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Guest Blogger Teri Terry: confessions of an unpublished children's writer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


  1. Thanks for sharing this, Teri! The Bunny of Hope shines like a beacon on your shoulder. (there was rather a worrying amount of chocolate featuring in this post)

  2. Oh, yes. I went to Hotel Chocolat in Oxford for dark chocolate salted caramels after the bus not stopping incident, too.
    p.s the Bunny of Hope wants to point out that his name is Banrock

  3. Great post Teri! Thanks for sharing, am sorry you didn't meet up with Meg :O( Hope the chocolate made up for it x

  4. I'm planning to be Hilary Mantel's stalker, Teri, so I'd be pleased to have you as mine. (Though Bookwitch has first dibs, of course!) Next time come say hello. I'm always grateful that anyone wants to talk to me.

  5. Talking, stalking: there's only one letter in it

  6. I enjoyed this post -- thank you. Nice shade of green, by the way:)

  7. Teri - I can't think of anyone better to stalk than Meg! I know what you mean, though - I still have trouble introducing myself to "real" writers because you feel so diminished without an agent or contract to your name. I reckon there should be a special SCBWI card you can show people that says "I am currently unpublished but please take me seriously because everyone tells me I'm nearly there."


  8. I love what Mal Peet said about Meg ending in 'triumphant melancholy'. There is an edginess to those endings that is very hard to describe.

  9. Teri - get out of my way! You can't stalk Meg. Anyway, you seem too polite for stalking.

    And how come you go on the bus and Bunny cruises with drink in hand?

  10. Ah, simple. The Bunny of Hope is my muse, and it pays to look after your muse...
    I am more of a stalker-in-training than an actual stalker: any hints appreciated

  11. LOL! Brilliant post, Teri and long live the bunny of hope and organic dark chocolate. I'm just wondering, can I join the ranks of "Meg Stalkers"? I've been oohing and aahing over her magnificence ever since I read How I Live Now, six years ago.

  12. Really enjoyed this, Teri. Did Bunny of Hope say hi to Meg?

  13. The Bunny of Hope doesn't work Sundays, so he didn't come along. Another time, perhaps

  14. I work in a library in Bucks too! Also a big fan of Meg Rosoff - she makes it look so easy.

    Great post and good luck with your writing :o)

  15. Hi Karen! Which library?


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