Friday, 31 October 2014

When Life Gives You Lemons…

EDGE Author Sara Grant shares the life lesson she learned from one of her characters

I’ve started writing a new middle grade project (for any non-writers, that’s a book for nine-to-twelve-year-old readers). It’s an idea that I’ve wanted to write for a long time but never found the right character, setting, plot or voice – until now. It’s one of those deeply personal pieces that I’m still trying to determine if I’ll send it out in the world or keep it for myself.

Long about chapter thirteen my main character Devie decided to give me a little advice. She’s having a bad day. You know one of those days that goes from miserable to epic disaster. No matter what she tries, she can’t quite turn it around; she actually only makes matters worse. (I’m not a sadist. That’s what writers are supposed to do to their characters.) I’ve had a few of those days recently, but Devie – instead of giving up or wallowing in self-pity – discovers another option. She says, “When life hands you lemons, give someone else chocolate.”

So I decided to follow twelve-year-old Devie’s lead. When something bad happens, I’m going to do something nice for someone else. Receive a rejection. Send someone flowers. It’s sort of like ‘paying it forward’, except that phrase usually means passing on a kindness. I’m switching it up. Receive a nasty review. Write a lovely review for someone else's book.

And I’m not alone in my lemon-to-chocolate philosophy. I was preparing the session I’ll host at this weekend’s British Society of Children’s Book Writers andIllustrators (SCBWI) conference. I’m facilitating a discussion on what authors can do to market their work. I asked a few editor friends: What’s the most important thing  writers/illustrators can do to promote their books? (I think the real answer is: write the best book they can, but let’s assume they’ve done that.) One editor’s response was surprising. “Spread positivity. Take a karmic approach – give love, get love.”

Writing novels for children and teens is a tough business. Even JK Rowling’s Harry Potter received more than twenty rejections. Take a quick scan of the book reviews on Amazon. There’s plenty of lemon-language there. I’ve always loved to write, but being published means that I need to develop Teflon-like skin. 

And now I've got a new way of dealing with the dips of publishing's rollercoaster.

I won’t tell you exactly how my month has gone, but I will say that my niece, best friend and my cousin’s sons have surprise packages heading their way. 

Sara Grant has written two edgy teen novels – Dark Parties and Half Lives – and a funny series for young readers – Magic Trix. For more information about Sara and her books, visit or follow her on Twitter @AuthorSaraGrant

Friday, 24 October 2014


Author Paula Rawsthorne says there's still time to get behind the campaign to Save Liverpool

Library services around the country continue to be under siege. Every week we hear of more councils closing much needed community libraries in their bid to make cuts.
As you may know Liverpool City Council is proposing to close eleven of its nineteen libraries and a final decision will be made in November.

Authors Cathy Cassidy and Alan Gibbons are running a tremendous campaign to stop the closures. They are showing the council the strength of feeling and support for these libraries and demonstrating how essential they are for the city. Their efforts have already seen hundreds of writers, actors and celebrities sign a petition to ask the council to reconsider and they’ve gained much needed media coverage. 

Cathy is asking people everywhere (not just in Liverpool) to write to the Mayor of Liverpool, Joe Anderson, to tell him what libraries mean to them in a ‘Love Letter to Liverpool’s Libraries’. 

A spokesperson for Liverpool City Council said: “All letters and emails received regarding the review of the library service will be fed into the on-going consultation”. So please consider adding your voice to the campaign to save the Liverpool Libraries. 

You can send your letter to Mayor Anderson at the Town Hall, High Street, Liverpool L2 3SW or email to: 

Here’s ‘The Guardian’ article about the campaign

You can read more ‘Love Letters to Liverpool Libraries’

Below is my email to Mayor Anderson in support of the Liverpool Libraries.


“There is not such a cradle of democracy upon the earth as the Free Public Library, this republic of letters, where neither rank, office, nor wealth receives the slightest consideration.” ~Andrew Carnegie

Dear Mayor Anderson,

I’m a writer who lives in Nottingham but was born in Liverpool and on a recent trip home I went to visit Central Library. It’s somewhere I used to go to revise when I was in sixth form but I hadn’t seen it since its refurbishment. It didn’t disappoint. It’s a stunning place and the Picton Reading Room is a beautiful, inspiring space. Walking around the building I felt proud of the council and all who helped to bring this fabulous redevelopment to fruition. However, I was upset and dismayed to hear of Liverpool City Council’s proposal to close 11 of its 19 libraries.

I understand the context of these proposed closures. I understand the horrendous cut in the council’s overall budget that central government has imposed. I know that other services will suffer too and that you have hard decisions to make. However, I urge you to think of the impact now, and in the future ,of closing these libraries.
You may have done your analysis of the ‘performance’ of these individual libraries, but how can you put a price on the life-long benefits of everyone having free access to books. If the number of users in these particular branches are low, then the council’s challenge should be to encourage people into the libraries. We know that in the UK four million children have no access to books at home so, particularly in deprived areas, it’s important to make libraries as inviting and enticing as possible, not to shut them down!

My brother is a teacher in a Liverpool school where the majority of students come under ‘pupil premium’. The community libraries in the vicinity of the school are on the proposed closure list. Mayor Anderson, are you going to let these closures go ahead and so compound social and cultural deprivation in the most disenfranchised areas of the city?
It’s easier for councils to keep libraries open in middle class areas were they may be well used and any threat will be countered by very vocal protests by local residents. However, closing libraries in deprived areas is a slap in the face for people in those communities. What message does this give to the community about the city’s investment in them and their future? What hypocritical message does this give to people about the importance of reading and learning in light of the council declaring Liverpool a ‘City of Readers.’

One of the reasons that I love libraries is because they are buildings of democracy, open to everyone. When I visit my local library I see little kids and parents enjoying story-time with the librarian, I see job seekers using the internet, I see excluded students being taught by tutors, I see groups of elderly people talking animatedly about books, I see people, who are clearly sleeping rough, able to sit in the warmth and read the newspapers, I see artists displaying their work, students (young and old) revising for exams, people being taught computer skills and readers lost in the world of their chosen book. All libraries have the potential to be as vibrant as this and, in the market research commissioned by your city council, 84.9% of the respondents said that the role of the community library in the place they lived was very important. So please don’t dismantle places that should be at the heart of the community.

The majority of our government seems to have benefited from privileged upbringings which involved attending exclusive public schools. At these schools they learn that they are the future leaders of our country despite knowing nothing of how the vast majority of people live. Their wealth and education gives them this sense of entitlement. However, libraries open up a world of learning and imagination no matter what school you attend or what walk of life you’re from. Using libraries can help raise and achieve aspirations. When you enter a library a world of knowledge and storytelling is in front of you and free for the taking. Even with all our technology children need their libraries. When I do author visits in schools around the country I find the vast majority of teenagers prefer physical books and don’t have E readers or download novels.

So Mayor Andersen, along with thousands of other concerned people, I ask you to think again about the proposed closures, think about positive solutions so they can remain open, and please think about the future of the people you represent.

Yours sincerely


Again, if you want to add your support please, send your letter to Mayor Anderson at the Town Hall, High Street, Liverpool L2 3SW or email to:

Paula Rawsthorne is an award winning YA author and a writer in residence for First Story in a Nottingham secondary school.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Season changes, clocks move back ..... by Miriam Halahmy

September has always been on of my favourite times of the year. I was a teacher for 30 years and by the end of the six week break, I was ready to get back to school and get on with the job. August always seemed to be a rather tired out month to me -  a bit of a con.

This is the poem I wrote about August, published in my collection, Cutting Pomegranates :-

 Cheating on me
         © Miriam Halahmy

Here comes August
old prostitute
flowers faded in her red-dyed hair.

She struts her green stuff
along days already crisp-edged,
nights dark before ten.

All through parched June
classroom stiff with tired bodies
I dream of holiday

cheer myself hoarse at sports day
comfort the losers.
I wave my girl off to camp

then it’s my turn;
air laced with that carbon cocktail.

As we shave short the lawn
lock up, head for the hills
the sun angle shifts;

in see-through vest
you tease us, August,
long-limbed shadow of winter.

But September is a time to sit up, take stock and embrace the change of season. Conkers ripen on the trees, leaves are crisp and crunchy underfoot and there is a smell in the air of carbon which heralds the great annual change from the mantle of spring to the stripped bare landscape of winter. The nights are drawing in, adults start muttering about putting on the central heating and the final grass cut of the year is only a couple of weeks away.

Out on the streets the kids are walking, biking, chewing and chattering their way to school in new uniforms, massive backpacks on their shoulders.
And writers are facing their September. Back to neglected laptops and dust piled desks, mounds of books, research notes, coffee cups rimmed with stains forgotten since July. The diary is jam packed with visits, blogposts to write ( like this one) requests, demands, hundreds of emails screaming for attention, meetings, hesitant enquiries to editors/agents/reviewers/ commissioners/ returning from their holidays to mounds of similar requests and running to catch themselves before everything slides off their desks.

September is a too short month and it seems as though it flies by the seat of the pants, tumbling into October and finally there's time to breathe. The diary is set, the final warmth of summer is gone, the nights are dark and there's time to sit back, take stock, read the pile of books leftover from summer on the beach and spend some time with friends.

I need this change over to galvanise me into a winter of work. But without the fresh impetus of September after the final clocking down days of the summer, I don't think I would ever be ready to enter the long dark tunnel of winter and make good use of the time to write.

Changeover times - we all need them.

Friday, 3 October 2014

Writing Tips from the Edge—Dave Cousins' 8 Rules of Research.

Yesterday evening I sent off the final files for my new Charlie Merrick book; on Monday, I start work on the second draft of my next teen novel. The story and characters have been buzzing around in my head while I finished the illustrations for Charlie, so I'm really excited at the prospect of spending more time with them. There is however a slight caveat—now I know the skeleton of the story, this draft will need some research. For me, research sometimes feels like ‘homework’, and it’s frustrating when a ‘fact’ gets in the way of a good story! At the same time, inaccuracies and inconsistency can push the reader out of a story, so it's important we spend the time to get it right. 
     Therefore, as a reminder to myself as much as anything, I decided to put together a few thoughts about research. 'Rules' might be pushing it a bit, but I couldn't resist the chance for some alliteration in the title!

The spark for my second novel, Waiting forGonzo, was to explore the impact of a teenage pregnancy from the point of view of the girl’s younger brother. The story takes place over nine months and is loosely structured around the pregnancy, which meant I had to keep a close eye on key moments on that timeline—hospital scan dates; changing symptoms; at what point the ‘bump’ starts to show, and so on. All this information was readily available online.
     Something to bear in mind when doing internet research—if you are writing a book based in the UK, make sure the information is from a UK website, as treatment methods and procedure can vary in different countries. For UK medical matters, the NHS website ( is a good place to start, offering a huge database of symptoms, treatments and a Health Encyclopaedia.
     There is probably some time-honoured rule stating that the best research comes from first hand experience, and I wouldn’t argue with that. But sometimes, it’s simply not possible. For example, finding out what it actually feels like during the different stages of pregnancy was going to be tricky for me! Instead, I talked to my wife and other female friends; I read pregnancy magazines and borrowed a stack of books from the library.
     When faced with a mouth-watering pile of research material, it’s tempting to spend weeks scouring every page of every book to ensure you don’t miss a single shiny nugget of information. STOP! You have a story to write. Having fallen into this trap myself many times, I now use the following strategy:

1. Start with a quick scan through all your materials—use Post-it notes to flag any pages that look useful, but resist the temptation to start reading and taking notes. 
2. From this initial overview, select just two or three core volumes on which to base your research. Read these in depth and make notes.
3. It’s likely you’ll still have gaps, but now, you can search your remaining resources for the specific pieces of information you are missing and ignore areas you have already covered in you core research.

I find that this technique saves time, and stops me covering the same ground with multiple sources.
     My pregnancy research quickly established that people’s experiences vary dramatically. I collected many fascinating, and often very funny, accounts of what it’s like to be pregnant. Unfortunately, most of these never made it into the book. It’s always hard to leave out gems you’ve uncovered, but you have to be ruthless—if it doesn’t help the story, it shouldn’t go in. You can always include these extras in a blog post, or in a DVD style bonus features section at the end of the book, or on your website.

A number of characters in Waiting for Gonzo have accidents. Again the NHS website was a good place to check symptoms and treatment. However, you can lose a lot of time searching the web. A good tip is to set a timer, so you don’t spend hours chasing a link.
     I was lucky enough to find a friendly doctor via Twitter who has been kind enough to check my stories for medical accuracy. This is invaluable when it comes to details and specific questions you’ll struggle to answer online. For example, knowing the questions an A&E doctor would ask; who else would be present at a consultation, and so on.
     Watching realistic hospital dramas in films and TV can be useful in this regard too. It also means you can watch TV and honestly claim to be working! For example, a number of scenes in Waiting for Gonzo take place in a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. Due to the nature of the work they do, I was unable to visit one, but I did find a documentary series about a baby care unit on BBC iPlayer. The programmes revealed huge amounts of information about what goes on, who is likely to be around, what staff wear and how they talk. I was also able to hear what the location sounded like too, something I wouldn’t have got from photos alone. It was the next best thing to actually being there and gave a real feel for the location which helped immensely when it came to writing the scenes. I then sent the pages to a friend who works in a NICU to make sure I hadn’t made any errors.

For me, stories always start with a spark for a character or situation. Usually I get a burst of ideas about where the story could go, but if I don’t know enough about the subject, I’ll do some research as the results will inform what can happen. As soon as I feel I know enough (not everything, just enough), I do a first draft—writing what works for the story and not being afraid to add details that may be inaccurate. This draft will usually reveal further gaps in my knowledge, so I’ll do more research to fill these, and also check any stuff I made up. This process repeats over numerous drafts until the story is close to completion, at which point I recheck my facts and if possible get an expert to read what I have written to make sure the story rings true.

While working on a book, I cover the walls above my desk with information I collect—location photos; character castings; words and phrases that capture the mood or key ideas of the story; reminder notes and, with Waiting for Gonzo, the timeline with all the relevant dates and plot points.
     I also gather the research photos for my current project into a screen saver folder on my computer. This means that when I’m not actually typing, the machine starts displaying reminders of my locations, characters etc. It’s a great way to stay immersed in the story world, and because the slideshow chooses images at random, it sometimes throws up an aspect I’d forgotten about, which in the past has triggered a helpful idea.

The man in the milk bottle mask!
The most unusual piece of research I’ve ever undertaken was for the Nyctal masks worn by Oz and Ryan at Fight Camp in Waiting for Gonzo. I researched mask making on the internet, and then adapted one for the creature I had invented for the story. But I had to check it would work, so found myself actually making a mask from a plastic milk bottle. Then I wore it round the house for an hour—just to see how it felt. Did it smell? Get sweaty quickly? What could I see and hear while I was wearing it? Information that really helped when writing the scene.

I like to invent place names for my stories, but my imaginary locations are usually based on somewhere real. Crawdale in Waiting for Gonzo is a mixture of North Yorkshire and Mid West Wales. I treat this research like scouting for film locations, and take lots of photos and video—walking Oz’s route home from school for example.

Researching Oz's walk home in Wales.

     Video is useful because you capture sounds too — birds, traffic, a nearby stream, the crunch of feet on gravel. I try to look around and focus in on things I might want to include later. I’ll often dictate notes out loud as I’m recording, which draws funny looks from people, but is useful for capturing details that won’t be on the film—the fact my knees ached from the steepness of the hill; the way the wind felt like it was trying to tear my clothes! Months later I can watch these location videos before writing a scene, and it takes me right back there.
     Google Maps Street View is great for checking routes and what places look like without actually visiting! The 360° feature means you can literally look around and take screenshots—almost as good as being there with a camera in your hand. Of course you don’t get the full sense of a location, but it’s a superb way to visit places quickly and cheaply!

Stories often take place in a non-specified time of year, but make sure you don’t forget crucial calendar events that would register in your character’s lives. For example, Waiting for Gonzo took place over 40 weeks, which meant I had to acknowledge Halloween and Christmas. I find that these events often provide a setting for a scene, or even a useful plot-point. Anchoring your story to real calendar events can give it a strong sense of reality.
     I also find it useful to keep in mind what time of year my story is taking place. Knowing whether an evening scene happens on a dark winter’s night, or a balmy summer’s evening will affect the mood and how the events unfold. For example, a car’s headlights dazzle your heroine and cause her to crash her bike. But it’s a summer evening and still light—you’ll need to rethink the cause of the accident. is useful for finding out what time it gets dark at a particular time of year. (Click on the Sun&Moon tab and enter the month, year and location.) It’s a detail, but getting it wrong can pull the reader out of the world you have created. Plus, taking a moment to consider these things before starting a scene can really draw you into the moment and inject greater depth into your writing.
     A few years ago I started keeping a weather diary—daily notes on what the light was like; how the trees looked; how cold it was and what people were wearing. Now, I’m not suggesting you should include ‘weather reports’ in every scene—unless it is crucial to your story, of course—but deciding what conditions are like will inform how your characters feel and what could happen to them.


Research can be great fun, it can bring our characters to life and inform what happens in our stories, it can provide us with settings so real, our readers will be able to smell the air as they turn the page. But don’t get lost in its maze of magical mysteries—research is there to support our stories, not the other way around.

I hope some of the above will be of interest. I'd be interested to hear other people's thoughts on research. Why not leave a comment below with your top research tip.

Dave Cousins is the author of a number of award-winning books for teenagers and children. For a more information, sounds and videos, visit