Lessons Learnt From Young Writers

I am extremely privileged to work with young writers for my job with Chasing Driftwood Writing Group. I run seven clubs every week, catering to home-educated children and within schools as after-school clubs. Some are on Zoom and some are in-person. I work with children aged between 7 and 16, though sometimes younger and older. I’ve been doing this since 2015 and in that time, though I like to think I have taught them a thing or two about writing, it’s also true that they have taught me. Here are some lessons I have learnt from young writers.

  1. Self-belief is key – One of the things I love about young writers is that so far they are entirely untouched by cynicism. There is a lot of negativity within the writing world and I have blogged about it before. A lot of adult writers, for example, get jaded and worn out, think it’s not worth it, they’ll never make it, never sell any books etc etc… but young writers don’t think like that at all. They’ll quite happily declare that they’ve started writing a book and it’s going to be a series and they’re going to get it published and become an author. They truly believe it and so they should!
  2. The stories in your head are just as important as the ones you write down – One thing I can tell you about young writers is that their heads are just full of the most amazing stories. The tricky bit is getting them to write it all down! Of course – it’s physically and mentally taxing for young children to fill reams and reams of paper with handwriting, and most of them have not yet mastered fast typing on a laptop, so I spend a lot of time listening. Sometimes I help them out by writing it down as they explain it to me. I find it fascinating how much their imaginations conjure up! One young writer recently told me about some missing cats who had their pictures on wanted posters. This started off as a fake article as we have been working on article-writing. It soon morphed into a wonderful story about magical rainbow cats that have been stolen, and since they have vanished, the world has no colour and everything is black and white. Another was reluctant to write his story down but told me it was about a mythical creature that died mysteriously in an alley-way and its death opened up a portal to another world, and since it died there can be no happiness in the normal world. Another told me a story where children wake up to find that everyone but them have been turned into tiny sand-timers counting down to some sort of disaster. The children have to solve the mystery to save the world. Just brilliant! Sometimes my job involves encouraging them to put pen to paper and sometimes my job is simply listening in wonder.
  3. It’s okay to let things go off tangent – This might be one of the biggest things they have taught me. I plan my half-term topics and most of the clubs will tackle the same topic at the same time. I usually plan the sessions in advance – for example, with article writing in schools, we started by talking about what an article is, who had read one, why etc – then moved on to creating our own crazy headlines. This involved lots of very dramatic words laid out on a table for them to move around. We had some brilliant creations such as Cats Are Broken, Donut Monsters Are Taking Over The World and Dragon’s Map of The Road Less Travelled… The idea after that was they would attempt to write a fake article to go with their chosen fake headline. Some of the children did this, writing a lead or intro under their headline, drawing a fake ‘photo’ even conducting fake interviews, whereas some of them vanished on a tangent for a story idea. I didn’t mind this at all. It would have been lovely to get them all to write the story in article style, but when an idea runs and runs, who am I to stop it? The end result was a mixture of article style stories and actual stories.
  4. Everything is open to interpretation – It quite often transpires that my plans go awry with young writers. They inevitably interpret things differently and ask to do something slightly different and within reason, I like to accommodate this. Sometimes I’ll set a task and then when the results come in, it will become obvious how differently they have interpreted it. Again, there is nothing wrong with this and I think it shows the depth of their individual imaginations.
  5. A support network is everything – One thing I have noticed over the years is that the more children talk about writing and share their writing, the more other children will do the same. I try to encourage them to share their work, either by reading it out or by allowing me to. They can be shy about this so I never force anyone. I have noticed, however, that they are naturally very supportive of and impressed by each other. Our Zoom groups for instance are full of supportive and kind comments in the chat and they seem to love listening to each-other’s stories. In the school groups, as they grow in confidence they love reading their work out loud to the whole class and sometimes I end up with a small mob surrounding me begging to read theirs out! I think this shows that writers do need support and the more they can get, the better. When you feel supported and valued, when your efforts are noticed and appreciated, you tend to try even harder.
  6. Above all else, writing should be fun – This is such an important one and I think us older writers tend to forget this. Once we are bogged down in editing, proofreading, submitting, marketing and promoting, we find ourselves surrounded by some of the negative aspects of the writing world. I think there are far too many negative writer stereotypes out there and it’s easy to fall prey to that mindset. Writing is hard, it’s a torture, why do we do it to ourselves? I’m happy to tell you that children don’t see it that way at all. For them, it’s storytelling and telling stories is fun. It definitely helps to remind ourselves of this from time to time!

Six Seriously Creepy Books For The Spooky Season

If you are looking for a creepy read for the spooky season, perhaps something slightly different to the usual witches, vampires, and ghosts, then look no further. These are six books I’ve read in 2022 that seriously creeped me out. Counting down from number six being the least creepy and number one the most, here are my top picks for the spooky season.

6. Fairy Tale by Stephen King

Blurb: Charlie Reade looks like a regular high school kid, great at baseball and football, a decent student. But he carries a heavy load. His mom was killed in a hit-and-run accident when he was seven, and grief drove his dad to drink. Charlie learned how to take care of himself – and his dad. Then, when Charlie is seventeen, he meets a dog named Radar and her ageing master, Howard Bowditch, a recluse in a big house at the top of a big hill, with a locked shed in the backyard. Sometimes strange sounds emerge from it.

Charlie starts doing jobs for Mr. Bowditch and loses his heart to Radar. Then, when Bowditch dies, he leaves Charlie a cassette tape telling a story no one would believe. What Bowditch knows, and has kept secret all his long life, is that inside the shed is a portal to another world.

King’s storytelling in Fairy Tale soars. This is a magnificent and terrifying tale about another world than ours, in which good is pitted against overwhelming evil, and a heroic boy – and his dog – must lead the battle.

My review: For me, this was classic King and for all the right reasons. A young protagonist, 17-year-old Charlie (not always your typical hero either, as he has a bit of a dark side) helps local grumpy old man Howard Bowditch when he falls and breaks his leg. After calling the ambulance, Charlie finds himself left with Radar, the man’s ageing German Shepherd to care for. The first chunk of the book is taken up with establishing these relationships and I really enjoyed this part. The unlikely pair become good friends as Charlie cares for the dog, the house, and eventually Mr Bowditch when he returns home. It soon becomes apparent, however, that Bowditch is hiding a dark secret in his padlocked shed. When he dies suddenly, he entrusts this secret to Charlie through some tapes he recorded and Charlie must then decide whether to go where Bowditch once went, essentially, in the shed and through a portal to another world. This part of the book actually slowed down a bit for me as we had so much detail on the other world for quite a long time. It really reminded me of The Talisman too, which is not a bad thing. Once Charlie runs into danger in the other world, it really picks up pace again and I found it hard to put down. The other world is slowly dying since a neglected son of the royal family discovered a well that gave him dark powers. He takes revenge on his family and the entire kingdom by killing, maiming and destroying and unleashing a disease that slowly turns people grey and seals up their eyes, noses and mouths. When Charlie is imprisoned by the creepy Night Soldiers who guard the new king, he finds himself in a horrific dungeon with other ‘wholes’ and will be forced to fight each one to the death. By this point I was truly hooked and I think the Night Soldiers in particular brought a truly creepy and eerie touch to the story. In many ways it is a classic good vs evil story, and also has many nods to familiar fairytales. A great read that (mostly) had me on the edge of my seat!

5. Sixteen Horses by Greg Buchanan

Blurb: Near the dying English seaside town of Ilmarsh, local police detective Alec Nichols discovers sixteen horses’ heads on a farm, each buried with a single eye facing the low winter sun. After forensic veterinarian Cooper Allen travels to the scene, the investigators soon uncover evidence of a chain of crimes in the community – disappearances, arson and mutilations – all culminating in the reveal of something deadly lurking in the ground itself.

In the dark days that follow, the town slips into panic and paranoia. Everything is not as it seems. Anyone could be a suspect. And as Cooper finds herself unable to leave town, Alec is stalked by an unseen threat. The two investigators race to uncover the truth behind these frightening and insidious mysteries – no matter the cost.

My review: Definitely not one for the faint-hearted and the depictions of animal cruelty are hard to read, but I truly enjoyed this unique and thrilling read. I don’t read psychological or crime thrillers too often because I often find while the plots are excellent, the characters are lacking, but I felt differently about this book. The two main characters, the detective investigating the horrific crime of sixteen dead horses heads placed in a circle on a rundown farm, and the forensic vet called in to assist him, were both really interesting in my opinion. They were both fairly unreliable and there were certainly parts of the book that made me suspect either of them of either being involved, or of knowing more than they were letting on. They were both dealing with past trauma in different ways and they were both a bit ‘odd’ and didn’t find it easy to fit in or get along with others. This made the whole thing quite interesting, I thought. As for the crime itself, it just gets darker and darker until you are peeling back the grimy layers of the rotting seaside town itself. The crime was far more complicated and the reasons behind it far more eerie and creepy than I had ever imagined. I just had to keep reading and digging. It definitely left me with a few questions and a lot to think about. I enjoyed the style of the writing too. I would definitely read more from this author. A thoroughly creepy, brooding read!

4. I’m Thinking Of Ending Things by Iain Reid

Blurb: Jake and his girlfriend are on a drive to visit his parents at their remote farm. After dinner at the family home, things begin to get worryingly strange. And when he leaves her stranded in a snowstorm at an abandoned high school later that night, what follows is a chilling exploration of psychological frailty and the limitations of reality.

Iain Reid’s intense, suspenseful debut novel will have readers’ nerves jangling. A series of tiny clues sprinkled through the relentlessly paced narrative culminate in a haunting twist on the final page.

Reminiscent of Michael Faber’s Under the Skin, Stephen King’s Misery and the novels of José Saramago, I’m Thinking of Ending Things is an astonishing and highly original literary thriller that grabs you from the start—and never lets go.

My review: I definitely advise reading the book first with this one! It’s a very strange and creepy read told from the point of view of a young woman on a road trip with her fairly new boyfriend, Jake. They are driving through heavy snow to meet his parents who still live on the farm he grew up on. On the drive, the narrator is thinking about ending their relationship. Once they arrive and meet the parents, things get very strange indeed. It’s hard to describe without giving away spoilers, but this book really keeps you reading as you just want to try and figure out what is going on. The narrator is somewhat unreliable – is she seeing and hearing things that are not there? Is something wrong with Jake? Or is it his parents? Altogether, what happens during and after their visit is increasingly odd, creepy and eventually, genuinely terrifying. I watched the Netflix movie after and thought they left loads out. The movie makes very little sense, whereas the book leaves you wondering, but explains a lot more! A truly creepy read from start to finish.

3. The Watchers by A.M. Shine

Blurb: This forest isn’t charted on any map. Every car breaks down at its treeline. Mina’s is no different. Left stranded, she is forced into the dark woodland only to find a woman shouting, urging Mina to run to a concrete bunker. As the door slams behind her, the building is besieged by screams.

Mina finds herself in a room with a wall of glass, and an electric light that activates at nightfall, when the Watchers come above ground. These creatures emerge to observe their captive humans and terrible things happen to anyone who doesn’t reach the bunker in time.

Afraid and trapped among strangers, Mina is desperate for answers. Who are the Watchers and why are these creatures keeping them imprisoned, keen to watch their every move?

My review: Genuinely one of the creepiest books I’ve read in a while. I was on edge the entire time reading this. From the broken down car in the middle of the woods, to the lady screaming to run to the house, to the mysterious and horrific ‘watchers’ who come out at night everything about this book stands your hairs on end. Mina is a great character too – I was rooting for the whole time. Inside the house she is surprised to meet three other people who all seem to have met a similar fate to her in these unmapped, unknown woods. Mina and the others are watched by the creatures on the outside, who seem keen on learning about them and also scream and scratch and claw to get in. In daylight, they are safe, but the forest is too vast to escape in the hours of light they have. It’s an impossible and claustrophobic situation, made even worse by the fraying, tense relationships between the people trapped together. This book is a beautiful read, expertly capturing the hopelessness of captivity, fear of the unknown, defeatism and heroism these people go through. The plot thickens the further you go and there are some breathtaking twists at the end. This was a 5 star read for me and I can’t wait to read more from this author.

2. Starve Acre by Andrew Michael Hurley

Blurb: The worst thing possible has happened. Richard and Juliette Willoughby’s son, Ewan, has died suddenly at the age of five. Starve Acre, their house by the moors, was to be full of life, but is now a haunted place.

Juliette, convinced Ewan still lives there in some form, seeks the help of the Beacons, a seemingly benevolent group of occultists. Richard, to try and keep the boy out of his mind, has turned his attention to the field opposite the house, where he patiently digs the barren dirt in search of a legendary oak tree.

Starve Acre is a devastating new novel by the author of the prize-winning bestseller The Loney. It is a novel about the way in which grief splits the world in two and how, in searching for hope, we can so easily unearth horror.

My review: I enjoyed The Loney so was quite sure I would enjoy this, and it was just as good. Again, the author expertly uses the environment and the weather to increase tension, foreboding and mystery in the prose, making the location almost as much a character as the people. This story follows a couple who have inherited a house and a bit of land known as Starve Acre, from his family. The village is a strange place they can’t quite fit into and their young son Ewan seems to make enemies everywhere he goes. His mother begins to get quite concerned about his behaviour and they even consult doctors to determine if something is psychologically wrong with their son. The story tells this past narrative adjacent to the present one, where Ewan is dead, and the couple are grieving in different ways. Ewan’s mother is sure Ewan is still around and invites local spiritualists known as the Beacons into her home to convince her husband Ewan is still with them. Meanwhile, he has been digging up the field to find the roots of an infamous old oak tree known to have been the village hanging tree. Instead, he finds the skeleton of a hare which he cleans up and lays out inside the house. What happens next is fascinating, magical, mysterious and disturbing all at once. The story gets darker and sadder as events unfold. We learn what happened to Ewan leading up to his death and we witness the gradual decline of his grieving parents. More than that, we soon learn that the earth itself has secrets in this place and something dark and chilling has been restored to life. I absolutely loved this book and could not put it down. It truly has one of the most disturbing last paragraphs you will ever read!
  1. Winterset Hollow by Jonathan Durham

Blurb: Everyone has wanted their favorite book to be real, if only for a moment. Everyone has wished to meet their favorite characters, if only for a day. But be careful in that wish, for even a history laid in ink can be repaid in flesh and blood, and reality is far deadlier than fiction . . . especially on Addington Isle.

Winterset Hollow follows a group of friends to the place that inspired their favorite book—a timeless tale about a tribe of animals preparing for their yearly end-of-summer festival. But after a series of shocking discoveries, they find that much of what the world believes to be fiction is actually fact, and that the truth behind their beloved story is darker and more dangerous than they ever imagined. It’s Barley Day . . . and you’re invited to the hunt.

Winterset Hollow is as thrilling as it is terrifying and as smart as it is surprising. A uniquely original story filled with properly unexpected twists and turns, Winterset Hollow delivers complex, indelible characters and pulse- pounding action as it storms toward an unforgettable climax that will leave you reeling. How do you celebrate Barley Day? You run, friend. You run.

My review: Wow, I absolutely loved this book, despite how much it scared me and put me on edge! I just could not put it down! Eamon, the main character had an unusual upbringing, brought up in a cabin in the woods with his strange/crazy father. When his dad went out and never came back, Eamon was eventually rescued and placed into foster care. While in care, he received a copy of a book called Winterset Hollow by an author called Edward Addington. He grew to love the book which relayed the adventures of a group of talking animals living in a place called Winterset Hollow. Years later, his best friend Caroline, who is also a huge fan of the book, and her boyfriend Mark are about to board a ferry to visit the island where the author lived in a mansion until his death. There is a whole group of excited fans on the boat, looking forward to taking photos and capturing the atmosphere of the book that means so much to them. However, once they arrive, strange things start happening. Its hard to write a review without giving too much away, but lets just say, the trio find themselves inside the mansion being entertained by the very characters they have grown up reading about. It seems like a dream come true. But they do say you should never meet your heroes, and it turns out, these particular animals are enraged and traumatised, and hellbent on revenge… This really is a case of the tables being turned on mankind, who have systematically hunted, chased and tortured animals for fun for many decades. There are some simply brilliant twists towards the end, and the author does a fantastic job of evoking sympathy and empathy for the murderous animals, as well as for the trio of friends who have found themselves in a truly nightmarish situation. This story will stay with me for a very long time. It’s haunting, thought-provoking, eerie and actually quite terrifying. It’s also very fast-paced when it gets going and I found it hard to take a break from. An excellent read for anyone who likes unusual horror stories!

And there you have it – six seriously creepy reads which are perfect for the spooky season!

What is the creepiest book you have ever read???

So, What Do You Write?

So, what do you write? An innocent enough question, yet one that tends to fill most writers with instant fear and panic. Unless, of course, you’re one of the sensible ones who only writes in one easy to categorise genre. Oh, how nice that must be; to be able to answer quickly and succinctly, ‘I write romance,’ or ‘I write crime thrillers.’

For those of us who write in multiple genres, this is the question we dread people asking. Imagine the scene. You’re getting to know someone, or chatting to a stranger to pass the time at a bus stop or in the doctor’s waiting area. They ask politely what you do for a living and you say you’re a writer. (You probably wave a dismissive hand almost immediately and tell them that you also have a day job…) Or maybe they already know you’re a writer, maybe someone told them and they’re asking out of curiosity. They like to read, you see, so of course they want to know what you write. And you freeze. You look for an easy, quick answer, as neither of you want to drag this out too long, but there isn’t one. So, you start mumbling incoherent sentences about, ‘a bit of this and a bit of that…’ Before you know it, their eyes have glazed over and they no longer take you seriously, if they ever did.

I have always dreaded this question. When I first started publishing my work, I had no idea what genre my books were or how to categorise them. Amazon and other platforms force you to think about this if you haven’t already. You need to allocate your book a category and you need to choose keywords, for example. My first novel was YA but I didn’t actually realise it at the time – I had just written the story that was in my head, and at that time, I had no plan to market it towards a certain audience. Obviously, since then I’ve learned a lot and I now realise how important genre is in marketing your book, from the cover, to the title and the blurb.

My next books were The Boy With The Thorn In His Side series and I still struggle to explain what genre this is! The main character is thirteen in the first book, but twenty-four in the fifth, so I can’t really call it YA. It has a lot of crime and drama, but I would say the psychological elements are stronger. Having said that I wouldn’t really want to call is a psychological thriller. It has elements of suspense and horror, plus coming-of-age. Heaven help anyone who asks me what it’s about…. They’ll be stuck there a while.

Not being sure of genre or category is one problem, but what if you also continue to release books in different genres? It makes it hard to build a loyal audience, that’s for sure.

After that series, I released This Is Nowhere. At heart it’s a family mystery – the main character returns home to try and discover what happened to his mother who vanished when he was a boy – but it’s also an examination of mental health and in our ability to find meaning in life. Tricky. After that I wrote The Tree Of Rebels, probably the one and only time I decided to write a book to fit the market. At the time YA dystopian books were becoming very popular and as I had an idea for one, I decided to write it and market it as such. It ended up being the hardest book to write for that reason. Like someone was watching over my shoulder the entire time.

Since then I have released Elliot Pie’s Guide To Human Nature, a book I still find hard to categorise. Its literary fiction; character driven with a young narrator, yet its not YA. My YA trilogy Holds End was easier to classify as YA, but it’s also a mix of things; coming-of-age, crime, drama, thriller, murder mystery…

I’ve released two short story and poetry collections, and two books so far in a co-written YA supernatural/paranormal series. I’m currently editing The Day The Earth Turned series which is YA post-apocalyptic, and I’ve written first drafts for more crime/drama/thrillers and a YA horror/fantasy… That’s not to mention the zombie apocalypse story I started a while back, and the family mystery/psychological thriller I’m making notes for…

It would be great to write in one genre. It would make life far easier for me. I would be able to call myself a horror writer or a crime writer and I would be able to market my blog and social media pages with this in mind. I would be able to work on building a loyal following of readers who know what to expect from me. Instead, the small amount of readers I do attract, never know what to expect next. YA supernatural, followed by YA post-apocalyptic, followed by gritty, crime drama?

There’s no doubt writing in multiple genres makes it harder to market and sell books. It’s almost as if people don’t take you as seriously as the writer that always writes to one genre… I’m not sure why.

I have come to the conclusion that I shouldn’t waste too much time worrying about it. Sales and reviews are hard to come by, but ideas certainly aren’t. My head is full of them. And whether the next idea is a murder mystery, a post-apocalyptic horror, or a story about shape shifters, I don’t think I’ll be ignoring it. How could I?

In many ways, writing in multiple genres keeps things fresh and new. I’m having fun so hopefully my readers are too. And there are a few things that all my books do have in common and I’m not too shy to mention them here. They are all a little on the dark side, often examining the worst elements of human nature, and they are all very character driven. My aim is to make you fall in love with my characters as much as I have. So, if you like things a bit dark and you want to make some new friends you will wish were real, you’ve come to the right place.

And the next time I get asked what I write, do you know what? I am going to hold my head up high and tell them the truth. That I write in many genres, and therefore, have something for everyone, no matter your tastes!

September Writing Challenge: Late Night Thoughts

Every month I ask my Facebook author page followers to give me writing prompts. It can be anything from a visual prompt, to a song title or lyric, overheard conversation, a piece of flash fiction, or a poem. This month I had another wonderful selection to choose from and a non-fiction prompt really caught my eye. Thanks to author Shannon Rohrer for this one!

Late Night Thoughts

Before bed, I venture outside and the air is cool, September saying hello. It makes me smile. Feel sort of giddy like that back to school feeling and the smug comfort of pulling on a favourite hoodie for the first time since the heat came. The sun sets a little earlier every night, dark now by 8pm. I cross the garden, flattening grass that died and came back to life. I think about life. I think about death.

I close up the chickens, then check the field behind. I’ve watched all the sunsets this summer, I’ve seen all the colours spread across that same horizon. I’ve watched the copse darken until it resembles a spiked hedge, jagged edges breaking up the sky.

There is a chill in the air, reminding me to say goodbye to summer. I eye up the woodpile when I go back inside. Will it be enough? What sort of winter lies ahead?

There is a calmness, like the earth breathing out, or perhaps she is holding her breath, bracing herself for what comes next. This summer we torched her. We burned her like never before. For the first time, some of us thought about water. And not having water.

Inside, I sit down to write, the window open, the road silent and dark, the pheasants making a fuss as they settle in the trees that line the lane. Everything goes around and around. The sun goes down, the sun comes up. Summer ends, autumn begins, they merge and overlap, until the first frost bites. We wake up and get up and do the things that make a life. We lie down and sleep. One day we don’t wake up.

I think about death when I climb into bed. I try not to assume another morning awaits me. Like every time I get into the car and wonder if today is the day I die. Because we don’t know, we never know. We take it for granted or is it faith? My car won’t crash. Not me. Not today. There is no death in my rear view mirror, only all the open roads that lie ahead. Paths to choose, forks in the road, possibilities, waiting, potential, waiting. Somehow, we feel like we are always waiting.

As a child, we wait for the school day to end. We wait for summer to free us. We wait for Christmas to excite us. We wait to grow up. As teenagers, we wait to become adults, to taste the things we’ve heard about for so long. To have our turn. Take our place. As adults, we wait for the weekend. We wait for better days, more money, more time. As parents, we wait for babies to be born, alive. We wait for babies to survive into toddlerhood and we sigh in relief every day we keep them safe. We wait for children to become teenagers, so that we can claw our lives back and let them go. We wait for phone calls in the dead of night letting us know they are safe. Then we wait for death.

We wait for aching bones and finding it hard to get on your feet. We wait for our bladders to wake us up at night like clockwork. We look forward to sitting down with a nice cup of tea and a good book. I think about this late at night. What am I waiting for?

I don’t know.

Maybe I have everything I will ever need or want, right now. A home, a partner, children, work, a garden to tend, writing to do. Maybe I’m not waiting for anything anymore. Maybe death hovers, reminding us that it’s always close but maybe I don’t have to wait for death, just keep an eye on it.

Late at night, I think that life is very, very weird. You’re born, you live, you die and ultimately, eventually, you will be forgotten. But that’s okay, isn’t it? Is that the part of death we fear the most? We fear death of loved ones because we can’t stand the thought of losing them. We fear our own deaths because we will cease to exist. Possibly. Probably.

Mostly, I don’t think I mind.

In some ways, I have left things behind so that I might not be totally forgotten. Four children, countless trees and shrubs and so far, sixteen books. Eventually, that will all be gone too. Does it matter? I don’t think so.

Life moves on. From dawn til dusk, from summer to autumn. We have no more right to everlasting life than the leaves drying and curling and floating down to rot on the forest floor, and we are just as much a part of everything. Of life, death and decay.