My friend, the pen

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On National Writing Day, I’m celebrating the physical act of writing – and the often humble pen that plays such an important role in many writers’ creative lives.

Every writer is unique in the way s/he puts pen, pencil or felt tip to paper, exploring and expressing the work that’s developing with arrows, circles, question marks, underlining, ticks, flashes of highlighter and ‘notes to self’. Visual writers may well add little drawings, or show the work on the page to get a feel for scale, position, balance and drama, as I often do as part of my process.

“The freedom to experiment with words
on the page
is a wonderful gift to give a child.”

Every scribble, however cryptic, half-formed or throwaway it may seem, contributes to a story or poem taking shape, and is therefore meaningful. Are those early notes worth keeping? It depends on many factors, from the strictly practical (available space, urge to recycle) to the emotional (the work’s rubbish, take it away!).

For writers working with children, sharing chaotic-looking notes (especially ones with lots of crossing out, like the ones I’ve shown here – including early work for my picture books) can be a great way to show that no book arrives ‘fully formed’. Trial and error, starting again, exploring a new approach and giving yourself permission to get it ‘wrong’ are essential aspects of the creative process – a wonderful and enriching gift to give a child, akin to the freedom to daydream, that can last a lifetime.

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So today let’s celebrate those little idiosyncrasies that characterise our writing life when we’re not tapping away at a keyboard, ipad or even smartphone: grabbing whatever’s to hand so we can record that elusive new idea; settling down with a battered but familiar biro that feels like a friend; or perhaps selecting your favourite or only writing implement of choice, because it is enjoyable to hold and feels smooth and satisfying as it flows (along with your equally graceful prose, of course) across the page.

Personally, I like cheap biros in large quantities, as I’m constantly losing them. One of my best-ever Christmas presents was a box of 20 identical, clickable, basic, thin, black Bic pens. They just feel right in my hand, somehow.

“My keyboard is indispensable, but could I write
without a pen to hand as well?

Producing a finished manuscript in longhand would feel to me like an impossible task – although some writers do prefer this method – when I’m so used to the speed and ease of my keyboard and editing tools. But could I write without a humble biro to hand, to help shape my thoughts? I’m really not sure. Perhaps I’ll give it a try one day, when the last of my favourite cheap-and-cheerful pens disappears. For now, on National Writing Day, I’ll take a moment to say thank you to my simple, often overlooked, but vital writing tools.

What’s your favourite?

If you have a favourite (or only) pen, please leave a comment! Maybe we can draw up a ‘top ten’…

Bringing a map to life

Maps are positioned at the front of many books for children – especially adventure stories. It’s a long tradition but a contemporary one too, with maps appearing in novels published as long ago as Treasure Island in 1883, right through to contemporary classics such as Piers Torday’s The Last Wild. One of the most famous is the ‘Hundred Aker Wood’, drawn by E.H. Shepard and home to Winnie-the-Pooh and his friends. My own personal favourite is Milly-Molly-Mandy’s neat and orderly village.

I love drawing so when I started to write a Middle Grade book for children The Stone Feather (as yet unpublished) based in a made-up world, it seemed only natural to draw a map of my own. Here’s how it went!

maps one

I wanted the main location in the book to sit within a circle, but I still had to start with some very neat squares. Using scraps of paper helped me work out where to position the different landmarks and elements. It’s easy to move things around that way and means you can try out lots of options until you find the one that feels right – an important part of the creative process for me. I drew everything in pencil, then went over it with ink. And finally, paint!

maps two

A closer look…

There are deliberate differences in how trees, grasses, crops and meadows are depicted.  Before starting to create a map like this, it’s useful to create your own ‘visual language’ – which acts like a key. This helps bring emotional depth to the landscape, for example making a forest look scary, and a woodland sheltered and safe.

The compass rose in the top right hand corner, showing north, south, east and west, is an important element that helps to establish that this is a map, rather than simply a drawing. These can be any design you like. I chose to include swirls in mine because the story features a serpent. It can be fun to include little story clues like this (even if nobody else notices!).

You might also notice arrows, paths, tracks and a river. These features often appear in story maps, helping to show the direction that the main character and his or her friends may choose – or be forced – to take!

For great guidance on creating hand-drawn maps, I recommend Hand Drawn Maps – a Guide for Creatives by Helen Cann.

What’s your favourite map in a children’s book? I’d love to know!




In no particular order

There are many helpful and inspiring books on different aspects of creative writing – here are some of my favourites, as a writer who’s interested in children’s literature, narrative design and the physical act of writing.


Order lies at the heart of narrative theory – but who decides on that order, and how do we as readers (and writers) recognise and respond to it? It might involve five acts with an inciting incident, rising drama and a neat (or not so neat) conclusion; a resonant, interlaced approach that’s less familiar to the modern reader; or a story built around a recurring symbol or dilemma steeped in our collective fairytale past.

Whatever shape it takes, and however it may seem to fly weightlessly through time or viewpoint, narrative design is always deliberate, always grounded. You just need to know where and how to look. That’s where the expertise and insight shared in my favourite books on creative writing is so very useful in terms of craft.

Then there’s the act of writing itself – the pattern on the page, as you might say. Where did letterforms come from, and how did they evolve into type? Why are pages page-shaped, and when was the idea of a paragraph invented? If these questions entice you, read on… in the order of your choice, of course.

The Art of Writing Fiction by Andrew Cowan – full of artistic insight as well as observations on process

Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel – a stunning exploration of the physical tome in all its medieval beauty and symbolism

How Fiction Works by James Wood – an incisive review of the nuts and bolts of narrative, peppered with analysis of the many and varied techniques employed by novelists

Singing for Mrs Pettigrew by Michael Morpurgo – a gentle but enriching reflection on stories, interwoven by unforgettable prose pieces

Into the Woods – a five act journey into story by TV producer John Yorke offers a very clear account of how and why story works.


“Stories perform for us the cultural work
of illuminating the darkness”

Maria Tatar


Paper – an elegy by Ian Samson – it’s been around for some 2,000 years, used for everything from banknotes to novels, advertising posters to legislation. So paper definitely deserves its own book!

Meander, Spiral, Explode by Jane Alison – this intriguing book looks at narrative from a very different perspective

Gossip from the Forest by Sara Maitland – perfect if you’re a fan of fairytales and deep dark woods, and dare to explore a little further…

The Golden Thread by Ewan Clayton – a fascinating exploration of how and why we write, the advent of print and bookmaking technology

Enchanted Hunters — the Power of Stories in Childhood by Maria Tatar – a glorious wander through storytelling, from the fireside stool.

Into the forest and out again

Why is it that so many stories involve forests? In the past they were (and may still be) places of exile and danger, hard work and jeopardy – certainly no leafy playground. In a forest, you cannot see very far ahead and there may be no clear path; it’s easy to get lost. And when darkness falls, those gently rustling ferns can seem more like monsters than friends. Then there’s the question of who – or what – you might meet in the woods. Strange people, hungry animals, magical beings?

But for young heroines and heroes, one huge advantage of forests is that they are much more exciting than the safe confines of home – and so, they offer an enticing landscape for children to explore, testing their own limits and learning about the world. It’s no wonder that forests (especially deep, unfamiliar or forbidden ones) are such a promising setting for stories.

In the first chapter of my work-in-progress for children, young hero Ethon finds himself in scary Viper’s Wood after dark and soon realises why it is out of bounds. It’s fun to draw different types of trees and think of ways to represent safe and not-so safe woodland areas. In these sketches, I’ve experimented with different ways of representing trees, from cosy to creepy!

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The beauty of a writing retreat

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It started with a tweet, mentioning that one place was left on the Arvon Centre’s four day writers’ retreat. No tuition, no structure, no feedback – just time to write. It was exactly what I was looking for.

Spending a few days at the Clockhouse in Shropshire is something I’d recommend to any writer in need of peace, quiet, time and the simple luxury of not being ‘on duty’ in any way. The retreat has been designed by people who really understand writers’ needs: the physical spaces are spacious and restful, with no distractions such as TV or even loud artworks. The setting is beautiful, with a magical woodland walk and a kitchen garden providing lettuce and raspberries. I half expected to bump into Peter Rabbit. The food provided is plentiful and delicious, with veggie and vegan options and the option to bring your own wine (or gin and tonic!) or pop a few quid in the honesty box.

There are just four studios at the Clockhouse and I was lucky enough to have a wonderful view of the countryside from my study window. My fellow writers were a delight – one from London, one from Hong Kong and one from Colorado. We socialised over dinner, sharing tips and describing our various writing projects, whilst respecting each other’s desire for peace and privacy the rest of the time.

Best of all, my first ever writers’ retreat was an intensely and enjoyably productive time: as well as finishing the draft of my novel for 8-12 year olds (which was my objective) ideas surfaced that are now an exciting and essential part of the work. There’s more work to do in two of the middle chapters of The Stone Feather before I can truly say ‘it’s finished’ but I made more progress than I’d ever have believed possible.

I can’t wait to go back.


The magic of maps


At this year’s November NAWE conference in beautiful Stratford-upon-Avon I was lucky enough to take part in a workshop run by writer Jennie Bailey entitled ‘Everyday Magic and Mythical Maps’. We started the workshop by making up spells based on everyday items. I chose a pen (predictably, perhaps) and most of the participants picked ordinary household items like mugs or buckets… all except one who, enchantingly, chose an oar. Here’s my spell:

Pen for writing
Pen for art
Pen for magic
Make it smart!

Next, giving us each a ‘real’ map of the town to play with, Jennie encouraged us to look afresh at the landscape’s features, the roads and buildings and bridges, and create our own ‘mythical’ version, thinking about smells and sounds as well as sights. There were no rules, Jennie explained: our only task was to go right ahead and create a new version of a very old place, just for our selves.

Soon, I’d made up new names for towers, bridges and streets. I turned an innocuous-looking field into a swamp and decided who (or what) might live there. For me, the boundaries offered an especially rich source of inspiration and I soon found I’d conjured up two entire communities, the Stone People and the Swamp People. The A3400 became a vast barrier between them called The High Divide,  with three ways through: the First Door, the Last Door and Terror’s Tunnel. The gentle River Avon took on a more sinister feel, renamed The Washaway. In just a few minutes, a whole new world started to unfold before me.

A space to play – even if just for ten or twenty minutes – is, I discovered, hugely valuable if you’re a writer who is creating a fictional setting, or space, for a story.

If you’d like to find out more about Jennie and her work, you can follow her on Twitter @wildwrites or take a look at

A story inside a story


The novel I’m writing for 8-12 year olds, The Stone Feather, is set in an imaginary world not so very far removed from medieval England. Much of the action happens in the hero’s home village, Greenoak. As well as imagining what the village looks like, I’ve been thinking about the songs, poems and rhymes that Ethon and all the other the characters in the story would know and recognise – everything from lullabies to jokes, riddles to recipes – and it’s great fun sprinkling these ‘cultural treasures’ throughout the chapters. Hopefully, it will also make Ethon’s world feel rich and real.

The Little Birch Boy is a cautionary tale that sits inside the main story. It is intended to stop adventurous children from straying out of bounds (which, of course, is exactly what Ethon does right from page one!):

Every child in Greenoak knew the story of the child who, disobeying his mother, wandered into Viper’s Wood after dark and came face to face with a huge, silver-eyed wolf. The boy died of fright before the creature could open its jaws. The wolf, blind from birth, simply blinked her shining eyes and padded past, leaving the little body to fade, season by season, into the earth. The boy’s mother, bent with grief, found her only comfort beneath the gently rustling leaves of the young silver birch tree that sprang up, forever beautiful amongst the pines. The tree sang to her, she said. But it was a song that only she could hear.