Thursday 25 February 2010

Flight of the Undiscovered: Voices Coming Soon on a Children's Bookshelf Near You

This was their moment!

Suddenly, after years of being supplicants to the great and good of publishing, our SCBWI heroes find themselves the object of a schmooze-for-all, with agents, editors and publishers eager to check them out at the launch of the Undiscovered Voices anthology for 2010.

In 2008, the first ever SCBWI British Isles Undiscovered Voices competition led to all 12 winners (including me, yay!) being signed by agents.

And here's who we have to blame, The Saras (Sara Grant and Sara O'Connor) - who conceptualized the Undiscovered Voices and made it happen. Should you run into them, please be sure to kiss the hems of their skirts (or trousers), they have changed some lives BIG TIME - including mine.

The Saras (Grant and O'Connor)
Sara G and Sara O

Of the 12 2008 winners, eight now have book deals and an array of nominations, shortlistings, longlistings for the gamut of prizes available in the children's book world, including:
The Blue Peter book award
Barnes and Noble Top Teen book for 2009
American Library Association Best Book for Young Readers
2010 Waterstone’s Children’s Book Prize
Branford Boase First novel award
Borders Book of the Month
Steve HartleySarwat Chadda, and Harriet Goodwin - the first three of the original Undiscovered Voices to see their books in print - were present as were copies of their books for signing.

Steve Hartley Sarwat Chadda Harriet Goodwin
Okay. Apologies to Harriet (right) and Steve (left). But that's what comes from not taking the time to pose properly. You should really try to be more like Sarwat (center). Just smile.

Here's the cheat sheet that all guests were provided with so that they could target their desired author with appropriate ardour:

It's quite remarkable to think that the lives of these 12 somewhat shy people are about to change forever.

Watching the winners screwing up their courage to talk to agents they had previously feared, I remembered what it was like two years ago when I spent the launch party cowering in the company of friends rather than schmoozing the great and good.

Now I am a great fan of the Undiscovered Voices patron, Melvin Burgess, but I just could not get a shot of the man with his eyes OPEN. Here he is with Natascha Biebow, SCBWI BI's regional advisor:

Keynote speaker Melvin Burgess and British Isles RA Natascha Biebow

Luckily I managed to film his evocative speech with my trusty ... erm ... mobile phone. Turn up the volume to get the full impact - it was a moving tribute.

At the dinner afterward - which I gatecrashed along with Sarwat - Sara O'Connor toasted the winners and their soon to be golden tomorrows.

Sarwat and I were bemused by the guests that each winner took along, who all wore nametags that said 'Plus One' (as in added guest).

Lisa and her Plus One, Graham
Lisa Joy Smith (Slugs in the Toilet) with her Plus One, Graham.

These are the powers behind the throne, we thought. So after Sara's toast, I offered another one: to the Plus Ones - these are the people who make it happen for us writers, the ones who have to take the moodiness, the lateness and who keep us going into the light. Most likely, these are the names who will grace the dedication pages of future UV books!

Plus Ones!
More Plus Ones, lined up against the wall!

I'm afraid I didn't manage to photograph all the winners or the agents for that matter as the white wine was rather distracting. But here's a sampling of the evening:

Jude Ensaff Nick Cross
Jude Ensaff (One of a Kind) and Nick Cross (Back from the Dead)

Jasmine Melvin and Bella

Editors Jasmine Richards (OUP) and my editor, Bella Pearson (David Fickling) ... and of course Melvin with eyes closed

Sarah Manson and David Cousins
David Cousins (Fifteen Days Without a Head) has been signed by agent Sarah Manson (that's why they're toasting)

Natascha Biebow
Natascha introducing Melvin

Steve and Katy Lauren Chris Snowdon, Working Partners
Katie Dale of UV 2008 who finally made it after missing the first launch because she was travelling; Lauren Sabel (Vivian Divine and the Days of the Dead) flew in from the US just to attend; Chris Snowdon, managing director of Working Partners, the generous sponsor of the anthology

Sorry again if I didn't manage to photograph anyone who should be in this piece. You can read more about the UV launch on Nick Cross's wonderful blog Who Ate My Brain? (catchy title, Nick). Nick wrote Back from the DeadYona Wiseman (Becoming Invisible) has also blogged about it on Daylight Procrastinator. Anne M Leone (Adele) blogged about it on Critically Yours.

Left to right foreground: Yona Wiseman, Lisa Joy Smith, David Cousins, Anne Anderson, Paula Rawsthorne; back row: Nick Cross, Melvin Burgess, Jane McLoughlin, Lauren Sabel, Abbie Todd, Claire O'Brien, Emily George (not in picture, Jude Ensaff)

Meanwhile, congratulations to all the winners. May your tomorrows shine. Write well.

My signed copy of the anthology!

You might want to read my interview with Melvin about his experimental Twitter short stories. Scroll down.

Saturday 13 February 2010

Guest Blogger Gillian Philip: the landscape of us

When I read Crossing the Line, Gillian Philip's evocative teen novel, I was amazed at its unabashed Scottishness. Being from Somewhere Else (sunny Philippines), I struggle with the need to frame stories from within my cultural identity while hoping to appeal to readers in the West where I live. My very first novel (yet to be published - perhaps never), had English characters and a European setting. It had SNOW no less - at a time when I had yet to see the stuff though no longer. I was genuinely afraid anything I wrote would be labelled an 'issue' novel or too foreign to be commercial.
 An agent gently told me in so many words that it would be tough to sell a debut novel by an author who had no cultural connection to the story. So I decided to have a go at a novel with a Filipino element. It was only when I began to build worlds with Filipino characters that I felt my words began to sing . . .

And now here's Gillian!
‘Identity,’ Candy suggested, and I went ‘Gulp.’

I was thrilled to be asked to guest on Candy’s amazing blog, and delighted that she made a suggestion for a subject (because I’m not very good at thinking of them), but as soon as I thought about it my mouth went all dry. I’m not very good at identity either, I realised. But ‘I was very struck by the Scottishness of Crossing the Line,’ Candy told me, ‘which is why I suggested identity.’

Which set me wondering why it did have a strong Scottish flavour. Yes, the book is set in Scotland, though like my other novel Bad Faith, it never says so. Generally speaking, though, readers seem to ‘get’ the setting (Keren David, the author who guested here a couple of weeks ago, got one location right to within about twenty metres). I don’t think I could have set those books anywhere else. I don’t think that’s a strength. It’s probably indicative of a typically Scottish insularity.

I was an expat wife in the West Indies for twelve years and because I was without a work permit for a lot of that time, and childless for all of it, you’d think I would have used my vast quantities of spare time to write. I’d always wanted to be a writer. It wasn’t like my career was going places other than a beach bar at the bottom of our hill.
A gruelling life in the West Indies

Well, I did try, some of the time, at least before sundown. I sold some short stories, and then some more, and I felt pleased with myself though I didn’t enjoy it, because I knew I could never write a whole novel. Nothing occurred to me (see above). I did wring a flimsy sodden half-novel out of my rum-fuelled brain, and while the plot hung together and the story wrapped up rather nicely, it was a load of old tosh, because I believed none of it. The only character I believed in was the rum-sodden beach bar owner (I wonder where that came from) who was, of course, Scottish and homesick.

I suppose no writing is ever wasted and it was all good practice, but I’m happy to say I burned that one. My next project was romantic novels (I was under the all-too-common misconception that these are quite straightforward). I believed these ones, more or less, but Mills & Boon didn’t, so that was that.

Then, in 2001, two babies arrived and I said ‘I’m going home,’ and home we went, and back in the right landscape my brain was hit by an avalanche of stories. It wasn’t just the hills and lochs, I might add, though those came into it; it was the mean streets, the flashy streets and the downright dull streets. It was the weather, it was the light. I was just in the right place, and writing the right stories (between nappy changes). But it wasn’t the people.

Moving to Scotland to take a rest from all that cruel sunshine.

I think it’s a real failing that I couldn’t write a convincing story in a tropical landscape (mind you, I’ve read a few books that think the landscape, some quaint locals and/or oodles of rich people are enough, so not writing was preferable to producing something like that). But in a way, I don’t think I didn’t write about it.

The island where I lived was a small country with a small country’s quirks and disadvantages as well as its charms; so is Scotland. That island’s politics and personalities seeped into my writing; they just became Scottish, and it wasn’t as awkward a transition as I perhaps thought. Virtue and venality, they both travel. I was just writing about people. The way you do.

I think that’s why I haven’t identified Scotland in either Bad Faith or Crossing The Line. It may be my muse (whether I like it or not) but it would be a distraction, to me if to no-one else. That’s not to say I don’t want a strong sense of setting and landscape; I want to write stories that do happen in one place, but could happen anywhere. For Bad Faith I cherrypicked incidents from current affairs all over the world, but set them firmly in an unnamed Scotland. I hope they happen convincingly there, just as I hope that the events in Crossing The Line could happen, with different accents, in another country.
Scotland informs and influences my writing, whether I like it or not. It even kick-starts my writing. I love my birthplace, and at the same time there are things about it that drive me demented with fury and resentment and frustration. I didn’t belong in the West Indies but having lived there for so long, I don’t belong entirely in Scotland any more (now that is a very Scottish phenomenon, just to blow my thesis out of the water). So I would resent being in thrall to the place.

I’ve talked myself into a corner as usual, and I’m not sure what I’d conclude from thinking about this. Perhaps just that I like grounding my stories in a landscape I love; I’m grateful for the way the landscape sparks those stories.

But characters, they travel. They go anywhere and come from anywhere. You can’t confine human beings to one playground. And who’d want to? I have a Scottish identity and it means a lot to me, but I have another identity: I’m a writer. And that means I can really and truly be anyone I want to be.
Gillian Philip blogs on The Awfully Big Blog Adventure. You can find her website here.

Wednesday 3 February 2010

Guest Blogger Kathryn Evans: fat fibs and proper work

Guest blogger Kathryn Evans is possibly the only belly-dancing-farmer’s-wife- mother-of-two practising to be an author in West Sussex. Nearing the end of her 10,000 year writing apprenticeship, she is currently seeking a home for:
SKIN: Surviving cryostasis for 250 years is the least of Laura’s problems. When her little brother Alfie falls dangerously ill, Laura risks more than her own life to save him. A twisted journey of discovery for 12+.
DYLAN AND MOUSE: Lonely Dylan befriends Mouse, a rodent with a hamster complex and an endless supply of inappropriate costumes. A series of comic adventures for 7+.
All enquires to her agent Sophie Hicks
When Candy asked me to be a guest blogger, I nearly said no. I can’t follow on from  Keren David's guest post! I’ve read Keren's When I was Joe, it’s brilliant.

I am unworthy, unpublished and …ah, in need of publicity. I swiftly changed my mind, before Candy could change hers. After all, this is Notes from The Slush Pile, That I can write about.

I take it seriously, my author apprenticeship. I spend half the week on farm work and the other half writing. By some miracle of parenting, I also find extra bits of week in which I look after my family.

It isn’t easy and makes for conversations like this:
Daughter: ‘Mummy, I need to talk to you about something reeeeaaalllly important.’

Me: ‘Can it wait half an hour darling? I’m working.’

Daughter: ‘You’re on Facebook, aren’t you?’

Me: ‘No. I’m working.’

Daughter: ‘But Mummy, I reeeaaallly need to talk to you.’

Me: ‘Can I just finish this chapter?’

Daughter: ‘Oh, so it’s not proper work then? Good, because I really need a haircut and I don’t know if I should dye my hair red and Mr B*****t was so annoying today and it wasn’t my fault and can I go out on Friday? And, and, and……’
Don’t misunderstand me; I want to listen to my daughter download her day but then, I have to write late into the night. I could just go to bed. No one is going to tell me off. I’m not breaking any contractual obligations.

But I don’t.

I work until my eyes are gritty.


What is this passion?

Where does it come from?

Maybe it started in 1978, seeing my first poem published. The thrill, the utter thrill of putting words together and seeing them in print; basking in the heart swelling warmth of Miss Heathen’s approval.
by Kathryn Hodgkiss
Age 9

I am a volcano, under the sea,
I also live in Italy,
I’m dead now, but my old days were good
As I set off my flames, as fast as I could…
(There were more verses but luckily for you, I can’t remember them.)

Kathy in bellydancing mode: what some folk will do to get noticed

Or was it 1977, when my siblings and I wrote and performed ‘The Water Babies’ for an excited crowd of six. All went well until Lisa, such a Prima Donna even at three, refused to take part unless she had her own hairbrush. Little upstart, we booted her off the show, replacing her with an orange. That orange was as wooden as the bowl it came from, we had to rewrite the whole play.

Spot the Difference.

Or maybe it was 1984, when I started telling big, fat, fibs to make myself sound more interesting? Like the night I had to leave a party embarrassingly early and told everyone I had a modelling job next day. They looked at my 5 foot 2, very ordinary self, with disbelief. I showed them my hands. My dainty fingers were insured for thousands, I bragged, you’ve probably seen them on countless adverts for cuticle cream. I’d never admit Dad had said, be home by half past ten.

In honesty, I don’t know what made me seek this career fraught with poverty and rejection. I do know it isn’t the first time.

For most of my life, I wanted to be an actor (that was definitely to do with ‘Orange Water Baby’).

During my degree in drama, however, I accidentally fell in love with the suntanned neck and broad shoulders of an agriculture student. I couldn’t imagine life without his easy smile so I married him.

 Farming and theatre work are not an ideal mix. And I wanted, wanted, wanted to be with my kids as they grew up and, though I did take them filming on occasion, you can’t build an acting career on the odd bit of work that passes by your doorstep.
I look rough because I was acting, note the hands though, insured for thousands ...

I don’t remember replacing acting ambitions with writing ones, but that is what happened.

Maybe it was having a FRANKLY BRILLIANT, story idea. I typed it up, smiling at my own cleverness. Oh, look at me, I’ve written a book, la la la, stick it in an envelope, la la la, send it off to a few editors la la la wait for the offers to come in.

I got a snowfall of standard rejections.

I wrote another story, only this time, I reread my script and even corrected some of it. Surely, my genius would shine through.


But I did have a rejection from Natascha Biebow. She took the time to critique my work and gave me a brilliant piece of advice. If you’re serious, join SCBWI, learn your craft.

I joined and read and wrote and learnt. The rejections still came but they were more detailed. Beverley Birch even sent me one three pages long. It was the best rejection letter I ever had.

I ‘finished’ SKIN and sent it to an agent. An email came back.

‘I like this,’ said Sophie Hicks, ‘let’s talk.’


Kate Thompson’s Agent. *Swoon*. Eoin Colfer’s Agent. * Double swoon* My heart leapt out of my chest and did a little dance all by itself. This was it, I’d made it!

Gratuitous photo of bestselling children's writer Eoin Colfer with whom I share an agent

Not quite.

Making it to print (and staying there) will always hinge on the next person loving what I do - be that agent, publisher, bookseller or reader.

So bring on the late nights because I do have obligations. If I want to be read, I have to be good. It’s a competitive business and I owe it to Sophie, and everyone else who reads me, to be the best I can be. And one day, one day, maybe I’ll say to my daughter:
"It is proper work."
And I won’t be telling a big, fat, fib.

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