The view from the Big House

My bedroom window at West Dean College

An account of what I found useful as a writer for young readers at the 5th Chichester Writing Festival

Our first session focused on the experience of having work translated from Book to Film- a not too uncommon experience for some children’s writers. The key point was that adaptation has to embody the spirit of the book – not seek to replicate it slavishly. I found during the MA that retelling my story through drama helped me focus on what was key to my story. This approach might help with summarising for a synopsis, or honing your pitch.

Interestingly for me, some common themes cropped up in both the New Novelists and Poetry sessions. There was a good deal of debate about social media and other ways of reaching your readership. As was pointed out by Greg Mosse in the Writing for Children panel, that’s a normal thing for them. My take is that engaging with buyers and readers ( who are not necessarily the same people) is fruitful for both parties. Performance poetry develops more passion when people respond – and our readers engage more fully with reading when they relate to the author just the same as any reading group. This is a far more encouraging way of looking at interaction than as a cynical marketing exercise.

You might not think that the crime writer Mark Billingham would be that relevant to a writer for young people – but his account of learning to trust his readers, to allow them to create much of the story in their own heads stayed with me. Good advice for any writer, and for us, it avoids that awful pitfall of patronising our readers. More of that later.

Saturday found two sessions on Fiction and Non-Fiction. In both cases, the balance between making it up and rearranging the facts to create a better narrative was a matter of much discussion. Finally, it’s down to the writer’s integrity and judgement. That is no different in our world – though perhaps the debate over ‘bad’ language brings it more into focus.

Certainly what publishers and agents want outlined in the seventh session, is pretty much the same regardless of age written for –  a typescript bursting with truth and a committed passionate author to go with it.

‘A good agent or publisher can help a writer to think big.’ Felicity Bryan


Having paid for it (as a true Yorkshire woman) I went to the Military History discussion. I knew from previous conferences that the session you least relish can provide surprising insights – and I am always scared I might miss something. Here what struck me was that despite the apparent need for technical accuracy, it was the human responses that meant most. Truth to the experience was essential – and that the senses conveyed this best.

Many writers for young people are Inspired by History. An amusing  point from this panel for me was made by Jason Goodwin  – he spoke of ‘smuggling information through the entertainment’. I think this is a good approach to avoid ‘infodumps’ in any genre.

Joanna Trollope spoke on Saturday evening to a packed Sussex Barn. She exhorted us to

trust to the power of the unconscious mind.

Her focus has always been on the human drama – and we all know if your reader doesn’t engage with the central character then nothing else matters. She was surprisingly hard on her younger self – saying she had lacked courage. I felt I must resolve to dig deeper.

Sunday’s after breakfast panel looked at New Publishing: I’d say writers for young people need to be aware of the changes and to utilise them as our readership will. Again it comes down to that interaction idea – and that there are new and developing ways now. (You might want to look at Alison Baverstock’s The Naked Author on this subject)

Last, but oh so definitely not least, we had Sally Kindberg, Bridget Strevens and David Whitley. One remarkable and emblematic feature for me was just how much more literally colourful we writers/illustrators for young people are. Francesca Simon picked up a similar yet deeper point: if you want creativity and passion, read children’s lit. She made it quite clear she felt that some adult authors were missing out by ignoring our wealth of approaches and subjects.

I so much admired how hard these panellists tried not to talk down to the people holding their books. They all wanted to provide the best possible, not some watered-down pallid version of adult writing or art.

Finally, the theme of all this for me was that there is no ‘Great Divide’ between writing  for young people and adults. It’s a  continuum in which many things apply across the whole range. Truth to the narrative, considered application of technique and engagement with your readership are the same regardless of the age catered for.

So I’d recommend this to any of my SCBWI colleagues – and anyone interested in any form of writing precisely because the focus is on writing as a craft. Professionalism is the same for all.

 I would expect the Sixth Chichester Writing Festival to be in September 2013 – it will be worth going.




Great Expectations…

This morning I’ve been writing lists and  laying out clothes in preparation for the 5th Chichester Writing Festival. I can feel a fizz of excitement inside and my inner eight year old is squealing and running around.

I get to meet proper writers and get taken seriously. The buzz has made my writing this week go really well – and I haven’t even crossed the marble entrance hall. What will I be like when I get there? I hope I don’t gabble too much. At least I’ve got some pennies to buy drinks – that always helps.

It will be good to meet up with West Dean College friends who are going. On the whole, I find the writing community very supportive – and perhaps children’s writers even more so. ( Name drop moment : Francesca Simon, David Whitley, Sally Kindberg &  Bridget Strevens) We all need time with others who understand our obsession.

So there will be more here on Monday – just what silly things I said and what intelligent things I heard. Now to pack and catch the bus.

I wonder – what do you like about festivals?

Copy – wrong?

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery – anon

It is very easy to echo a favourite writer. Like picking up a strong accent, you may well do it in unconscious admiration. Does that make your work fake? A blend of your most-read authors would not be plagiarism as such – but would it still be your work ?

Since we are a result of our life experiences – and a book properly read and interacted with is an experience – I would say this is inevitable. We write who we are – and we imitate.

But I’d suggest taking it one stage further. Do it deliberately.

Take an aspect  – the structure of a thriller, the rhyme scheme of a poem, one choice character – and play with it. Analyse how they did it and apply your new knowledge. You might draft a thriller set in a completely different world, compose a poem on another topic or send that character on a new voyage.

It worked for Constable – an avid copyist:  Shakespeare – a great ‘borrower’ of stories and writers such as Jean Rhys in ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ & Susan Hill in ‘Mrs de Winter’. There are many more examples – indeed for most of art history learning from the Masters (please forgive the sexist term) was de rigeur.

You may wish to acknowledge the original  – to make the source obvious. I did so in my poem ‘Meanwhile, Mr Ferlinghetti’ because it was a reply – but it is not compulsory.

There is plenty of controversy in this area – arguments over intellectual property are complex and often heartfelt. I would say that it’s not the idea that matters – it is the execution: something I have learned from Greg Mosse on the West Dean MA. If I put in the spadework and create something new – well, then it’s my work.

I would love to know other people’s views on this – is it always wrong to copy?

Writer for Sale or Rent

Vintage 1961 model in good working order

  •  includes brand new MA (Creative Writing)  from West Dean College
  • at home with Junior School children ( has previous as teacher)
  • however it would be fair to point out disturbing darker side to personality
  • addicted to anything maritime, the weirder aspects of folklore and ghost stories
  • excellent creator of imaginary worlds but definitely not streetwise
  • needs direction – middle grade, tweens or teens?
  • worryingly keen on dressing-up
  • grammar, punctuation & spelling in good condition
  • has demonstrated writing stamina
  • Yorkshire background – will work for tea and crumpets

All suggestions considered.


Passing it on

I’ve been away to Turkey on an activities holiday. It’s one way of counteracting that dreadful complaint ‘writer’s bottom’ and a good way of meeting new people. During introductions,  it usually got round to what you do for a living.  I decided to be bold and admit I write for children. The response was gratifying – it has to be said this was the middle classes at play – people were interested.

In particular, one family wanted me to chat to their son, Lewis, about his writing. As an ex-teacher, I couldn’t resist this appeal for help.

Now I have to admit this wasn’t entirely altruistic. I had taken my business cards and was quite happy to self-promote. As we all know, word-of-mouth is the best advertising. I had Kate Mosse’s voice in the back of my mind:

Never fail your constituency.

Not only that, but I have a viva voce to go before I complete my MA at West Dean and all practice is good. Explaining what I do and why clarifies things for me. As Frank Oppenheimer said:

The best way to learn is to teach.

So, not only did I enjoy reading Lewis’s high quality and instinctively dramatic work and the opportunity to hold forth, it was useful to me to examine what I had really learnt. Thus I am delighted to be asked by Greg Mosse to support the new MA students on a Tuesday: that’ll sharpen my ideas up.

It may be sentimental but the thought occurs to me that knowledge is like love – the more you share it about, the more you have.

Chicken and Egg

Easter holidays; no bus trips to college and time to do some serious wordage. One thing I have learnt is you’ve got to have form ( no, not that sort). Think of a garden – it can be colourful, jam-packed with plants but it won’t impress the Yellow Book judges much if the hard landscaping’s all to pot. That’s certainly how I used to garden – and my writing is still a bit that’s good- bung-it-in-and-hope-for-the-best.

One antidote to splurging is looking how other people do it. I had a spot of ironing to do, so I popped on Radio 4 and listened to ‘On Mardle Fen’. I scribbled down notes on the structure in between pressing Gorgeous Hubby’s poplin shirts and the posh tea-towel. There were plenty of mini-dramas including finding the remote restaurant, kitchen disputes and a runaway daughter – but one overarching  familial drama. A big feature that holds it all together, like a wall round a vegetable garden, or a central fountain, definitely creates an effective structure.

An external event can be a good device – the count-down to a wedding, for example or that highlight of East Wittering’s year: the opening of the refurbished Co-op. It doesn’t take too much imagination to realise how many mini-stories are possible with so many people  involved. What about the reporter with the comedy cardboard scissors, the football coach holding the giant cheque, or one of the fitters looking down from the roof? And it wouldn’t have to be limited to the contemporary: think of the excitement of the first supermarkets arriving, or the fuss the Victorians made opening a shop.

But, of course, all these possibilities lead off in different directions. You can follow your protagonist and secondary characters wandering off along all sorts of paths. And where’s your planning, your pre-formed structure then? Back to the venerable Plotter v Pantser debate.

I’m trying Plot-the-Big-Stuff and Wing-the-Details at the moment. It feels like herding cats – or trying to control couch grass.

Any advice?

“It matters not what a person is born, but who they choose to be.” J.K. Rowling

As part of my MA at West Dean College, I gave a presentation about my work-in-progress. I used images and texts to evoke the period and place that my story was set in quite comfortably. I felt confident about portraying the 1960s without cloying nostalgia, and happy firmly locating it on the Yorkshire coast. I was able to outline the general social background: the underlying tension between the seal people and the fishermen of Scoresby Nab.

But then I reached the specific ‘who’- my central protagonist – and it all went a bit vague. Come the plenary and it was clear my audience had been left in some fuzzy hinterland they disliked.

I determined to do something about this.

I had no joy with writing a bog standard character description. It came out twee, stereotypical. If  I could sneak up on him sideways somehow, Mattie might become clearer. It occurred to me that in the best stories we learn a good deal about a character by the reactions of those around them. I hit upon the idea of ‘asking’  Mattie’s grandmother and others: I could see him through a matrix of other people’s views.

So now I am creating chunks of Grandma’s diary, newspaper cuttings, and  a doctor’s note. I wonder what else might inform.

Any suggestions?



It was snowing when I walked down the road into the West Dean Estate this morning. I could feel the little pills of white plocking against my coat. I shivered and pulled my hat further down over my ears. I stuck my hands further down inside my pockets and felt the northerly wind pass through my all-too- hastily chosen trousers. 

My back curled protectively around the heat of my heart. I wanted to hold it in. I inspected a puddle by my feet . Was it frozen? I rushed on, feeling my thighs glowing. They would look an attractive shade of day-glo pink, I thought. 

My head was bent down, tucking my scarce warmth beneath my chin. I passed a lovely cottage garden – topiary, beansticks and a green-touched set of windchimes faintly sounding. And there beneath the hedge, snowdrops, diffident among the rough cut grass. And a little farther, a single winter aconite. And farther still, the ghosts of crocuses yet to come danced spindly rounds in the orchard.

Chris Coomber

I thought: I could have just looked  the way I was going. Could have just focused on the job in hand. But what I would have missed.  The snowdrops’ heads dangling on threads, each petal fingerprinted by jack-in-the-green.  The aconite a globe of promised sunshine and the crocus tribe mustering to see off old Winter. 

by Tim Bray

And now at home, I think of my characters. Which of them would see the Jenny Wren tip into the hedge? Which of them would keep their gaze on the grey and haily road? 

by Isfugl

What about you?

What’s inside?

This afternoon, I stood waiting for the bus from West Dean. I began to chat with a young woman studying metal conservation and we reached the inevitable conversation about books. What she liked, she said, was when the characters had “a life between the pages”. It kept me thinking on the way home.

I connected this to something Jean (a colleague on the West Dean Creative Writing MA) had elaborated upon. We were considering how much of yourself you might wish to reveal as an online author and Jean put forward a concept of layers- perhaps like a daffodil bulb, or the shells of an atom. Deepest and most concealed was an inner self that no-one is privy to. Then the private person that our friends and family see, followed by an outer professional self which we might post. The best characters, it seems to me, give the sense that all the layers are there.

If you trawl the internet looking for how to create characters, or read a fair few how-to books, you are often told about character description. It strikes me that this is only the outer layer – the appearance that the character gives. It’s down to authorial decision whether to show what they look like – but as in business, you only get one chance to make a first impression. You can only do it once.

Next comes the personal layer – likes and dislikes, musical taste, the sort of stuff you might post on your Facebook profile. It may inform their mannerisms, tics, the things they do when talking.  All well and good – but still fairly superficial. You’re not really giving much away.

Now we come to something much more intimate . This is where the conscious anxieties lie, where the dreams reside that the character might share with her closest friends and family. This is the stuff that makes a difference. It will be largely behind the scenes, suggested by action or hinted at in speech. But it is the very innermost core, full of secret desires and fears, that provides the character’s volition. It provides the unseen addiction, the desperate need that gives energy to the forward momentum of the plot.

When you have all these, then you have a character.

As my bus reached Chichester Cathedral, I made a further connection. Kate Mosse, writer of Labyrinth and Sepulchre, explains how her characters can seem at first to stand behind her, just out of view, hazy and indeterminate. Then they step forward, next to her and assume a solid form. She starts writing only as they move off on their own adventures – and she records what they do. For me, then , my characters can only have a life ‘between the pages’ , can only step out into their world when I have fully imagined what’s inside each layer.

Seven things in Seven Weeks

1. Coffee is necessary – or any substance that keeps me attentive enough to learn about semiotics, transitions and why the passive voice is A Bad Thing.

2. Sleep is not as necessary as I thought. Sheer delight and interest in this writing lark can keep you going – though sometimes it’s down to dogged persistence. (Why do I have images of the Fellowship leaping from falling pillar to falling pillar in Moria in Peter Jackson’s film of ‘The Lord of the Rings’ playing in my head as I write this?)

3. Everything that tells a story is worth thinking about – Foyle’s War, the songs of Noel Coward and Tom Lehrer, the opening of the children’s film ‘Robots’, even the Archers. It’s got to the point where I watch an advert and think, ‘Well they don’t waste their time on flashbacks and psychonarration much, do they?’

4. Many creative people are really generous – with their time, their knowledge and their encouragement. It’s amazing how supportive people can be: quotations to help my academic work from Bel Mooney and Susan Hill; lifts from Greg Mosse, Jean Levy and Kerry Edwards  – and so many people at West Dean College who have taken an interest.  The other writers on my course are a great bunch who put up with my interruptions, stupid questions and me bombarding them with half-formed piffle to read with good grace.  Thanks Abla, Anita, Carol, Dana, Davy, Helen,Kerry , Jean, Joe, John, Lucy, Olivia, Susie and Suzanne .

5. Weird has its place in the scheme of things – I don’t feel quite so out of place in a setting where making giant apples out of willow is encouraged, where the Principal Rob Pulley  scoots round on the wheelie chairs with as much enthusiasm as the rest of us in our long  gallery and where 20’s  Surrealism is a frontrunner for the Christmas Party theme.

6. Being properly edited hurtsbut it does you a power of good; which does make it sound rather like having your tonsils and adenoids out, admittedly. As yet I haven’t much idea of how my work is likely to be perceived by a reader, so seeing the error of my ways (useless gerunds, non sequiturs and editorialising) has been a salutary experience. Bring it on!

7. Writing well is a really emotional business – and the community at WDC is such a blessing. You would be amazed how a little wave from Kate Mosse, or a kind enquiry from Roger Bown, or a smile from  Stephen  & Martin the Security men can make such a difference.