Monday 26 March 2012

Climbing Mountains with Patrick Ness, Tim Bowler, Sally Nicholls and Moira Young

by Teri Terry

On Saturday I went to the Oxford Literary festival with most of my crit group and a few others along as well. Friends, books, a gorgeous sunny day in Oxford, and promise of a pub after: bliss. But first and foremost, we were there to hear a stellar panel of award-winning YA authors on this topic:
Life, Death and Other Grown up Subjects.
Patrick Ness: author of the acclaimed Chaos Walking trilogy, the first of which had me glued hour after hour to the pages...then throwing it across the room at the end because book 2 wasn't out yet. He won the 2011 Carnegie medal for book 3, Monsters of Men, and also wrote A Monster Calls, completed from an idea left by the late Siobhan Dowd.

Tim Bowler: also a former Carnegie Medal winner for River Boy, and the author of Starseeker, Apocalypse, Frozen Fire, Bloodchild, Buried Thunder, the groundbreaking Blade series, and a new novel, Sea of Whispers - out in October.
Sally Nicholls: whose Ways to Live Forever won the Waterstones Children's book prize and was shortlisted for the Branford Boase. Her latest All Fall down is a historical apocalypse, set at the time of the black death.

Moira Young: whose debut Blood Red Road about survival in a lawless future won the Costa.

They got straight to the jugular:

Is young adult fiction depressing?

Tim: No. It is both tough and necessary to write about the complexities of life and perplexities about these issues, one of which is dealing with death. Must there be hope? The easy answer is yes. But don’t give them humbug, either (Patrick agrees, though instead of humbug calls it crap). Tim says they may be depressing, troubling things to take on, but taking them on is optimistic.

Patrick: has judged teenage writing competitions, and their writing is way bleaker than anything we can come up with! If you tell the truth about what is difficult, then when you tell truth about the good stuff, like love, it is more truthful because you haven’t lied about the tough stuff.

Sally: tries to write truth in a way that isn’t depressing; to write in a way that also acknowledges humour and hope. Feels it is harder to write light than dark, but it is important.

Moira: kills people off without a second thought.

Do they prefer to write for a teen audience?

Tim: it doesn’t matter who the audience is – or their age - so long as will meet half way in the story.


'Teenagers are all about the edges of things; pushing the questions: what is the edge of what I can do? What is the edge of what I can believe?'   Sally Nicholls
Sally: better to explore edges reading than doing.

Patrick: philosophy of writing: ‘look what I’m getting away with!’

Sally: ‘write what you can imagine’, not write what you know. Apocalypse novels are edges: what if the worst thing happens? Hope comes out of bad things.

On Character, Theme and Genre:

Tim: doesn’t start with themes, starts with characters. Dealing with loss is part of life. Though bleak for the sake of bleak, dark for the sake of dark, is humbug as well. Tragedies make us think and care: they feed compassion.

‘Go where the story wants to go, go where characters want to go – the characters choose the theme.'   Tim Bowler 
Dive into chaos!

Patrick: doesn't describe his books as dystopian. But if dystopian is this - society broken down, rules gone, don’t know what you are supposed to do - this feels like being 14. 

'Teenagers regard dystopia as just one step away from their own life.’   Patrick Ness

Are there any writers out there?

This is a question that Patrick asked the audience. I felt insanely nervous raising my hand, even surrounded as I was by writing friends who were all doing the same. Even sat there with a copy of soon to be published Slated stashed in my handbag that made frequent excursions out whenever I spotted someone I know (sorry about that, everyone). I still feel like I’m impersonating an author. I could barely get that hand up at all. What if Slated is the only thing I ever write that works? Does it even work at all?

My quote of the night:

'Every story you write is a mountain no-one has climbed.'   Tim Bowler
He said that writers are plagued by self doubt: the best writing comes from the deepest struggle. When you start writing a story, standing at the bottom and looking up: all you can think is OMG. But once you get up there… all the struggle is worthwhile.

Just off to get my crampons…


  1. Some great insights into the teenage mindset which, from memory, sound pretty accurate!
    Thanks for writing this up for those of us who couldn't be there.

  2. Really interesting post, thanks for sharing, Teri! I really like Tim Bowler's observation about starting with the characters.
    (Now mind where you put those crampons!)

    1. My stuff that works always starts with characters also - but it was interesting to hear Sally Nicholl's approach is so different. Just shows you that there is no one 'right' way to go about things.

  3. Great write up of the event. It was really good talk and fab afternoon with fellow SCBWI members. Really enjoyed my first ever lit festival event, and thanks to the SCBWI Oxford folks, without you guys I'd have been roaming the streets for hours looking for the venue! :)

    1. safety in numbers! especially for those hand-putting-up moments

  4. Thank you so much for sharing those words of wisdom. And love that quote so much I may print it out and post-it onto my laptop

  5. Oh wow! What a festival, thank you for sharing these amazing, encouraging and very sober insights into the writerly process esp geared for young adult fiction. I love the Patrick Ness quote about dystopia!

    GOOD LUCK with Slated! Your first of MANY!! Take care

  6. Love this, thank you! Wish I had been there myself... And all the very best with 'Slated'. What a fantastic cover!

    1. thanks! I should probably stop stroking the cover and get back to work on editing book 2: the mountain is looking veeeeeeeeeeeerrrry steep just now

  7. A wonderful glimpse into the minds of four great authors and what I'm sure was a terrific night. Some reassuring comments when you've written a YA fairy tale about a kleptomaniac :)Thanks for posting this Terri, you've made my day. All the best with Slated, absolutely love the cover by the way :)

  8. Thank for doing the report, Teri. Great to hear the contrasting view from the authors too - and SO reassuring to hear that the greats feel like each novel they write is a mountain to climb! It can be a struggle, but what a great metaphor; after the struggle a fantastic feeling of achievement awaits!

    All the best for Slated too!

  9. Great write-up! I was there too and wished I'd scribbled down some notes - thank you so much for recording the highlights. And good luck with Slated: that cover is stunning.

  10. Thank you for this post - and I applaud your courage. You ARE a proper author now.
    ( goes off to get ropes, iceaxes and carabiners)

  11. Terrific quote from Tim Bowler! Wow! There's another great quote (mentioned by Geraldine McCAguhrean in The White Darkness's acknowledgements - 'A book must be an ice-axe to break the sea frozen inside us' - Kafka ... I felt like that the entire time I was writing my current novel.

    1. And I like how you managed to sneak in a picture of your book cover! Way to go!

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  13. Thanks for reviewing, Terri, and very best of luck with SLATED. I must try to think of rather more enlightening things to say next time - hard to live up to those three!!! Best wishes, Moira

    1. Aw thanks so much!

      ....and I have a confession to make. I kill a fair few characters off, myself

  14. It's really comforting to know that writing doesn't get any easier.

  15. Thanks very much for this, Teri. Love those quotes from Patrick Ness and Tim Bowler. Having just put away a year's work on my current book and started again at Chapter One, this was a heartening post!


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