Wednesday 31 March 2010

Mayhewmania: in which our hero Jonathan Mayhew launches Mortlock and a flock of SCBWI fans turn up

So yeah, I was supposed to still be blogging about Bologna - about Ellen Hopkins' really cool talk about writing for teenagers and how to win prizes as explained by Leonard Marcus and the making of Coralilne as told by Fiona Kenshole and various other cool bits and pieces that happened.

But events have overtaken me.

Specifically, the launch of Jonathan Mayhew's amazing new Victorian gothic book MORTLOCK (the young heroine is a knife thrower. How cool is that?)

I went to the book launch (originally, I wasn't invited but we SCBWI people have our ways and managed to force Jon to give up some invites).

It was a thrilling evening at the Water Poet pub in Shoreditch - if you ignored the fabulous shopping and cafes and restaurants, it's like, cobbled Jack the Ripper land. Here is a slideshow of launch photos (thanks to Kathryn Evans and Sue Eves for additional photos):

Did I mention that most of the attendees had a striking resemblance to Jon?

The Mayhew family. Jon said the heroes were composites of his children - or did he say villains?

The SCBWI crowd turned up dressed in Victorian black with a touch of raven and shadows.

Bex, Sue, Kathy, Paolo, Laura, Sue, Anita

A tall, dark and handsome stranger flung himself into Mr. Mayhew's arms. It was the Dark Knight aka fellow author of gothic horror Sarwat Chadda.

Dances with Gothic Horror authors

Actors acted.

Beautiful women threw themselves at Jon's feet.

He wrote my name down!

The book itself was a thing of beauty.
Red endpapers and pages edged in black

Congratulations, Jon! We are proud of you!

Monday 29 March 2010

Guest Blogger Teri Terry: confessions of an unpublished children's writer

Teri Terry is one of those writing friends I met online, and have been lucky enough to have a peek at some of her works in progress which are very, very good.

She currently divides her time between writing, stalking agents and publishers, and working in a library in Bucks. She is contemplating a research Masters degree at Bedfordshire on limits in YA literature. Teri won second prize in Writing for Children 12-plus at the 2009 Winchester Writers Conference, and first prize in ages 8-11 the previous year. She has written seven novels to date. She is currently stalking agents and publishers with a YA fantasy, Life's a Beach, Katie Moon, in which Katie sells her soul to surf, and also an adult crime series, Ready Steady Die: shades of Janet Evanovich, but as it is set in England, more polite and with fewer guns. Work in progress includes a YA horror story, Claustrophobia, and a dystopian fantasy, Slated.

That Teri is still an author-in-waiting is, I believe, a temporary situation. It's only a matter of time, Teri.

I have a confession to make.

I suffer from Rosoff-envy. I can’t help it. I can’t read any of her stuff without turning a deep shade of lime green and reaching for chocolate.

Teri Terry writing while wrapped in sleeping bag; 
Teri (right) in a deep shade of lime green

So I couldn’t resist going to hear Meg Rosoff and Mal Peet speak at the Oxford Literary Festival.

The blurb had it that they were going to tackle what it means to write for Young Adults, and it was even capitalized. They were going to chip away at the limits of teenage fiction; avoid its comfort zones; discuss edginess, and risks. And Meg’s blog also promised it would be ‘chaotic, messy, and horribly indiscreet’.

Soldiering on despite sneezing and sniffling and general germy-ness, I caught the bus to Oxford, prepared to be shocked.

As promised, there was no moderator to rein them in. They were free to interrupt each other at will, and they did.

Meg began by introducing Mal, winner of the 2009 Guardian Children’s Fiction Award for Exposure. She then read a lyrical passage from Penalty, despite claiming to know and care about as much for football as I do.

Meg posed the question: what makes a YA writer?

Mal said he does not write for a particular reader, but has a Myna bird on his shoulder when he writes, saying ‘crap, crap, crap’. Football issues aside, I instantly warmed to Mal: I thought that was just me! He went on to say that he tries to present books that are ‘complex, testing and challenging’, and that he expects his readers to be good enough to read his books. If he writes for anyone, it is what he would have read himself at 15 or 16.

Meg’s view is that they are elderly adolescents and write for themselves. She disagrees with the idea that a different tone of voice should be used when writing for children, and wants the reader to ‘rise to the book’. Also she writes for adolescents for a reason: in many ways it was the most important time of her life. It is about remembering what it is like to not be able to see the world clearly; to be searching for what life is about; working out how to find love, and relationships. And these don’t things don’t end at 19, or even 21.

Meg asked Mal about the embarrassment of being a YA writer: she finds herself making excuses for writing for children, not adults.

Well. Try admitting to being an unpublished children’s writer. Few confessions can clear a room with more speed.

Mal usually says he is a plumber, as they are more in demand than children’s writers, and make more money.

As a defence to the ghettoization of children’s writing, Meg pointed out that the books you read and treasure at 15, 16 and 17 make more impression on you than anything you ever read as an adult. Crime and Punishment got her through a traumatic summer of boys climbing through windows to be with her beautiful roommate. I would have gone for chocolate, but I can see how that could work.

Mal attempted to take over, and introduced Carnegie-medal winner Meg. He also read a wonderfully evocative passage from Meg’s What I Was.

He asked Meg about her books ending in a sort of ‘triumphant melancholy’. She responded that is what life is kind of about, and she has to watch that they don’t end with a character cradling a Puppy of Hope. Her husband has the job of killing off said puppies with a red pencil. We all die at the end: the way to make sense of it not lasting forever is to feel we made the best of things we can.

Mal asked if she feels any responsibility to not be bleak: she doesn’t feel her books are bleak. She writes about what is in her brain: various permutations of love, and how it doesn’t always follow the path it is supposed to follow. As a writer, your subjects should choose you. It is not about having a contest to see who can be the most shocking. Mal added that books should not be categorized by what they are about, but how well they are done.

Regarding endings, Mal felt the truth about writing novels is that you never finish one, and he never feels a wonderful sense of closure, but is an obsessive fiddler. He hastened to add, with his books. Meg, on the other hand, is usually happy with books in the end, but in all cases, they are not the book she set out to write.

In response to a question on the title of What I Was, Meg noted that until the last second it was, instead, The Dark Ages. It was renamed at haste when the original title was rejected.

My quote of the day: Meg admires Dan Brown and Stephanie Meyer ‘in the abstract’. Hmmm…

Overall, what did I learn on my trip to Oxford?
  • It is OK to publicly admit to imaginary friends on one’s shoulder. 
  • Consider plumbing as a career option. 
  • It is all right to still be tackling the big questions of life that I was probably supposed to work out when I was 16. 
  • It is wise to have alternative titles in reserve 
  • Keep a copy of your manuscript with you at all times, since you never know when Catherine Clarke may hold the door open for you, again 
  • Bus 280 may or may not choose to stop at the temporary bus stop during road works and only comes once an hour on Sundays 
  • Watch out for the Puppy of Hope. (I’ll keep my Bunny of Hope – you know, the one sitting on my shoulder, who is convinced my publishing deal is around the corner and we’ll be scoffing cocktails on a cruise ship, soon, and that a few squares of extra dark organic will help in the meantime.)
Teri's Bunny of Hope. With cocktail. On cruise ship.

In addition to sniffling and sneezing, I am now also suffering from boot-prints on my butt: from my own boot.

At the end of the event there was a long queue to Meg and Mal for signings, and I was thinking to myself: should I or shouldn’t I say hello to Meg.

Would she remember we spoke at the SCBWI conference in November, or that I say hello now and then on Facebook?

I left. Didn’t want to stand in front of her, drooling (and sniffling, and sneezing), saying ‘like, um, I really love your books, er, um, do you remember me?’ and risk her having a ‘who the hell are you?’ look on her face.

But I’d put a message on Facebook the day before that I was going, and then last night Meg posted, where were you Teri?


I wailed to my tolerant other half that it was like he had a chance to meet Bruce Springsteen and didn’t, and then Bruce texted him out of the blue and said, where were you, mate?

Another time, Bruce.

ADD: And here's Meg's own post about the Oxford Literary Festival (strangely mostly about stalking Hilary Mantel. Ah, the literary food chain goes round and round)

Thursday 25 March 2010

Richard Peck: "All novels are based on an epiphany"

I'm still high from having written my post Richard Peck on the beating heart of what we do as children's writers. So I had to see if any of his speeches were on YouTube. I found this:

At the end of the interview (in case you don't get there because your attention span has been so shortened by hours in front of facebook) the interviewer asks him for one word that captures the role of children's authors, aspiring or published.


He didn't hesitate.

Richard Peck on the beating heart of what we do as children's writers

If you cannot find yourself on the page very early in life, you will go looking for yourself in all the wrong places.

When Richard Peck said that, I would have applauded had I not been typing as fast I could to get down his every meaty line.

In all his books, he said, he always has an older character."I always put old people in, just in case there are no old people in my readers's lives. Just in case they no longer have to write thank you notes to their grandparents. A book, like a school, should provide what is no longer available in life ."

Mr. Peck was speaking at the 2010 SCBWI Symposium in Bologna. He is now 76 and it is nine years since he won the Newbery Medal for A Year Down Yonder, a book that few publishers would embrace these days because not only is it of a very specific regional bent, its lead character is a big fat and old lady, plus there is not a single handsome bloodsucker in sight.

His theme had somewhat evolved from the announced  topic "The Right Books Right Now" to what drives or should drive us children's authors to write for "a generation who knows no earlier century, who knows no time but now, and who recognizes no government but the peer group."

Says Mr. Peck: "We write for a generation we never were because ours is a higher calling: a deeper craft", trying to woo "a readership whose facebooks glow hot into the night long after their parents are fast asleep".

He listed what was required of us in breathtaking language:
  • "We have crossed  terrible minefields of our own making ... the opening mine of the opening line. Are we writing with invitational simplicity without a word to slow it down?" He cites as an example of an opening with "invitational simplicity" a line from EB White's Charlotte's Web: "Where is Papa going with that axe?" 
  • "Like no other authors we can doom ourselves before we start, fall at the first fence ... when the thickets of our dark woods see the adverbs coiling to strike. Boys don’t use adverbs. Boys live in an unqualified word." He quotes Mark Twain: "If you see an adverb, shoot it.
  • "We have to write as the readers. We cannot write as ourselves ...We must write nearer to our readers and farther from ourselves than any other kind of writer.". 
  • "Character development is the beating heart of what we do." 
  • "Dialogue is best written standing up. It improves the pace ... I write with my feet. That way I can act out my scenes when I get to the kids. If you are unwilling to get up and act out any of your scenes, you will be reduced to writing for adults 
  • "The hard truth that a story must entertain first before it can do anything else ... and what entertains you and me doesn’t necessarily entertain the young."  
  • "A story for the young must move in a straight line with hope at the end."  
  • "The hook upon all our stories hang is the universal truth that actions have consequences. If actions have no consequences, plots fall apart. If actions have no consequences, it isn't a book ... it's a remedial programme. But being responsible for the consequences of your actions is the least interesting truth to the young ... and so we have to be canny and devious."

It was not so much a keynote as a call to arms

And our responsibility is great - because what we create on the page is like a magic mirror that helps our young reader see the human being they can become.

Researching Richard Peck on the internet, I was delighted to discover he had written an autobiography Anonymously Yours. In it, he posted the following, a kind of Reader's Creed:
I read because one life isn't enough, and in the page of a book I can be anybody; 

I read because the words that build the story become mine, to build my life;

I read not for happy endings but for new beginnings; I'm just beginning myself, and I wouldn't mind a map;

I read because I have friends who don't, and young though they are, they're beginning to run out of material;

I read because every journey begins at the library, and it's time for me to start packing;

I read because one of these days I'm going to get out of this town, and I'm going to go everywhere and meet everybody, and I want to be ready.
This is why we write for children.

Wednesday 17 March 2010

Off to SCBWI's Bologna Symposium 2010

Well it's Bologna time again! Here are some photos from my very first trip to Bologna back in 2006 to attend the SCBWI conference, which has now been renamed as a 'symposium' (visit the SCBWI Bologna website if you feel like signing up at the last minute).

If you're on Facebook and can't view the slideshow, you can view it here

I must confess I had to look up the meaning of symposium to find out what makes it different from a conference:·ums, or -si·a (-zē-ə).
  1. A meeting or conference for discussion of a topic, especially one in which the participants form an audience and make presentations.
  2. A collection of writings on a particular topic, as in a magazine.
  3. A convivial meeting for drinking, music, and intellectual discussion among the ancient Greeks.
Ancient SCBWI symposium 475BC 

So ... well, I'm not going to try to explain.

Anyway ... two great things happened on that first SCBWI conference in Bologna.

1. I met a shy Italian named Paolo who loved fantasy and wrote in English. He has remained a close writing buddy ever since - I love his cinematic plot lines! Here's the terrific website he built for his wip The Vespertine Hour.

2. I discovered Scott Westerfeld . I was so impressed by Scott's keynote about teenage slang that I have since read everything he's written and continue to recommend them to all my friends. I still give away sets of Scott's trilogies to teenagers on special occasions ... oh wait one of the trilogies has turned into a quartet. And so it goes.

The second time I went to Bologna was in 2008. Guess who I ran into outside the SCBWI party?

Unashamedly thrilled to meet Scott Westerfeld

SCBWI Bologna 2008 had evolved significantly - I was proud to see the British Isles logo on the banner display of SCBWI regional logos.

And I was proud to help man the showcase for SCBWI British Isles at the fair itself:

Margaret Carey, Natascha Beibow, Anne-Marie Perks, 
Sarah McIntyre, me, Catriona Hoy, Trish Phillips

This year, with all the travelling I've been doing, I'm on austerity measures. So courtesy of a cheapy ticket from Ryanair (I never thought I'd see the day when I'd say I'm so glad I booked with Ryanair), I am attending the conference but not the fair itself!

I am doing my part though, because in my luggage I shall be carrying the SCBWI British Isles Showcase - cards, books, posters of our SCBWI authors. SCBWI's got its own stall at the fair, and each region has a slot to display its wares.

Now we all know it's going to a great year for SCBWI British Isles at Bologna, with a bumper crop of authors - this pre-Bologna report in The Bookseller is riddled with SCBWI names!

And here's a small selection from my suitcase. 
Took this shot hurriedly, sorry if I didn't manage to fit yours in.

And I'm taking it all in my carry-on luggage to avoid Ryanair fees! The secret? Pack no clothes! It's a well known fact that to fly Ryanair happily and successfuly one must take as little as possible. All one needs is a change of bikinis.

Friday 12 March 2010

Guest Blogger Fiona Dunbar: a Mother's Day Tale

It's Mothering Sunday this weekend and to mark the day, my guest blogger and friend Fiona Dunbar has written this moving tribute to her mother, who herself had writing aspirations. Fiona is the author of the Lulu Baker trilogy which has been turned into the TV series Jinx, and the Silk Sisters trilogy which features a girl with the power to change like a chameleon. You can follow Fiona's blog here. Welcome to the Slushpile, Fiona!
I have killed my father. 

He lies over the desk in the study. The angle of his neck is wrong and from where I am sitting, I can see the side of his dead eye and thick blood at the corner of his mouth…

So begins a science fiction story called The Medusa Plant that, to my knowledge, has never been published. Or maybe it was – if so, it’s all lost in the mist of time now. It was written by my mother.

For years, I strenuously avoided turning into my mum. Having completely idolised her as a child, I then morphed into a teenager, and the rose-tinted spectacles came off. I vowed not to be loud and embarrassing in social situations like her, or have such disastrous relationships with men, or fail repeatedly at achieving goals, such as getting one’s work published.

I really don't know why Fiona doesn't want to turn into her yummy mummy

Not that I had any such ambitions at that time. In those days, my creative impulse was channelled not into writing, but drawing. (I have always written, but back then, the words were a mere adjunct to the pictures). Everything I produced was pronounced a marvel by my mum – and therefore, as far as I was concerned, utter rubbish.
Cornwall 1971: Interesting this photo because grown up Fiona so looks like her mum (see black and white pic below of Fiona with her kids)

This is the First Law of Motherhood:
You can’t win. 
Say your kids’ work is lousy? Consign them to years of therapy. Say it’s wonderful? Ha! What do you know? "You would say that, wouldn’t you? You’re my mum." (I’ve had that one too, from my own teenage daughter).
Fiona and her own kids (taken a few years ago)  

As for my mother’s own creative endeavours ... well, she never fully realised her ambitions there. Why? It’s not as if she wasn’t talented. In fact, I think she was really good. Good enough to have had an agent, and to have had a couple of things published ... but knowing her and her work as I do, I think there was a great deal more that could and should have happened, and never did.
One of her mum's manuscritps

I think she’d have made a good YA author – only back then, there wasn’t really any such thing. She was most at home with short stories, citing Saki as an influence, and wrote both for adults and for children.

Her writing was perceptive, lyrical, macabre and darkly funny. As far as I can remember, she had just two short stories published: a riveting children’s science fiction story called The South Gate Sea, and an adult story about, ahem, losing her virginity. (Yes, I actually read it. And yes, it was thoroughly cringe-inducing). There was also a TV play with Dennis Waterman that I didn’t rate much – but I was pleased for her that it got made.

As you might judge from the above, it probably didn’t help that she was so diverse.

Her concept for a children’s TV series called The Upside-Down People, (featuring characters called Sagacious, Prod and Umpulk) never saw the light of day; nor did a ghost story called Walking To Coverack, inspired by a holiday we took in Cornwall in – oh wow, I’m dating myself here – 1971.

An 80s Fiona poses with her mum

Reading it recently gave me goosebumps – not just because it’s spooky, but because it evokes so wonderfully the sights, sounds and smells of a part of the country I first fell in love with then. And more than anything, because it was written by her.

The last twelve years of her life were hampered by ill health. But she took a keen interest in my own nascent literary efforts, and when, in 2004, she was invited to the launch party of the first of my Lulu Baker books, The Truth Cookie, she was as excited as I was.

Wooden spoons for invitations! Yes, we were going to do this in style. Alas, the party never happened; the night before it was due to take place, she was struck by a brain haemorrhage. She died two weeks later.

So, did I succeed in not turning into my mum? Well, I don’t think I’m loud and embarrassing in social situations – though my kids might disagree. I’ve fared more happily on the relationship front: my husband and I have been together for nearly twenty years. As for the publishing: well, like most of us, I have a drawer full of stuff that didn’t go anywhere. But The Truth Cookie is still in print, has been followed by six other titles, and has inspired the CBBC TV series, Jinx. I have a contract for a new series, and right now, I’m about to embark on one of them…a ghost story, set in Cornwall.

The Lulu Baker books re-released with the Jinx covers

So you might say that yes, I succeeded in that objective.

Except that this is not the whole picture, of course.

There were so many wonderful things about my mum – her warmth, her humour, her wit and compassion ... even, yes, the economy and cleverness of her writing – that I aspire to myself. The big difference is this: she didn’t believe in herself enough. I’m not doing better than she did because I’m more talented – I don’t think I am. I’ve just stuck with it.

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