Wednesday 30 July 2014

What Writers Can Learn from Illustrators

By Candy Gourlay

Writing novels is an honourable way to make a living, but sometimes you can feel like you're so deep in the cave of your imagination there is no such thing as real life.

To stop my brain turning into a cow-pat from spending too much time in the writer's cave, I've been trying to diversify a little bit. Last year, I attended a graphic novel course where I made comics. That was such a success that I signed up to attend last weekend's SCBWI Picture Book Retreat for writers and illustrators of picture books.

We stayed at Holland House, a beautiful Tudor retreat centre 
Alexis Deacon (Beegu, Slow Loris) set us up with mind expanding activities and Helen Stephens (Fleabag, How to Hide a Lion) showed us her sketchbooks and talked about how she developed her ideas.  Maria Tunney, Senior picture book editor for Walker, and Sarah Malley, deputy art director for Egmont, came to talk to us about the publishing process.

Alexis and Helen

Throughout the weekend with my sketchbook-toting colleagues, I kept getting little epiphanies about writing.

Here's a little list of what I learned from my weekend with illustrators.

1. Teach yourself to see in a different way.
Alexis warned the artists: "If you draw like a camera with no engagement with your subject you will end up with nothing." Simply replicating what you see is not enough. What makes a drawing a work of art is the uniqueness of the eye, the illustrator's ability to engage with the subject on an emotional level.

We writers would do well to take heed. While mastering our craft is important, we should never forget that for a book to move a reader, it needs not only words but heart.

2. Keep going until you find something fresh and new.
How can you make your good idea a great idea? "Don't just stop at 'the good idea',"Egmont's Sarah Malley urged us. "Keep going until you find something fresh and new." A good idea is just the beginning of your journey. Turning it into a good book demands real graft. Said Maria Tunney of Walker: "Ask every question until you've distilled (the idea) to its purest form."

We writers are often guilty, once we decide on a high concept, of hurrying our books to their conclusion. A good book is not just plot and arc and all those things we read about in How To books. A good book only reveals itself after an author has tried to find the answer to every question that her story asks of her.

3. Are you using your own voice?
Helen Stephens began her picture book career creating baby books with cute, flat characters that sparkled. "I felt like I was in this weird happy world of brightness," she said. "It looked like I was doing really well, but a secret voice kept saying: 'You are not using your real voice!'" Sometimes, she said, it felt like she would have to hold onto her arm and force herself to draw in that style. She went back to the sketching that she had loved as a young art student and it is through sketching that she now evolves her stories.

Helen making herself draw flat and sparkly things. From my sketchbook.
When we are only beginning to write, it is natural that we try to evoke the voices of our favourite writers. But we must make an effort to find our own. This is what will make our fiction unique. It is said there are only so many plots in existence on which to hang a story. What makes each book special if everyone's using the same plot? The author.

4. What you don't see might be the story.
Helen told the story of how she went to the zoo to draw lions, in the hope of writing a lion story. Day after day, she sat by the lion enclosure. But the lions never showed themselves. Then she realised that was it. That was the story: how to hide a lion.

"The story came out of being in the moment," Helen said. "Seeing an object, an incident, a funny quirky thing ... and then asking the questions that lead to a story."

I really struggle to "be in the moment" when I'm writing. I have to get out of the house to put my head in the right space before I can get writing. Only then can I begin asking the questions that lead to the story. The world of distraction around us makes it hard to be in the moment and we must do what we have to do to put ourselves in the right place to write.

5. Go out. See things.
We authors and illustrators love our books. Unfortunately the result can be that our books are homages to the books we love. Other books become our references. "It's a bit like living in a city where everything is pre-digested by someone else," Alexis said. "It's as if there's only one way to live."

Alexis made us go out into the beautiful gardens of the retreat house to spend a little time looking at things, see and experience the world for ourselves. Then he asked us back to describe what our very own, unadulterated, unreferenced observations. Here's a page from my sketchbook where I jotted down some of the descriptions people came back with of the birds, butterflies and various creepy crawlies they looked at.

The top right bubble is my rather garbled note of what Alexis said before he sent us out: It will be a challenge but you will find the words. And we did. 

With heartfelt thanks to Anne-Marie Perks and Bridget Strevens-Marzo for organising a fantastic weekend. And to Holland House for their gorgeous hospitality and accommodation.

Tuesday 20 May 2014

Edit Your Books on the Kindle, says Maureen

Last week I discovered Miriam Halahmy’s post on An Awfully Big Blog Adventure about using her kindle as an editing tool.

Using the kindle in the way she describes is so useful. Being able to change the font size and view your manuscript in a different format highlights many problems. But there is another way to use the kindle as an editing tool and I wondered how many people were aware of it..

You can use the kindle's text to speech function as part of the editing process.

Like many authors I tape myself reading my book and listen as I edit. But there are problems with this. It takes time. I can’t re-record every time I change something. I often record what I think is there rather than what I’ve written. So mistakes slip through.

Then, as I was editing Cupcake Catastrophe! I remembered my kindle (original) has the option for text to speech. Ages ago I’d tried to listen to a book using text to speech but the reading was terrible. It isn’t a person reading, it’s a computerised voice. Let's call him Bob. So, the question was, would Bob be an advantage while editing or a disadvantage?

Turns out it’s a big advantage. Bob's reading is so bad that I have to listen very carefully as I follow the manuscript on my laptop or paper. His voice is disjointed. Fast when it should be slow, slow when it should be fast. His intonation is wrong and sometimes he blends one sentence with another as if punctuation is a blip on the screen. I think he's a bit of a Yoda fan.

e.g. This is what I wrote
‘No,’ yelled Florence. ‘I will not leave Cobbleton! I will wait for my father! He is alive. I know it and you know it!’ 

This is what Bob read.
'No,' yelled Florence. 'I will not.  Leave Cobbleton I will. Wait. For my father, he is. Alive, I know it. And you. Know it. 

If  Bob doesn’t recognise the word he says each phoneme. This is comical as I have the two Meanie girls attempting to whistle – ‘shpshfftzzz,’ went Armeenia became ‘sh p sh f f t z z z,’ went Armeenia.'

All of this means I really focus on what's been written. Every word is noticed.

The other advantage of using Bob is that I don't have to re-record the story as I finish each draft. I just email another version to my free kindle address and I can start the next part of the editorial process.

So, how do you find text to speech?
I only know how to do this on the original kindle. You will need headphones as you can't adjust the sound. Or maybe you can but I haven't discover how.

Open the document you want to edit.
Method 1: Press AA Choose text to speech.
Method 2: Press ­ ­Shift  (an arrow) and sym together.
Press back to stop. 

I know the option isn’t available on the Paperwhite but I don’t know about the other versions. If you do have a kindle that has TTS then please add which version and how to access it in the comments. 

Maureen Lynas 

Maureen's Website 
Cupcake Catastrophe!

Friday 18 April 2014

The View from my Desk - Easter 2014

Beverley Birch is friend and mentor to many slushpilers and published authors alike. She was a senior commissioning editor for Hodder Children's Books and three times shortlisted for the Brandford Boase Award in recognition of the editor’s role in nurturing new talent. She is a writer of more than 40 books including novels, picture books, biographies and retellings of classic works and folk tales. Her novel, 'Rift' came out in 2006 and you know you are in the hands of a true storyteller when you read the very first page. Beverley now concentrates on her author life and mentoring new writers through Imogen Cooper's Golden Egg Academy. Follow Golden Egg Workshops for Children's Writers on Facebook

I’ve always viewed the publishing landscape half as an editor looking after a host of authors, half as an author, coloured by my personal author-editor-publisher relationships.

Now, fourteen months since leaving my in-house commissioning desk, I expected my view of the publishing landscape to have radically altered.

To my great surprise, it hasn’t.

I expected my advice for the author looking for an agent or publisher to have changed.

Again, it hasn’t.

So what are the contours I can see? Is anything sharper, more well-defined. Can any predictions be very firm?

Well, there’s one certainty - the continuing state of flux. Social media is awash with commentators, the reading of trends and predictions of outcomes. The truth is that no one knows how to publish successfully in the 21st century’s multiple currents, cross-currents and swirls – least of all publishers. They’re still struggling to come to terms with the consequences of the digital revolution and the birth of self-publishing as a serious player; booksellers likewise are struggling to find their place against the online environment.

Big guns may have more resources, but smaller publishers are more nimble, can react quicker. My bets are on the smaller publishers – and I detect that more of them think the current environment is one of opportunity rather than threat, and have the energy to ‘go for it’.

Jack (or Jill) be nimble ...

But in general both publishers and booksellers are obsessively risk averse. Agents are frustrated about projects enthusiastically liked by editors who can’t get them through acquisition meetings. Editors are frustrated by an inability to commit to books they love, or see their authors grow as their work deserves. Publishers are frustrated because books they believe in aren’t getting bookselling support, because not yet proven. And so it goes on …

It inevitably filters down the line, to risk-averse agents, and authors so obsessed with trying to read the runes that they can’t make up their mind what to write.

And of course it continues to squeeze the already narrow gate to traditional publishing, just as the stream of applicants is in fuller flood than ever before, fuelled by courses, conferences, networks, social media discussion about self-publishing, and the way it has opened the author-life and the writing process to scrutiny as never before. No wonder that people who might just have half-dabbled now begin to have serious ambitions, and dreams, and are prepared to put the work in to get there.

At the same time, the dream is flawed. For traditional publishing and bookselling, there is an incredibly short window of time for any author or book to be noticed and ‘break through’ (achieve commercial sales) If the breakthrough isn’t there, the machine simply moves on to the next project … and the hapless book (and author) is deemed not to have ‘worked’. Publication of any one book is only one step at the beginning … and thereafter everything may still be in flux.

Add to this the obsessive struggle for discoverability – for the traditional publisher and the indie authors alike: yet how can you possibly be heard amid the clamour and anyway, does being heard actually influence the fate of your book? The jury is still out …

It can all be a bit of a tightrope walk ...
Indie-publishing of course has an allure about it: the ease of just getting your book out there and finding your readership. But listen to any successful indie author and you need to listen too to the saga of time spent to find, nurture and hold that readership: much, much greater than writing the books in the first place.

So where does that leave the writer? What to write? How to assess what you’re writing? How to know whether to bother to keep going, or retire from the fray and just write for fun. Find an agent first? Or go straight for a publisher? Go the indie route immediately? Or try the traditional avenues first, and drop back to indie publishing if there are no traditional publishing options on offer. In this risk averse atmosphere, that may not mean you have written a bad book …

You’d think the answers might have changed over the last year or two. I don’t think they have. Here are mine:

Don’t write with the dream of publication as the goal.

Don’t write with your eye on what you hear the bookshops want, or what publishers say they want.

Listen to the voice inside you that’s telling you a story.

Write because you want to tell that story to others.

And (though I say it quietly) don’t have earning a living as the prime reason for writing.

Listen for your voice
Trends and fashions come and go, and one thing is clear, that what goes around comes around, that nothing is for ever, and that what is the rage today is just as likely to wane tomorrow, and what is not noticed today, will be all the rage tomorrow. And anyway, by the time you think you’ve caught up, the bandwagon will definitely have moved on …

In the end, whatever the shape of industry change, it is nothing without the thread that holds a reader, of any age, to the story, in whatever form. Story is still at the heart of it all, and the creators of those stories, and the readers who read them, hear them or watch them. You have to keep your focus on that.

The story is everything

Of course, when you’ve written the story that’s in you – get whatever professional objective guidance you can to help you hone and shape it to perfection: tapping in to the host of networks, conferences, and services now available, to give it the best chance of riding the currents and reaching its readership.

But don’t let that professional world befuddle you about what your story is and why you are writing. Don’t be clouded by the hullabaloo about the changing nature of publishing, and how much you need to understand that before embarking. When all is said and done, none if it is there, none of it works without story, and all that hullabaloo is only about form and the route to put the story in the reader’s hands.

So enter the fray with open eyes. Concentrate on storytelling. Everything else is a by-product.

And any route to the reader is good. And all routes may be different tomorrow.

What a wonderful Easter gift! So many thanks to Beverley for her wisdom and inspiration. Happy Easter, Slushies! Addy

Monday 10 March 2014

Top Ten Tips For Book Publicity Tours!

By Teri Terry
School one of ten...!
If you've got a book out soon and the words publicity tour have been mentioned by your publisher, if you're anything like me you were just a little terrified...
I mean, not just a school visit, but a whole week of them? and travelling? and packing? and author-imagining-long-list-of-things-that-could-go-wrong?

I'm just back from the publicity tour for Shattered, book 3 of the Slated trilogy (reported on here): ten schools in five days, all over England. Having survived my second tour now I've come up with my top tips:

1. Planning
If you're lucky like I was, you'll have a publicist organising things; if you're doing it yourself then of course this is more of a deal. But it is helpful to be involved a little in the logistics even if things are being planned for you. For eg. when I saw the draft schedule, I asked to stay home Weds night instead of in London, even though this meant getting up at  5 am the next day (not everyone's cup of tea, but I appreciated a night at home in the middle of it all).

2. Preparation
The talk: how much you prepare these things is an individual thing. For me, I find it goes better if I don't practice it over and over, and have a list of points rather than a whole speech. If I focus too much on the talk ahead of time, I get nervous, and if I practice too much, I start memorising it and it loses personality. Also even if they all say an hour long...they won't be. You need to be able to adjust the length on the spot. This is easier if it isn't rigid. Also have some extra stuff ready to talk about, just in case.

3. Stuff to take
Print and take more than one copy of your talk, and your schedule. Don't keep them in the
same place. Post it notes can be great to have on hand for names to be written down when you're signing books (more than likely, your publicist, the bookseller or the school will have them, but good to have a back up supply). Take signing pens and extra ones, bookmarks if you have them, and bookplates are handy for students who forgot their money but want a signed book (or blank labels if you haven't got any bookplates). They should have water there and lunch scheduled, but emergency snacks and a spare bottle of water are a good idea.

4. Packing
Pack light. Lugging heavy stuff on and off trains at speed is never fun, and a small bag that will fit in the overhead on trains is good for peace of mind (I hate having luggage down the other end of the train where I can't keep an eye on it). I love my little trolley case! It's got wheels that'll roll in all directions! Speaking of which...

5. Roll with it
Be flexible. Stuff happens. Things like the power going out, books running out, pens running out of ink, trains being missed, time being less than expected, will happen. Likewise, travel issues could affect your publicist if they are meeting you somewhere, so be prepared in case they're late or don't make it - know where you're going etc.

6. To read or not to read?
I used to get really nervous about reading - I've started to get more chilled about it, but it used to be if time was tight or I was rattled, the reading was the first thing to go. Not anymore. I've found students always listen the most intently by far when I'm reading than when I'm doing anything else. 
Of course, choosing a reading is key: something exciting, intriguing, that doesn't have loads of characters or presumed knowledge behind it. Not too long, not too short.
One of the opportunities of a tour is to vary what you are reading and watch audience response.

7. E-books can save you
If I carry all three books of my trilogy around with me, they're heavy! I've got into the
3 gorgeous books vs. 1 e-reader: tough call!
habit of expecting I can borrow from the library or bookseller at events - but sometimes the bookseller comes after you start, and the library copies are all out. Even if all goes to plan, if you have a handheld microphone, it is really hard to hold a book, turn pages and hold a microphone at the same time. It is far easier to have a mic in one hand and e-reader in the other. So while I always prefer to read from real books, I have an e-reader as back up.

8. It's ok to say 'no'
I don't sign Roald Dahl books (or anyone else's, for that matter!). I don't sign hands or arms. I'm happy to sign planners, scraps of paper, bookmarks, posters etc. You don't have to answer every question, either, if there are areas of your life you want to keep private.
You shouldn't ever be left to find your way around a school on your own, or left with students on your own. It is fair to object if it looks like it will happen.

9. The naughty step
Schools will vary in how well students will sit and listen, and in how much the staff will intervene if they don't. I've worked in schools so am probably more chilled about this than some - but even though I don't get upset if kids act up as they do now and then, it is still distracting. Refer to point 5, above. It is fair to stop and wait for teachers to get things under control if that is needed.

10. Enjoy yourself!!
Meeting readers and potential readers is so much fun. A tour is a unique opportunity to reach a wide range of schools and students, some of whom may not have had the experience of meeting an author before, and wouldn't any other way. The questions they ask and the things they come up with can be funny, touching, impressive, inspiring. I love writing for this audience, and I love meeting them. 
And if you're really lucky, you might be given some of these:

Thanks so much to my publisher Orchard Books, Victoria, Rosie, Corinne, Lizz, Caitlin, Authors Aloud, and all the librarians, teachers and booksellers involved in making the week happen.

Friday 28 February 2014

Through the Slushpile Spectacles - Are Children's Writers a Breed Apart?

by Addy Farmer

Peering through my spectacles this week, I spotted this interesting article in The Guardian.  It examined the reaction to writer, Lynne Sheperd's piece in The Huffington Post in which she urged J.K.Rowling to stop writing and give other people a crack at earning some money. She says:
I didn't much mind Rowling when she was Pottering about. I've never read a word (or seen a minute) so I can't comment on whether the books were good, bad or indifferent. 

She has reaped the whirlwind. J.K's fans have taken to reviewing her books and admitting to never having read them.
Rowling's fans have been taking to Amazon, where they have been leaving a deluge of one-star reviews for Shepherd's previously well-regarded novels. Now on, its US version The Solitary House has 59 one-star reviews, the majority written this week, ranging from "I've never read any of your books, and now I never will!", to "There is no way I could support an author (or anyone else for that matter) who has such a terrible outlook.
I agree. I think she does have a terrible outlook. The wonderful Paolo Bacigalupi called it "zero-sum author thinking"

I will gloss over the perhaps unintentional conflation of imperatives which managed to insult children's writers:
By all means keep writing for kids, or for your personal pleasure – I would never deny anyone that. Lynne Shepherd
'Cos that's probably just me being over-sensitive although she did say this about some Harry Potter readers ...
I did think it a shame that adults were reading them (rather than just reading them to their children, which is another thing altogether), mainly because there's so many other books out there that are surely more stimulating for grown-up minds. But, then again, any reading is better than no reading, right?
Hmm. Forget that. Remember this:
If you think other people's success diminishes you, don't be a writer. Paolo Bacigalupi
I have been a children's writer for too many years to bother counting and in all that time I have nearly always encountered the support and generosity of fellow children's writers both published and pre-published. Are children's writers different, I wonder? Maybe so. Maybe because children's writing is such a brilliantly demanding craft for the best readers ever and NOBODY is ever an overnight success, that we need all the support we can get. Or maybe we are just good at enjoying ourselves. 

Whatever the case, I say hooray for JK and her stories and hooray for her success! And hooray for all those who can enjoy anybody's success because surely any good thing that happens has to be a reason for celebration and not jealous condemnation.  

SCBWI conference - celebration of books published in 2013

So much success! Enjoy! 

Friday 14 February 2014

Through the Slushpile Spectacles

It's Friday. I have looked back on this week through my newish purple spectacles and find that I need something cute to take the edge off the reality of rain and rain and more rain.

This is the owl baby who says, ''I want my Mummy!' This is the owl who is Afraid of the Dark. This is the owl who will grow up and live in a tree-top house with a bell outside and a sign with 'wol' written on it. This is the owl who will take to sea in a boat ...

I give you the owl of all those stories. Think of him as a sustaining owl to help you through the storms. I think I'm in love.

Happy Friday.

Sunday 9 February 2014

Let them eat book tours: a new class system in publishing?

Last week I read agent Donald Maass's post in which he cheekily described a new class system that has emerged from the ongoing publishing revolution. I thought, Woah! That's going to upset a lot of people.

(Donald Maass is President of the Donald Maass Literary Agency. He was blogging on Writer Unboxed)

Here's how he described the class system:

Freight Class - 'Self-published authors and electronic micropresses ... While the means of production are easy and low-cost, the methods of marketing are costly either in terms of cash or time. Success is rare. The pleasure of being in control is offset by the frustration of “discoverability”. Online retailers are whimsical and ludicrously over-stocked, both barrier and open door. Lists, blogs, social sites and the like are plentiful but of only spotty help ... The real problem is that fiction at this level has trouble appealing widely to readers. It can sell when priced at $2.99, sometimes a bit more, often less.'

Coach Class - 'Decently-written literary fiction and nicely-crafted commercial fiction that achieves print publication but sells best at trade-paperback level ($14.99 or so), or discounted in e-book form. Coach Class novelists support each other yet find it difficult to gain a foothold with the public. So-called “marketing” by their publishers is disappointing and, truthfully, can only do so much. Traditional tours (when they happen) accomplish little, front of store incentives are costly, and online marketing sometimes seems to consist of the hope that Amazon will do a price promotion. Coach Class authors, however, are professionally edited and get goodies like nice covers, ARC’s, and plenty of blurbs. Plus, their books are in bookstores, a big boost in visibility.'

First Class - 'The cream class gets a double shot of extended life in bookstores, both in hardcover and later in paper. Their books can sell well at $25 and live long in trade paper. For First Class authors, success looks effortless. Goodies accrue easily. Recognition is instant and wide. Sub-rights sell. Awards happen. Insulated from economy shocks, authors of this class never seem to worry about the industry. In interviews they talk only about their art and process. They mentor. Lines are long at BEA booth signings and readers are fiercely loyal.'
The New Class System by Donald Maass in Writer Unboxed

Like many of the commenters on that post, I agreed with so much of what Donald said but my non-confrontational side stressed over how it was going to upset all the people who would feel slighted by being designated Coach and Freight Class (Clearly, I'm in Coach - it has ever been thus).

Donald describes himself as yes, one of the gatekeepers, but 'no worshipper of the old ways'. And I agreed with his assessment:

Traditional publishing always was cost-heavy and inefficient. It’s a wonder that it worked. But the new electronic “paradigm” is not the glorious revolution that true believers would like it to be.
The New Class System by Donald Maass in Writer Unboxed

He says the publishing world has evolved into a class system 'and like any class system there are winners, losers and opportunities.'

I invite Slushpile readers to stop reading this and read the entire post - which was enlightening as well as provocative. If it makes you mad, don't worry, the angry people got their say in the comments (including one self-published author who was turned down by Don and now claims to have made so much money she's quit her day job).

But don't get mad - if this is a snapshot of a world in revolution, then we ain't seen nothing yet.

The signs of revolution are everywhere - and I feel like I've had a front row seat:

  • My publisher Random House has combined with Penguin to become the BIGGEST publishing house in the world. It made me feel very small indeed.

  • My imprint David Fickling Books has gone independent.

  • I attended an agent event recently and whereas in previous years agents were usually sniffy about authors who self publish, the agents were eager and excited to see what indie authors had to offer. 

At the SCBWI conference in Winchester (UK) last year the collection of people I met made it absolutely clear to me that this is a world in a flux:
  • There was a self published author who had just signed up with a 'traditional' publisher, who despite her success expressed joy at finally being signed up.

  • There was an author-illustrator, multi-awarded over the past two decades, who was self publishing because publishers were no longer interested in her brand. Her decision appears to have been vindicated - she's been nominated for several national awards.

  • There were award-winning editors who left their day jobs and launched new in-demand editorial services.

  • There was the proprietor of one of the first editorial service companies, now finding itself in competition with these services led by name editors. The new competition didn't seem to worry her. She'd just launched her own publishing house

In his final comment, Donald made the following forecast. I reproduce it here in case you don't manage to scroll down that far:

As the strategies, costs and experience of the indie movement evolve, it will start to look more and more like traditional publishing, albeit more digital and online. Indie authors will become more dependent on third party services to do the collection of things that we call publishing. The true cost structure of independence will bring profitability down as more sophisticated competition heats things up.

Meanwhile, print publishers will learn new digital strategies and, slowly, be forced into–hear me now–paying higher digital royalties. Competition will make it necessary, and indeed it’s happening around the edges already. A more profitable picture for authors and better online strategies by “traditional” publishers will make that option newly attractive and its downsides less depressing.

The indie movement and the Big Five, I think, are both headed to the same place. Possibly they will converge, we’ll see. The sense of revolution and warring classes that we feel now isn’t natural and, ask me, exists because neither side of the industry has yet figured out the best way to publish in the 21st Century. When they do, they will look a lot alike.

One thing has never changed, though, and will never change: It’s authors and their terrific storytelling that get readers buying books, and nothing else.
Let me say that again in case you glazed over before the end:

One thing has never changed, though, and will never change: It’s authors and their terrific storytelling that get readers buying books, and nothing else.

My new teen novel, Shine, was published in September. Read this wonderful Guardian review.

You might also want to read:
The Invention of the Teenager
Social Media: Eight Things We Can Learn from Old Style Journalism

Saturday 1 February 2014

The Invention of the Teenager

By Candy Gourlay

Apparently, teenagers were invented by Americans in the 1940s.

Trailer for Matt Wolf's documentary Teenagers (2014): "A lot of people try tlevio shape the future. But it's the young ones who live in it."

I learned this nugget while trawling through podcasts the other day. This was from a fantastic Film Programme tracing the rise (and fall) of teenagers in film.

And here I was thinking that teenagers have existed since the beginning of time.

Joan Crawford's teenage character in the silent film Our Dancing Daughters (1928) goes to a wild party, dances in her underwear and knocks back alcohol ... but the film is clearly a warning from a moralising older generation.

The Andy Hardy series with Micky Rooney and Judy Garland (1937) were family films, not specifically targeted at teen viewers 

The explanation is interesting: until the 1940s, teenagers didn't have any money and therefore no power. But post war, they became a consumer demographic, with money to spend.

The Film Programme played a clip of Samuel Z. Arkoff, co-founder of American International Pictures, who spotted the gap in the market.
I saw an opportunity that nobody else seemed to have seen ... that was the people who were going to the movies were young people. We started to make pictures for teeneagers, by teenagers, about teenagers, and starring teenagers. 
Arkoff, says film critic Kim Newman in the podcast, "invented the future of the film industry".  Researching teen tastes, the film makers discovered that teenagers liked monsters and drag-racing. Suddenly Hollywood was churning out teen movies in their hundreds.


Says Newman, the teenager "(was) a figure that spread American popular culture all around the world."

"Hey Johnny, what are you rebelling against?" "Whaddaya got?" - Marlon Brando goes all cool and dangerous in The Wild One (1953). Films like these attempted to describe young people from an adult sensibility.

Though Fifties film featured characters who walked and talked like real teenagers, young people were still portrayed as dangerous and in need of control. In Blackboard Jungle (1955) Glenn Ford plays a teacher who must contend with the anti-social behaviour of hunky teenagers like switchblade-weilding Vic Morrow (People my age will be excited to see the star of the TV series Combat).

I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957) - the title, in first person, is a far cry from the patronising adult point of view in Our Dancing Daughters. Here are scenes from the film mashed to the soundtrack of Michael Jackson's Thriller  (People my age will be excited to recognise Michael Landon who played the dad in the TV series Little House on the Prairie)

James Dean at his most delicious in the iconic Rebel Without a Cause (1955). He doesn't look too rebellious in that tie.

Did this heightened awareness of teenage culture feed literary sensibilities, giving rise to the rebel-without-a-cause characters of The Catcher in the Rye (1951)? (Seriously, I don't know the answer.)

The book business acknowledging youth culture followed in cinema's wake. By the Sixties, the teenager became a literary demographic when  the Young Adult Library Services Association coined the term 'Young Adult' to represent the 12 to 18 age range - representing "mature contemporary realism directed at adolescents" like S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders.


Apparently there was a golden age of young adult literature in the Seventies, the era of Judy Blume and Robert Cormier.

I was surprised to discover this. The first time I heard the term 'Young Adult' was in the 2000s, when I became serious about writing for children and began reading books like How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff and Junk by Melvin Burgess.

Perhaps I was not aware of the category because I wasn't a young adult at the time. Or maybe I never read a Judy Blume because I was living in a country where nice girls didn't read books that started with the sentence:
Sybil Davison has a genius I.Q. and has been laid by at least six different guys. From Forever by Judy Blume
Today, we are apparently living in another golden age of YA - but the difference between the Judy Blume golden age and the Twilight/Hunger Games golden age can be measured in dollar signs.
The book world began marketing directly to teens for the first time at the turn of the millennium. Expansive young adult sections appeared in bookstores, targeting and welcoming teens to discover their very own genre. J.K. Rowling's well-timed Harry Potter series exploded the category and inspired a whole generation of fantasy series novelists, Cart said. The shift led to success for Stephenie Meyer's Twilight vampire saga and Suzanne Collins' futuristic The Hunger Games. From A Brief History of Young Adult Fiction by Ashley Strickland

American Graffiti (1973) - by the Seventies teen culture had been around long enough for films to be nostalgic about it.

More nostalgia in Grease (1978) - featuring some of the oldest teenagers in the world


The teenager as consumer is an interesting proposition, given their famously short attention spans. That first Judy Blume golden age created a rash of "single problem novels" but teens quickly tired of the formulaic stories. Which led to the rise of genre fiction of the Eighties, such as R. L. Stine's Fear Street and adolescent high drama of Sweet Valley High

In cinema, teen movies of the Eighties were liberal in a way that would be unacceptable in the 2000s with underage sex and abortion, according to journalist Hadley Freeman, who was featured on the podcast because she's writing a book about film in the 1980s.

Porky's (1982) - one of a rash of films in which directors waxed lyrical about losing their viriginity. The losing of virginity still makes pots of money.

The Breakfast Club (1985) - brought together five of the 'Brat Pack' - Emilio Estevez, Ally Sheedy, Molly Ringwald, Judd Nelson and Anthony Michael Hall.

Heathers (1988) - teen films had been around so long, here was a film that tried to subvert the genre (it's Mean Girls with a body count!)

In the Nineties, teenagers became The Audience. If you wanted to make a film, says Kim Newman,  you made it as a teenage movie. So genres - cop films, horror, sci fi - and even classics were remade as teen films.

Heath Ledger and Joseph Gordon Levitt in 10 Things I Hate About You (1999) - a take on Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew

Cruel Intentions (1999) starring Buffy, was a take on Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Sex, drugs and excess.

Romeo and Juliet (1996) starring Leonardo Dicaprio and Claire Danes (Claire Danes!) gives the bard a hip, modern reboot


But at the turn of this century film economics changed. Hollywood now makes what they call 'tent-pole' films - blockbusters that have to hold up the finances of the parent network. Which means, says Freeman, "Teen films now are really superhero films. Studios aren't making films just for teenagers, they want films for twenty-something guys!"

I suppose book publishers, like movie companies, also have to follow the money. Hey, have you heard of the new book category "New Adult"?  A New Adult book is basically a Young Adult book with sex and cursing thrown in, writes Lauren Sarner.  And don't forget lucrative.

Recently, I met up with a young writers group. They were prolific writers  and readers. Published writers - they published fan fiction via Wattpad.

'I read hundreds of books a month,' one girl told me. She didn't read books like you buy from a bookshop, or even on an ereader. She read free books on Wattpad written by young people like her.

She is one of 18 million readers and writers who use the publishing platform dubbed 'the most active social site you never heard of'. Wattpad's creator is Allen Lau whose profile says 'don't be surprised if I am reading one of your stories'.
"Storytelling has been a social experience from the get go," he says. "Think of a town square where everyone would congregate to share ideas and news, or even stories told around the campfire. Look at Charles Dickens and the way he hooked people by serializing his stories, a trend that’s re-emerging on Wattpad today. Great stories bring people together." Read the article
Wattpad is an amazing advocate for reading, as long as you don't mind giving your writing away for free.


Looking back, it is fascinating to see our evolution as storytellers for teenagers.

We started out with the desire to control them, to tell them what was good for them, we saw them as misguided delinquents who needed a firm hand.

Then we empathised with youth culture and tried to represent their issues as problems.

Later we fell in love with the Teenage Voice, adopted Coming of Age as a highly evocative story arc.

Right now perhaps with our dystopias and fantasies we are re-imagining the world through the prism of youth.

Today, teenagers have surpassed their storytellers.

They are the masters of new media that many of us are struggling to understand. The nature of the internet means they are not only consumers of stories created for them but through social media and platforms like Wattpad they tell their own stories, have their own voice.

Nobody has to invent them anymore. Perhaps it's us -- we who want to write teen fiction --  who need to reinvent ourselves.

In Project X (2012) teenagers trash a house with an over the top party. The future of teen cinema? Only if they can watch it. Project X was rated R.

My new teen novel, Shine, was published in September. Read this wonderful Guardian review.

You might also want to read:
The Writer is You
Multicultural is Not About Difference But Inclusion

Sunday 26 January 2014

Social Media: Eight Things We Can Learn from Old Style Journalism

By Candy Gourlay

Well I say 'old-style' because I was a journalist in the eighties and the nineties. This post is about how journalism has taught me stuff I now apply to Social Media.

Sunday 19 January 2014

Learning to Write - my journey in How To books

IKEA manuals. Mmm.
By Candy Gourlay

My husband often makes fun of me because I like reading instruction manuals. Before I can even begin to take the packaging off a new kitchen appliance or family widget, I'll be poring over the instructions.

I can't help myself. There's something gripping about a good step by step.

So when I became serious about writing novels, I set out to read all the How to Write books I could get my hands on.

In the beginning, I obsessed about the parts that made the whole. Setting, Characterisation, Dialogue, Viewpoint - with viewpoint perhaps the trickiest thing to master.

Viewpoint was chapter two in The Craft of Writing a Novel by Dianne Doubtfire, my first writing bible. No matter how many books you've read, viewpoint (as in first person, third person, omnisicient, etc. - not to be confused with Voice) can be bewildering.

'If this isn't properly understood, the whole edifice of your novel will disintegrate,' Dianne Doubtfire writes. 'Ask yourself whose story it is. The answer to this question is vital to the planning of your book.'

Doubtfire suggests you experiment before deciding what your approach to viewpoint will be. 'Your choice will depend on the kind of novelist you are and on the demands of your story.'

Doubtfire's book had chapters on Planning, Plot, Mechanics of Improvement, Theme ... but as a beginner novelist I remember being entirely focused on isolated components of the novel like character and setting.

Perhaps I wasn't ready to think about my story as a whole yet.

Writing a successful novel demands not only talent and determination but also a high degree of craftsmanship. No textbook can supply talent or determination, but craftsmanship is another matter. The Craft of Novel-Writing by Dianne Doubtfire

The first time I heard of the 'inciting event' was when I read How to Write a Damn Good Novel II by James N. Frey (for some reason, I never did read Part One).

Frey starts by exhorting the writer to transport his or her reader into the 'fictive dream'.

'As a fiction writer, you're expected to transport a reader. Readers are said to be transported when, while they are reading, they feel that they are actually living in the story world and the real world around them evaporates.'

Before this book I often read interviews with authors claiming that they 'wrote for themselves'. Frey made me realize that a novel was a two way thing, a relationship between the author and her reader.

It was also the first time I realised that a novel had to be a chain of cause and effect. It was the first time I read the words 'the inciting incident', that initial event that sets the story into motion.

So how do you get the reader from sympathy, identification and empathy to being totally absorbed? The answer: inner conflict ... Inner conflict is the storm raging inside the characters: doubts, misgivings, guilts, remorse, indecision ... It is this participation in the decision-making process, when the reader is feeling the character's guilt, doubts, misgivings, and remorse, and is pulling the character to make one decision over another, that transports the reader. How to Write a Damn Good Novel II by James N. Frey

Skimming through it now, I realize that a lot of this book went over my head. Why? Because at the time, I was doing more reading than writing. It was only when I was immersed in writing that I began to understand what the hell all these How To books were talking about.

It was at about this stage that I bought Story by Robert McKee - a fat book if there ever was one. The introduction was fantastic, with statements in boldface like:

Story is about mastering the art, not second-guessing the marketplace.


Story is about respect, not disdain, for the audience.


Story is about archetypes, not stereotypes.

Brilliant! But the rest of it ... well, I found it hard to read. It dazzled me with jargon - the Structure Spectrum, Character Revelation, Ironic Ascension ... and I'm ashamed to say I gave up and put it aside for a year or three.

I had written three novels before I picked it up again. I'd done some time at the coalface - walked into all the blind alleys, took all the wrong turns, wrote and rewrote the words that refused to come to life. And reading Story again, things that confused me before began to make sense. It turned out that practical experience was necessary to really get the most out of the book.  I had found another bible but I had needed to live my craft before I could make use of it.

'Show don't tell' is a call for artistry and discipline, a warning to us not to give in to laziness but to set creative limitations that demand the fullest use of imagination and sweat. Dramatizing every turn into a natural, seamless flow of scenes is hard work, but when we allow ourselves the comfort of 'on the nose' narration we gut our creativity, eliminate the audience's curiosity, and destroy narrative drive. Story by Robert McKee

Even though I wasn't ready to read McKee, I was learning a hell of a lot from other books.

I had a major eureka moment while reading Solutions for Novelists by Sol Stein. It might seem obvious to some of you but it wasn't obvious to me then that a novel is an unfolding. What you don't reveal will drive the reader to keep reading.

As a journalist, I had been trained that it was imperative to state the 'So What' of a news story within the first paragraphs. I had to forget all that.

'The engine of fiction is somebody wanting something and going out to get it,' says Stein. 'And if you let him get it right away, you're killing the story.'

If you build a scene, don't let the reader's emotions rest. Salt your buildup with ominous detail. At the end of each chapter, be sure you are thrusting the reader forward to the next chapter, then don't take the reader where the reader wants to go. Solutions for Novelists by Sol Stein

I am embarrassed to admit that it took me a long, long time to face the fact that I needed to learn how to plot. How I wish I'd started thinking about plot earlier. It would have saved me a lot of years of aimless writing.

I thought I understood plotting. I thought my years as a reader had taught me all I knew. Plotting was story wasn't it?

But there was more to plotting than I thought and I only really focused on figuring it out when I attended a workshop taught by Lee Weatherly on writing synopses.

Lee was trying to show us how easy it was to write a synopsis if we simply built the synopsis on the framework of the three acts of our story.

Lee showed us a  graph that looked something like this one I found on Sara Wilson Etienne's website.

What's missing in this diagram is somewhere near the peak should be labelled 'the rug-pulling moment'

Three acts? What three acts? If I had read Story by Robert McKee, I would have known by then that novels and screenplays were built in acts. And I would have know about rising tension, that the stakes had to become higher with every scene. That at some point, the character reaches a crisis - Lee called it a 'rug-pulling moment' - when everything seems lost.

It took Lee Weatherly's diagram to tell me that I needed to get on top of plotting.

I bought Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell. 

Bell starts the book with his own journey story. He was a lawyer with an itch to write novels. But he decided he couldn't write because he was told 'Writing cannot be taught'.

But the itch wouldn't go away so he set out systematically to learn the craft. And discovered that 'Writing cannot be taught' was a big lie. Because he was learning.

It was through Bell's brilliant book that I learned about the three act structure, about how you move from one act to another the way you move through doors - doors of no return. And I learned that if a reader is to read on, stakes must rise, things must get worse.

Fiction is forward moving. If you frontload with backstory - those events that happened to the characters before the main plot - it feels like stalling. Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell

Thinking about plot led me to 20 Master Plots and How to Build Them by Ronald B. Tobias. There are lots of books that try to reduce plots to the lowest common denominators - they say all the stories in the world can be reduced to seven basic plots, or ten, or 12 ...

'The trick for any author is to find out what works for him and then do it. The same is true when it comes to plot,' Tobias says. 'How many plots are there? The real question is, "Does it really matter how many plots there are?" Not really. What matters is your understanding of the story and how to create a pattern of plot that works for it.'

I was after a quick fix when I was looking at books about plot. I chose Tobias' book because of the simplicity of his structure. He would outline the basics of a particular plot structure and then provide a checklist on how to develop the story. The checklist for the maturation (coming of age) plot for example includes the following:

1. Create a protagonist who is on the cusp of adulthood, whose goals are either confused or not yet clarified.
2. Make sure the audience understands who the character is ... before an event occurs that begins the process of change.
3. Contrast your protagonist's naive life (childhood) against the reality of an unprotected life (adulthood

... and so on.

It sounds stupid and obvious, reading it like this. But when you're immersed in creating a story, you are easily overwhelmed by the world of your imagination.

These books have transformed me as a writer and yet I haven't been a loyal friend to them, hiding their covers when I'm reading them in public places - because it's embarrassing isn't it, to be seen with a How To book in public. It's an admission of ignorance - you're no author, you're a  learner.

Ah, but allow me to quote Neil Gaiman quoting his friend Gene Wolfe for the nth time on the subject: 'You never learn to write a novel.  You only learn to write the novel you're on.'

Anyone who is setting out to write a book asks herself, 'What is my story?'

We could always use a little help finding the answer to that question.

Visit my author blog on - in my latest post, The Writer is You, I ask why it's so hard to give others permission to pursue their passions.

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