I love the SCBWI-BI Conference because…

  • I get to hug people I mostly ‘see’ on-line
  • I can talk to people who understand what a mad, wonderful thing it is we do
  • I have the chance to read something aloud that I have just written*- and no-one sniggers
  • I have the opportunity to ‘refill my well’ by gazing at the illustrators’ beautiful work
  • I see people I love and admire succeed – and it gives me joy and hope

Malorie Blackman smiling

(*in front of Malorie Blackman this year!) 

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…

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?



alter ego

Please excuse the whiny voice. My Muse needed a few words with me.

 Why don’t I get so much writing done as I should?

Tell me some reasons and I’ll try to help.

I don’t get up early enough- and then it’s all a rush.

Organise yourself at night- set up what you want to do.

I stay up too late – and then I feel bad.

Get into a routine – prepare, and reflect on what you have done well. There will be something.

I mess about on the Internet and then I find hours have passed.

Aye – I know you like a bit of a company. Try going outside and talking to real people. Switch it off.

I do housework and other stuff first. Then I’m all flaked out.

I see the procrastination demon’s been around. Get shot of it by doing what you must in an afternoon. Write first.

I get put off by trips to the gym and shopping and washing and drying and the B and B guests. The time in between’s too short to do anything worthwhile.

Piffle. Even five minutes is worth doing.

I think I’m making things worse, not better, with my editing.

So ask. Send it to people you trust. See what works.

It’s a waste of time. I should do something proper that pays. Stack shelves in the Co-op.

You’ve got a willing, supportive husband – why not trust him?

It’s all pointless. I’ll never get published.

Pah. 1. Who said getting published was the mark of a writer? A writer writes. That’s it. 2. You can’t know that. 3. You could publish yourself, anyway.

I’ve left it too late and I’m too old and past it.

So – you’ve learned a lot. Did you really have so much to offer when you were younger?

If I try to make my work saleable, it’ll be inauthentic.

[Give me strength] Your task is to make the story stronger, clearer, more true. That’s what will suit the reader best.

small voice I’m no good.

Now we’re getting down to bedrock. Just tell the tale as best you can. Listen to me, create an honest story – and let others judge if it suits them.

even smaller voice No-one will like it. I can’t stand being rejected again.

Here – pop some armour on when you need to champion yourself. When you’re with me you don’t need to think about that. Write and be blowed!





Overdoing it

My glamorous and talented belly-dance instructress, Jenn will tell you that overdoing it is one of my failings. She does an elegant hip drop with languid grace – I do a great dump of a thing more like a cliff collapse. I have a tendency to make up for what I lack in finesse by enthusiasm.

Such exuberance is endearing in a puppy – but in a woman of my years, possibly less so. I am not, however, arguing for half-heartedness in dance or anything else creative for that matter. I passionately believe in embracing things; in involving your core, both literally and figuratively.

But I have observed that I come unstuck in my writing when I spend all my arrows too soon. I throw similes, metaphors and period details all in at once. Maybe there will be a signpost to a later event and a character revelation – all within a couple of paragraphs. Overcomplicated,  and worst of all, confusing to the reader.

It’s not that I think readers need to have everything pointed out and labelled – but I make it hard for them to see what is important in a welter of extraneous stuff. Think overenthusiastic tour guide telling you about every architectural phase of the stately home’s building, some juicy anecdotes and a list of owners all at once.

Blenheim Palace

I do it on the minor scale too. A sentence about crossing a bridge in Selchester at first go could well be like this –

Georgiana halted on the shining river-worn cobblestones in front of the five bar tollgate, waiting impatiently for the ancient Bridgekeeper to make his grumpy hobbling way to her.

Overwritten or what.

Now it has to be said that there are genres and styles that are properly more elaborate and intricate than others.

Flight of fancy

Plain country style

But if the decoration is only there to distract the eye from a bodge, that’s not good.

Some grand court dresses were cobbled together, I believe.

So in my editing I am endeavouring to locate the one important thing I need to convey in each paragraph – and let everything else serve that. Ideally, that should apply to sentence level too.

Instead of a bottom-of-the fridge stir-fry, I want to create a memorable dish full of flavour – but not too many of them.

‘Non più di cinque’ as the Venetians have it – no more than five




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.



‘Wibbly-wobbly, wibbly-wobbly,’ sang the Baby

I owe an apology to Nick Cross.

He is this month’s moderator for the SCBWI -BI email group – and he sent round a great suggestion to get us all thinking and replying.

They say that “Weebles wobble but they don’t fall down” and much the same can be said of writers…

So, I’d like to open the floor for a wobble workshop today. Are you reeling from a rejection, a bad review or a self-inflicted confidence loss? Why not let the group know and I promise we can deliver an instant confidence boost!

I have to apologise because I said I didn’t want to wobble in a public forum – and guess what I’m going to do now?

I am definitely of an age when I can sing that irritating little jingle/earworm. In fact, I’ve often thought of it (sadly) as a something of a motto.


This would be cooler. But the principle’s the same – resilience. The more you put yourself ‘out there’, the more Life will poke your plump little tummy and send you rocking and reeling. It’s bonkers – and possibly addictive.

I put myself up for a writer-in-residence in Northumberland – and even with the support of David Almond ( how’s that for chutzpah?) – I didn’t get it. Wallop. Right over on the side looking at the battered daisies.

But then I think of the way Weebles work. They have a central weight inside which pulls them back to standing. I look at that as my core – not what I am trying to achieve but what is deep and essential; what I am. All the oscillations around that are just, well, wobbles.

So if any of my wibbles and wobbles can help some one else, great. Otherwise I will keep my wavering to myself.

And the quotation at the top? It’s from one of Jill Murphy’s marvellous Large Family books. At the end of A Piece of Cake, the elephants learn to accept what they are – large. In my case, that’s as wobbly as Bob Godfrey’s animations.