How to Be a Writer

As you probably know, I write a regular blog post for Girls Heart Books, which is a great site run by writers of fiction for girls (or mostly girls), about us, and our books, and being a writer. If you haven’t already, check it out!

GirlsHeartBooksMy last post was advice I’d given to a 16 year-old girl called Nicole, who wrote to me asking if I could give her any help finding work experience in the field of writing.

She ended her email like this: ‘Therefore, essentially what I’m asking is, do you have any/know of any work experience opportunities for a hard working, creative and versatile 16 year old?’

It was a good question, from an articulate girl who was clearly passionate about what she wanted to do.

I remember feeling exactly how she felt when I was 16, so for Nicole, and for the 16 year-old me, and for all other teens who might be wondering what they should do to make their writing dreams real … here’s what I said last week on Girls Heart Books.

“Hi Nicole

Thanks so much for your message. I can understand your frustration and I sympathise!

While I know many writers who would just love someone to help them at home, it would end up being with all the things they have to do that aren’t writing, such as finding travel receipts, and filing, and other very boring jobs. Shadowing is also a tricky one, as all the interesting stuff is going on in an author’s head. Watching her make lots of cups of tea, procrastinate, spend too much time on the web, pick up her children from school and then madly tap away on her laptop while they’re having tea would probably not teach you much about the craft you love, sadly.

I think if you got the chance to work in a publishing company one day, that would teach you a lot about the commercial decisions that have to be made for a book to be successful. So take a job like that if you can. But as you say, they probably only take people over 18. My best suggestion would be to see if you can get a weekend job – paid or otherwise – in a bookshop. Especially an independent one. Then you’ll get your hands on lots of books and see what people are reading, what they love, what they ask for, and what booksellers like to recommend. All the booksellers I know are fonts of knowledge.

But meanwhile, the best, most obvious and most important thing you can do is ….

Just write. Every day. Read a lot and practise different styles. Finish your stories. Hone your craft. Imagining ‘what it’s like to be a writer’ (which I cheerfully admit I did all the time in my teens and twenties) is actually just an act of procrastination. When it comes to it, you just work that bit out as you go along. The important part is the writing itself, and you only learn that by doing it and doing it and doing it.

If you need to get out of the house, and you can’t do the bookshop thing, then get whatever summer jobs/helping people out jobs you can. They’ll all feed your writing. Help out at an old people’s home. Visit old ladies. Work in a kids’ camp. Meet people and see how they interact with other people. Notice what makes them tick. That’s what will make your writing rich and varied later on. Much more so than doing any writer’s filing ever could.

Good luck!

So that’s what I told Nicole. I would also add ‘Write for anyone who lets you. At this stage, don’t ask to be paid. Just do it for the experience. Create your own magazine if you have to. And keep a copy of everything you do.’

If you’re wondering what you can do on the road to becoming a writer, I hope it helps just a little bit. And if you’re a writer yourself, what advice would YOU give to someone like Nicole?”

The YALC Fringe

It was an idea that had been circulating for a while. Celebrate all those teens who read. Bring together the great community of writers who create the success story that is UKYA. Let fans meet authors, and authors meet fans. But organising a big event was complicated. Nothing happened. And then Malorie Blackman, the Children’s Laureate, stepped in.

What happened next was … YALC. The Young Adult Literary Convention, attached to the London Film and Comic Con at Earl’s Court last weekend. It started on one of the hottest days of the year, (with thousands of hot bodies and no aircon – I really wouldn’t have wanted to be a Chewbacca in the Earls Court halls that day), and it proved just how popular YA fiction is, and how passionate its fans are. If you want to know what it was like, the internet’s alive with posts about how amazing it was. Check them out.

Sadly, not all of us writers got to go. For those who couldn’t, and for the bloggers and booktubers who wanted to meet them, I organised the Fringe – where we were booked for 2 hours, stayed for 4 and had a brilliant time finally putting faces to the names we know so well on the internet. We also raised nearly £200 with a raffle for the Siobhan Dowd Trust, which had paid for some of the schools to come to London for the convention.

Jo Cotterill took some great photos. Here are a few of them …

Fringe books - Jo

The raffle prizes …

photo 1-2

Fringe authors 2 - Jo Cotterill

The authors – by Jo

Fringe authors - Jo Cotterill

The authors – by Liz Kessler, featuring Jo. (Ooh, I’m sounding like a rap album.)

Fringe bloggers - Jo Cotterill

The amazing bloggers and booktubers, who talk about what we do and make our lives worthwhile

Keren and Jim - Jo

Jim Dean and Keren David

Keris and Keren - Jo

Keren and Keris Stainton and … (? can’t tell from this angle. Tell me who!)

Lee, Hilary, me - Jo

Me, in the middle, with Lee Weatherley and Hilary Freeman

Liz - Jo

Liz Kessler

Lucy - Jo

Keren, Lucy Coates, and Beth Howard


BBAs, Eggs, Boats and Quizzes

It’s been a busy few days. I’m surprised how much writing, in the middle of it all, has been done. Not a vast amount, admittedly. But some.

Perhaps it helps that this has been my view since yesterday morning:

CornwallWindowI’m staying with friends in Cornwall, because I was a guest at the Kids’ Lit Quiz World Final, which took place in Falmouth this afternoon. It was FABULOUS, as it always is, with quizmaster Wayne Mills, from New Zealand, setting and asking all the questions, and teams from Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada, the USA and the UK all competing for the KLQ cup. And I’m pleased to say that, after a thrilling contest, the UK team – from City of London School for Girls – won! There was much celebration, as you can imagine, by the home crowd.

CLSGIt’s a brilliant event and any school can enter a team of Year 7s and 8s into regional heats, to compete for the national finals. If you’re at a school with keen readers, I recommend you do. Wayne asks challenging and imaginative questions about a vast range of books, from the classics to Veronica Roth. Next year’s world final will be in the USA. Just saying …

On the way, I popped in to a boat party being held in Bath by my old editor, Imogen Cooper (as in, she used to be my editor – she’s not remotely old), to mark the first birthday of her new and amazing Golden Egg Academy. Here’s Barry Cunningham from Chicken House, entertaining writers on the Penny Lane:

PennyLaneThe Golden Egg Academy was just a plan on Imogen’s kitchen table this time last year, and now it has 200 members – all aspiring children’s writers, who get access to top-level editorial input, workshops, writing tools and more, to help them find the heart of their story and get their precious manuscripts ready to submit to agents and publishers.

What was extra lovely was that the party was organised by some of the members themselves. As Ben Illis, a visiting agent, put it in his entertaining Q&A (yes, the boat party had an ask-the-agent Q&A – it was great), one of the most valuable things members would get from the GEA was support from each other, which would last throughout their writing lives. Go find them on Twitter. They’re always at it – asking questions and talking about books. When they’re not eating cake on a boat, that is …

Tea The week before, it was all about the Best Book Awards, run by the Booktrust.

BBACartoonsI’ve written about those on my website, so you’ll find more details there. To cut a long story short, it was another party (I know, but believe me, I spend most of my life not going to parties) and it was also great fun, because it was full of children and grown-ups who are passionate about books. And I lost out to John Green in the 12-14 Best Story Book category. JOHN GREEN! So that was really, really OK.

Here, in case you need to see them, are the shoes:

BBAShoes And here is Helen Skelton, who was one of the judges …


And Michael Morpurgo …


And Mel Giederoyc, who was hilarious as the main presenter …


And this was my seat. Frankly, the event was worth it for my reserved seat sign alone.


That’s not the end of the parties. There’s another one on Saturday, for lots of writers and bloggers attending the Young Adult Literature Conference in London. If you’re on the list, I’ll see you there.

Meanwhile, I should probably get on with writing a book.

Author takeover – Much Loved Books

Today, you won’t find me here. Instead, I’ve been asked to blog-sit for Michelle at Much Loved Books, while she goes away for a week.

Michelle’s been helping me organise the Fringe event for YALC in July. Never did I think that a diagram of how to use Google Docs would have me weeping with gratitude and awe. But Michelle did one for me, and it did.

So I’ve done a little post about friendship, and you’ll find it if you click on the banner:

author takeover v2 header

Castello Aragonese

Today, I’m proofing the proofs. The penultimate chapter has been binned, by mutual agreement, and I hope we made the right decision. I think we did. Later on – much later on – readers will be able to decide for themselves because the lovely Laura at Chicken House cleverly suggested that I put it up here, as a bonus extra, which I eventually will do.

Meanwhile, as I also sit down to write 2000 words about a girl in a small house somewhere in England, setting off to the 02 in London with her sister, here is a castle, in honour of Peta Jones and her big adventure:


This is the Castello Aragonese on Ischia, off the Amalfi Coast in Italy. It’s not the castle, but in this picture, it’s very close. So if you pick up The Castle in August, this is where you’ll be this summer.


And proof pages – what are those?

As I’ve mentioned before, my most popular post on this blog is something I wrote way back in 2010, called And what is line editing exactly? It’s all about palimpsests, and it describes my experiences of getting close to the end of editing my first two books.

I was discovering then, and have since become more certain, that everyone’s experience of the editing process is different. It depends on the book, the publishing house, the way your editor (or editors) like to work, and you … Much like the writing itself, it helps to know how other people do it and see it, but eventually you just have to go your own way and work it out for yourself.

I’ve just finished book 6, The Castle, which comes out in August. So far it has been through edit 1, with editor Imogen, then edits 2 and 3 (both fairly major) with editor Bella. Edit 3 was so detailed that it effectively became the line edit. Hugely painful at the time, revisiting every sentence, testing each one for the pace of the plot and the depth and development of the main character’s emotional journey – but brilliant when it came to the next stage, the copy edit (which I normally dread), because there was very little to do.

The copy editor gets the manuscript once you’ve nailed down the story and characters and, as far as you and your editor are concerned, every paragraph is nigh-on as perfect as it’s going to get. She’s there to check the manuscript objectively for internal inconsistencies, factual inaccuracies, grammatical oddities, and deviation from house style in grammar or spelling. It can be a nightmare (‘She was outside. Now she’s inside. How did she get through the door?’ ‘How can she know [insert character's name] when she’s never met him?) But this time was different.  In fact, if you took out the copy editor’s preference for italics over apostrophes, which I was fine with, there were only about a dozen changes. Unheard of for me! I took the opportunity to make lots of fine-tuning textual changes of my own. And then the text was ‘finished’. Which meant it was ready for the typesetters. And then, a few weeks later, came the proofs.

Proof pages tend to come as a print-out – the first time, these days, that you get a paper package in the post, rather than an email – of the pages as they will look in the book. It set out in landscape, with two book pages to each side of A4 and it’s thrilling. You finally get to see the text as the reader will see it: so many words to a page, the chapter headings in that font, in that position … and the idea is to change as little as possible: only any mistakes that may have crept in.

My memories of other proof edits are dim, because by then I’m always onto the next book and this is something that has to be done quite quickly (the typesetters are waiting!), and hopefully without too much fuss. This one was fascinating.

I had expected to want to race through it as quickly as possible, then get back to the new book I’m writing, but in fact I enjoyed it. There had been a decent break between edits, whereas most of the others had been back to back, so I’d had a breathing space and could come to the text fresh. Several sentences that hadn’t flowed properly and had bothered me throughout the long writing process suddenly resolved themselves. Because the lines are much shorter in a printed book than they are in a Word document, I could spot repetitions I hadn’t noticed before. There were a few places where mistakes had crept in in the last edit – missing words, plural verbs with single subjects – but they were rare. Sharpened pencil at the ready, I hope I caught them all.

It wasn’t all criticism. There were a couple of places where I felt the writing actually flowed as I had always wanted it to, and where I was quite proud of it. But on the whole, wherever I looked, there was something I could tweak to make it better. Often a word, occasionally only a paragraph break, or a comma. (I tried to limit myself with comma changes. When you get to that level of detail, you know it’s time to step away.)

The last page was only two and a half lines long. That had to change. What reader wants to turn to the final page and discover she’s only got half a sentence to go? We agreed to format the chapter slightly differently so it would work. And at the very last minute, I took out the penultimate chapter completely. It was only two pages long, so not complicated to do from a typesetting point of view. And I realised, coming to it fresh, that much to my surprise it was totally redundant. Everything important it had to say was captured, better, in the chapter that followed. So out it’s gone.

The book is done now. I won’t see it again until it’s printed. And strange to think, having read the text hundreds and hundreds of times, I will probably never read it straight through again. I’ll read bits, to find appropriate extracts for readings in school visits, but never from cover to cover. For now, it’s on to book 7 …