Wednesday, 26 March 2008

Meg Cabot on Writing

And now, Meg Cabot on writing ...

So Very Brillig, This Slithy Tove

Another brilliant picture book in my inbox from LookyBook.

Nope. I don't think this one is for children. Very Ralph Steadmanish.

It's Never Too Soon To Meet Your Audience

So I've been reading my unpublished book Ugly City to a class of nine year olds.

Thanks to Josh for this picture from last year.

Ugly City is about a city where kids live on their own, watching flat screen TVs, playing video games and eating whatever they liked.

But some unlucky kids still live with their parents.
That was the was the way it was with Pa. He was always marching into the room and turning off the TV. It was always turn that off, turn that down, do your homework, wash your hands, stop playing on the console.
I was gratified to see the boys in the class nodding their heads in total understanding! AND they laughed their heads off at all the right places! I felt like Sally Field at the Oscar Awards. They got my story!

Sure, agents always say they don't want to see 'my daughter's friends really liked the story' in query letters. But hey, that doesn't mean you, the unpublished, shouldn't go to your audience and bask in the genuine warmth of a receptive audience. It's good for the morale in this long journey we're on.

Last time I went in to read some chapters, the kids gave me some drawings they made of a picture book text I'd read to them - from that popular picture book genre Head Lice - about a mum who goes at more and more outlandish lengths to zap the head lice in her child's hair.

This one is from Mai:

This is Aisha's take on the Nit and Lice Suction Device:
This is Mai's take on the Zap Em Dead Electric Head Lice comb:

I love 'em!

Tuesday, 25 March 2008

Katie Price Furore: Are Pneumatic Models Allowed to Win Book Prizes?

I've always had great sympathy for models. I mean, it's just another job isn't it? Why I even once called on mothers to show more sympathy for Liz Hurley when she revealed a flat tummy mere weeks after having a baby.

So when Katie Price (formerly known as Jordan) produced her own children's book, I was all for it. The Times gave it a not-so-enthusiastic thumbs up but a thumbs-up nonetheless.
This is a world away from the vividly imagined worlds of Michael Morpurgo and Jacqueline Wilson. This is not a literary book in any way. But it isn’t terrible. As a factual book, it is crisp, girly, practical and full of good advice about owning ponies ... Indeed, it is so nuts and bolts it doesn’t matter so much that she didn’t write it all.
But wait a minute, the news is just out that the book has now been shortlisted for WH Smith Children's Book of the Year. (Kids vote from a list put up by publishers)

Naturally, there is a lot of upset from anyone who has spent years in garrets typing up manuscripts as opposed to reclining on magazine covers and centrefolds, displaying their assets.

This from Joanne Harris (Chocolat):
If this is an award for people who write books then it should be open only to people who write books, not to somebody who lends their name to a book, or who would have written a book if they had time but didn’t.
You can read all the arguments in the Times Online article — but I was rather interested that the response of Katie Price's publishers was to point out that Katie Price is a very strong "brand" — indeed, Random House has made Katie Price a bestselling author with not one but three memoirs and her third novel due out in July.

When I give my talks about authors and the internet, I always point out that one of the reasons publishers tend to have such crap websites is they are trying to push not just one brand but as many brands as they have authors.

Look at any publisher's website. They are all effectively lists. Lists and lists and lists of books and authors. Kassia Krozser at the Booksquare blog had a little rant about the crapness of publisher sites the other day:
It is no secret that I hate publisher websites. The vast majority of them can be best described as “suffers from multiple personality disorder”. And I’m not just talking about the fact that publishers can’t figure out who the target audience of their site is. Visiting a publisher site means being subjected to bad design, bad search, and — yes — bad content. Not a single one of these is forgivable.
Which is why websites and online promotion are a no-choice thing for authors.

Authors can't rely on a publisher to do their brand-building for them. Publishers already have their hands full trying to make brands out of the thousands of authors on their list, a task so mind-boggling that it's sometimes easier to buy a proven brand that's already out there.

Like Katie Price.

Monday, 24 March 2008

Desperately Seeking the Active in Interactive

Happy Easter! Have a tree!

Kingley Vale. photo by Candy Gourlay

England was totally utterly beautiful this past Easter weekend, if skin-peelingly cold. But my inner calm was shattered when I left this tranquil scene to discover that I had three days before I flew to Italy for SCBWI's conference on the eve of the big Bologna Children's Book Fair.

And this year, I am a speaker. Yes, yes, I'm talking about the internet again (can't talk about writing until a publisher takes pity on me and gives me a contract). And at this late stage I have only one thing to tell you about my talk.


I haven't designed my own name tag (delegates are supposed to impress each other with their self-designed name tags). I haven't researched the speakers yet, and have nothing intelligent to ask them. I haven't read the manuscripts sent to me for the critique session. And I haven't prepared my talk ...

Luckily, just the other day my brain quietly filed something away about uber YA author Melvin Burgess and the internet. That should be something interesting and fresh and talk-worthy. So I google 'Melvin Burgess' and 'internet'.

Looks like Mel has been posting vlogs (video blogs, keep up guys!) to promote his new book Sara's Face about a girl obsessed by fame.

The Times Online article had one episode of the vlog.

Naturally, I want to embed it right here for your viewing pleasure. So I go to YouTube and search for 'Burgess' 'Sara's Face' 'vlog'. Nothing. I go to Mel's website. But there are no links to the video. Oh, didn't Melvin say it was going to be on Spinebreakers , Penguin's proprietary portal for its YA books? But when I go to the page with the Sara's Face vlogs, there is no embed code (that's like, the thing you cut and paste so the video shows on your blog? Basically, this is what's supposedly VIRAL about the web).


I really really wanted to post that video.

But no worries. I've found Rule Number One for my talk at Bologna about authors and the internet.
It's not about the author. It's about the reader.
Listen up, authors. When your readers look you up online, they want to talk to you, comment about your work, download you, share you - they want to INTERACT. Interactive. Heard that word before?

So make it easy, please.

Having said all that, Spinebreakers is running a cool competition inviting readers aged over 13 to 'vlog' a rant about fame. Go on, Buy the book, Rant the rant!

Tuesday, 18 March 2008

Beware the Fat Lady

Cat Kin by Nick GreenYou've got your publisher.

You've got the trilogy deal.

Your first book is out to brilliant reviews.

And yet the fat lady still begins to sing.

Ann Giles, blogging in the Guardian today, tells the story of Nick Green, who found himself dumped by Faber after poor sales of his book The Cat Kin.

The dumping happened after Nick had already written the second book of the trilogy, Cat's Paw. So Nick has now published the book via print-on-demand company Lulu.

Giles, also known for her popular blog BookWitch, writes:
Poor sales? With a book as good as The Cat Kin, you've got to ask what kind of marketing support the publisher had given it.
Indeed, Cat Kin is short-listed for Bolton children's Book Award and the Sefton Super-Reads Book Award – ironically trumpeted on Faber's Awards and Prizes page.

Nick first published Cat Kin as a print-on-demand novel, before Faber decided to take it on. It was one of those rare POD titles that garnered warm praise from reviewers. Amanda Craig of the Times called it "an excellent debut".

Okay. How about we all go out and buy Nick Green's book and see what happens next in this saga?

Get The Cat Kin on Amazon. Get Cat's Paw on Lulu.

Saturday, 15 March 2008

Friday, 14 March 2008

Little Tiger, Pressed: What Picture Book Publishers Want

I was hoping to embed a Lookybook to illustrate this post about Little Tiger Press but, searching the Lookybook database, I couldn’t find a Little Tiger Press title. So here’s a random tiger picture instead:
little tiger, pressed
Jude Evans, Associate Publisher, of Little Tiger Press, came along to rub shoulders with us British SCBWI wannabes last week. She came to tell us about what goes into picture books. We came to charm her with our winning smiles and get her to publish our picture books.

Just around the corner, there was a rival Children’s Book Circle event attractively titled The Death Of The Picture Book - My Arse! featuring now-former Waterstone bookseller Wayne Winstone. Since we couldn’t be in two places at the same time, we sent author and puppet Sue Eves to spy on the other event. Read Sue's report on her blog.

Jude started her talk by giving us hope:
Each publisher has a slightly different approach to their list ... Every picture book publisher is looking for a new author, a new voice. So don’t lose heart.
She made us Wannabes very happy.

She gave us hope

Having given us hope, Jude gave us some pointers. Living up to my reputation as an exceedingly helpful blogger, I list them here neatly, with bullet points.

  • Not Easy. “Picture Books are not short stories and they are not an easy option. I have worked with a number of authors who have written huge works of fiction who are stunned at how technical it is”.
  • There are 12 double page spreads and “you want your story to progress with each spread”. Most PB are 32 pages (“of course there are exceptions”). Included are the cover, backcover, the endpapers which are the first and last spreads, title page, page-of-copyright-information.
  • Word Count. PBs are up to 750 words. “We usually edit that down to 650 words. Some stories need to be short and snappy. Others have to be longer.”
  • Breadth of Appeal. “We sell to the international market so a book must work in the UK, Germany, France, the United States ... Would this text appeal to somebody in China? In Greece?”.
  • Animals vs people characters. “75 per cent of our books feature animal characters ... with animals, we can tackle things that might be too raw to a sensitive child. There is no barrier of race or culture. Every child can see themselves as a little bear or hippopotamus.”
  • Tone and pitch. “Content must be something a child can relate to ... In general, go for something that speaks directly to a child.”
  • Keep them gripped. “Use book page turn to surprise.”
  • Voice. “This is a biggy: get your character to be very strong and very individual.””It should be a real person, not a generalised voice ... that’s why it’s so important to read it aloud.”
  • Language. “Don’t make it dense or difficult. Make it interesting.”
What makes a book work and sell?
  • Universal appeal
  • Emotional pull
  • Pivotal moments
  • Humour
  • Story with depth and spark
  • Ending that makes you smile – “A PB is like a joke almost ... the ending is paramount”.
  • Unique Author voice
Jude’s talk was so full of meat it might need a couple of blogs to report all. The upshot for all of us I suppose is: so if you get the technique right, if you have a good story, will your picture book get published?


My obsessive-compulsive attendance of writer’s events has taught me one thing.

There are a lot of us wannabe writers out there.

There are a lot of really, really GOOD wannabe writers out there.

There are too many of us.

My friend M reported the other day that the creative writing workshop she’s been teaching is chock-full of good writers. My response?
Tell them they’re crap. Tell them to stop writing. That should make it easier for us to get a foot on the ladder.
Oh by the way. Happy 21st birthday, Little Tiger Press! Here’s a Panda and a cake!

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

Looky Looky Lookybook!

Lookybook is a new marketing idea for picture books - I think it's a great way of getting your PBs seen - if, that is, zillions of people subscribe to its email updates and publishers get behind it etc etc!

Meanwhile, you can sign up your picture books on the Lookybook submit page. But at the moment it's only free for the first year ... I wonder what publishers think of it.

(And this PB He Came With the Couch byDavid Slonim is rather fine as well!)

Sunday, 9 March 2008

The Scattered Authors Society and Time Travel

In my ceaseless quest to meet famous children's authors, I accepted an invite to speak to the Scattered Authors Society (about websites, of course. I would have nothing to tell them about getting published!).

"Scatty authors?" my husband said. "You would be perfectly at home with them."

But the SAS see themselves as more, well, special forces than scatty.

Anyway, one of the famous people I met was Sue Price, winner of the Carnegie Medal in 1987 for her book The Ghost Drum. When I got home from the conference, I Googled 'Sue Price' and found this:

She doesn't look like that in real life, I assure you. Here is Sue's website. Go there. Buy her books.

We got to talking about time-travelling, as one does at conferences like this (my favourite stories as a young girl had to do with either time travel or amnesia. Don't ask). Two of Sue's books, The Sterkarm Handshake and A Sterkarm Kiss, had to do with time travel.

"Where would you go," Sue asked. "If you had a time machine?"

I was about to say something corny like I love where I am now when I realised that there was a time that I would love to revisit. Here's what I said:
I'd love to go back to my late twenties when I was just starting to have babies. I would tell myself to get on with writing. I had no idea at the time that it would take so long to get published
"So you think you would meet your younger self?" Sue asked. Famous authors are like that. They ask follow up questions.

The mind, at that point, boggled.

What would my younger self say if she ran into me as I was time travelling?

cartoon by Candy Gourlay
Thank you to the Scattered Authors Society for the warm welcome!

Friday, 7 March 2008

A Children's Book David Takes On the Amazon Goliath

The mighty Amazon was rather startled today when a small publisher objected to its listing of his children's book on Amazon's site.

David Walker, a self-avowed aviation nut, wrote Tales From An Airfield (illustrated by Keith Woodcock) - a hardcover picture book featuring Archie the Airplane (the first story: The Wrong Airport can be downloaded on the Tales from an Airfield Website and you can buy postcards, a CD and a floor mat of Archie's airfield at the website's online shop.

Walker was determined to support the cause of independent/local bookstores and keep his book out of the grubby virtual shelves of the Amazon juggernaut and the big chains. The website lists the websites and locations of local bookshops that stock the book.

To his dismay, Amazon listed the book.

There was a face-off between Walker and Amazon book buyer Kes Neilsen on BBC Radio 4's You and Yours programme. Walker declared:
We didn't like the way the high street volume discount sellers take these things to market in such an offhand way. We are big fans of local independent bookshops ... we specifically didn't want to be lined up with these volume discount houses.
Neilsen was incredulous.
It's an incredibly unusual situation. We usually find that the millions of authors and many thousands of publishers who have books listed on the site are usually absolutely thrilled to see them. And certainly authors spend hours everyday looking at the site and checking their ranking.
Neilsen said the listing appears on the site but admitted that they didn't have any copies of the book.

"Isn't it a bit naughty then, to have it listed on your site?" the BBC presenter chided him.

Listen to this children's book David take on the Amazon Goliath here!

Dungeons and Dragons, the Rise of Fantasy and Celebrating Imagination

The recent BBC4 series The Worlds of Fantasy had my lovely critique group earnestly discussing children's fantasy this week.

In the course of a discussion that ranged from Did Star Wars lose its credibility with the introduction of the Ewoks? (at which point my 13 year old son suddenly appeared and said, "I love ewoks!") to What is Fantasy? we lurched into an aside about Dungeons and Dragons.

Unbeknownst to us, the creator of Dungeons and Dragons, Gary Gygax had died that day.

Gygax had not been happy with the evolution of D&D from a role-playing game to online computer game.
These days, pen-and-paper role-playing games have largely been supplanted by online computer games. Dungeons & Dragons itself has been translated into electronic games, including Dungeons & Dragons Online. Mr. Gygax recognized the shift, but he never fully approved. To him, all of the graphics of a computer dulled what he considered one of the major human faculties: the imagination.

“There is no intimacy; it’s not live,” he said of online games. “It’s being translated through a computer, and your imagination is not there the same way it is when you’re actually together with a group of people. It reminds me of one time where I saw some children talking about whether they liked radio or television, and I asked one little boy why he preferred radio, and he said, ‘Because the pictures are so much better.’ ” New York Times, March 5, 2008
Chris Klimowitz, my valued critique colleague, had this to say:
A good 4-6 years of my life were richly enhanced by role-playing games as well as strategic board games. Good to see that as an era it hasn’t passed with its co-founder, but has just transformed. (Gygax's views on) online versus paper gaming could be comparable by degrees with books versus other media ...all having something to offer, though hardcopy books too-often considered an outdated medium by those who embrace technological trends exclusively.

The role of imagination – that’s what really fuelled the experience of role-play. It’s interesting to compare the engagement of imagination in different media as well as the social dynamics.

Well, we certainly benefit from having a fuller range of experiences any which way it’s looked at.
Amen, Christopher.

Thursday, 6 March 2008

Happy World Book Day (in England and Ireland)

Happy World Book Day (although apparently only in England and Ireland) ...

To celebrate, I want to share a moment of joy I had yesterday.

I came down for breakfast, grumpy as usual. On the dining room table, I saw that the loaf of bread was wearing a hat.

I turned around and on the kitchen counter was a vase of tulips and an egg.

I don't know why but I was happy for the rest of the day.

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

Lying Author or Novelist?

News just in.

Another author has been caught lying in memoirs a la James Frey. Here is The Gawker spouting on the issue:
Meet Margaret Seltzer, pen name Margaret Jones, who until this week was a half-white, half-Indian gangland drug runner who grew up a foster child in predominately black South Central Los Angeles. Her memoir was hailed as a "raw... remarkable book" in the Times, won her tentative online admirers and became the 28th best selling memoir on Amazon after it was released Friday. Of course Seltzer basically made her whole "memoir" up, being entirely white, having grown up in the predominately white San Fernando Valley north of Los Angeles, having gone to a fancy private school and having been raised by her biological family. Her book tour was supposed to start today in Eugene, Oregon but her publisher, a division of Penguin Group, has canceled all that and recalled her books.
The New York Times review unsuspectingly put a finger on the lie:
Although some of the scenes she has recreated from her youth (which are told in colorful, streetwise argot) can feel self-consciously novelistic at times, Ms. Jones has done an amazing job of conjuring up her old neighborhood.
The editor who spoke to her and exchanged emails with Jones for over a year suspected nothing.

It's a disaster the author only has herself to blame for. It's not clear from stories whether Jones wrote other stuff. Certainly, the fake memoir was convincing enough to win critical accolades.

So, if we forgot that it was meant to be a true story, would it be any good as a novel?

Could this be the desperate act of a novelist just trying to get published?

Jaqueline Wilson Loves Freddie Mercury

I recently began to subscribe to Sky's The Book Show on YouTube, presented by Mariella Frostrup. It's a video version of the Thursday afternoon show Frostrup presents on Radio 4 which I listen to while I'm on the school run.

In a segment called 'The Write Place' , the show features author's writing places. The big revelation about Jacqueline Wilson is that alongside her collection of Madonna figurines is a replica of this Freddie Mercury statue in Montreux! Rock on!

Monday, 3 March 2008

Once Spoken, Forever Forgotten - Me on Cynthia Leitch Smith's Blog

Goodness gracious, I have inadvertently appeared in YA author Cynthia Leitich Smith's blog!

I was interviewed by the excellent Anita Loughrey in anticipation of my talk before the SCBWI pre-Bologna conference.

Reading the interview, I was struck by how little I remembered of what I'd said.
And we mustn't forget that this is the world that our readers take for granted--TV, computers, games, the Web--this is the world our readers know. As writers for children, it is our responsibility to inhabit it with them.
It's a good thing someone was writing it all down.

For lack of anything interesting to illustrate this article with, here is a cartoon from my unpublished collection of pregnancy cartoons Who Are You And Why Are You Standing On My Bladder

The Agent Dunnit!

Okay, so I'm addicted to films about writers trying to get published. Last night I watched this Christmas TV movie starring Rob Lowe - The Perfect Day.

Guy gets fired, writes novel, gets rejected ... the usual.

Then a literary agent (Six Feet Under's Frances Conroy) sees the marvel of his manuscript and signs him ... the book climbs to number one on the New York Times bestseller list ... and the Rob Lowe character promptly turns into a jerk.

The jerk needs to learn a lesson which is provided by mysterious meetings with the mad professor from Back to the Future telling him all sorts of unknowable things including the fact that he was going to die on Christmas day.

So are there supernatural things at work? Is he going to die? After all those rejections, isn't a writer allowed some Pride before the Fall?

Turns out it was all a trick. He was getting too big for his boots. He had to be taught a lesson. And who was behind the lesson?


I could have cried after this plot twist was revealed.

Except I was too busy laughing.

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