Writer's Block? Just Write Rubbish

If you can't see the video, view The Writer's Block by KickThePJ here

My charming and beautiful daughter took time off from her GCSE tower to show me this video today.

Kick the PJ is one of those YouTube stars who make fab short films that make me wish I was still young enough to spend more time with YouTube. If you like this, do go forth and subscribe.

The message is: if you're blocked, just write rubbish!

I totally agree.

You don't have to write perfect prose all the time. My friend Jane McLoughlin (who wrote the amazing At Yellow Lake), sometimes jokes that she's writing but she hasn't written the long words yet.

I know exactly what she means. Writing gets done only by writing, but the words you are laying down don't have to be right the first time.

And if you're finding it hard? Just write anything.

Then those voices whispering in your ear ... you know, the ones that say, 'You can't write!' 'Your publisher is BLIND!' 'YOU HAVE NO TALENT!' -- yup, those voices *shudder* ... well, if you just write rubbish, they will eventually get bored and go away.

And when they go away, huzzah!

The words are sure to come.

Read my previous posts:

Readers Who WriteI love LibrariesBeast QuestStory is not colour blind
The Writer is You
Whoever You Are
Dear Candy Gourlay
Letters from
Ellis Guilford School
Multicultural is about
inclusion not
Origami Fan Mail

Readers Who Write

With girls from Clapton Girls Academy
at a recent event. Photo: Bob King
One of the perks of this job is that I have many encounters with young people who are clearly going to be the future of our culture.

These are children who don't just aspire to write and create but who are simply getting on with it.

The other day a young friend who's been showing me his writing since he was seven, wrote to tell me he's now acting on stage.

I was so pleased and proud to hear that the experience of theatre led him to experiment with other kinds of writing. He wrote:

I think my writing is developing, improving and maturing. My absolute favourite genre is still and always will be Fantasy and Myth but I have tried and experimented with other styles and have written other genres from play to stories and poems. I write lots of different things from drama, comedy, adventure, sci fi, horror, modern thrillers, and fantasy and magic. Hope all goes well. Good luck, see you soon!

Reading his email gave me such a tingle of excitement. Such ambition and creative drive!

There is so much moaning on social media about how technology and general laziness are creating generations of couch potatoes, but I think we are all underestimating the awesomeness of today's young people. Just you wait, world!


I've been having a lot of discussions with educators and young people about what age is the appropriate reader for my new novel Shine, which is nonlinear in storytelling and darker than Tall Story.

It's a tough call for me because I heartily believe that we must put no boundaries in the way of reading. But at the same time, I'm aware that it could be hugely off-putting to force a book upon anyone who is not ready for it. And yet, one of Shine's coolest reviews was by a ten year old -- Lilly Pettitt in National Geographic Kids!

Six stars out of five!!! Thanks, Lily!

Teachers will know best what they're pupils will enjoy. A week or so ago I had hugely enjoyable visits talking about Shine with Year 7s from Clapton Girls Academy and Year 8s at Our Lady's in Hackney, as part of Pop Up Education. It was the very first outing of my new talk focusing on Shine! (Interestingly, my very first presentation on Tall Story was also at Our Lady's!)

I learned a lot, girls, thank you so much! And your teachers were very well behaved, well done.

She loved it more than NANDO's??? A super compliment!

One of the girls had met me before at the Pop Up Festival
and gave me this hilarious card ...

... which I immediately pinned up on my messy board!

(Teachers, I'll be posting a new school visits flyer for 2014 soon, watch for it)

When librarians ask, I say Shine will probably be enjoyed by readers from Year Eight (12) and up. Tall Story works fabulously for readers from Year Six (10) and up. And it's great as a book to read aloud for Year Five too (there's a terrific audio book by Listening Library recorded in the Random House studios in Los Angeles - read alternately by a Filipino-American actor and a British actress).


Speaking of awesome young people, Veda Zabala, a twelve year old from the Philippines shared with me this essay she wrote on the importance of the baddy in fiction. The title of the essay was But We're All Human, Aren't We?

'What are antagonists?' Veda wrote. '"Oh, they're evil", "the bad dudes" - these are not exactly what everyone says but hey, it's pretty standard. But I'd say different. I'd say that they are the most important characters, bypassing the protagonist.'

I like that Veda's teacher uses green ink not red for writing comments in the margin.
Red ink always used to make me feel like a failure, even when it was saying nice things.
When I worked on a magazine my editor always used green ball point pens because she said
it kept us all calm.

She then expounded brilliantly on how an antagonist provides the dramatic backbone of any story. Veda has given me permission to share a chunk of her reasoning (and her insightful reading of Tall Story) below:  

Warning: if you haven't read Tall Story, spoilers will follow

Gabriela was introduced as a beautiful girl, but with an atrocious inside. Mean, arrogant, always gets what she wants, Gabriela owns Sacred Heart Academy. Maybe because her mother, Mad Nena, resident witch of San Andres, has control over their village ...

She and the protagonist, Bernardo Hipolito, have a hateful relationship. Well mostly on Bernardo's part. She just likes teasing him with the (wishing stone) ... Gabriela once scathingly and teasingly wished for Bernardo to become as tall as Bernardo Carpio, a Filipino myth. 

Without her, without the wish, the timeline will be altered. No abnormally tall Bernardo, no brain tumor, and Andi wouldn't see him as a freak. 

I am underlining the importance of villains. Tell me, if Voldemort had never been born, if there was an era of peace, what would Harry Potter and Neville Longbottom's lives be like? With magic and parents, but ultimately no conflict. It won't be enough for a book.

While cold and mean, at home Gabriela's a different story. So you'd think that her mother would love her? Yes, correct. If her mother could display affection? Wrong. While Mad Nena cared for Gabriela, it was a borderline abusive "tough love" relationship that they were nursing. Gabriela could act as tough as she could outside, but inside, at home, she's completely at her mother and her mother's whip's mercy.

Mad Nena really did care about Gabriela. In Gabriela's last moments, you could visualise her gaunt face, feel her pain and fear, hear her screams. And taht's when most people realize that she isn't just a ruthless girl, but a thinking, feeling person. 

She had dreams and hopes, like all of us. But we fail to see this until their vulnerable moments, because sometimes, our views on the world are tinted black and white. You could sense Mad Nena's regret. That Gabriela didn't deserve to die, or go to hell. Maybe because the power her mother held got to her head, and shaped her into who she was.

Or her home life, with the abuse made her an empty shell, putting on an act for the rest of the world. She's a cryptic character, and she will make you ask  so many questions, most left unanswered.

Just remember, if ever you think that there is a villain in your life, remember that they are human too. Analyze them, think and act carefully. Put yourself in their shoes. Then judge them.

I am told Veda has graduated from grade school and will soon be starting in secondary. Congratulations, Veda - and keep on writing. You probably have no idea how terrific a piece of writing - and thinking - this is.

I shall be visiting Mount Carmel Secondary School for Girls in Islington next. See you soon!

Chain of Fools er Authors

I've been tagged on a blog chain for YA Authors. Four simple questions about writing fiction for young adults. I guess I qualify because my new book Shine is definitely in the realm of older readers. But before I answer the questions, here's a tribute to Keren David, who tagged me.

Keren David
Photo: Faye Thomas
On the day I finished the final chapters of Tall Story, my debut novel, I happened to be writing at the Caffe Nero in Highgate when I heard a soft voice somewhere in the room say 'Carnegie Medal'.

Of course, to anyone immersed in the children's book world, the words 'Carnegie Medal' are a stimulant. I suddenly found my radar ears switching into high. The words were swiftly followed by an exchange that included words like 'YA Fiction', 'Geraldine McCaughrean', 'Kevin Brooks' and 'Patrick Ness'.

This was my final day of writing Tall Story and here I was, eavesdropping on people that I couldn't even see from my favourite seat somewhere in the middle where the chatter from both ends of the room dulled to a soft mumble. Get a grip, Candy! I forced myself to concentrate and continue working on that last chapter.

Then suddenly I felt a light tap on the shoulder and someone said, 'Candy Gourlay? Is that you?'

I looked up and realised that the soft voice discussing things I would rather be listening to than writing my book, was Keren David, an author who had recently friended me on Facebook.

I had never met Keren in the flesh, but already felt like I knew a lot about her. Her debut novel When I Was Joe was already doing the rounds as an ARC. Which meant that there was already a bit of a buzz from the kidliterati. A good buzz, in fact.

The brilliant cover of Keren's
latest book Salvage.
Read my review on Amazon
That was 2009. In 2014, I can honestly say that to me, Keren - now the author of five young adult books - epitomises the label 'YA Author'. Someone who writes specifically for this challenging, demanding and rather awesome readership.

In fact, when I saw that nominations were open for Queen of Teen, I went straight over to nominate Keren.

Except it turns out you've got to be a teen to nominate someone. Which, sadly, I'm not. Just.

So here's the nomination that I wasn't allowed to submit for being old (if you're a real teen, feel free to copy and paste this onto the nomination form): "Gutsy, acerbic, sharply observed, thoughtful, wise. Keren David's writing captures the world of teen with precision and honesty. And it's all unput-downable. Every teen should discover her."

Right. Keren's ears must be burning. Good. Now here's my link in the blog chain.

What am I working on?

I am writing a novel set in a bit of not-very-well-known history. It is told from the point of view of tribal characters who are so far removed from our own experience of the world that at the moment, the story is coming across as fantasy. If you don't know any better, you might think you're reading something like Michelle Paver's Wolf Brother -- except it really did happen.

How does it differ from others in its genre?

I've been spending a lot of time on Open Library, reading public domain writing from the period. But my characters are a people who never told their own story. The writings I've found are patronising reports by colonial officials who objectify them as primitives and do not see beyond to their humanity. So I'm discovering most of my information not from histories but from ethnological and anthropological reports.

In a way, the isolation of my tribal characters and the lack of many specifics gives me a freedom to spin stories around them.

But I am also gripped by a deep sense of responsibility. I am giving a voice to a people who have not been heard in children's books before. Though I am writing fiction, I must make sure my story captures their humanity and their truth.

Why do I write what I do?

I loved Keren's answer to this question so much I was tempted to copy and paste it here. She wrote: "Why don’t I write Harry Potter meets Fifty Shades and get mega deals from multiple publishers?"

I did actually try to write Twilight once. I was determined to write a more commercial book than my debut Tall Story. Why should Stephenie Meyer make all the money?

Boy. What a mistake. I wanted to make a living. But I couldn't make it happen. It was like there was an invisible force dragging me to a specific story that I didn't want to write. There were things going on in my life that made that story too painful to explore. So I tried to write my vampire novel. I finished something. It was crap so I simply threw it away and started again. The next finished novel turned out to be a story about trafficking. It was crap too.

By that time I was tired of resisting those invisible forces. In the end, I allowed these forces to take me into a story that explored obsession, loss and living in a trap of your own making. The final product is Shine. It took me three years.

Here's a picture of Shine to remind you to buy a copy so that my children can wear socks to school.

Why do I write what I do? I don't know. But choice doesn't seem to come into it.

How does my writing process work?

I was just explaining this at a school visit yesterday.

When I start a book, I am a rabbit staring at several rabbit holes.

These are ideas for characters, stories, settings.

I dive into one rabbit hole. I go right in. Go as far as I can go. Write a few chapters. Do I want to write some more? Oh, that is an interesting thing. Shall I explore that? I keep going until I don't want to keep going. If I don't want to keep going, I climb out of the rabbit hole and dive into the next one.

And if I don't like that rabbit hole I climb into another one.

I keep doing this until I find the book I want to write.

Then I write it.

Which involves a lot of resisting social media while trying to look like I'm paying attention to my family. And being in the paragraph, in the moment, in the chapter, and not outside looking at this massive project that is probably going to use up yet another year or two or three of my life.

And then I finish the book.

And then there I am again.

A rabbit staring at rabbit holes.

 To continue the chain, may I tag Celia Rees, whose breakthrough YA novel Witch Child in 2009, showed me that I knew nothing, NOTHING, about writing and that I had to get better at it fast!    

The Chain So Far (or at least as far back as I had time to search):
Iain Maloney (First Time Solo)
Chris Becket (Dark Eden)
Tony Ballantyne (Dream London)
Fletcher Moss (The Poison Boy)
Sarah Naughton (The Hanged Man Rises)
CJ Flood (Infinite Sky)
Terence Blacker (Boy2Girl)
Martyn Bedford (Flip)
Keren David (Salvage)
Me (Shine)

Read my previous posts:

I love LibrariesBeast QuestStory is not colour blindOrigami fan mail
The Writer is You
Whoever You Are
Dear Candy Gourlay
Letters from
Ellis Guilford School
Multicultural is about
inclusion not
Monster Typhoon
in the

I love school libraries

Think of a Philippines in which children love to read...

I've got an interview coming out soon on the Sambat Trust blog. The Sambat Trust flagged it up yesterday with this video.

I played the video and rather too slowly realised that it was one I made last year after the School Librarian of the Year was announced. How funny that I'd forgotten!

In the video, there are images of hardworking Filipino school librarian Zarah Gagatiga. She makes her daily bread by working as a school librarian and consultant and then in her free time, she travels all over the place, building school libraries in schools that would otherwise not manage to afford it. She does this as library consultant of the Sambat Trust, an organisation dedicated to partnering with schools to create school libraries in some of the most deprived places outside Manila.

I was thinking of Zarah, the libraries built by the Sambat Trust and the children who use them, as I made the rounds last week for World Book Day/Week. I visited King Alfred School in North London, Copthall School in Mill Hill, and Ashcroft Technical Academy in East Putney.

Signing books at lovely Copthall School. Photo: Jackie Rice
At every school I visited, I was struck by the role of the school library as a haven - at lunch time, children rushed to the library to relax, read, listen to music, chat. In every school I visited, I watched children approaching the librarian for advice on books they were reading.

At one point, I found myself trying to discourage some children too young to read Shine from buying the book but they were determined. The librarian in a very relaxed way said, 'Well done for wanting to read it, if you find it to hard just set it aside, you'll definitely be able to read it in a year!'

It reminded me of my own school librarian when I was in primary school in the Philippines, she just let me go for it. And if I found I couldn't get through a book, it was oh-well-just-try-again-next-year. And I did. And she was right.

I'm so lucky I get to spend time in school libraries though I've long left school. Thank you to the lovely librarians Jackie Rice of Copthall, Susan Morgan-Jones of Ashton (she's a former journalist and photographer!) and Cathy Brown of King Alfred for inviting me to come.

I love it that librarians always make a little display about me when I visit. Here's a Flickr album of photos you can use for a display if you ever invite me to your school!

Read my previous posts:

Beast QuestStory is not colour blindOrigami fan mail One picture, three stories

Beast Quest

My World Book Day school today was King Alfred School, right here in North London. Meet Cathy Brown, librarian and all around book beast, who arranged a terrific day for me. Yes, she is THAT hairy. The children appear very well adjusted considering they have a beast for a librarian. I'm sure she will want me to thank Chris Judge, whose Beast books inspired the WBD costume. More photos of my World Book Week school visits coming soon!

Read my previous posts:

Story is not colour blindOrigami fan mail One picture, three stories The writer is YOU

Story is not colour blind

Happy World Book Day, everyone!

I saw the following post on Malorie Blackman's Facebook profile yesterday:

Click click: read it.

The author, a teacher, writes about how he was dismayed to find that his students from diverse backgrounds believed that only white people could be characters in a story.

If children were writing stories where the race of characters was varied and random, there might be some merit in claiming that children are colourblind. However, even proponents of racial colourblindness do not argue that all people are white … and English. They argue that race no longer matters. If that’s true, why are young children of colour and young white children writing exclusively about white characters? Read it on the Media Diversified Blog

The post really struck a chord with me.

When I visit schools, I tell the story of how I never saw myself in the books that I read and loved while growing up. How it took me a long time to have the courage to put characters who looked like me in my stories.

My first novel, which took me five years to write (it is still unpublished), featured an English boy, whose best friend was an elderly Englishman. It was a time travel story which took my character into the Second World War in Europe - although when I was growing up, my parents had steeped me in stories of their own experiences of war in the Philippines.

It was only when a literary agent pointed out the disconnect between the story and its author that I realised I wasn't allowing myself to become part of my stories.

Often I find myself speaking in schools with incredibly diverse populations, the children are a rainbow of colours, faiths and backgrounds. And as I watch their faces, I see realisation dawn on many faces. Because they haven't seen themselves in books either.

This is why it's so exciting to meet young people who are writers as well as readers.

There's no time to waste. They MUST begin writing their stories down now.

All our stories are different. There is no one way to describe each of us. And we are the only ones who can put that story into words. And story is not colour blind.

We are often told: "Write what you know."

But even more importantly, kids, whether you're black or brown or snow white or rose red or olive drab (like me) - WRITE WHO YOU ARE.

Read my previous posts:

Origami fan mail One picture, three stories The writer is YOU

Origami Fan Mail

So I read somewhere that you've got to make sure you blog at least once a week so everybody knows you're alive.  I just want you all to know that I am working hard on my new book and am very much alive.

In one of my blog posts last month, I received the following letter from a student at Ellis Guilford School:

 Do you still have that origami bird and penguin I gave you?

I thought this would be a good time to show them off!

And how about this great drawing of Bernardo - complete with his hairy legs!