress site I built myself after many hours poring over manuals.

That's all I can think of for now but I'm sure this is only the tip of the iceberg. What are the strangest jobs you've had do as an author?

Claire Fayers is the author of the Accidental Pirates series, Mirror Magic and Storm Hound. 
Website Twitter @clairefayers

Sunday, 15 September 2019

Endings Part II:structure & turning points - by Rowena House

Last month I shared some notes I’d made for a writer friend who'd asked me about story endings. Here’s the link to that blog about the “what” of endings: what’s going to happen, and what that implies for the rest of the story.
This post is about another side of endings, the “how” part. It covers some of the tips I’ve picked up over the years from editing and writing courses, and also from a range of advice guides and writing blogs. I hope it might be useful for anyone struggling with their ending or wondering how to plot one.

Of all the structural guides I’ve studied, the most helpful terminology I’ve come across is in The Story Grid by Shawn Coyne. In it, he provides a helpful label for each of the three acts of classic “Aristotelian” storytelling.
Coyne calls Act 1 the Set Up, Act 2 the Progressive Build and Act 3 the Pay Off. 
These labels signpost the content for each act; they also flag up the all-important turning points which spin the story into the next act and, finally, The End.
For example, the main turning point of the Set Up is an Inciting Incident: the event or call to adventure which gets the central plot going.
The Progressive Build ends at a Worst Point for the protagonist, the turning point which precipitates the story into the final act. A midpoint epiphany is another great practical turning point for Act 2. I’ve blogged about epiphanies here.
The Pay Off brings to a head both the plot and main character arc. As the pace and tension accelerate, there are (typically) two major turning points in Act 3: a Crisis and a Climax. The story is then wrapped up with a final beat, usually called the Resolution. Each of these three scenes gives shape, direction and energy to a climatic ending.
For writers who follow this schema, the Crisis is the deepest dilemma the protagonist faces; the toughest choice s/he must make throughout the story. 
One tip I’ particularly like is to make this Crisis decision as horribly, gut-wrenchingly dramatic as possible by forcing the protagonist to choose between two highly prized, but mutually exclusive alternatives (AKA “irreconcilable goods”). Imagine a parent on a dangerous cliff path: their son is being dragged towards a 100-foot drop in one direction, their daughter is being kidnapped by a madman in the other. Which way do they turn? Deciding between two such irreconcilable goods is much more difficult and character-defining than a choice between the lesser of two evils, or between right and wrong. 
If the story is focused on character, then this Crisis decision can be the defining moment of the whole thing: the “obligatory scene” as some creative writing teachers and editors term it. It is the point in the story where the protagonist decides to transform from the person they were to the person they need to become in order to fulfil their role in the story, or (by failing to change) to become a tragic figure.
To give the reader the maximum insight into this pivotal moment, the Crisis decision needs to be fully developed and emotionally powerful, and can take quite a few pages. 
The Climax is the action initiated by the protagonist as a result of their crisis decision. Classically, it’s the scene where they confront their biggest force of antagonism: the top villain if there is one, or their worst nightmare if that’s what’s been holding them back. 
The Climax is the final turning pointing for the plot; in it, the actions of the protagonist reflect a deliberate choice to change or transform in order to achieve their story goal. The outcome of this climactic conflict is profoundly meaningful for the protagonist; it is also irreversible. 
For more plot-orientated stories, the Climax is widely considered to be the “obligatory” scene and can be the longest one in the book. Climaxes don’t have to be explosive or action-packed. In The Goose Road it’s a slow-burn, escalating scene stretching over three chapters. In the film, Ordinary People, Robert McKee in Story notes that the Climax is the wife packing a suitcase and walking out on her family: a brief, simple action but with enormous meaning within that story world.
The Resolution is a final chapter or scene which cements this character transformation in the reader’s mind. The action shows how the change-through-conflict of the story, which led to the Climax, has altered the protagonist’s underlying behaviour and attitudes for good (and/or how that change impacts on their community). 
Plot-wise, the Resolution might wrap up a subplot or dramatize a reconciliation. The way the protagonist achieves this scene’s goal manifests their new persona.
Over the years, I’ve read quite a few variants on this theme of crisis-climax-resolution. In Into the Woods, John Yorke talks about “mastery” being the final beat within his five-act structure. In stories with deliberately “open” endings, the Climax and Resolution might be implied, rather than shown.

For Christopher Vogler, the “return with the elixir” is the last, and potentially extended stage of the hero’s quest, as detailed in The Writer’s Journey. 
With this style of ending, the protagonist brings back to their troubled home community some sort of boon (a life lesson learnt or an actual physical elixir). In the archetypal quest ending, this boon helps the protagonist to win one final battle.
While some writers follow Vogler’s road map in its entirety (or Yorke’s Five Acts or Coyne’s Story Grid etc.), I prefer to cherry-pick, keeping an eye out for recommended structural beats as I plot or going back over a first draft to identify missing elements.
After a draft of The Goose Road was rejected by Andersen Press, for example, fellow Bath Spa MAer Chris Vick (whose new book Girl. Boy. Sea looks fantastic, by the way) pointed out that Angelique’s journey contained many elements of a quest. In light of his insight, I re-read The Writer’s Journey and found a host of structural beats I could add, which in turn helped me to deepen Angelique’s character arc during a full development edit for Walker.
There are, hopefully, an almost infinite number of ways to end a story. Structurally, however, the advice I’ve read and heard supports one underlying tenet: at the end, change must be demonstrated by a “character-in-action” (to borrow a phrase from Emma Darwin’s brilliant This Itch of Writing blog.) 

The protagonist must do something to show the reader they’ve become a different person due to the events of the story. In the end, they’ve got to walk the walk.

PS In case anyone’s free on the evening of Oct 2, Tracey Matthais, Matt Killeen, Liz McWhirter and I are talking about our protagonists’ “Interesting Times” at Waterstones, Uxbridge. See our social media feeds for details. I’m @HouseRowena on Twitter


Saturday, 14 September 2019

NEW START by Lynne Benton

I always think of September as the best time to start things.  January doesn’t do it for me – maybe it’s too cold, or I’m too tired after all the Christmas travelling and festivities, (and besides, I know I have to do the dreaded Tax Return before the end of the month!) 

But in September, as soon as the summer ends and school starts again, that’s the time for me.  Maybe because for so many years my life was bounded by school terms: first school, then college, then teaching, and then my children’s school terms and university terms, as well as my own teaching terms, and I still feel everything starts anew in September. 

Now I am no longer bound by school terms, this is the time when I’m keen to roll up my sleeves and get on with the new book that has been bursting inside me all through the summer, waiting to get out.  These fresh early autumn days are truly inspiring. 

Past rejections/poor sales/unpublished manuscripts forgotten, I try to remember only my past successes as a new story beckons, and maybe this will be the best thing I have written to date.  Until I actually write it, who can tell?

So this month’s blog will be a short one, as I have to get down to work!


Latest book: 

 The Lost Treasure of Aquae Sulis

Friday, 13 September 2019

Back to School? Sheena Wilkinson

It’s September. For most of my life, as pupil, student and then teacher, this meant the start of a new school year. Even for the last six years, when I have been writing full-time (which of course means doing a hundred different freelance gigs) this time of year has felt more new-yearish than January, as so much of my work is school- or college-based.

This is mostly what my summer was like
This year, as I said in last month’s post, I had planned to take a proper summer break, but an urgent manuscript rewrite put the kibosh on that. Now the manuscript is delivered and the publisher loves it – hooray! Time for that break. After all, as a freelancer I can work – or not – any time I like. I was aware of having booked in a few things for the autumn – a one-day course here, a residency there, my usual gig with Masters students in Trinity College Dublin, but nothing much. Plenty of time to relax, have a life, and start to recharge the batteries for the new book. Because sometime, I hope, there will BE such a thing.

But I forgot. Accounts. Tax return. That report I promised to write. Blog posts. All the things I was putting off because of the Big Rewrite. And those few small gigs – well, they’re adding up to two or three days a week. So today I wrote NO MORE BOOKINGS across the top of every page in my diary. And it felt great.

All right, I didn't edit every day. 

Maybe I’ll have time to think of a new book. Maybe not. I shall report back in October, unless I have something more exciting to write about. 

Thursday, 12 September 2019

It is all about the detail by Vanessa Harbour

Firstly, I must apologise for a slightly shorter post, but it is the chaos just before the start of the semester and our MA students are about to hand in their dissertations. I am even giving feedback in my sleep at the moment!

I have recently been lucky enough to read an uncorrected proof copy of Sally Gardner’s Invisible in a Bright Light. A book I loved and one you should definitely get when it is published. I loved it because the language and imagery were so rich. Sally Gardner, as always, was very adept at painting a picture with her words. Sometimes it can be a single word or a short sentence that paints a thousand words in the mind of the reader – I think that is possibly something we are all aiming for.

This is a topic I discuss a lot with both my students and the writers I work with at the Golden Egg Academy. It is the importance of details. It can make such a difference and convey so much information. For example, a reader is going to create a different impression of someone who drives a battered old red mini to someone who might be driving a bright red Ferrari. Clichéd, but you get the general idea.

It is a mistake I often see in early drafts and from ‘new’ writers. The information given is very basic. Giving nothing for the reader to work with. There is a caveat here, however. I am not suggesting great long descriptions should be included in the form of 'info dumps'. Another common mistake made. There is nothing worse and it takes the reader away from the narrative. It is all about dropping hints in that the reader can work with.

When I am writing I try to be more specific about colours. Instead of just saying green go for emerald green, instead of blue go for maybe a cobalt blue. Building on the colours so the reader has a better sense of what particular shade of colour you are suggesting. Using different names to make the reader think and experience within the narrative. There are two fabulous books that I use as a resource. They are glorious to just explore and can be a great source of inspiration if you are feeling blocked with your writing too.

The books are called:

Werner's Nomenclature of Colours by Patrick Syme published by The Natural History Museum (2018)


The Secret Lives of Colour  by Kassia St Clair published by John Murray (2018)

These are not the only resources on colour but the two I love the most. 

Recently, I was very flattered when I heard that my novel, Flight (Firefly) was being used as a research source because it was felt the way I wrote about horses was authentic This was hugely satisfying because I had done a great deal of research into horses, watching them, reading about them, learning as much as I could etc. Trying to get those tiny details right.

I must be honest when writing I do think it is important to try to get the detail correct as much as possible. I will spend a long-time researching information. Personally, I enjoy that side of writing, in the same way, I enjoy reading books that are rich with language and imagery. As a lecturer and mentor, one of the most satisfying feelings is when you see someone you are working with having a lightbulb moment as they realise the difference a detail can make to their writing. Seeing how it brings the text to life on the page.

I hope you all enjoy painting pictures with your words and once again apologies for this brief post. Will do better next month.

Dr Vanessa Harbour

Wednesday, 11 September 2019

How to support a writer - Kelly McCaughrain

As further evidence that I am in fact living in some sort of benign Truman Show, to cap my incredible book-year, just last month I was awarded the role of Children’s Writing Fellow for Northern Ireland!

This two-year role was created by the Seamus Heaney Centre at Queens University Belfast and the Arts Council Northern Ireland to promote children’s reading and writing, and I think it’s a fantastic recognition of how important Kids’ Lit is. 

The best part is I get to spend two years talking about creativity, hanging out with young writers, and working on my own writing as well! 

I’m still working out my plans and finding out about all the exciting things I get to be involved in. When things are more definite, I will be blogging all about it (I will be blogging the hell out of this adventure).

Until then, can I just take this opportunity to talk about the writing part? Specifically writing spaces.

I’d like to point out that I now, for the first time in my entire life, have my own office! OK, in the grand scheme of things this may seem like a tiny detail but actually I’m starting to realise that it’s not

So far in my life, my working environments have consisted of:

  • A cinema kiosk
  • Poundstretcher shop floor
  • Xtra-vision counter
  • Back room of a bank
  • Charity shop
  • Open plan admin pool where I shared a computer AND A CHAIR
And my writing environments have consisted of:

  • Dining room table
  • Kitchen table
  • Sofa
  • Garden table
  • Greenhouse
  • Bed

For the last 20 years I’ve been a note taker for adult students with special needs. This means sitting in the corners of various classrooms trying to be as invisible as possible. I have no co-workers. I once got in a lift with my boss and didn’t recognise her.

In none of my jobs have I ever had so much as a coat hook to call my own, let alone a parking space, a locker, a computer, a kitchen, a drawer, a desk, or a door I could close. I’ve had a very nomadic working life. I’m a zen master in the art of packing a rucksack (never a shoulder bag, you gotta balance that weight evenly), making packed lunches, wearing the correct number of layers to ensure optimum body temperature no matter the environment, footwear you can spend a whole (rainy) day in, portable technology, and I have a thermal mug that will keep tea hot for about a month.

Basically me

I suspect many full-time writers endure similar conditions since they’re probably earning a living by hauling their butts around schools and libraries. I never thought about it much, I just occasionally daydreamed about being able to go to the bathroom without taking all my possessions with me.

But suddenly… I have my very own office. And it occurs to me that the Room of One’s Own isn’t just the fantasy of writers anymore, it’s probably a luxury for most people these days. Most desk-workers work in open-plan spaces. Privacy is a definite luxury.

But my office is in the Seamus Heaney Centre at QUB, a place dedicated to writing, and where they understand that asking writers to share an open-plan office would be like asking hermits to flat-share.

I’m used to writing in my garden. Rain, hail or shine I can spend ten straight hours sitting outdoors until I’m dragged in to go to bed (and I’ve found myself looking thoughtfully at the hammock at 11pm). Can I write in a small, skylighted, third-floor office?

Moving day!

Well, I’m giving it a go. I do feel slightly like feral cat that someone’s trying to tame but it could grow on me. And it’s so nice to be able to leave things there overnight! This is a revelation. It may not seem like much but it’s a little bit like having a home after twenty years of homelessness. In an occupational sense.

And the peace. The lack of distraction. Being able to take time off my paid work to do this. That’s the real miracle.

I don’t know why it hadn’t occurred to me that having my own office would be so important. I am passionate about the idea that kids need to be given time and space and freedom to be creative (in fact, that’s exactly what I’m going to focus the first year of the fellowship on). The Seamus Heaney Centre and the Arts Council have given me exactly that – two years, office space, no restrictions or conditions. This is how you support a writer. 

Needs more books

My little office in the Seamus Heaney Centre is not just a room, it’s a symbol of all that support. And I’m so very happy and grateful. 


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