Treating teachers as though they’re ten . . .

On Friday I ran a workshop at the Cabot Federation Conference attended by 1200 teachers. Luckily only 40 of them came to my session, because that made it unruly enough. It was a bit of a risk to make adults join in with the storymaking I do with Year 5 but I went at it with gusto and, with the help of a few joiner-inners, we ended up having proper belly laughs. The story was no great shakes, basically Solid Dave and Saphire (yes, teachers can’t spell) got lost in a book (physically not metaphorically) and had to battle Hamlet in a graveyard, dive down the plughole and escape certain cannibalism via fire. Everyday stuff. Judging by the kind comments afterwards, teachers quite like being treated like ten-year olds. It made a nice change to both talk to adults, and to use my dustbin full of props again. The events I do to promote my YA novels in secondary schools still have plenty of interaction and flip-chart mayhem, but pulling skulls and rubber ducks out of a bin doesn’t have a place. Shame. Maybe I’ll reintroduce it . . .

nott tweetThe day before my audience consisted of two groups of Year 8 girls from Nottingham Girls’ School, and a lovely bunch they were too. (And less unruly.) The first session was unexpectedly small as, for some unfathomable reason, a smattering had gone to Latin, forgetting I was there. The downside was that we started late. The upside was that we got to have a chat, which is always nice because teenagers can be loathe to put their hands up and join in, but once they’d realised I was quite funny (in an unhinged but not threatening way) (and I’d been complimented on my new culotte dress) we were cruising. Every single time I visit a school I learn something – this time I had a drone expert in the audience. I offered her a job as my sidekick but she didn’t seem that keen.

Wirral photo
L to R Dan, Teri, Bryony, Frank, Lu, Rob, me. Photo is Dan’s

When I got back to Bristol, good news was waiting for me from the Wirral. Back in March eight authors had travelled far and wide to attend a daylong event with teenagers from eight schools. Each shortlisted author gave a talk followed by a Q&A. The pupils then had a few months to read the books before voting, and absolutely fabulously they chose Hacked. Thrilled.

All in all, a good week. Topped off by Andy Murray.




Good advice I can’t seem to follow

I love lists of helpful advice, from ‘Five warning signs that you’re not as healthy as you should be’ to ‘Ten ways to save ten minutes’. Tips for writers are just as enthusiastically devoured. It’s just a shame I don’t put them into practice. Here’s a list of my own:

8 pieces of good advice I can’t seem to follow.

1a Plot thoroughly

There are whole books about different methods of plotting, with wheels and fishbones and storyboards and string theory. They’re clearly all utterly brilliant. But I will never manage more than a scribble on the back of an electricity bill (must remember to switch to online). For me, rigorous plotting falls into the same category as knowing that if I filed all my receipts I could make a sensible attempt at my tax return.

Conclusion: Knowing and doing are two entirely different verbs.

1b Plot mindfully

Tony Bradman’s three-point guide seems more achievable.

  • If I have a strong character and a clear idea of his/her goal it should be straightforward.
  • I must resist the urge to give away too much.
  • I must study plots on telly.

Conclusion: The third point is definitely doable.

2 Writing a minimum number of words each day

I tried this for ten days and duly typed the required amount every day (and no more). Excellent. The feeling of achievement was very pleasant. Unfortunately the words were very mediocre.

Conclusion: Quantity had replaced quality.

3 Morning pages

We had to do this for one of the modules on the Creative Writing diploma I took at the University of Bristol. I treated it like an onerous task. I don’t want to write whatever comes to mind. I want to write the next bit of whatever I’m working on.

Conclusion: I sometimes have an attitude problem.

4 Set times of day

Most people who work have a set time to start and finish and a gap in between, as I understand it. If (a large word with two letters) I was in charge, this is something I would consider. The set times would be eight o’clock in the morning, with a huge cup of tea, until eleven, with a gap for a second cup and also porridge.

Unfortunately for my writing, but fortunately for my joie de vivre, I the other people and animals I live with interfere with the idea.

Conclusion: I wouldn’t have it any other way.

5 Stripping out adjectives

Evidently too many adjectives are the sign of a novice writer. Pare them! Bare them! Oh dear, I like adjectives. The page I’m writing includes: small, huge, nicer, big, brown, caramel (in a non-noun sense), soft, great, big (again), weird. I particularly like uber (without the umlauts). I have never used the word mellifluous.

Conclusion: My adjectives, on inspection, are very Key Stage 1.

6 Show not tell

Here we go – the mantra. I get it, really I do. But every so often I fancy a bit of telling.

Conclusion: I don’t care.

7 Throw away the sentence you’re most proud of


Conclusion: The advice of a saboteur.

8 Never think about the story when you’re not working

. . . if you think about it consciously and worry about it you will kill it and your brain will be tired before you start.” Ernest Hemingway

Conclusion: I have a very tired brain. Too tired to address the issue of not thinking about the thing I shouldn’t be thinking of.

Please, all list-makers, keep them coming. Advice for school visits, edgy presents for edgy people, writer’s block, stress-free cooking for guests, all welcome, because in between the gems I rail against are those that I adopt with gusto, wondering how I ever functioned without that wise word in my ready-to-listen ear.

Angel’s story has arrived

ALIAS The jiffy bag containing the first copies of ALIAS has arrived and I’m really pleased with the look of the book. It complements HACKED perfectly. The lag between finishing the contents and actually seeing a saleable copy is a strange time. I try not to let myself think of all the tiny touches that might have made the story better, convincing myself instead that too much fiddling is a bad thing. Opening the cover and reading the first page, I pray that all the eyes that have checked and checked again haven’t missed a typo. Seems all right. The book won’t be released until the official launch date so for a short while I can muse on how it will be received. Lots of the readers of HACKED said they couldn’t wait to hear the other side of the story and see where Angel went after the drone attack on London. Let’s hope they’re not disappointed. HACKED was set in Bristol, where I live. Angel’s story starts in Buckingham, where I grew up, has a temporary home in rural Norfolk and ends up in Leeds. I flick through, reading the odd paragraph, then settle on the last page. As a reader, I appreciate a good ending. Does Angel’s story finish with a flourish? I think it does.

Thank you, reader from Oz

Very pleased with this review on

A review by Nalini Haynes.

Dan Langley is your typical 16-year-old geek except for his affinity with code. He goes down the rabbit hole to get an adrenaline rush from hacking, escalating his exploits on a dare from Angel, another hacker he only met online. Before he knows it, Dan has hacked the US military network and might be complicit in the theft of a strike drone.

From script kiddies to the dark net, Counter Strike to Starcraft II, Tracy Alexander knows her stuff. Like in other hacking movies (Wargames, Hackers) the mechanics of hacking is glossed over. The current era of wikileaks and US extradition with threats of Guatanamo Bay-style treatment of prisoners is prevalent with mentions of Edward Snowden and Julian Assange among others.

Hacked should be compulsory reading for all teenage computer geeks, many adult computer geeks and all parents of teenage geeks. Because one book speaking the language trumps lectures from a “dinosaur” every time. When my son was at school, script kiddies regularly dumped the school printers’ ink, which was hilarious until you need to print an assignment and all of the printers are out of ink. [My son knew if he was one of those script kiddies and he was caught, he was banned from the computer for the rest of high school. >:-]

I’m giving Hacked five stars for voice, plot, pacing, relevance and currency. Read it. Pass it on. Make sure it’s in all the libraries in all the schools. Kgo.

Thanks to

Book Review: Hacked By Tracy Alexander

Book Review: Hacked By Tracy AlexanderReviewAs someone who has spent the vast majority of my life near a keyboard, mouse and monitor it’s probably no surprise that this book appealed to me. And appeal to me it did. :)Hacked is the story of Dan whose life online got him rather more than he bargained for. He got involved in something which progressively found himself digging bigger and bigger holes for himself.

I don’t really want to say too much more than this for fear of spoiling it so I’ll stop there on the story details :)

So, lets instead talk about Dan, I can so easily see how he got himself into the mess to begin with and I loved watching it unravel. There are moments that he shows himself to have a true strength of character. Where he’s in a position to make decisions – decisions where neither outcome is a particularly happy one – but where one is probably what he should choose. And yes he has to decide because to do nothing in this case is making a decision too!

I really liked the unusual way Tracy used usernames for characters (particularly Angel) which we only meet online – not always revealing their real names, shrouding the place in secrecy which makes the twists and turns much harder to spot. It leaves you never really sure about each characters motives which moves me back onto Dan…

Because as much as Dan had a strong strength of character he did seem to dig himself into the hole without too much help. Considering how bright he must be to crack the hacking puzzles it does seem that maybe, just maybe he was a little too trusting.

Oh and as an added bonus you do get a little peak at Bristol as this book is mainly set here – just saying! ;)

Overall, Hacked is a thrilling and fast paced story which won’t take long to take hold and leave you begging for more. Don’t dismiss it just because you think hacking is boring or uninteresting – this book might just surprise you :)

A review of my school visit – Tracy Alexander Visits Hans Price Academy

During the literacy celebrations in the lead up to World Book Day Tracy Alexander, author of HACKED, visited Hans Price Academy and talked to the whole of year seven about literature, creative writing and being an author as well as holding a question and answer session and reading an extract from her brilliant book.

The students were gripped from start to finish and bursting with questions for Tracy about everything from writing habits and getting a book published to computer hacking and just exactly how a professional author would know about “aimbots” in computer games?

It was amazing to see an author at school and Tracy Alexander was really interesting and really funny. I already like to write but it inspired me to think about writing a book! Amelia

  • hansprice1

 It was amazing and I liked talking to her about what inspired her to write a book. I asked who inspired her and she said that she gets inspiration from her children. After school that day I started writing my own book. Becca


I found Tracy Alexander’s visit very interesting, especially talking about military drones and hacking. I asked whether there was going to be a sequel to HACKED and there is and I’m excited about it. I suggested another book and Tracy Alexander said it sounded like a great idea and maybe I should write it myself. We learnt what makes up a good story and found out what happens in HACKED without spoiling the ending so we can read it and find out ourselves! Alistair

 I enjoyed finding out how authors get their inspiration and learnt that it is good to plan out a story, not just rush into writing it. I’d love more authors to visit the school! Ethanial

I knew from the second Tracy Alexander started talking that it was going to be really exciting! We learnt so much and Tracy Alexander was really lovely. I bought HACKED and had it signed and I can’t wait to read it and then write a review which I can send to Tracy Alexander for her website. Lottie

Are you rich?

What better way to celebrate World Book Day than to describe those moments when writer meets reader.
The first question, often, ‘Are you rich?’
I shake my head, apologetically. The disappointment is mutual.
‘Are you famous?’
‘You mean like David Beckham?’

I search for redeeming qualities. Hard-working, enthusiastic, kind – they’re not going to hit the mark. As I can’t be rich and famous, I opt for the complete opposite. I am ordinary, I tell them. I don’t have a special part of my brain that makes up stories. I get it wrong. I give up. I get bored. I have another job because I don’t earn enough to keep a rabbit. I eat Marmite.

Bizarrely, they like this. In the first five minutes I have gone from alien-being-that-by-magic-brain-dumps-entire-book-without-trying to real person. A small leap of logic and that means everyone in the audience could be a writer too. Is it wishful thinking or does the room decide to pay attention after all?

DSC_2895Yesterday, I was with 90 Year 7s at Hans Price Academy. There were little groups within the classroom that may as well have had labels – earnest, excited, looking forward to the bell, disruptive. My goal is always to get the ones that could scupper the session to instead make it better. It’s intensely satisfying if the shouter-out ends up shouting out something brilliant, or insightful, which is what happened as my hour was nearly over. We were talking about viewpoint when, a child I wasn’t sure was even listening, succinctly captured the joy of writing in the first person. *grins*

After the session I signed whatever scraps the Year 7s could find for me to write on and, as usual, had to refuse to give away my books despite the pleading faces.

I may not be rich or famous, but for five minutes after a school visit I feel I am both.

The HACKED Tour – Part 2: QEH, Cathedral, Bristol Brunel, Clifton College, Clifton High

The second half of the HACKED tour of Bristol was more fun than the first, because it took a while for me to get into the groove. Having spent five years as an author of books for 8-12 year olds I’ve had to up my game in the face of hundreds of teenagers. Reminding myself that they’re not expecting Michael McIntyre is useful – even if they are. My other trick is to be measured in my expectation. With  junior school children I would often end up with a child hanging on to my leg – clearly not an aspiration for a taller audience. The goal now is to keep their attention most of the time, get a reasonable number of kids contributing useful stuff and be more entertaining than the lesson they would have been in. So far so good.

Highlightsqeh of the first five school visits in 2015 were: the QEH boys who knew everything and more about DDoSs, Lizard Squad and botnets, including the one who had actually built his own drone and the scary moment where I had to debate the difference between cyber-crime and hacking; the terribly nice English teacher at Clifton High who suggested I carry on all afternoon as it was so interesting; the great discussion we had at Clifton College about character development, and the bit about how you make a first-person narrator die; Hassan and Brittany doing a brilliant job collecting all the suggestions on the flipchart at Bristol Brunel; and the after-school writing club at Cathedral where we shared writing tips.

The best thing about wandering into schools to run an interactive session is that it’s different every time. Next up – Hans Price Academy . . .

Writing The Villain

My next book – ALIAS – is the story of Angel, the shadowy character from HACKED. My publisher, Piccadilly Press,  likes it – huge relief. That means there’s some downtime while I wait for the copyedit. I need it.

It was a tricky book to write because the protagonist is usually the hero, whereas mine was the villain. Or maybe not. ALIAS is written in the first person, so I had to be in Angels’ head and of course that meant I had to believe the same things. A terrible thing happens to Angel, and all the people that you think would help . . . the military, the government, the police, your MP . . . they all do nothing. So Angel does something. Does that make Angel a villain? Or an activist?

ALIAS is set in the here and now, starting off in Buckingham and migrating to Leeds. I used real events to influence the journey. Angel looks back at the Civil Rights Movement where peaceful protest was met with violence, at the ANC’s struggle in South Africa and at the sufragettes. In the present day Angel follows the march of the US Predator drones across the skies of Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan, Syria, Pakistan . . . pilotless weapons incinerating people based on grainy images and unreliable intelligence. Right and wrong aren’t opposites. They merge. What’s right for the drone pilot, is wrong for the villagers massacred without a trial, a judge, a voice. The ‘war on terror’ is on the side of right unless you’re a farmer, midwife, baker caught in the crosshairs because a ‘known insurgent’ is nearby. Wrong place, wrong time and all that.

Step back from Angel’s story and it’s clear. Bad things happen to good people – that’s the way life is. Get on with it. But get close, get inside and the world is a different place. In Angel’s world, horror will win out unless the victims rise up against the enemy. The enemy is American foreign policy.

No one likes to think that violence is the answer, but as Angel would say, “They started it.”

Can’t move for drones

When I had the idea – or rather when James the hacker had the idea – that my character might hack a drone, I had a very rough picture of what a drone was. A thing that flew around snooping, or a toy for a well-off kid. It didn’t take much research to realise that drones are crop-sprayers, wildlife trackers and, much more menacingly, killers. Quite how they kill is fairly brutal, as is the number they accidentally kill. The writers’ cogs started to whir.

The Avon Gorge – from a quadcopter

While I was writing, drones appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme  every week – flying over football matches, nearly colliding with aeroplanes, delivering Amazon parcels, annoying the CAA (Civil Aviation Authority). In Alabama, you can get a licence to hunt drones – if they dare to buzz over your land.  Gosh!

After I’d delivered the book – not by drone – and the proofs had been handed back, the new Homeland series started with (SPOILER) a drone strike on a wedding party in Pakistan. I mention a similar event in my book. Did we both happen upon the same idea? No. It’s a well-documented true story, that we both adapted.

The Suspension Bridge plus Bristol balloon

I’ve been visiting secondary schools with my new book, Hacked, talking about hacking and drones and hard decisions. Dan, my hacker, appears at first to be making poor choices, but – hopefully – the readers’ sympathies are firmly with him. Whether there is any sympathy with the drone pilots, pulling the trigger from thousands of miles away, I don’t know. They hardly feature. What I do know, when I describe the way the unmanned aerial vehicles roam, armed with Hellfire missiles, is that all the kids in the audience that like gaming (most therefore) think it sounds brilliant. Understandable, because it mirrors their own experiences. The pilots – despite the label – don’t leave the ground. They sit looking at a heads-up display full of data with a controller at the ready, coffee by their side I expect.

I’ve changed the way I talk about the ‘drone wars’ because of the reaction from the audience. Leaving any shred of an idea that a drone operator would be a cool job would make me very uncomfortable.

If you’re interested in reading a huge article:

Dan, my hacker, could have just as easily hacked the International Space Station, or his local cinema. But I didn’t want to trample on Mars and Dan isn’t that fussed about the whole film thing. That’s the trouble with characters, they do their own thing.