Keith Gray's sell-out Edinburgh workshop tackles Strong Beginnings

by @suzebain

Where are you on the writer’s pyramid? Are you a ‘wannabe’? Full of ideas? Prepared to rewrite?

Keith Gray, author and passionate advocate of young people’s books, issued that challenge at 'Strong Beginnings & the War of Attention," a sell-out workshop organised by SCWBI SE Scotland’s network.

Thirty writers converged on Edinburgh on 29 March, across the road from Harry Potter's birthplace in the Elephant House cafe, to discover the ingredients that make magical openings.

Keith has a strong background in teenage fiction. His first novel, Creepers, was shortlisted for the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize when he was just 24, and he has gone on to write a number of critically acclaimed books which have won, or been shortlisted for, all the major awards that any aspiring YA author would dream of.

A sell out!
He’s been on the other side of the awards process, too, having judged the Guardian Fiction Prize, the Blue Peter Award and the Booktrust Teen Prize, and reviewing regularly for both The Guardian and The Scotsman. So if there is anyone who can advise on what gives a manuscript’s opening lines punch, it’s Keith - and we had him to ourselves for a whole afternoon.

Write what you must

In a world full of publishing advice, the sheer volume of ‘write right’ tips can prove overwhelming. Keith’s approach was refreshing – don’t write what you feel you should write, write what you must, and be sure to always keep the needs of the reader central.

It was a challenging start to what would be an inspiring and informative session. However long you’ve lived with your book, he advised, the reader only joins it at line one, so it’s crucial to grab their attention at the start and hold on to it. How do you set up a character for the conflict that follows? How can you line up the dominos that will fall through your plot? What keeps interest maintained once you’ve seized it?

Keith Gray inspiring SE Scotland
Over the course of two hours, we talked through it all, using a combination of examples, exercises and group work. For all his success, Keith is extremely approachable and he is a phenomenal encourager. No question was too big or small to be dealt with, and explanations were clear and concise.

The crux of the session was perhaps this; while tastes change and differ, what works works, and it works for a reason. Strong beginnings, however they may vary, have some things in common, and it is these that combine to drive your story forward. It was an invaluable session: relaxed, informative and, above all, fun – complete with handouts, including Keith's all-important writers' pyramid, encouraging us all to write, revise, accept criticism, and revise again.

Now to put it into practise…

Susan Bain is a former political journalist and documentary maker, and author of Holyrood: The Inside Story. She has now moved into the more mature and rational world of children’s fiction and is currently building a house based on children’s stories. You can follow its progress, read reviews and find cheap recipes from The Starving Artists’ Kitchen. Susan is part of the SCBWI British Isles SE Scotland Network, coordinated by Sheila Averbuch (@spacekidsbooks) and Louise Kelly (@mlouisekelly).

Keith Gray is represented by Lucy Juckes at Jenny Brown Associates. He has been multiply published, translated into Polish, German and Japanese, and his books include Ostrich Boys, The Fearful and Malarkey.


  1. Some sound advice there. Sounds like a fabulous workshop.

  2. It was energising to be in the room with Keith - fabulous atmosphere, and so many local writers coming together! I know it set my brain alight for the writing I'm doing now and the beginning I'm trying to craft.

  3. Thank you Susan. I'm inspired even from this taste of the workshop. This is really interesting: 'don’t write what you feel you should write, write what you must, and be sure to always keep the needs of the reader central'. I'm getting that it's not what we write but how that's crucial at the beginning or indeed anywhere.

  4. It was a wonderful motivating event. Expertly guided by Keith and MCd by Louise and Sheila. I have used it to inspire me with my current series and am looking forward to the next one. Bring them on.

  5. A super article on a memorable and inspiring workshop.

  6. Keith’s approach was refreshing – don’t write what you feel you should write, write what you must, and be sure to always keep the needs of the reader central. content rewriting service


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