An Evening With Neil Gaiman

The Word Factory masterclass on the 25th May at Waterstones, Piccadilly, promised a rare event, two hours of Neil Gaiman  talking from the heart about his writing life. Kellie Jackson reports.

A recipient of the Carnegie and Newbery medals, his body of work crosses genre and form while straddling the commercial and literary divide. Introduced by Word Factory Director, Cathy Galvin, as a ‘literary superstar, a changeling and master of the short story form’, Neil Gaiman, dressed head to toe in black, resembled a character fresh off the page of one of his own stories. Generous, funny and candid, he peppered the conversation with short readings from his work, took questions from the audience and dazzled the entire room. 
Neil Gaiman at the Waterstones event. Photo by James Lawson
I came to the event, as did several fellow SCBWI members, thinking particularly about some of his stories for children and young people; Stardust, Coraline, The Graveyard Book, The Sleeper and the Spindle, Fortunately The Milk and, The Ocean at The End of The Lane
Books by Neil Gaiman
With these stories in mind, I’ve summarised a few of the event’s many highlights. 
How do you turn an idea into a story? 
All stories have to start somewhere about which when you started you knew one big thing. N.G. and Terry Pratchett had a running joke; 
Is it an idea or a notion? 
An idea has legs and a notion is interesting but not enough.
Finding ideas. 
Inhabit a ‘what if space?’ 
Ask ‘if only...’
 Or ‘I wonder whether...?’ 
Does he ever worry about running out of ideas? 
Daily. Or hourly would be more honest. The best ideas for short stores come when working on something else. Make room for ideas. Be there at your computer/desk at a certain time of day every day. Ideas are relatively obedient things. Note them down and go back to them later. Ask questions. Follow your chain of thought, for example, what if a werewolf bit a chair...would, in the event of a full moon, the chair leg grow hair? 
On Process 
N.G. tends to write in long hand first in attempt to outwit himself. If he types something on a screen it becomes real. If it’s on paper then it’s trivial, he can tell himself he’s just making stuff up. He’s not sure if he’s a good writer but he’s a fairly decent editor. First Drafts are an explosion. You don’t have to know where it’s going. No one’s going to see it. First drafts are to find out what it’s about, not necessarily what happens - you need to get to the end to see. With Second drafts, buttress those things that make it what it’s about and extract the bits that go against the story. Delete distractions. Put it away for a couple of weeks. Then go back and read it, as a reader. Pretend you’ve never read it before. Ask, what am I missing? Often the things that are most missing are the things that in the first draft you think, ‘I can get away with it’. You are going to have to do these things. Easier to finish things ‘if it doesn't matter’. Writing in a notebook spares you from judgment. If you are scared or intimidated then you don’t do anything. No first draft, no matter how bad, is worse than a blank piece of paper. 

Sharing intimate stories from his childhood with Cathy Galvin. Photo by James Lawson. Image used by kind permission of Word Factory.
 The Most Important Thing You Can Possibly Do
 Finish something. You learn the most from this. 
So much is the voice; if you can find or figure out the voice; that will do most of the work for you. He stressed the importance of false starts. It took three or four years of writing professionally to find his voice. He knew he’d found it because he felt ‘uncomfortably naked’. 
On the unreliable narrator 
He loves, especially in science fiction, to give people,‘...a narrative voice that feels trustworthy; a comfortable friendly voice that says, take my hand, I’ll show you dark places, take you in to the forest and then let go and run away.’ He liked, ‘softening the reader up with, ‘corroborative detail’. 
'So I'm writing a report about tonight for Words & Pics,' Kellie tells Neil Gaiman and Clara Benn, his exec assistant.
How do I know I’ve come to the end of my story? 
Keep going until there aren’t any more words...until you reach that point of closure where somebody has changed or if you are really clever the characters don’t change but the reader has. The Ocean At The End Of The Lane was a short story that didn't stop. He kept writing, by hand in a notebook until he built something that was done. 
On writer’s block 
He doesn't believe in it. He believes in ‘getting stuck’. Write anyway, especially on those ‘getting stuck days’. There might be something to salvage. 
Early work 
He recalled not having a lot to say but being desperate to explore form. He likened it to ‘trying on somebody else’s hat’ or ‘somebody else’s voice’. 
Early reading habits & libraries

As a boy he spent a lot of time reading in libraries. For N.G. libraries are ‘safe places’. The schools he attended afforded him a masterclass in Edwardian fiction without him knowing it. 
On  writing Middle Grade books 
Coraline was written over six years. 50 words a night. He keeps everything (notebooks) but occasionally loses things. He might know what to do with something years later. 

The Graveyard Book was inspired by Rudyard Kipling’s, The Jungle Book. He knew it would be a collection of stories but novel shaped and knew it contained living and dead characters. He wrote some short stories as a dry run. He asked himself, how would this work? What notes do I need to play? What instruments do I need to play it on? 
On Rejection
 He’s had lots, ‘and I miss it’. 
On turning down a lucrative offer 

When American Gods was published he received an amazing offer; a three book deal to write more of the same. He turned it down and wrote Coraline. He’d ‘go mad’ writing the same book over and over again, saying ‘ owe your allegiance to be one of the best kind of things you are.’
Kelli with Neil Gaiman
As the masterclass drew to a close, the audience formed an animated queue to meet Neil Gaiman. He signed our books and patiently posed for many a photograph. All agreed it was a magical evening. With special thanks to Neil Gaiman, Cathy Galvin, Paul McVeigh and all at the Word Factory
SCBWI's Gita Ralleigh, Kellie Jackson & Tania Tay.

Kellie Jackson's stories have been broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Hailing from Newcastles, Australia, she travelled widely before settling in London in 1990. She gained a BA in English Literature and an MA in Creative Writing from Goldsmiths while raising a family. A SCBWI member since 2014, she's a rabid reader of YA, short stories & contemporary fiction. Kellie's currently writing a YA novel and developing Words Away, a monthly salon to begin in the Autumn in association with Emma Darwin, focusing on the writing process.


  1. Great article, Kellie, and fab to have it all here as I've probably forgotten half of it... it was a fantastic night, thanks for the write up and thanks to Alex English who gave me her ticket!

  2. Fab article Kellie, thanks for sharing - I sooo wish I'd been there - Neil is a legend! One day...

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Great report Kellie - lots of jewels in there thank you!


We love comments and really appreciate the time it takes to leave one.
Interesting and pithy reactions to a post are brilliant but we also LOVE it when people just say they've read and enjoyed.
We've made it easy to comment by losing the 'are you human?' test, which means we get a lot of spam. Fortunately, Blogger recognises these, so most, if not all, anonymous comments are deleted without reading.

Words & Pictures is the Online Magazine of SCBWI British Isles. Powered by Blogger.