Category Archives: Review

SCBWI Agents’ Party

I only got around to joining SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) a few months ago after attending the local SCBWI critique group a few times and my first event took place last week.

I wasn’t sure at first whether to go to the Agents’ Party as my manuscript is in early draft stages and it will be a few more months before it’s finished. However on the encouragement from other SCBWI members I booked a ticket.

I also booked a space on the Pitch Perfect workshop run by Book Bound in the lead up to the party. I thought it would be good to work on my pitch ahead of time. And I’m glad that I did.

Book Bound also ran a webinar the evening before the party and whilst there was a lot of overlap between the two I learnt things from both.

The party was held at the Royal Overseas League just round the corner from the Ritz. I planned everything meticulously. I sorted childcare, I arranged back ups and timetabled my leaving the house with military precision.

The train being cancelled was sadly out of my control. However, there was just enough time to get there on the next available train.

Also out of my control was the horrible cold virus that one of my children and my husband went down with in the week leading up to the party. “Just don’t give it to me until Saturday,” I pleaded.

But no, I woke up with a scratchy throat on Friday morning. I sucked lozenges on the journey and as I ran up and down the escalators racing to catch up lost time. (I’d forgotten how deep down the Jubliee line is).

I had arranged to meet another SCBWI member outside and I texted her as I ran. “I’m late!” followed by, “I’m nearly there” and “Where are you?” and we finally found each other as I queued.

We’d never met before but it was lovely to feel like I knew someone as we went in and found somewhere to sit.

The evening kicked off with two panel discussions with the agents. This was really interesting – lots of insight into the market, what agents want to see in a submission and just as importantly what they don’t want to see and so much more.

It was the first time I’d sat still all day without having to get something done or be somewhere else and perhaps that’s why a fog of weariness descended on me now.

But there was no time to worry about that as next came the exciting bit: networking and chatting to the agents. So with a deep breath, I grabbed a glass of wine in the hope that it would cure rather than kill.

And it did the trick. I navigated around the five agents I wanted to see. I had lovely chats with them all and all five said to send the manuscript in when it is finished. Fantastic result!

I did go into a swift decline after that and made a slightly earlier exit that planned. But I’m so pleased I stuck to my aim of chatting to as many agents as possible.

The evening isn’t just about seeing agents though. It’s also a great chance to meet up with fellow writers and illustrators – some published, some not – and make new friends.

Aside from the things that were out of anyone’s control this was a brilliant evening and particular thanks must go to the SCWBI organisers Kathleen Isaac and Terri Trimble as well as all the agents who attended.

If you missed it and are thinking about going next year, then here’s my advice:

  1. Even if your manuscript isn’t finished – don’t let that hold you back. It’s a great evening for talking to agents about what you’re doing and making contacts.
  2. If there’s a pitch workshop you can attend – either in person or online – attend it. (It is more geared for writers than illustrators, but that may change).
  3. Practice your pitch. Yes you may feel silly talking to your cat/dog, into the mirror or recording onto your phone but it’s a good way to practice and you’ll feel less self-conscious when you come to pitch in person.
  4. If you don’t know anyone then find someone to buddy up with before you go. The SCBWI facebook page is a good place to shout out for this.
  5. Get a good night’s sleep the night before.
  6. Have a glass of wine – but not several. You’re aiming for the relaxed approach rather than the sozzled one.

The event is only open to SCBWI members so if you’re a children’s writer or illustrator and you’d like to find out more about joining SCBWI then follow the link through to the SCBWI web page.

Learning novel structure through film


In the summer I was gutted to miss a workshop on novel structure. Sadly it was too far away and clashed with my son’s birthday party so no matter how hard I stared at the train timetables I was never going to make it happen.

The workshop was with an Alexandra Sokoloff – a Hollywood screenwriter and novelist – and it was about applying some of the techniques from films to novels. It all sounded brilliant and the bit that really had me hooked was that she was also going to explain it all with the help of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.

Now I’m quite a visual person and this was the bit that I wanted to see the most. It’s a film I know well having watched it countless times with my children so exploring structure by watching that would, I thought, be a really helpful experience.

I was very interested to read some of the social media chatter about the workshop afterwards. Everybody was raving about it and one very helpful person mentioned that Alexandra had a book that her workshops were based upon. (Here’s a link to it on Amazon if you want to have a look:Screenwriting Tricks for Authors (and Screenwriters!): STEALING HOLLYWOOD: Story structure secrets for writing your BEST book: Volume 3)  and not only that, that there were film/story breakdowns in the back of it.

I ordered that book as fast as my fingers could type.

Now this post isn’t a review of the book as such as I have barely read it. It looks good and I intend to read it in a couple of months when my workload has died down. However, I fast forwarded to the end of the book and settled down with a cuppa, the Harry Potter DVD, my remote control, a notebook and the book.

It was two hours well spent. (Actually it was more like five as I stopped and started and thought about it in relation to my story and made notes).

She talks about structure, theme, genre conventions and so much more.

Perfect for me writing an MG fantasy story.

But don’t worry if you’re writing something else. She does story breakdowns for many different genres. From Romancing the Stone to Sense and Sensibility.

If you want to get your head around structure and like learning more about this business of writing a novel then I really recommend taking a look at this one.

If you want to “Look Inside” or buy a copy – just click on the image below and it will take you straight through to Amazon.

If you do buy it I hope you find it useful and do let me know what you think either in the comments below or on twitter @journalistfran.

Winchester Writers’ Festival

Winchester Uni bar and restaurant
Winchester Festival on a hot summer’s day

I’ve just recovered from a weekend at the University of Winchester attending their annual writer’s festival. And what a weekend that was. it’s not often – read that as never – that I get to spend that much time focused on my fiction and it lived up to my every expectation.

Lemn Sissay was the keynote speaker – powerful, vibrant, funny and profound. He talked about how although we write individually, tucked away in our oneness, that writing is a team sport. And that’s the feeling I came away with from this weekend. Everybody supported each other. The speakers wanted us to do well – particular thanks to Adrienne Dines and Helen Dennis for brilliant workshops. I met up with friends and made new ones. And we cheered for those who had requests from agents for full manuscripts.

I think it was Helen Fields in her after dinner speech who said that Winchester Festival changes you. It sounded like one of those throw away comments which sounds good at the time washed down with a glass of pinot grigio. But you know, when the swirling blizzard of thoughts and ideas finally settled some time over the 48 hours since coming home, then I can say now that actually yes it does.

I have a new found confidence and I’m brimming with ideas and enthusiasm to take to my writing. I’ve already made some decisions that were just not in my consciousness prior to the weekend. My agent meetings went well – and they play a large part in the confidence I’m beginning to feel in myself – thank you to Felicity Trew and Ella Kahn for cheeriness and professionalism at the end of a very hot Saturday. But it was also the enthusiasm of all the speakers and delegates rolled into one that grows into something bigger than the sum of its individual parts.

I’m already looking forward to whatever package of speakers and events the organisers will be pulling together for next year and eagerly awaiting the email so that I can book it all over again.

The World’s Best Diet

Healthy Lunch
Healthy lunch

I settled down to watch this documentary on Channel 4 last night about which country had the best diet.

I was hoping that it was going to explore in depth some of the identified healthy diets from around the world.

Instead it was a top 50 rundown from The Marshall Islands (in the north Pacific Ocean) taking the 50th position with a pretty unhealthy diet of processed and tinned products shipped in from America.

Their diet took a turn for the worse after the American nuclear tests took place on the Bikini Atoll during the 1940s and 50s – up until that point they relied on home grown goods and they were pretty healthy.  Now they have one of the highest rates of diabetes and the most common operation in their hospitals is for amputation from diabetes.

Fast forwarding we discovered that the UK didn’t fare too well – not a big surprise really – with Scotland at 37, Northern Ireland at 36, Wales at 35 (with the most obese children in the UK) and the UK at 34.

Not surprisingly we were ahead of America (43) but very surprisingly (for me anyway) ahead of Mexico and Australia. In Mexico, 1/3 of children are obese and this is put down to imported processed goods from America along with an average consumption of 1/2 litre a day of soda and fizzy drinks.  On top of their obesity problems they also appear to have a high incidence of dental problems/decay too.

Australia was a bit of a shocker.  I really thought they lived on a healthy diet of meat. fruit and veg but it seems they too have succumbed to the fast food revolution.

Ethiopia came in at a mid point at 24.  Western food only appears in the cities and it was interesting to see that for most people the standard diet was made up of the teff seed.  A small seed which they grind to a flour to make pancakes which they serve with lentils or vegetables.

The South Koreans (13) have some of the lowest obesity rates in the world which is attributed to a diet of fresh fish, vegetables and fermented cabbage.

And the French, who love their cheeses and high fat foods but have lower rates of heart disease show that it’s not all fresh fish and veg.  But instead they like to eat three meals per day (as we did in the UK 50 years ago), some wine and no snacks between meals.

Not surprisingly the Mediterranean diet made it into the top 3 with Greece and Italy taking 3rd and 2nd place respectively. So, yay for legumes, wholegrains, fruit, vegetables, fish and lots and lots of olive oil.

I wasn’t expecting Iceland to be no. 1 but they have low rates of strokes, heart disease and diabetes and they eat lots of fish, high quality meat and dairy and lots of natural whole foods.

There wasn’t much time spent on any one diet.  But the overwhelming message was that the healthiest diets were the ones that hadn’t changed much in the last 60 years and were reliant on natural foods rather than processed ones.

It didn’t seem to matter too much if you were an Innuit living on an all fat and protein diet of meat, a member of the Masai Tribe living on milk, meat and cow’s blood or a resident of Campodimele in Italy growing your own vegetables and killing your own chicken – the secret seems to be that as we progress and develop in all areas of our life, perhaps our diets should be best left alone to how they once were.

If you didn’t catch the programme, it is well worth a view – if only to see presenter Kate Quilton eat raw octopus which wriggles around as she eats it and attaches itself to her lip…I’m really not sure I could have done that – and can be seen again tonight on 4seven at 9pm or on the internet here.

Healthy lunch

A new sports bra

moving comfort-015For many years now I’ve been a loyal fan of Sportjock Sports Bras.  They’ve comfortably supported me through hundreds of running miles. And on top of that they come in a range of colours so I can coordinate them with my various running tops.  I know this is over-attention to detail as no-one can see my what I’m wearing under my running top, but it always makes me feel better.

However when I started Julia Buckley’s Fat Burn Programme her clothing partner Moving Comfort kindly sent me one of their bras to try out.

On first inspection I was very excited: it came in a vibrant pink with a blast of purple around the edges.  We were off to a good start.  But a sports bra is one occasion where comfort takes precedence over aesthetics.  Was it up to the job?

First of all it was very different to what I was used to.  Yes I know it’s just a bra but particularly with running, and any high impact sport, choosing the right bra is very important.

My old Sportsjocks are compression bras ie they squash your boobs against your chest.  They are crop-top style and lined with a soft cotton.

This moving comfort bra (Vero style) is like a conventional bra with a wide three hook fastening at the back.  It uses compression as well but it also has shaping and a little padding around the cups.

I’ve tried it out on several occasions now and I have to say that it’s very comfortable.

When I’m working out with weights ie low impact then either make of bra does the job well.  However the Moving Comfort bra definitely gives more support when I’m running.

Its straps can be criss-crossed over the back to stop them from slipping but I found they didn’t slip anyway so I’ve left them as they are.

It’s a man-made fabric and whilst I prefer the feel of cotton then this one probably wicks away sweat better.  I haven’t worn it on a long enough run to comment on this but sometimes the Sportsjock ones do get quite damp.

Pricewise it’s a similar price to my Sportsjocks (I’ve seen both on the internet for just under £25 although some colour options are reduced to under £20 on the Moving Comfort website when I looked just now) so I definitely think I’ll be adding another one to my collection.

The only negative I have for it (and it’s a small one) is that it’s smaller, more bra-like than a crop tmoving comfort-016op so those small bulgy bits of back flesh look a little more, well, bulgy in this.  But that’s a small niggle and as I don’t plan to go running around the county without a running top covering me up then the only person who knows about that is me.

And you of course.