Sunday Special

On Thursday 31st October 2013  I took myself from West Wittering to Swiss Cottage Library. I didn’t get the prize for furthest travelled – my friend and colleague Julie Pike from Dorset earned that – but I did come away with several small and special treasures.

Firstly the most obvious – signatures from the illustrious guests in copies of their books which I had taken especially. The event was organised by IBBY and focused on using myth, legend and history in writing for children and young people. The four wonderful writers were:

Sally kindly signed my review copy of ‘Tinder’ which I had just finished reading on the train. I shall be writing about it on Serendipity Reviews shortly – but what I can say is that the complete book is most beautifully produced – and was perfect reading for Halloween.

I took ‘Mister Creecher’ for Chris to sign . Those who know me well will know I hold this in high regard – but I am also itching to read ‘The Dead Men Stood Together’. I thoroughly enjoy his thing of taking something from an earlier creepy masterpiece and then genetically engineering a whole new organism out of it.

Susan Cooper made me come all over tongue-tied. Not only is she the author of ‘The Dark is Rising’ sequence, but so cool and laid-back and wise I just wanted to breathe the same air in the hopes that something would transfer to me. After all, she inhabited the same Oxford as Tolkien and Lewis, and I think she knows Alan Garner. Phew.

Last but never, ever the least was Geraldine. I took a little paperback copy of the first book I ever read aloud to a class  (Dog Days). Geraldine has written so many smashing books – from Monacello to A Little Lower than than the Angels – that I was spoiled for choice. But I have soft spot for frost fairs and Old London Bridge, and it was a pleasure I shared with the children.

I also took away some less tangible but no less special treasures – in fact I filled the last remaining pages of my Moleskine with them. Here’s a small selection:

Sally Gardner:

  • children can’t be policed in historical fiction – they can have truly great adventures
  • imagination allows you to float your mind out of a situation
  • the pea-soupers she knew as a child around Gray’s Inn were made of ghosts and Charles Dickens

Chris Priestley:

  • historical fiction allows child characters to be master/mistress of their own destiny
  • dystopias are historical fiction – just in another direction
  • he writes for the vestigial 14 year old inside him beguiled by grotesquerie

Susan Cooper:

  • she is obsessed with place, with the layers of time
  • uses the past to illuminate the present but ‘God forbid messages’
  • what a child gets out of a story is not what is put in deliberately to educate – or even to entertain

Geraldine McCaughrean:

  • history was another place where I had often gone as a child
  • after a brilliant rant about bowdlerised folk stories – she said the originals were a a place where we can taste the amoral terrifying darkness, the inchoate beings we all nurse inside
  • research as much as you like – and then around half-way, throw it all away! 

I can only agree with the librarian (whose name sadly I did not catch) who thanked the panel for ‘not dumbing down’. It was an exhilarating evening with far more than these brief highlights – much of which is fermenting in my imagination.


Oh, and one final thing – it’s a really good idea to wear something emblematic such as a silver Peter Pan brooch, a skull close to your neck, a gilded vulture or an interlaced  symbol of Celtic mysticism. I leave you to guess who wore which…

The Joy of …Synopses

Most writers I know would regard that title as a complete oxymoron. They would greet the word ‘synopsis’ with a moan or at least a frown. I absolutely understand that – for me it was fear.

I didn’t know what to do. So I did what I usually do and bought lots of how-to books. There are a good half dozen on my study shelves. (I would heartily recommend Nicola Morgan’s Write to be Published  and the e-book by the way). But they didn’t stop the fear.

I wondered why synopses gave me the jitters – and came up with two main reasons;

  1. that writing down what actually occurred in my story pinned it down. It could be that thing and no other. I liked wandering the wide open tundra of different possibilities.
  2. that it put me on the spot. It made me declare what was going on in the story – and I could be wrong.

Now, on my last Arvon sojourn ( a wonderful Retreat at Lumb Bank with Steve Voake, N. M. Browne and a slew of talented fellow children’s authors) I was grilled.

N. M. Browne by her own admission is the Queen of Awkward Questions. It’s not always comfortable to be interrogated about your story by someone so intelligent and incisive – but it is good. There was no point in me resisting – it was so worthwhile to be made to think harder about my ropey first draft.

I see writing a synopsis as akin to that salutary process.

Options are for first drafts – wander all over that prairie of ideas when you’re creating by all means – but when it comes to editing, the synopsis is your friend.

I use YWriter5. It’s a no-frills way of organising your work created by a writer. One salient feature is the use of chapter descriptions and scene summaries. You don’t have to fill them in, of course – but if you do, they create a synopsis for you.

The crucial point is the way it makes you look at your work – whichever way you tackle your synopsis. You have to focus and analyse:

  • what is your intention for each scene?
  • is it actually doing that?

If you can’t decide what you want each scene to do, how on earth can you get it across to the reader?

So I would say view the writing of your synopsis as a good thing. It makes you understand the anatomy of your story like nothing else. Dissections aren’t pretty – but just ask an artist how essential it is to know the form beneath.

Leonardo da Vinci - Superficial anatomy of the shoulder and neck (recto) - Google Art Project

Bobbing about

Not me – but just as exhilarating

I’ve just been for a refreshing swim in the Solent. Whilst I was splashing about and enjoying the waves, I thought about The House with No Name and our seaside retreats venture. How do I get it going?

I really don’t want to be a pushy, self-promoting twonk but I do want people to know about it. I had found that no-one knew in the village about my B&B – and even worse, if they had, they would have told visitors. I don’t want that to happen with this enterprise. I can’t afford it to.

And on the other side of the process, I have had such conflicting advice about running a B&B or guesthouse. I’ve also had a variety of experiences. How do I decide what to do for the best?

He looks thoughtful, too.

The only way as far as I can see to combine integrity with our coastal retreat business is a commitment to provide what our guests really want. A commitment to help, to nurture and to find out what truly works for them.

I was thrilled when Lynn Breeze commented:

involving us all in this way makes us feel a part of it too

That’s just what I want.

The same goes for the promotion of our seaside retreats. I can’t be like a barker in Leeds covered-in market bawling out her wares (much as I admire the brash energy of such an approach). To find the energy to keep putting our venture forward, I have to believe in what I’m doing. It has to be honest.

Partly, I am inspired by the lovely and very astute Deborah Dooley.( If you need a sojourn deep in the heart of the Devon countryside, I particularly recommend her ancient house for its welcoming atmosphere and delectable fire.)

Her approach to advertising Retreats for You is straightforward. She simply communicates what she’s been doing. It’s genuine and engaging and gives you a good sense of what’s she’s about. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery – and I hope she won’t mind me doing something similar.


  • I will jabber on enthusiastically about what I’m up to
  • I will ask questions – repeatedly
  • I will value any comments and suggestions from you lovely lot
  • PLEASE tell me what you want
Thank you for reading.
All shares and re-tweets are much appreciated.



Dead lines

On Wednesday 14th August 2013, I submitted my just-short-of-4k opening, synopsis and bio for SCBWI -BI’S Undiscovered Voices 2014 competition. When I pressed that button labelled SUBMIT – the other meaning seemed all too relevant. I felt trembly and humble – like sneaking my homework onto the Headteacher’s marking pile and running away.

It was that line about it cannot be changed. All that irrevocability.

I felt the poor thing was dead, embalmed, or pinned down like a Death’s Head moth in a Cabinet of Curiosities.

One comfort was the remaining 67k or so.{ If any agents or editors are reading, yes, it is finished!} Those words have possibilities for playing with, some life left in them. I feel there are still aspects I can nurture, prune, train up a trellis.

To an extant, a story is never finished. It’s always tinkerable. But when to let go? I had no choice with that first sample.

Is writing a story like gardening – never done?

Or is it more like painting? You get to a point where you send it out and let the viewer, or the reader, decide.

Now there’s a happy thought. I believe that the reader brings life to a writer’s words. Another person interacts with your scribbling, imagines, creates a world out of your work in their heads. How ASTONISHING is that? It emerges like a living thing in a new form.

So now I think I may be waiting till December to see if my work has pupated successfully!


Now we’re cooking

I am currently enjoying a sojourn at Retreats for You in deepest Devon where my hostess Deborah cooks lovely food. This goes down well – and unsurprisingly led me to thinking about cookery and creativity.

I think editing can be something like refining a recipe – and I see genres as being cuisines. We can create our own take on a particular type – but we need to acknowledge the traditions associated with it.

So good old fish-and-chips frankly should have very little done to it. The freshness of the fish, the quality of the batter and the accompaniments are pretty much all there is to work on. This might be like a good whodunit. The reader knows what she wants and really expects it to be just so – no-one wants bouillabaisse or a sudden burst of Dickens.

But ‘Chinese’ is a much wider field. There are a markers we like (like a book cover) to entice us in – red lanterns, gilding and a fat and happy little god, perhaps. Yet upmarket restaurants might give the merest hint – just one calligraphy scroll – and perhaps play with these signifiers. There the food maybe less modified for Western tastes and the consumer expected to make more of an effort.

To me, this reflects less commercial fiction – it’s more immersive, less mediated. The reader is trusted to engage and figure out things for themselves. Nonetheless, there will be things the readership expects – comprehensible sentence structure, a plot, some degree of resolution. And the writer must provide.

I have a fundamental distrust of pubs and the like with far too wide a menu. I am almost certain it will be bought in from Brakes and microwaved.  Here, my writing analogy would be laziness, plagiarism and cultural appropriation. Harsh, perhaps, but poor quality on either account is an insult to the person you’re providing for.

I am not against ‘borrowing’.

Look at China Mieville’s splendidly odd ‘Railsea’. He used Herman Melville’s whaling and transformed it into the hunting of giant moles in his world. There’s nothing wrong with making a paella-style dish from local ingredients born out of what you know and where you are now . That’s how we got Jambalaya.

But just sprinkling a teaspoon of Schwartz Italian Herb Mix over a risotto doesn’t not make it authentically Veneziana. You can’t put a few Creole words in, refer to jazz on Bourbon Street and think you’ve recreated New Orleans. It needs depth and research and love.

Editing is the point at which you consider what you are serving up – and to whom. There is much to reflect on: has the stock of your ideas been simmered long enough? Is the story weighed down with blandness? Does it need a bit of pep – or is there too much going off at once?

You have to keep trying and testing. Eventually, the taste buds give up – and that’s where other opinions come in. (More of that in another post, I think.)

What cuisine would reflect your work?



Tug o’war

In medieval times, they say, Good and Evil were pictured as a devil and an angel sitting on your shoulders whispering advice. That’s why you throw salt over your left shoulder, to blind the little devil.

I’m editing (still)  and I’ve got two voices whispering in my ears. They are not Good and Evil, but more like Imagination and Creativity on one side – and Logic and Analytical Reason on the other. I have to keep testing and refining what I am revising – as Scientific an enterprise as you could wish for – but I also need to generate new scenes on occasion. Cue Art – and the need to stick a gag in my Critical self’s gob.

Should my door be shut or open? (to use Stephen King’s metaphor) Tricky.

I need to come up with new material, to innovate, to avoid cliché – but at what point am I re-inventing the wheel? Is the accuracy and honesty of, say, a particular  image worth disrupting the flow of a paragraph for?

make it simple and easy to read, please the target readership , give them what they want


be true to yourself, use your own voice, the readers you are meant to have will love it that way


Who do I listen to?

The Princesses of Sweet Rhyme and Pure Reason talk to Milo in The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster , illustrated by Jules Feiffer.  (I wish I had their advice.) 

I need other voices guiding me – external ones. I am aware of my own stubbornness, my (surprising-to-some) shyness and reticence in seeking help. Partly I feel embarrassed, ashamed that after years of teaching , and a Masters’ Degree in Creative Writing , I still don’t know how to write for children.

I have to squash my ego and seek advice. It’s the task that matters , not some day-dream of being An Author. And then comes the really important bit:

I must be discriminating in what I do with that guidance.


As my wonderful friend and musician colleague Pam Wedgwood said  the notes are only a guide. It’s up to me how I interpret them.

I need both passion to rise above the ordinary to keep me going – and commonsense coupled with humility to be thankful for those who have helped along the way. (SCBWI/Golden Egg pals – this means you.)

So I’m rather hoping by responding to both, I can figure out my own way. Something like having callers on both sides of the river telling me which way to steer – from their point of view.






Sniffing it out

This last weekend I was at Dunford House on a writing retreat with many of my fellow SCBWI-BI members. Amongst all the other joyful events, we had a workshop with the lovely, talented and far-too-young Lucy Christopher on Setting.

One aspect she dwelt upon was the role of the senses in engaging the reader – how they can transport the reader to the time and place we want them to experience. I have to say many of my favourite books are crammed full of sensory detail – I am seduced by authors who can handle these well – Joanne Harris immediately springs to mind.

For this post, I’m going to focus on just one – the sense of smell.

Here’s a selection that I find deeply evocative – and what they provoke for me

  • Fortune’s kippers in Whitby – Goths and impossibly dark and  romantic setting
  • coal tar works – it depended on where the wind blew – going homne up the motorway from Uni
  • the mixture of fried onions and candy floss you get at a fair – exciting
  • mildewed books, incense and damp stone in an unheated church – thrill of singing
  • melting tar on a hot August day when stuck in a traffic jam on the way to Scarborough – boredom , impatience
  • WD-40 – my house reeked of it with three motorbiking sons and a husband – irritation, amusement and sometimes fear
  • newly mown grass and white- lining smell on school sports day – anxiety
  • freshly sawn wood at the timber mill – my father was a builder and carpenter – anticipation  of a new building site
  • linseed oil putty – see above – my grandad’s patience – he worked with my dad too
  • coal fires – comfort on a winters’ day
  • post-Bonfire Night fireworks and ashes – often damp and a little sad – but with happy memories, reliving the delight of rockets and catherine wheels
  • flour and cooking margarine and eggs – cooking with my Nanna, happiness

I think it works best when the smell you choose is both specific to a location – and has an emotional resonance. I am terrible cynic – I use vanilla around our bed-and-breakfast to suggest ice-cream and innocent seaside holiday fun.

One extraordinary find from location research  really sticks in my olfactory memory – inside the roofs of Cathedrals, it smells like steam engines. Honestly. Perhaps 19th century air is still trapped in there.

I wonder which scents trigger a response in you, dear reader.



Past and present

Most of my writing thus far could be labelled ‘Historical Fantasy’, I would say. I have had lots of fun and inspiration from visiting the settings of my stories and looking around.  I try to get a sense of how that place came to be that way- the story before mine, how the geography evolved, the way it might have been governed – as much physical, political and social background as I can imagine.

But until relatively recently, I couldn’t really deal with the people. I’d go early morning or wait to catch shots without people in them . I avoided them a bit if I’m honest – be a bit shy or perhaps wary.

I had some idea that people then were different – different in a way I could only access through period images and accounts. And there’s clearly a great deal of validity in reading contemporary voices, and looking at what they saw – especially for ‘true’ historical writers.

But I take liberties.

I don’t think there were any selkie colonies between Scarborough and Robin Hood’s Bay in the 60s nor a girl who could talk to stone on the south coast of Sussex in Jane Austen’s time. Yet there can be in my head – and through the page – in my readers’ heads.

Understanding this, and accepting that we can only imagine people through what we experience now, has made me much happier to move characters about in time. Years ago as a schoolgirl,  I remember seeing some of Holbein the Younger’s drawings. I’ve never been a fan of the Tudors – but those drawings fascinated me. They were  ‘just like real people in Tudor costumes!’ I recall thinking.

Mary, Lady Guildford, by Hans Holbein the Younger

So now, if I’m in Chichester and I see a huge bloke walking with his legs wide apart to accommodate the movement of his belly like draymen used to roll beer barrels to pub cellars – well, I think ‘you’d fit in well in Selchester’s less reputable streets’. Or I see a girl waiting, shifting her weight from one foot to another, making a pattern on the flagstones like choreography – I wonder if she might anticipate the quadrilles at the Solstice Ball if I slide her back to the winter season 1809.

I reckon it could work the other way too.

Could this woman fit in a contemporary drama?

Perhaps not – but how about this one?

(If you like this pair, there are more here on the Telegraph website – I am indebted to Caroline Lawrence and The History Girls for this)

So what do you think – am I right to mash-up people from different eras – or are people so shaped by the period they live in, it’s just plain wrong?

Principal Boys

Now I am something of a feminist in case you didn’t know, Dear Reader – but I do love a Principal Boy. I love a girl in britches. I always fancied the Prince in the Panto, and any story where the girl dresses up as a boy and gets away with it, gives me great pleasure.

What a pirate! ( Jacket from The Dark Angel)

There’s the irrepressible Linnet in The Children of Green Knowe playing at being a choirboy, Jo March acting in Little Women, Celia Rees’ Sovay – a highwaygirl and of course, most of the cast of Terry Pratchett’s Monstrous Regiment.

Sovay, Sovay all on a day
She dressed herself in man’s array

I never knew George out of The Famous Five books – but I would have loved her. Likewise Mulan and Tamora Pierce’s Alanna . I was a bit of a tomboy – having to be forcibly made to wear a frock, turfing my dolls out of their pram and using it to carry bricks, and jousting with the clothes pole.

I have to admit I was easily hoodwinked. I had no idea about the central character in The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tyler ( which I still love) and honestly, it came as a great and glorious surprise to me when Dernhelm took off ‘his’ helmet in The Lord of the Rings. It still moves me every time I read it.

I really don’t want contemporary girls to think they have to be boys in order to have autonomy.(See my previous post and this splendid one by Katherine Langrish). But in historical fiction and fantasy, it’s a way for our heroines to get out of the home – and it’s such great fun. There’s something about the sheer audaciousness of it.

And in my case, I identified more with Robin Hood or The Lone Ranger or Ivanhoe or my Dad than my stay-at-home Mum. That probably speaks volumes about me. I’ll end with Gandalf speaking about Eowyn to her brother Eomer:

but she, being born in the body of a maid, had a spirit and courage at least the match of yours.

I think that’s it – spirit. Girls in britches embody courage for me.

Female Samurai courtesy of Retronaut



Rescuing the Heroine

This post has been partly inspired by the excellent Katherine Langrish and her post Fairytale Princesses: tougher than you think. I can only agree: what I  learned from traditional stories was that kindness and effort brought you more success than vanity and pride. So I don’t want to rescue any of those heroines myself – just the term.

That’s why I winced when I read Kate Mosse refer to ” female action heroes.” In fairness it was in a perfectly reasonable piece asking for more active central characters to be female. I am unlikely to disagree with that. (But oh, the irony – if you read the piece via Mail Online there is article after article defining women by their looks down the side bar.)

There needs to be equality. There needs to be a balance of protagonists who are girls or women. Have a look at picture books. Really look at them. The apparently gender neutral use of animals often masks the presumption that the lead is male.

Out of ten picture books reviewed, only two had female leads.

I think the word ‘hero’ does that – assumes male is the only important way to be.

Not books, I know, but in an idle moment at Budapest airport  I took a look at some toddler toys (British by the way). Lovely primary colours, diggers and dumpers tractors and so forth (some of my favourite things). Out of twenty named characters, three were female.

We seem to have end up back at the Smurfette Principle – if something is marketed at boys, or meant to be unisex, girls will have only a token representation. Girls are ghettoised. In pink.

You’re not supposed to create with this stuff.

And don’t get me started on pink Lego.

1981 Why have we gone backwards?

So it really is important that half our central characters are female – with lots of agency. I would also argue it’s important you make sure your secondary and minor characters are balanced too. I’ve found myself putting too many males.

But our heroines should not just be blokes with breasts.

Lara Croft won’t do. She’s just eye-candy for boys.

Katniss Everdeen is better. Though I wish the trilogy hadn’t dwindled to that defeatist ending – this is the Katniss I wanted:

(It gets me every time)

We will always need more Lyra Belacquas, more Jane Eyres, more Pippi Longstockings, more Tiffany Achings – and my colleagues provide some amazing female central characters. Some full of gusto and yet feminine.

A black belt in Arnis – Philipino Stick & Sword fighting

Just don’t call them ‘heroes’.