In search of inspiration, Caroline Deacon invites established writers and illustrators to tell us about their creative space. This month features award-winning author Candy Gourlay. 

Born in the Philippines, Candy grew up wondering why all the books she ever loved only featured pink-skinned children who lived in snow-covered worlds that didn’t resemble her steamy, tropical home in Manila. It took her years to fulfill her dream of becoming an author – and years to learn that Filipino stories belong in the pages of books too. Tall Story, her debut novel, won the National Children's Book Award of the Philippines, and her latest book Bone Talk was shortlisted for the Costa Book Awards and the Carnegie Medal.

Tell us about your creative space. 

Depending on the project, I seem to write well in different places, so I move around. Tall Story was written in cafes up and down the Holloway Road. Shine and Bone Talk were written in the British Library reading rooms. Right now I seem to be writing well at home, in a garden office, I've had for the past 15 years. The shed, as we call it, is packed with my stuff: an exercise bike and rower, bookcases stuffed with children's books and books from the Philippines, tripods and photography equipment, painting and drawing kit, gardening tools.

Right now I'm making videos to promote the US edition of Bone Talk. I've got a white table cloth clamped to some stands as a backdrop.

The backdrop used for promotional videos 

Normally, the shed's got internet, but the internet recently vanished; perhaps the wires have been chewed by a fox. I haven't had the time to crawl around the shed to fix this, so this past summer I had to sit in the patio, closer to the house whenever I needed the internet – which was lovely. My border came up beautifully this summer and I just love working deep in my plants! There's something therapeutic about it.

Why does this place work for you? 

From where I sit in the shed I can see the light playing on the house and the garden. I can hear birds chattering away, and squirrels scampering across the roof of the shed. It's a busy, busy corner of the garden and yet I am totally alone with my thoughts.

It is also full of my books, some of them from my childhood. Being surrounded by books, especially books you love is a lot like being surrounded by plants. It is special. It is a comfort. I feel the books loving me back.

It reminds me why I write stories, and goodness knows, one needs reminding because this business can be such a roller coaster. 

Do you need particular prompts to get started? 

Definitely no music for me, I work in silence. But on either side of my laptop are towers of books that I dip into as I work. To my left is a tower of research books (I'm currently writing a story with a historical setting). But to my right, I have fiction that I admire and read as I go along. Right now, I am shopping for a strong voice and I have a tower of books that I admire for voice: Nicholas Hornby, Geraldine McCaughrean, Kurt Vonnegut, Gore Vidal, Celia Rees, John Green.

I have favourite passages in books that I know will trigger me into writing. Though I can get carried away. The other day, I dipped into Not the End of the World by Geraldine McCaughrean and got so caught up with reading, I did no writing that day!

Desk setup with novel inspirations and research.  

Your creative tools - what are they? 

I have a laptop stand so that the screen is at an ergonomic height. I connect a plain old USB keyboard to my laptop so that the keyboard is also at an ergonomic height. Years of working on computers have taken their toll and I'm trying to make sure that I don't suffer for it!

I also have cheap drawing notebooks filled with scribblings and mind maps. Sometimes it's easier to work out a scene in pencil before committing to typing it in one's laptop.

I use an app called Forest to help me concentrate. I build a tree for every 30 uninterrupted minutes I work. I love counting the number of trees I can build in a day, a week, a month of writing. You can even colour code the trees according to the book you are writing and at the end of the year, you can see how much time you've spent on each project.

 When I used to use a PC, I had two to three screens so that I could have one screen for Word, and two more screens to hold up references or Gmail – admittedly it was environmentally unfriendly, what with the use of power and hardware.

Now I use a Mac laptop, I can create multiple desktops swiping with three fingers allows me to move from desktop to desktop. I use Scrivener and I can have my text on one desktop and my references on another and swipe left right to quickly go from one to the other.

I used to have my laptop speak the time, hour by hour, because I often lose track of time and used to forget that I had to collect the children from school. Now the children are grown, I don't use it anymore.

A WIP open within Scrivener 

I recently upgraded to the latest version of Scrivener and it's got some clever tools. You punch in your details: say, you want to complete an ugly draft of your manuscript by mid-June 2020, and you estimate it will be 50,000 words. Scrivener tells you how many words a day you need to write. A bell goes off when you've done it! I like how the word count also goes into the negative – it tells you you've written -200 words today! I love it because to me, that means I've been editing out dross and that's good!

Do you have a routine? 

Exercise is really important. When I worked in coffee shops, I would walk around for 30 minutes before starting. I walk to the British Library, which is about 40 minutes from my house. Now that I'm working from home, I do 30 minutes on the exercise bike before I start writing.

I seem to have good wordage for about two to three hours before the words dry up. Then I try to edit or plot or do something that isn't making words up, like read my inbox which is always in a state of avalanche. Events and school visits really throw this routine though. Speaking engagements take a lot out of me and I need a couple of days to get back into the flow after a particularly energetic event. I haven't figured out yet how to speed up the return of my writing brain.

What advice would you give to writers who are trying to get established? 

One of the terrible things about this business is the incessant wait to be picked. It's like those awful long-ago days in school of waiting to be picked by someone ...for a group project, for a game, for a team. When I was in that waiting phase, I decided to make the best of the time, using the skills I had.

I used to be a journalist so using those skills, I began to write up all the talks and workshops that I'd been attending. Joining SCBWI, I saw that SCBWI needed a good website. I'd been teaching myself to code so I volunteered to build SCBWI a website.

 I'd done some desktop publishing (as it was called then) and I volunteered to design a newsletter for SCBWI France. On my printer, I printed out my picture book manuscripts in little books that I distributed to neighborhood children.

With the development of YouTube, I made videos about children's books, with a cast of neighborhood children.

Inadvertently, I had stumbled on what an aspiring author needs to do: make things. Waiting to be picked is a negative, debilitating activity. Yes, keep submitting ... but focus on making not waiting.

All the stuff I did had a massive impact when I was finally published:

 • Blogging about the industry built a platform – not just of fellow writers but of industry people who noticed my blog.
• Blogging also taught me so much about the industry. But it also helped me form an opinion about how things work. Today as a published author, I am constantly asked to talk about industry issues and other things that I began thinking about when I was blogging.
 • Volunteering with SCBWI allowed me direct contact with industry people. I enjoyed volunteering, I made friends for life, and I was organising events that mattered – to me.
 • I was also developing skills – in video making (view my IGTV channel), in design, that I used extensively once I got published.
 • But most of all, I was surviving the battering from rejection ... because I was making things and learning and thinking. I was not alone because I was surrounding myself with my SCBWI peers, people I admired and loved. And all of it made writing worthwhile. I kept on.

Planner or Pantser? 

I used to play this game but now I think it's dangerous to subscribe to any fixed way of doing things. Now that I've published three novels, I have learned that every story cries out for its own approach. If you pay attention, you will find the right way.

Neil Gaiman tells the story of finishing the first draft of American Gods and telling his friend, Gene Wolfe: 'I think I know how to write a novel now.' Wolfe replied: 'You never learn how to write a novel ... you only learn to write the novel you're on.'

It's very calming to know this because it means there is no right way or wrong way. You can only just keep on, keeping on.

Candy Gourlay won the National Children's Book Award of the Philippines with her debut novel, Tall Story and her latest novel Bone Talk was shortlisted for the Costa Book Awards and the Carnegie Medal.

You can find Candy Gourlay on her website:
You can also visit Candy on her YouTube channel: Candy Gourlay

Caroline Deacon lives in Edinburgh and is the author of several childcare books. She now writes MG and YA and is agented by Lindsay Fraser of Fraser Ross Associates, Edinburgh. Find her on Twitter @writingdilemmas and at

1 comment:

  1. Thank you (both) so much for this entertaining, encouraging piece. I was particularly in need of hearing advice on coping with the negatives of the Agent Waiting Game!


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