Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Everybody Wants To Be A Cat!

Last night, I had the absolute honour of attending Varjak Paw: The Musical, staged by the amazing Year 6 at New North Academy, and directed by the brilliant Fiona Gunn-Stokes!

I visited New North Academy earlier this year; here's the blog I wrote about it at the time.  You can see from all the comments just what a fantastic group of readers and writers they are.  So when they told me they were going to do a musical production of Varjak Paw as their end of year show, I couldn't wait!

It was absolutely brilliant.  They did both Varjak Paw and The Outlaw Varjak Paw in one great big epic story; and they did musical numbers including Everybody Wants To Be A Cat, Love Cats, and Stray Cat Strut!

There were fantastic costumes, make-up and sets; brilliant acting, singing and dancing; terrific use of video for the dream sequences...  it had everything you would want from a stage show!  But for an author to see his characters brought to life like that – it was an incredible experience.  I have to admit, I got quite emotional watching it... though I was definitely not the only one!

So I would like to say a massive THANK YOU to everyone involved – and good luck with everything you go on to do in your lives.  I think you are absolute superstars.  Keep the Way alive!

Friday, 18 July 2014

School Visit: Greengate Juniors & Barrow Island Primary

I'd like to say a big thank you to Paula Hillman, and to everyone I met at Greengate Juniors, for giving me such a warm welcome when I visited Barrow-in-Furness last week!  And thanks to Steve Hillman for taking these fantastic photos, and making the visit possible by driving me all the way from Lancaster!

This was an unusual visit for me, because it was organised through Twitter, where I post as @whatSFSaid.  I'd been reading amazing tweets from @GreengateJ describing all the fantastic work that Year 6 had been doing with Varjak Paw – so when Paula invited me to visit and see for myself, I couldn't say no!

It was wonderful to see all the enthusiasm for books and reading in Year 6 – and also Year 4 from Barrow Island Primary School, who joined the visit too, along with their teacher Mrs McVea-Roberts!  It was a real pleasure to sign books for everyone at the end.  Thank you all for your brilliant questions and stories – and keep the Way alive!

And for more photos & information – see this lovely blog about the visit!

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

School Visits: Nelson Primary, and Little Star Writers

I'd like to say a very big thank you to Mel Taylor of Little Star Writing, who organised a fantastic author event for me at Nelson Primary School last week (and took all these awesome photos!) – and thank you to all the brilliant Year 6s, 5s, 4s and 3s I met, who gave me such a warm welcome!

It was wonderful to see so much enthusiasm for books and reading!  In fact, there were so many brilliant questions, we didn't have time to answer them all.  So if anyone out there still has any questions, either about my books or about writing in general, this is the place to ask them.  Just leave me a comment below, and I'll be happy to answer!

It was then a real pleasure to join Mel and the Little Star Writers for a creative writing workshop.  I heard some truly amazing stories, including one that I will never forget, written from the point of view of a pair of scissors!  It was inspiring to see such creativity in action, and I hope they enjoyed it as much as I did!

Sunday, 22 June 2014

School Visits: Highgate Junior School

I'd like to say a big thank you to Penny Casey and all the fantastic Year 4s & 3s for giving me such a brilliant welcome when I visited Highgate Junior school last month.  But I'd like to say an extra big thank you to Atyeo Thomas du Toit of Year 4, without whom the visit would never have happened!

Normally, I'm invited to visit schools by teachers who are doing my books with their class.  But this time, I was invited by one of the students, Atyeo, who'd discovered my books on his own, and then left me this wonderful message on the 'Author Visits' page on this site, asking if I'd come and visit:

I thought that sounded great, and was delighted to organise the visit through the school librarian.  It was a real pleasure to come and meet such brilliant readers, and to talk about writing and books.  I hope everyone has been enjoying their copies of Phoenix and Varjak Paw...  And if anyone else out there has read one of my books and would like to organise a visit – leave me a message, and it might just happen!

Monday, 19 May 2014

The weRead Book Award

I'm absolutely thrilled that Phoenix has been shortlisted for the weRead Book Award! This is an unusual award because it's decided by young readers. I think that's a brilliant idea, and I'd like to ask all my readers to consider getting involved with it. You can do this by writing a review of one or more of the books on the shortlist – as many as you like.

I find it strange that most book prizes for young readers are decided not by actual readers, but by adult judges. I feel this is unfair. Whenever I visit schools and meet readers, I'm always inspired by their passion for books, their enthusiasm for reading, and their sheer intelligence. I've had amazing conversations with young readers up and down the country, and I think they have so much to say that normally never gets heard.

That's why I'm so proud that Varjak Paw won the Smarties Prize and The Outlaw Varjak Paw won the Blue Peter Book Of The Year: because both of those were voted for by young readers. And that means more than you can imagine.

The shortlist for the weRead Book Award is amazingly strong. As well as Phoenix, there are books by great authors like Malorie Blackman, Anthony Horowitz, Jonathan Stroud, Elizabeth Wein and Matthew Crow. There's bound to be at least one book on the list that you enjoy! So if you'd like to take part and make your voice heard – the deadline for sending reviews is June 20th 2014, and here's a link to the page explaining how to do it

Sunday, 18 May 2014

School Visits: St Joseph's Catholic Primary School

I'd like to say a huge thank you to Rebecca England and all the fantastic Year 5s & 4s I met at St Joseph's Catholic Primary School last week!

It was a brilliant visit for me, because Year 4 were reading Varjak Paw, while Year 5 were reading Phoenix.  I saw some incredible work that they'd been doing: not only with my words, but also with Dave McKean's illustrations.

I'd like to thank you all for your fantastic questions and stories, and to wish you good luck with your reading, writing and art!  I know we didn't have enough time to answer all the questions, so if anyone has something they'd like to ask, or anything they'd like to say about the visit or the books, this is the place to do it!

Monday, 14 April 2014

The Writing Process Blog Tour

Just for this week, I’ve joined the Writing Process Blog Tour. This is a worldwide event where writers share insights into their work by answering the same four questions. I was introduced to this tour by my Twitter-friend and Young Adult writer, Antonia Lindsay. Check out her Writing Process blog here.

What am I working on?

Right now, I'm about 3/4 the way through draft 3a of a new book called TYGER. I can't say too much about it, as my books always change a lot as I write them, but I can tell you this: it's a story set in a parallel world; one of the main characters is a tiger; and I'm really enjoying it!

I started thinking about this parallel world about 25 years ago. About 6 years ago, I found a story to set in that world.  And about a year ago, when I finished Phoenix, I started to write it.

This is a very different process for me. Usually, I start with characters, and then the world develops around them. With Varjak Paw, it all began with the idea of a kitten leaving home for the first time in his life.  With Phoenix, it began with the idea of a boy going on an epic quest to find his absent father.

But in the case of TYGER, it all started with the world, and the writing process feels very different. More solid, somehow – though that might just be because I'm a more experienced writer now!

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I have to admit, I don't really think of my books in terms of genre. Varjak Paw and Phoenix might seem different in genre terms – an animal story and a space epic – but to me, they're very similar. They're both stories about characters who feel small in a big world; characters who don't start out with power, but have to find a way to save the day.

I think of my books as places where I can put all my favourite things. I enjoy reading all sorts of genres: sci-fi and fantasy, adventure stories, horror, realist fiction, historical fiction, romance, crime, animal stories, martial arts stories, superhero stories, ancient myths… I just love stories, of whatever genre!

So I think that although I use elements from lots of genres, in the end, the stories I'm trying to write are 'my' stories; stories that no-one else could write.

Why do I write what I do?

I think you can only really write what you love. I've tried writing other things, but it doesn't work for me. I always go back to the single best piece of writing advice I've ever heard, which is by JD Salinger.

"If only you'd remember before ever you sit down to write that you've been a reader long before you were ever a writer. You simply fix that fact in your mind, then sit very still and ask yourself, as a reader, what piece of writing in all the world would you most want to read if you had your heart's choice? The next step is terrible, but so simple I can hardly believe it as I write it. You just sit down shamelessly and write the thing yourself."

How does my writing process work?

Drafts, drafts and more drafts. On a first draft, I just try to have fun. I set myself an achievable target - 1000 words a day, or 4 sides of A4. In this period, I don't edit or look back, and I don't ask myself if what I'm writing is any good – I just move forwards.  If I think of something that needs to be changed, I make a note about it in a notebook, and move on until I reach the end of the story.

Then I have a break, and re-read what I've written – but as if I was the reader, not the writer. I ask myself what I would want to see different here, as a reader – and my answers to that question form the basis of the next draft. I go all the way through it, finding any possible way I can to make it better.  At this point, I'll often make big structural plans.  Here again, notebooks are very useful!  I think it's helpful to have a good notebook by your side, so here's one I've used for TYGER:

I go through this process again and again until I can find no possible way to improve the story; until it has all the effects on me as a reader that I want it to have. Then I show it my agents and my editors, and we go through the process all over again! As many times as it takes, until everyone feels it's as brilliant as it can be.

Only then do we publish it. Many, many drafts will have happened by this point. That's why my books take such a long time! I complain about it a lot, but the final draft is always the best, and it always feels worth it in the end.

If you want to know more about my writing process, I'm doing a series of writing tips here on my blog, and I also talk about it on Twitter, where you can find me as @whatSFSaid.

And now I’m handing over the Blog Tour baton to another friend and fellow writer who will share his thoughts next Monday: Joe Craig, author of the Jimmy Coates books. Here's Joe's own introduction:

Joe Craig writes novels, songs and movies. He’s best known for the Jimmy Coates thrillers, which The Times calls ‘The Bourne Identity for kids... Pure gold’. He lives in London with his wife (broadcaster/adventurer Mary-Ann Ochota), his dog (Harpo the labradonkey) and his dwarf crocodile (Professor Sven). His website is and on twitter, facebook and instagram, he’s @joecraiguk

Saturday, 12 April 2014

School Visits: Foxford School

Most of the schools I visit are primary schools.  I love them, but I love visiting secondary schools too, and I'm always very glad to be invited to one.  So I'd like to say an extra-big thank you to the brilliant Hannah Thomson and Foxford School, who I had the enormous pleasure of visiting this week!

I met some outstanding readers and writers at Foxford, mainly from Years 7 and 8, but also some in later years including Year 11, which was fantastic.  There were also some visitors from Holbrook Primary School and Grangehurst Primary School, mainly from Year 6.  We talked about Varjak Paw and Phoenix, and the process of becoming a writer.

I was asked lots of great questions, including one about the ending of Phoenix which made me really happy, as the ending was something that took a long time to get right.  It was an absolute pleasure at the end of the day to sign copies of Phoenix for students, and on their way out, a lot of people told me how inspired they felt by the visit.  All I can say is that I felt exactly the same – so thank you to everyone who made it such an inspiring day!

Sunday, 6 April 2014

School Visits: Yeomoor Primary

I'd like to say a very big thank you to Matt Walker and all the Year 4s and 3s I had the pleasure of visiting at Yeomoor Primary last week!  It was a great visit, and a really warm welcome – I thoroughly enjoyed meeting you all!

It was fantastic to see all the work you'd been doing on Varjak Paw, and to hear such enthusiasm for reading and books in general.  It was also very inspiring and encouraging for me as a writer to see the brilliant reactions of Year 4 to my reading from my new book Phoenix!  If you'd like to know more about it, here's a short book trailer that Dave McKean made, which brings the opening of the book to life with animation based on his original illustrations:

I'd love to hear what you think if you have a chance to read it!  And if anyone would like to leave me a comment about any of my books, or about the visit, this is the place to do it!

Friday, 28 March 2014

School Visits: Wix Primary School / École de Wix

I'd like to say a big thank you and merci to Schnell Donacien and the fantastic Year 4s of Wix Primary School / École de Wix, who I had the pleasure of visiting last week!

It was wonderful to meet so many great readers and writers, and to be asked so many interesting and thoughtful questions.  It was also very nice to hear how much everyone had been enjoying Varjak Paw and Phoenix.  One Year 4 told me he read Phoenix in just 5 days!  Given that it's 490 pages long, that's an amazing compliment for a writer to hear!

Thank you all again for your wonderful warm welcome.  And if anyone at Wix would like to make a comment about the visit or my books, this is the place to do it – I love hearing from readers!

Friday, 21 March 2014

Writing Tips #3: The Secret Of The First Draft

So here's the third tip I would give any writer (if you want to know the first two, they're here).

On a first draft, give yourself a daily minimum word count: something you can easily do.  The amount will be different for everyone, but I usually aim for 4 sides of A4 – 1,000 words.  If I feel like doing more, that's fine, but it doesn't mean I can do less tomorrow; I have to do at least 4 sides a day.  While I'm doing this, I don't look back or edit or even wonder if what I'm writing is any good.  I just write 4 sides a day, every day, picking up where I left off yesterday, always moving the story forwards.  

Every time I stick to this, within a couple of months, an amazing amount of writing has somehow happened.  That's how I wrote the first drafts of Varjak Paw and Phoenix, and that's the secret of how to do a first draft.  Don't judge it, don't worry about it: just get those words down on the page, whatever they are.  Momentum is everything.  If you try to edit while you're writing a first draft, chances are you'll never finish it.  But keep moving forwards, and you'll reach the end before you know it.  

Then it's time for the next draft... which I'll talk about in the next writing tip!

Monday, 17 March 2014

World Book Week 2014

Every year, World Book Day gets bigger and bigger.  This year, it became an entire week!  I was honoured to take part in a special video made by The Guardian to celebrate the occasion.  Along with my fellow authors Jacqueline Wilson and Jim Smith, I was interviewed by a reader dressed as a character from my books: in my case, Varjak Paw!  The video is here and is absolutely fantastic; there's also a full transcript of the interview that you can read here.

I also visited many schools, and met lots and lots of great readers and writers!  First up was Our Lady Queen Of Heaven Primary School in Wimbledon, where I met Years 6, 5, 4 and 3.  It was brilliant to see so many Varjak Paw fans, and so many people interested in my new book Phoenix.  For anyone who missed it, here's the Phoenix book trailer again:

On World Book Day itself, I visited Montem Primary School in Islington, and talked to Years 6, 5 and 4.  It was inspiring to see so much enthusiasm for books and reading – and I was delighted to see a tiger on the way out of the school, because the new book that I'm working on is called TYGER!

Finally, I visited Friars Primary School in Waterloo, where I met Years 6 and 5, many of whom had read both Varjak Paw and The Outlaw Varjak Paw, and some of whom I understand are now reading Phoenix!  I hope you all enjoy it... and I hope that everyone I met had a totally brilliant World Book Week!

Monday, 10 March 2014

School Visits: New North Academy

Some sad news: my trusty old computer, on which I wrote Phoenix, died a couple of weeks ago. So I haven't been able to update this blog for a while.  But I've been busy doing school visits, and I hope to make blogs about them all in the coming week.

I think my visit to the New North Academy in Islington was one of the best I've ever had.  I met some brilliant readers and writers from Year 6, and fantastic teachers like Fiona Gunn-Stokes and Alexander Hall.  They showed me the excellent work they'd been doing on Phoenix as well as Varjak Paw.  It was really inspiring to see all the enthusiasm for books out there!

It was amazing afterwards to find messages on my site like this:
Dear SF SAID, you have visited new north academy and I was one of the pupils. So far I have written 5 MINI SHORT STORIES because you have inspired me to do so. I have learnt a lot from you and I will cherish your visit. I hope you write another Varjak one of my ideas was varjak having a twin called varjak Claw and he could be bad. That could be a special edition . I really wish you would use some ideas in your books such as Holly and Varjak getting married! Thanks again

It really means a lot for a writer to hear things like that!  So I'd like to wish everyone at New North Academy all the best with their writing and their reading – and thank you for saying such nice things about my books!

Friday, 21 February 2014

School Visit: Sydenham High School

I'd like to say a big thank you to Pauline Jiminez and Sydenham High School for inviting me to visit last week!  I had the pleasure of meeting some really fantastic Year 6s, 5s and 4s, and talking to them all about writing.  It was very inspiring for me to hear so much enthusiasm for books out there, and so many great stories and dreams!

It was amazing at the end to see how many people wanted to buy a copy of Phoenix – so many that the bookseller sold out! If there's anyone who didn't manage to get a copy on the day but would still like one, here's a link to my publishers' page, where the 'buy now' button links to lots of places you can order it, including Foyles, Waterstones, Blackwells, WH Smith, Amazon, and local independent booksellers via Hive:

Friday, 14 February 2014

School Visits: Bancrofts Prep School & Oakridge School

I had the great pleasure of visiting Bancrofts Prep School last year – here's the blog post I made at the time.  It was a brilliant visit, so I was excited to hear from Joe Layburn, the fantastic Head (and fellow author) that they wanted me to come back again this year.  If anything, this year's visit was even better than last time, so I'd like to say a heartfelt thank you to everyone at Bancrofts for their wonderful welcome – especially all the amazing Year 4s who've been working on Varjak Paw!

I also visited Oakridge School last week, where I met some fantastic Year 6s & Year 5s who were working on Varjak Paw and The Outlaw Varjak Paw.  I had some brilliant comments here on my site even before the visit, so I was prepared to meet some great readers – but even so, it was inspiring for me to hear all the enthusiasm for books and reading out there!  Thank you so much to everyone I met – and if you'd like to see the Phoenix book trailer again, here it is!

Thursday, 6 February 2014

School Visits: Park Hill Junior School

Late last year, I received one of the nicest letters I've ever read.  It was from a teacher called Sally Greenaway at a school called Park Hill, in Kenilworth.  She had just used Phoenix as a class book with her Year 6s – the first teacher I know of who has done this – and she was writing to let me know how it had gone:
"We began our space topic in September and this book worked perfectly alongside our topic work... When reading the book in the classroom, you could hear a pin drop and the children got thoroughly lost in the story of Lucky...  Thank you for writing such a moving and stimulating book."
She also enclosed some letters that her class had written to me.  They were so amazing that I really wanted to meet the people who wrote them!  So I offered to go and visit.

I discovered that they'd done a huge amount of fascinating work.  They'd visited the National Space Centre in Leicester, to learn more about the stars.  They'd made diaries from various characters' points of view; made newspaper articles and fact files; they'd even made Axxa boots!  Unfortunately I didn't get to see the boots, but I did see some of their writing and it was outstanding!

It was fantastic to meet these brilliant readers and writers, and to hear all their thoughts and questions about the book.  It was also great to meet all the Year 4s and 3s who were doing Varjak Paw at the same time!  So I'd just like to thank everyone at Park Hill for the wonderful warm welcome.

I found a lovely comment here on my site shortly after the visit:
Hi, I am called Molly
I am from Park hill Junior school in Kenilworth and you visited my school today I wanted to thank you
Thank you very much, Molly! And if anyone else would like to leave a comment about the visit or my books, this is the place to do it!

Thursday, 30 January 2014

Paws And Whiskers

I received an amazing book this week: Paws And Whiskers.  It's a brilliant anthology of animal stories, chosen by the great Jacqueline Wilson... and Varjak Paw is one of the stories she chose!

It's an incredible honour, especially when you see the other writers in the book.  There are some of my all-time favourites: Rudyard Kipling, Ursula Le Guin, Philip Pullman, Philippa Pearce, Michael Morpurgo, Malorie Blackman, Dick King-Smith, Joan Aiken, Noel Streatfield, Dodie Smith, Kate DiCamillo – and of course Jacqueline Wilson herself.  Her introduction to the Varjak Paw excerpt is so lovely, I have to quote it!  She says:
"I think my most delightful and interesting interview ever was with SF Said.  He knew so much about children's books and we found we had all sorts of things in common – we even shared a passion for gothic silver jewellery.  He told me that he'd written a children's book himself and so I asked him to send me a copy when it came out.  
I was thrilled when I read Varjak Paw.  It's new and contemporary and original, and yet it already reads like a true classic of children's literature."
It's absolutely amazing to see one my favourite writers saying such things about my work!  Here's a link to the interview she mentions, which we did back in 2001; and here's some more information from her own website.  Please do buy a copy of the book if you can – royalties from every copy sold will go to Battersea Cats and Dogs Home!

Monday, 27 January 2014

Phoenix Inspirations: Writing Music

I've made a few posts before about the music that I listen to when I write.  If you're a regular reader of this blog, you won't be surprised to hear that I listened to quite a bit of the The Cure again while writing my new book, Phoenix!  But there were some new bands on my soundtrack this time.

This is the first song I ever heard by Sigur Rós. They're a brilliant Icelandic band who make music as epic and huge as the sky. To me, they make the sounds I imagine when I think about the stars singing, as they do throughout Phoenix, from the first page to the last.

This is a song from their untitled album ( ).  It's the song I listened to the most in the seven years of writing Phoenix.  It's what I was thinking of when I wrote that the stars made "a small, soft, silvery sound, like the chime of a faraway bell."  And it's the kind of thing I had in mind when I wrote about how the sound "surged and swelled, rising up into the sky."

The concert that Lucky, Bixa and Frollix go to on Scorpio Six definitely owes something to the various Sigur Rós concerts I've been to in my time... like this one, at Alexandra Palace, back in 2008! Though there were a lot of other concerts in the back of my mind... and lots of other music, too!

If you've enjoyed this post, and would like to hear the whole () album, I've made a Spotify playlist for you here.  And I'll be posting another blog soon with more music that inspired Phoenix...

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Writing Tips #2: Everyone Writes In Drafts

Here's the second tip that I would give any writer (if you want to know the first, it's here).

No-one can write a great book in one draft.  I've never met a single writer who could do that; a book is just too big and complicated.  You need to build it over a number of drafts.  Everyone does this differently – but believe me, everyone does it.

The best example I can think of is Jon Stallworthy's Between The Lines: WB Yeats's Poetry In The Making.  I found this in a second-hand bookshop, and it changed my life.  Stallworthy meticulously went through all of Yeats's discarded drafts, and reconstructed evidence of exactly how he'd written his poems.

Here's the finished text of my favourite Yeats poem, The Second Coming (click on the image to see it large):

Brilliant, isn't it?  Hard to imagine it could ever have been any other way.  But have a look at the first draft:

"The germans are now to Russia come"???  And look at this – several drafts later:

"The second Birth"?  Clearly, he didn't even know what the poem was going to be called, well into writing it!  Even very near the end, he was circling around the incredible final image that now seems so inevitable – developing it through sheer bloody-minded trial and error:

When I read this, I realised that even someone I thought of as a genius had to build their work layer by layer, draft by draft.  No-one just sits down and has perfect work pour out of them.  And if this is true of a poem, how much more true must it be of a novel?