Inaugural Retreat Success

Here’s our latest Chasing Time blog post following our first retreat last weekend, which went even better than we could have hoped for. We’ve already had three 5* reviews (which are included at the end of the post), and are looking forward to doing it all again in a few weeks time!

Source: Inaugural Retreat Success

Hello and Goodbye August! (And all the bookish things in between)

Well, August came and went pretty quickly, huh? But what a month it was. Between managing to get lots of writing done on my own YA novel, Sixteen Again, whilst on holiday, to coming home and launching straight into the fabulous Edinburgh Book Festival, then formalising lots of arrangements for our first Chasing Time Writing Retreat in Angus at the end of the month, it’s been all go.

The Edinburgh Book Festival has quickly become a highlight of my literary year, and this year I was lucky enough to include an overnight stay in Edinburgh and to attend lots of author events, as well as two SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) crit groups in the Spiegeltent. Special mention has also to be made of the Unbound evening on the 18th, where singer/songwriter Genevieve Dawson ( @gdawsonmusic ) and novelist Sarah Perry ( @_sarah_perry ) in particular were amazing. (Watch out for Sarah’s book coming out – the writing is beautiful and I was seriously holding back tears by the end).

It was also the first time that I had heard Matt Haig speak, and he had us all spellbound, even as it was touch and go at one point as to whether the Bosco Theatre venue would be blown away by the fierce winds outside. And of course, there was the sold out SCBWI event, The Great Gender Debate, with authors Jonathan Stroud, David Leviathan and Kathryn Evans, ably chaired by the South East Scotland SCBWI Coordinators, Sarah Broadley and Anita Gallo.

I even managed to squeeze in a visit to Blackwell’s Writers at the Fringe to support my lovely author friend, Sandra Ireland, who was one of five authors reading from their books. (Check out ‘Beneath the Skin’ by Sandra if you love a slice of gothic noir and fantastically well-written novels).

So that brings me smoothly on to the writing retreats that Sandra, Dawn Geddes and I are launching, with the first one being at the end of this month. It’s come round fast and we’re really looking forward to welcoming all our guests soon. The venue is superbly atmospheric and bound to inspire, and I might even be able to squeeze some more of my own writing in over the weekend too!

The Chasing Time team

For more information go to

Hope your own writing/reading is going well too – bye for now.

Scottish Association of Writers Annual Conference 2017

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I’m just back from this year’s Scottish Association of Writers Conference at The Westerwood Hotel (@TheWesterwoodQ) in Cumbernauld. And what another fantastic weekend it has been! The SAW Council work hard to put on such a great event and this year we had the biggest turn out from our writing group, @AWCAngus since I started attending a few years ago. It’s so good to be able to spend more time with friends and get to know each other better, as well as just generally soak up the buzz of being in the company of like-minded people. The icing on the cake is that we again came away with some prizes and placings in the various competitions that are adjudicated over the weekend, including top prizes of The Dorothy Dunbar Rose Bowl for poetry for our Club Secretary, Sandra Ireland (author of ‘Beneath The Skin’), and The Constable Silver Stag for a General Novel to Pam Turner.

Last year I was lucky enough to win the beautiful T.C. Farries trophy for a Children’s Novel, and it was with a certain reluctance that I found myself packing it up in order to pass the baton. However the consolation was that this year it was awarded to fellow Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCWBI) member, Sheila Adamson, so it was a bit like keeping it in the family.


Apart from the competitions and the social side, there are a number of fantastic SAW workshops to attend, and my favourite two of the weekend were run by YA authors Keith Gray and Victoria Gemmell (another fellow SCBWI). Thank you both for being so lovely and helping to turn it into such a special weekend once again. I was also able to attend an outside workshop run by editor and literary consultant, Claire Wingfield ( and between the three of them, have left feeling inspired and keen to get back to my own work in progress.

Our keynote speaker was the very funny Helen Lederer who rounded off a brilliant conference.

If you would like to know more about Angus Writers’ Circle you can follow us on Twitter @AWCAngus, and I hope your own writing is going well.







As promised, here’s another post borne out of the fantastic SCBWI conference held in Winchester at the end of last year. This time it is to share words of wisdom, hints, tips and an agent’s insider perspective in to the world of trying to be published in children’s fiction. The keynote speaker was Sarah Davies of The Greenhouse Literary Agency and her talk was both enlightening and inspirational for those of us plugging away with our writing for children and young adults. I hope you similarly find some of the following to be of interest…

In 2007 Sarah had been working in UK publishing for many years but was engaged to an American and felt it was time to move on.  She saw this as an opportunity to create a transatlantic literary agency and so The Greenhouse Literary Agency was born.  They have around 70 clients, are also very active in the film and TV world and love to nurture talent.  Their mantra is ‘we represent authors and not just books’.

She views them as talent spotters, but also as developers of talent. Writing comes out of who you are, “you could give me half a page of writing by any of my clients and I think I could tell who wrote it.”

Voice is the first thing they look at and they use this to base their decision as to whether or not to go on and take on a client. “Train yourself to pick up colour and cadence of voice as if you were Mozart. Everyone can improve their voice and listening is the best way to do it.”

So what does it take to succeed in today’s marketplace?

They receive between 10,000 to 15,000 submissions per year so potential authors need to produce something that is seriously attention grabbing.  Ask yourself, ‘how do I find my edge?’  The most common rejection is, ‘I didn’t love it enough’.  Therefore, how can you write something that can get under the skin of the publisher?

If you aren’t writing because you love it and really can’t not write, then the business can really sap your spirit – it’s as much about passion as it is anything else.

Two words dominate every day of her life (and also where she chooses to invest her time, as time is the most difficult thing to manage as an agent):


These come before everything.

So, what is an inspired concept – how do you know if you have one, and are there any ways to help you find one? Is there something that makes you sit up?  It’s simple and easy to describe.  ‘Almost viral’.

One key could be a useful little phrase – ‘what if’. (Perhaps it can be based on something that hasn’t happened but could have). This can help writers think in less predictable ways.

Any concept, as with the writing itself, needs to have big emotional and intellectual scope.

Look at the tip of the story iceberg and know that underneath the water everything else is waiting to be discovered and explored.

Does the concept give you enough to work with or is it too thin?

A great concept is a ‘hook’ – when you pitch your book you are going fishing to catch agents and they need that hook to catch editors.

The good news is that agents are desperate to be hooked and are looking all the time.  Notice people’s body language and you will soon pick up who is hooked by your concept.

What should we be thinking of before we even begin to write? At this point I think one of Sarah’s presentation slides summarises it perfectly:


Plant seeds of writing – things to think about before you even begin to write:

Conflict and character – need to try and know your character at a deep level and certainly before you write page 1.  For writers this starts way before the actual writing – characters are real, they exist.

Also consider the sense of place as this can give a wonderful sense of reality.

Build a story on great foundations.  Maximise how efficiently you work – writing to find your story is very time consuming although it may work for some people, but best to have an idea of your story before you start.  A rudimentary outline can help you home in on what you’re trying to do.  Try to write with focussed intention so you know what you’re trying to achieve.  Experiment with structure, point of view, tense.  Write three chapters then stop and look again. Who is story for?  Age group and core reader?

Your goal as a writer is to sprinkle fairly dust over your topic, not tell everything you know.  You are looking for a reaction.  What are you trying to say?  What are you going to leave the reader with after the final page?  (But not in a didactic way).

One of the key things that will be embedded in a great concept is HIGH STAKES. What you give us has to matter, you have to make it matter.  A great story will make a reader ask, ‘what if I was in that position, what would I do?’  From her many years as an agent she knows that we have a driving need to have others go there for us. Many submissions they see don’t have high enough stakes.

There are elements of the thriller in every story and it is the writer’s job to make us turn the page.

Try to spin an idea differently to how anyone else has spun it before.  E.g. Jay Asher’s ‘Thirteen Reasons Why’ stands apart because the girl in question is almost entirely off stage and it’s all about the aftermath. It also has a compressed time frame so it reads like a thriller rather than an issues led story.

Another example is Lauren Oliver’s ‘Before I fall’, where the protagonist comes back to live her final day six times over, and each time comes closer to understanding herself/being compassionate/learning to love, until she’s ready to let go.

Both stories reveal in a deep sense what it feels like to be human.

Writers need a great idea, but it needs to feed through to something else, so needs to have a deeply felt theme – people have to relate to the story and its underlying characters.

One of Sarah’s favourite quotes is, ‘In an extraordinary story, in the very best stories, we don’t just discover more about the characters, we discover more about ourselves.’

Other notable quotes come from Picasso, who said, ‘Art is the lie that enables us to discover the truth’, and L P Hartley, ‘It’s better to write about things you feel than about what you know.’

Writing great fiction isn’t about, or from, your intellect, it’s about your emotional response.

“Write something without any expectation of someone reading it and write from the white hot centre of your subconscious.” However you write your story it has to come from a place of passion inside.

Your story needs to give you a USP – without this it will struggle to stand out and editors would struggle to put it across to booksellers.  The aim is to deeply get the chaos of being human and everything it comprises and then be able to create a unique story framework to create order from the chaos.

Consider finding new ways to see things.  ‘Significant detail’ is important – pick out the specific to create the emotional impact. This puts me in mind of the famous quote by Anton Chekhov, “Don’t tell me the moon is shiningshow me the glint of light on broken glass.”  (One of my own favourites).

Stay current – read and read but don’t be derivative.  (It’s also useful to keep abreast of what is happening – subscribe to the Bookseller?)

Summary : 

  • Wow factor
  • What if?
  • Big questions
  • High stakes
  • Spinning ideas differently
  • A deeply felt theme

img_1946                          img_1948

“Write it, put it away and forget about it, then when you get it out again ask yourself these revision questions”.


Sarah often says to clients when they’re out on submission to not write for two weeks as she feels they also need ‘thinking time’.

I’ll leave you with this thought…

“Go to your desk as if it’s the last day of your life, and then write as if you have all the time in the world”.

#getpublished – How To Write For Children And Young Adults And Get Published

As promised, here are my notes from the recent one day conference I attended in London. They turned out to be somewhat lengthier than I originally anticipated, but hopefully there may be one or two nuggets in there that some of you may find useful. All in all it was a brilliant day and I came away very inspired.

children reading


Earlier this month I was lucky enough to attend a day conference at Bloomsbury on How To Write For Children, where we were given valuable insights by a panel of children’s publishers, a panel of agents and Julia Eccleshare, who is Children’s Books Editor at the Guardian. After lunch attendees then had the option of a writing workshop with either Yasmeen Ismail on Writing for Young Children, Elen Caldecott on Writing for 8-12s or Matt Whyman on Writing for Young Adults. (I only wish I could have attended all three!)

What follows is a copy of my notes on the day – so if there are any mistakes in the information passed on here it is entirely on my head and is not the fault of the speakers! However, I hope that these notes will be of use to you and may provide a bit more of an understanding as to what publishers are looking for and the current UK children’s book market.

The day started with an introduction to the world of children’s publishing with Emma Hopkin, Managing Director of Bloomsbury Children’s and Educational Publishing. She said that they publish 55 novels a year and that over 96% of these are acquired from agents, with more and more being taken on in the US by their sister company. She then ran through a summary of today’s book market, which involved lots of slides and statistics, the majority of which I didn’t get a chance to take down. However, the Total Consumer Market (TCM) in the UK was £1.4bn last year for adult print sales and £263m for children’s. The latter represents a 4.3% decline on last year, but is still healthy when compared to the decline in adult print books, as more of these are being taken up in digital form. The children’s book market is also a more global, robust market place. Interestingly, last year almost 1/3 of books bought in the UK were digital. At Bloomsbury, 6.7% of their children’s sales were digital and 40% of these were from just 10 titles, 8 of which were YA novels. They also have Bloomsbury Spark, which is their digital e-first imprint. The age ranges are 0-5, 5-7, 7-9, 9-11 and 12+. The ten top sellers in the 0-5 age range were dominated by Julia Donaldson and Claire Freedman (of the ‘Dinosaurs Love Underpants’ etc. books). In the middle ranges the top titles were multiple entries by David Walliams and Jeff Kinney of the Wimpy Kid books, and ‘Minecraft’. The market is a bit more diverse once we enter the realms of Young Adult titles.

Emma then moved on to the process for publishing books. Basically the editors have an acquisition meeting to go over rights, format, markets and sales, publicity, cost to retail, channels for the book etc. and only then do they judge if they can acquire a book based on these costing’s (although they did say later on that if they REALLY love a book they will try to make these costing’s work!). More about the cost of children’s picture books to follow….

Julia Eccleshare of the Guardian then took the platform and shared some of her insights before chairing the panel discussion with Emma Hopkin, Jill Coleman (Little Tiger Press) and Mara Bergman (Walker Books). There are 10,000 children’s books published a year and the Guardian are only able to carry out one 600 word review a week. Taking into account holidays and the like, this works out at a review of about 45 books a year. She directed us to the Guardian’s children’s books website, which is and also mentioned various industry awards, such as the Guardian’s Children’s Fiction Price, the Roald Dahl Funny Prize, the CILIP Carnegie Medal, the Blue Peter Book Award, the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize and the Red House Children’s Book Award and suggested that all would be writers for the children’s market should read some of the shortlisted entries each year to get a feel for the market and see what children are enjoying. She then asked the panel for their thoughts on the current children’s book market.


Jill Colman of Little Tiger Press was first up and said that books these days are much more plot driven and not so discursive, for example ‘Heidi’. She also pointed out that it is difficult to get books ‘found’, particularly for younger readers who have their books bought for them by parents and grandparents. Amazon is difficult to browse for example and so people will tend to go for the favourites and well know books, and ones that they enjoyed as children themselves. (Enid Blyton anyone??).

Mara Bergman of Walker Books mentioned that there is a bit of a gap between picture books and those for 7-9 year olds and said that their Young Readers illustrated publishing tries to bridge this gap. She suggested a word count of 8,000 words or 4 x 2,000 word stories, or, for younger readers coming straight out of picture books, 3 x 600 word short stories. She also suggested that the biggest gap in the market at present is for junior novels of around 15,000 words. She then went on to specifically talk about Jeff Kinney (of Wimpey Kid fame) being a good example of writing for 9-11 year olds but also using illustration, which then obviously means a slightly lesser word count. She pointed out that children these days tend to have shorter attention spans as they have so many other activities competing for their attention and reading is just one of the things that they do. Therefore any books have to be fast moving and something has to happen quickly in the book. She also said that she had heard talk about there one day being a potential move to byte sized fiction that can be accessed on mobile phones.

Julia then asked the panel what they were looking for in submissions.

Mara answered ‘the best of the best’. This entails good writing, characterisation and pace. When asked to elaborate on what makes good characterisation she said characters that are quirky and credible and also the relationships amongst and between other characters.

Jill would like to see humour. She also suggests that you read your work aloud to make sure it reads well. She likes warmth and a decent message, but without being to twee. The UK is the best picture book originator and the biggest exporter of children’s books.

Emma also likes funny stories, plus how a story is told and what makes it unique. This could also be the author’s voice and books she cited as examples included John Green’s ‘The Fault In Our Stars’, David Almond’s ‘Skellig’, ‘The Messenger’ by Monica Dickens and ‘Wonder’ by R J Palacio, for tackling the big questions/being philosophical. On a personal note, I have recently finished ‘Wonder’ and cannot recommend it highly enough. It had me in tears by the end and I think it is definitely a book that will stay with a reader no matter what their age.

At the end of the discussion I was able to ask them whether they are still interested in rhyming picture books from new authors as one agent that I contacted had told me they were not particularly commercial given that they often did not translate well for sale in overseas markets. However, as I mentioned earlier, the top ten books in this category were in rhyme (and I know from my own experience that my children love rhyme), so I was interested in hearing how you could break into this area as a non-established author. They each said that they do still like rhyme as long as it is done properly. (I asked a similar question to the agents later in the day and Julia Churchill said she would consider them as long as the rhymes ended “on a bang and not a whimper”. She went on to say that they see a lot of rhyming stories that start off well but then fade and it is fairly rare to get these just right. Added to this there must be a solid underlying story and the writer can’t show that they have worked too hard to make the rhyme fit, but rather it should sound natural and unforced).


This leads me on nicely to a roundup of what the agents imparted to us. The agents in attendance were Julia Churchill of A.M. Heath, Jodie Hodges of United Agents and Camilla Wray of Darley Anderson. The discussion was again chaired by Julia Eccleshare.

Julia Churchill said that around 90% of her authors have come from unsolicited manuscripts. She is looking for a good pitch that shows the voice, character, story, theme, place and concept.

Jodie Hodges handles 90 writers and illustrators and this is skewed more towards younger illustrated fiction, although she admitted that she loves the 9-12 age range the best.

Camilla Wray said her client list is still relatively small and that she is looking to build this up. She said a cover letter is very important and that writers should also put in what they themselves love reading as this provides an insight in to where they see their own fiction fitting in. She looks for a strong plot and a good hook and tends to be quite commercial, such as representing Helen Grant who has been long listed and shortlisted for the CILIP Carnegie Medal, and Cathy Cassidy, who is an author of YA fiction, mainly focusing on domestic fiction.

There was then a discussion on how writers should approach their cover letters to agents. They all agreed that the letters should be personalised and should sum up both the book and yourself. These should be memorable – i.e. the writer should have something to say – and should include what the story is, who the character is and what they are trying to achieve.

If it is an email submission then make sure it is addressed to the right person and not just a generic email, as it then looks as if you can’t be bothered tailoring your approach to find the right agent. Also, if there are instructions, then follow them and don’t just send a blank email with an attachment, as this looks lazy. As they said, if a writer doesn’t appear to be all that bothered, then why should they be? They will still read it in all likelihood, but it will put you on the wrong footing from the outset.

It is a small industry and they have perhaps 15 people that they would maybe go to, so if a book has gone out to all of them there is no point in flogging a dead horse and writers have to be willing to put a book to one side if it’s not working. It may be though that your agent still believes in your writing and so will give you time to come up with an alternative. Often it can also be a case that the timing is just wrong rather than the quality of the writing so, for example, if there have been a spate of books coming out on a particular topic, it may be best to simply put your own MS in the bottom drawer until an opportunity arises, as things tend to come and go in cycles.

This prompted a question on whether it is worth trying to write along a specific trend in the market, to which the reply was a unanimous ‘no’. Camilla said that books sent in last year will not be published until the next year, by which time you may have missed the trend anyway, and they all pointed out that trends change regularly.
Julia said it was more important that you write about what you want to write about rather than try to tailor a MS to what you think the market is looking for. She also said however that America tends to be a leader in publishing trends and that it doesn’t hurt to keep an eye on what is selling on

There were some attendees who wrote for both the picture book market and an older age group but it was strongly suggested that a debut author should debut in just one area and not send out both submissions together, as this just clouds things. (Which is not to say that they couldn’t then diversify once they had established themselves). Jodie suggested that writers of picture books should send 3 individual stories as authors in this area need to sell about 6 a year because they cost around £2,000-£2,500 each to produce, so it is hard to make money. As such writers need to demonstrate that they have more they can offer. These books should be in the region of 500 words.

Agents will also want to know not just what you have got, but what are you working on next? Do you just want to write for this age group? Where else can we generate income? For example, will you do school visits/talks etc.? Writing to briefs can also come up once you are taken on. If working on different genres then the agents can forward these to different outfits. They were also keen to emphasise that agents are on your ‘team’ so it is good to give yourself a cushion before a publishing deadline so that the agent has a chance to read it over before it goes to an editor at the publishing house.

Another question was whether new writers should say that they are working on a series or a trilogy, but the general consensus was that a first book should stand alone on its own merit and then, if there was scope for a follow up, that was all well and good. It was pointed out that some trilogies start out well and then become worse as they go on and that this wasn’t helpful for an author’s profile or future commercial success.

The SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) was mentioned as they hold a conference every year, and it was recommended that writers try to take opportunities to take creative writing courses or attend Arvon courses or similar if possible and practical.

We were also advised to look up Barrington Stoke at who try to promote the accessibility of books to young people using various methods such as short word lengths and lots of chapter breaks so that readers can pace themselves, as well as lots of illustration in lower reading age titles to help with understanding, which linked back to what was discussed at the start of the day.


In the afternoon I attended a workshop on Writing for 8-12s with Elen Caldecott. She suggested that all writers need to consider 1) the needs of the reader, 2) the nuts and bolts of a story and then 3) ‘play’ with what you have written. For an example of point 3) she gave us a writing prompt for which I automatically defaulted to third person, present tense, as I tend to do. She then asked us to revisit the scene and to write it in first person if we had opted for third person originally, and set it in the past if we had chosen present tense and vice versa. I found this a hugely useful exercise as my second version seemed to have more life to it and yet it was the one that I wouldn’t have naturally chosen. The majority of others in the group also felt that their second piece was stronger too, no matter which option they had chosen initially.

1) She is excited to be writing for 8-12s as they are just starting to move away from adults and become more independent, so things like scale are interesting e.g. moving from being big in primary school to small in secondary school. Also they are finding their place in the world so relationships become hugely important.
She also asked us to consider why people read and what they want to get from it.
In this age range word count should be around 30,000-40,000 with a maximum of 50,000 words.

2) Nuts and bolts are things like words, narrator, plot, timescale, period, structures, characters, setting, point of view, genre, dialogue, sentences, concept, pace, relationships, punctuation and so on. She recommended Emma Darwin’s ‘The Itch of Writing’ blog and again pointed us towards books that have been shortlisted for awards such as the Red House Children’s Book Award and the Blue Peter Book Award for examples of well-constructed books. We looked at a couple of examples of children’s authors here (‘Cosmic’ by Frank Cottrell Boyce and ‘one dog and his boy’ by Eva Ibbotson) and discussed the writing styles of the authors and why the opening passages worked so well.

We should obviously also consider the problem or obstacle to be faced in the book and what the character will do about it, but just as importantly, why should we care?

Her take away points were as follows:

1. Play, change things up.
2. Write for yourself (Edit for the market).
3. Take yourself seriously or no one else will. Give a regular commitment to writing, even if just for 30 minutes a day.
4. Read like a writer. Therefore don’t just enjoy a storyline, but see what the author was trying to do.


In summary then, the day was a very useful insight in to the world of agents and publishers and the opportunity to get in front of these people was invaluable. It helped that everybody in the room shared the same passion, and the enthusiasm and buzz on the day was incredible. (It was almost worth it alone for me to simply just pass through the door and follow in J K Rowling’s footsteps!! 🙂 )

If you ever have a chance to attend a similar event then I would highly recommend it and I met some very interesting people, whose progress and careers I shall monitor with interest. Who knows, maybe one day I shall join this elusive band of published authors…….


Competition Update


Childhood Memories

If you’re in the mood for some bite sized writing, there are some great entries into this month’s mini writing competition. Closing date for August submissions is Friday 24th so there is still time to join in if you would like to. Please also remember to check back after the 24th to vote for your favourite entry. The winner will choose the topic for the next month and these mini competitions are open to all. Happy reading! 🙂

Writing Prompt for August is…….

kids with balloons


What is the first thing that springs to mind when you think of your childhood? Is there a specific time or event which had a significant impact on you? For this month’s mini writing competition I invite you to submit a piece of flash fiction (up to 500 words) or poetry to capture a moment in time and take us back there with you.

Please post entries on the Mini Monthly Competition page in the usual way and happy writing! 🙂

Normal service has been resumed…….


Hi all.

After a bit of a sporadic posting timetable last month due to holidays, (apologies for that btw) I am now back in the UK and ready to pick up where we left off.  So here is the theme for July’s Mini Monthly Writing Competition:


This can be interpreted in any way you see fit, e.g. is it a house number and scene of some notable event, is it a number that has special significance to the narrator, is it a sequence of numbers that dictate the story etc.  As usual the prompt is for a piece of flash fiction of up to 500 words or a poem.

Please upload your entries on to the July Mini Monthly Competition Page and the final entry date will be the 24th of July, with the winner announced at the beginning of August.  They then set the theme for August’s competition.

I look forward to reading some great entries if the standard of previous months is anything to go by and good luck to everyone who would like to take part.