Sunday, 29 April 2007

Cliff McNish on School Visits

I must apologise for taking so much time off from posting but I've been building a shed at the bottom of my garden and blogging copiously about it. And, for lack of time, this piece will be true to the Notes in Notes from the Slushpile - just bullet points. I hope slushpilers will let me off this time!

Cliff McNish, personable author of The Doomspell Trilogy, kindly agreed to talk to the SCBWI Professional Series about school visits on 26 April. These are Cliff's pointers as well as some ideas from the audience; I also added some useful links at the bottom (such as the Society of Authors guidelines for school visits):

  • The toughest part of school visits is actually getting a booking. An online presence is a must.

  • Schools are interested in recommendations – if you have five people, you can be sure they will check out the first three — make sure recommendations are on your website or your publicity materials.

  • Post a leaflet to your target schools with key information about you, your books and what you can do for them. Follow this up with a letter addressed to the person in charge of school visits (Cliff started by getting the contact details of schools in his chosen target area from Schools Net and then phoning the school secretaries to obtain the names of people in charge of school visits (usually the librarian or the head of English).

  • You might do some trial runs for free at local schools but once you've committed to doing school visits, charge at least the Society of Author's recommended basic minimum of £300 — in addition to all travel expenses. A well known author of historical children's serials started by charging the minimum. But once she became more well known, higher demand and market forces allowed her to do less school visits while charging more.

  • Before you go:
    • Send an information leaflet to the school
    • Invoice them a week before your visit is scheduled
    • Cliff makes it clear that he expects the library to have at least one copy of each of his books "as a minimum standard"
    • It is okay to sell books. Ask the school, "When will I have the opportunity to sell my book?" The best time is usually at the end of a session when the children are enthused but of course this depends on the school — it's unlikely for kids at a poor inner city comprehensive to have available cash to buy books while a middle class independent schools might take care of invoicing the parents for books their children purchase.
    • if you have a quiet voice, make sure you ask for a microphone. Most schools have one.

  • Be flexible

  • A session should take from three-quarters of an hour to one hour per school group.

  • Audiences have ranged from 700 for a whole school to a maximum of 30 for a class "though I prefer less"

  • It is common for schools to provide a substitute teacher so that the main teacher can go off and do something else. Cliff makes a point of asking for the presence of the head of English or the key teacher involved with the class.

  • The best way to break the ice in unenthusiastic groups is to get the kids to chat in an informal way about what they like and dislike. Boys will talk about Anthony Horowitz, girls of a certain age will enthuse about Jacqueline Wilson. Pick something in their comfort zone to help them open up. "You are better off talking about East Enders (than The Secret Garden)!"

  • "If you are not an ex-teacher who is used to being in a school all day, you will find the experience exhausting at some deep physical level beyond warfare" — never go beyond three days a week doing school visits.

  • Schools will try to get you to do 10 sessions with a 10 minute break for lunch – don't do it. Never do more than three hours, doing more would be unfair to you.

  • Follow up: After you've visited the school, send them an email asking if they would be interested in having you again and if there are any schools they would like to pass you on to.

Really useful links:

Society of Authors Guidelines for School Visits

Cliff McNish's School Visit Page

How Search Engines Rank Web Pages

How Not to Treat Authors on a School Visit by Malorie Blackman (scroll down below the contact details)

Thursday, 12 April 2007

The wrong end of the stick is the right one

The History BoysI’ve been listening to a CD of The History Boys, Alan Bennett’s brilliant play about a group of boys preparing for the Oxford entrance examinations. The headmaster, desperate for good results, hires spin-master Mr Irwin to help the boys stand out in the crowd.

Suddenly it’s not just the story the boys can tell, but how they tell it.
The wrong end of the stick is the right one. A question has a front door and a back door. Go in the back or, better still, the side.
Flee the crowd. Follow Orwell. Be perverse.
And since I mention Orwell, take Stalin. Generally agreed to be a monster and rightly, Sow dissent. Find something, anything, to say in his defence.
The advice struck a chord. Isn’t this what I’ve been trying to do, in the name of resisting cliché and sparking well, sparks, in my novel-writing? When my characters want to head in one direction, I do everything in my power to make their progress difficult. When one character expresses a conviction, I set another character to thwart him. When someone says no, another says yes.

Contrariness is just the thing to oil the engine of a plot. Sol Stein, in Solutions for Novelists: Secrets of a Master Editor, writes:
Successful writing is permeated with an adversarial spirit demonstrated in suspicion, opposition, confrontation, and refusal.
But he’s talking about craft. What about the whole submission process? Agents want quick sales, grabby manuscripts – why not give it to them? Surely, this is a technique that can also help sell novels.

“I get it,” says Rudge, the most working class of the History boys. “You want us to find an angle.”

An angle, a unique selling point, a hook. “It’s a performance,” says Irwin. “It’s entertainment. And if it isn’t, make it so.”

If you read through the blog of Miss Snark, the anonymous literary agent, who disguises her excellent advice with hard-hearted wit, you find the whinings of writers who are trying to find just the perfect angle to make that connection with an agent. Which chapter should I send? What should I say in the query letter? How should I package my manuscript? Etc etc etc.

Miss Snark’s response intermittently repeated throughout the blog is the best advice to all who are searching for that angle:

"Write well."

And how.

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