Thursday, 24 April 2014

By The Seat of My Pants - Cavan Scott

According to writing lore there are two types of writers – pantsers and planners.

Pantsers write by the seat of their pants. Well, not literally. Most use pens, pencils or sometimes a keyboard, but you get my meaning - they start a story with a general idea of where it's going and then just make it up as they go along.


I am not a pantser. I am a planner. Before I start a story I can be found brainstorming and note-taking and mind mapping and all other kinds of plannery things. Next, I sit down and write a complete outline, chronicling the story from beginning to end.

Then, and only then, when the outline is done, I make myself a cup of tea, break out the biscuits and start to write.

The idea of making it up as I go along brings me out in a rash. No, don't ask where. You don't want to know.

Seriously, even the very thought of it is giving me the heebie-jeebies right now. It's probably due to the fact that I come from background of writing licensed fiction. Whether I'm writing Doctor Who, Skylanders, Angry Birds or whatever I need extensive outlines to get stories approved before I can start work. I've just got into a habit, which I can't seem to break. Try as I might, my mantra is always:

Outlines = good!

Sitting at my desk waiting to see what happens next = bad!

It's not to say that my stories don't adapt over time. Sometimes the outline needs changing as I work and I am flexible. Again, I have to be when writing licensed stuff. You never know when the licensor is going to throw a curveball when approving a story and you often have to be able to move quickly to make things work.

But when it comes to writing my own stuff the outline is always there; my constant companion, letting me know that everything is going to be all right and I really do know what I'm doing, honest guv.

This is why I am about to launch into a process that on many levels scares me silly. Tomorrow, my latest interactive e-book hits the Fiction Express website.

Snaffles the Cat Burglar,
scaring author Cavan Scott silly!
For those who don't know, Fiction Express is a literacy resource for schools. This Friday, at about 3pm, the first chapter of Snaffles the Cat Burglar goes live, ending with a cliffhanger and three options of where the story could go next.

School children all over the country read the chapter and vote for their favourite option. I get the results of the vote on Tuesday and write what the pupils decided would happen next. Chapter two is published on the Friday, ending with another three options, and the entire process starts again.


It's the second story I've written for Fiction Express. The first was The Gloom Lord at the end of last year, and I found the entire process absolutely fascinating and utterly TERRIFYING!

There was no way I could plan, not really. Yes, I had a general idea of where the story was going, but I was handing the power over to my readers and having to – you guessed it – write by the seat of my pants, depending on what they chose every week. Most of the time I was completely shocked by the decisions they made. There was no way to predict how the vote would go.

I admit, this is a rather extreme way to get over my fear of pantsing, but it's an extremely effective one. The Gloom Lord taught me to 'go with the flow' more when writing, letting the story lead me rather than the other way around. With Snaffles, I'm aiming to take it one step further, throwing in even more random possibilities that will keep everyone – including me – guessing until right to the end.

I think I know what's going to happen to our feline felon, but I can't be sure.

Hopefully, I'll come out of the other end without reducing myself to a gibbering wreck. Or find myself covered in an unsightly rash. I'll let you know - but don't worry, if it's the latter I won't be posting photos.



Cavan Scott is the author of over 60 books and audio dramas including the Sunday Times Bestseller, Who-ology: The Official Doctor Who Miscellany, co-written with Mark Wright.

He's written for Doctor Who, SkylandersJudge Dredd, Angry Birds and Warhammer 40,000 among others. He also writes Roger the Dodger and other popular characters for The Beano  but has yet to buy a black and red striped sweater. It's only a matter of time.

Cavan's website
Cavan's facebook fanpage
Cavan's twitterings

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

UNESCO World Book and Copyright Day - Maeve Friel

Happy Book Day! No, I haven´t got my dates mixed up. 23rd April,  is the UNESCO World Book and Copyright Day, a worldwide celebration of the book, the publishing industry and the intellectual property rights of the author. (Britain and Ireland as always are out of step with the rest of the world!)

The date was chosen by UNESCO because both Miguel Cervantes (1547-1616) and William Shakespeare died on that day (although that is not strictly true because of the difference in the Gregorian and Julian Calendars).

In Spain, Cervantes Day has been celebrated since 1923 and Cervantes is treated with the same veneration and respect as Shakespeare.  In Cataluña, the day coincides with the feastday of their national saint, St. George or Sant Jordi, and there is a longstanding tradition there of people exchanging roses and books on 23rd April although this custom is widespread throughout Spain now. Many bookshops present you with a rose when you buy a book and nearly all stay open late. There are thousands of book related activities throughout the country.

If you were in Madrid today, you could celebrate the life of Cervantes by going to the Convento de las Trinitarias, an old convent in the Barrio de las Letras (The Arts Quarter), where the Academy hold a memorial Mass with an empty coffin on display. Cervantes chose to be buried here because the Trinitarian Monks had helped organise his release after he was kidnapped and enslaved by Algerian corsairs on his return from the Battle of Lepanto (where he lost an arm): unfortunately, the location of the grave has long been lost.

Or you could take the train out to the old university town of Alcalá de Henares where Cervantes was born, the son of a barber-surgeon and a minor impoverished aristocrat.  His home is now a casa-museo and is a fascinating glimpse into 16th century domestic architecture.

Or you could go farther afield to Argamasilla in Castilla La Mancha. This small town claims to be the home of Don Quixote, "the place whose name I do not wish to remember"  - (el) lugar de La Mancha de cuyo nombre no quiero acordarme. It is now firmly on the literary tourist map, on the Ruta de Don Quijote, a fabulous landscape with its wide horizons, crumbling castles and dozens of white windmills on the crests of the hills.

Cervantes, always poor, always unfortunate in business and in love, was thrown into prison in Argamasilla.  It was here that he said he had the idea for Don Quijote, who may have been based on the local Duke Rodrigo de Pacheco, the duke of the long countenance, who suffered from mental illness. His ex voto portrait hangs in the local church (he´s the man in the ruff, bottom right hand corner):

Or you could simply take down a copy of Don Quixote, the Ingenious Hidalgo of La Mancha and browse. Often cited as the first modern European novel, and nominated again and again by writers as their favourite book, it is funny, touching, wise and full of beautiful language - and yes, there are boring bits too but you can skip them. There are literally hundreds of editions, including ones illustrated by Honoré Daumier, Gustave Doré, Salvador Dalí and Pablo Picasso.  In the whole literary canon, are there any profiles as recognisable as the long skinny lance-wielding hidalgo and his small round companion Sancho Panza?

Can I also recommend Don Quixote´s Delusions - Travels in Castilian Spain by Miranda France, an unusual travel book/memoir/literary biography. It will make you laugh out loud but is also a scholarly and insightful introduction to Don Quijote.

I have not been above borrowing a little from Cervantes. My books Tiger Lily - A Heroine in the Making, Tiger Lily - A Heroine with a Mission, Tiger Lily - A Heroine for All Seasons all feature a girl who, like Don Quijote, has also become a little mad from reading so many books and determines to become a heroine and escape from her home in the Middle of Nowhere in search of adventure.

"When Don Quijote went out into the world, that world turned into a mystery before his eyes. That is the legacy of the first European novel to the entire subsequent history of the novel." Milan Kundera

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Praise be to editors - by Nicola Morgan

This won't be the first time an ABBA blogger has praised editors but it would be hard to praise them too often, so I'm going to do it again.

When I had my Help! I Need a Publisher! blog, I used to come across so many writers who had turned or were planning to turn their back on the idea of aiming for trade publication because "the editing process would suppress my voice" or some such twaddle. Because twaddle it is. A good editor is a bit like a good singing teacher: nurtures and nourishes your voice so that it can sound its best. A singing teacher would also be a critic, suggesting when you've got it wrong. And you might occasionally disagree with the teacher, and you might be right, but that wouldn't make them not a great teacher.

Stick with the voice analogy for a moment: you accept how when you sing or speak you are hearing your voice through your own head, reverberating differently so that it sounds different when it hits someone's ears? Well, a good editor is that other pair of ears and can show you how you might wish to tweak or polish your voice to sound best for other ears. Because what it sounds like in your own head isn't as important as how it sounds to others.

And I am not so arrogant that I don't want to listen to a trusted expert, a trusted expert who a) wants my book to be as good as possible and b) can help me make it so.

Here I have to mention the long-suffering, eagle-eyed, hyper-intelligent and just plain darn brilliant editors working on The Teenage Guide to Stress with* me. Caz Royds and Alice Horrocks are editors to die for. And this has been a BIG task. (Notice the "with", because this is the ultimate teamwork.)

Editing fiction is a tricky thing (and they do that, too) but editing non-fiction requires a different set of skills and tuning. Five levels of headings - and have we at last got the hierarchy of information right??? Is the order of material right? Is everything perfectly balanced and weighted? What do we do about the fact that the author is paranoid about leaving things out and yet perhaps it can't all go in? Have we got the voice just right for 12 year-olds and 18 year-olds and adults? Is it sufficiently serious and yet not too dark? How do you tackle blushing and self-harming, sweating and suicidal thoughts all in one book? How deep should the contents list go? Index? Wahhhh! Glossary or not? And then the design issues that come with non-fiction become part of the editorial process - and here a big mention for the so-patient and talented Beth Aves, who somehow manages to incorporate every text change or order switch without complaint.

The complications of this rather large book meant that we have gone to the wire, time-wise, with last-minute "ARGGGGH"s flying back and forth, and yet with humour, respect and mutual admiration all the time. We go to print on April 29th and I'm sending them fizz to celebrate. We may have to have a Skype party!

Next project: The Demented Writer's Guide to Self-Inflicted Stress. You can all contribute!

NOTE: For the chance to win a copy of The Teenage Guide to Stress, signed on or before publication day, visit my blog and leave a comment on any/all April/May posts with "Exam tips" in the title. Each comment = one entry to the random draw, so comment on each post if you wish!


Nicola Morgan's free Brain Sane newsletter is full of links and articles about the brain, reading, stress, positive psychology and mental health. Next issue is a special one on SLEEP, with gorgeous sleepy giveaways and books to be won. 

Monday, 21 April 2014

Anyone for Easter Solitaire? - Megan Rix

Did you know that there’s actually an Easter Solitaire game on the internet? I never let myself play games on my computer because I know it'd be too easy for me to get addicted and I'd end up spending all my days playing instead of writing. l don’t switch the TV on during the day either - for the same reason. :(

I was only looking up card games for this blog because I’d read that there are more ways to arrange a deck of cards than the number of atoms in the world!!!!?????!!!!

Quite often I hear authors say: l wanted to write a story about such and such eg. vampires (lions (hedgehogs) headless zombies / Cinderella etc etc but I didn’t because so and so had already done it.

But the thing is, I always want to say, the way you tell a story is personal to you. Even if you start off with the same characters you will end up with a different story by the end because your version is different to everyone else’s. There’s lots of lovely writing exercises at

Every character we write about has multiple choices to choose from and every plot a myriad of twists and turns.

There's a whole TV channel devoted to crime dramas and each of them are their own unique selves.


Just like the storyteller and the story.

Hope you all have/had a very happy and creative Easter break. I'm still dancing with joy at my first ever book award. 'The Victory Dogs' has won Stockton Children's Book of the Year for 2014. Many many thanks to all the children that voted for it. :)

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Is Competition Good for Us? by Joan Lennon

Children's writers are a bit like fish in those shrinking ponds in a drought.  We're not yet at the stage of trying to breathe mud, but still, times are tight.  So, is competition good for us?

First, watch the video ...

Now, discuss!

Joan Lennon's website.
Joan Lennon's blog.

Saturday, 19 April 2014

It's Our Turn Now! Celebrating Project #UKYA - Lucy Coats

If you haven't already heard about it, I'd like to introduce you to Project UKYA, set up in September 2013 by Lucy Powrie, a teenage Force for Good, and a manic bibliophile. Essentially, Lucy has come up with the brilliant idea of blowing the trumpet loudly and publicly for UK Young Adult authors and their books, with a different 'project' happening each month. Right now there's a marvellously wide-ranging series of chats going on on Twitter under the hashtag #ukyachat. People are sharing books they love, and talking about different aspects of UKYA. Next month a new longterm project launches - a monthly (to begin with) 'livechat' on YouTube, talking about the latest UKYA releases, discussing UKYA books and much more, including special guests and author Q and As.

Why does this matter? It matters because YA from the US has held the balance of power in the public perception of YA for far too long. While the likes of Twilight, The Hunger Games and The Mortal Instruments have all sold millions of copies and had films made in a relatively short time after publication, UK YA authors have been lagging behind in terms both of sales and of international recognition. We need to try and change that, because the pool of UK writing talent is immense, and yes, I'm going to say it, just as good if not better than anything coming out of America. All of us who care about books and reading need to work together to get the word out there to YA readers about just how good British books are at the moment.

This is absolutely not to denigrate US writers - I'm very excited currently about Laini Taylor and Sarah J Maas's forthcoming titles, among others. It's just that I'm equally excited - or more so - about Clare Furniss's Year of the Rat, Keren David's Salvage, Teri Terry's Shattered, Claire McFall's Bombmaker, Ruth Warburton's Witchfinder, Gillian Philip's Icefall, Ellen Renner's Tribute, James Dawson's Cruel Summer, Candy Gourlay's Shine and the new film of Anthony McGowan's The Knife that Killed Me. And that's just touching the surface of what's out there right now. I could spend the rest of this post just making a list of great UKYA books and writers (don't worry, I won't).

So, really what I'm asking you to do here is to support Project UKYA. Follow it on Twitter and take part in the chat, join its Facebook page, read and comment on the blog - but above all, spread the word about its existence to everyone you know who loves good books. UKYA books and authors deserve to be known and celebrated all over the world - let's be the pebbles which start the avalanche.

Friday, 18 April 2014

Creative Writing- can it be taught? - Linda Strachan

There has been a lot of debate about whether creative writing can be taught and whether it should be taught.  
I do believe that you can teach certain aspects of creative writing - but then I would say that, having written a book about it!   
Some say writers should be free to find their own way, to experiment. That is fine, but why reinvent the wheel?
I think it is akin to someone who wants to draw buildings or street scenes being told that no one should teach them about perspective, they should find out by trial and error.

There are aspects of any skill, including writing, that can be taught, there is always something new to learn and I think the best teachers in any field will encourage students to go out and experiment, but they give them some kind of board to dive from.
It is important that the people who are teaching have some kind of credibility and publishing credentials. There are so many universities and colleges offering creative writing courses and I often wonder how many of them give their students any insight into the realities of what it takes to survive as a writer in this day and age. Do they tell them how uncertain a career path it is, that even if the book they write on the course gets published (with lots of time, help and support when writing it), that is no guarantee for the future?

I get a real buzz from working with emerging writers of any age. I love encouraging people to explore their creativity, and watching as they discover they have written something that surprises them; seeing ideas blossom into stories and their characters growing into fully fleshed out people.
We all know that writing can be scary, and sharing it with others is sometimes the most difficult thing, which is why creating a sense of trust within a group of students is so important. They should feel safe, and confident that any comments though honest, will not be destructive.  Whether a novice writing in secret, or an experienced writer waiting to hear what people think of your new book, we all feel wary when putting our latest creation out there. People may not like it!  But we keep on writing, because we love it, and hate it, and we just have to do it.
Moniack Mhor

I recently spent a weekend at Scotland's Creative Writing Centre, Moniack Mhor.  I've been there a few times before, tutoring Arvon courses much like those discussed in the post last Sunday The Arvon Habit by Sheena Wilkinson.   

This time I was working with a group of adults both at Moniack Mhor and at the Abriachan Forest Trust, on a short course called Words in the Landscape, and what a landscape it is!
View from my window at Moniack Mhor

We spent one day at Abriachan walking in the forest, being inspired by our surroundings. 

It was wonderful to stand quietly in the middle of the forest and -

LISTEN to the quiet, and the noises we often miss because we are talking or making noise ourselves -
Abriachan Forest Trust cabin classroom

LOOK at everything around us from the great majesty of trees to the smallest insect walking on the water - 

FEEL the wind against your skin, the warmth of the early spring sunshine -

IMAGINE what creatures might have inhabited these woods thousands of years ago, or in an imaginary world far away.  

Artist's Impression of Straw Bale Studio

On the second afternoon at Moniack Mhor some of us were lucky enough to be the first to try out the newly finished Straw Bale Studio, an 'eco friendly tutorial space. It was really exciting to see it finished.

I had watched some of the early stages of the build when I was there in August last year.

The group created some great stories and ideas for further writing.

I always come away inspired and ready to get back to my own writing. 

Running courses in creative writing reminds me to make sure my readers will care about my characters; to make the plot layered, the characters flawed and fascinating; to work harder on dialogue, and at making the plot grab the reader and pull them through the story.  It sharpens my critical senses and reminds me of all the things I have been working on with my students.  

Teaching creative writing is hard work but rewarding in so many ways.


Linda Strachan is the author of over 60 books for all ages from picture books to teenage novels and the writing handbook Writing For Children  

Her latest YA novel is Don't Judge Me  

Linda  is  Patron of Reading to Liberton High School, Edinburgh 

blog:  Bookwords