Monday, 24 June 2013

Maureen says, 'Is There a Book Lurking in Your Head?'

by Maureen Lynas

I'm writing a book that I didn't want to write.
And I'm illustrating it. 
And it's all come as a bit of a surprise. 

Last year when a very successful agent, who knows what she's talking about, suggested I write a book in this genre I think I pulled a face.

The genre - Witch School.

You can see why I pulled a face. Harry Potter, The Worst Witch. 
How could I compete? What could I do that would be different? I didn't even want to think about it.
So I didn't. 

But then, after a year of writerly disappointments, I was trawling back through agents and publishers emails looking for positive reinforcement that I wasn't useless and I saw the agent's name and remembered the conversation. So I decided to have a go. I thought I'd invest one week in a witchy experiment. Could I write a first draft, 10,000 words in a week? Then if I liked it, I'd keep going, if I didn't, well, I'd only wasted a week.

It's hard to describe what happened next. I actually think I was taken over by the protagonist who must have been lurking in my subconscious just waiting for a chance to get out into the big wide world. For the first time in my writing career I wrote without thinking. No planning (I am a BIG planner), no plotting cards, no character lists or interviews, no chapter breakdowns, no emotional arcs. Just writing. And it was as if my brain was like one of those Chinese puzzles where everything clicks into place because you touch the right spring.

In one week I had that first draft and I felt I'd written a book I was supposed to write.

And I was in love. The little girl telling me her story was an amalgam of all the fictional characters that have made an impression on me for their bravery, cleverness, comedy, and yes, stupidity. 
She was channeling Buffy, Willow, Georgina Nicholson, Adrian Mole.

She has such a huge voice, a sense of purpose, a strong sense of right and wrong and so many OPINIONS! She's so DRAMATIC! 
Full of life and funny.

Then, once I'd written the draft she demanded to be drawn. I had no intention of illustrating any of my books (check out this interesting blog by Cathy Brett on the Guardian site about illustrated books for older children.) I like doodling and doing pics for Notes From the Slushpile but that's as far as it goes. But she wasn't having it. She wanted to be seen. So, I drew her and here she is - Daisy, alias Ophelia, alias Twinkle, who has just been dumped at Toadspit Towers, School for Witches by her granny.

And of course once she was there on the page she became even more real to me. Her problems meant more. But then I was the one with a problem. If I was going to illustrate the book then who else was in it? What did they look like? They weren't talking to me in the way Daisy/Ophelia/Twinkle was. So I just started drawing in the way I'd just started writing. And I came up with this witchy teacher.

And I showed both illustrations to a few people. They all loved Daisy/Ophelia/Twinkle but the reaction to the teacher was lukewarm and I realised I had drawn a witch and not a real person. So I had another go and then something else curious happened. The teacher that appeared from the end of my stylus has a wooden leg. 

Now, I didn't plan that. It just happened. Came out of nowhere. And the wooden leg is called George and he demanded a role in the story too. I know that I would not have come up with George if I'd just written about Ms Priscilla Precisely and not drawn her.

Then a funny thing happened and the first witch began to demand a part and she is now in book 2 and has a major influence on the story. And she looks perfect for that part. She needs to look like a fearsome, traditional, no nonsense witch.

It honestly feels like I'm holding auditions and casting the book! 

So far every drawing I've done has informed the character or added a dimension to the plot. So even if the publishers don't want to use them (if I get a book deal) they have played a huge role in bringing the book to life. I'm now 15,000 words into the second draft and I'm alternating between writing and drawing and I have never had so much fun when writing. Or been so creative.

And I wondered, has this happened to anyone else? Have you just sat down and started to write then discovered there's a character with a complete story lurking in your subconscious? Does anyone else, non-illustrators, sketch their characters and have they influenced the way the plot goes? Or who the character is? Or how the world behaves? 

To finish I would like to say a big thank you to that very successful agent who said, 'Why not try writing a witch school book?' She obviously knows a lot more than I do about who's in my head. Spooky. 

Without her suggestion I would never have met Daisy/Ophelia/Twinkle and I would never have written 

The Best Witch. 
The true story of how Daisy/Ophelia/Twinkle attempts to 
from Toadspit Towers and the spider guards.. 

Maureen Lynas also blogs on her own blog which she creatively named - Maureen Lynas

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Who do you write for? confessions of a Rock Chick

by Teri Terry

Blue skies at Wembley Stadium last night!
I generally do my best thinking in one of three places: when I'm asleep; in the shower; and at concerts.

My YA novel Slated began from a dream I had: the prologue is pretty much word for word what I wrote down early one morning after a vivid dream, of a girl running, terrified, on a beach. And I often find if I'm stuck or uncertain with writing that if I think about it as I go to sleep...the answer presents itself early in the morning. If that doesn't work? A long shower is often the not-very-green best place for my imagination to work things out.

But it was only recently - ok, last night - that I thought about the music angle. It really should have come me to me sooner. I mean, I resolved to write for young people - made a promise to myself, really - for the very first time at a Mark Knopfler concert at the Royal Albert Hall in 2008.

Hands up if you like Springsteen!
Yet this lightbulb moment waited until last night. I was at Wembley with Bruce Springsteen personally serenading me (and 70,000 other fans), and I was thinking about how he connects with the audience. Most of me was dancing and totally in the moment, but some part of me was making other connections, and writing this blog in my head.

I was comparing two recent concerts: Neil Young at the NEC in Birmingham last week, and the Boss at Wembley. And they were very different experiences.

Neil Young: mid-guitar solo
Neil Young is, like Bruce, an awesome musician, and part of my musical history. But I really got the feeling with Neil Young and Crazy Horse that they were so into their music that the audience was kind of irrelevant. Those rather looooooong guitar solos could have been happening in one of their homes without another soul present, and they'd have been just as happy. Don't get me wrong: it was a great concert. Especially if you rather like guitar solos. But the audience as a whole weren't engaged: we weren't as a group having an experience together with the performers. It was disparate - some people were totally into it; others left early; others hung around but in a non-commital-looking-at-your-watch kind of way.

Springsteen, on the other hand? As far as I could tell he had 70,000 people in the palm of
his hand. And it's not that the music or the message behind it isn't important - it's just that it is all about the communication. The relationship between those on the stage and those in the crowd.

I'm deep into final edits of Shattered right now - book 3 of the Slated trilogy. And while I was having a night off, the analogy between the types of performance and how they relate to my creative endeavours, and writing in general, really struck me.
Do I write for myself, or my audience? Would I rather be Neil, or Bruce?
The funny thing about it is, I think I'm kind of both. When I'm initially writing a story I'm writing for myself. And I won't change the story or what the characters demand to fit an expectation: I won't make a story into a trilogy unless it demands to be one, I won't squeeze in a love triangle that doesn't fit because it is the done thing, I won't take the easy way out with a happy ending if it doesn't fit. 

But it doesn't stay that way. 
When I'm editing, I'm trying to cut my guitar solos. 
It's all about communication: I want my story to get to the audience of readers, I want them to be in the experience and not standing back and observing it. If people love or hate it, that is OK - though I'd rather they loved it. But the worst thing for me as a writer is if they stand back, take it in, and don't care either way. And guitar solos just get in the way. 

Friday, 7 June 2013

Emily Thomas - Hot Tips from Hot Key Books

by Addy Farmer

Emily Thomas - publisher at Hot Key answers 11 burning questions ...

Emily Thomas at Lincoln Inspired!
I began my publishing career at Andre Deutsch Children’s Books as a secretary but I was far more interested in sticking my nose in all the incoming manuscripts and asking a LOT of questions. I moved about a bit: editorial assistant at Scholastic, working with the great David Fickling, followed by a stint of non-fiction editing at Kingfisher books, and then a move to Hodder Headline as junior editor, editor, senior editor, senior commissiong editor, and then publisher of teen fiction at Hodder Children’s Books… It’s been such an exciting career in publishing so far, and now, as Publisher at Hot Key Books, I have arrived at the job I dreamed of all those years ago: to be buying such fabulous books from so many talented authors, working with wonderful colleagues to build a brand new and thrilling children’s list here at Hot Key. It really doesn’t get any better than this.

Addy So, Emily, I've got eleven questions for you, all from eager authors. I'm pretty sure that there are more than eleven questions to be asked and I get the feeling that you may have a few in the comments. To begin - what drives your passion for children's writing? When did it start?

Emily I can't remember exactly when I learnt to read, but as soon as I did, the moment I did, that was when I knew I loved books, and I understood the value of them – for me, as a child. Great books provide children with not only good stories but also with a view of other worlds, and other people/characters, whose lives may be be blessed, or unlucky but whose journeys inspire and delight. Reading broadens the mind just as much as travel does, because it is learning, and building children's' capacity for compassion and empathy too. The books we read as children can be instrumental in our emotional growth.
The Moomins - adventure, travel and story all-in-one
Addy Can you remember the first book you read which made your stomach flip over/heart race? What about your first commissioned book? That had to be special.

Emily The first part of a book I read which made my stomach flip over was the scene in A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett where poor outcast Sara Crewe's attic is transformed into a luxurious chamber by the gentleman next door. This act of kindness made me burst into tears as I recall.

But every single one of Joan Aiken's novels made my heart race. She was a genius, a brilliantly transportive, yet totally grounded novelist. I am sorry to say I can't remember which exactly was my first commissioned book..but I am particularly proud to have discovered the very clever teen author, Sarra Manning back around 2002. She was a regular columnist for Just Seventeen (now defunct) and her slightly left-field, witty but substantial writing was nothing like I had ever read in that genre. Guitar Girl is a defining novel for me, and I think for the whole of girl-centred contemporary YA.

Addy Do you have a favourite genre?

Emily I don't. I am always surprising myself by realising I am reading a genre I never thought I liked and loving it. If really pushed I would say I like quality realistic fiction rather than elves or fairies or robots. But in fact I love any story whose characters are fully dimensional and with whom I identity, or for whom I feel. If a book moves me to tears, joy or laughter I am in! 

Addy You're a writer as well, can you tell us a little bit about what you've written?

Emily My 'pen name' is Lee Monroe and I have written three paranormal romances – the Dark Heart trilogy – all about a human girl's love for a werewolf boy and both the emotional and physical challenges they face to be together – and the danger they often find themselves in. I have also written a 'fated love' contemporary realistic novel called Love is a Number, which is like a teen version of One Day. It plays with the idea of soul mates and of the happiness that can come out of the most terrible and painful situations sometimes.

Addy How do you distinguish paranormal from supernatural?

Emily Ah, that question!…Supernatural and paranormal do cross over of course, but supernatural is more ghost led, perhaps and paranormal more fantasy driven. Other than that, in many ways paranormal is the new word for supernatural, perhaps!

Addy Does your writing influence your choices for Hot Key?

Emily No. Not at all. Hot Key is a publisher with a diverse and healthy balance of literary writing and quality and mass market commercial fiction and the authors at the heart of it all! I would certainly consider publishing a book such a 'Lee' has written, if the right one came along. But my taste, like that of the entire editorial team here covers a wide range of genres and styles. It is the only way!
Addy It's got to be asked - what do you look for in a ms?

Emily I look for something special, something a cut above – usually in the writing, but sometimes in the concept. I want to see something in the author that I want to invest in – whether great potential or fully fledged clear talent – and this applies to more literary novels as well as very commercial novels!

Addy Can you give us a brief overview of your list?

Emily We publish fifty titles a year – and as touched on before, this consists of such prize winning gems as Sally Gardner's Maggot Moon (a novel for 12 years and above with the appeal of A Curious Incident) and Lydia Syson's A World Between Us – to sci-fi adventure in the form of the insignia trilogy, to gossipy romance, steamy 'New Adult' and charming, quirky boys adventure for 9 to 12 year olds in The Great Galloon and Edward Carey's Iremonger books.

Addy What marks Hot Key out as different/special?

Emily An independent spirit! We have the style and the individual author care that smaller boutique houses offer, and we have a digital presence that is the envy of the industry. Our online networking through social media and through encouraging our authors, our readers and our booksellers to blog makes us stand out in terms of reaching out to our readers. We are dedicated to spreading the word. All that and the fact that we are the proud inventors of the Hot Key Ring: a unique guide to content, perfect for adult purchasers and for readers themselves and something that completely avoids age banding which, given the variety of reading ability within an age group is not necessarily helpful at all when choosing a book! We are also actively encourage young writers (as illustrated by our Young Writer's Prize in partnership with the Guardian Newspaper).

Addy When will you be accepting picture books?

Emily When a text a comes our way that we have an immediate visual vision for and for which we share a passion. 

Addy I know that 90% of your accepted mss are from agents but you do have a slushpile, so what can all our non-agented readers do to make their ms stand out form the crowd? Your top submission tips, please! 

  • A short, well researched pitch for the ms, and a sample of no more than three chapters, well presented and with a full synopsis/synopses. 
  • A letter that shows the reader has taken the time to understand our list and thus whether or not their story will fit. A non-ficton text for example, is not something we do, nor is a book for 5 to 8 year olds (yet), though if the covering letter is persuasive enough we will always look at younger texts. 
  • Patience, not necessarily persistence, is also the key. Don’t' nag us, it might put us off, but do feel free to send a reminder after six weeks.
The defining characteristic of our list is 'quality' and the crucial ingredient is the 'Author'. All our authors we want to build, and we firmly believe in publishing something for every reader, whatever their reading ability or their taste for nine year olds and above. 

Hot Key has such a great list and I love your passion for authors and sticking with them! Thanks, Emily!

Monday, 3 June 2013

Risk Taking and Finding Your Voice

by Emma Greenwood
guest blogger

Emma Greenwood is currently redrafting her contemporary YA work-in-progress (long-listed for the Mslexia Children’s Novel Prize 2012) under the mentorship of Imogen Cooper at Golden Egg Academy. Her urban teen-voice short stories have been published/listed by Cinnamon Press and her flash memoir has appeared in Mslexia. She blogs on ethical/eco issues and is the Green Columnist for Liberti magazine. You can follow her tweets about life and writerly stuff on @emmajgreenwood.

Every time I guest for Notes from the Slushpile I get cold sweats.

Not when I write the first version, the version I think I’m going to send, the safe version, the nice one, the polite and polished normal one. I don’t get sweats from that. It’s the second one that gets me hot-flashing like a middle-aged woman in peri-menopause.

The second version assaults me in the middle of the night when I can’t sleep. The second
Wrestling crocs / wrestling plots:
both can be dangerous!
version I type at 2000 wpm under my duvet with one speedy finger on the backlit yellow paper of my iPhone Notes app. The second version’s where I ruin my career by likening Imogen Cooper to Steve Irwin and admit to thinking my plot is sh*t. The second version’s the one I read in the morning and decide I really really cannot, will not, send.

But I do.

I blame it on Alison MacLeod.

In Alison's essay on risk taking (published in Short Circuit, a collection of essays on short story
writing, edited by Vanessa Gebbie, which I wholeheartedly recommend even if you don’t write short stories), MacLeod states ‘I started this essay trying to be honest with you. So I won’t stop now.’ She goes on to tell me she’s in the bath, listening to Celine Dion, and scrutinising her nipples. She says ‘these are things I shouldn’t be telling you... but (we) need to move beyond polite conversation, (we) have to be real and at times explore what is supposed to remain covered.’

She’s talking to writers.

MacLeod’s my naughty muse. She helps me find my voice. Every time I think my character absolutely CANNOT say that or that or THAT, I think of MacLeod’s nipples (well okay maybe not but you get my drift eh?) and let my character say it anyway. And if it’s really bad I pull out the trick I saw on Jonathan Creek and change the text colour to white while I decide.
I rarely delete it.
Usually it’s the best stuff.
There’s power in the risk.

The other person who most helped me with my voice is Beverley Birch.
the Lovely Beverley Birch

Eighteen months ago I sat next to Beverley at a SCBWI Master Class in London, petrified yet enthralled, as she delivered her legendary line:
“75% of the slushpile consists of plodding pedestrian prose.”

Wake up and smell the coffee.

I’m sure Beverley didn’t intend it like that, but boy was it what I needed to hear.

How to stand out in the slushpile: don’t write like that!

Beverley went on, graciously, to say that the slushpile was full of good story ideas but that:
good ideas were simply not enough. Manuscripts had to have a strong, distinctive, and consistent voice from beginning to end.
At her Golden Egg Academy weekend workshop last month, Beverley delivered the ‘plodding/pedestrian’ line once more (along with a wealth of new material to challenge me and fast track me on again). I knocked it back like a shot of Russian vodka. Take that, Greenwood. You standing out yet?

Beverley’s line puts fire in my belly, puts a dangerous glint in my eye. Like Stoli Blue Label, it makes me slam down my glass, wipe my mouth on my sleeve, and wade into my prose fists up. It makes me write like I ought to write, pushes me on into risk. 
It dares me to write ‘nipples’ on the Slushpile blog, go beyond ‘polite conversation’, allows my characters to speak as they will, not just as dummies in some patronising ventriloquist act.
I used to make my characters do what I wanted them to do, say what I wanted them to say. I allowed them some freedoms. But there were boundaries. The boundaries of a middle aged hot-flashing woman in peri-menopause (gah I hate the truth). They were kids. I was the mum. And I didn’t trust them one bit. I didn’t trust that through all the mistakes and heartache and downright stupid decisions things would turn out alright.

When I was a teen I lived vicariously. I lived for the moment, for love, and danger, and
Teenage Emma!
the buzz. I left home for London and worked the West End clubs. I moved to Moss Side and worked nightshift in the 24 hour garage behind bullet proof glass. I went to raves, stayed up all night, two-timed and got two-timed back, entered wet T-shirt competitions for cash, worked as a bunny girl, told Paul Oakenfield to turn his music down, failed my second year at uni, dated a stripper, drank gallons of snakebite, and got kidnapped by Barts Hospital rugby team.

Alison MacLeod I’ll see your nipples and I’ll raise you my teens.

At the same time I took sandwiches to the homeless, wrote poetry, visited the library, stroked stray kittens, was mortified when my friend stole some trousers from Top Shop, felt nervous on first dates, cried when dumped, blushed when Scott Cooper said I had nice hair, sleepwalked right out of our tower block, read Greek mythology, bunked off lessons to go to the Bristol Museum and walk through the galleries pretending I was Mrs de Winter, talked to James Ross in Physics when no one else would, and fell in love with Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate.

I turned out OK (you may disagree!).

It’s not though, in my opinion, a case of turning out OK.

I was OK. Sort of. Just that weird kind of teen OK. A mass of contradictions: exploring, cocking it up, looking from the outside like not only was I off the rails, but I’d never even seen them. On the inside though, I was finding and writing my own moral code.

These are the teens I want to write about:
3D teens. Real teens. Teens who misbehave. Teens who cock it up. Teens finding and writing their own moral code.

Kirsty McLachlan, from David Godwin Associates, says in her blog post for Golden Egg Academy:
“(Children’s books) are brave and bold. They are fearless. (They) are continually pushing the boundaries with the writing, the content and characters’ relationships. They don’t sit still... They have no inhibitions... (They) are challenging and must defy expectations."

Writing stuff like that involves risk. Going back to MacLeod, it’s ‘exploring what is supposed to remain covered’. It's giving the middle of the night second version, a chance.
It’s messy.
It’s scary.
It gives me cold sweats.

This is the second version.
And, if you’ll excuse me, I’m just going for a shower.

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