Writers' Minds - Sally Nicholls

Illustration - Whizzy Barr

Ever wondered what makes a writer tick? What cogs of creativity whirr to bring stories to life? We take a peek into the minds behind the craft and probe for creative rituals, routines and inspiration hunting. 


The wonderful and award winning Sally Nicholls joins us this month. With her seventh book out, and an array of short stories, Sally kicked off her writing career at Bath Spa,inspiring many new writers, gathering enthusiastic fans and picking up awards along the way. A great supporter of SCBWI, Sally was full of wise words and top tips at the Writers’ Retreat earlier this year. 

And now we get to delve deeper… Sally, are you ready to reveal your inner most workings? 

Sally’s latest book, An Island Of Our Own is available now. 

Inspiration - are you a hunter or gatherer? 

Well, I start by gathering, and once I’ve gathered the beginnings of a meal, I go hunting for everything else I need for the dish. You can’t write historical fiction without a bit of hunting. 

Are you a plotter or pantser? 

Bit of both. I do write a synopsis before I start writing, partly because I can’t write a story without knowing where it ends and partly because I like to know that my editor is happy with the basic principle of the thing before I waste a year writing it. But the middle tends to be a bit vague, and have lots of sections called things like ‘May gets involved in that thing I haven’t researched yet’. And I never bother to work out any of the secondary characters or siblings or things like that – I find them as I need them. 

Shed sitter or cafe dreamer? 

Mostly bed-hider-in. But I do also like to write in cafés with author friends – particularly if I haven’t managed to leave the house for a while, or if I’m getting stuck in a rut. There’s nothing more shame-making than sitting opposite someone typing briskly away while you’re still faffing about on Facebook. 

Any mottos or words of wisdom hung above your desk? 

No. My desk is mostly hidden under stacks of unfiled paper. Hence hiding in bed. But I am a big believer in writing true to yourself and the things you love and believe, rather than following others. I’m just lucky in that I love a lot of different things, so it’s not hard to find something I want to write about that other people also want to buy. 

Target word count per day or as it comes? 

1000 words on a good day, 500 on a bad day. By which I mean, if it’s ten to midnight and I still haven’t started writing, banging out 500 words feels a lot more doable than trying to write 1000. 

Pen or Keyboard? 

 Mostly keyboard. But pen if I’m really stuck or have forgotten to pack my power cable. 

Music or silence? 

 Silence. Alas. 

Chocolate or wine? 

Chocolate while I’m writing. Wine when I’m done. 

Perspiration or inspiration? 

Perspiration. Inspiration gets to you the end of the synopsis and the first 10,000 words, then it’s perspiration until the end. 

To get into the Zone, do you use any techniques or triggers? Anything truly weird and eccentric? 

No. Sorry. 

Do you ever hear your character’s voice in your head? 

No. Not really. If they’re saying anything, it’s because I’ve put those words in their mouths. Although sometimes they do surprise me. I’ve gone into scenes expecting a character to feel one thing and discovered that actually they feel something completely different. And sometimes they change the whole point of a scene. Felix’s dismissal of Sam’s mother’s views on death and Christianity, for example, made me rethink a lot of what I thought about it myself. 

If there one key piece of advice, one gem of wisdom about the craft of writing, be it character development, re-writing or plot vs story, what would that be? 

Write the book that only you can write. Don’t be a second-rate J K Rowling when you could be a first-rate Sally Nicholls. (Courtesy of the fabulous Julia Green from the MA in Writing for Young People at Bath Spa.) 

Sally Nicholls wrote 'Ways to Live Forever' during her MA in Writing for Young People at Bath Spa. She achieved a distinction and was quickly snapped up by her agent. Sally Nicholls is author of 'An Island of Our Own’, 'Season of Secrets', 'All Fall Down', and other books which are published by Marion Lloyd Books at Scholastic. In 2008, Sally won the Luchs des Jahres and the Glen Dimplex New Writer of the year, other awards include the Waterstone’s Children’s Book Prize in 2008. Sally now lives in a little house in Oxford, writing stories, and trying to believe her luck. http://www.sallynicholls.com/

Louise Cliffe-Minns is the Events Editor and joint Features Editor for Words & Pictures. 

Contact: events@britishscbwi.org 

Blog: Louminns.blogspot.com 

Follow: @LMMinns


  1. I like the idea of writing a synopsis for a new novel and getting it approved by your editor before wasting time writing it. I guess that's the privilege of being a published author but did you do this before you got published too, and if so, who's approval did you seek? I've loved all the Sally Nicholls books I've read!

  2. There are three ways of incorporating other writers' work into your own writing: quoting, paraphrasing, and summarizing. If you are taking a writing class, you may be asked to use all three. This is an important aspect of any paper that you (and your teacher) will want you to master.


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