Another interview with… Sue Wallman

This month for my Research Secrets column I have interviewed Sue Wallman about her research for her award-winning YA thrillers. I have previously interviewed and blogged about Sue Wallman before when I interviewed her for Papers Pens Poets. Take a look at: An interview with… Sue Wallman


Her first book, Lying about Last Summer was selected for the WHSmith Zoella Book Club, and is about a girl who feels guilty about the death of her sister who drowned in a swimming pool the previous summer. While at a bereavement camp, she receives messages from someone claiming to be her dead sister. That book was followed by See How They Lie, set in a luxurious wellness retreat in the States. My third book, Your Turn to Die, is about three families who meet every year to stay in an old house, and my latest, Dead Popular, takes place in a boarding school by the sea. They are all published by Scholastic in the UK.

Sue told me that when she is researching:

“I prefer to write first and check later, unless it’s impossible to get the scene down without prior research. It feels more efficient because then I understand exactly what I need to know.” (Sue Wallman)

Her main research tools are the internet and talking to experts, or people who have experienced what she wants to write about. For example, Dead Popular is set in a boarding school. Sue didn’t go to boarding school, so she sought out people who had. Someone told her how she and her friends would use their phones to photograph staff inputting a PIN on a gate, then zoom in afterwards. She used this information when her characters to crept out of their boarding house. Such ‘real life’ accounts help Sue to develop her story.

“One of the reasons I write for teenagers is because I clearly remember how it felt to be one myself. I can tap into the emotions I felt in the 1980’s pretty easily and that’s very useful, but to write in a voice which feels authentic to today’s teenager requires me to do a lot of listening.” (Sue Wallman)

Sue listens to how her own children speak with their friends, and it’s often different to how they speak to adults. She loves teenage slang and find it fascinating but does not to use too much of it in her novels because it dates, and can be particular to a certain region.

As a school librarian Sue is well placed to listen to teenage speech patterns. She listens to the way the students start their sentences with “Wait,” or “Also” and end it with “right?” and writes down phrases which appeal. Recent ones include “Don’t kill my vibe” and “If you’re interested, hit me up.” If she is not sure how to phrase something, she simply asks but is aware the danger is when you don’t know what question to ask.

Sue told me that her characters really come alive for her when she is discussing them with others as if they’re real. She explained this is because the voice is not just about the words – it is young people’s sense of injustice about situations they have no control over, loyalty to friendship groups, anxieties about how they are perceived, and their opinions on a diverse range of topics.

In the interview, Sue explained how setting is especially important in thrillers because it builds suspense. She describes her thrillers as claustrophobic. She revealed that  bereavement camps like the one she wrote about in Lying About Last Summer don’t actually exist but regular activity ones do, and there are also various charities which run holidays for teenagers, so she meshed them together. She also makes use of experiences she has had in different areas of her life – for example, one of my daughters had a paint-balling party so I used paint-balling as an activity in the bereavement camp.

Her research tip to other thriller writers for children is to think about the sorts of phrases your own characters use. Type them into the search line of your search engine and a blog or article may come up, written by someone with those views and experiences that you can use as good background knowledge for your novel.

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #222 Apr Writers’ Forum from your nearest good newsagents or order online from Select Magazines.

Find out more about Sue and her books on her website:, or follow her on Twitter or Instagram @suewallman.

My Top Ten Tips

With over 100 children’s books published by a wide range of traditional publishers, I thought I might share with you today my top ten tips for becoming a children’s book writer:

My top ten tips

Join Writers’ groups

These can be local or online writers’ groups. By joining writers’ groups you will be able to network, learn about the publishing world, obtain feedback on your work and make friends with similar interests. The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) have a large network of online and local critique groups.

Read a lot of recent children’s books

Take notice of what you like and what seems to work. Study the writing. You’re reading for research first, pleasure second. Actively look for recent releases. Ask your librarian. Send for publisher’s catalogues or pick them up from book fairs. It is important to keep up with the market and what’s being published. If a book with a similar story line has been published in the last few years, your story is unlikely to be published, no matter how good it is.

Know the different types of children’s books

Take into consideration the various age groups when writing your own books. Think about the word lengths, language, style, etc.

Write the type of children’s books you enjoy the most.

If you enjoy the books you are more likely going to write something someone else enjoys too.

Write every day if possible

Practice makes you a better writer.

Take courses on writing for children

There are lots of writing courses specifically aimed at writing for children out there. Take a look at the SCBWI masterclasses or those offered by NAWG. 

Enter competitions specifically for writing for children

There are a lot of competitions for aspiring children’s book writers. Check the rules and the closing dates. Some of the competitions specifically for children’s writers I am aware of are:

Extend your CV

Seek ways of filling your writer’s CV with publishing credits, such as writing articles and short stories. Contact your local newspaper about writing a column or regular slot or write fillers for magazines.

Send your manuscript out to publishers and agents.

Get a copy of the latest Children’s Writers and Artists Yearbook and find out who takes unsolicited manuscripts for the age-range you are writing for. Check if they take emails submissions or prefer them to be posted. Usually they want the first three chapters, one page synopsis and a covering letter. It is very important the book is finished.

Have FUN!



What it means to be published?

Last week I went to the SCBWI Masterclass featuring Rachel Hickman, children’s publishing director at Chicken House. She talked about What it means to be published – the good, the bad and the beautiful. Chicken House publishes 25 books a year and a small proportion of these are debut authors. It is there 20th anniversary this year. There are nine people in total working at Chicken House.

Rachel Hickman has worked with Judith Kerr, Roald Dahl and Michael Morpurgo. She grew up in Hong Kong and as a child was obsessed with pony stories. she spoke to us as both a publisher and an author.  Her novel One Silver Summer is published by Scholastic in the US and Old Barn Books in the UK.  She explained for her writing is a personal and immersive thing and sharing it can be tough.

One Silver Summer

Rachel revealed that the truth is about being a publisher is that they do not know what they are looking for. They want reinvented familiar ingredients done with distinctiveness. As a publisher she works for a worldwide market which spreads the risk. Chicken House is a bit maverick and tend to ignore the trends, weighing there acquisitions by instinct. The Chicken House list is culturally rich and selling all over the world. They think in terms of are they going to be able to sell this to oversea publishers.

She is aware that the gate keepers put there stamp on a book at each stage and at Chicken House they prefer to see the book before this happens. they want to find timeless stories that will not date in five years where lots of stuff happens with consequences, where grown-ups are absent or are unreliable or villains. The children win through and the reader is left with a sense of hope.


Children like detail, tasting what you eat – all can taste the Turkish delight in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe She believes all stories should have an element of humour. 

“Humour is delayed fear.” (Roald Dahl)

The book trade is like a tide with new beautiful shelves washing in and a lot of books get washed out. The reality is many books are gone in a few years as there is no room on th shelves for back list. At the moment there is a slump in YA. Rachel advises all writers to write form the heart. If you are serious about being published you have to realise what you put in is disproportionate to what you get out at the end. Writing is a great way to dream but not necessarily a dream career.

There is no guarantee of being published. Publishers make simple decisions based on their list. If you are successful you have to have another book available. Chicken House are only interested in authors they can invest in rather than single books. Publication is not a reason to write you need to enjoy the process. If you write for a child or for yourself it will show through.

Authors in Common

Rachel particularly looks for voice – a distinct spirit or style that inhabits the story you write and breathes life into it. this is why she likes to see manuscripts raw, without the voice muffled. she also needs to see obvious evidence of practical writing skills such as being able to plot and edit. an ability to use words that will speak to the children and let them identify with the story is essential.

You need to have confidence in your story and believe in your characters. knowing who they are and how they behave is important. They are looking for authors with more than one story to tell. Chicken House expect there authors to write at least three books for them. they also like authors who can perform. It is not enough to sit at home. You have to be able to pat your head and rub your tummy in front of over 100 children. All these things effect their decision.


A lot of things come into Chicken House through agents, scouts and oversea submissions. They try not to be drawn into auction bidding and they are careful about showing they care too soon. There are two editorial directors an editor and a reader. Barry loves looking at manuscripts that have just come in and if something catches his eye he will pass it to Rachel and Eleanor, the rights director. they generally work form home and meetings are an ad-hoc process. they have scouts and oversea submissions.

It is a holistic process. They never publish something sooner than a year. Asha and the Spirit Bird (published 2017) came through the Chicken House /Times competition that asks for completed manuscripts form unagented authors. The shortlist is always one winner but 50% of the shortlist is usually published. Asha and the Spirit Bird was shortlisted for the Waterstones prize.

Rachel’s Tips on Getting Published

  1. Take time, there is no rush. Make your manuscript as good as you can. Solicit other views and take on board the things that resonate with your story. Remember they are just opinions. You need to use your judgement.
  2. Know what you’re writing, write form the heart and personal experience, know your setting and your protagonist.
  3. You do not need an agent. Chicken House run open coops where you can submit manuscripts. it is a one day event that is totally random. Sometimes they have a theme. The agents are a filter and will help you get noticed. remember they take 20% of your earnings. You need to decide if they are giving you sound business advice. A good agent will get you the best deal but not necessarily the most lucrative.
  4. Think who is going to edit you. Are they the best fit?
  5. The smaller the publisher the smaller the list, the bigger publishers have bigger lists but less time. Love the process of publication and editing.
  6. Think what the book might look like, seeing the book on the press and a warehouse full of your book.
  7. Travel with hope.
  8. Manage your expectations and sell yourself. Self-marketing is essential remember Waterstones only advertise one author a month. So you need to get at there and publicise yourself through schools and indie bookshops.
  9. know publishing is a level playing field. so many things can come form nowhere. Wimpy Kid started life as an adult humour title in the US. Your book may be small in the UK but it could be massive in another country, like Germany.
  10. You’ve got to have fun.
  11. You’ve got to be disciplined.
  12. You need to think about your title and your pitch to show you know your book well enough.
  13. Even if it is a series your book has to stand alone. Often a series can be because you are being too ambitious in the world building.
  14. Often beginnings and writing your way in to the story and will need to be edited at the end.

Book Review – Bang goes a Troll

Title: Bang Goes a Troll (Awfully Beastly Business)

Written by: The Beastly Boys (David Sinden, Matthew Morgan and Guy MacDonald)

Illustrated by: Jonny Duddle

Published by: Aladdin Paperbacks (Simon & Schuster)

Bang goes a Troll

A gripping adventure that keeps you turning page after page. Beautifully executed, this story transports the reader into a compelling fantasy world where humans are the unrelenting baddies and the goblins, trolls and werewolves are the heroes, trying against all odds to protect themselves.

In the third book in the Beastly Business series, Ulf has to stop the troll’s being smoked out of their homes and used as targets in a beast-hunting range, without being hunted too.

An exciting read that will satisfy lovers of epic battles and narrow escapes.

This book review was previously published on the online Armadillo Children’s Book Review Magazine


An interview with… Joy Court

In November 2017, I interviewed librarian Joy Court, about some of the children’s book awards she was involved with for my Writing 4 Children slot in Writers’ Forum. Joy is a professional librarian and was the Chair of the CILIP Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Medals – the oldest and most prestigious children’s book awards in the world of children’s literature.

Joy Court photo

The Carnegie Medal

The Carnegie Medal was introduced by the Library Association 80 years ago and is awarded for outstanding writing for children and young people. It is named after Andrew Carnegie, a self-made industrialist who made his fortune in steel in the USA. His experience of using a library as a child led him to resolve:

‘…if ever wealth came to me it should be used to establish free libraries.’

Andrew Carnegie

He set up more than 2800 libraries across the English speaking world and, by the time of his death, over half the library authorities in the UK had Carnegie libraries. He must be turning in his grave with the current shocking spate of library closures.

One misconception of the Carnegie Medal is that it has been taken over by teenage and YA publishing. There is only one definition of a children’s book – it is published on a children’s list (technically listed on the Neilsen database). Until the industry differentiates between children and teenage publishing we cannot.

A book can be great for many different reasons. For the purposes of the Carnegie we are looking for a book of outstanding literary quality.

“The whole work should provide pleasure, not merely from the surface enjoyment of a good read, but also the deeper subconscious satisfaction of having gone through a vicarious, but at the time of reading, a real experience that is retained afterwards.”

Past winners include: Tanya Landman with Buffalo Soldier, published by Walker Books; Sarah Crossan with One, published by Bloomsbury and 2017’s winner was Ruta Sepetys with Salt to the Sea, published by Puffin.

The Kate Greenaway Medal

The Kate Greenaway Medal was created 60 years ago to award outstanding illustration for children and young people and was named after one of our most iconic British illustrators.

Previous winners include: William Grill with Shackleton’s Journey, published by Flying Eye Books; Chris Riddell with The Sleeper and the Spindle, published by Bloomsbury and 2017’s winner was Lane Smith with There is a Tribe of Kids, published by Two Hoots.


Both medals are unique as they are judged by librarians and are completely devoid of any commercial influence. Neither publishers, nor authors can submit their books and the judging is not influenced in any way by sales or publicity. She read every single book nominated for them but does not get to vote. Joy’s job was to ensure every book got a fair chance and all the procedures were followed correctly.

In the early days, judging was carried out by men in suits behind closed doors (the Library Association Council). Now the judging process is under the control of children’s librarians from the 12 regions of the UK including Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. They are elected for a two-year-term by their regional Youth Libraries Group committee, thanks to the pioneering work of Eileen Colwell, the first specialist children’s librarian and founder of the Youth Libraries Group. She must also be turning in her grave at the loss of specialist posts.

Gradually the system of nominations, election of judges and the criteria has been honed and improved to keep pace with new developments in the world of children’s publishing. You have to be a member of CILIP to be able to nominate and can then nominate two books for each award. Unlike many other awards we publish our judging criteria on our website.

CKG Medal-5948, 16281

2017 winners


These awards have a huge impact on the world of children’s literature because of the enormous shadowing scheme. There are around 5000 groups shadowing the awards each year, with hundreds of thousands of young readers reading and commenting on the shortlisted books. This means a lot of shortlisted books will be sold and figures show an ongoing increase in sales from winning the medal.

The medals have always been international in outlook. Books first published elsewhere in the world can be eligible providing they are published in the UK within 3 calendar months of original publication. In 2014, books in translation (first English translation published in the UK) became eligible. We can genuinely say that the medal awards the best writing in the world.

You only have to look at the list of winners to see they have become classic titles that are always available in bookshops. I believe 80 years of ‘they all want to win the medal’ has led to the development of the UK ‘world-beating’ publishing industry we have today.

UK Literary Association Book Award

Joy is also a Trustee and National Council member of UKLA and helps to manage their book awards. They are nicknamed the ‘Teacher’s Carnegie’ as they are the only awards judged by teachers. The 60 teacher judges involved in the initial shortlisting are selected from around the geographical area where the next UKLA international conference will be held – 2018 is Cardiff.

UKLA invite publisher submissions according to three age categories 3-6, 7-11 and 12-16. A publisher can submit 3 books per imprint. A publisher like Penguin Random House has many imprints: Jonathan Cape, Bodley Head, Corgi, Puffin, Red Fox, etc.

In 2017, the winning book in the 12-16 category was The Reluctant Journal of Henry K Larsen by Susin Nielsen, published by Andersen Press. In the 7-11 category the winner was The Journey written and illustrated by Francesca Sanna and published by Flying Eye Books. The winner for the 3-6 category was There’s a Bear on MY Chair by Ross Collins, published by Nosy Crow.

As the conference moves around, we are gradually infecting the UK with teachers hooked on reading quality books. The impact in their schools and upon the young people they teach has been positively awe inspiring.  And of course books recommended by teachers are very popular with schools and parents. I strongly recommend authors to ensure their publishers are aware of the UKLA awards, which may be only 9-years-old but are growing in influence all the time.

 Other Awards

There are many awards for children’s books in existence today and the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook is probably the best source of information about them. Many are administered by the Booktrust so it is worth looking at their website and others are linked to children’s book writing festivals. Some awards require a submission fee from the publisher, so it can be very difficult for an individual author to influence this. It can be a marketing budget based decision.

In the feature, Joy recommended researching local awards in your area run by your local library service. Becoming well known in your local area – visiting schools and doing local bookshop signings is a good way to get your books noticed and considered for such awards.  Once over the hurdle of submissions / nominations every award will have a different system of judging and / or voting, often by the children readers themselves.

The Coventry Inspiration Book Awards, which she created, has a tense system of Big Brother style voting. The book with the least number of votes is voted off each week until we get a winner. This ensures readers keep voting to keep their favourites in.

Anything which raises the profile of books and reading has to be a good thing. We all know that bookshops can have a bewildering array of titles and something having an award sticker can make a huge difference to sales. The most important thing about children’s book awards is the pursuit of excellence.

Joy Court can be found on Twitter: @Joyisreading

The Art of Plotting

Here are a few pointers about plotting I have come across over my time of writing for children.

climb a mountain

  • Every scene must serve more than one purpose. This could be developing your characters, giving brief background information, creating atmosphere, world building or clarifying motivation. If it does not move the plot forward then cut it.
  • Always consider the motivation of your protagonist. Think about their actions and why they are doing them. They should not be doing things just because your plot demands it. if this is the case you need to have a serious rethink.
  • The protagonist’s motivation should change and deepen over the course of the plot they discover new facts and truths that change the way they view and interact with their world.
  • By the end of the novel the character should be changed by their experiences. this might be for he better but it can also be for the worse. Make sure it is a realistic emotional journey. The protagonist should learn and grow during the process. This growth usually conveys the theme of the story.
  • Ensure all the scenes progress logical with no giant leaps. it is amazing how easy it is for logic to become muddled to suit the plot. You can see it in many TV series all the time. It is frustrating to the reader. Always think in terms of what is happening, why has it happened, what are the results of this either directly or indirectly and how will this effect what happens next.

The basic sequence of plot stages is: arrival of conflict, initial success of the main character, reversals, final victory, and outcome. The success-reversal sequence may repeat. I find Michael Hauge’s six stage plot structure useful when writing fiction – this includes novels and picture books.

Michael Hauge's plot structure

The plot is built around a conflict involving the main character—for instance, with another character, or with circumstances, or within themselves. Conflict often takes the form of a problem the main character must resolve. The character should succeed or fail at least in part through their own efforts.

In my opinion a story for children should open with conflict. Aristotle said the most important thing in any story is the sequence of events. Each event has a cause and effect, and each is connected in the plot. According to Aristotle there are six stages of plot development:

  • The opening
  • The arrival of conflict
  • The early achievement
  • The twist and the change
  • The denouement
  • The final outcome

The conflict should result in increasing dramatic tension, which peaks or ‘climaxes’ towards the end, then resolves. A novel may have several conflicts, but a short story or picture book should have only one. Think about the story arc.

Story Arc

In this way, a story can be broken down into six elements:

  • Balance – all is well at home, nothing interesting is going on
  • Disharmony – the mood changes for good or bad
  • Inciting incident – just when things were looking better a change of mood provokes a change to something ‘other’
  • Problem – there is now an even more serious dilemma that needs solving
  • Resolution – the story can be brought to a conclusion
  • Outcome – the purpose of the story unfolds

Move the plot forward with events and action, rather than with internal musings and I know I’ve said it before but show, don’t tell. It may be a rocky climb to the top of your story arc but when you get there the view’s are worth it.

top of mountain

You can see some of my other posts on plot here:

Re-evaluate your plot


The Art of Story

Book Review – Escape from Shadow Island

Title: Max Cassidy: Escape from Shadow Island

Written by: Paul Adam

Publisher: Corgi Books, Random House

Max Cassidy Escape from Shadow Island

At first it made me smirk when I read the Random House warning in the front of the book telling the readers not to try any of the stunts as home, as escapologists have had years of training before they attempt them… and then I read the first page. The hero Max is handcuffed, chained, put in a sack and lowered into a tank of cold water. He has thirty seconds to escape, or freeze to death. Red lights flashed in my head as I thought of my own sons and I honestly considered writing to Random House to tell them to put the warning in CAPITAL LETTERS.

This is the first Max Cassidy adventure in the trilogy. Max’s Houdini-style stunts have the reader gripped from the start. When Max finds out his father may still be alive, you are carried into one impossible situation after another and you can’t help wondering, ‘How on Earth is Max going to escape from this?’ There are several clever twists and the characters are very believable. This murder-mystery thriller action-adventure will have boys gasping for more.

This book review was previously published on the online Armadillo Children’s Book Review Magazine.