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Guest Post from Gilli Allan: Art and Writing

Today I have another wonderful guest blog for you. Please welcome the brilliant Gilli Allan…

Art and Writing

At primary school, when asked “What do you want to be when you grow up,” I know I amused my teacher by responding “A commercial artist”. I was only 6 and she was probably expecting “ballet dancer” or “princess”. My father was a commercial artist, and from my earliest childhood I was encouraged to draw, and told I was good at art. So, to me, my answer to Miss Lawrence’s question was entirely unremarkable.

In those days, in the advertising industry, it was common to design your own Christmas card. As art director of an Ad Agency, and with his honour to maintain, my father felt he needed to step up to the plate in this regard. But his was a very high pressure and stressful job, and the extra work the production of the family Christmas card entailed was an annual nightmare. Aged 16, and just enrolled at art school, I offered to unburden him. I have done it ever since.

G Allen- Lewis Carroll

It wasn’t just the extra work, it was dreaming up the idea every year, which gave my dad the headache. “Six jolly Christmas carols to greet you” is the message on the front. Inside – in this cropped version of the complete card – I am Alice (aged around 7 or 8).

Early in the New Year my sister asked me if I’d based the Father Christmas in my 2014 card on our late father who, in his mature years, sported a white beard. I know what she means. There is a resemblance. But, no, I hadn’t based my Father Christmas on anyone. I don’t have a fully formed image in my mind when I start drawing. I may have a general idea – the joke I am planning to illustrate – but the execution of the design is organic. I put pencil to paper and just start. The result sometimes surprises me as much as it surprises other people.

G Allen- A Likely Story

My 2014 card, with a Father Christmas who, entirely accidentally, looks like my old dad

As I was rambling on to my sister, it occurred to me that this is exactly how I approach writing a novel. I can’t force it. I’m incapable, before I launch myself into it, of plotting the story. I know people who will have worked out a detailed synopsis, with character studies, chapter diagrams and turning points, plus flow charts of the dramatic highs and lows of emotion. I am in awe of this business-like approach. It makes sense. I just can’t do it. For me, writing a novel is like a stuttering journey, with halts and starts, spurts and lulls, and revelations popping up when and if they fancy.

I will already have thought a lot about my characters and will have developed the headlines of their back-stories in advance. And I will also know the scenario which brings them together. But that is just about all. And nothing is written down at this stage. It is only after I start – putting metaphorical pen to metaphorical paper – that the magic happens. The story begins to come to life of its own volition, and scenes float up out of the fog of my imagination – like photographic negatives – and begin to clarify before my inner eye.   Nothing, not even the looks or personalities (and sometimes names) of my characters, comes into sharp focus until I’ve started writing, and even then, not necessarily immediately. I may be many chapters in, but I am still continuously zipping back and forth through the chapters already written, editing, refining and expanding on the details I have only just understood.

G Allen Torn

So writing a story is more like a process of discovery – uncovering something that already exists – a slow and painstaking unearthing of detail that does not immediately make sense. And, once found, the story has its own trajectory which, ultimately, cannot be moulded and pushed in a prescribed direction.  Even the final destination is not necessarily what or where I expect. I have said this before, but it’s worth saying again. I didn’t know how TORN was going to resolve until I was within 2 chapters of the end. I hope it keeps the story fresh and the reader guessing.

So far, it has always felt like a kind of magic. What will I do if the magic doesn’t happen next time?


Gilli Allen


Gilli Allan started to write in childhood, a hobby only abandoned when real life supplanted the fiction. Gilli didn’t go to Oxford or Cambridge but, after just enough exam passes to squeak in, she attended Croydon Art College.

She didn’t work on any of the broadsheets, in publishing or television. Instead she was a shop assistant, a beauty consultant and a barmaid before landing her dream job as an illustrator in advertising. It was only when she was at home with her young son that Gilli began writing seriously. Her first two novels were quickly published but when her publisher ceased to trade, Gilli went independent.

Over the years, Gilli has been a school governor, a contributor to local newspapers, and a driving force behind the community shop in her Gloucestershire village. Still a keen artist, she designs Christmas cards and has begun book illustration. Gilli is particularly delighted to have recently gained a new mainstream publisher – Accent Press. TORN is the first book to be published in the three book deal.

Links (universal link)

Paperback link

Connect to Gilli (@gilliallan)


Life Class- Coming Soon from Gilli Allen

Life Class- Coming Soon from Gilli Allen

Thank you ever so much Gilli- what a fabulous blog. I am always in awe of anyone who can draw and paint. Bless you for sharing your Christmas cards with us!

I too am always worrying about the magic running out- scary stuff!

Happy reading everyone,

Jenny x




Novel Progress 4: Halfway House!


  1. Fabulous post Gilli! Your Christmas cards are wonderful and I loved reading Torn – the characters still pop into my head from time to time like old friends. I have a similarly confused approach to writing so it’s very reassuring to know I’m not alone. 🙂

    • Thank you Grace. I feel very honoured that you’re still haunted (in a good way) by my characters.
      Yes, for me ‘confused’ just about sums it up. I’ve sometimes described it as finding my way through a wood. There are sunlit dappled glades you can skip through, but there are also dense brambly bits you get stuck in!


  2. What an interesting interview – thank you. I’m a bit like you, Gilli, in that I constantly rewrite – certainly in the first half of the book, as my characters become fully formed in my head – but your method sounds like a white knuckle ride!

    Loved your drawings, you are clever…

    • Thanks Jenny. I love doing the drawing and it’s good I have that inevitable date with destiny every year, as Christmas approaches. It keeps my hand in. Writing is far more ‘consuming’ for me, if a little uncertain and settling at times.


  3. Great interview, Gilli. I wish I could be more like you and just plunge in and go where the story takes me, but the control freak in me won’t let me start without a plan.

    • I don’t recommend it, Maggie. It’s a very uncertain way of operating and can lead to great swathes of time when I just feel anxious and without direction.

      Mind you, I’d get bored if I had to plan too much.


  4. Really enjoyed reading your blog Gilli. My method of writing is similar to yours in that I never know what’s going to happen! I never plan, never know what’s going to spring onto the page when I type – it’s quite weird. But if I could plan it all out I’m not sure I’d feel the same urgency to write. It’s in the process of writing that the plot emerges. I admire your artistic skills; my father was also an artist and encouraged me constantly but I’m sad to say I give little time to painting these days. Writing just takes over. All the best and thanks for sharing your inspiration.

  5. Great post. You’re so creative Gilli and your drawings are wonderful.

    • Thank you Georgina and Theresa. Trying to plan things has the potential to bore me and somehow dry up the creativity. But the other thing, just plugging on unproductively – hoping that something is going to happen on the page in front of you – is a bit scary. Wonderful when it’s all going well, but pretty hideous when it isn’t.


  6. Brilliant, Gilli. I work in exactly the same way – the only certainties for me are my regular characters; the rest is a complete muddle. I don’t rewrite all the way through, but do have to go back and change the odd detail if a new situation crops up, as it does all the time. Good luck to Torn. x

  7. Thanks Lesley. It seems that a lot of us are similarly haphazard.
    Having decided to write my first book (with the deliberate intent of getting it published) I recall sitting up in bed that first night, with a notebook, trying to plan it. I couldn’t do it. Apart from some hazy notions about the protagonists and the underlying theme, nothing came to me.
    I just have to launch myself, only then does everything begin to crystallize.


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