Tuesday, 30 June 2009

What not to say

I’m new to writing books. I’m in a strange limbo state between having a book accepted for publication and actually having it bought and read by strangers. And today I realised that I have an awful lot to learn when it comes to Being an Author in public.
I was at a fabulously posh lunch with my sister and was showing off the uncorrected proof of When I Was Joe, the first time she’d seen it looking like a book. So, sweetie that she is, she showed it off to her friend who was sitting next to me. The friend grabbed it and read the back cover blurb, which contains the line: ‘Then he meets a girl with a dangerous secret of her own.’ ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘What’s the secret?’
Now what I could have done is grabbed the book back and said, ‘None of your business’. What I should have done is said: ‘Aha…you’ll have to buy it to find out. You can pre-order on Amazon and it’ll be with you in January.’
What did I do? I told her the secret. Duh! What an idiot! Although it was almost worth it, for the look of surprised horror that came over her face. ‘Oh,’ she said. ‘Do I want my daughter to read this book?’
Now what I could have said is, ‘Do you think I’d let your daughter read my book? You must be joking! Children with over-protective parents are banned from reading my book!’ What I should have said is, ‘It’s really aimed at children who make up their own minds what they want to read.’ But what I did say was, ‘Oh, don’t worry, it’s not as bad as it sounds.’ Duh! Dissing my own book! Giving away my own secrets! Unbelievable.
So from now on, I tell no one anything about the plot. I stand firm against over anxious parents. I make the book sound as exciting and as interesting as I hope it is.
And then I can get to work on finding an answer to that killer question: ‘Do you think you’re going to be the next JK Rowling?’

Friday, 26 June 2009

The future of children's books?

So, you want to be a writer? You have an idea, work on it in glorious isolation, delve into your imagination, write, rewrite, edit and revise and then start the hideous search for an agent and publisher.
Not necessarily. My writing group had a visit yesterday from a company offering a different way into the publishing world, a route that’s been very successful for a few writers.
Hothouse Publishing creates books - generally series of books - which they then sell to publishers. They come up with an idea, treat it like a business product - brainstorming, market research, creating sample chapters - and then sell the idea to publishers.
They’ve been going for two and a half years and have already successfully sold a few series. The first book they produced – Darkside by Tom Becker – was published by Scholastic and won the Waterstone’s Children’s Book of the Year prize.
The writer gets a detailed outline chapter by chapter, and is paid a flat fee. His or her work appears under a pseudonym. In some cases there might be a chance of a share of royalties. But if the series you write becomes the next Twilight or Harry Potter then you’re not going to retire on the profits – fair enough really as you didn’t come up with the concept, characters or plot.
It’s a different approach to books that can be compared to television, or even to the medieval artisans who produced art - anonymous, working in teams. The Romantic idea of the lonely genius artist came much later.
So what to make of this? It’s good to see a way in which aspiring writers can make money, learn their craft and get the attention of agents and publishers. Almost all of Hothouse’s successfully published authors have gone on to find agents and get published in their own right. Tom Becker now has his own contract with Scholastic.
Second, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong in having a different model for creating fiction. Why shouldn’t it be a group vision instead of an individual one?
Against that, is the concern that this creates formulaic copycat sub-standard children’s fiction. Hothouse’s very nice representatives defend themselves against this charge, saying they do believe in the quality and literary content of their work. The judges of the Waterstone's Childrens Book of the Year clearly approved.
Other series producers are not quite so fussy I suspect. My son gobbled up the Beast Quest series - he owns 14 of them which means I’ve spent an eye-watering £70 for him to read the same story again and again. My daughter developed her reading skills and critical faculties on the Rainbow fairies series - it was a great moment when she realised that they were boring and totally predictable. (I must admit though to a secret fascination with the names they chose and the way they match them with subject. Rihanna the Seahorse Fairy must have been a difficult day at the fairy factory).
Personally I quail a bit at the idea that I’m up against teams of idea generators and market researchers in trying to grab a little bit of a market. But then that’s life and writing is both an art and a business.
My writing group was divided by the visit. There were some who felt that the idea of writing for Hothouse was a distraction that could harm their own work. It could be frustrating not to be able to contribute your own ideas. Others felt there would be fantastic freedom in writing for the mass market to someone else's plan. And I wondered if I could write quickly enough to make it financially worthwhile, and whether I'd feel resentful if 'my' book became a best-seller - except it wouldn't really be 'my' book, so probably not.
The lesson seems to be that publishers love series. If you can beat Hothouse at their own game then you’re on to a winner. If you create something that they go on to copy then you’re doing really well. And it’s nice to know that if your imagination dries up then there are people out there who might employ you to fill in the gaps in their vision. Would love to know what others think.

Monday, 22 June 2009

Life-changing Mondays

Just over a year ago I signed up for an evening course in Writing for Children at City University. I mentioned it to someone the other day and her lip curled. ‘I’m not sure how worthwhile these courses are,’ she said. ‘After all JK Rowling never did a course in writing for children, did she?’
Well, no, maybe not. But for me the course was life-changing. I invested £140 and two and a half hours every Monday evening for ten weeks, then another £140 for the follow up course of another ten Mondays. I ended up with three agents wanting to represent me and a two book publishing deal.
Some people – JK for example - can sit on their own and dream up a whole new world, along with intricate twisting plots. Perhaps I might be able to do that one day. Other writers keep their work completely private until they have polished the final version. But I’m not really someone who likes complete freedom and total solitude. I like working with a team, and I need deadlines and feedback. That’s why I thrive in newspaper offices. That’s why I’d never got going with writing fiction. I knew how to write. I knew how to edit. But I didn’t know how to write a book.
The evening class gave me colleagues and tasks. It helped me think about what I wanted to write and how to go about it. It meant that I looked at other people’s work and thought about how it could improve. It turned me from someone who thought that writing fiction was something I’d like to do one day into someone who sat down and just did it..
Amanda Swift, our tutor was just the best person possible to learn from. Amanda’s written several warm and funny books for 9-12 year olds - The Boys’ Club, Big Bones and Anna/Bella. She’s got an incredibly light touch as a teacher - no pressure, no heavy criticism but unfailing enthusiasm and encouragement and a way of making one little comment that completely turns your head around and makes you see exactly where you’re going wrong - even if it means rewriting 15 chapters.
When I Was Joe came directly from an plot-planning exercise in class. We each had to think of a character for a contemporary teenage novel. I’d been thinking vaguely about witness protection – how interesting it would be to write about someone who had to lie about every aspect of their identity because they were telling the truth. We got into pairs and had to weave our characters together into a story. I happened to be paired with Amanda. Her character was a disabled athlete. We put the two characters together and made a story outline. I liked the story. Even more, I liked the fact that there was a story. I began to see how a novel could be planned. I asked Amanda if she’d mind me hijacking her character and working on the plot and having a go at writing it. She generously agreed.
By the end of the first Writing for Children course I’d written a first chapter. I would probably have then lost momentum, worried about plotting and research if Amanda had not persuaded City to let her put on a level 2 course. I took the 10 workshop sessions as a series of deadlines and started writing. By the end of course 2 I had 60,000 words. My classmates were fantastically supportive as I flooded them with multiple chapters. Their comments were insightful and helpful. I had a first draft of my novel finished a month after the course ended.
I still have my deadlines and colleagues. We set up a writing group after the course, and we meet in the library opposite City University. It’s great to work with all these talented people, to feel that we can contribute to each other’s work. It’s bridged the gap for me between the teamwork and immediacy of journalism and the solitude of novel-writing.
Sadly, the government doesn’t seem to value evening classes. Funding has been slashed and many courses have been cut. Never mind that courses like these are accessible, affordable and helpful to all sorts of people - from those who want to change their careers and get published - I'm not the only one - to those who want to be more creative and get out in the evening. Happily the Writing for Children course at City University has been saved, although it was threatened for a while. And hopefully someone will rethink the policy on evening classes and restore the subsidy that they deserve.

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Saying thank you

I loved this from my friend Jan Patience's great blog about Scottish art. Harriet Lowther sent thank you letters to all those people who never get thanked - the people who make and provide everyday goods and services that we usually take for granted. The best letter is the one from Glasgow's subway service, who say she's the kindest customer they've ever heard from!
At the end of When I Was Joe I get the chance to say thank you to just some of the people who helped me along the way to publication, but if I took Harriet's approach I'd have written pages and pages - from the lovely people who made my laptop, to my wonderful babysitters, to the journalists who write for my local paper and on and on...

Monday, 15 June 2009

Ben's legacy

A very dignified and moving interview by Ben Kinsella's parents on the BBC this morning. Here it is.
They explained why minimum tariffs for knife murders should be brought into line with gun crime and also talked about a foundation they have set up in Ben's name to raise money for youth facilities in Islington.

Update - Jack Straw, the Home Secretary is to review knife crime tariffs.

Friday, 12 June 2009

Two victims of London knife crime - Ben and Shaquille

Two terribly sad court cases in London this week, illustrating the extent to which knives are used in a casual and random way to wipe out the lives of innocent boys.

Ben Kinsella, 16 was celebrating the end of his exams in a bar in Holloway, north London when he was stabbed by three boys who thought they'd been shown disrespect. Shaquille Smith, 14 was sitting in a park in Hackney when he was stabbed by gang members with a grudge against the brother of the boy he was with. Ben and Shaquille did absolutely nothing to provoke their attackers.

In the case of Ben Kinsella. witnesses braved intimidation to give evidence. This is just an extract from a letter sent by one of the defendants to a witness: "You all best hope I don't bust case because people will be in trouble and you will never snitch on anyone again, I promise you that.

"You see, snitches get touched. You see blood [brother or fellow gang member], Tottenham ride [flee] or die ... if I get found guilty it's down to you."

Shaquille's mother Sandra read a statement to the court, saying: “It is difficult to describe the life Shaq has lost. I can describe his birth, his first smile, his first tear, when he first walked, going to nursery and onto school.“What I can’t tell you is how he would manage his exams, his graduation, his first job, his first car, his first girlfriend, getting married, having children.“A light has been dimmed and put out of our lives. We never had a chance to say goodbye.”

And Ben Kinsella's mother told the Old Bailey: "Ben had only just finished school – a straight-A student, he had a job and had got his place in college. He never learnt of the wonderful exam results he had achieved and worked so very hard for. Ben loved life, he loved living, and he had so much to live for. He knew where he was going and where he wanted to be. Ben loved nothing more than to make people laugh, he was a fun-loving, happy-go-lucky boy with a heart of gold and would do anything for anyone....All we can hope and pray for is that justice will prevail. Maybe then we can find some form of closure to this awful event that has devastated our family's lives."

Ben Kinsella's attackers were jailed for life today, with a recommended minimum of term of 19 years. Shaquille Smith's killers have been warned that they will also get life sentences.

It's hard to find even a glimmer of hope when reading about these two beautiful boys whose lives were taken from them. Maybe it's in the hundreds of Ben's friends who marched against knife crime in the days following his death. Maybe in the news today that a police raid against gangs in London saw 200 people arrested.

Reading about cases like these make me question myself about the ethics of writing about knife crime in a novel. Could my book be seen as exploiting real human tragedies like these? Is it offensive to grieving parents like the Kinsellas and Smiths to base a work of fiction around a London stabbing? I feel this particularly about Shaquille, because he, like the victim in my book, died in a Hackney park. All I can say is that I hope my book might make some boys think twice before they arm themselves with knives, and that by examining questions about justice and truth, others might find the courage to stand up against intimidation.
As a news journalist I know how the news agenda moves on so quickly as the media bores easily. Maybe fiction offers a different way to keep the hunt for justice alive.

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Romantic evening

Congraulations to Farahad Zama, winner of the third Melissa Nathan Award for Romantic Comedy for his book The Marriage Bureau for Rich People. Farahad gave a brilliantly unromantic acceptance speech last night – ‘I’d like to thank my wife, mostly for not getting in the way’ – and is a fantastic example to all those who say they would love to write a novel but haven’t got the time, as he produced his novel while holding down a full time IT job in the City, writing 300 word chunks during his daily commute.

The awards ceremony was held in the fabulously rococco and romantic setting of the CafĂ© de Paris - all velvet, gilding and twinkling chandeliers and the comedy came from the equally fabulous Jo Brand. I used to edit Jo’s column in The Independent but sadly I have absolutely no funny anecdotes to pass on, because Jo’s copy was consistently accurate, punctual, the correct length and very, very funny. An editor’s dream in fact. I'm sure she wouldn't remember me at all because generally all I had to say to her was 'Thank you!'

Melissa Nathan, who died aged just 37 three years ago, was the best-selling author of international hits like The Nanny and The Waitress. She was also my sister’s sister-in-law, which means we were jointly aunts to the same children. Her books were always much more than ‘just’ hilarious comedy or ‘just’ heart-melting romance, but showed fully rounded characters struggling with all aspects of their lives, especially their careers - with plenty of acutely accurate social commentary along the way.

I’ve really missed Melissa’s advice and guidance as I’ve set out to try and write books. She was and is a real inspiration, and well done to her husband Andrew Saffron, family and friends for creating the awards and also the Melissa Nathan Foundation in her name.


Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Good luck on the North Circular

What a lucky day for me back in 1980-something when Tony Metzer turned up to share the not very beautiful flat I was living in on the North Circular Road (For non-Londoners, the North Circular was then and is now a noisy, congested and very, very long road – always a big problem to get a pizza delivered).

Back in those days Tony was a pupil barrister, paying his way by marking exam scripts and I was a reporter for the Greenford, Northolt and Perivale Gazette, which was a bit of a mouthful when we answered the office phone.

But now I write books which need a certain amount of expertise on the criminal justice system. And Tony is a criminal barrister, perfectly placed to help out and kind enough to do so. He was the legal adviser to the makers of the brilliant BBC series Criminal Justice, so he’s used to guiding wild creative imaginations - although the writer there used to be a barrister himself so had a certain advantage.

For When I Was Joe Tony told me that I’d got the police procedure all wrong, and how to fix it. We’ve just had lunch to discuss Almost True during which he had to deal with vast numbers of plot possibilities and at least three potential trials, telling me what solicitors, police and barristers would and could do. His advice will be absolutely essential in working out the last third of the book.

That’s not the only reason that I was very lucky to have shared a flat with Tony. Not only was he the nicest flatmate imaginable, but when another room in our vast but hideous flat was vacated he suggested his sister Sylvia’s then boyfriend Richard should move in. And Richard was a fantastic flatmate too, given to returning from visits home with vast carrier bags full of M&S food and kitchen gadgets.

At Richard and Sylvia’s wedding I sat next to her boss. And - despite losing half my outfit on the way to the wedding and the waitress dropping a bowl of cream in my lap - we got on very well and swopped phone numbers. We’re coming up for our fifteenth wedding anniversary. Thanks Tony!

Friday, 5 June 2009

Great news from Germany

Oh the excitement - a new version of the cover which is beautiful - I'm completely in love - but made me think quite hard about what colour the eyes should be. Why did I come up with a main character whose eyes change colours? And an offer from German publisher DTV for both books, which I am so happy about. They look like a fantastic publisher.
And the other great thing arrived in an email tonight - a pdf of the inside pages actually looking like a book, not a manuscript. I should get a print out to proof quite soon - but what a thrill to see something that really looks like a book with my name on it. And it's spelled right - unlike the first time I ever wrote a whole page in a newspaper and then laid it out (with the help of the art department natch) and edited it. I couldn't believe my eyes when it came back with a huge KAREN DAVID byline - the compositor (yes, back in the dark ages) had changed it on the stone 'because he thought it must be a mistake'.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

'You've got to have something to protect you'

The House of Commons Select Committee report on knife crime is published today, and it's well worth reading - good to be reminded of the important work that MPs do amid all the kerfuffle about expenses claims.
The report underlines lots of the things that I've tried to include in When I Was Joe, about the fear that young people feel on the streets, and the basic thoughtlessness of many
These were very telling quotes from young offenders:

It was not like I was carrying it because I was going to go and stab someone, it was just other people were doing it so it was just like an arms race. I think in a way—and this is a personal opinion—to make it equal, governments have nuclear weapons because someone else has got nuclear weapons. It is to defend ourselves. No-one wants to use it but it is just there as a deterrent

The police are saying that they keep you safe, but the police ain't gonna protect you 24-7, 52-weeks. Obviously you've got to have something to protect you …

When you are in that experience, when my friend got stabbed when I was with him on the bus, the other gang came on the bus, we had a ruck, he got stabbed, we did not realise and then afterwards because he had been stabbed everyone was like, "We have got to get them." It does not go through your mind at all about prison or whatever; it does not exist

Some of those giving evidence were the parents of victims of stabbings, parents who have turned their crippling grief into powerful positive campaigns against knife crime. For example Mrs Oakes-Odger goes into schools to talk to young people about the loss of her son:

I speak to them about what happened to Westley. I show them Westley through their growing up years so that they relate to Westley as being someone within their age field and then the understanding comes out of his story, what relevance that is to them going through their school years; I speak to them ab

out their discos, their social events, where an innocent situation can evolve and, if you have a knife, instead of a possible disagreement where bumps and bruises are involved, with a knife in their pocket, potentially, therein is a life-threatening situation which they then relate to only in terms of missing fingers. I find that showing young people pictures of injuries that they can relate to, such as fingers hanging off, has more relevance to them … I relate with them about Westley's story as a mum so that they can think about, "How would I feel if my brother or sister was missing and my mother was hurting at the loss of my brother or sister?"

The MPs conclude that prison is not a sufficient deterrent, according to Keith Vaz, chairman of the Home Affairs committee: "We need a new tack here, at least partly based on making young people feel safer and reducing the exposure to violence in their lives."

Hopefully more areas will follow the example of Strathclyde police who told the MPs about an excellent initiative in one of Glasgow's rougher areas:

Strathclyde Police used intelligence to identify all the gangs and gang members in the area and invite them to a meeting with police officers, teachers, social workers and community workers; 150 of the 220 invited turned up. There were a series of presentations including from the Chief Constable, who made the gang members aware of the extent of police knowledge about them and how seriously they would be targeting them, Medics Against Violence, who gave graphic accounts of the damage caused by violence, former gang members, a mother whose son had been attacked and life coaches. At the end, they were given a card with a phone number on it and told to stand up if they were prepared to seek help to change:
When he said, "Right, stand up", first of all ten stood up and then maybe 15, and then 20. Every one of them stood up except three and … In the afternoon we had 55 adults in … They all stood up. We had six young men in from Polmont Prison who were in the dock with prison officers. They would not leave until they had been given a card with a phone number on it. They have already been on the phone saying, "I get out in seven months. Will this still be here?" It will be. Within the first four weeks 70 contacted us, and they are now in programmes … It might be about education, it might be about readiness for work, it might be about alcohol counselling, drug counselling, it might be housing, it can be a whole range of things. We have also set up a football tournament with 160 involved in it and yesterday morning my DCI, who is the project manager, received a phone call from the sub-divisional officer, who said, "I am just phoning you, Andy, to let you know, I had no disturbance calls in Easterhouse over the weekend." So we know it works … It is our ability to deliver it consistently that is the challenge.

Monday, 1 June 2009

Everybody does it

I've just been adding some links to good websites - YA authors I like, the writing course I took which led to When I Was Joe being written, that kind of thing and came across this fabulous picture book on the Frances Lincoln site. How great is this? Buy it for the toddlers in your life!

Return to Amsterdam

Just back from Amsterdam, where we lived from 1999 to 2007. We hadn't returned since, and it was strange to revisit somewhere we know so well. Funnily enough 'keren' in Dutch means 'to return'.
In a way it was like meeting an ex-boyfriend - still attractive, in some ways very desirable and very easy to fantasise about what life would be like...because you've lived that life, you know what it's like. You have to keep on reminding yourself of the times when things weren't so great. Amsterdam's great-looking, very chilled, fun and - for me as an expat- ultimately shallow. London's messed-up, depressed and a bit depressing, not so great looking and not very fit - but intellectually stimulating and a deeper experience. OK, maybe I've opted for the more dysfunctional relationship.
I went and checked out the teenage section of the big bookshop in the Koningsplein - the brilliantly named Selesxyz and Scheltema - and counted four books with covers featuring boys in hoodies . Which either means that Joe will be just what they're looking for or that they'll be really over hoodie boys.
Best experience was hiring bikes and riding round the Vondelpark just like old times. The Noordermarkt was also fun and it was great to see old friends and sit and drink koffie verkeerd (the 'wrong' coffee - that's what the Dutch call a latte). Nice to go to a city where I've seen all the sights and know all the best cafes and can just walk around with no pressure to do anything.
The hotel was fine - just down the road from our old flat. But then Laurence overheard another guest complaining about seeing a 'long black animal' in her room. Her room opposite ours. Urgh. We made sure all our suitcases were shut. And then the next day, just around midnight, there he was. A little mouse, scampering around my shoes.
It was too late to do anything, so we mentioned it to the manager the next day. "Oh well," he said, "You've lived in Amsterdam. You know how it is." And true, we had a constant flow of rodents in both our Amsterdam flats, plus we spotted mice in the bar at the Hilton and the cafeteria at Ikea. One local cafe was forever known to us as the Rat Cafe because of the very wet large rat we saw cleaning its whiskers on its doorstep one day. So the manager was right - we pretty much took it for granted that a nice hotel in Amsterdam will have mice running around its bedrooms.
Back to London to find our alarm had gone off and the police had come round with sniffer dogs to check there was no intruder lurking inside. Then they broke down the front door to make absolutely sure. We came back to find a massive padlock on the door and the lock jammed so our neghbour had to break in for us. I think I'm impressed by the police's enthusiasm...and I'm hoping for a nice replacement door.