Sunday 27 March 2011

Writing is hard, right? Teenage Kicks at Random House

"A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people." - Thomas Mann
This is so true. Every word must be the right word, the only one that in combination with all the other right words, sentences and paragraphs creates a chain that leads all the way from page one to ‘the end’ in an inevitable, flawless jigsaw, where the ending isn’t suspected but gives that satisfied of course when it is reached. At least…. that is the plan.
And some days, it flows, and all is right in my world. Others, not so much. And those are the days I’ve been having lately.
Last Tuesday I was lucky enough to attend the Reading Agency’s Teenage Kicks at Random House in London. Led by Bucks this year through High Wycombe Headspace and Children’s Reading Partners, authors Malorie Blackman, Bali Rai and Jenny Downham were there to inspire and answer questions. They were wonderful, warm and approachable, and generous with their responses.
Bali, Malorie & Jenny
One question they were asked is: what is the hardest thing about writing? And since I’ve been finding it hard going myself lately, my ears instantly perked up.
Answering the tough questions
For Malorie Blackman, the hardest thing is reworking. The most fun is the first draft, just getting the story out. But after that? She admits to a perfectionist streak. She prints it out, goes through it again and again, makes changes and prints it again. This happens six or seven times before she lets her editor see it. She finds the dedication to get through this is hard, as by then she just wants to get on to the next thing.
Jenny Downham never plans. She writes much like a stream of consciousness for weeks and weeks. Months can go by before she knows where she is going: so for her, the hardest thing is going down the wrong path.
Bali Rai said his hardest thing is much like Malorie’s. He also has trouble keeping other ideas out of his head. Always while writing, he is thinking of other things, and getting excited about stuff he hasn’t written more so than what he is working on. Keeping those things separate is difficult. Though he also said he doesn’t find any of it particularly hard hard, because writing was his hobby before he started getting paid for it. He feels privileged to do it, and enjoys it most of the time: apart from being plagued by too many ideas. Can you have too many ideas?
Through the evening you could see they all had the joy: that feeling you can only get from creating characters and the world they inhabit from nothing but imagination and desire. And they reminded me why I put myself through it.
Sharing the joy!
Writing isn’t easy. But it is so worth it.
And what did I think of the Reading Agency’s Teenage Kicks at Random House?
As thirteen year old Katherine summed up when asked what she thought of the evening: it was awesome.
Katherine meets her hero

Wednesday 23 March 2011

The Class of 2010: Undiscovered Voices One Year On

By Nick Cross
Guest Blogger

Undiscovered Voices is SCBWI British Isles' genius scheme to get twelve of its members' work under the noses of the biggest and best in children's publishing. With the 2012 competition kicking off in just a couple of weeks, Nick Cross – one of last year's winners – reports on the difference a year makes:
Winners on the night of the Undiscovered Voices reception: Left to right foreground: Yona Wiseman, Lisa Joy Smith, David Cousins, Anne Anderson, Paula Rawsthorne; back row: Nick Cross, Melvin Burgess (who delivered the keynote), Jane McLoughlin, Lauren Sabel, Abbie Todd, Claire O'Brien, Emily George 

Twelve months after the launch of the Undiscovered Voices 2010 anthology, we winners are, quite frankly, old news. But that didn't stop us meeting up last weekend to practice those stories to tell our grandkids.

It was the first time that we'd all been together since the launch party, and the circumstances couldn't have been more different – a long lunch by the Thames and a chance to catch up.

From left and round the table: Anne Anderson, Nick Cross, Emily George,   Claire O'Brien, Graham, Lisa  Joy Smith,   Abbie Todd, Jane McLoughlin
The only problem with the anthology launch party was that the authors were physically not allowed to talk to each other - as soon as we attempted it, someone from Working Partners would usher us off to network with another agent or editor.

So, some awkwardness might have been expected when we all got together, especially after so long apart. But thanks to social networking and a shared sense of struggle, it felt like a meeting of old friends.

It was just a shame that geography conspired to keep Lauren Sabel and Yona Wiseman from joining us.

Of the twelve winners, six have so far signed with an agent and four have a book contracted for publication. That's a pretty good hit rate in a tough market and a figure I expect to be higher by the time the 2012 anthology is published.

From left to right: Anne Anderson, Emily George, Paula Rawsthorne, Dave Cousins, Claire O'Brien, Graham (Lisa's partner), Lisa Smith, Abbie Todd, Jane McLoughln

Paula Rawsthorne will be the first to come to market this year with The Truth About Celia Frost. Paula showed us her hot-off-the-press cover design for the teen novel and I heard from a bookseller the next day that Usborne have already sent out bound proofs of the book. What was I saying about us being old news? IT WAS A LIE!

Dave Cousins showed off some snazzy logo designs for gritty teen writing collective The Edge, which Paula is also a member of. Dave's YA novel Fifteen Days without a Head is due to be published by OUP early in 2012.

Claire O'Brien has two books coming out from Orchard within months of each other next year.

Jane McLoughlin has had a tough route to publication, but I'm very pleased to say that At Yellow Lake has found a home at Frances Lincoln. Jane is going to be a natural at school visits - her personality is so big we had to find it another chair!

Paula's even got this cool book trailer for her forthcoming book!

I received some gentle ribbing for the over-excited blogging I did in the early days after our win, depicting the race between us to get published. I think we've all learnt a huge amount in the last year – one thing I've definitely learnt is that writing and getting published is a marathon, not a sprint.

It was such a pleasure to chat with the writers who I hadn't had much contact with at the launch, like Anne Anderson, Jude Ensnaff and Emily George.

We compared scars and told war stories, such as the agent who looked dead bored when I pitched to her and who later told one of us that her book "wasn't as funny as I expected."

Abbie Todd talked about her agent's steely determination to get her a book deal, which bodes well for her future prospects. Despite the caprices of the publishing industry, there was a lot of optimism in the room – there have been inevitable disappointments, but we've all collected a lot of goodwill and good contacts.

Sara Grant and Sara O'Connor
We're incredibly thankful for the hard work put in by Sara Grant and Sara O'Connor, who will again edit this year's anthology.

This is despite Sara O'Connor leaving Working Partners to become a big shot at Hodder Children's books and Sara Grant celebrating the imminent publication of her own debut novel Dark Parties.

Undiscovered Voices transformed the lives of twelve debut authors in 2008 and again in 2010. Next time, it may well be you.

After appearing in Undiscovered Voices, Nick Cross signed with agent Jenny Savill of Andrew Nurnberg Associates. He blogs about writing every Friday at Nick is currently writing a brand new 9-12 adventure novel that he promises will "knock your mind and blow your socks off."
Nick Cross won his place in Undiscovered Voices with his novel Back from the Dead.  Nick also writes a blog called Who Ate My Brain

Thursday 17 March 2011

Scattered Authors Society Conference: Diary of a Wimpy Vampire Author

By Tim Collins
Guest Blogger

I'm very proud to say that just the other day, our guest blogger Tim Collins won the 2011 Manchester City Fiction Award for his book Diary of a Wimpy Vampire: The Undead have Feelings Too. He has recently completed a sequel called Prince of Dorkness, which is out in May. Like many authors, he's got a day job - he works in advertising, which probably explains his talent for totally amazing titles. 

Tim Collins greeting fans at the Manchester City Fiction Award celebrations.

Tim's award winning debut novel!
Way to go, Tim!
Last weekend I attended my first event for the Scattered Authors’ Society, which was organised by Miriam Halahmy and Sue Barrow.

For those who don’t know them, the Scattered Authors’ Society is a group of published children’s authors who meet to talk about writing and the industry. Discussion tends to focus on the challenges of maintaining a career, such as self-promotion, school visits and market trends.

It won’t be news to anyone that sustaining a writing career is tough, but I’m always amazed at just how hard established authors work when you press them for details.

What we could achieve if
we were Linda Chapman
I asked Linda Chapman what her record daily word count was and she said 13,000. I don’t think I could even copy and paste that much in a day.

Hard work and painstaking research were certainly in evidence in Mary Hoffman’s session on Saturday about her forthcoming historical YA novel David, which imagines the story of Michelangelo’s model.

What I loved about Mary’s talk was how open she was about every step of developing the novel from initial idea to corrected proof.

Mary showed us the scrapbook she kept while researching the book, which included maps, timelines and lists of popular names from the time. It was fascinating to flick through a research scrapbook, something I’ve always been told to keep but have never got round to. I’ve sometimes created desktop folders to dump relevant images and links into, but I wonder if an actual, physical scrapbook would suggest hidden connections and lead to a richer fictional world.

Mary Hoffman chooses a talismanic object for every book she works on.
As well as all keeping scrapbooks, Mary chooses a ‘talismanic object’ for each book she works on, in this case a small cube of marble. This sounds like an interesting writing exercise, i.e. What would you choose as the talismanic object for the book you’re currently working on? Why did you choose it? What does it tell you about how you want the book to turn out?

Tim Collins posing with a librarian.

Lucy Cuthew of Meadowside
Also on Saturday, Lucy Cuthew, the commissioning editor of Meadowside Children’s Books spoke to us about current trends. Most authors feel slightly guilty about discussing what’s ‘hot’, but as a writer of comedy I’m happy to leap faster than Jonathan Edwards if I spot a bandwagon so I always enjoy these sessions.

Right now we reckon the trends are dystopias, paranormal creatures other than vampires and, perhaps surprisingly, special needs protagonists.

Basically if you’re working on a story about a werewolf with ADHD swimming around a submerged city, you should be safe.

If you’re working on a story about a werewolf with ADHD, swimming around a submerged city, you should be safe

Overriding all these content trends, however, are format trends. Lucy showed us the iPad app for The Heart and the Bottle, which uses touch screen technology to bring Oliver Jeffers’ picture book to life.

It’s all very impressive, but I can’t help thinking that form and content are still fighting each other a tad. But surely it’s only a matter of time before an author who knows and loves app development creates an interactive story that can only work on a touch screen, and hoovers up awards like a Dyson.

But will they have created a book or a variation on one of those point-and-click adventures I wasted the nineties playing, like Monkey Island and Broken Sword?

Tim Collins at the entrance to his flat.

Helena Pielichaty
On Sunday morning, Helena Pielichaty hosted a lively discussion about political correctness in children’s writing. As a male, I find that children’s writing conferences are one of the few times I can experience being part of a minority, but I thought it better not to bring my particular repressed group into this debate.

It was illuminating to find out how editors have responded to fictional diversity. The feeling was that authors want to vary the ethnicity, physical ability and sexuality of their characters, but the industry only wants them to if the books are specifically about these issues.

We hope that things are changing, although you might still miss out on that Arabic edition if your main character has two dads.

Look out for Tim's new book
Although brief, the conference packed in a massive amount of information that I’m still processing and inspired plenty of story ideas that I really ought to go and do something about.

Monday 7 March 2011

World Book Night: Return of the Reader

By Jo Wyton
Guest Blogger

Jo is another talented writing buddy from SCBWI. She is a geologist with a thoroughly impractical interest in rocks and an even more impractical interest in getting published. With deadlines looming, she is desperately trying to prop up the pile of unfinished manuscripts on her desk with one hand whilst trying to chase the elusive words 'The End' with the other. For some reason, she’s chosen to try doing that with two manuscripts at the same time. Eejit.
Aha, I hear you say, here we are, over here! We are at last free to crawl out from beneath our unstitched bindings and crumpled pages. We are free to shout it from the rooftops. ‘We love books!’ No e-readers for us, no sirreebob – give us something we can hold on to and let us relish the feeling of turning the page and unveiling the Next Exciting Moment!
Ahem. Well, that’s me anyway…
See: books!
In case you don’t know about World Book Night (who knows – you may have been trapped under a catastrophically unstable pile of manuscripts at the time), it was all started by Jamie Byng of Canongate Books and has been organised in only a few months (a few months!).
The idea is for a million books to be given out around the country. With authors and publishers forgoing any profits on those one million, this is a serious business.
I’ve heard that some are saying it will be bad for the book business – why buy a book when you can get one for free?
With a solemn drop of my head and a sigh I say boo to that, boo! What could be better for the book business than giving one million people a copy of a book they’ve never read before, in some cases never heard of before? Ten points and a copy of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo to any of World Book Night’s critics who remember how that particular paperback phenomenon got going.
Anyway, (and I shall try not to use any more ‘p’ words here…) a total of a million copies of 25 titles have been selected to be given out, all dispatched by volunteers. Some have been given out at homeless shelters, some at schools and colleges, some at libraries and bookshops, and some in prisons and hospitals.
One of the giveaway titles: Sarah Waters's Fingersmith
Friday was the eve of World Book Night, and in the evening myself and around 10,000 other people crammed ourselves into Trafalgar Square for the launch event and pronounced our love for reading (complete with ruddy cheeks and icicle-blue toes).
We arrived at quarter to six, fifteen minutes before kick-off. A big stage had been set up in front of Nelson’s Column and the whole square was fenced off from the street, but for all that, Trafalgar Square was at most half-full.
Cue thoughts of ‘Oh dear, what’s gone wrong here then? Perhaps they should have advertised more? Perhaps the world just isn’t ready to stand and listen to people reading books for two hours?’
Nelson's column joining in the fun
Fifteen minutes later, as Graham Norton walked on stage, I turned around and caught my breath. I lived in London for a year and attended several events in Trafalgar Square, but I’ve never seen anything like it.
People filled every corner, and the crowd backed right up to the National Gallery and up onto it’s steps. Even the fountains had been taken over by bookworms (now there’s something I never thought I’d say).
Young, old, tall and short (the tall oh-so-inevitably standing in front of the short) were packed in, all watching the stage with a look of combined anticipation. Honestly, you’d have thought the line-up included the Beatles and the Pope, not authors.
Bookworms take over Trafalgar Square
Oh, and a few of them did turn up: Philip Pullman, Sarah Waters, Alan Bennett, Tracey Chevalier, Mark Haddon (best of the night, hands down), Margaret Atwood (all the way from Canada for the night) and John Le Carré to name a few.
There were even a few actors thrown in for some (surely exotic) reason – Rupert Everett and Stanley Tucci included – but this was the one marvellous place on earth where Alan Bennett’s protestation against the closure of local libraries was sure to raise a cheer three times louder than the appearance of a Hollywood actor on stage.
Three times louder might be an understatement: when he described closing libraries as ‘child abuse’, he raised what might be described as a fervent roar. Amazing. Also the first time I’ve heard real people use the phrase ‘here, here’!
Alan Bennett gets Trafalgar Square firmly on his side!

It was an event in London, so naturally, their stoic leader dropped in
The authors were reading excerpts from either their favourite book or from their own.
I’ve never been surrounded by so many people standing still, silent, just listening to somebody read, and it was magical.
How many other things do you know of that would make 10,000 people voluntarily stand in silence in the freezing cold? Just brilliant – an unrivalled chance for book lovers to breathe a collective sigh of relief and say, ‘You know what? Books are important, and reading is fun, and we’re happy to freeze our butts off to say so.’
God/Philip Pullman (delete as per belief system)
On stage too were eight of the ‘givers’ (they got the comfort of a sofa to sit their freezing butts on). They were asked in turn which book they’d be giving away, and who they’d be giving it to.
Some of the stories were amazing and made me wish I’d got round to applying myself. One woman, a writer, worked with a centre for victims of torture and abuse, and she would be handing them out to women there the following night.
Others, by the way, are giving them out on the tube, in prisons, in libraries and schools, and even a canal boat in Oxford.
Graham Norton ended the night with the words, ‘Let the sharing begin!’ and before we knew it, people were turning to each other and thrusting free books into their arms with whispers of, ‘Read this, it will change your life.’ I’ve even read that a homeless man on Charing Cross Road ended up with a copy of The Life of Pi.
Heroic compering from Graham Norton, not quite as
wrapped up against the cold as he'd like to be
By the end of the night, as we were standing trying to get our legs working again, I was looking around, watching people swapping books.
In front of me all night had been standing a mother with her young daughter, and next to them was an old couple literally (I’m not kidding) holding each other up by the end. Such a mixture of people all there for the same reason – and all for free.
I honestly can’t believe how fantastic it all was – officially the biggest literary event in history! Again, again, do it again!
World Book Night itself followed on Saturday, celebrated around the country in bookshops, libraries and I think just about anywhere else you can find books.
For my part, on Saturday evening I attended an event at Mostly Books, a small independent bookshop in Abingdon, South Oxfordshire.
A couple of people had brought some of their freebies along, and there was also a selection of proof copies donated by publishers.
The choosing of free books was fuelled by wine, which helps when trying to choose which of many brilliant books to pick up!
The shop was as full as I’ve ever seen it, with a great atmosphere full of people chatting about books.
Every guest was also invited/asked/forcibly made (yes, I mean you, Nicki) to fill in a small slip of paper with their favourite book and their guilty pleasure. (It was only afterwards they explained that your guilty pleasure was supposed to be a book, to which a number of people were heard to say ‘oops’.)
The board of Innermost Thoughts and Feelings pre-wine,
with bookshop owner, Mark Thornton
(ok, it was actually just for book recommendations)
World Book Night is a genius idea – giving people free books, and inviting them to free events to celebrate reading – is brilliant. Lots of people will be given a copy of a book, and they will tell friends and share their experience, and perhaps they will go out and buy another one.
But for me there’s one last thing to add – all of the books being given away for World Book Night are intended for adults. The only exceptions are Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights and Mark Haddon’s Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, but these are both marketed as cross-over novels – brilliant as they are, they’re definitely aimed at the older end of the children’s book spectrum.
The board of Innermost Thoughts and Feelings, post-wine
And you know what, between readings of Ulysses, Bleak House and Lucky Jim in Trafalgar Square, I longed for someone to stand up and give us some fun stuff too, you know, drop in a bit of the BFG or Artemis Fowl, Torak or Skulduggery Pleasant, give us all a break from the seriousness of life and the numbness of our toes.
As a children’s writer I’m biased, I know, but what shows the fun of reading better than a children’s book?
Because when it comes down to it, World Book Night is about sharing the reading experience and encouraging more people than ever to pick up a book.
In a time when we are closing libraries all over the country, and when schools are facing further funding cuts and bigger class sizes, shouldn’t an event like this perhaps have taken the opportunity to say to kids too, ‘You know what? Books are important, and reading is fun, and we’re happy to freeze our butts off to say so’?
Books are important, and reading is fun, and we're happy to freeze our butts off to say so!

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