Thursday 28 February 2008

Zombie Idol Winner Vows to Devote Life to Zombie Work

If you've been following the Zombie Idol over at YA author Maureen Johnson's blog, you will be pleased to learn that the winner of the competition to insert a zombie into literature is Adrienne K with her version of How to Be An Artist by Sark -
HOW TO BE A ZOMBIE by Adrienne K.

Never stay dead. Learn to watch from shadows. Spread incurable viruses. Invite slow runners to tea. Collect occipital lobes and put them all over your house. Make friends with fear and trepidation. Look forward to nightmares. Make men cry in movies. Eat brains naked. In moonlight. Cultivate apocalypse. Refuse to “be entombed.” Do it for evil. Take lots of innocents. Give undeath away. Do it now. The living will follow. Believe in the cursed. Groan a lot. Celebrate every gorgeous medulla oblongata. Take bloodbaths. Steal others’ wild imaginings through transformative cerebrum-sucks. Revel in perfect chaos. Draw on the walls. With gnawed-off knuckles. Imagine yourself victorious. Giggle at shot guns. Listen to old people wail. Open them up. Dive in. Be free. Damn yourself. Drive in the fear. Play with entrails. You are unholy. Build a fort with corpses. Get revenge. Hug graves. Roam aimlessly. Massacre.

IN response to ecstatic praise from all corners of the internet, the winner said:
This marks a new course for me, as I think I will pursue zombie research and writing full-time. Read more

Tuesday 26 February 2008

Judging Books by Their Covers Titles

The Diagram Prize is upon us! Members of the public vote for the books with the oddest titles in a competition sponsored by the Bookseller. The titles are spotted and submitted by publishers, booksellers and librarians around the world.

It is quite a thrilling shortlist -
I Was Tortured By the Pygmy Love Queen by Jasper McCutcheon
How to Write a How to Write Book by Brian Piddock
Are Women Human? And Other International Dialogues by Catharine A. MacKinnon
Cheese Problems Solved by P.L.H.McSweeney
If You Want Closure in Your Relationship, Start With Your Legs by Big Boom
People who Mattered in Southend and Beyond: From King Canute to Dr Feelgood by D. Gordon
Bookseller diarist and prize custodian Horace Bent commented:
"I must pay homage to those books that narrowly missed out on a shortlist place. These were, in no particular order: Drawing and Painting the Undead; Stafford Pageant: The Exciting Innovative Years 1901–1952; and Tiles of the Unexpected: A Study of Six Miles of Geometric Tile Patterns on the London Underground. All sound like they are positively thrilling reads, and I do hope that the authors will try again next year. Honourable mention should also go to two titles that were ruled out because they were published too long ago: an unlikely-sounding HR manual called Squid Recruitment Dynamics, and the fascinating anthropological tome Glory Remembered: Wooden Headgear of Alaska Sea Hunters.
The spotter of the winning book receives a magnum of champagne.

Emma Jepson of Borders UK spotted McCutcheon's Pygmy Love Queen novel in which a parachutist finds himself stripped naked and erotically tortured by the female leader of a pygmy tribe. McCutcheon has already written a follow-up: Go Ahead, Woman, Do Your Worst! Erotic Tales of Heroes Chained.

Saturday 23 February 2008

Eoin Colfer, Stand Up Author and Charmer of Little Women

I discovered another New Reality for children's authors the other day.

Authors have to write books, yes. They have to market themselves online, yes. They have to do school visits, yes. And now they have to be stand up comics.

It's all the fault of Artemus Fowl creator Eoin Colfer (pronounced 'Oh - when' - as in "OH? And WHEN am I supposed to find the time to get acting classes?") who packs in the crowds everywhere he tours.

I caught Colfer's show at the South Bank's Imagine Children's Literature Festival with four nine year old girls yesterday. Only one of the girls had ever read a Colfer book but by the time we left, each had an autographed copy of the The Wish List (the only Colfer book with a female - human - protagonist).

In the audience was a legion of little boys (all named Ben it transpired during the Q & A) - indeed Colfer's show was srongly targeted at boys and Dads with such themes as: "Reading Books with Explosives and Motorbikes on the Cover is Okay" and "When You Have the House to Yourself Do Not Hesitate to Build Ramps on Which to Practice Flying Your Bike Even If The Brakes Do Not Work". The girls and mums laughed like drains too.

I was inspired to see many heads bowed over books before and after the show.

We foolishly booked at the last minute so we only got seats at the back which were still great seats given that it was the Royal Festival Hall. But this meant we were the last people out and the end of the queue for Colfer's autograph.

Still the Festival organisers followed all the Rules To Make People Enjoy Queuing:

Rule 1. Provide children with an opportunity to deface something. This was the graffiti wall which the girls covered with jokes and, rather precociously, CND slogans.

Rule 2. After the children deface the wall, they can Blu-Tac random items to a blank wall, here, the kids stuck up some paper plates.

Rule 3. Provide technology to keep everyone amused. These were the special seats that told non-stop jokes.

We were still smiling when we reached the top of the queue.

Amazingly, so was Eoin Colfer, who had been exercising his autograph arm for 30 solid minutes.

He charmed the girls by asking them who the leader of their little group was and didn't even ask why one of them was dressed like a sherpa.

Once we'd extracted autographs we headed out to Giraffe where we rewarded ourselves with massive ice creams and a terrific view of the Thames.

This is the sort of total experience that readers expect of us.

I was terrified. But the Rocky Road Ice Cream tasted good anyway.

Tuesday 19 February 2008

The Elegance of Punctuation !#*%!

Here's a lovely New York Times article waxing lyrical on the joys of the semi-colon and the elegance of correct punctuation. The piece is marred only by the correction that appears at the bottom:
An article in some editions on Monday about a New York City Transit employee’s deft use of the semicolon in a public service placard was less deft in its punctuation of the title of a book by Lynne Truss, who called the placard a “lovely example” of proper punctuation. The title of the book is “Eats, Shoots & Leaves” — not “Eats Shoots & Leaves.” (The subtitle of Ms. Truss’s book is “The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation.”)

YA Readers Are So Worth Writing For

I once attended a talk by Meg Rosoff (How I Live Now) at which a middle aged lady raised her hand and expressed surprise that Rosoff was wasting her time writing for younger people – at least, that was the gist of what I remember, it was a while ago now.

Now comes the hoo ha over this New York Times review by Dave Itzkoff.

To paraphrase Itzkoff’s rather wordy controversial statement: Itzkoff declared that there was “no self-respect”, no “artistic satisfaction” or “dignity” in writing for younger readers. Here is what he said in full:
As someone whose subway rides tend to resemble scenes from an “Evil Dead” movie, in which I am Bruce Campbell dodging zombies who have had all traces of their humanity sucked out of them by a sinister book — not the “Necronomicon,” but “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” — I sometimes wonder how any self-respecting author of speculative fiction can find fulfillment in writing novels for young readers. I suppose J. K. Rowling could give me 1.12 billion reasons in favor of it: get your formula just right and you can enjoy worldwide sales, film and television options, vibrating-toy-broom licensing fees, Chinese-language bootlegs of your work, a kind of limited immortality (L. Frank Baum who?) and — finally — genuine grown-up readers. But where’s the artistic satisfaction? Where’s the dignity?
I had to read it twice because having declared YA an undeserving audience, Itzkoff proceeded to lavish praise on two YA books (Un Lun Dun by China MiƩville and Interworld by Neil Gaiman and Michael Reeves).

Itzkoff was impressed that the authors didn’t “sugar-coat” their stories for their young readers. Here’s what he says about Un Lun Dun:
When its disheveled characters are sent on exactingly prescribed quests, you can be sure these heroes will cut corners or otherwise fail to fulfill their missions; when prophecies are invoked, they generally don’t come true; and any character complacent enough to believe he or she is some sort of Chosen One is all but guaranteed not to save the day
Well deserved praise for MiĆ©ville but hey it’s rather obvious this guy hasn’t read any YA recently if he is so astonished that YA can produce edgy, intelligent novels that twist and turn and surprise.

Author Shannon Hale (her Book of a Thousand Days just won the Cybil for YA fantasy) wrote in her blog:
He must just be speaking outrageously to garner attention--his attitude is so Victorian, so narrow-minded to the point of melodrama. But I have met this attitude so many times--the goal for any real, self-respecting writer must be to have "grown-up readers." Writing for children is less than.
Even Neil Gaiman weighs in:
It's an odd review -- I think that rule number one for book reviewers should probably be Don't Spend The First Paragraph Slagging Off The Genre. Just don't. Don't start a review of romance books by saying that all romance books are rubbish but these are good (or just as bad as the rest). Don't start a review of SF by saying that you hate all off-planet tales or things set in the future and you don't like way SF writers do characters. Don't start a review of a University Adultery novel by explaining that mostly books about English professors having panicky academic sex bore you to tears but. Just don't. Any more than a restaurant reviewer would spend a paragraph explaining that she didn't normally like or eat -- or understand why other people would like or eat -- Chinese food, or French, or barbeque. It just makes people think you're not a very good reviewer.
Me? I write YA because young people delight and surprise and excite and inspire and challenge me – and as Scott Westerfeld said in a recent interview when he was asked, "Were you worried about being pigeonholed by having your novels called Young Adult?”
Young adults are far more universal readers ... politically and all sorts of other ways, kids are more open to things ... they are less narrow.

Saturday 16 February 2008

Scott Westerfeld and Justine Larbalestiere on the YA Fiction Boom

Justine Larbalestiere and Scott Westerfeld appeared on Cult Pop to talk about the why's and wherefore's of Young Audult fiction. Click on the image and go to Cult Pop 13. What Scott said:
Young adults are far more universal readers ... kids are more open to things ... they are less narrow.

Thursday 14 February 2008

The Unbearable Lightness of Being Discovered (alternative title: Matching Faces to Rejection Letters)

So last night was the reception for winners of the Undiscovered Voices competition of British SCBWI, sponsored by Working Partners.

It was held at Foyles Bookstore in Charing Cross at the height of the rush hour which made the turn-out of people from the book world all the more incredible.

A few days before, the organisers emailed the authors a list of people who had RSVP'd. This gave us time to compose ourselves and thus reduce the chances of anyone inadvertently drooling on unsuspecting agents.

The superhuman Saras (Grant and O'Connor) - who organised the event and edited the book - went so far as to provide guests with a photographic contact sheet to make it easier for agents and editors to identify and snatch a chosen author before any of the others get there first.
Undiscovered Voices winners
That's me, bottom right, in a photo taken by my eight year old daughter. I must say I photocopy rather well.

Surveying the Foyles reception space, I rather regretted ditching an earlier plan to smuggle members of my critique group into the invitation-only party. There was a good sized curtain at one end that would have been a perfect hiding place.

Natascha Biebow, British SCBWI's energetic leader, in her welcome speech described the anthology as a "creative way for creative people to get noticed".
Natascha Biebow of SCBWI
Chris Snowdon, managing director for Working Partners, recalled the "mind-boggling number of scripts" submitted. "There is some damn fine writing in the anthology," he said.
Chris Snowdon of Working Partners
The celebrity guest of the evening was the wonderful David Almond who wrote a foreword to the anthology. David delivered an inspiring talk, recalling how he himself had been an "undiscovered voice" for a long, long time and the intense humiliations he went through - people who want to write "must dare to feel stupid". "There is something inside us that drives us to write stories," he said. "You spend your lifetime trying to find out what that thing wants to say."
David Almond
Hobnobbing with agents and editors is a strange experience. I had to restrain myself from curtseying and kissing the hems of their wide-leg trousers - being a supplicant is a hard habit to break. It was the oddest thing finally putting faces to all those rejection letters I had received over the years!

The best thing was my agent (MY agent) came along to say hello. She was probably aware of my need to be reminded that she really does exist. I promised her that I wouldn't splash her identity all over my blogs to keep her safe from stalkers and wannabe-authors-who-jump -out-from-behind-bushes -at-night. But here's a lovely picture of her anyway toasting my success with uber children's author Jane Clarke on the right.
My secret agent
The weirdest thing about the evening was that people kept saying, "You're not UNdiscovered anymore!"

Which is very nice in theory. That said, there's plenty of work to be done.

Still. Pinch me someone!

Wednesday 13 February 2008

A Universal Truth About Sequels and Zombies

Okay, I have to get washed and dressed and polished in 15 minutes to attend the reception for winners of the Undiscovered Voices competition run by British SCBWI.

But blog I must because this is too important to put off.

The wise and worldly Maureen Johnson recently dispensed some free Awesome Advice to writers gnashing their teeth over writing sequels:
Advice One: Remember What You Wrote in the First Book

Advice Two: Add At Least One Zombie
To demonstrate Advice Two, she presented this revision of Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen:

“What think you of books?” said he, smiling.

“Books? Oh! No, I am sure we never read the same, or not with the same feelings.”

“I am sorry you think so; but if that be the case, there can at least be no want of subject. We may compare our different opinions.”

“No. I cannot talk of books in a ballroom; my head is always full of something else.”

Hearing this, a nearby zombie turned, lured by the prospect of whatever was contained within Elizabeth’s head. He was within striking distance of her when the other dancers caught him up and swept him away by accident.

“The present always occupies you in such scenes, does it?” said Darcy, throwing a look of doubt at the still-flailing zombie as he was pulled down the line.

“Yes, always,” she replied, without knowing what she said, for her thoughts had wandered far from the subject. Elizabeth’s distraction was not related to the zombie. She had not seen it, and was only vaguely aware of the fact that the time of the dance had been thrown off by the newcomer’s awkward shuffling and the panic that ensued.

“I remember hearing you once say, Mr. Darcy, that you hardly ever forgave, that your resentment once created was unappeasable. You are very cautious, I suppose, as to its being created.”

The zombie once again made his shambling way toward Elizabeth and the delicious promises of her coconut-like head.

“I am,” said he, with a firm voice designed to scare away the interloper.

“And never allow yourself to be blinded by prejudice?”

“I hope not,” Darcy replied, noting with satisfaction that the zombie had once again been dragged into the action by the remaining dancers who had not yet observed his presence in their midst.

The zombie, confounded by recent events, tired of the chase for Elizabeth. He instead ripped off the head of the nearby Sir Watkin Smiley-Franklin and commenced in the eating of his brain, which pleased Mr. Darcy even more. Sir Watkin was a terrible bore on the subject of farm taxes, and Mr. Darcy was much relieved to see all of his thoughts on the subject being consumed by the zombie’s loose, grinding jaw.

The zombie thing was such a hit that she has launched her Insert a Zombie Win A Prize competition which attracted a celebrity entry from Scott Westerfeld based on Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities
It was the best of apocalypses, it was the worst of apocalypses. It was an age of brain eating, it was an age of shotguns. It was the epoch of damaging the head, or of removing it from the body. It was the season of light infantry weapons, it was the season of dark pursuits through abandoned sewers. We had everything at the local mall before us, but there were too many zombies in the way. In short, the period was so far like the present period—except for, you know, all the frickin’ zombies.
Needless to say Scott has been promptly disqualified for being married to one of the judges.

The deadline is tomorrow!

Tuesday 12 February 2008

A Brave New World for Publishers (the Key Word is Brave)

Comes the news this week that two publishers have launched distribution initiatives that feature competing visions of the future.

Harper Collins is releasing complete texts online from such web-savvy authors as Neil Gaiman and Paul Coelho.

Random House
on the other hand is selling chunks of business books for small fees.

This almost 20 years after the creation of the world wide web. Is it just me or does this sound a bit slow, considering how the web has so far revolutionised music distribution and all sorts of human interaction?

Nicholas Clee, on the Guardian Book Blog, notes:
These announcements suggest we have not moved on from the year 2000 - at least a generation ago, in internet terms.
Clee saves us some research by outlining how authors from Stephen King to Seth Godin have been working the web for years way before the publishers perked up to its possibilities.

One author commenting on Clee’s blog post wrote:
The publishing houses are stuck in old modes of doing things, trying to make money (yes, they have to survive). Finally! they are allowing the public to read their books without trekking to the bookstore? But they are doing this after the books have been out and their window of opportunity is closed. And in whose interests?

When the Media Guardian invited media movers and shakers to predict the future, book publishers were conspicuous in their absence.

For the publishing world, the online universe is a Brave New World. Aldous Huxley describes his novel as set in a “negative utopia” – which pretty much probably reflects how publishing regards the web.
Author and marketing guru Godin sees the Harper announcement as a typical traditional book publishing mentality attempting a new initiative: "They took all the [viral marketing] things that work — that make it spread — and they're turning them off." His idea is that marketing is "trying to start conversations, and if that conversation takes place the ideas spread." - 22nd Century Press Blog
I guess the key word in this Brave New World is Brave. The initiatives announced today are at best tentative and at worst fearful.

Sure, the industry is constantly struggling to stay on the right side of the bottom line.

But publishers should do better.

Brave New World image copyright Tony Hamilton,

Sunday 10 February 2008

Writers Have to Make Choices

In my critique group there are quite a few of us revising finished manuscripts.

It’s a thrilling process, revisiting your words and discovering that you can recharge a scene in ways you couldn’t imagine the last time you read the manuscript.

But it’s also a terrifying thing.

One little edit throws up a thousand edits. Injecting nuance to a previously two dimensional character might mean weeks of re-imagining all the scenes the character features in.

Suddenly the revision is not just a quick edit but a total rewrite.

One novelist friend wrote me in an email:
I’m doing really well. The only thing is it's getting so I’m afraid I’m going to have to rewrite the whole novel!
What to do?

I found the answer when I was half-watching a movie in the wee hours while contemplating my manuscript.

The film was Wonder Boys (2000), featuring Michael Douglas (pictured) as former award-winning novelist Grady Tripp who we are led to believe is suffering from writer’s block. Except he isn’t. The real problem is that he can’t stop writing – and the script has hit an unpublishable 2,000 plus single-spaced pages. His creative writing student Hannah (played by Katie Holmes) reads the tome and delivers the following critique:
Grady, you know how in class you are always telling us that writers make choices? And even though your book is really beautiful, I mean amazingly beautiful ... at times it’s ... uh ... very detailed. You know, the genaeologies of everybody’s horses and dental records and so on. And I could be wrong but it sort of reads in places like you didn’t make any choices. At all.
What to do?

Make choices.

You’ve decided to edit your book.

So do it.

Tuesday 5 February 2008

Dan Santat's School Visit

I follow the blog of Dan Santat just because I love his drawing (the other artist I subscribe to is Sarah Macintyre. Love her stuff!) Dan does the Disney cartoon The Replacements (I haven't seen it here in the UK but then I don't get the Disney Channel).

Anyway, this is not just about how wonderful Dan is (which he is) but about School Visits. Now I did a little piece on school visits featuring Doomspell author Cliff McNish a while back - school visits are a big deal for children's authors because it's a cool way of getting in touch with one's readers etc etc. Of course, it doesn't hurt either that you could make a little bit of money to supplement your non JK Rowling advance.

So here's Dan's truly super cool video about a week long visit to a school for gifted children in Virginia. We can all learn a thing or two about marketing ourselves here.

Friday 1 February 2008

Writers Need Two Brains

I've been a member of SCBWI (the Society for Children's Book Writer's and Illustrators) for donkey's years but last year I decided to join the Society of Authors. The SOA is only for the published author (I got in on the basis of a non-fiction book and my radio work)and the difference between SCBWI - which supports both published and non-published - was veeeery interesting.

Whilst at SCBWI there is clear emphasis on craft and (naturally) getting published, the focus at SOA is on sales, rights, taxes - all the stuff that many SCBWIites have yet to dream about.

It became clear to me that to call yourself an author, you need two brains.

The brains of an artist, dedicated to his/her craft.

And the brains of the entrepreneur, building his/her brand and getting the books sold.

Weirdly there was a lot of stuff out there today about the process of selling books.

A New York Times essay by Rachel Donadio described the shift from writing the book to seeing it in bookshops as akin to "a sudden change in cabin pressure"
As soon as a literary agent has sold a publisher a book, and even before it’s edited, copy-edited, proofread and indexed, the publicity wheels start turning. While writers bite their nails, the book editor tries to persuade the in-house sales representatives to get excited about the book, the sales representatives try to persuade retail buyers to get excited, and the retail buyers decide how many copies to buy and whether to feature the book in a prominent front-of-the-store display, for which publishers pay dearly. In the meantime, the publisher’s publicity department tries to persuade magazine editors and television producers to feature the book or its author around the publication date, often giving elaborate lunches and parties months in advance to drum up interest.
It doesn't sound like a picnic.

Shelfstalker, a children's bookseller's blog, described how independent bookstores augment the bestseller sales of publishers by handselling titles they have a personal liking for. Here's a quote from bookseller Karl Pohrt speaking at the Beijing Book Fair:
When we do our job properly, independent booksellers act as an early warning system for publishers. We help publishers launch books. It should also be noted that the 150 to 500 range of titles is where publishers are making money, because they haven’t made huge investments that they have to recuperate in contracts with best-selling authors and large ad campaigns. So we also augment sales from the top 150 to 300 titles.
And here's Scott Pack, former Waterstones big guy (now The Friday Project publisher), analysing the stuff going on at Borders (nutshell: one boss has left - will Borders still meet its potential?):
What next? If Borders continue to prove value for money for publishers and carry on with their support for indies as well as offering a decent alternative on the high street then presumably there is no problem. If the new regime start tinkering, and you would guess they will, then hopefully it will be to improve and progress. If their planned review of the business can strengthen the work already done then great. If they get it wrong then their rivals will give them a thumping.
It's been a newsy day for booksellers.

Writers ought to look up from their keyboards and pay some heed.

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