Friday 16 June 2017

The Scrumptiousness of Cake (do not read if hungry)

by Paula Harrison

It's fair to say that cake occupies a special place in many authors' hearts. There's the cake that keeps you going during the tear-your-hair-out stage of editing, there's cake eaten to ease the pain of rejection and just now and then there is celebratory cake when something special happens.

There's also (Shh... insider knowledge alert) quite a bit of cake wafting around publishers' office which is offered to hungry authors who might wander in off the streets. I've only been in one publishing meeting which didn't involve cake. Looking back, I feel this was a terrible oversight. 

Book cover cupcakes at the SCBWI 20th anniversary last Autumn
Cake also features heavily in children's books. There are lashings of them in Enid Blyton, with my favourite being the pop cakes in The Enchanted Wood:

She [Silky] brought out a tin of Pop Cakes, which were lovely. As soon as you bit into them they went pop! and you suddenly found your mouth filled with new honey from the middle of the little cakes. 

So it was inevitable that I would include some cake in my own stories. The Rescue Princesses have a particular habit of planning adventures and ninja moves over slices of cake. The Emperor's birthday cake at the end of The Stolen Crystals is one that sticks in my mind:

The twelve-tier birthday cake kept everyone happy, with its layers of chocolate fudge cake, cherry and sultana cake, ginger, lemon, toffee and many other flavours. Emily's little sister, Lottie, ate a slice from all twelve tiers and then had to sit very still on a garden chair to calm her aching tummy.

Cake is not just a food in children's books. It's something that brings characters together, lets them interact, celebrate and commiserate. It can be a tool for setting the scene and signalling characters roles in the story and attitudes to each other. It can be important to the plot.

Who can forget the floating pudding (nearly a cake) which Dobby uses to ruin Harry Potter's uncle and aunt's dinner party in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets?

Aunt Petunia's masterpiece of a pudding, the mountain of cream and sugared violets, was floating up near the ceiling. On top of a cupboard in the corner crouched Dobby...

Probably the most memorable cake scene in my opinion is Miss Trunchball's attempt to punish Bruce Bogtrotter by making him eat an entire chocolate cake in Matilda by Roald Dahl. She fails miserably.

She [Trunchball] glared at Bruce Bogtrotter, who was sitting on his chair like some huge overstuffed grub, replete, comatose, unable to move or speak. A fine sweat was beading his forehead but there was a grin of triumph on his face.
Suddenly the Trunchball lunged forward and grabbed the large empty china platter on which the cake had rested. She raised it high in the air and brought it down with a crash right on the top of the wretched Bruce Bogtrotter's head and pieces flew all over the platform.
The boy was by now so full of cake he was like a sackful of wet cement and you couldn't have hurt him with a sledge-hammer. He simply shook his head a few times and went on grinning.

So what's your favourite cake scene in a children's book?

Friday 9 June 2017

Editing Your Novel - Five Steps to Add Texture and Depth by Kathryn Evans

I'm still learning how to edit but I've nailed one thing. If you feel like your story isn't right, it probably isn't. You absolutely 100% can not skimp on editing.

Saturday 3 June 2017

The Bookshop That Taught Me How To Write

by Jo Wyton

This week, I was going to write something so light-hearted it was barely hearted at all, given that it's the general election next week and we're all exhausted. And then a process that has been ongoing for two years finally reached it's thrilling conclusion: two of my close friends sold their bookshop.

Nicki and Mark Thornton have owned Mostly Books in Abingdon for over a decade. Abingdon isn't a huge town, and yet for many years it has somehow, miraculously*, sustained two independent bookshops. 

*There is nothing miraculous about it: these guys work their butts off.

The Bookshop of Awesomeness. And a Gruffalo.

I imagine that many people reading this will have a connection to their local independent bookshop. I met Nicki first, at a Kate Harrison event back in 2008 (I think!). I was headed there with someone I'd met on a local writing course, and Nicki was busy doing what all successful independent bookshop owners do - EVERYTHING. 

I am convinced I haven't ever seen Nicki or Mark standing still in the near-decade I've known them. It's possible they're magic.

I joined a local writers group that had been set up by Nicki, and from there joined the SCBWI and a children's writing critique group (with Nicki). At some point, she advised me (read: told me) to drop the middle grade novel I'd been working on and write the YA novel that would follow on from an excerpt I'd read out that evening. I went on to be one of the winners of Undiscovered Voices 2012 with that very novel and haven't ever looked back.

Critique group fun in the sun (actually it's in the shade because we're all pallid writer types)

So Nicki has, you see, been integral to my entire writing journey so far.

But she's also done what a really fantastic bookshop owner will do: she's introduced me to some of my very favourite authors. I think the first book she ever bought me was August by Bernard Beckett, a little-known Australian YA author who writes the most brilliant and unexpected books. August remains  The Book I Would Love To Write.

And on top of all that, she and Mark have really let me get involved. Independent bookshops rely on volunteers to help (if you want experience of the book industry on your doorstep, pop down to your local indie and see if you can pitch in at some events). 

At a Cressida Cowell event in dragon trainer-appropriate attire.

I've sold books with them at schools, book awards and in the shop. I've heard a dozen authors speak to school kids, watched how they deal with book signings (Anthony Horowitz was a total pro, hanging around until every single kid had taken a picture and had a scribble in their book, never rushing one of them), figured out how to recommend books to kids and to parents buying for kids, learned what sells and what doesn't, what the gaps in the market are, how booksellers run their businesses, how they integrate themselves into the community, more like a local service than a shop. Kids have been terrified by the Gruffalo in that shop, been bewitched by Hugless Douglas, coloured in and done easter egg hunts and spent their world book day vouchers. They've scoured the shelves for the next Skulduggery Pleasant and for something completely new.

A cake from my first Oxfordshire Book Awards. The OBA is the most crazy event I've ever done. Imagine about 100 kids all racing at you at once looking for something to spend their pocket money on. The tables we stand behind gradually get shoved back until our backs are against the wall and we are terrified for our lives. 

In so many ways, Mostly Books, Nicki and Mark have shaped the kind of writer and reader I am. So instead of writing a silly post (which I am sure I will thrill you all with at a later date), I thought I would say thank you to those guys and to all the booksellers who become part of our lives. 

And despite no longer owning the shop, next year will be Nicki's biggest one in books yet: her own book will find its place on the shelves after she won the Chicken House/Times competition with The Firefly Cage. Now that is a book launch I absolutely can't wait for!

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