Monthly Archives: September 2019

An interview with… John Condon

In my Writing 4 Children slot in Writers’ Forum this month, picture book writer, John Condon, tells me how he discovered his love for writing picture books whilst he was working on a screenplay for a play he planned to direct.

Since then he has had two pictures book accepted for publication: The Wondrous Dinosaurium released by Maverick Arts, 2018 and illustrated by Steve Brown and The Pirates are Coming due to be released by Nosy Crow in 2020, illustrated by Matt Hunt.

John explained that even though The Pirates are Coming was accepted first, due to the backlog of pirate based stories The Wondrous Dinosaurium was published first. This is the nature of the publishing world. He is currently working on a whole load more picture books with his agent Felicity Trew.

In the feature he talks through his writing process and how he keeps the pages turning for young readers. John said:

“I use several tools to ensure readers continue to turn the pages – Action, unpredictability, and an active character the reader will care about. If a reader wants to know what happens next, you will keep them turning the pages.” John Condon

Some of his writing tips for new writers include getting someone else to read your story aloud to you to build a strong support network around you of people with similar writing interests.

To find out more about John take a look at his website or follow him on Twitter @John_Condon_OTT

You can read the full interview in the #216 Oct 2019 issue of the national writing magazine, Writers Forum.

Book proposal

A few weeks ago on my blog, I talked about how a personal synopsis, or breakdown, of your novel can be a useful planning tool and map to help you complete your novel. See here. I mentioned that a synopsis for an agent or editor is slightly different and should be kept to an A4 side of paper. A book proposal for a non-fiction book is not the same as a synopsis. Today I thought I would explain how and why non-fiction book proposals are different.


When writing non-fiction books you do not necessarily have to finish the book before you submit your idea. If the idea has not been commissioned in-house you will need to give the publishers an idea of the layout of the book and why you are the best person for the job. In my opinion, the last bit is the hardest part.

Slushpile Challenge

Very recently, I was one of the winners of the July 2019 Slushpile Challenge. For the challenge we were asked to submit:

  • Outline of the book, including why you think there is space for it out there
  • Some market research on competing titles in the market-place, which might include publisher, pub date etc
  • Target readership, including (if applicable) any syllabus/key stage tie-in
  • Why you are the writer to tell this story
  • A sample of up to 2500 words of text (give or take) from your proposed narrative non-fiction title.

This is exactly the same sort of information you need to send to a publisher for a non-fiction book proposal, whether it is creative non-fiction or not.  I suggest you use these headings to help you. In the outline of the book I usually include a chapter breakdown.

Many of my books are published by QED one of the many imprints of Quarto.

Quarto provide submission guidelines online, which give an excellent idea of what you need to include in more detail. Each division has its own editorial focus.

If you don’t know what publisher might be best suited to the type of book you want to write, it is a good idea to take a look at the Writers & Artists Yearbook. There is a version specifically on writing for children.

Book review – Who are you calling weird?

Title: Who are you calling weird?

Written by: Marilyn Singer

Illustrated by: Paul Daviz

Published by: Word and Pictures (an imprint of the Quarto Group)

Who are you calling weird

This quirky and unusual non-fiction picture book for older readers (mid-grade+) contains an array of bizarre creatures that at first glance you would not be blamed for believing are the creation of science fiction. But all of the animals in this book are real and alive today. Marilyn Singer takes the reader on a fascinating journey to explore the strange and exotic wildlife that live in unique habitats all over the world. She describes their features and examines the purpose of their specific behaviours and adaptations.

Each double page spread has a bold, eye-catching illustration of each incredible creature. The kind of beautiful full-colour illustrations that make a book precious. Find out about the Aye-aye lemur from Madagascar, ponder over the incredible armoured Pangolin, be amazed by the hairy frog with claws like Wolverine and intrigued by the legends that evolved around the Narwhal, a real life unicorn.

This book could be used in the classroom to support work on biospheres, food chains and adaptations. One to treasure.

Who are you calling weird? is indeed a cornucopia of diversity every child will love to devour.

An Interview with… Francesca Capaldi Burgess

I have been told about such a wide range of resources that writers have used over the years I have been doing my Research Secrets slots in the national writing magazine Writers Forum. Resources are a writer’s best friend when researching for your writing and everybody has their own unique resource bank.

Francesca Capaldi writes short stories for anthologies and national women’s magazines such as My Weekly and The People’s Friend. In the October issue of Writers’ Forum she told me how she has gathered together a large selection of social history books, many secondhand, for her historical based research.

Research books

She explained books are not the only resources she turns to again and again. When researching locations her research always involves a map and sticking it on her whiteboard.

Old map Littlehampton

Francesca revealed:

“Back in my youth I did a history degree and discovered that there’s nothing better than first hand research, and even better if you’re using primary sources. I used to love sitting in the records’ office, wading through a census or tithe map, gathering information not necessarily found in a book. I love social history, that of ordinary, everyday folk.” Francesca Capaldi Burgess

Some other resources she talks about in the feature are: Google Maps, town websites, Pinterest, libraries, museums, local archives,, newspapers, teh met office and documentaries. She said:

“If I’m at a talk or watching a documentary, I always take copious notes as I find I remember the details better. I also jot down ideas as I go along.”  Francesca Capaldi Burgess

Danger For Daisy by F Capaldi coverHer pocket novel for My Weekly, Danger for Daisy, came out on January 2019. It is about the newly single Daisy Morgan who is excited about celebrating her first Christmas away from home with her extrovert flatmates. Then she meets intriguing university lecturer Seth, who offers a completely alternative Christmas – an archaeological dig on a secluded island. As she gets to know the diverse bunch of people working on Sealfarne, and romance blossoms with Seth, she begins to enjoy her adventure. But a series of bizarre occurrences convince her all is not as it seems, and there may even be murder involved…

To read the complete interview check out the #216 Oct 2019 issue of Writers Forum.

You can follow Francesca on Facebook @FrancescaCapaldiAuthor or on twitter @FCapaldiBurgess

Paddington Station

My study can be a bit like Paddington Station. I do tend to leave the door open so my family walk in and out whenever they please. But, even if I shut the door they walk in and out anyway. I suppose, they all know that is where they will find me. In fact, I think they purposely wait until I am fully engrossed in a piece of writing before they walk in and interrupt me.

Paddington station

One of the other times they all like to congress in my study is when I’m on the phone. Yep, I can guarantee anybody who is in the house, not just the kids, will come into my study if I need to make a phone call.


Trouble is it takes ages for me to start to write and just as long to get going again when I’m interrupted. I frantically try to finish the sentence before I stop to see what they want.

I use to worry the reason they interrupted me was because I was neglecting my children and maybe I shouldn’t be working or being distracted by my PC when they are home, after school and in the school holidays, etc. But, I do like it in my study. I used to believe they would not be competing for my attention like this if I just switched the computer off, or made the phone calls whilst they were at school, or in bed. Maybe, it is a problem of working from home? Organising the time around the children is easier said than done.

I was re-reading the other day a book called, Detoxing Childhood by Sue Palmer . In it Sue made some very valid points about being a parent in the 21st century. I wrote a review of the book for Write Away many years ago. See: Detoxing Childhood.

In the book, Sue points out the latest addiction, which she termed ‘pigeon post’. This is where in any spare moments people think, ‘Oh – I’ll just go and check the email.’ Then once logged on may spend ages on their correspondence, quite forgetting the family. I do this all the time. I am addicted.


Sue Palmer compared this addiction to the experiments the psychologist, B. F. Skinner, did on pigeons. He found if you gave pigeons intermittent, unpredictable rewards, the pigeons would peck enthusiastically at a particular spot – even to the point some would peck their beaks totally blunt. Emails are my intermittent rewards. I am a pigeon and probably just as stupid as one in that I am not even sure I want to put it right. Getting emails makes me happy, especially if they contain good news.

I reassure myself by thinking back to when I was a child. I remember how I loved playing in the street, my parents never knew half the things I got up to, and I was always okay. In the same way, my now grown-up children are just as happy to be getting on with things on their own. Occasionally they just need to check that their mum is still okay.

So my top-tip today is if you are interrupted don’t try to finish the sentence just STOP! It is easier to get back into the flow if the sentence is half-way through.

Book review – Around the World in 80 Ways

Title: Around the World in 80 Ways

Illustrated by: Katy Halford

Published by: Dorling Kindersley

Around the World in 80 Ways

From a dugout boat to a moon buggy, find out all the ways you can travel the world in this stunning illustrated book by Katy Halford. Around the World in 80 Ways explores exactly 80 different modes of transport that could take you part way around the world. This eclectic mix of vehicles takes the reader on a fun and exciting journey through time. It is full of amazing facts about when the different types of transport was invented and who invented them. This picture book features some highly eccentric ways of travelling that will have you laughing as you imagine yourself travelling the world on a self-balancing scooter, or on an elephant, or zooming off with a jetpack, or even on a husky dog sled.

Katy Halford’s bold illustrations bring the transport to life, with simplistic and entertaining details and pages full of happy smiley faces, which will keep a child entranced for hours. They will be fascinated to find out what a Gondola, Vaporetto, Maglev and a Tuk-tuk are and how cars and aeroplanes changed people’s lives. This book would make an ideal addition to the class book corner, or to support a class topic on vehicles.

Although, 80 different ways of travelling sound a lot when I’d finished the book I could not help thinking about the ones that were not included and wondered at Katy Halford’s reasoning for picking the ones she did and leaving others like the International Space Station out. Maybe she plans to illustrate a sequel?

I believe this book also highlights the new trend in acknowledging the illustrator and not the writer. I was left wondering if this book was written in-house, or if they had a ghost writer.

An interview with… Ali Sparkes

For the Papers Pens Poets blog in 2017, I interviewed Ali Sparkes about her love of stationery.

AliS Stationery 2

She told me:

“When it comes to high-speed book signing for 200 hyped up Year 6s, nothing beats my trusty Pentel Energel. It’s very fast and smooth and doesn’t smudge UNLESS you try to use it on any kind of shiny paper. Then it’s flippin’ useless because it smears like 1960s mascara in a sauna.”

Ali Sparkes

Ali explained that she orders the refills in bulk and was ecstatic when she discovered they made coloured refills too. For her book Thunderstruck, she needed green or purple ink because there was no clear white space for her signature, so it was difficult to see her usual black ink against it.

Like me, Ali Sparkes has a shelf of notebooks that are too nice to use.

AliS I Am Not Worthy

She prefers narrow feint and avoids spiral bound. She has a weakness for Fabriano A4 pads in her favourite colours of lime green, orange and purple.  Ali revealed she love the simple coloured cardboard covers and stapled-in pages which don’t rip away and fall apart when you give them a hard stare. She told me that although they are quite pricey in shops there are some good deals online.

Another stationery favourite for Ali is sticky notes.

“I have to have those little stick-in tabs for when I’m line editing a paper manuscript. By the time I’m done my manuscript looks a little like a groovy 1970s handbag with a multi-coloured fringe.”

Ali Sparkes

AliS stationery1

You can read the full interview on the Papers Pens Poets blog.

Find out more about Ali Sparks and her books on her website:  or follow her on Twitter: @SparkesAli. Or check out her You Tube page. 

Writing a Synopsis

If you are having problems with your plot and find that your story is meandering all over the place with no real purpose you may benefit from writing a personal synopsis.

This does not mean writing pages and pages of detail, outlining the whole story before you begin. A synopsis can be a few simple sentences, or a couple of paragraphs that sketches the timeline of the beginning, middle and end of your story. This is not the same as the synopsis you use when submitting your work to agents and editors. A submission synopsis is usually written when you have finished the book and should outline the main plot points including the ending.

A personal synopsis should be the kind notes that serve as memory joggers.

railway track

Often beginner writers do not think the entire story through. They start on a high with a brilliant idea but then they hit a cul-de-sac. An outline synopsis will ensure you have a clear idea of where your characters are going and what their problems are. Ask yourself: Who, What, Where, When, Why and How.

6 W's

Having an ending for the main plot line in mind that you can aim for will keep you on the road to complete your novel, picture book, short story or non-fiction book. Giving yourself a rough framework to work to prevents you from being tempted to go off on a tangent and will help to avoid a weak and coincidental conclusion.

A fiction submission synopsis should also include the 6 W’s. Yes, I know How does not begin with a W but… anyway! It should also give an agent or editor an indication of your unique selling point, whether it is your character, your voice, setting or even scientific / historical / mythological connections.

A non-fiction synopsis is totally different and for editors and agents it is more of a book proposal than a synopsis.

Book Review – The Hamburger of Doom

Title: Jonny Jakes Investigates… The Hamburger of Doom

Written by:  Malcolm Judge

Illustrated by: Alan Brown – Advocate Art

Published by: Curious Fox Books

Jonny Jakes Investigates… The Hamburger of Doom

Jonny Jakes is an undercover reporter for the banned school newspaper, The Woodford Word. Nothing will stop his pursuit of the truth. Not teachers. Not parents. Not double detention. He is always looking for that next big story so when a new Headteacher arrives halfway through term and introduces some weird and wonderful new routines, Jonny smells a rat. Hamburgers for lunch? Sweets in class? He’s determined to get to the bottom of it, because Jonny Jakes investigates the same way he eats his hamburgers: with relish.

This is a fantastic concept, well written in the style of the Wimpy Kid diaries and the Tom Gates books. The fact the school newspaper has been banned has you hooked from the start. It is the first book in a new series which will is sure to capture even the most reluctant reader’s attention.

In Jonny Jakes Investigates… The Hamburger of Doom you follow Jonny on his quest to save the school from aliens, whilst not only avoiding being licked to death but also preventing both the children and parents from becoming morbidly obese. Jonny Jakes talks you through the mounting evidence and how he comes to his amazing deductions which provide his hilarious, hard-hitting headlines. Find out if Jonny manages to meet his deadline to get the next copy of The Woodford Word out on time.

This book highlights why you should never take sweets from strangers and how healthy food, herbs and spices can save your life.

Working title

If I have not been given a title by the publisher who has commissioned the book, I often start by giving my books a working title just so I can have something written on the page. A blank page is daunting and I always write something to start myself off even if I go back and change it later.

Inkedblank book_LI

It is better not to get too attached to your working title as publishers often want to change them anyway. I learnt this the hard way and it was definitely a case of killing your darlings. Nowadays I never expect the same title to be on the finished published article, short story or book. I have written quite a few short stories for a variety of national women’s magazines and most of them were published under different titles.

However, it never hurts to give the title of your stories, features and books some serious consideration as this will be the first words the editors and publishers read when looking at your submission, whether it has been commissioned, or not. First impressions are important. A title that stimulates interest or intrigue stands out more amongst the competition, especially if it is on the slush pile. 


A good working title will  open up the meaning of the story, revealing layers of character, theme and subtext that goes beyond the actual plot. It will also give the editors and publishers an idea of what the book is about and the tone of the book.

A working title should inspire you to write, fill you with confidence and help you to get your words onto paper because it focuses you on the story. This will give you the momentum to move forward.

When I first started out writing for children I took my first three chapters to a critique group meeting and they got so hung up on the working title even though  I explained it was just a way to focus me on the themes of the book, they did not really give me any advice on the essential first three chapters.