Thursday, 31 March 2011

Advice for teenage writers

I was not a teenage writer, if by writing you mean stories, poems and books. I was a teenage reporter. I started off writing reviews of children's books (and did I appreciate the power I wielded? No, I did not) and continued on to reporting on meetings, disputes, court cases, controversies...anything that might be considered news-worthy. I was published in a national newspaper every week. I took it completely for granted.
So I find it difficult when I am asked for advice by today's teen writers.  I did write some long stories on my own when I was about 13 - one was about twin boys, I remember, one good and hard-working, the other misunderstood and always in trouble. Another was a girl's diary, about how she was solving all her problems. A teenage pre-emptor of Bridget Jones. But my writing fizzled out when I was about 14 (I wonder what happened to those notebooks?) and I became more interested in trying (and failing) to be cool, or at least invisible.  I sat out the next few years in a daze of boredom, failed my A levels, got a job at 18 as a messenger girl on a newspaper. Which turned into an apprenticeship as a reporter. I was writing all the time. I just wasn't using my imagination.
I'm just back from two events where I was asked many times for advice from teenage writers. At Reddish Vale Technology College I ran a two hour workshop for year 9 writers. (Reddish Vale turns out to be one of those rare schools which encourages pupils to see beyond the curriculum and develope their writing for its own sake. Hurray for Miss Ogden, their inspirational teacher) We worked on finding plots from newspaper stories - I went armed with cuttings about pirates, snake-smuggling, bullying, ballet and face transplants, to name but a few. We talked about beginning a story and ending it -  for some reason most of their plots ended in despair and suicide.  We created characters, by answering questionnaires about their invention's secret shame and biggest dream.
Diana Wynne Jones
The next day at Beblington Library I met pupils from schools all over the Wirral along with authors David Miller (Shark Island), Leslie Wilson (Saving Rafael) and Paul Dowswell (Auslander). We talked about how we'd come up with the ideas for our books - a terrifying experience (David), family history (Leslie); how we researched them, created our characters. We talked about the themes they covered - especially interesting because Paul and Leslie were both talking about World War 2 books -  and our own careers as writers. And we were asked for lots of advice from writers, possible writers and one boy who said 'I'm not a writer, but I did start writing a few books last summer just to keep myself going.'
So, here is some of the advice that I give.
1) Read these wonderful writing tips from one of the best children's writers ever, Diana Wynne Jones, who sadly died last week. If you haven't discovered her books, then do yourself a favour and read them. My favourites are The Ogre Downstairs and Charmed Life.
2) Write the book that you want to read, not the book that you think people will like.
3) Don't be too hard on yourself. Write something, allow it to be rubbish, do not delete it, put it away for a few weeks. Then go back to it and read it as if you had never read it before. Chances are it won't be as bad as you think and you can see what works and what doesn't.
4) Set yourself a target of x words a day, and try and stick to it.
5) Get used to sharing your work. is a great website for teenage writers to share their work and comment on others'.
6) Lots of people keep a writers' notebook -  a place to stick in inspiring stories and pictures, try out new ideas, plan plots and sketch characters.
7) Don't worry too much about publication. Yes, some teens do get publishing contracts (Steph Bowe, for example and Hannah Moskewitz )  They are unusual though, so don't despair if you're not published instantly. Just concentrate on writing the best book you can.
8) Spelling does matter, also punctuation. The best way to improve your literacy is to read. So read, read, read, teenage books, adult books, books you know you'll like, books you expect to hate. Keep trying new things. But don't let the words of others stifle your own voice. Fan fiction is fun to write, but what makes your writing special is whatever makes you unique.
9) No one knows better than you what it feels like to be a teenager. That's valuable information. Use it in your writing, with honesty.
10) Don't throw anything away. If I'd kept my stories about the twins or the diary girl, who knows what use I could have made of them now. Hmm..I shall have to have a search in my parents' attic.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Authors for Japan - you can help!

We've all watched the terrible scenes of devastation in Japan and felt desperate to help.
Well, author Keris Stainton wanted to do more than  watch. She's set up an auction, where we can bid for a huge range of signed books, plus chances to win chapter critiques, name characters, have websites built..
The auction is here and kicks off at 8am. Last bids are in at 10pm Friday. All proceeds go to the Red Cross appeal for Japan.
My own contribution is here  You get a chapter critique, a signed advance proof of Lia's Guide to Winning the Lottery and the chance to name a character in the third Ty book.  If you want one thing and not  -  say -  the chapter critique, I can be flexible. Just get those bids coming in...I'm now sweating about getting no bids at all...
I'll be banging on about this all week...can you all spread the word?

Monday, 14 March 2011

She wrote a book on her Blackberry...and got published

 One of the fun things about book promotion is getting the chance to listen to other authors  at joint events. Over the last year I've heard some brilliant presentations -  from the likes of Alex Scarrow, Paul Doweswell, Andy Lane, Jon Mayhew, Nicola Morgan, Gillian Cross and MG Harris. I know, lucky me.
But it's not often that another writer's talk makes you gasp out loud, as I did twice when Sue Ransom and I visited  Highgate Wood School. Sue's cracking London-based paranormal romance Small Blue Thing was written on her Blackberry. And she didn't just get a contract directly from a publisher...her book persuaded the publisher to set up a company in order to publish it.
I had to ask Sue for her story. Here it is....

My day job is in London. I’m a headhunter and I work full time, commuting on the train into Waterloo every morning. For years I used the time to read, and I worked my way through my bookshelf several times. As my daughter, Ellie got older, some of the books she was reading caught my attention, and I borrowed a few to see what she was enjoying. What struck me immediately was how American most of them were, and how little she would understand the cultural references. I wondered if I could write a story for her that reflected her world. I decided to see if I could produce something as a birthday present for her.
Sue at Highgate Wood School

In February 2009 I started making notes, and used the time on my commute to write instead of read. I pulled together a plot, then using my BlackBerry I started to write. Every day on the commute I would read what I had written on the previous journey, then carry on, and at the end of each trip I emailed the file to myself. I managed about 300 words per journey, or roughly a page, plus a bit extra at the weekends. My only target was getting it done before my September deadline of Ellie's birthday, so I wasn't worried if it was 80K words or 90K.
My thumbs were fine - I have a touchscreen Blackberry with slightly bigger keys, so that made the whole thing easier. And I wasn't bothered by the environment. I find it really easy to blank things out on the train. Mostly the commuter trains are very quiet anyway. No-one wants to speak at that time of the morning! It's harder to write at home when people keep appearing to ask me things.
 At the weekends I pieced the jigsaw together and edited. By July, most of the story was complete and I let my husband read it. He was very brave, telling me where he thought I had got things wrong! I got two copies of the final draft of Small Blue Thing bound up and gave them to my daughter for her birthday in early September. She loved it, and started lending it to her friends. They loved it too, so I was persuaded to send it to an agent who turned me down flat. I still don't have an agent.
 A colleague at work then suggested that I get an opinion from someone he knew in the publishing industry, so he approached Kate Wilson, who had just left Headline, to see if she would mind reading the first few chapters and give me a few hints as to who to send it to first. I was hoping for an opinion as to whether it was publishable, and at best, a recommendation to an agent which might get it nearer the top of the slush pile.
 What I got, much to my surprise, was a three book contract! Kate liked the book so much that it brought forward her plans to set up her own publishing company, and Small Blue Thing was the launch publication for Nosy Crow in January this year.
 The second book, Perfectly Reflected, is due out in June 2011, and the final instalment will be on the shelves in January 2012. My life has been changed by using the time on my commute to do something different, and I’m really enjoying sharing my story with so many other girls.

Thanks Sue -  to which, I would add, if you liked Twilight you'll love Small Blue Thing. Mysterious ghostlike creatures called Dirges who hang out at St Paul's Cathedral and steal happy memories, a girl battling with everyday traumas of schools, friends and boys -  and then she finds a mysterious bracelet and meets the gorgeous Callum, who she can only see in her mirror... Brilliantly set up for the sequel too.

 Update: Sue's offering a signed copy of Small Blue Thing, plus a chance to name a character in book 3 on the Authors for Japan auction until Friday March 18 . Bid here  

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Questions and Answers

London Met University - one of my favourite London buildings
 In the last week or so I've been doing more talking than writing -  at schools, a university and  - very sweetly -  the synagogue in Welwyn Garden City, the town where I grew up.
I did my first school visit about a year ago (to St Aubyn's School in Woodford -  thanks Becky for inviting me!) and I was incredibly nervous. I'd virtually written a speech beforehand, and I wasn't sure if anyone could hear what I had to say. Gradually it's become easier and easier, to the point where now I have to remember to do a little bit of preparation beforehand, and I can project my soft voice to fill a school hall (at least I think I can). I'm lucky because witness protection is a great subject to talk about, so I generally have lots of say. If I have an unruly class I tell them the stories of how I was nearly shot three times. That usually gets their attention.
At  Immanuel College and Highgate Wood School last week I was talking about my books and about being a writer. At London Metropolitan University, I talked to students on the Young Adult Fiction course about how I came to write When I Was Joe and about things that I've experienced that are particularly relevant to the YA genre. At WGC shul I spoke to a roomful of people -  many of whom had known me all my life -  about my career in journalism and how I came to write a book.
My favourite bit always comes when I've finished my introduction and whatever reading I'm doing and it's time to take questions -  the only time that's gone wrong was the school where every question was about the business side of publishing ('Who decides which books have a discount, Miss? Exactly how much money does the publisher get?'')
 I've had some great questions this week, some of which I couldn't answer. What would you have said?

From a pupil at Highgate Wood School: How does it feel knowing that people are seeing into your imagination?  I said that you just had to get over any embarrasment you felt, and it helped if people were reading your work as you went along. I wish I'd said that writing is like acting -  no one knows how much of yourself you are revealing.
And another pupil at Highgate Wood: Who has inspired you in your writing?  I wanted to say my children, but I didn't because one of them goes to that school and I was under strict orders not to embarrass her. So I erred and ummed and couldn't think of anyone.
From a pupil at Immanuel College: When do you find thinking time to plan your writing? I said  'I find that going for a walk or going to the gym are good times.' I thought: 'That's true! I must find time to go for a walk or go to the gym.'
Another pupil at Highgate Wood: 'Do you visit the places you write about?' Me: 'Err, I should but I never seem to have time (Thought bitterly about a talk Marcus Sedgwick gave at SCWBI conference where he described going to Sweden to research Revolver) So instead I write about places that I know. Then I told them how I'd transposed a park nearby, which they all knew, to Hackney in order to murder someone in it.
And also at Highgate Wood: 'What are the best and worst things about writing?' I said the best thing was getting emails and letters from people who enjoy your books, but then I was stuck for a worst thing -  I must have been having a particularly good day, because afterwards I thought of two...the lack of money at the beginning of one's career (and who knows, possibly throughout one's career) and rejection.
At London Met: Is there anything you haven't been able to write about?  This one threw me completely, and I'm still thinking about it. Are there things I've veered away from, without even realising it? Are there untouchable subjects? I said graphic sex scenes..but if I felt the need to go graphic, could I? I'm really not sure.
At Welwyn Garden City: Do you think you'll stay writing contemporary teen novels, or might you try different age groups, genres, styles?  How much pressure is there to create a brand and stick to it? Answer: I really don't know. In writing Lia's Guide I hope I've showI can do something a little bit different. I have a few ideas for my next project, and one is definitely not a contemporary voice. So I will have to see how things develop.
So many great questions that I can't remember thm all. But the nicest one of all was the lady at Welwyn Garden City who said 'Well it's not really a question but as your auntie, I just want to say that I'm very proud of you...'
Now that doesn't happen on your average school visit.