Writers' Minds: Candy Gourlay

Image: 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.


Super SCBWI member Candy Gourlay joins me this month and I can’t wait to pick her brains and uncover what makes her creativity tick. 

Candy is an award winning children’s writer whose novels Tall Story and Shine were received to great acclaim. Despite being a whirlwind of activity, Candy is always there with helpful advice to fellow and aspiring writers whether it be tips on school visits, the writing process or social media. Candy is a support, a cheerleader and a Shining light in the industry (see what I did there? Shine? Shining light…oh, okay.) 

So make yourself comfy on the couch Candy. Readers, grab a hobnob and a cuppa, and let’s get inside Candy Gourlay’s writer’s mind… 

Inspiration - are you a hunter or gatherer? 

Is it possible to be one and not the other? Every book begins with an idea that might have been sparked by some event, some flash of insight. But that a spark becomes nothing unless there is oxygen to bring it to flame. And the flame will gutter and die unless it is nurtured and stoked. 

At the beginning, when I’m trying to see if my idea has burn, I go into full hunter mode. Reading and researching, crossing every t and dotting every i. All before I’ve even written a single word on the page. 

But once I am writing, once the story is in full flow, I cross my fingers and hope to gather ideas serendipitously because this is the stuff makes a story fresh and surprising. 

Are you a plotter or pantser? 

This is beginning to be like that scene from Winnie the Pooh when he’s asked, ‘Do you like honey or condensed milk on your bread?’ and he replies, ‘BOTH!’ 

As a beginning novelist, I was a total pantser – all over the place! And at the risk of upsetting hardcore pantsers, it really did make my writing total pants. I thought I understood how a story worked because I was such a big reader – but there is a structure that underlies all the best stories, something I’m constantly trying to get to grips with. 

To begin with, I plot macro: what is going to happen in this story? What is the overall arc? 

Then I pants my way on that arc – trying to coax my characters to life by sending them on an adventure, all impulse and scattiness, never mind the contradictions and non sequiturs that inevitably find their way to the page. 

Only when (if!) my characters find their voices and come to life do I begin to plot micro. Which means embedding structure into every moment of the story. I discovered there was a word for it when I read Into the Wood by John Yorke. He calls it ‘fractals’: 

‘Stories are built from acts, acts are built from scenes and scenes are built from even smaller units called beats. All these units are constructed in three parts: fractal versions of the three act whole. Just as a story will contain a set-up, an inciting incident, a crisis, a climax and a resolution, so will acts and so will scenes.’ 

When plotting is not bringing any beautiful words onto the page, I try to go back to pantsing mode, free-associating, writing whatever, until the words flow again. When pantsing seems to be generating low quality story, I sit and plot. Honey and Condensed Milk. 

Shed sitter or cafe dreamer? 

I have a beautiful writing shed at the bottom of my garden but I rarely write in it. There are too many distractions. I keep noticing that the bamboo needs pruning and the flowers need planting. I am surrounded by my hobbies. Children keep turning up at the door asking where I put their underpants. 

I did use to be a café dreamer … but it got expensive and boy, was it fattening! How many coffees and toasties does one have to buy to justify occupying one’s chair? 

The perfect solution for me has been to work in the reading rooms of the British Library which is a short bus ride from my house. Beautiful, quiet desks with sockets for your chargers. All the research is at your finger tips. The café is expensive so you don’t tend to snack much. It’s open until 8pm so if you’re on fire, you can burn all the way. 

Any mottos or words of wisdom hung above your desk? 

Ha ha. I have a revolving door of motivational signs. My favourite: 


Target word count per day or as it comes? 

Word count squeezes the joy of writing out of me so I tend to have soft targets. Today, I will look at whether my hero is making real decisions. Today I will review conflict and make sure my stakes are rising. Today I will write that damn paragraph I was staring at all day yesterday. Today I will take it one sentence at a time. 

Pen or Keyboard? 

Long words by keyboard. Plotting by pen. 

Music or silence? 


Chocolate or wine? 


Perspiration or inspiration? 

Inspiration doesn’t come without perspiration. 

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

Every day, the crushing weight of the work sits on my brain, so many chapters still to write, so little time, you’ll never make it! 

So how do I get into the zone? I want to become so immersed in the words that I forget the outside world. Someone suggested to quiet one’s mind by counting to 20 then counting backwards to 1 again. If you get distracted, start from scratch. Tried it a few times, there is a certain self hypnosis happening there but it tends to send me into peace instead of into creativity. 

What has worked for me is to read – and it can’t be any old read. It’s got to be something amazing. And not just any amazing, it’s got to be the right kind of amazing for the particular chapter or sentence I happen to be writing. 

My current reliables are The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman and The Book Thief by Marcus Zuzsak. There is something about Gaiman’s book that quickly gets my juices flowing. And The Book Thief is full of surprising sentences that tweak the right word-generating parts of my brain. It doesn’t always work. Sometimes I just can’t find the right book or the right words for the moment I’m writing. Or sometimes a book turns out to be so good, such as when I read my friend Angela Cerrito’s book The Safest Lie – I forget to stop reading and end up writing zero words for the day. Thanks, Angela. 

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

Some characters are louder than others! At the very beginning of writing Tall Story, I heard my female hero, Andi, say loud and clear: “So many armpits, so little deodorant!” And I was off! 

If there was 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?

In one of his book introductions, Neil Gaiman quotes his friend Gene Wolfe: “You never learn to write. You only learn to write the novel you’re on.” 

I have written six novels so far, two published, one about to be and the others probably never going to see the shelf of a bookshop or Amazon rankings for that matter. Every single one of those novels was a learning curve. I thought I knew how to do it and then I realised I didn’t. And when yet again I found myself hitting that brick wall, I hated myself and went into a sulk and words didn’t get written. 

Everyday I have to remind myself that it’s okay – it’s okay to fail time and again, it’s okay to unlearn and relearn, it’s okay to know that you don’t know. Because these books we’re writing? They are alive. And things with souls, baby, no two of them ever turn out the same way. 

Candy Gourlay was born in the Philippine and lives in London with her family and rather too many rugby balls. Her debut novel Tall Story has been nominated for many prizes including the Carnegie, the Blue Peter, Branford Boase and the Waterstone's Children's Book Prize. It won the Crystal Kite Award and the National Children's Book Award in the Philippines. Her second novel, Shine, was nominated for the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize. She has also written for the Treetops series of Oxford University Press and Cbeebies, the preschool BBC radio channel. She wrote and presented the Radio 4 documentary Motherless Nation in 2005. When she succumbed to full-time motherhood, Candy avoided doing the dishes by teaching herself code and for a time was a full-fledged web designer. She is fascinated by the power of the web and social media and experiments with blogging, video and podcasting.

Lou Minns is the (joint) Features Editor for Words & Pictures SCBWI BI and also the new Social Media Co-ordinator for SCBWI San Francisco North & East Bay.

Contact: writers@britishscbwi.org 

Follow: @LMMinns


  1. Lovely to 'meet' you again in this way after talking with you at the retreat. I enjoyed reading your words of wisdom!

  2. Yes ditto. I love this article it resonates! :)

  3. Lou ... I see what you did with the shining light ... excellent! Thank you for having me!

  4. Wonderful - and some how freeing. Thanks Candy x

  5. We are of the better view and opinion and hopefully for the future these would even lay a good foundation. grammar mistakes funny


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