Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Me and my shadow...

It's work! That's what I tell my family when I'm hunched over the computer 'networking' on Facebook, or staring into space, thinking about my plotline while ignoring them completely.
My shadow for the day
Even when I'm doing the actual arduous, gut-wrenching, creative job of actually writing, you don't see much, beyond a slightly demented looking woman staring at a screen, often mouthing words and occasionally pulling out her hair.
On the other hand, sometimes my work is much more visual. I do school visits. I take part in literary festivals. I have lunch with my agent. Sometimes I get to go to award ceremonies and applaud as Jason Wallace picks up another well-deserved prize....
 When 13-year-old Hudi Charin asked if she could spend a day with me as part of her school's work experience scheme, it was a bit of a dilemma. Drum up a school visit to entertain her? Or let her sit and watch me mouthing at a screen? Here's Hudi's report of her day...with my comments in italics..

My school's work shadowing day was something we had all known was coming up in the last couple of weeks in July.

Some people were off with their parents, others going to places that they were not so interested in.

However, I was lucky enough to be able to spend my day work shadowing the author of some of my favourite books; When I was Joe; Almost True and most recently, Lia’s Guide to Winning the Lottery.
I have always wanted to be an author,  since before I can remember really, and knowing that I would be shadowing a real one (hmmm...not sure that I always feel like a real one. Actually, maybe I should go and shadow a real author one day) was an amazing experience for me and truly generous of Keren to let me do so.

Keren showed me into her house, (argh! messy!)  then packed up her laptop, telling me that she liked to sit down to write after a long (short) walk in the woods near where she lives. So off we went.

During the walk, I had a chance to ask her some questions...


What sort of things do you do in your job?
I write and edit, go to schools, attend award ceremonies and festivals... and lots of meetings.

What hours do you work?
At least two hours a day- but it all depends on the deadline.

How much annual leave do you get?

What qualifications do you need for this job?
None- anyone can write- but I worked as a journalist which was very helpful.

What sort of training do you need to get into this job?
Basic language and writing skills.

What do you like most about your job?
I like to hear from my readers and the end result is very satisfying.

What do you like least about your job?
Rejection is tough. And so are days when  the writing will not flow.

What chances of promotion are there?
Awards and selling books to Hollywood. Being a bestseller! With writing, the sky is the limit.

Are there any benefits that come with this job?
The freedom to run your own life and be creative. Seeing your name on a book. Hearing from readers who have enjoyed your book.

Have any of the following factors affected your job and, if so, how?
-Changing technology
The invention of the laptop has helped and of course the internet and online access to books has affected me.
-Overseas or local competition
There is loads of competition everywhere, it is an extremely competitive market.
-Economic recession
Yes. There are now smaller advances and more people are buying second hand books nowadays where authors do not get a profit at all.
-Changing company ownership
Not so far!  (Funnily enough since Hudi spent her day with me, my publisherFrances Lincoln has been bought by Quarto.)

What advice would you give a young person preparing to enter the workplace?
For journalism- start small on a local newspaper and build your way up.
For writing books- don’t get put off by rejection, keep reading and writing. Try to analyse good books that you have enjoyed.


What got you interested in writing for children?

I always enjoyed children's books and thought my style of writing would suit them.

When did you begin writing your first book, When I was Joe?

In April 2008.

How did you come up with the idea?

I saw a news report about a family who'd been involved in an armed robbery and had to go into witness protection.

How did you get into the mindset of a teenage boy?

 I just thought a lot about what it was like to be Ty -  all the pressures on him, all the changes in his life.

Did you always know that When I was Joe would lead on to a sequel?

No, I only started writing the sequel to amuse myself after I'd finished When I Was Joe and when I was looking for an agent to represent me.

After writing two books in the mindset of Ty, was it hard to write from the point of view of Lia in Lia’s Guide to Winning the Lottery?

Yes, much harder than I'd imagined it would be. I missed Ty a lot.

Lia has a very interesting personality that teenage girls can relate to but how do you relate to Lia?

She seemed to me to be a very typical teenage girl -  lacking in self-awareness, and a bit self-centred, but basically a good person. I remember feeling very misunderstood when I was about her age. 

Do you also relate a lot to your characters’ mothers too? When you characters are in an argument with their parents- how do you write from the character’s perspective?

I try and relate to all the characters, so I understand where they are coming from. That way the dialogue flows quite easily.

After our walk through the woods, Keren bumped into her friends (the perils of trying to work out of the house) and we sat down for coffee and cake (coffee for me. Cake for Hudi!) . Being an author was looking better and better to me!
I munched on a chocolate muffin while Keren worked on her next book- the sequel to When I was Joe and Almost True. I also had the great opportunity to read what Keren had written so far. (I was writing. But I was also watching Hudi read...seeing if she laughed at my jokes or not, seeing if she seemed to be enjoying herself. Felt very deflated when the huge manuscript I'd presented her with turned out to be so big because I'd printed the whole thing twice.) It is just as gripping and thrilling as the other two books in the series and it is not even finished! So, the minute it is published, go out and buy it! (this is assuming I ever get it finished...)
Just as I popped the last chocolate crumb into my mouth, Keren announced she had finished her writing for today.(I noticed that poor Hudi was shivering...and then I met another friend as we walked back through the woods...we went home and Hudi borrowed my daughter's hoodie...see what I did there?)
The huge stack...
It was now time to go off to the Frances Lincoln Children’s Books building to meet the team that works with Keren. When we got to the Frances Lincoln building, we were greeted by the people there... and a huge stack of 100 copies of Lia’s Guide to Winning the Lottery, brand new with the iconic red and white cover.
Keren got to work right away, while the woman who designed the cover of Keren’s latest book showed me around her department  (thank you, Arianna!)which was also very inspiring to me as I’m interested in graphic design.
When we arrived back downstairs, I helped Keren box away all the freshly signed books and it was now time for my amazing day with Keren to end. (3pm. I had to stop being a real author..sigh...and rush off to pick up my son from school. I offered to take Hudi along, so she could see the way mums have to juggle work and family, but unsurprisingly she wasn't quite so interested in that side of things)
It was great for me to learn that a writer doesn’t just have to spend their time shut up in a room typing away and, like Keren, I now try and get out and about to do my writing.
Many many thanks to Keren for giving up her day to show me what writing is really like and giving me this incredible experience! (And thank you Hudi  for not complaining that watching a writer write is actually very dull...not to mention watching a writer chat to random friends...and most of all for saying nice things about the work in progress. The perfect shadow!)

Thursday, 11 August 2011

London riots

It's been a strange and scary week in London.
Tottenham burns on Saturday night
A week in which rumours flew around on phones and in whispers.
A week of fire and smashed windows, destruction and looting.
A week of anger and excitement, and leaps to judgement and definition, distance and containment.
I've been reading newspapers, listening to the radio, unable to switch the television off until 1am. I've been staying in after 5pm, avoiding shops that I use all the time, asking my 15-year-old what she's seen on Facebook -  where's going to be next? I've found myself seriously wondering if I'm safe to go for a walk in the park at 5pm on a sunny August evening.

I've listened to politicians, pundits, churchmen and columnists. I've heard a lot of good sense and a load of old rubbish.

And I've had a few thoughts.

 There was a carnival atmosphere about the looting. It was as though people had responded to news reports about one riot and, instead of feeling horror and disgust, thought they were adverts for the summer sales. 'Come on down! Everything's free! Midsummer madness!'  Why did people react in such an amoral way? Why did they lack feeling for the community -  the shop-owners, the people living in burned out flats? 
Perhaps it's something to do with the huge inequality in British society -  after eight years in the Netherlands, it was the thing that shocked me most about reurning to London. It's not just the massive  gap between rich and poor, and the horror that the haves feel about sharing with the have-nots; it's the lack of care and contact between the two groups. A mutual contempt seems to have grown between rich and poor, fostered by media and politicians.
Maybe it's something to do with the rule-bending, greed and hypocrisy on display from the British establishment? If people see that MPs were happy to help themselves to tax-payers' money by falsifying their expenses, or twisting the rules to their favour -  and they could get away with it in most cases by paying back the money -  then perhaps they might expect to be able to help themselves to free stuff, when the opportunity arises?
It could be that if people saw politicans take personal responsibility for mistakes by resigning, that they'd take more responsibility for their own morality. Not just politicans. Business leaders. Bankers. Church leaders who enabled the abuse of children. Journalists who hacked phone messages from murdered children. Saying sorry, tinkering with the system, blaming subordinates is not enough. Removing yourself from power and making amends by working for the good of others, is the way to set a good example (would anyone caught up in a scandal now react as John Profumo did?).
How about restoring a bit of respect to our society? Respect means making snobbery and stereotyping (of everyone from Eton to Essex) as unacceptable as racism is becoming - sadly, that battle's not won yet. Respect means less media intrusion and pointless gossip and finger-pointing. If Britain wants to restore its respectability, it needs to embrace respect.
I'm pleased that David Cameron is going to do more to tackle gangs -  and he's right to look at the work of Strathclyde Police. I'm interested though that he didn't do more before now. Perhaps the scores of young men being murdered on city streets didn't matter enough.

I thought long and hard when I wrote When I Was Joe about what might make young people less likely to arm themselves with knives. Active policing, which enables police to build relationships with vulnerable youths was the best answer I came up with. Perhaps we'll get it now. I notice though that it's the neighbourhood officers who've already been cut in Mr Cameron's austerity measures.

I'm actually not interested in hearing from the rioters. I think it's pretty easy to understand the mentality which seeks to steal and destroy. They were stupid and dangerous and vile. They need something more drastic than mere punishment. I'd actually like to see some sort of national service brought back for these stupid jokers, so they could contribute something to our society and maybe learn a bit of discipline.

I'm much more interested in hearing from the kids who don't riot. The ones who work hard and become successful against the odds. The ones who stay honest and care about their communities. What makes them different from the rioters? Who helped them find their way? What can we learn from them? Boys like this one  who reminds me a lot of Nathan in When I Was Joe and Almost True.

Some wonderful things have come out of this terrible week.  I loved the jokes on Twitter, the English horror that Americans were tweeting #prayforLondon; the idea that the people of Crouch End (where I live) would respond to looters by pelting them with artisan sourdough loaves.
I loved OperationCupofTea on Facebook, which signed up people in their thousands to stay in and drink tea instead of rioting -  and all the sweet tea-drinking pictures posted on its page.
I loved that people came together to clean up after the riots, and called themselves the Riotwombles after a much-loved children's book.
I loved my local supermarket -  hurray for Budgens -  which set up a collection point for contributions of clothes and bedding to help the people made homeless in the fires in nearby Tottenham.
 I was impressed and awed by the courage and spirit of those people who'd lost everything -  in Tottenham, Croydon, Clapham Junction as they contemplated their future. By the smile on the face of  Asyraf Haziq Rosli, the Malaysian student attacked and robbed by rioters -  as they pretended to help him - who was able to say that he still wanted to stay in Britain and he felt sorry for his attackers.
And above all by the immense dignity and wisdom shown by Tariq Jahan, father of Haroon, one of the men killed during riots in Birmingham, who calmed tensions in the city by speaking out just hours after his son's death. In the light of the Islamophobia which mars our society, it's worth pointing out that both Mr Jahan and Mr Rosli are shining examples of good Muslim role models for us all.

I fear that we won't learn the right lessons from the riots. Already tonight, going out to eat in a crowded restaurant, it seemed crazy that only two days ago I was too nervous to meet a friend for a drink after dark. But if we don't change and learn -  all of us - then I'm certain of one thing. It'll happen again. And next time it will be worse.

PS  I wrote this and then I read this. And I thought yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. And in the Telegraph too. Maybe there is hope.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Publication day!

Woo! Today is the official publication day for Lia's Guide to Winning the Lottery!
There's no party (August is a bit useless for parties, but we might do something in September) but there is a chance to get your name into my next book (hurry! I'm writing it now!) by entering this competition.  Read about what I'd have done if I'd won the lottery when I was 16 (not that there was a lottery in those far-off days) here  and about how I created the character of Lia's friend Shazia here.
You can get Lia on your kindle here   , if you live out of the UK here  and in all good bookshops, here or here
Read an excerpt here.

Read an interview with me about Lia here
And see a silly interview with  Fiona Dunbar, me and some sensible teenagers  here

That's enough links...hope you enjoy Lia, and if you do, please tell your friends/review on Amazon/let me know!