Guest Post – from Editor and Children’s Author Gary Smailes

I’m thrilled to welcome super talented editor AND author Gary Smailes back to the blog today (you can see our first chat here), to talk about his new series, BattleBooks and what lessons he’s learned from writing them. Over to you, Gary…

3 Writing Lessons BattleBooks Taught Me And How They Can Help You

I live a duel existence, in the day I am a mild mannered editor and
co-owner of BubbleCow, but at
night I don my writing hat and slave away trying to write kids’ books. Franklin Watts
recently released my latest book series called
. The best way to think about BattleBooks is, “Fighting
Fantasy meets battles.” They are Interactive Fiction
with a choice driven narrative plotting out four battles in four
separate books – Hasting, Arnhem, Iwo Jima and Marathon.
I have been a writer for a number of years. However, BattleBooks
are like no other book I have written and they taught me three vital
writing lessons. In this post I will show you how you can apply these
lessons to your own writing, allowing you to avoid writing poorly
researched, bloated and boring event driven narratives.

You Can Never Do Too Much Research

Just last week I was standing in the cold on a wet Saturday morning
watching my eldest lad play football. I chatted ideally to one of the
other dads as the kids slugged it out in the mud. The subject of
Battlebooks came up and he asked just how much time I had spent
researching the Arnhem book. I looked at him, smiled and said, “Longer
than it did to write the book.” I am sure he thought I was joking – I
Before I had even written a word I had watched A Bridge too
through twice, read and re-read A Drop Too Many by
Major General John Frost, Arnhem by Lloyd Clark, Arnhem
by Martin Middlebrook, 1951 Infantry Training
and two chapters of Liddell Hart’s History Of The
Second World War.
I had also been on countless websites,
collected hundreds of digital photos and even used Google
Maps to accurately plot the landing zones and paths of advance,
I could use Street View to get a soldier’s eye view. That’s all before
I typed even a single word.
The reason for all this research was simple – I needed to know the
details so I could be free to write. That’s the irony of research,
when you don’t know the answer to a questions, when you can’t
visualise the world you write about, it’s then that the lack of
research becomes a burden, anchoring your brain and limiting your
vision. When you know every detail, it frees you to write. Do I know
how many British paratroopers dropped on the opening day of the battle
of Arnhem? Yeah. Have I read the pre-drop briefing issued to these
troops? Yeah. Did I use either of these facts in the book? No.
However, knowing that I knew was enough to allow me to begin to think
like a paratrooper and start to have a feel for what he would do and
how he would react to events. The research freed my writing, after all
I was writing about people not facts and events.
Here’s three tips to getting the most out of your research:

  • Know the difference between specific and general:
    These two types of research do two very different jobs. When you start
    to research, and are looking to get a feel for the world, then this is
    general research. Here films, novels and documentaries come
    into their own. Once you have the wider feel, specific
    will allow you to form and then answer specific
  • Keep good notes: It is essential that you get
    into the habit of keeping good notes. The key is to not only record
    important information you learn, but make note of the information you
    don’t know. This way you can move from the general to the specific
    research with a much more targeted approach.
  • Form VERY specific questions: When looking for
    the answer to a particular problem, it is essential you formulate very
    specific questions. For example, if you were writing a scene on a
    street in Victorian London and you wanted to know about lighting, the
    question, ‘What did a London street look like at night in Victorian
    Britain?’ is very difficult to answer. However, the question, ‘What
    did a London street look like at night in 1867?’ is a better question,
    but, ‘In what year was gas lighting introduced to London?’ is an even
    better question and allows you to find a precise answer.

You can find out more tips in this blog post I wrote about
Researching You Novel.

Events Are Boring, How People React To Them Is Interesting

I worked with Terry
the writer of Horrible Histories, for many years. I would
often pester him for his secret to writing great kids’ books. On the
surface what he does seems so effortless, but having seen behind the
scenes I knew there was more going on. After one persistent exchange
of emails he finally divulged a nugget of information that has served
me well ever since. It was this, “Events are boring, how people react
to events is interesting.”
This advice has always stayed with me and when I started writing
BattleBooks I stuck a note on my computer monitor that said, ‘Write
about people.’ In Hastings, I worked hard to make William the
Conqueror, a real person. As you go through the battle, you are faced
with a stream of choices. As you react to these events, William moulds
and changes his character. One route sees him becoming more insane,
another has him heading for a nervous breakdown, a third sees him
puffing in confidence. The book is about how a leader will react in
battle, not the events of the battle.
Here are questions I consistently ask myself to ensure my writing
is about people not events:

  • How does the main character alter during each scene? What ‘state’
    are they in at the start of the scene, how has this changed at the
  • What conflict is the character facing in each scene (external or
    internal)? How can I portray this to the reader?
  • What is the internal dialogue in the character’s head? Do the
    character’s external actions follow the truth of their internal

Words Are Precious, Don’t Waste Them

When I first signed my book deal for BattleBooks with Franklin
Watts, I naturally spoke to the editor. When the question of word
count arose he calmly informed me that I had very little room to
manoeuvre and the books were ‘set’ at 100 sections, each with no more
than 300 words. Crap! A whole battle, with multiple streams of action,
all in a set number of words!
Writing to such a tight word count taught me that words are
precious. It was not long before I was able to strip sentences down to
their bare essentials. I would search for the best possible word to
describe a situation. I would self-edit, cutting out whole sentences
without a thought. The surprise was that every time I revisited a
section and pummelled it into submission, the removal of these flabby,
un-needed words, left shaper and better prose.
Here’s two tips you can use to pummel your prose:

  • Name Things: By giving an object an exact name
    you, not only save words, but also sharpen the image in the reader’s
    head. For example, the lead character in BattleBooks: Arnhem doesn’t
    fire a sub-machine gun, he uses a Sten gun. His men fire, not rifles,
    but Lee Enfield rifles. Naming objects, events and actions (does he
    walk or shuffle), gives the writer the power to conjure images in the
    reader’s mind.
  • Keep The Plot Moving: Every single word in every
    BattleBooks does a job. It gives the reader important information
    about an event, the plot or a character. There is no excess. Every
    word that didn’t move the plot forward was killed and removed from the
    text. Thousands of words became the casualty of my delete key. When
    you write, don’t waste the reader’s attention, force the plot forward
    with every single word and phase.

Next Step

If you take nothing else from the post, I would urge you to
remember what Terry Deary told me, “Events are boring, how people
react to events is interesting.” Revisit some of your own writing and
look at it with a critical eye. Are you writing about events or
people. Are your characters actions and reactions to events true to
their own internal struggle and dialogue? A character is not judged on
their words, but on their actions.

7 Comments on “Guest Post – from Editor and Children’s Author Gary Smailes

  1.  by  miss-neat

    Wow, thanks for this, Nik. Am a fan of BubbleCow. I think BubbleCow itself is proof of how well research can be done and how useful it is. And since how people react to them is what matters… 😉

  2.  by  Eva Lyford

    Nik, great guest post. I would love to get these books for my son, do you know if there will be a us distibutor?

  3.  by  Nik Perring

    Thanks all for your comments and for reading this – and a huge thanks to Gary too for such a great and useful post. Best of luck with those American rights!

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