Showing posts with label writing. Show all posts
Showing posts with label writing. Show all posts

Wednesday, 13 January 2021

Whoops - I did it again! Sheena Wilkinson

I don't seem to learn. Eight books published and it doesn't get easier. What am I moaning about this month? About myself and how s-l-o-w I seem to be to catch on. 

Back in June I talked to Sophia Bennett for her wonderful podcast Prepublished (and if you like Awfully Big Blog Adventure you're pretty much guaranteed to love Prepublished). I was being terribly frank about the big mistake I'd made when writing my novel Hope against Hope, which was published last year. Can you believe it, I told Sophia and all the listeners - because one thing about me, I do own my mistakes -- I wrote the whole book -- four drafts of it! -- from a completely wrong point of view! The story was there, the setting was there -- but the main character was all wrong. I had to rewrite the book from scratch, from a completely new point of view. What an eejit I was!

Well, I remember thinking at the time, I won't make THAT mistake again. 

Except I did. Exactly the same mistake. I wrote a book. I thought it was pretty good. I sent it to my agent. She disagreed. I was upset. I showed it to a trusted writer friend (Thank you, Keren David, I owe you!). She said ... your agent was right. And she told me why. She didn't say You've written it from the wrong point of view, but she helped me see that my main character wasn't doing the book any favours. As soon as I imagined a new heroine  I could see at once how much better the book could be. 

The thing was, I was using a character I knew and loved, Stella, the heroine of Star by Star and a character in Hope against Hope. I had this idea for what she might do in the 1930s. And it was a good idea, but it wasn't for her.  I was trying to make her fit a world that wasn't right for her. And she became grumpy and twisted and lost all the characteristics that made me love her as a heroine. It wasn't her fault; it was mine. 

I started this book back in April 2020. I hadn't written since the start of the pandemic. I was blocked and scared and aimless -- like pretty much everyone I knew. Writing a new book seemed to ground me. This was something I could control; this was something I could do. The words mounted up giving me a sense of achievement and relief -- the world had become unfamiliar, but this, this making up stories, this was an old friend; this was what I did. Except, in literally using an old friend, Stella -- which, I can see now, I might have done because I was too anxious (or lazy?) to make up a new one, I scuppered my book. 

It's OK. I have a new heroine. I took my time getting to know her and I'm confident this time that she's the right person in the right story. She's new and shiny and doesn't trail backstory with her. A new heroine for a new year. 

You'd think I'd learn. 

(If you want to hear me talking about this and other stuff, or hear other writers talking about their processes, do check out

As for me, I'm getting back to my new heroine. See you next month. 

Monday, 4 January 2021

Kids TV in the time of Covid, a success story - Ciaran Murtagh

Being a writer, the logistics of how I do my job in times of Covid doesn't change that much. Sure I might drink more Coke Zero and stay in my shed longer than is healthy, but I still use my brain and my computer to try and find funny things for people to do. 

The same cannot be said for everyone else who helps make TV. While I don't have to do anything different,  they've had to reinvent their entire jobs. 

Given that some of the TV shows I contributed to over lockdown are starting to see the light of day, I wanted to give a shout out to those unsung, gunge splattered heroes of kids TV who have done everything Eastenders and Strictly managed to do only quicker, funnier and with about an eighth of the budget. 

First up -Crackerjack. There's a whole new series on the way and all of it was filmed back in October in a time of great uncertainty. The Christmas special aired on BBC One over, well Christmas, and you can still see it HERE

Not only was it filmed in Manchester, at a time when Manchester was facing flip flopping restrictions, it is a show that relies heavily on a full studio audience bellowing it's catchphrase repeatedly at the top of their voices - not very Covid compliant. There's also lots of slapstick and non Covid compliant gunge with kids battling against each other in a series of silly games. 

Almost everything had to change. 

The studio audience went and games were made socially distanced. The presenters Sam and Mark were put in one bubble, the sketch cast in another and all the kids on the show had to maintain social distance from each other while doing very silly things. The crew had to work differently too. The only time anyone got close to the kids they had to be in a full body suit costume - the frankly terrifying cabbage monster - but it was the only way they could make Double or Drop work. 

They got ten episodes made, the very least you can do is check it out! I bet you won't even spot the joins, which is testament to the work that went in to making it happen. Take a bow. 

Big Fat Like began a few weeks ago. This show was filmed on location and is a parody of the internet - no pressure then. 

It was filmed over the summer as areas went in and out of lockdown. To find a location that they could definitely use for the duration of the shoot took a number of tries and a lot of patience. The cast were in a bubble in the location house, and the production crew were kept outside in a van, filming the whole thing as if it were an Outside Broadcast. Sketch shows are notoriously difficult to get right at the best of times, to film one while the majority of the crew aren't even in the same building is a stroke of genius. To make it funny to boot - take a bow! Catch up HERE

Danny and Mick began filming on the 9th March. They then stopped filming pretty quickly afterwards and started again in the summer. They have just delivered two series worth - or nineteen episodes -  of top quality laugh out loud telly and it all starts on CBBC TODAY.  

Now if that isn't something to shout about I don't know what is. Filming on location in a leisure centre is hard enough. Continuing to film while it pops in and out of lockdown and customers are allowed in and out of the venue is insane! 

The cast had to isolate for two weeks before filming started and then they remained in cast and crew bubbles throughout as they shot all 19 episodes for the series in under three weeks during August and September. To have finished filming in September and have it all ready to go by the first week in January demands a medal. They won't get one so this'll have to do.  Please check it out. I genuinely love this show. In a parallel universe it's on BBC One every Saturday. In this one you can find it HERE

Those shows were all live action, which posed a certain set of challenges, Dave Spud is a cartoon and that posed a whole load of different ones. 

We started writing this one in January 2020 and the first episodes hit the screen right after Christmas. You know the long list of names you see at the end of a cartoon? They all worked on this show without ever being in the same room. Some of them weren't even in the same country. The voice talent often recorded their parts remotely, sometimes in makeshift home studios with direction being given over a video link. Once again, I have no idea how they did it, I just know they did. Dave Spud is a quintessentially British cartoon. If you haven't seen it please do have a look - Basement Jaxx did the theme tune. It is THAT good. 

That's a small selection of what's been coming through, but by no means everything I - and many others - have worked on. All have kept going with a cheery disposition despite massive and varying disruption, making television for children because it's what they do best. 

I hope you enjoy watching it when it comes out and if you do, this year, of all years, take the time to watch the credits - these guys deserve every single one. 

Tuesday, 15 December 2020

The Writing Gift - by Rowena House


For December, I want to be festive and positive, despite Brexit and Covid19 and Climate Change. Here, I wanted to say how precious the good things are in bad times. Family. Home. Nature. Writing.

Our new puppy brightens the future and softens the shadows of grief.

Sadly, I can’t force festive positivity today. It’s Monday morning, and the piece I drafted on Sunday is trite, with a naff extended metaphor about writing as a gift. What can I salvage from it?

Writing has been a gift this year. Not the doing of it; that’s been hard for a lot of us. But planning the work-in-progress, however slowly and sporadically, provided the time and head space to investigate and imagine, to analyse and gain perspective.

This Yuletide I’m planning to light a candle to whatever ancestors bequeathed us writers with the genetic code for curiosity of mind, plus the ability and drive to turn thoughts into words.

This quote, attributed to Jack Kerouac, sums up this end-of-year feeling nicely: “One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple.” 


I’m also deeply grateful for the sense of connection with other writers throughout the year. Thank you especially to writer friends for long, supportive phone calls, and to Arvon for Zoom masterclasses. Writers on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter have kept open windows into our world, too. Thank you.

As I blathered on about yesterday (having googled writing as a gift), creativity is also about giving. If the ideas and insights we get from research, planning and plotting are what we receive, it is the stories we create out of them that we give back.

See? I said it was trite. Nevertheless, in difficult times, I find that separation reassuring.

The intrinsic value of writing (the received bits) can stand alone for now; there’s no need to worry about findings readers or pitching to editors; that way madness lies.

It’s OK, too, if the forge of inspiration turns out to be stone cold (to mix metaphors, soz.)  Just stack the ore of the story into a corner; there’ll be time to sift through it one day.

A form of giving that’s been hard to accomplish this year is teaching creative writing. I hugely admire all of you who’ve kept going remotely. Young people need to express their thoughts and feelings more than ever. Congratulations if you gave them that gift.

Ordinarily, I try to develop these blogs into something worth reading, but the puppy needs walking, logs brought in (our central heating boiler died), There are business calls to make, an invoice to be emailed, then we've got to go to my elderly dad's.

The Christmas tree is still in its pot in a quiet corner of the garden where it lives between its short weeks of glory, and for a few more days the decorations will have remain in their boxes.  

Meanwhile, I hope you are better prepared. More festive and positive. Feeling resilient in the face of whatever 2021 will fling at us.

I wish you as happy a midwinter festival as your circumstances allow, and send love to those grieving, sick, fearful, hungry or homeless here and abroad.

May the New Year be a creative, caring time for you and yours.

Sunday, 15 November 2020

Back to basics: suspense - by Rowena House

Suspense happens in the stillness of your story, in the gaps between the action sequences, in the moments between the promise of something dreadful and its arrival.’

The value of this advice from thriller writer Steven James came home big time the other day as I yawned my way through a film on Netflix featuring a young Laura Croft overcoming one gigantic calamity after another without the benefit of an actual plot.

IMHO, the scriptwriters should have taken note of Mr James’s view that, ‘Contrary to what you may have heard, the problem of readers being bored isn’t solved by adding action but instead by adding apprehension. Instead of asking, “What needs to happen?” ask, “What can I promise will go wrong?”’

Personally, I’m going to nail ‘What can I promise will go wrong?’ above my writing desk. Here’s the link if you’d like to read his article for the Writers’ Digest in full:

As well as a planning tool, I found it an excellent checklist of techniques to shoehorn suspense into a dragging scene. For example...


Applying his advice to ‘include more promises and less action’ injected much-needed adrenalin into a reworked opening for the work-in-progress: a night-time chase through the moonless, torch-less streets of 17th century York.

Counter-intuitively, editing out most of the action and focussing on the protagonist’s psychological reactions to his sinister pursuer highlighted the drama of the moment far more than choreographing the pursuit itself.

Analysing why the edit worked better than the original plot- and setting-based scene flagged up an unexpected answer to a question that’s occupied me a lot this year. That is, what are the limits of intuition when planning and drafting a novel?

Specifically, at what point does the practical business of putting words in order demand answers to fundamental questions about genre, psychic distance, voice and point-of-view?

In practice, adding suspense imposed a voice on the scene, one that created intimacy with the protagonist and bought the psychic distance closer: we’re inside Tom’s head, experiencing his fear.

Was that planned or pantsing? Neither, really. It was a matter of making a creative decision, then seeing where it led. In this case, technique + intuition = an editable scene. Ye-ha.

Googling ‘suspense’ threw up more generic advice, like ‘building suspense involves withholding information and raising key questions that pique readers’ curiosity.’

A lot of blogs refer to Alfred Hitchcock’s model of suspense, a ticking time-bomb under a table, where the audience can see the bomb is about to go off but the characters at the table can’t. Here’s a nice piece using this model to talk about the difference between surprise and suspense:

Robert McKee in Story uses different terminology for these techniques. He says suspense builds when “characters and audience move shoulder to shoulder through the telling, sharing the same knowledge’ and neither knows how events will play out. This builds audience empathy with the protagonist; we care about the outcome of the story as well as being curious.

McKee calls the next step up (where the audience knows about a danger before a character) dramatic irony. ‘What in Suspense would be anxiety about the outcome and fear for the protagonist’s well-being, in Dramatic Irony becomes dread for the moment the character discovers what we already know and compassion for someone we see heading for disaster.’

For film-makers, it’s relatively easy to share ‘hidden’ knowledge with an audience through the omniscient eye of the movie camera. For the novelist, this technique begs questions about viewpoint and the number of narrators, since a reader can’t know more than a first person protagonist, or a very close third, unless you allow for prologues or other ‘telling’ devices.

And there we are, back to the basic questions I’m still asking about the WIP.

At the moment, it’s being told in close third person present, with multiple viewpoint characters, so McKee’s dramatic irony is an option. More importantly, however, the opening scene must engage empathy and pique curiosity, and suspense was definitely the missing ingredient in its earlier iterations.

It’s been fun as well as useful to go back to basics this month, rediscovering things I’d forgotten and stumbling across the new. I’d love to hear how and where you use suspense, and if it comes naturally to your storytelling.

In the meantime, happy writing – if lockdown allows.


Twitter: @HouseRowena


PS I did a live interview about The Goose Road for Hillingdon Libraries on Armistice Day. If you fancy a gander, I’ve posted a copy of the recording onto my Facebook page:



Wednesday, 4 November 2020

Writing Animation - by Ciaran Murtagh

Over the past few weeks I've been asked to give some hints and tips on writing animation so I thought I'd put a few thoughts down here for anyone who might be interested.

As ever with these things, they're not hard and fast rules, nor a guarantee of success, but they're certainly things I wish I'd known before falling headlong into the industry. 

1) Watch lots of animation. Lots. 

Everyone knows that the way to be a good writer is to read, the same goes for animation - watch. Watch as much animation as you can, particularly for the age group you would like to write for. 

There are HUGE differences in tone, subject matter and style in animation and it's good to get a feel for what's out there before you start trying to do it yourself. 

Trawl through the BBC player, have a look at the furthest reaches of Netflix and Disney Plus, and see what's on CITV. They all broadcast cartoons, but they're all very different. Something like The Rubbish World of Dave Spud on CITV is very different from Dennis and Gnasher Unleashed on CBBC,  yet both are about British kids for predominantly British audiences. 


Channels have a house style and a house tone. They are keen to be distinct from each other and that is reflected in what they commission and how they are written. Have a look where you might fit best and work towards your natural home. Of course, over time you'll be able to bounce about, but in the first instance specialise. 

2) Age Range

Animation for kids, much like books, falls into age ranges. There are predominantly two - Preschool and Junior. So CBeebies, Disney Junior, Nick Junior, Milkshake are predominantly preschool, up to the age of about 6 give or take. Other channels such as CBBC, Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network aim older. 

Within all that there are also lots of different styles from something like Hey Duggee to Sarah and Duck to Messy Goes to Okido to Paw Patrol all falling under preschool. Tone is all important. Once you've narrowed down where you think you might fit channel wise, have a look at the age group you prefer to write for and analyse the content the channel shows. 

Are you more didactic, something like Numberblocks for example, or are you more left field - something like Hey Duggee. 

3) Know the Rules

All animation is different but most have consistent rules. Episodes are usually 11 minutes long, sometimes they might be 22 minutes long but that's not so common. For younger audiences there is more flexibility in length with some being 5 or 8 minutes long. Do your research and make sure that when you come to write you are writing a story that is exactly the length of the animation - it can't be a few seconds longer or shorter, it has to be what it is. 

Make sure your stories are stand alone, most series still broadcast self contained episodes and they want them to be broadcast in any sequence. You don't need to have seen episode 12 to understand episode 13 or vice versa. Sometimes you might get the opportunity to pitch a double episode, but they'll tell you that before you pitch. 

With the onset of streaming services this is changing somewhat, particularly with animation for older children, and series arcs are becoming more common - but again, they'll tell you if that's the case and it is still the exception rather than the rule. 

2D animation is usually cheaper to produce and there can be greater flexibility in creating new characters or locations. However, in the first instance try and reuse what you know already exists -  it will make you very popular. 

3D animation is expensive and it is often harder to make new characters and locations. Bare that in mind when pitching stories. There will never be a cast of thousands and asking for a new character to be created is a big ask unless the story really needs it. 

Know how many episodes are in a season - usually 52, but sometimes 26 or 13. Animation is usually commissioned in batches of that number. 

Know what has gone before, you will need to avoid overlapping with ideas or stories that have been  used in previous seasons. One of the keys to being a successful animation writer is looking for the gaps in a series that haven't been plugged yet. What stories haven't they told with the characters and locations in play and can you come up with something imaginative and new that they haven't yet used. 

4) Tips for Success

Listen to your head writers / producers and ask them questions if you're unsure. Even if you manage to come up with a great story that no one else has told and utilises things you know exist in the story world, there may be a reason why it hasn't been told before that you don't know about.  

Different channels have different rules and regulations and wish lists for what they can and can't do. Your producers and head writers will know that and will try and guide you towards what's possible. They want you to have strong story ideas, but they also want you to listen to guidance, you can have the best story idea in the world but if they know the BBC will never show it they have to guide you towards a version of the story that they will. 

Be prolific. When pitching ideas have six or seven topline stories that you might tell. Pitch them all and you may get one or two away. Pitch lots of shorter ideas rather than spending a long time on one or two. Producers are looking for 52 episodes, if they receive a document with six ideas, they'll usually have to dismiss a couple for not being feasible, a couple for being ideas other writers are working on and what's left over is the sweet spot! You stand more chance this way. 

The first animation I was commissioned on, I pitched over 50 stories until I got one away - be tenacious, and be persistent and learn from your mistakes. 

Keep to deadlines. 

Be nice. 

That's your lot - if there's any questions pop them in the comments and I'll do my best to answer. Good luck. 

Friday, 30 October 2020

Getting the First Draft Down - By Tamsin Cooke

 I don't know if any of you have ever done NaNoWriMo?

It's when you aim to write 50 000 words in one month, about 1600 words a day. It takes place in November and is a great way of keeping you inspired and on target. There's lots of support and it's free to join. In case you are interested, here's a link to their website

I did it a couple of years ago, and by the end of the month, I had a first draft of a story. Admittedly it needed an awful lot of work - but first drafts always do! Unfortunately the book didn't sell, but NaNo taught me that I am capable of knuckling down. 

And so I am planning to do it again this year. I have an idea and I'm ready to write. In fact I've been ready to write for a while but I have been procrastinating. My house is clean, the dog has never been walked so much, and I might be going for the Olympic record in bingewatching Netflix. Never have such few words been written in such a long time. 

I have written a beginning but I seem to be preoccupied in making sure it has a killer first few chapters. But I can work that out later. Instead of going over and over the same few pages, I need to get the first draft down to make sure the story actually works. Which is why I am doing NaNo. And once the words are down, then I can play with them.

It's great to know that most authors (possibly even all of them) hate their first drafts too.

"The first draft of anything is shit," by Ernest Hemingway

'For me, it's always been a process of trying to convince myself that what I'm doing in a first draft isn't important. One way you get through the wall is by convincing yourself that it does not matter. No one is ever going to see your first draft. Nobody cares about your first draft. And that's the thing that you may be agonzing over, but honestly, whatever you're doing can be fixed ... For now, just get the words out. Get the story down however you can get it down, then fix it," by Neil Gaiman

"I just give myself permission to suck. I delete about 90 percent of my first drafts ... so it doesn't really matter much on a particualr day I write beautiful and brilliant prose that will stick in the minds of my readers froever becasue there's a 90 percent chance I'm just gonna delete whatever I write anyway. I find this hugely liberating," by John Green

"The first draft is a skeleton... just bare bones. The rest of the story comes later with revising," by Judy Blume

So I am going to give myself permission to write an awful first draft. I will embrace the mess and plan on fixing it later!

Tamsin Cooke
Author of The Scarlet Files Series and Stunt Double Series
Twitter: @TamsinCooke1 

Thursday, 1 October 2020

HELLO OCTOBER! by Penny Dolan

Well, well, well! October, here you are already, sneaking in right at the end of September.

 Pumpkin - WikipediaI pretended not to notice, but I knew you'd arrive eventually.

I could hear you coming along through the leaves, chuntering that you'd need a post written and chuckling "Ho ho ho, let's catch her out . . ."  

I admit I've done hardly anything and been almost nowhere because of You Know What and all the changes it has brought about.

 Unfortunately, an un-exciting life is no use for any sensible blog purposes, is it? I totally agree.  

 Meanwhile, the whole "Wow, it's really Autumn now and time for jolly pumpkins!" vibe doesn't help either. One can have too much wind and rain and orange faces.  Especially orange faces.

 Furthermore, the Add and Minus system on my bathroom scales is surely adrift. How much? The pure anxiety of it has driven me to baking. More apple-cake, anyone?

Apple cake - Wikipedia

  But now you're here, New Month, I need you to give me a bit of help. 

I have an awkward (but interesting) novel full of oddly conflicted (but interesting) characters with a complex (but interesting) plot that I'm trying to untangle. Some inspiration and relaxation might be needed. 

So what can you offer me, October? I've been looking around . . . 

 First of all, some delight, because today is National Poetry Day.

The theme this year is VISION, as in Twenty-twenty vision, so do look up the National Poetry Day website for ways of spreading the word about poems as well as watching for #ShareAPoem tweets. 

I'm going to place a poetry anthology or two by my desk and around the house. When I'm pacing restlessly from room to room because the weather's bad or when my mind is dull, I know that pausing to read a few poems - known or unknown - can open up the world and words again. 

Poems on the Underground : Gerard Benson (editor ...

But is there anything else, dear October? Something to bring back a bit of light and air? Another way of fanning the flame?

What about your alternative name?  

Aren't you also, in some circles known as INKTOBER?

I first saw INKTOBER mentioned on Twitter, where the artist John Shelley tweets @StudioNIB every day, offering the most amazing, surreal illustrations of ordinary words or expressions. Whenever I spot one of John's tiny one-inch ink drawings, I feel cheered and more encouraged about everything. Another person's creativity is definitely a daily joy for me. John Shelley blogs about his "Miniaturisms" here 

Meanwhile, INKTOBER makes a joyous international festival of the month, encouraging artists to display work on Instagram. INKTOBER even has a list of 2020's daily word prompts, available already, so artists can prepare their ideas and work for showing it on the "right word"  day.  Such intriguing words!

Here's a link to the origins of INKTOBER, although if you do post your work, be wary of plagiarism and copyright issues.  

 So, October, what do you think?

Might a pot of pens and pencils - rather than a keyboard - be a good way to loosen my current word-tangled tome? Just as an experiment for myself, without any need or fear of public presentation? See if my images can feed my own imagination? Worth a try?

Colored pencil - Wikipedia

Speaking of words, maybe INKTOBER'S prompt list might make a good starting point for a few word-picture morning exercises too?

 Wishing you all as good an October as possible. 

 Penny Dolan


ps.  Linking, via the new improved Blogger, doesn't seem as simple as before. Apologies for the two-step links and the reduction in service.