Visit to London Book Fair

Being at the London Book Fair at Olympia can be overwhelming.  Publishers from across the globe, so many people, so many books, so many genres, to say nothing of the digital content. Some good seminars too, though this year I didn’t attend any but focussed on the children’s books area on the first floor – and that was huge enough.  Good to catch up with old friends (my current publishers and ex colleagues) and meet new (coffee at Pizza Express with members of Scattered Authors’ Society).

A stimulating day in all sorts of ways – seeing new books and new ways in which to inspire children and, quite unexpectedly, eliciting interest in my current work-in-progress.

Definitely a worthwhile visit – and it is reassuring to have evidence that the physical book is not on its way out.  It is alive and kicking vigorously!

 

 

A blog I wrote for inclusion in Australia’s Women’s History Month

The Highs, Lows and Bits in Between for a Writer of Historical Fiction

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I’m not by nature a joiner of groups but I am very glad I overcame my reluctance and signed up to two or three authors’ societies. One of the best things about being part of a network of writers is the support, encouragement and advice you get from colleagues when things aren’t going so well.

Yes, it is great to share successes, but in my view, even more valuable to share the failures, the bad times, when your confidence is so shattered that you can’t believe you were ever arrogant enough to call yourself a writer.

Knowing that you are not alone, that all writers, however apparently successful, have been through these experiences, can be the only thing that keeps you going and spurs you on to dig yourself out of that deep hole of waning self confidence.

There have always been blips in my writing life. It had begun so well and, initially, been so easy. I had written an historical novel with a twist of fantasy; a story I really wanted to tell and believed in, which had been brewing in my imagination for years. I’d put it away for long periods and then taken out again, tinkered with it, asked others to read it, incorporated their advice. And then, finally, entered it in a national competition here in the UK, after which I forgot about it again and got on with my life, looking after my three children and an assortment of animals, working part time, doing voluntary stuff, visiting aging parents, coping for long periods on my own while my husband worked abroad.

Okay, so that’s what women do at these busy times in our lives. We multitask, switching priorities when we have to, juggling, keeping all the balls in the air and, if we are lucky, managing to fit a little time into our lives to indulge in our hobbies. And, back then, I did see writing as no more than a hobby. Having written my novel I felt that I had, at least, achieved what I set out to do and if it never saw the light of day, never got to be read by anyone except family and friends, then too bad. At the time, I knew nothing about the publishing process, about agents or editors. I was impossibly green. It was only much later, when I went to work for a large publisher, that I realized how lucky I had been.

The national competition was run jointly by a well known publisher and the Book Trust and the results weren’t announced until months later. I had genuinely forgotten about it when, to my astonishment, I heard that my story was runner up in the competition and that it would be published.

These were the good times. I worked with a brilliant editor who taught me so much and helped me fine tune my work. Four more books were commissioned and I began to believe that I was a ‘proper’ writer. But then the editor in question went on to higher things and, as so often happens, the new editor didn’t particularly like my work, was looking for new voices, and no more commissions came my way.

That was my first time in the wilderness and there was a long gap before I was taken on by Penguin Australia and had a very happy relationship with them, writing many books over a period of about eight years. Three of these were historical novels, all based on events in Australia’s history, with which I have a particular fascination (more of this later). Then again, the wonderful editor with whom I had worked moved on, my ideas for new books weren’t accepted, the work dried up and no other publisher showed any inclination to take me on.

At these points in your writing life, unless you have incredible self-belief, it is very easy to lose faith in yourself as a writer. Even though, by that time, I had a bunch of published books to my name, it made no difference. A lot of navel searching went on. I had no background as an historian, so maybe I should never have attempted to write historical novels. But even at this low point, some of these events from the past just wouldn’t let me go and I continued to mull over ideas, do research, jot down plot structures.

A couple of years went by when neither agents nor publishers seemed interested in my proposals and then, just at the point when I was ready to abandon my writing, a commission came from Hachette for a trilogy of historical novels – a family saga, this time, from early Victorian times to the second World War. Although the stories were essentially about an English family and their triumphs and tragedies, an Australian thread sneaked into them (transportation for a petty crime, the gold rush). But they didn’t sell particularly well and, although the editorial team wanted more from me, marketing and sales felt the books’ sales didn’t justify further commissions.

This was when I became aware of a shift in emphasis from publishers. Editors’ enthusiasm for a wonderful story, a great idea, frequently had cold water poured upon them by the sales and marketing departments and by the accountants who, as larger publishers gobbled up the smaller publishers, became more and more influential, their eyes always on the bottom line of the balance sheet. Editorial had to go through endless hoops to commission books and often a quirky, original idea that had so grabbed an editor, failed to pass the scrutiny of those looking for a ready market and guaranteed sales. Or, if it did, it became so diluted as to be unrecognizable.

Those Hachette books were the last ones for which I received an advance based on a first chapter and a synopsis. After that everything changed. Now you have to do all the research, write the full story and submit it and, if you are very lucky, it is accepted. Admittedly, this is not true for high profile authors but if, like me, you are ‘mid-list’ this is how it seems to be.

Post Hachette there were more fruitless years, then a new publisher and four more books; and just when I felt I had got my feet under the table there, the company was bought by a larger publisher, the Young Adult list was axed and all the YA editorial team were out of a job and their writers abandoned. But at least I was not alone on this occasion; there were so many of us that we staged a wonderful party – a wake to mark the burial of the YA list!

Since then, I’ve been taken on by a small independent publisher – set up by an editor, as it happens, who was involved in publishing my first novel, so I have come full circle. But who knows where this will lead, how many more books I shall have accepted? There is absolutely no certainly in this game.

I’ve been in the business for a long time now and seen a lot of changes. From being nurtured as a newbie, having long and wonderful associations with talented editors, having launches and promotion all done for me by publicity departments, to this new and scary time for writers when editors are either over stretched or inexperienced (or both) and an author is expected to do most of his or her own marketing and publicity.

Of course there are authors who actively enjoy putting themselves out there on social media, setting up school visits, turning every possible marketing opportunity to their advantage, but what of those of us who do not? I am essentially a private person, at my happiest being left on my own to research and read, dream up stories to flesh out historical facts and write them as well as I possibly can. I don’t mind sharing my professional life with those who are interested (like you!) but I want to keep my private life private. Of course, I do the social media stuff, but not regularly and usually reluctantly – and I resent its banality. It is not what I am and I don’t really enjoy engaging with total strangers just to blow my own trumpet. And yes, I know I’m missing out in terms of sales – but ideally I’d prefer that my books spoke for me.

Back, then, to what I mentioned earlier – to my fascination with Australia’s past. I have spent most of my life living in the UK, so why this urge to write about Australian history? Why does it hold such appeal for me? Well I suspect it is because I came to it afresh when I lived there. In particular, learning about the voyages of the early Dutch mariners, ploughing their way up the coast of Western Australia en route to the East Indies, years before Captain Cook landed on the Eastern side of the country in 1770, and discovering that the first European settlers in Australia were two young men involved in the infamous Batavia mutiny and massacre, marooned on the West Australian coast in 1629. Other shipwrecks followed with more survivors, no trace of whom was found. What happened to these people? Did they integrate with the coastal aboriginal tribes? DNA evidence suggests that they did. There are so many untold stories – extraordinary stories of hardship, endurance and bravery. A rich vein indeed, which I shall continue to tap, whether for my own interest or for a broader audience of young people.

 

 

Article about ‘The Travellers’ up on SCBWI UK’s website

Have a look at the article up today on the Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators ‘Words and Pictures’ blog  http://www.wordsandpics.org/2016/03/UK-travellers-YA-book-Rosemary-Hayes.html

Also worth reading is an article from the Advisory Council for the Education of Romany and other Travellers – which talks about cuts to Traveller education in Cambridgeshire  http://acert.org.uk/blog/2016/01/14/acert-campaigns-to-preserve-cambridgeshire-traveller-education/

All the families I interviewed for my series of stories were based in Cambridgeshire where, currently, they have excellent support from staff in traveller education. So many would lose out if this was taken away from them.

Virtual Historical Fiction Festival

A heads up about the forthcoming Virtual Historical Fiction Festival which runs between 18th and 22nd April.  It will mainly be hosted on Twitter and there will be lots of historical fiction writers talking about their books, their research and so on.  Go to https://historicalfestival.wordpress.com and read some of the writers’ blogs up there (including mine) and join in the chat next month.  I’ll be talking about ‘The Blue Eyed Aborigine’ and my forthcoming book, ‘Forgotten Footprints’.

Books and other Bits

 

Far too long since I last blogged, despite good intentions.

Lots has been going on since the beginning of December last year and not only the splendid and prolonged invasion of family over the Christmas period.

On December 12th my critique group ‘Walden Writers’ had a book sale in our local library which was a lot of fun. We were allocated several tables on the ground floor and it was really good to engage with local readers and talk about our books and – it being just before Christmas – we sold quite a few, too. Our secret weapon was Clare Mulley, the biographer, who is no shrinking violet. Clare shouted out to all passers-by to come and sample our wares – and, as added incentive, we offered chocolate brownies and a free Walden Writers magazine, showcasing our writing, to anyone who bought a book!

I can’t stress how valuable a good critique group is to a writer – and this one is the best, consisting, as it does, of published writers in various genres. I’m just starting out on a new venture, in slightly unfamiliar territory, so I am very much feeling my way – and to have their expert, constructive criticism, is invaluable.

But sadly, just now I can’t get to meetings of any of my ‘book-y’ groups as I’m confined to the house following a foot operation, unable to drive or to fulfill my normal commitments. The upside is that there is absolutely NO excuse not to get on with the new project, so I’m plodding on, trying to rough it out. This is the process I like least; the enjoyable part is coming back to a story after a few weeks’ absence, seeing its many flaws, and rewriting and editing.

Another upside is that I’ve been able to do a lot of reading. Finally got round to Meg Rosoff’s ‘Picture me Gone’ and Patrick Ness’s ‘The Knife of Never Letting Go’ as well as the first of the ‘Hunger Games.’  Yes, I know.  Shaming that I’ve not read these before but hey, better late than never, eh?  Other reading I’ve really enjoyed is Sarah Waters’ ‘The Paying Guests’, ‘The Miniaturist’ by Jessie Burton and ‘Brooklyn’ by Colm Toibin.

Today I booked a place on the wonderful Charney Manor writers’ retreat in Oxfordshire. I’ve been twice before and it is always such a shot in the arm to talk to other children’s writers, compare notes, join in the many activities and just generally be reinvigorated and re- inspired. Roll on the Summer.

 

The Muslim Young Writers’ Awards 5th December

Delighted to have been invited to the presentation of the Muslim Young Writers’ Awards last Saturday at the Senate House at London University. I was one of the judges in 2014 but couldn’t attend the ceremony – and was SO pleased to be able to go this year.

What a wonderful, positive, vibrant occasion it was. The Senate House packed with confident, talented young people and their supporters and families. There were speeches given by high profile guests and judges, including Louis de Bernieres, Roopa Farooki, Tim Bowler, Caryl Hart and many others, all emphasizing the power of story and of the imagination and encouraging the young finalists to keep writing, keep reading and change the world for the better.

And I certainly left feeling that this new generation of British Muslims could do just that.

A timely reminder of how much these young people can contribute to our society.

UK Middle Grade Extravaganza, Nottingham, 17th October

What a great event this was!  Somehow, the organisers (Emma Pass, Kerry Drewery, Jo Cotterill and the Nottingham Central Library team) managed to gather together THIRTY THREE children’s writers from across the country for an afternoon of quick-fire panels – four authors at a time, each talking for two minutes about their books and then fielding 5 minutes’  worth of questions from the floor.

It could have been chaotic but amazingly it went very smoothly, entirely due to the wonderful Paula who chaired the sessions and cut us off if we overran our 2 minutes, ably helped by various children who manned the giant egg-timers!

It was a lot of fun and a chance to re-connect with old friends, meet new ones and talk shop.

Oh, and I enjoyed sharing a platform with a witch!

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Scattered Authors’ Lunch

Such a happy lunch at the Pitcher and Piano yesterday with fellow Scattered Authors.  The P and P is  in Cornhill, right in the middle of the City, across the way from the Royal Exchange and was an ideal venue, especially for those of us coming from the North – just a short walk from Liverpool Street Station.

There were eighteen of us – seventeen women and one brave man – all children’s writers.  It was great to catch up with old friends and make new ones, exchange gossip and the highs and lows of our writing experiences.  Writing can be a lonely profession, so it is really good to get out and meet kindred spirits.

As I travelled back to Cambridge with a writing friend, we reflected on how children’s writers, as a group, are fantastically supportive of one another. Meeting together buoys you up and we both came away feeling reassured that we weren’t the only ones to experience the occasional crisis of confidence.

Thank you, Jackie Marchant (brilliant author of Dougal Trump stories) for gathering us all together.

A joyous occasion and I’m cursing myself for not taking a camera!

Magical time in Budapest

Just returned from Budapest, conscious, all the time, of the plight of refugees not far away at the borders, but oh, what a beautiful city, and what a troubled history.  It made me realise, not for the first time, how lucky we are to live on an island where we are so much less vulnerable to invasion.DSCF4577

We packed a lot into our few days – including a candlelit dinner while cruising down the Danube, a concert, taking a dip in the Gellert thermal baths, a tour round the Parliament, a squint at the Opera House, a visit to the National Art Gallery and a couple of visits to St Stephen’s Basilica. And, although there was a terrific storm one night, the days were lovely – lots of sunshine.

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We also hit off the annual ‘gallop’ and watched displays from every region of Hungary, of re-enacted battles, men standing on the bottom of one horse and controlling that and another four horses with one set of reins as the horses galloped round the arena – and lots of synchronised riding. There were speeches, cannons firing and a splendid brass band, too.

The ‘gallop’ took place in Hero’s Square which had been transformed into a race track for the weekend. DSCF4559DSCF4611

 

It was easy to get about – by free metro and trams – and it was a delight to come upon the quirky bronze statues in all sorts of unexpected places.

 

 

 

 

Here’s a curiosity.  A 19th century cigar rest, in the corridor outside the main chamber of the Parliament!

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Writing Great Books for Children

 

Q: When is a launch not a launch?

A: When it’s a panel of children’s authors joined by a publisher and an agent

Well, here we were, three Cambridge based children’s authors, all published by Troika books, each with a new book or books to promote and an offer from the wonderful Heffers Children’s Bookshop to host an event for us.

‘Please,’ I said, ‘Don’t make it a launch,’ remembering all the times I have pressed ganged loyal friends to come to past launches, listen to me spout and then feel duty bound to go away clutching a copy of my new book.

Then publicity whizz, Andrea Reece, came up with the idea of a panel event.

‘Let’s call it Writing Great Books for Children. Each of you write for a different a age group, so you can talk about the whole range from babies to teenagers.’

THAT sounded better. Something like this could be of genuine interest to children’s writers and illustrators, particularly to those just starting out and looking for a publisher.

‘ We’ll need a publisher on the panel.’

So Martin West of Troika agreed to lead the discussion.

‘And a children’s literary agent.’

Anne Clark, literary agent based in Cambridge, was approached and came on board.

Both Andrea and Heffers really got behind this idea and publicized it widely:

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There was a huge response and, despite torrential rain and traffic chaos in Cambridge, the audience flooded (literally) through the door, dripping but eager and cheerful.

We each spoke, first, about our backgrounds and what drew us to writing for children. Pippa admitted that she wasn’t much of a reader as a child but then had a Saturday job at Heffers and ended up working there, surrounded by children’s books – and was hooked.

Gillian thought she was set for a career in teaching but when she couldn’t find an alphabet book to excite her Reception class, she created her own, blending the letters with her unique and enchanting illustrations. This was spotted by a Schools Inspector who showed it to a publisher – and the rest is history.

Unlike Pippa, I was an avid reader as a child, often living in the imaginary world of fictional characters and I even wrote a ‘book’ when I was ten and was incensed when it was rejected by a publisher! Undaunted, I started writing again when my children were young, always drawn to a young audience with their vivid and receptive imaginations.

Next, we were asked what we found rewarding about working in the genre.

Pippa spoke about how she finds the variety and range of children’s books really stimulating, Gillian about how she loves the fact that she has control over the whole book, both text and illustrations, and I spoke about the fun of researching topics for my historical novels and, more recently, about the research I’ve been doing with local gypsies for my series ‘The Travellers’.

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Then Martin and Anne gave an overview of the children’s books market. Martin, as a small, independent publisher, has the freedom to publish what he wants without the encumbrance of the acquisitions meetings, marketing approval, etc, of a large publishing house. He also mentioned that so many large publishers are wedded to series – if it’s successful let’s have more of the same – whereas the small publisher can publish more stand alone books and popular titles which have gone OP. The digital age, too, favours the small publisher in that he can print small quantities initially and, if necessary, reprint within a week. With his long experience in the industry, Martin can see how it has changed, particularly with authors now being expected to play a large part in marketing their books.

Anne talked about how, in many ways, this is the golden age for children’s books, the genre being taken much more seriously by publishers. So, while there are huge opportunities, there are also a lot more writers seeking publication. The secret to success, she said, was to write an excellent story with a distinctive ‘voice’.

Next the three of us discussed new books for children and why we admire them. I went for Sheena Wilkinson’s ‘Declan’ stories – ‘Taking Flight’ and ‘Grounded’. I particularly admire her characterization and ‘voice’ (see above). Sheena taught teenagers and she has a really authentic and assured touch, combined with absolutely thrilling plots – and she doesn’t shy away from difficult issues.

Then we were asked what we felt made a great children’s book.:

First and foremost, a great story with plenty of tension, a problem to solve, a crisis and a resolution, with strong credible characters to whom a young reader can relate. Setting is important, too, either grounded in the real world of school or home or in a world of the imagination with different rules and landscapes.

Pippa talked about the importance of emotional impact (tugging at the heartstrings) and how this has to be done with subtlety. And Gillian chose an example of what she felt was the perfect picture book ‘Rosie’s Walk’, a story of only 32 words, but with tension, humour and that essential ingredient that makes a child desperate to turn over the page.

There was some discussion, then, about which current bestsellers might last – stand the test of time – and why.

And finally, we were each asked to give a couple of pieces of advice to those wanting to write for children:

  • Read and read. Inside and outside your genre. See how stories work
  • Write from the heart. Love your subject and your characters. Don’t try and jump on bandwagons
  • Get your story read by others (preferably by a authors’ advisory service so you have an objective opinion and constructive criticism)
  • Don’t rush to get your work seen. Put it away and come back to it
  • Don’t agonize over the first page. Crack on and then come back to it when you have relaxed into the writing
  • Don’t use current buzz words or slang as these will date
  • Consider entering competitions (Chicken House, for instance) as a way of getting your work read and considered seriously

The questions from the audience were interesting and varied and the feedback was really enthusiastic, especially from those just starting out on their writing careers.

I’ve learnt so much from this. A brilliant evening. Thank you!

RESULT! Oh, and some books were sold, too.

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Anne Clark, Rosemary Hayes, Martin West, Pippa Goodhart and Gillian McClure

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Questions from the audience

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Chatting after the event