About Me

Saturday 5 November 2016

12 Character Costume Ideas - and Not a Harry Potter in Sight!

By Olivia Levez, author of The Island

It's almost that time of year again.
That time when SCBWI members will be scratching their heads about What to Wear at the annual mass book launch party. Well, fear not. Here's a fail-safe list of 12 book character costume ideas that will delight, amaze and stun your writerly friends:

#1 The Wardrobe (CS Lewis)

Pros: Easy to get hold of a cardboard box.
Cons: Might not be able to get into the taxi.

#2 Mockingjay pin (Suzanne Collins)

Pros: Can wear normal clothes underneath.
Cons: Might accidentally spike someone.

#3 Cruella Deville (Dodie Smith)

Pros: That two-toned hair is instantly recognisable. No one will ask who you're meant to be.
Cons: Freaking terrifying.

#4 Mr Twit (Roald Dahl)

Pros: Easy. Just add cornflakes.
Cons: Might put people off their Prosecco.

#5 Princess and the Pea (Brothers Grimm)

Pros: Very ap-pea-ling costume.
Cons: Trying way too hard.

#6 Cleo (Lucy Coats)

Pros: Just need to dig out that liquid eyeliner...
Cons: Bare-armed Egyptian look might be chilly for November.

#7 Zombie Goldfish (Mo O' Hara)

Pros: Cardboard box time again.
Cons: Maybe not so cute on an adult?

#8 Other Mother (Neil Gaiman)

Pros: Just need two black buttons.
Cons: See #3.

#9 The Boy in the Dress (David Walliams)

Pros: Can go glam and enjoy looking down on all those sporting cardboard boxes.
Cons: David Walliams gets *way* too much press on World Book Day (lessons to be learnt from his character branding, folks)

#10 The Peach (Roald Dahl again)

Pros: Totally peachy for pregnant peeps.
Cons: A bit...wrong?

#11 Moaning Myrtle (JK Rowling)

Pros: I know it's more cardboard, but easy peasy costume, n'est-ce pas?
Cons: Do you really want to be in school uniform all evening?

#12 War Horse

Pros: Hahahahahahahaha!
Cons: There are literally no cons to this. It's brilliant.

And there you have it: 12 fail-safe ways to wow your fellow guests at any book character inspired costume event.
My job is done.
#costume #worldbookday #bookcharacters #fancydress #scbwi

A Room Of One's Own - why writers need their restorative niche

By Olivia Levez
I have a hectic people-filled day job.
My days are filled with corridors, metal lockers, scraping chairs, bags on floors, shoving on stairs, shrieks in playgrounds, banter, banana peel, homework-groaning, yawning, sighing, catcalling, laughter, humming projectors, hushing, complaining, tapping, flicking, shushing, crisp-eating, phone-buzzing, arguing, explaining, giggling, fire-drilling, bell-ringing...
So, when it all ends, I just want peace.
I am a teacher in a big secondary school, and I fit my writing in when I can. Impossible on a school day, probable at a weekend, and wonderfully possible in a school holiday.
I write in bed, when I'm at home, but when I can, I escape to my own little writer's paradise: my caravan by the sea in West Wales.

It isn't much, but it's mine. And it's a place where I can focus only on writing, and all that hectic hubbub of family, job, housework gets filtered out. There's no internet and no mobile reception, so that means no Twitter, no Facebook, no Instagram, no constant checking of my phone. If I need to call home, I have to walk up two lanes, where the view over the gorse hedge looks like this:
And somehow, looking at that view, the way the cornflower blue ocean turns milky where it touches the sky; smelling the wafts of coconut and honey from the gorse, and watching the wild violets tangle with the bluebells, my mind calms and a little bit of magic happens: I start to get ideas for my story and plot knots unravel.
I have found my restorative niche. Ideas flow. My word count grows.
So this post is homage to all writers and their dens. And also to George Clarke and his Amazing Spaces, because don't all writers want and need one? (George Clarke, if you're reading this, I'd like you to build me a tree house or hobbit hole. Please.)
We all know the familiar sight of Roald Dahl's writing shed...
And Dylan Thomas' boathouse at Laugharne...
There's Will Self's Post-it filled attic in South London...
And Stephen King's cluttered man-space...
But whether it's an empty desk, an upcycled shed or a Cupboard Under the Stairs (yes, I've always been envious of HP's first den), I believe that all writers need their own space to create, dream and shut off the noise of the pushing, shoving world. In Susan Cain's words (her book, Quiet, is a Bible for writerly, reflective types that need to escape once in a while. Read it.) you need your 'restorative niche'.
I've found mine. What's yours?

#SCBWI  #WriteChat
#NaNoWriMo #AuthorLife #amwriting #amediting #WriteChat
#WritersRoad #WritersLife #WritingTip

Friday 17 June 2016

Review: In Darkling Wood by Emma Carroll

By Olivia Levez

Magical. Evocative. Classic.

Alice doesn’t believe in fairies. With her little brother very sick, her life is all too real.
But everything changes when she has to move in with her eccentric aunt, on the very edge of the mysterious Darkling Wood. Amongst those whispering trees, anything can happen…

I loved this story. It has a classic feel, reminding me of old favourites like The Faraway Tree, The Secret Garden and Five Children and It. But at the same time, it is contemporary and realistic, convincingly exploring modern day Alice’s confusion and anger at her situation. Historical research is woven through with the letters from Alfred’s sister, during the First World War, and there’s even a cameo role by Arthur Conan Doyle, when he comes to talk faeries at Darkling Cottage.
The Cottlingley Faeries

Beautifully written, this is a perfect read for 10+.  I'm very much looking forward to the launch of Emma's next book, Strange Star, at the end of the month!
Out at the end of June

Monday 16 May 2016

Food For Thought (and Plot and Character)

By Olivia Levez

What are the best things to consume when writing?

What does the brain need when plot unknotting, structure reassembling and wordage editing?
Custard creams? Cups of tea? A bottle of Scotch?
Brain cells need twice as much energy as any other body cell. Picasso, for instance, lived on fish and spinach to boost his creativity.
So here's my countdown of all foods creative, starting with:

#7   Oily fish

The fatty acids contained in cold water fish such as salmon and trout apparently boost your memory function by up to 15%. So great for remembering where on earth you saved that random scene that you really, really need right now. A few mouthfuls of trout will totally help with close reading for inconsistencies. Blue eyes? Brown eyes? Red bag? No problem.

#6  Dark green leafy things

Broccoli and brussels. Kale and chard. All of this green leafy loveliness is high in anti-oxidants - which means slowing down your brain degeneration, and an end to leaving your pen drive in the library computer on an author visit.

#5   Whole grains

Instead of munching on toast and butter, get out the oats, barley, and muesli. Grains give a slow release of mental energy, which will give you the stamina to reach that 5K word count by mid afternoon.

#4   Fresh fruit

Liberally dose your day with strawberries, oranges, peaches and pears. Fruit gives you a slow release glucose for bags of writerly energy. Blue or black berries have the added advantage of feeding your poor, tired, degenerating brain with anti-oxidants too. So snack on blueberries, blackcurrants and raisins, and chuck out the chocolate digestives.

#3   Coffee

A shot of caffeine mid morning will kickstart you into creativity again, when you start feeling The Slump. But - never drink coffee too early (I know!) as it could make you crash mid creative flow, thus slowing down your brain and stopping all those random plot ideas.

#2  Alcohol

It's official! Alcohol is good for creativity! Many famous writers have found themselves grappling with the demon drink. But did you know that a certain amount of alcohol in your bloodstream really does boost creativity? The magic number, according to Professor Jennifer Wiley, is a blood alcohol level of exactly 0.075, and there's actually a beer that's specially designed to help you reach your creative peak! Introducing...'The Problem Solver', a pale ale designed by an innovative Danish brewery (click on the picture to follow the link to this beer-for-creatives.) Once your brain is relaxed, that is when ideas ping like popcorn.

#1   Chocolate and walnuts

I've put these two together, because I figured that they would make the perfect writer's snack (Walnut Whip, anyone?). With chocolate, the darkier and snappier the better, because it contains such large amounts of flavanols, that it boosts short-term cognitive skills and helps with brain-blood circulation for three hours. That's one big brain boost. And if you couple your chocolate chomping with walnuts, well, it's goodbye tired old draft, and hello, buzzy next bestseller, as walnuts are super-powered snacks which improve memory and boost all-around brain function, because they are literally stuffed with omega-3 fatty acids. They even make you HAPPIER as too little of this compound in people's diet has been linked to depression.
So it's official. Booze in moderate amounts gives you IDEAS and chocolate/walnuts helps you to process information for creative thinking.
Keep reading for my perfect daily menu for writers...

The perfect menu for a day of binge-writing?


Porridge made with bananas and blueberries. 
Stir in spoonful of coconut oil for essential fatty acids.

Mid morning boost

Shot of expresso & handful of dark chocolate & walnuts


A Picasso sandwich: salmon and spinach/avocado

Mid afternoon treat

Pint of pale ale to reach your creative peak


Stir fried broccoli, kale, spring onions in Asian dressing

Random treat

Well, a walnut whip - obs!

And if you would like to feast upon all things gourmet and literary, this classic guide to dining scenes in literature is a must-read...

What's your favourite writerly snack? How do you boost your creativity?


Sunday 10 April 2016

Easter Reading - a Clutch of Good Eggs

By Olivia Levez
Spring has sprung, and I've been catching up with my reading pile. So here are three Easter stunners:

Darkmere, by Helen Maslin

I met Helen at the UKYA Bookbinge Festival at Birmingham Waterstones, and the moment she said that her influences included Daphne du Maurier, I knew that I had to read this one.( Rebecca is the book that I would save from a burning house.) So, clutching my copy of Darkmere, I took myself off to my caravan to work on my book 2, but first treated myself to a whole afternoon's reading, when I arrived after a four hour car drive. 
And I couldn't put this one down! 
Told from the viewpoint of Kate – edgy outsider & secret geek – and the enigmatic Elinor, this is a cleverly plotted and pulse-racing thriller set in a Mandalay-esque castle on a cliff top.
Reminiscent of Dawson (Cruel Summer, Say My Name) with its cast of arrogant and effete teens whose comeuppance  you’re guiltily rooting for, I read this at a gallop (despite being alone in a storm at my caravan with only a howling dog for company).
The sky darkened. Looking up, I realised that I hadn't yet drawn the curtains, and all the windows were dark mirrors. Added to which, the dog needed to go outside for a wee. One problem: I was on P219, which is PETRIFYING!
I gallantly plunged on, and finished the book in a couple of sittings. Confident writing and deftly plotted, it's difficult to see that this is Helen's debut novel. I can't wait for her second.
Dead smugglers. Crumbling castles. And camper vans. What’s not to like?

I actually read this one when it first came out, whilst I was in Bulgaria. I read it for the first time in a wooden panelled hotel room between sips of rakija (Bulgarian plum brandy), but there was no internet, otherwise I would have tweeted the hell out of this one. Because who could resist such a premise? Told from dual narrative of Noah, desperately trying to start a new life after a horrific trauma for which he feels responsible, and Blaze, a boy from the past, also an outsider, with only his dog for company, this is a sensitively drawn study of guilt, struggle and hope. Noah battles to contain his drawings, but they take over him like an addiction, and the descriptions of him feverishly drawing are truly compelling. Ditto the watery tunnel scenes near the end of the book, which drip with menace.
Atmospheric. Sensitive. Woven with historical detail. I found Rhian's book well constructed and thought-provoking. It also made me want to go and explore the witch-steeped little village of Sible Hedingham.

Like me, Nikki is published by Rock the Boat at Oneworld, so I asked for a proof copy of this one, which is out in May. We also share the same jacket designer - the talented Nathan Burton - and I was keen to read this book, as I love all things ballet. 
This is the quirky, imaginative tale of Johnny and the mad and majestic Mrs Cray, who sets about teaching Johnny and the school bullies  to release their inner swans.
At first I thought this would be like Billy Elliot, but it is better: funny, sad, strange and magical. Just when you think you have your feet set firmly in reality, it leaps off into a world of freak rainstorms and chest feathers.
Layered between the feathers is a poignant study in bereavement, and I found the scenes where Johnny takes his adorable but troubled little brother, Mojo, to see their father, deeply moving.
Nikki writes beautifully, and I especially liked the descriptions of swans: above him, their feet 'pairs of black triangles, paddling like clockwork toys.'
An original and compelling story of finding your inner strength.

Next on my TBR list:

Monday 29 February 2016

Why Writers Make Excellent Survivors

By Olivia Levez
So this year at my school, I'm organising World Book Day.

I've run World Book Day before, but this one is special. Because it also happens to be the launch date of my debut novel.This means assemblies on growth mindset to plan, and costumes to decide (will Jack Merridew from Lord of the Flies be OK, and should it be pre or post pig blood?) and tweets to retweet, and blog posts to write, all the time whilst bringing my WIP character to a climax, structurally speaking.

Current costume-in-progress

My YA book is a castaway story called The Island. Planning my assemblies got me thinking about what survivors and authors have in common.

  1. Creative thinking

Here’s the thing.
Google ‘tampon’ and ‘survival’ and you will find many pictures of men in woods, gazing solemnly at Lil-lets on logs. From water filters to bandages, fire tinder to blow-darts, it seems that tampons are much revered as a crucial part of any serious survival kit.
It seems that survival is all about creative thinking. You’ve just got to think outside the (tampon) box.

Tampon tinder, survivalist-style

Part of my research for The Island involved finding out about the Tom Hanks film, Cast Away. The story goes that the writers, in pooling ideas for the film, brainstormed as many random objects as they could, giving these to survival experts to tell them how they could be used in a survival situation. These were then cast up for Hanks' character to find, in Fed Ex parcels.
Just like a castaway knows instantly that her pair of tights is going to make an excellent slingshot as well as keeping the mozzies at bay, any writer worth her sea-salt can make random connections and constantly surprise. Having a co-star that’s a volleyball? He’ll be called Wilson, right? Genius.

      2. Perseverance

If that fire doesn’t light the first time, if that flint isn’t making a spark, the only thing to do is to keep on trying. Each failure is a baby step closer to making fire, just like each new word is another word closer to getting that agent deal. 

      3. Having a growth mindset

Marooned on a desert island, it's crucial to learn from feedback. Why isn’t that fish or fire catching? Examining each failed attempt gives a survivor information on what she could do differently next time. Ditto for writing. There's nothing like joining a critique group and being brave enough to submit your two thousand words for objective scrutiny, to develop your writing skills.

       4. Optimism

Yes, you've learnt from feedback, but there’s no point in looking back and having regrets. Why on earth did I step on that plane? isn’t going to help you open that coconut. It’s never going to happen,  isn’t particularly helpful. And brooding about the size of the slush pile isn’t going to help you write that next book either.

        5. Ability to cope with enforced isolation

Writers have their Room of One’s Own, castaways get their island. One of the major challenges of the castaway, far more than the physical endurance,  is enforced isolation: being forced to live inside her head and be alone with her thoughts for weeks on end. Which is kind of what writers do for a living. 
Inside my writer's hideaway, my caravan

        6. Ability to hook

It doesn't matter if it's a fish or a reader, being able to reel them in is yet another thing that writers and survivors have in common.

         7. Multi-tasking 

Keeping that fire going, whilst fixing the roof on your shelter, whilst boiling the next batch of water - it's all in the day's work for a castaway. As for writers? 
Blog post, tick. Link to growth mindset, tick.

Oh wait, I think I have my assembly…

My debut YA castaway adventure, The Island, is out on 3rd March. 
You can buy it here.

Wednesday 17 February 2016

How I Used Method Writing for The Island

By Olivia Levez
Method acting: a technique of acting in which an actor aspires to complete emotional identification with a part.
Method writing: a technique of writing in which a writer attempts to do the same.

Blame Tom Hanks.

That’s all I’m saying.

I was preparing for a long stint writing my first draft of The Island. I’d got everything prepared: informed the family I would be going away for a Very Long Time, along with Dog; packed up the car with dog biscuits and leads and laptop and charger and notebooks; filled up with petrol; remembered which friend I’d last lent the caravan to and retrieved the keys.

Then I had a Bright Idea. It was an idea which would see me never looking coconut water in the face for a very long time.

Let me rewind.

I’d got the idea for writing a YA castaway book, one with a girl survivor. Fran, my castaway, wants to be alone. Betrayed by everyone she knows, she considers herself a rock, an island. And then, one day, enroute to an island bootcamp as punishment for a crime she has tried to block out, she gets exactly what she wishes for.

So I’d re-watched Tom Hanks in the excellent film, Castaway; watched all of Ed Stafford’s clips in Naked and Marooned on the Discovery Channel; read Adrift, a harrowing true-life tale of a man lost at sea for seventy-six days, and reread Castaway, about Lucy Irvine’s year on a real desert island with a bloke who would be later played by Oliver Reed in an eighties film version with lots of nudity.
Ed Stafford, before and after his castaway experience

I had lit many beach fires; read travel blogs; trekked for howler monkeys in a Belizean jungle; fished for snapper in Caribbean waters; slept in a cabanna on a tropical beach. I’d even forced myself to get in a plane after spending days researching plane crashes in minute detail, and examining photographs of plane wreckage at sea. Bad timing, but necessary.

I was ready to write.

It was as I hovered outside Tesco, ready to stock up for my writerly stay, when I had my Big Idea.

Why not do as The Hanks does?
Why not go one step further, and…method write?

After all, method acting was what Tom Hanks did to prepare for his film role as Chuck Noland. He didn’t shave or cut his hair for weeks and lost 55lbs to look and feel like a real castaway.

He took a year to prepare for his role. I had six weeks.

Well, not cutting my hair or shaving was easy enough. Who cares about hairy legs when you’re stuck in a caravan anyway? And easy to ignore that long, strange mutant hair that seemed to have sprouted on my chin by simply not looking in the mirror. Kind of a relief to not bother, and also sort of liberating.
It doesn't look much, but this is my Room of One's Own, my writer's hideaway

So this is what I did. I decided to live only off the contents of what I found in my caravan cupboard, left over from renting out to friends, and friends of friends.

I bought only:
  • A bag of oranges (didn’t want to get scurvy, even in the name of Art and Writing)
  • Five cartons of coconut water (for authenticity – see Tom Hanks again)
  • Lots of tins of sardines
With some trepidation, I turned the key (thankfully it was the right one) and threw open my caravan curtains, opened windows to air, and then…I opened the cupboard doors. 

Inside, I found:

Tomato cuppa soup, lots (whoever stayed here last must have been quite a fan)
Porridge, thankfully (my brother’s an ardent porridge fan and connoisseur)
More tinned sardines 
Chamomile tea
Rice crackers, with a strange deep orange cheesy coating

One of my cupboard 'finds'

OK, so not a great haul. But it would serve its purpose. I, like any true survivor, would learn how it is to forage, and make-do. Sighing, I tipped the contents of a tin of sardines for Dog, shook out my first rice cracker, and began to write…

At first, method-writing was an interesting challenge. There was nothing like the thrill of finding half a packet of crumbling sultanas deep in the recesses of the cupboard on Day 3. Now I could add flavour to my porridge-made-with-water!

As the week went on, I realised that I was really, really bored. And hungry. But I took long walks with Dog every couple of hours, along the beach at low tide, scrambling up over sea-slimed rocks and exploring caves which, in days of old, were used by wreckers and smugglers.
The beach at night, before walking back for our suppertime treat of cheesy rice crackers

We swam, and we lit fires, and we watched the sun slide into the sea like melted butter. And never have I been more lonely. Which was great for my method-writing experiment.

Fran, my island castaway, spends days on the beach, hungry and lonely, with only a dog for company. So did I.

Campfires on the beach, as the sun dies

It was easy, then, to get into Fran’s voice. For a week I was her. And, even though I did eventually end up going to the local store for coffee and bread and fruit and salad and cheese and wine, I stayed on at the caravan, and immersed myself in the sea and the cliffs and the beach. Listened as the sea breathed in and out.

And it was worth it.

Because when I finally came home, desperate to talk to human beings, not only did I feel cleansed after my coconut water and sardine diet, on my pen-drive nestled the first draft of a new novel, this time the one that was going to make me finally be able to call myself an author.

Thank you, Tom Hanks.


My debut YA castaway novel is out on 3rd March, published by Rock the Boat, Oneworld.
You can pre-order it here: