Friday, 30 December 2011

A writer's year..

So. 2011. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. I can't remember much of it. Where's my trusty diary...I mean all writers have a diary, don't they? A journal of their literary life...a witty, erudite, insightful record of the year. I bet Marcus Sedgwick has a diary. I bet Jason Wallace...
Disaster of the year. I blame Richard Branson.
Oh well, where's my Tesco Family Organiser?

 I went to San Diego, to meet thousands of American librarians. San Diego! I hadn't been abroad for work since...hmmm... 1983 when I went to Spain for a conference and spent most of the time flirting and sunbathing .  In San Diego, I was far too English to really push my book, but I did my best. At the booth next to me there was a charming lady promoting her debut book, which, she told me, was a murder mystery narrated by someone with Alzheimer's. I wasn't completely sure about that as a premise, but I bought a copy anyway. .
Also in January, I went to Newcastle for the North East Teen Book Award, for which When I Was Joe was on a shortlist of six. We authors sat on a platform in front of about 200 teenagers. Behind us was a drop of about a foot. I spent the evening convinced that I was about to topple over backwards -  and I very nearly did, when my book was announced as the winner. I gave a speech worthy of any tearful Oscar winner - I was shaking! -  because I'd never, ever won anything before in my life. Afterwards, my lovely editor Emily bought champagne..and then there was some Baileys...Truly, an unforgettable hangover event.

Dominated (according to the Family Organiser) by football training for the son, and transporting Freddie and Chester, our guinea pigs to and from the guinea pig hotel, where they enjoy literary soirees and manicures (you think I'm joking? See April) . Oh and I spoke at a school, where I realised five minutes before the speech that I had a massive hole in my trousers. I'd got up so early to get there, and got dressed in the dark, not realising until far too late, that I'd picked up the wrong clothes. I gave my entire speech, plus a question and answer session, with my legs clamped together. No one asked any awkward questions, so I think I got away with it. Or everyone I met that day was super-polite. No, I'm not telling which school it was.
I started work in earnest on Another Life, the third book about Ty. Five chapters in I showed it to my husband, who told me what he thought was wrong with it. 'You know nothing,' I told him. 'You don't understand my Vision.'
The page for March has disappeared from my Family Organiser. I remember nothing about it at all, except that on my birthday, my husband and I went to a barmitzvah party, for Asher, son of my old friends Nicky and David. During the speeches, Asher wished me a happy birthday, and the entire marquee of people said 'Who?' and then sang 'Happy Birthday Dear Karen', which was lovely but slightly embarrassing, because we didn't really know anyone there apart from Nicky and David. Then Asher presented me with a huge birthday cake. Again, this was lovely, but a little problematic to transport home with no cake box. In the end we put it in the boot, and drove home, imagining, with every bump or corner, the cake bouncing and somersaulting. But happily it survived intact. Not for long, though.

Again, according to the Organiser, almost nothing happened in April. I worked diligently (ahem) on Another Life. The proprietor of the guinea pig hotel, the very wonderful and multi-talented Nicola Solomon became General Secretary of the Society of Authors.
The highlight of the month was meant to be the Royal Wedding on the 29th. My daughter and I planned a girly day in front of our (chavtastically huge) television. We bought snacks. We encouraged the boys to leave us alone for the day.  I organised a Tesco delivery, so I would not have to leave the sofa. We were primed for celebrity-spotting, funny hats and cooing over wedding dresses and men in uniforms.
And then, disaster struck. The night before the Wedding of the Century, our television stopped working. Distraught, I phoned Virgin Media's call centre in India, where the workers are polite and charming, but utterly useless (not their fault, I am convinced they are not trained  properly or given the correct information. I have had to phone them often in the last year.). 'I'll send someone on Monday,' said the man in Mumbai (or whereever). 'Monday???' I shrieked,'Don't you know we have a royal wedding tomorrow? This is an emergency!'  But it was all no good, so we ended up watching at my sister's house, which was nice, but rather more crowded (and on a much smaller screen) than we had anticipated. So Richard Branson cheated us out of the Full Wedding Experience. I will never forgive him.
Naturally the telly started working perfectly, once William and his bride were safely wed.

May was a -may-zing. When I Was Joe won the Angus Book Award. After-win Baileys became a tradition. Then, at the end of the month, we were queuing to check in for a flight to Amsterdam, when I got a call telling me that When I Was Joe had also won  the Lancashire Book of the Year award. I whooped and danced, my children moved away, told me I was being embarrassing and said, 'We're bored with you winning awards. Shut up.'

June was busy, busy, busy. I spoke at the Hay Festival. I stood next to Meg Rosoff in a queue and she knew who I was (swoon). I spoke at various schools,and  at the Lancashire Book of the Year award ceremony (at which I told the story of my dad and the banana..You had to be there).  This was possibly also the month (the Organiser is mysteriously silent) when I had lunch with my agent and she told me that Another Life wasn't working at all, and it possibly needed completely reworking. Possibly. She seemed to agree with my husband about what needed to be done (see February), but I explained patiently that this was not part of my Vision.
July was the month in which When I was Joe didn't win the Branford Boase Award, the UKLA award or the Redbridge Teen Book of the Year.  Ho hum. Something extraordinarily funny (in all senses)  happened on a train, but I am sworn to secrecy. And  I reworked Another Life a bit ( in line with my Vision) and it began to work.  My kind editors extended my deadline to the end of September.
Lia's Guide to Winning  the Lottery was published. Went on holiday. Another Life was nowhere near finished, and my computer power cord broke, the day before we left. So I loaded it onto my kindle, to read when I was there. Read it, and immediately saw what was wrong with it. Yes, my husband and agent were correct. ARGH! Spent the rest of the holiday working out how many extra chapters I'd need to write, where they would go, and how much would need to be deleted.
Wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote. Completely forgot about various social events, very rudely failing to even let people know I'd forgotten.(sorry, so sorry, sorry). By some incredible miracle, managed to finish Another Life on September 23. Sent it to agent and then to editor. Awaited suggestions involving complete rewrites.
Had lunch with lovely editors. They were almost completely happy with Another Life. No revisions. When I worked at the Jewish Chronicle we were banned from using the word 'miracle' in reports or headlines, unless we had definite proof of divine intervention. This may be the one.  
When I Was Joe didn't win the Catalyst Book Award...but it did win the Wirral Paperback of the Year. Woo!
Kicked off in spectacular style with Meg Rosoff's party for K M Peyton, author of the Flambards books and the Pennington trilogy, which I read and loved as a teen. Pennington, who tended to fight first, think afterwards, was definitely a sub-conscious inspiration for Ty. The room was full of writers, editors, librarians and booksellers, all united in admiration for Kathleen Peyton, who spoke with wit and vigour about her career as a very prolific, award-winning writer. It took me back to my teeange years, reading and loving her books, and many others, and reminded me again of why I love writing for children. It's not about money, or awards, or reviews or foreign deals. It's about reaching out to anyone who wants to read, and not knowing what they will make of what you've written.
(And despite it not being about foreign deals or awards, it was very nice to hear that Lia's Guide to Winning the Lottery has been nominated for the Carnegie Medal, and has found publishers in Korea and the Netherlands.)
Remember the lady in San Diego and her Alzheimer's murder mystery? In November she won the Wellcome Book Award, the first ever work of fiction to do so. The prize was £25,000 and the book is called Turn of Mind . Well done booth-mate, Alice La Plante! I promise to read your book soon!
Proof with adjusted Vision.
Couldn't find address book. So all those people whose parties I ignored in September/October, didn;t get their apologetic Christmas cards (sorry again).  So many social events. It's all a bit of a blur. But the proof for Another Life arrived. And  I did manage to write a chapter of the (hopefully) new book. Showed it to daughter and husband. 'I'm not caring about the characters,' she said. 'It's a bit depressing to start with a suicide attempt,' he said.  This time I'm listening. New start next week. Roll on 2013...oh, hang on, 2012...

Friday, 23 December 2011

Dear Keren...(part 2)

Dear Keren

I really enjoyed your books When I Was Joe and Almost True. When is there going to be another book about Ty? What do you suggest I read in the meantime?                                  

First of  all, let me draw your attention to my third book Lia's Guide to Winning the Lottery. True, it is not obviously a 'boy' book, true it has both a handbag and a shoe on the cover. But I think that most people who liked WIWJ and AT would enjoy it. It is not just about money, sex and shopping -  although those are elements -  it also should make you think about about economics, and values (but in a good way) families, friendship and Facebook. There is some suspense and a twisty plot. The heroine gets nicer. Trust me.

New book about Ty coming out in August 2012 in the UK, called Another Life. Covers and tasters coming soon on this blog.

OK, once you've bought Lia's Guide, it's hard for me to know what to recommend because I don't know what aspect of WIWJ and AT you enjoyed. Was it the crime element, the characters, or the lurve story? All I can do is point you to some books that I have enjoyed, and see how you go. Like WIWJ and AT, they feature messed-up, confused and far from perfect male protagonists.

Taking Flight  by  Sheena Wilkinson. I can almost guarantee that anyone who likes my books will enjoy Taking Flight, which I have raved about ever since it came out in 2010. Even more reason to get your hands on it and read it now, because there will be a sequel Grounded coming out next year. In Taking Flight Sheena mixes urban grittiness with classic pony book, with a Northern Ireland setting and  creates an exciting book where you care for each and every character, while competely recognising their many flaws. I've been lucky enough to read Grounded, and it's even better. Add to the travails of our hero Declan, the horse-mad boy from the wrong part of town, a neurotic horse called Folly and a mixed-up kid called Cian. There are truly shocking moments and I was enthralled throughout...and could hardly believe it had ended when it dod. More, please!

Flip by Martyn Bedford. Some brilliant insights in this books about a boy who wakes up in another boy's body -  I esepcially enjoyed the moment when he first takes a pee using someone else's equipment. It would have been easy to play it for laughs, but Martyn Bedford turns it into a moving story which examines the very basics of who we are.

 Paranormal isn't usually my thing, but I loved White Cat and Red Glove by Holly Black which is a clever twist on the usual tropes. Our hero Cassel comes with plenty of problems, part of a family of magic workers in a world where magic is illegal, he's living with the knowledge that he killed his best friend.

Playground by 50 Cent. The usual growling prejudice against celebrities who decide to write children's books had to be suspended for this one, because I loved it. This is despite it being a 'therapy' book, which is a device I usually don't like.  It's the story of Butterball, who starts off as an unpleasant bully who has violently attacked another boy. Without excusing or ignoring what he'd done, the reader gradually comes to hope for Butterball's redemption - something that seems impossible at the beginning when he's full of incoherent swagger. I was fascinated by the US setting - paying for your own social worker? Paying for private school if you're expelled from state school? -  a long way from the anodyne view of American life served up by Disney Channel.The healing relationship between Butterball and his cousellor was truly moving, and might help readers understand what is missing in their own lives. I could not stop reading until I had found out Butterball's secrets. 

Last year's top fantasy read, Gillian Philip's superb  Firebrand featured a truly warped anti-hero, the deliciously dark, sulky, misunderstood faery (but don't let that put you off) Seth.  He returned this year in the sequel Bloodstone , even more twisted than before, and there's another snarling, angry youth, Jed, who I instantly fell for. Do read Firebrand before Bloodstone, so that you have some sympathy for Seth (because he works hard to use it all up in Bloodstone). And if you want a taster for the series, Gillian's written a short ebook prequel Frost Child about Seth's father, available for the bargain price of just 86p.

If you're looking for a laugh, forget the Wimpy Kid, read Dark Lord: The Teenage Years by Jamie Thomson. It's one joke really, but a great one, can Dirk Lloyd. the mysterious boy found in a car park really be a banished Dark Lord stripped of his dastardly powers?

Thursday, 22 December 2011

Ask Keren...(part one)

I've  been giving out quite a bit of advice recently, so I thought I'd have an agony aunt blog for a few days before Christmas.  Starting with this..

Dear Keren,

You don't know me, but I was at the dental hygienist recently and I mentioned that I'd written a children's book and his cousin's wife works with someone who knew you from the parent and baby gym group you went to c 1997.  Remember Jason and Mason? Them. Anyway, I've written a few books I'm really keen to get them published. One is for the 5-12 age group, about a boy wizard, and another is for older's a bit controversial and there's a lot of swearing, but I think it's all justified. Do you need an agent? I've done a bit of research and I've made a list of 179 possibles. Should I write to them all at once? Or should I write to publishers? Or is it best to self-publish?

Hello!  Yes, I remember Jason and Mason well, especially when Mason bit...but never mind. Glad to try and help. Here are my orders....I mean, advice...

1) Check out this website. It is by Nicola Morgan,a children's writer who has been writing for much longer than I have and knows infinitely more about the subject. In fact why don't you...never mind...She has loads and loads of excellent advice about all aspects of writing for publication. There is also a book Write to be Published which is a fascinating and very useful read - basically the same stuff that's on the blog, but easier to navigate. Nicola knows it all.  Another excellent website to read is  Notes from the Slushpile.  (Did I read these blogs before writing to agents, one day after finishing my first draft and without a title for the book?  No, I was too impatient to do any research.)

2) Join the Society of Children's Writers and Illustrators  Attend its annual conference which is in Winchester, mid November. There you will meet agents and editors, writers and artists and you can attend masterclasses and workshops on all aspects of writing for children. Even if you can't go to conference SCWBI holds regular events, masterclasses and the like, an agents' party in September and, every year publishes the Undiscovered Voices, an anthology which is compiled from a competition among un-agented writers.  Being long or short-listed for UV is generally a fast track to being agented and published, and in several cases UV writers have gone on to win awards.  (Did I join SCWBI and enter UV before looking for an agent? No, I thought I'd wait until I had a publishing deal because then the membership would be cheaper).

3) Start researching agents. Which children's authors do you like, and who represents them? Which writers have a similar style to you, and who represents them? Do you want an agent who will be very business-oriented, or one who is keen to be involved in giving you edtorial feedback? It's worth thinking about all of this before you approach people.
Agents will have submission guidelines on their websites. They will tell you what they want - not everyone wants three chapters. Also whether you should print it out, or send by email. Don't write to 179 agents at once. Let the rejections (or indeed offers) trickle through slowly. And don't bother agents if they haven't replied to you within a month. Especially if it is August. (Did I badger an agent mid-August because I hadn't heard from her three weeks after sending her my first chapter? Need you ask?)

4) Start researching the business. For example, a little bit of research will tell you that books aren't generally for 9-13 year olds - 8-12 is the usual age range. The more you know, the better you are able to present yourself to agents. (Unlike me, who though in a vague way that a book about a 14-year-old ought to appeal to 14 year-olds. And who had never heard of most YA writers and had no idea that anyone else might have written about knife crime..that was a nasty shock...)

5) When you do start approaching agents, get ready for rejection. You need to be tough. It is a hideous process. I was turned down by about ten agents - then offered representation by three. Then I was rejected by at least 25 publishers, before getting a two-book deal.  It's really hard but try not to take it personally. (and drop that will do you no good...)

6)  Self-publishing used to be a screamed desperation, incompetence and sub-standard. You might as well put a big label 'Written by a Loser' on your book. But we are entering a new phase of self-publishingand everything is changing.  It is easy-peasy to put your book on Amazon as an e-book, price it low and see what happens. Unlike conventional publishing, you will receive 75% of the cover price. Unlike conventional publishing you will not have to wait for a year to sell your book. The drawbacks -  you have to do (or arrange) your own editing, cover design and marketing (but even with a conventional publisher, you have to do a certain amount of editing and marketing).  Your book will not win awards, nor be bought by libraries or schools. You will not have lovely shiny copies of your book to hold.
Right now, I wouldn't advise self-publishing unless you've become completely jaded by attenpting the conventional route. Whether I'd give the same advice next year..I'm not so sure. And for authors who've had rights revert to them -  go for it.

Tomorrow: What books do you recommend?

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Group Dynamic

 Guinea pigs and  gunmen, communists and criminal cats. Etiquette, incest, drug-taking and blood -  lots of it. Careers, children and choir-singing. Yiddish, Norwegian, Spanish and Cockney.
I'm just trying to give you a flavour of one of our Writing Group meetings, where, with a rough brief of discussing our attempts to write for children -  a brief that's constantly breached - we critique work, discuss our lives, and provide mutual comfort and support.
We've been meeting for a few years now, and we've seen eachother through setbacks and successes. Some ideas take shape, others get abandoned. Some are on slow-burn, others get written in a matter of weeks.
Sometimes one of us will get a job, or start a blog or do something exciting like move to Norway for a year. Sometimes people sign up with agents. But the most exciting thing is when a publisher likes one of the projects we've discussed. And that's been happening quite a lot recently.
This year our group leader Amanda Swift and group member Jennifer Gray worked together to create Guinea Pigs Online, a fabulously funny new series for the 5 plus age group. They signed a two-book deal with Quercus and both books will come out next year -  Guinea Pigs Online in April and Guinea Pigs Online 2 -  Furry Towers in November.  
Do Amanda and Jennifer own guinea pigs? Well, no, they don't. But I do, and so did group member Becky Jones. So we were expert advisers for this project, although their fictional piggies are a little than real ones.
Here's the blurb for Guinea Pigs Online:
Fuzzy the guinea pig loves the Internet. He loves to cook too – ketchup and washing-up liquid soup … yum! Hutch-mate Coco is incredibly posh, and she does not care for computers.
But when Fuzzy goes missing and Micespace reveals that he could be in terrible danger, Coco has to get online to find out where he’s gone! Luckily, she’s got help from a crack team of fellow guinea-pigs: Terry the techno-whizz, Banoffee, mum of fourteen guinea-piglets and Eduardo, the heroic, handsome, freedom-fighting Peruvian!

Will the guinea pigs save Fuzzy and make it home alive?

What's more, Jennifer has also signed a contract with Faber for a three-book comedy series for 7 +  about Atticus Claw - the world's greatest cat burglar.  The first - Atticus Claw Breaks the Law - will be published in September 2012 with the others to follow in 2013.  

While Amanda and Jennifer entertained us, Lydia Syson made us cry with her heart-stopping historical romance A Darker Shade of Red, which has been bought by new publisher Hot Key Books.  Editor Sarah Odedina calls it "a fantastic, sweeping romance…  With hints of Charlotte Gray and Atonement this is a novel that will thrill and satisfy any YA reader who likes adventure and big themes with their romance…."  The setting is the Spanish Civil War, so the themes couldn't be much bigger. A Darker Shade of Red will be published in Autumn 2012, and I'd bet it'll end up on quite a few award shortlists.

Becky Jones, along with writing partner Clare Lewis, has already published two fabulous non-fiction books of adventure walks for families in and around London - details here.
Their next book, The Bumper Book of London, is coming out 7th April 2012, from Frances Lincoln, who are also my publishers, and it's certainly going to be my gift of choice for children for quite some time. 
Here's the blurb: This entertaining and informative book includes every fact, figure, statistic and hidden secret of London that will be of interest to children. Mixing history with literature, listings with trivia, it opens windows on all areas of London's rich past and present. Here children will learn about London's art and architecture, landmarks, hidden places, ghosts, pearly kings and queens, festivals, street names, games, traditions, markets, football teams, and much, much more. Discover the oldest, the tallest, the silliest, the scariest and the smallest things in London. Shop till you drop at the Queen's favourite stores. Delve into London's murky past, see where notorious criminals were hanged, drawn and quartered, pirates were strung out to rot, heads were mounted on spikes and prisoners were tortured. Peer down London's oldest loo, chant with the crowds at London's first football club, and walk under the River Thames without getting wet. The Bumper Book of London will satisfy every child's appetite for facts and figures - as well as providing fodder for desperate parents who have run out of answers. 
 Add to that my book Another Life, which is nearly at the bound proof stage, and should be out in August. Our other two members Anna and Fenella, have both got new jobs.
So, one group, six books out in 2012 (admittedly, most of them written by Jennifer who has more ideas in an afternoon than I have in a year). We're virtually the Bloomsbury set!