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’.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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:
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’.
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.
Anne Clark, Rosemary Hayes, Martin West, Pippa Goodhart and Gillian McClure
Questions from the audience
Chatting after the event
Really excited about this event at Heffers Bookshop in Cambridge. Here’s a taster, on a board outside the shop. There will be a panel of three writers (myself, Gillian McClure and Pippa Goodhart) a children’s literary agent (Anne Clark) and a publisher (Martin West). We’ll be discussing what makes a great children’s book, talking about our own experiences and hearing about the current state of the market. Lots of people coming – armed, we hope, with plenty of questions.
Last week’s annual Philippa Pearce Lecture at Homerton College in Cambridge was an inspiring occasion. This year, Meg Rosoff (author of so many exceptional books for young adults) entitled her lecture ‘Don’t be Afraid to be Afraid’ which was funny, brave and insightful. Starting to write relatively late in life, she shot to fame with her first book, the amazing ‘How I Live Now’, gave up a job she hated and has continued to wow her audience ever since. She talked about pushing through the pc barriers which frequently constrain young people, embracing the imagination (that of writers’ and readers’) and writing from the heart. Great stuff.
August’s been a busy month with five new books published, ‘The Mark’, my YA novel about two homeless teenagers, came out first (some good reviews on Amazon thanks to kind writer friends) and then, this week my four gypsy stories ‘The Travellers’. Research involved getting to know local travelling families – who were really helpful and welcoming and I couldn’t have written the books without their input. Some GRTs (Gypsy/Roma/Travellers) even read the mss to make sure I’d not made any cultural blunders. Altogether a very positive experience; I really hope these stories will help break down some barriers.