'Standing on the shoulders of giants' - like Robert Paul Weston…

Abi Elphinstone  

There were two reasons I booked onto SCBWI’s Fantasy Writing for Young Readers workshop. Firstly, because the internationally award-winning author, Robert Paul Weston was leading it and secondly, because of the name of the location: The Theodore Bullfrog, in London. Possibly the most fantasy-appropriate name for a pub I’ve come across – sounds like a swash-buckling pirate or a devilish smuggler…

A packed upper room inside The Theodore Bullfrog

Marketed as a ‘Fantasy Writing’ workshop, I was hoping to come away with a few tricks of the trade, but what Weston offered up was nothing short of a lowdown on EVERYTHING you need to know about writing a bestselling MG/YA fantasy novel. Admin note to SCBWI: amend the workshop title to Fantasy Writing for Young Readers with Robert Paul Weston – comes with complete lowdown on writing bestsellers. BOOM.

Weston was approachable and instructive (not to mention ridiculously talented), and after his Fairytale Machine ice-breaker (think telepathic streets and trees that can fly), we looked at the ingredients of a captivating fantasy world: what makes it plausible, how to avoid info dumps, ways to make the world feel original…

 The 'what if ' spreads through your whole world.

Weston also  introduced us to two words that have already transformed the new series I’m planning: WHAT IF. ‘The what if spreads through your whole world. Check out Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights – what if a person’s soul is represented by an animal… The book hinges on this idea and even the first line of Chapter One punches that what if home: ‘Lyra and her daemon moved through the darkening Hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen.’

From settings we explored the ‘9 traits of sympathetic characters’ – possibly the most instructive 9-step powerpoint slide I’ve seen (I reckon Weston could sell it on ebay for a few thousand…) and the ingredients of a compelling first person narrator: ‘There’s not much point having a first person narrator unless they speak in an interesting way. Take Moira Young’s Blood Red Road – the narrative voice is compelling and it works.’

We tackled the art of ‘being funny’ with Weston succinctly revealing that ‘funniness is about unpredicted endings, right from sentence level to scene level’, and looked at the concepts of conflict and suspense.

Conflict: I want something.

Suspense: will you get it? 

The finale saw us working on structure – the ebbs and flows of action and happy versus tragic endings – with every point backed up by an example from a fantasy novel. My ‘To Buy’ book list is now as tall as Hogwarts…

It was an invaluable workshop (enhanced by the fact that the pub served amaaaaazing pizza at lunch) and if Gandalf is the wisest fantasy character out there, then Weston is one of the wisest creative writing tutors I’ve come across. I’m very pleased to be standing (not literally, because that would be weird) on the shoulders of fantasy giants like him.

Abi Elphinstone grew up in Scotland where she spent most of her childhood building dens, hiding in tree houses and running wild across highland glens. After being coaxed out of her tree house, Abi studied English at Bristol University and then worked as an English teacher in Africa, Berkshire and London. Her debut children’s novel for 9-12year-olds, Oracle Bones, will be published by Simon & Schuster early 2015, with the sequel, Soul Splinter, out the following year. Abi runs a ‘mad about children’s books’ blog – www.moontrug.com and her favourite book is Northern Lights by Philip Pullman (if she had a daemon it would be a wildcat with attitude).


  1. I'm gonna find Robert and force him at gunpoint (well, maybe threaten him with a handbag) to hand over that powerpoint. Sounds fantastic! Thanks for sharing (without telling us anything, I note, making it essential to attend the next one!). Hey SCBWI, you should take Robert on tour.

  2. Hear, hear, Candy. What a great, tantalizing post. Thanks, Abi. Now where's my heaviest handbag ..?

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