Wednesday, 30 July 2008

How to Write

My neighbour, Hugo (age 9), often sits at the other end of my office, writing. He is capable of producing one of his graphic novels in the time it takes me to compose a sentence. It's wonderful to meet young kids with a passion for writing and for storytelling. I just had to get Hugo on film explaining the craft of writing. Listen and learn!

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Rewriting, Rewriting, Everyone's Rewriting

How odd. Nobody says anything about rewriting novels for what seems like ages and then ... three come along at once!

Sarwat Chadda, whose novel The Devil's Kiss won a slot in SCBWI's Undiscovered Voices anthology, blogs about the shredding, the rewriting, and the rewriting again that his novel has undergone since he wrote a first version in 2004:
What I'm trying to say is really, it's a LONG LONG slog, and I'm still working on my first book. And my book's pretty short. I would also reckon I'm pretty fortunate in that the agent and book deal came pretty quickly-ish (looking back it seems like things were always moving forward, so that was encouraging).
Libba Bray (A Great and Terrible Beauty) likens the process of rewriting to a love affair that starts thus:
I love this book. And it loves me. I never want to be without this book. Never, ever. What? Were you saying something? I'm sorry I can't hear you because my book just said the best thing ever. Wait--just listen to this sentence. I know! Isn't my book so dreamy? I love you, book. Do you love me? Of course you do. OMG--we said that at the SAME TIME! WE ARE SO IN TUNE! This is going to be the best book ever written. Oh, whisper that again. I Pulitzer you too, honey. Sigh.
And ends up (as deadline looms):
F*@*#&ing book. I hate you. I wish I'd never met you. YOU MAKE MY LIFE HELL! HELL! I wish there were another word for hell but my thesaurus says there's not. My mother was right. I should never have gotten involved with you. God, what was I thinking starting up something with this book? Jesus. Did you hear that? Do you ever even listen to what you spew all over the page? God. Like freaking nails being driven into my eardrums and right into my brain. Miserable craptard. I wish you'd die.
Read Libba's entire post and weep (with laughter).

Libba points to Justine Larbalestier (Magic or Madness) whose moods turn on what sort of writing day she has had:
We writers are a neurotic whingey bunch. When we are in that kind of state it’s best not to remind us that the day before we thought it was the best book ever written. All you can do is nod and smile and make sympathetic noises and offer us food or liquid we find particularly comforting.

Only when we’ve calmed down is it safe to mention that we have expressed similar sentiments in the past. That, in fact, we have said the exact same thing about every book we’ve ever written. And yet we managed to finish those books without the world ending.
I myself have pressed 'send' on revisions twice this month (and the month isn't even over yet!).

It becomes clear that the revision process is just like history and nagging mothers.

It repeats itself.

Friday, 25 July 2008

Font Comedy: Appealing to Your Inner Geek

Over at Jane's There Are No Rules (which has moved swiftly up my list of must read blogs) a hilarious video that appeals to my inner geek!

Writers: Thou shalt Not Be Boring

So today's Guardian G2 cover story was about Reader's Block. Oh I know that one. Had it bad in my pregnancy years - a book seems like too much of a long term investment when your main priority is to spot the sick dribbling down the back of your shirt before someone else does (or becoming an expert at fashion camouflage, as comic Victoria Wood once suggested, finding clothes the colour of poo).

Apparently, though we Brits trump other Europeans in buying books, we are not very good at reading what we buy. Writes Stuart Jeffries in the Guardian:
It is often said that everybody has a novel in them. The current problem is that so many of us bring that novel out of ourselves and get it published. It would help cure reader's block if lots of people resolved not to. But that is not what is happening. Instead, we are made so anxious by the accelerating onrush of books, especially novels, that we say: "Enough! I can't - I won't - read the winner of the Orange prize, whatever Mariella Frostrup says."
This is not a time to blame the attractions of other media even though other media do play a part:
According to Teletext's 2007 study of 4,000 Britons' reading habits, the top reasons for not reading are: too tired (48%); watch TV instead (46%); play computer games (26%); work late (21%).
TV, the internet, computer games are all worthy competitors and the onus is on us writers (especially in the children's book world) to keep our readers reading.

My advice to younger readers has always been: if you're getting bored, skip paragraphs until you get to something that interests you. Serves the author right for being boring.

It's the perfect time to revisit the tenth commandment of crimewriter Elmore Leonard's classic Ten Rules on Writing:
Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.


The article had a sidebar 'The Author's View in which they asked authors like Lionel Shriver, Alain de Botton and Germain Greer three questions: Have you experienced reader's block? How do you overcome it? Could you recommed a book to get people reading again?

I was very happy to see Joanne Harris (now officially one of us since the publcation of her children's fantasy Runemarks) say that she overcame reader's block by reading graphic novels. That, and the fact that Ray Bradbury is one of her heroes makes her a really cool author in my book.

Hey Star Wars fans, today's Eoin Colfer vlog, some Lucasfilm people attend his show and take him back to Lucasfilms for an exclusive tour that has him playing with Darth Vader's sword (oh and stealing the Artemis Fowl bus while the driver was off on a break and trying to flip it over).
Eoin as he drives away with the bus: "When the driver went off for a cup of coffee, I hit him on the head with my boot and stole his bus."
I wonder if they're planning to make a film about his travels.

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Eoin Colfer's US Tour

Eoin Colfer, everyone's favourite massively successful bestselling children's author with a way on the stage, is on this huge US road trip. This is the virtual Artemis Fowl bus:

Eoin Colfer's road trip bus

He's doing DAILY vlogs (video blogs, you ninnies!) on the snazzy Artemis Fowl websitewhich reveals more budget than the usual happy-hands-at-home author vlog. Check it out by clicking on this picture:

Monday, 21 July 2008

Notes from Slushpile Readers

So Lindsey from Puffin read my post on the DFC people's comic book workshops and said if my nine year old liked comics, she would probably like Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney.

This really interests me - the previous time I blogged about the connect between comic books/graphic novels and traditional children's publishing, I had a spike - from my daily readership of 300-500 a day, almost FOUR THOUSAND people read Comic Books Are Not Just For Klingon Speakers - about the rising interest in comic books for kids in the US! What does that mean? Should UK publishers (notoriously resistant to comics) pay attention?

Here's a sample page from Diary of a Wimpy Kid (blurb: "a novel in cartoons":

Lindsey was right! My nine-year-old devoured it like a bag of sweets! And slushpilers should note that Jeff Kinney himself has had an interesting journey to publishing - working on the book for six years before publishing it in daily instalments at Pearson's educational website (bite-sized blogs targeted at various ages and differentiated between boys and girls are another interesting feature). Thanks for that, Lindsey!


Speaking of Puffin - Puffin is one of the few children's publishers who actually maintain a readable blog (in the UK, in the US they all blog). Visit the Puffin Blog here ... but do try to avoid any stalker, publish-me-now-or-else behaviour.


People who've attended one of my talks on authors online may have heard me talk about the potential ofgroup blogs for overworked authors - this way, authors can share the burden, expand their audiences ... you get what I mean. Well, my author pal Fiona Dunbar (Pink Chameleon, The Truth Cookie) kindly forwarded this link over the weekend to the Awfully Big Adventure blog recently started by a group of children's authors.

Do visit, leave comments etc etc. I think it's an awfully terrific thing to do! Way to go!

Fiona also pointed out Sally Nichols' (Ways to Live Forever) post featuring this cartoon from Tales from the Slush Pile over at the Children's Boookshelf at Publisher's Weekly. (Thanks, Fiona).


And speaking of Fiona, she's just rather hilariously blogged (on her brand spanking new blog) that some big powerful telly people are thinking of basing a sitcom on her Truth Cookie series!
These things usually take tiiiiiiiiiiime. So let's all cross our legs and fingers and wish upon stars that it will happen. Soon!

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Children's Books: Dissed through the Years

I was discussing writing with a good friend the other day, how I felt every novel I completed was practice towards the next one. His well-meaning response was:

And then when you're ready, you can write an adult novel.

Sigh. An adult novel is always a possibility (maybe when I'm 80 and thinking about oldie stuff) but writing for children is as tough and as deserving of regard as writing for adults and no way is it a little league trial before moving on to the big league. I think.

Which leads me to this great article from the New Yorker which I found signposted on the Achuka blog (thanks, Achuka!) - a must read for all who love books for children.

It is the story of the clash between EB White (Stuart Little, Charlotte's Web) and the legendary librarian/critic Anne Carol Moore (1871 to 1961), to whom the world owes the elevation of children's books to a status that deserved bespoke libraries and book reviews. And yet she subscribed to children's books as twee, cute, sentimental and worthy objects.

EB White described their quarrel thus:
Children can sail easily over the fence that separates reality from make-believe. They go over it like little springboks. A fence that can throw a librarian is as nothing to a child.
It was a tough business then, it's an even tougher business now - speaking of which, I have just been asked to do more work on one of my manuscripts. Argh!

All ye who are near despair over their manuscripts can take heed of this poster I've just put up on my study wall:
Keep Calm and Carry On.

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

The Cool Company of Comics People

Lettuce by Sarah McIntyreThe DFC comic book had me worried at first.

First of all, the name - if the C in DFC means comic, then we all have to stop and think before saying DFC comic. DF Comic? DFC Book?

Second, the first few issues were met with a resounding silence in my household. The kids didn't seem to notice, merely grunting when I pointed out my friend Sarah McIntyre's strip, Vern and Lettuce (pictured).

And then, slowly, slowly, the copies piling up next to my bed began to appear in unexpected places. Under the sofa. On the trampoline. In the magazine rack next to the bread flour.

I caught my 17 year old reading it the other day.

"Do you like it?" I asked hopefully.

"I don't know," was his reply. "What is it?"

Which makes me think the DFC is probably plugging a very large gap. I grew up in a country where the daily newspapers each had an entire page devoted to the 'funnies' - comic strips - targetted at kids. It was the first page I read in the paper and I spent a lot of time cutting out my favourites. It seems there is no such culture here in England.
Reading the DFC

Nine-year-olds I prepared earlier reading the DFC

DFC content is probably most age-appropriate to my nine-year-old - which is great because she has become a big fan, snatching every issue from me before I'd even had time to caress the stamp. So last weekend, when London's Cartoon Museum hosted a DFC afternoon, we went for it!

Sarah McIntyre posted great photos of the event on her blog - I was rather embarrassingly one of the more enthusiastic participants, shoving five-year-olds out of the way to get my share of the paper.

I'd been working on an early reader series called 'Evil Baby' so I had a go at drawing the character:
Evil Baby by Candy Gourlay

He looks a bit like my nephew, Matthew:

Evil Baby Matthew

Cartoonist Adam Murphy helped workshoppers create expressions for their characters:

DFC day at the museum

I did my best, but I couldn't quite get Adam's face:

Cartoon expressions by Candy Gourlay

Cool kid at DFC eventSarah McIntyre told the kids how she had stumbled upon making comics at art school when she discovered that a lot of her friends were into them. She showed us some exquisite mini comics that she had made and then we made our own. Really cool.

The best thing though was seeing all the awesome kids and their incredible imaginations just whirring away. I sat opposite this fantastically talented boy (right) and two other kids. They just churned out the most wonderful (if rather violent and gory) stuff.

My nine year old invented two characters. Knowman -

Knowman by Mia

And Larry the Pot Guy (a Lemon who lives in a pot):

Larry the Pot Guy by Mia

She said Larry the Pot Guy had a strawberry sidekick.

I couldn't have thought all that up.

Just goes to show what comics can do. Bring it on, DFC!

Thursday, 3 July 2008

Can Writers Compete With Focus Groups?

I attended a British SCBWI meeting yesterday, planning our conference in November. We met in Waterstones, Picadilly - you know the massive one, several stories high, with a Costa in the basement and a restaurant at the top? I'd never been there before, it was HUGE.

Of course it had all the de rigeur big comfy sofas and reading corners that are usual for bookseller chains these days.

So when Costa threw us out at closing time, where did we choose to hold our meeting?

In the children's book department.

It's surprisingly comfortable holding an hour long meeting on tiny kindergarten sized chairs. It didn't even occur to us to go for the reading tables in the adult section. Talk about obsessed with children's books.

When I think about it though, this is why I joined SCBWI.

I was determined to think, live and breath children's books in my quest for publication. SCBWI lets me do that, giving me access to learning the craft, meeting the people that matter, and befriending like-minded souls which in turn feeds into taking me to the next level and the next and the next (I hope, I hope).

As I often say to my writing friends, SCBWI has saved me a lot of time.

A bit like hot-housing really.

Which brings me to the story of Hothouse - a "book-by-focus group" business that seeks to save publishers the bother of reading slush piles:
Hothouse uses a market research company to put story ideas to children, who are observed from behind a one-way mirror. Using dummy covers, short excerpts and blurbs to prompt conversation, researchers ask the children their opinions on which characters, plots and ideas they enjoy most. Each child is also visited at home by a researcher, who finds out what kind of books they already own and read. Drawing on this research, Hothouse commissions a team of writers accordingly. Read more in Painting by Numbers, The Guardian
They haven't done badly either. Their first offering, Darkside by Tom Becker, won the Waterstone's Prize for children's fiction and the Calderdale Children's Book Prize.

So fellow, garret dwellers, I ask you: is this our new competition?

The concept behind Hothouse is similar to that of Working Partners, sponsors of our recent Undiscovered Voices anthology. It's a system that works well in other media, notably film development.

It is hard to say whether this is ultimately a bad thing or a good thing for children's publishing.

On the one hand, publishers struggling with an ever tougher market get more bang for their buck and must feel more secure producing pre-tested books. Writers who are struggling to get published can get experience and kudos by writing-for-hire, for companies like Hothouse and Working Partners. And publishers groaning under the weight of unread slushpiles can relax a bit. I met a publisher the other day who said she has only ever published one book out of six years of reading her slush pile - it's not the part of the job she likes.

So: a good thing for publishers.

But certainly not a good thing for writers on the slush pile. And where's the art in a focus group?

What can we on the slush pile do in the face of such formidable competition?

Instead of gnashing our teeth about this new reality, I guess we just have to be tougher, better and more well-informed about the business.

Join SCBWI, learn the craft, meet the people. Write the thing and write it well. When you've written it, make it better by joining critique groups etc etc.

And you can take a cue from Hothouse's own business plan. They create books out of focus books? Fine. Go get your own focus group.

I am reading my book Ugly City to a group of Year Fives every Wednesday for half an hour. It's a rewarding experience. They gasp when exciting things happen, they jump when something startles them, their jaws drop with every revelation - AND you very quickly learn to skip the bits where you might lose them. And last week when half the class missed my reading because of some other activitiy, I had to come in and do extra time because they wanted to know what happened next.

What can kids teach us about our books?
Reg Wright, CEO of Hothouse, points out that one of the great advantages of listening to young readers is that they have a surprisingly good feel for where a story should go. "We've had children come up with great ideas for plots," he says. "They may not be sophisticated, but they'll make it their own. Our job, in the end, isn't to implement what they say, but to interpret what they want."

Having written this, I looked back at the quote again about our job being to interpret what children want. We-ell. Sometimes what is fabulous about a book is when it is something you had no idea you wanted ... something fresh and new and completely out of the blue. Just saying.

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