Wednesday, 20 April 2011


 Martin Amis - he of the unfortunate phrase – has pronounced again.  He is shocked, appalled, depressed by the state of the nation. And he is writing a new novel, which reflects his disgust. According to the Guardian it’s  ‘the story of a violent criminal, Lionel Asbo, who wins the lottery, it's "a metaphor which translates well, I think, our state of moral decrepitude: a huge reward for no effort".  

Bingo! Join the party, Martin! My new book is about someone winning the lottery. It’s not a violent criminal called Lionel Asbo (Great name, Martin, Dickens would be proud), my winner is an ordinary schoolgirl called Lia Latimer. She wins £8 million and she’s thrilled to bits. Near enough, eh?
"You can have no talent, no ambition, and you win all the same. All young people dream of that. Young girls dream of becoming models. Celebrity is the new religion," said Amis. "So it's a book about the decline of my country, about the rage, the dissatisfaction, the bitterness, all unconscious, caused by this decline ... One can have the impression that life in London is pretty pleasant. But all is rotten inside."

Yes, indeed, Martin  young people dream of winning the lottery, I'm really hoping that lots of them will buy my book.  In fact many older people do as well. Actually I’d guess that the older you get and the more you realise that hard work and talent does not get you money, fame, security or recognition -  and you see the tosspots who do get these things, often through having family money, private education and useful connections (I mention no names, Martin, but not everyone gets to waltz into first jobs on the Times Literary Supplement) -  then you dream of winning the lottery all the more. Oh, and that bitterness you mention, is not all unconscious. Quite a lot of it is completely conscious.

 I’d also guess that it’s the richer people - those who live in Hampstead and Notting Hill, Martin -  who think that life in London is pretty pleasant. We celebrity-obsessed peasants know that mostly it’s crap. But ‘all is rotten inside’? All? All? That’s a bit harsh. Try walking through a London park, going to the theatre (pricey, I know, Mart, but I’m sure you can afford it), visiting our museums, art galleries. Try visiting London schools (not just the private ones) and meeting London kids. Truly Martin, all is not rotten, although the government are doing their best to shut lots of the good stuff down. Luckily there's a horrible old lottery to fund things like sport and the arts  or we'd really be in trouble.

Oh, hang on, Martin admits that not all is bad about England. The people are ‘tolerant, full of good humour’ (Just the readers to appreciate your jokes, eh?) and Shakespeare is "an absolute giant". I’m sure he’ll be absolutely delighted to hear it. Oh and then there’s the UK's "very advanced" political system. "We had a revolution 100 years before France, and our civil war was not so horrible."  Take heart, people of Egypt, Libya, Syria and Bahrain, it can be done, the not-so-horrible English way. (Just don’t mention Charles I)

Anyway, thrills, thrills, Martin and I have both written about the lottery. His book is about moral decrepitude. Mine is about gambling, risk-taking, growing up and the artificial legal limits attached to that process, finding meaning in life  -  and ambition - when you have nothing to gain in material terms, friendship and Facebook, religious values (Islam in particular) against the secular society,  sex, drink, debt, motorbikes, university funding cuts and cake. And cosmetic surgery. And there’s a family of vampires.  Or possibly werewolves.
Martin, I look forward to sharing a platform with you at various literary festivals. Lionel Asbo…damn, wish I’d thought of that. So subtle. 

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

How to get noticed

It’s who you know, isn’t it? The political debate currently rumbling about parental influence and unpaid internships has its echoes in the literary world too. Writing your first book is a lot of hard work for no money at all, and if you’ve got any kind of unearned income or someone to support you it is an enormous bonus.

And finding an agent is undoubtedly easier when you know people in the industry.

Take me, for example. When I started approaching agents I used every contact I had. Writer friends were generous enough to put me in touch with their agents. I also wrote cold to other agents.

Every agent who’d never heard of me turned me down flat -  in fact I’m still waiting to hear from a few. Some of those with whom I had some sort of link made time to chat, but ultimately weren’t interested. (One promised to read  my manuscript, but hadn’t got around to it by the time I had other definite offers. It later turned out that this lovely agent lived in my street. We both feel we had a lucky escape…I would have turned into a complete stalker, popping up as she put out the wheelie bins to find out if she’d sold the film rights)  
 But three of the personal contact agent were keen to represent me. And I met the friend-of-a-friend who eventually became my agent at - ahem, cliché alert – an Islington dinner party.

So, what about all those brilliant writers out there who don’t live in north London, work in the media and have writer friends? (I know, I know. In mitigation I point out that my parents had nothing at all to do with any of this, and have never been able to pull the slightest strand of string to aid my career, much as they would love to. My contacts are completely self-made which is one reason why I only got published in my forties. The other reason is that I never wrote anything before I got into my forties because I was too busy working in the media and making friends with writers and people in Islington.)

Luckily there’s another route to getting yourself noticed by agents and editors. The fabulous Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators runs loads of events at which aspiring writers and artists can meet commissioning editors and agents. There’s even an agents’ party -  this year's will be on September 29, and regular slushpile competitions, judged by agents.

Best of all is the annual competition to be part of the Undiscovered Voices anthology. This is the third year the competition has run, and winning is a fast track to getting noticed by agents and editors. Thirteen of the 24 authors featured over the last two years now have book deals. They include Sarwat Chadda, Candy Gourlay and Harriet Godwin, already big names, and some who will soon be big names – I’m lucky enough to have read Sara Grant’s brilliant dystopian novel Dark Parties,  and I’m looking forward to Bryony Pearce’s Angel's Fury  and Katie Dale’s Someone Else’s Life. Undiscovered Voices is fast becoming the X Factor of children's writing in the UK -  although the quality of its winners is much more reliable than some of the singing contest's stars.

Malorie Blackman is this year’s honorary chair and the list of judges is the stuff of an aspiring writer’s dreams: Rachel Boden, Commissioning Editor at Egmont; Jo Anne Cadiz, book buyer/seller for Foyles children’s books department; Amber Caraveo, Editorial Director at Orion Children’s Books; Julia Churchill, Greenhouse Literary Agency; Dagmar Gleditzsch, literary scout; Catherine Pellegrino, Rogers, Coleridge & White; Jasmine Richards, Senior Commissioning Editor at Oxford University Press; and  my agent, Jenny Savill, Andrew Nurnberg Associates.  Imagine that. All of them reading your work. It's making me want to enter, and I've got an agent and a publisher already (and, I hastily add, I am completely happy with them. It's just that I'm very competitive, and I didn't know about this competition until it was too late to enter it).

 The competition is now open for submissions and remains open until June 1st. Twelve authors will be chosen for the anthology, but another twelve also get honourary mentions, and many of them end up agented too. The success stories on the UV website are inspiring reading. What are you waiting for?

And Nick Clegg -  want to find out how to spot talent and increase social mobility? Have a look at how Undiscovered Voices encourages talent to shine and get noticed by the people who matter. And then apply liberally to the entire nation.

Saturday, 2 April 2011

Here he Goves again..

What is it about Michael Gove, our blundering Education Secretary? His intentions are good, he wants the right things. It's just the way he acts...and the way he talks.When he tries to change things he generally gets it wrong. His frequent  U turns and occasional apologies are almost funny - but education is too important to mess around with. There's a verb in the making -  to Gove, meaning to  screw up reasonable ideas. And now he's at it again.
Mr Gove has been to America. He's visited a charter school and been blown away by its policy on reading. Now he's back in the UK, enthusiastically damning the British education system for its low expectations and calling for a 50-book challenge to be introduced in British schools (as with many of Mr Gove's bright ideas the details are worryingly vague, leaving it unclear who will choose these books and how children are meant to obtain them). 
I would completely agree with him that there should be more time for reading whole books in schools, more access to books, more expectation that children will read a wide range of books including the classics. A 50 book challenge will work well for many children (although it may also cause others so much stress and depression that they could be put off reading for life). My son (11) responded enthusiastically to the idea ('Will there be a prize?') but he probably reads 50 books a year anyway. My daughter, in the first year of her GCSEs asked how she was meant to read 50 books alongside her copious amounts of homework. I suspect that such a scheme would get both of them reading more, less television watched and a broader selection of books read. So far so good.
But Mr Gove had to spoil it. I would have expected him to start talking to, say, the School Libraries Association about how to implement such a scheme. Instead he rushed into print in the Daily Telegraph. You can read his article here. I have copied a few extracts (in italics) below and added my response.

In one school run by the charter chain KIPP, every child was expected to carry a book at all times, so they could fill every vacant minute. In another KIPP school, children were challenged to read 50 books a year. This played to both their competitive instincts and their restless curiosity. A love of reading was seen as a winner’s trait.

Funnily enough, when I googled KIPP and reading, I found a news report which read : 'Reading and math scores fall sharply at two KIPP Schools'  Whether KiPP's scheme is a success or a failure, it runs its schools free of government interference, which Mr Gove will not allow even for the 'free' schools which he is setting up.
Were the 50 books read by KIPP's children their own choice, or a list provided for them? If the latter, it will have dampened their ‘restless curiosity’ which would be better served by allowing them to pick their own books. What about the kids who didn’t manage the challenge, who found it painfully impossible? Did they begin to associate reading with being losers?
Some big differences, by the way, between American schools and British ones -  American schools do not require children to start to specialise at the age of 13, making life-changing choices about which subjects to take and which to drop. Nor do they expect children to take important external exams for three years running between the ages of 16 and 18. Nor (I expect) do they have completely daft ways of testing children such as expecting them to prepare extended essays, memorise them and then regurgitate them in exam conditions. I imagine there is more room in the American system for reading.

Across America, childhood reading has been encouraged in recent years by Drop Everything And Read Day on April 12, which asks children to stop whatever else they’re doing and get lost in a book. In many charter schools, every day is a DEAR day: reading for pleasure becomes as natural as breaking for lunch.

In the UK we have World Book Day, and many schools have book weeks.   Reading for pleasure (which is not at all the same as reading for ‘winning’) is encouraged by regional and national book awards, reading groups, author visits and Carnegie shadowing groups.  All of this and much more is done by knowledgeable and enthusiastic school librarians. Sadly the government’s cuts mean that many librarians are losing their budgets or their jobs. The government could make it a statutory duty that schools have a well-stocked library (as in prisons) but they haven't. Author visits and book-buying are all threatened by budget cuts.

The children I met were smart and lively. But they were also, overwhelmingly, from the most disadvantaged homes. That didn’t mean their teachers lowered the bar. Quite the opposite. They wanted to give those children a chance to enjoy the glittering prizes – so they set expectations high, fostering a culture of excellence and making clear that nothing is as enjoyable as getting to know what the finest minds of all time have thought and written.

If Michael Gove honestly believes that children’s authors are ‘the finest minds of all time’ (I doubt it) then he could start by looking at a campaign set up by some of the best British authors -  the Campaign for the Book, which points out some areas he might tackle, to help disadvantaged British children enjoy the ‘glittering prizes’ that reading can bring. They are:
 - public library closures - 60 last year and more planned
 - a loss of professional library staff, down 13 per cent between 1995 and 2005
 - more untrained volunteers instead of qualified library staff
 - fewer books in schools, a 15 per cent reduction, while there has been a 28 per cent rise in education spending
- a shift from books to computer services
 -  the closure of school libraries to make way for IT suites
 - the sacking or down-grading of public and school librarians
- the closure of school libraries
 -  the marginalisation of reading for pleasure and the reading of whole books in many schools as teaching to the test replaces the pleasure of acquiring knowledge for its own sake.

I want the same culture here. I want to take on the lowest-common-denominator ethos, the “let’s not be too demanding”, “all this smacks of targets”, “the poor dears can’t manage it”, “the idea of a canon is outmoded”, “it’s all on the internet anyway” culture which is anti-knowledge, anti-aspiration and antithetical to human flourishing.

Oh Mr Gove! Where to start?' Let’s not be too demanding' - then please,  have a look at the SATs culture in schools and how they limit achievement. ‘All this smacks of targets’ – abolish league tables then.  ‘The poor dears can’t manage it’ -  agreed, don't patronise children, give them books to read in the National Curriculum, not extracts.  And as for ‘it’s all on the internet anyway’..well, that’s the argument used by people who want to close libraries. You don't agree with them-  so do something to save libraries.

This is why the Government is taking action to encourage wide reading, for pleasure, again. We’ve already extended the Booktrust programme to help disadvantaged children develop their love of reading. This week, a new report has set out plans to put a new emphasis on literacy. Next year, we’re introducing a new check at age six to make sure children are on the right path. And shortly I’ll be announcing plans to ensure that our exams work to encourage broad reading.

Far from extending the Booktrust programme, Mr Gove, you announced that its entire government funding was being removed, with no notice, just before Christmas. After an entirely predictable outcry (at Christmas, you moron, when there is no news and  acres of white space in newspapers) you backed down, although you are still cutting the Booktrust grant.  Don't tell us you are expanding it. Do you think we are 'poor dears' who can't remember back a few months?
And as for your age six check, Mr Gove,  it focuses entirely on ‘decoding’ sounds phonetically, not on whether children understand anything that they are reading.  The UK Literacy Association has been campaigning against this new test, and its objections are summed up in an Early day Motion put down by MP Annette Brooke  
The motion  reads: That this House endorses the views of many early years experts in calling for a rethink on the introduction of a phonics-based reading test for all 6 year olds; believes that phonics can play a crucial part in reading but that a simplistic exclusive focus on phonics can distort children's learning and limit the breadth of their experience; believes that reading should be enjoyable and that children need to look for meaning as they read in order to develop fluency and understanding; and further believes that young children need to have highly trained teachers with an understanding of child development and that such teachers are best placed to identify children who are not reading at an appropriate level for their age and level of development through appropriate monitoring and observation.

But we can’t just leave it to our teachers: we need to develop our own Drop Everything and Read initiative, and support competitions like the Fifty Book Challenge. This country has the best children’s writers in the world. But while we celebrate Pullman and Rowling, Morpurgo and Rosen, Horowitz and Higson, many of our young people are growing up in ignorance of their work. That’s unacceptable. It’s my mission to change what we expect of young people, and reverse the fashionable assumption of far too many in education that children shouldn’t be challenged to achieve far more. In particular, I want the next generation to grow up with a real sense of style – the elegant prose style of those who have made the English language the greatest source of beauty in our world.

No, we can’t just leave everything to our teachers - that’s why we need librarians as well. Talk to them, Mr Gove, ask their advice. Celebrate their expertise, learn from them. Find out what they are doing, what works well and give them funding to do more of it.
You may admire the ‘elegant prose style’ of  JK Rowling, Charlie Higson and Anthony Horowitz, others may choose different writers to fete. But listen to what writers have to say as well. Anthony Horowitz, for example, here, calling for children to be given the resources and the time to read in a relaxed way. Not to be ‘winners’ necessarily. Not so they can win ‘glittering prizes’.(A bit of a cliche there, by the way, Mr Gove, you might want to read a bit more to improve the elegance of your prose)
You’re on the right track, Mr Gove, in seeing that too little is done in the UK education system to encourage reading. You’re all excited by your jaunt to America and you think you’ve found out all the answers there. 
You're actually missing a big chance politically, by swiping at teachers.  You could legitimately attack the former Labour government for failing to create a reading culture in schools. Just find out the facts first, listen to the experts and stop rushing into print and making a fool of yourself. 
Yesterday Patrick Ness (heard of him, Mr Gove? Just as good as JK Rowling, I promise you) challenged you to be a champion of the libraries. There's still time  to avoid Goveing it up.Not much time, but you're the man for the job. At the moment.