20 tips on writing vivid characters from SCBWI SE Scotland teach-in

Tangible figures, like these Playmobil, can help you visualise the action from the character's point of view
Tangible figures, like these Playmobil, can help you visualise the action from the character’s point of view

SCBWI Southeast Scotland had our second successful teach-in at the Edinburgh Central Library this weekend, and we were delighted to welcome 17 attendees in total. If you’re writing a children’s book or you’re an illustrator wanting to get into picture books, you’re welcome to come along and find out what we’re all about.

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How-to videos helping authors with social media


I am a huge fan of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and this year I’ve been contributing to its Words and Pictures blog zine, creating social media how-to videos demonstrating Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest and other social tools of relevance to authors and illustrators.

You can see the full collection of the social media how-videos here on Words and Pictures, which is published by the British Isles chapter of the society (if you’re not familiar with SCBWI, it’s the international professional organization for writers and illustrators of children’s literature — I would highly recommend joining to anyone wanting a career in this industry).

The most recent video looked at Pinterest for authors. Did you know you could collect images on Pinterest in a private board that no one else can see? Learn more here in “Pinterest at a glance,” or have a look at a Pinterest board I created: children’s literary editors, agents and publishers working in the UK.

I’m always delighted to answer any author’s or illustrator’s question in regards to social media if I can, so don’t hesitate to drop me a mail if there’s something specific you’d like to see me demonstrate.

My e-mail is sheila@spacekidsbooks.com, or find me on Twitter at @spacekidsbooks

Thank you to Jan Carr, Mel Rogerson and the whole Words and Pictures team for the chance to contribute!

What social media tools do you find most or least useful as an author? Let me know in the comments below.

Moving to Mars: it’s life, but not as we know it

Earlier this year I was lucky to meet Bas Lansdorp, Dutch entrepreneur behind the MarsOne project to establish a permanent colony of human settlers on Mars. He was delighted that, in a lecture theatre full of Edinburgh Science Festival-goers, dozens of volunteer settlers kept their hands raised, even after he clarified that it was a one-way trip. (Later, Lansdorp’s venture would receive 78,000 applications in the first two weeks of its open call for volunteers).

As a science-fiction writer who’s taken Mars as my main topic, I’m struggling with the MarsOne concept, because I hate the idea of it. It’s not that I’m worried about contaminating the magnificent desolation of Mars (my storyline has settlers terraforming with impunity). Rather I’m afraid a team of four humans, given a life-sentence of co-confinement, will literally tear each other apart.

Experiments in extreme confinement haven’t always gone as planned: Biosphere 2 ended in interpersonal conflict, including clashes among the commercial management of the operation, which ended the experiment prematurely. During Mars 500, as covered recently by New Scientist, confinement contributed to psychological stresses that severely limited the productivity of certain participants. Admittedly, some good science was done, including the observation during Biosphere 2 that exposed concrete in a sealed biosphere is a very bad idea, as it depletes oxygen levels.

Thinking about this human element has led me to incorporate some isolation-related neuroses into the backstory of one my characters my SPACE KIDS book: an artist who’s developed a nomadic lifestyle, phobic about staying anywhere for too long.

Listening to Lansdorp, I was impressed with his obvious commitment to the project — his board plans to oversee the public’s selection (yes, X-Factor style) of the 200 groups of four who will be considered for the four-person mission crew in 2023.

Two-yearly missions to Mars will supplement the first four with additional crews. The first contractors (Paragon) and university partners (University of Twente) are already on board. Plans for radiation management (2 metres of soil over the Martian habitat should provide adequate protection) and diet (mostly vegetables, supplemented with insects) have been thought through.

But what on Earth will we make of the settlers — our ground-dwelling, bug-eating brothers and sister who we blasted off to a wildly inhospitable planet? They’ll be the best-known names in our history (“No one will remember who the Prime Minister was in a thousand years, but everyone will remember these people,” Lansdorp said in Edinburgh). But in time, how will the colonists as a whole be viewed?

I’ve been watching too much Battlestar Galactica

On Mars they will live in space suits permanently, never feeling wind on their faces, and physiological changes expected from the 40% gravity will probably make it impossible to survive a trip back to Earth. Have I just watched too much Battlestar Galactica, or does it seem possible that, with separation, this second human settlement will slowly change into a “them” (versus “us”), and eventually rouse that xenophobia that human society is known for? And that’s saying nothing of the physical hardships, and the thorny question of whether and how to have children in that environment.What kind of life will that be? Not life as I know it.

Then I started thinking: travelling to the new world in the belly of a rat-infested ship, nibbling hardtack probably wasn’t too attractive in the 1600s, but people did it. In fact that’s how and when my grandmother’s pilgrim ancestors came to live in America around 1740. Things in my book’s storyline — shiny space stations, smart robots, advanced propulsion and terraformed planets — don’t come first; pilgrims do.

What do you think of the MarsOne project and other planned missions to Mars? If you’re a sci-fi writer, have these real-world developments affected your stories?

Image: Mars Pathfinder images of Mars Twin Peaks, Dr. Timothy Parker, JPL, NASA

Psst, are you writing a children’s book? Meet SCBWI

SCBWI mass book launch 2012 with Lin Oliver photo by Candy Gourlay

Eight years ago, I wrote a children’s book, but I didn’t get my happy ending. I shopped it around to a few literary agents, had my confidence punctured by two rejections in quick succession, and put away my dreams (and the unfinished sequel) while I got on with family life.

Eight months ago, I jump-started those dreams again: what set me off on my journey was discovering a dusty copy of my novel in my mother’s attic. In the intervening years I’d given birth to my target market, and with a five-year-old and a seven-year-old at home, I had consumed enough modern children’s literature to know that the story I’d written wasn’t so bad — the story, mind you, not the book. I’m learning what a big gulf there is between a good story and a saleable book.

I’ll spare you the details of what else I’m learning, but in sum, it turns out that being a skilled journalist is a lot different from being a skilled fiction writer. And I have so much more to learn about pace, character and voice. But I was lucky enough (thanks to a pointer from artist and writer Debi Gliori) to discover early on the supportive community of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. The organisation is one you must investigate if you’re working on a children’s book (and I’m finding that many people I know are closet novelists with a children’s book at some stage of development). SCBWI will help you: it is overflowing with successful, published professionals who help each other and newcomers navigate the unsettling terrain of a career in children’s books.

I had just one quibble upon joining SCBWI (and it wasn’t the acronymn, which features fewer vowels than most Bosnian villages and which, in the British Isles, is imaginatively pronounced “Scooby”). My complaint is that I didn’t understand how much SCBWI had to offer until I experienced its riches in person at the annual conference near London last autumn. The talent and generosity of both its new and established members, the calibre of teaching in its seminars, the horse’s-mouth insights from publishers and editors…I just didn’t get it until I’d seen it myself.

Words and Pictures shows you what it’s all about

That’s why I’m delighted that the exciting new blogzine for SCBWI British Isles, Words and Pictures, has just launched. You don’t have to be a member to read and enjoy the interviews, articles and video how-to’s (I’m contributing some instructional social media beginner videos, which they’ve let me call Sheila’s Videos). The blogzine’s openness is a super way for SCBWI to showcase what it offers members, and I hope it will encourage more members in the UK and other regions.

When joining, I was surprised to learn the Society is Los Angeles based, co-founded by Lin Oliver (thanks Candy Gourlay for this photo above of Lin and the others, taken at last year’s mass book launch), and there are SCBWI chapters worldwide. The heavy pack of member resources that ker-thumped through my mail slot after I joined, posted all the way from LA, was almost worth the membership fee all on its own.

Take another look at the picture of happy authors above, launching their hard-won books at the SCBWI British Isles annual conference 2012. This has been the best discovery of all for me: children’s book writers aren’t just names on a bookshelf, they’re living, breathing, typing, tea-drinking, cake-eating, dream-dreaming people like me, who want nothing more than to make books that take a kid up, up and away.

You’ll learn a little more about these wonderful folk at the new blogzine. Why are you reading this? Go read Words and Pictures!

How NASA sent my question about kids’ books to space


When not writing kids’ sci-fi, my day job is to help organisations use social media more effectively. I have to say, the way NASA and its international space agency partners use social media is teeth-chattering impressive – and I’m not just saying that because I got to participate in their most recent social media outreach to the public (my question was selected to ask the astronauts live in space; see video above).

What NASA is doing is simple: using social media to let the public, especially children, feel closer to missions and the scientists who carry them out. If, like me, you feel your spine turn to jelly when you see a rocket take off, or catch sight of the famous “big blue marble” picture of Earth taken during the Apollo missions, you will be delighted to discover the steady diet of thrilling content NASA and its partners are offering up on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Google Plus and other social platforms.

Reach out and touch space

Here’s just some of what I personally have been able to do over the past six months thanks to social media:

Not just NASA

One of the brightest stars in all this activity is of course not a NASA astronaut but Cmdr. Chris Hadfield from the Canadian Space Agency, who is on board the ISS currently and has gathered a huge following due to his regular tweets, including pictures, sharing what he sees out the window and inside the station. Hadfield’s tweets and pictures regularly make the front page of national newspapers and he also, quite wonderfully, answers children’s questions whenever possible, like this beautiful exchange about spacewalking.

The guitar-playing commander also participates in Reddit AMAs (“Ask me anything”), where he gives insights into everything, from how to shave in space to what space smells like — he’s even done live music collaborations with the Barenaked Ladies and the Chieftains, singing “Moondance.”



(pic from Commander Hadfield on Twitter)

Incidentally after my question about kids books, Commander Hadfield contacted me on Twitter to say he’d actually reread his most inspiring childhood space book, Michael Collins’ Carrying the Fire, just weeks ago while he was in quarantine prior to launch. (You can imagine my deep thrill at being contacted by the Commander – I think I spoke only in exclamation marks for the following two hours.)

Going direct, and spreading the word exponentially, with social media

I’m old enough to remember the later Apollo launches, and the fact that broadcast television had lost some interest in what was becoming rote: rockets go into space; astronauts do missions and come home. Social media has given international space programs the chance to be their own broadcasters, conveying live images on platforms like YouTube without relying on mainstream media.

But their use of social goes beyond self-broadcast. NASA brilliantly exploits the viral, tell-your-friends power of social media, most effectively in last Friday’s Google Plus long-distance hangout with the International Space Station. The hangout was the first of its kind for NASA, and allowed us earthlings to post questions directly to in-orbit astronauts. The event, directed by NASA’s tireless social media manager John Yembrick, was publicised across all social platforms, with the help of a dedicated hashtag (#askstro) that NASA promoted for some weeks before, gathering questions, including video questions recorded and uploaded to YouTube.

For a social media geek like me, what was probably most interesting to witness was the morning of the event, when the NASA social media team put up a new Facebook post where anyone could comment, suggesting a question for the astronauts. Refreshing the page every few seconds, I watched as thousands of new “likes” accumulated on that Facebook post: each of those likes spread the message about this live event across thousands more Facebook friends, replicating the message instantly and exponentially.

NASA knows exactly what it’s doing on social media — it even has a fascinating program that allows influential social media users to apply for full press accreditation to visit NASA (at their own expense) during launches, and tweet and share what they experience under the dedicated #NASAsocial hashtag. That’s like the equivalent of the White House press corps suddenly opening itself up to any really great tweeters who can prove they should be there. That’s what I call enlightened.

What does all this mean?

I hope it means that the space program is starting to inspire kids again, thanks to the marvellous accessibility now possible over social media. Twenty years ago, who’d have thought it would be so easy for kids to chat with in-orbit astronauts, and hear those astronauts describe the childhood experiences — the eye-opening books, the inspirational physics teachers — that set them on their path to space? The space program really is alive and well, and it’s all good.


Do writers need to plan their route?

640x425px road by Desmond Kavanagh on Flickr

I am reading the ever-fascinating “Write to be Published” by Nicola Morgan, which argues – rather cleverly in light of the title – that no writer actually has the “right” to be published. Rather, we as aspiring writers must be realistic about the market who would buy our book, the ability of the bookseller to figure out ( literally ) which shelf to put it on , and crucially whether we are writing our book in the right way.

I’m still in the middle of Nicola’s book, but the section which really caught my eye, and inspired me to put down the book for a moment and write this blog, was the bit on planning. When I was writing my first book in 2003, “SPACE KIDS AND THE PLUTO PLOT,” I simply mapped out the series of bullet points that I wanted to be the key sections of my narrative arc, and then wrote to them, like steppingstones I was aiming for in crossing a stream. I tried the same thing for my second book, SPACE KIDS AND THE SPY FROM PLANET 12, jotting down a list of bullet points and, again, writing towards them.

The interesting thing is, I used the bullet points for my second book about eight years after first writing the bullet points down. I’d received agent rejections on my first novel and simply shelved the second one in discouragement, and then was waylaid by several years of giving birth. When I rather poetically discovered book one and the bullet points for book two last summer in my mother’s attic, I thought, why not give it go?

Even though the structure was old for book 2, it still gave me a kind of scaffold I could work with.

“But doesn’t planning ruin the spontaneity of my writing?”

I hear you. But planning works for me, and my characters still surprise and impress me with the turns they take within the confines I’ve given them. My day job for years was working as an IT and business journalist, and feature stories demand this kind of organization. Now I’m working as a commercial copywriter to develop people’s websites and marketing brochures and the like, and the same kind of planning is critical.

Clear writing is clear thinking, and having something to aim towards as I “let it flow” during my fiction writing gives me the combination of freedom and structure I need: like an improvisational actor being given a few facts (“in the park…holding a shovel…taking to your brother,”), or like a hitchhiker, who knows what city he’s aiming for, but has no idea who’ll bring him there.

How do you write? Do you work towards milestones that you like to tick off as you go?

Review: Cosmic by Frank Cottrell Boyce 2008

Cosmic from Walden Pond Press/Harper Collins Children's
I’m doing a grand tour of all the best writing in my own novel’s age range, and Cosmic by Frank Cottrell Boyce (Walden Pond Press/Harper Collins Children’s) is my favourite so far.

The story opens with 12-year-old Liam trapped in a rocket that’s spun out-of-control beyond earth orbit. It uses the well-established diary device to allow Liam to tell his tale of how he got stuck in space, taking us back a few months to when it all began – around the time when he first realised he had grown facial hair.

Liam describes himself as “above average in height and maths,” and his unlikely presence on the rocket is down to a number of factors, some to do with him (wanderlust, stubble) and others to do with the adults around him (pettiness, an inability to listen).

Early in the book, Liam and his friend from drama class, a girl called Florida, are mistaken for father and daughter because of Liam’s unusual height. Being mistaken for a grown-up gives Liam a holiday from the misery of premature puberty, and he encourages Florida to take their playacting as far as they can push it. Things go awry when Liam gives his worried parents the slip and gets Florida to compete with him (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory-style) in a ‘Best Dad Ever’ contest: the grand prize is a rocket trip.

The book has plenty of space gaga for fans like me, from zero g training in the vomit comet to a terrifying EVA in space (NASA even co-sponsored a competition for readers to win a trip to NASA, yay!) but the exploration of fatherhood is the best part of this story. Boyce comes at it from every angle: Liam and his dad, Liam and Florida, Florida and her absentee father, the other dads in the contest…it goes on.

Writer’s lessons from Cosmic

Deadpan has a peculiar power: having read A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime just before this, Liam’s deadpan delivery was especially noticeable for me. Liam’s way of describing events, with real economy and restraint in the writing, has a great power.

Brilliant in-character reactions: you can almost feel Boyce sinking into the persona of Liam when he writes his reactions to events; Liam reaches to his best frame of reference, his World of Warcraft gaming experience, when trying to describe how things feel for him. Scottish author and speaker Nicola Morgan says voice is the quality that allows the writing to disappear, so readers suspend their disbelief and become lost in the story…the difference between an amateur theatrical production and a professional. Boyce does voice flawlessly.

Secondary character’s emotional arc: Florida’s journey is as satisfying as Liam’s own, intertwined but discrete. Florida’s metamorphosis is just about credible, and like Liam, she is not overdrawn, but sketched with delightfully restrained strokes.

Boyce wrote a hasty, flawed draft first: that’s what he reveals in the interview at the book’s end (I read the US version). He was excited about the story and tore through draft one rapidly. Boyce’s daughter pointed out the problems with it, which he addressed carefully, seeking also the input of NASA veterans. This should give all writers heart: you might have your story, but your book takes a bit more chiseling before it comes forth from the stone.

I need to read more brilliant adventures for age 9-11…please help me by leaving a comment below with your suggestion