Tuesday, 30 October 2012

The Next Big Thing

So, this week I'm taking part in the Next Big Thing meme which has been going around various writer's blogs..and very interesting they've been too. I was tagged by Keris Stainton and Ruth Eastham and you can read their posts by clicking on their names.

The idea is that we share a bit about the book we're working on, by answering some questions, which was actually quite hard for me. The thing is that I've written one book -  first draft anyway -  but now set it aside to work on another one, for which I have a looming deadline. And then there's the musical for Lia's Guide to Winning the Lottery which is taking quite a bit of my time. But this is the one I'm working on now, and this is the one I have a publication date for -  all being well, January 2014.

What is the working title of your book?

Salvage. I got the idea when I lost my kindle at a shopping centre and it was found by someone whose husband tracked me down by looking at the list of books and working out that Keren's kindle was probably something to do with the Keren David whose books were listed there. He owns something called the Salvage Shop in north London.  The name chimed with my latest idea.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

I read a news story ages ago about birth families contacting adopted children through Facebook, and then a social worker friend of mine said 'I know what you ought to write a book about!' and it turned out to be the same idea.

What genre does your book fall under?

You could call it contemporary realism, but I like BritGrit.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition? 
Robert Sheehan who played Nathan in Misfits would be good for Aidan, as long as he can lose his Irish accent and Kaya Scodelario who was Effie in Skins could work as Cass, his sister. Will, Cass's friend  could be John Boyega who was in Attack the Block (lovely smile), but he'd have to grow his hair.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

When siblings Aidan and Cass are reunited through Facebook, painful memories can't be repressed.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

It is represented by my agent, Jenny Savill of Andrew Nurnberg Associates and will be published in the UK by Atom Books.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

I'm still writing it! My deadline is December 15! Eek!

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
It's a bit different from my other books -  more of an emotional family story. Maybe Katie Dale's Someone Else's Life.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

My friend the social worker, and another friend who  talked to me about her experience of adoption.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

It's possibly the darkest book I've written so far.

Now it's my turn to tag some other writers who'll be posting about their work in progress on their blogs next Wednesday.  And they are:

Sara Grant - I can't wait to find out what Sara's working on, her Dark Parties is one of the best teen dystopias around.

Savita Kalhan - a writer prepared to go darker and deeper than most, her The Long Weekend was one of the most terrifying teen thrillers I've read.

Dave Cousins -  author of the brilliant Fifteen Days without a Head,  BritGrit at its finest

Bryony Pearce  - who isn't scared to tackle the most difficult emotions and themes, as proved by her nail-biting debut Angel's Fury

Saturday, 27 October 2012

A musical interlude...

I was always being told off as a child for day-dreaming. It's not an activity that's valued, especially at school.
How wrong they were. It turns out that day-dreaming is one of the most important elements in writing fiction. The more I can lose myself in my latest story, persuade myself that I am writing about real people, the better the writing goes. It's a strange process though -  persuading yourself that imaginary people are real, capturing them on the page and then letting go of them again.
So just think how surreal it was for me last week to find myself in a room surrounded by characters that I had invented. What's more, they were singing lyrics based on the words I'd written, and instead of the London accents I'd imagined they were speaking in broad Lancastrian/Scottish/Yorkshire. There were moments when I felt as though I'd strayed into a dream.
In fact, I was in Carlisle, working with students on the University fo Cumbria's  musical theatre course to develop the musical of my book Lia's Guide to Winning the Lottery,  alongside director John Brant, choreographer Cressida Carre and Musical Director Harriet Oughton,  and Andy and Wendy Barnes from Perfect Pitch, the organisation which is developing the musical.
It was something completely new for me -  I've never been involved in the theatre at all -  but it's actually the culmination of an ambition that I'd completely forgotten about. When I was a teenager I loved musicals, and I longed to write a musical - but I had no idea how to go about it, and so -  typically -  never even gave it a go.
We started with thedialogue from the book, and part of the week's work was to identify which characters translated quite easily to the stage -  Jack, Lia's laddish friend, for example -  and which ones needed considerable rewriting -  Raf, Lia's mysterious crush. For me that involved a certain amount of analysis -  what had I hoped to achieve by writing something in that way? How could I create the affect I wanted?
I spent most of Tuesday in the Travelodge in Carlisle (a fantastic place for writing, by the way, large light rooms, no internet in the bedrooms and peace and quiet. If I ever disappear near deadline time that's where you'll find me). re-writing Act One. I had to leave before the end of the week, but it was a complete joy to watch John, Harriet and Cress working with the students, creating scenes based on the book and helping them develop their ideas and skills. As for the students -  I can't wait to come up to Carlisle again and see how you've got on, you achieved so much in only three days.
I'm writing two books at the moment -  that's why you haven't heard much from me on this blog. One book is due mid-December. Another is finished  -  the first draft anyway -  and I am itching to rework it second time around. Add to that the work I need to do on the musical, and organising my lovely son's barmitzvah (January), and you can understand why I feel a little stressed and occasionally overwhelmed.
But there's something about musicals that lift your spirits and inject you with energy. The music for Lia's Guide that I've heard so far (composed by the very talented Paul Herbert) is gorgeous. I've been humming it all week. I can't wait to share it with more people.
I haven't won the lottery yet. But this week I felt as though I had.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Another Life is out

I nearly missed it, but there's half an hour left of publication day for Another Life.

It's a very special book for me. To be given the chance to develop characters, themes and stories over three books is a real  privilege. I have to thank everyone who championed the books  -  librarians, booksellers, reviewers and above all readers.  Personal recommendation  is the most powerful force in  making a writer's career financially viable. Everyone who buys a copy of Another Life makes it more likely that I can afford to go on writing books in the future, so thank you.

I made quite a bold choice in Another Life, to change the narrator. Ty does have his own chapters, but the story is mostly told by Archie, his cousin. I hope readers won't mind the shift and willl find it interesting to look for their similarities and differences, as well as seeing Ty from the outside and considering how much they trust their view of him. The cousins are both capable of great stupidity and can be infuriatingly annoying (especially Archie) but I hope they are occasionally admirable and generally endearing. I'm very fond of them both, which is surprising as I specifically created Archie to be as irritating as possible.

I'm, also very fond of their dads, although Danny (Ty's dad) is generally hopeless (but learning fast) and I'm sure that my affection for David, Archie's fierce dad, won't be shared by any of my teen readers who are generally much tougher on parental figures than I am. Their grandfather, Patrick is possibly my favourite character in the entire series (although he's as flawed as any of them), and perhaps now is the time to admit that he was slightly based on our very own Prince Philip.

 Another Life is a book about sons and fathers, crime and punishment, about rich and poor, and the inter-connectedness of Londoners despite the huge disparities in wealth. It was partly inspired by learning that children at  my daughter's school, a big inner city comprehensive, attend assemblies aimed at preventing them getting involved in knife crime while pupils at a nearby private school are warned against drug-taking and a party lifestyle.

Some people have asked me if there will be any more books about Ty. I have to admit that I think it's unlikely, as I'm now changing publishers  and looking forward to new projects. But it's possible they might make guest appearances in other books (I really wish I'd found a way of getting Archie into Lia's Guide to Winning the Lottery  I could see them getting on very well) and I'm interested in the future for Ty's baby sister Alyssa. There's one huge question left at the end of Another Life, and it involves his friend Arron. So you never know.

I've been neglecting this blog recently, for which I'm sorry, but my life has been very hectic and somewhat stressful, full of anxiety and problems. I've been working like crazy to pull together one book, and now that I am nearly finished (tomorrow, I hope) need to move on to the next one with barely time to draw breath. I've got school visits next week, including one to  Zurich International School  - I'm working on the musical for Lia's Guide, it's been school holidays and I've just started a monthly newspaper column.Things should quieten down a bit by February...except there's another book I want to write then...

It's two minutes to midnight, so I'd better post this while it's still September 6. Thanks for reading!

Thursday, 16 August 2012



     Atom buys 'home-grown YA' from Keren David

Atom Editorial Director Samantha Smith has acquired two new "home-grown contemporary YA" novels by multi-award-winning author Keren David, buying UK and Commonwealth rights from Jenny Savill of Andrew Nurnberg Associates International Ltd.
The first of the two stand-alone novels, Salvage tells the story of two siblings from a neglectful home, who were separated as young children when one was adopted by a middle-class family. Now aged 16 and 18 they are reunited through Facebook, with none of the preparation and support that social workers advise.

"Keren David treads that immensely difficult line between being compulsively readable but not shying away from many of the real, and heart-breaking, issues that teens face," says Smith. "We’re thrilled to be bringing such a strong, British author onto the list and have big plans for Keren in the future."

A former journalist, David made the transition to writing teen fiction with the publication of When I Was Joe in 2010. Her latest novel, Lia’s Guide to Winning the Lottery, was published in summer 2011 and is currently being made into a musical.

"I am thrilled to be working with Atom," says David. "I think there's a growing audience in the UK for home-grown contemporary YA, and it's great to get a vote of confidence from a leading publisher."

Atom - the Little, Brown Book Group’s children’s and young adult imprint - will publish Salvage in early 2014.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Lia the Musical!

I haven't posted much on this blog recently because I've been busy with all sorts of things, most of them secret. I've been writing and having meetings and writing some more, and I hope to have some news about some of that quite soon.
But in the meantime something has happened which I can talk about. Something, in fact, which I can sing about. LIA'S GUIDE TO WINNING THE LOTTERY IS GOING TO BE A MUSICAL!
I have to admit when I first got the email, I thought it was too exciting to be true. Perfect Pitch, an Arts Council funded company which creates and supports new musical theatre and then licenses it for performance, had been researching the idea of a musical about a teenage lottery winner and came across my book. They read it, enjoyed it and thought it would work well as a musical. As Lia might say: SQUEEE!
I've never been involved in anything to do with musical theatre before, but when I was a teenager it was definitely an ambition of mine to write a musical (an ambition so deeply buried that I'd forgotten all about it until Perfect Pitch got in touch). And musicals must be in my blood -my maternal grandparents met when they co-starred in a youth club production of Glbert and Sullivan's Yeoman of the Guard.
Most amazingly of all, Perfect Pitch had already workshopped a few scenes with some drama students, so I was able to see my characters acting and singing -  something that broguht tears to my eyes.
The plan is to get on with the writing and staging quite quickly, in order to showcase the new musical to theatre compnaies next year. I can't wait to learn more about how a musical is put together. It's been the perfect mood-lifter during some tense and stressful months. I'll be reporting on our progress in the next few months.
 Some other news: My Brazilian publisher Novo Conceito is going to publish Another Life as well as When I Was Joe and Almost True. Lia's Guide is now on sale in the Netherlands, published as Wat te doen met acht milijoen?  And my German publisher, dtv has revealed the cover for Almost True (published DecemberThe title means 'The Last Statement'.

Saturday, 7 July 2012

The making of Another Life, the trailer

It's remarkably difficult to find a roof that you can jump off. Plus, it's been hard to find a day for filming when it wasn't pouring with rain. Add to that an award-winning film maker who's always rushing off to war zones, or to speak at the UN, and an author who couldn't remember which year her book was being published and you can see that it hasn't been altogether easy to make the trailer for Another Life.
Finlay in action
But here it is! Woo! For some reason blogger won't let me embed videos, so best to view it on Youtube

Anyway, the story of this trailer starts way back in the late 1980s when I worked for the Sunday Times in Glasgow. Our rival was the Observer's Scottish correspondent, one Callum Macrae. I vaguely remember him as a tall, fair, quiet bloke who I used to see in press conferences sometime. Naturally we sneered at his efforts, and he doubtless felt the same about ours.

And that was that until a few years ago when we met again and became friends through having kids at the same school. Callum now runs a television company, Outsider Televison Production which is mostly known for making stunningly good documentaries. His best known is the devastating Sri Lanka's Killing Fields
which revealed the slaughter of civilians by Sri Lankan government forces, for this film Callum and his team were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and for a BAFTA, and won an Amnesty award for best documentary.
Outsider TV also make literary trailers, and have worked with authors including Maggie O'Farrell, Sharon Dogar and Jed Rubenfeld. So naturally I was thrilled when Callum offered to make a trailer for me.
New covers! These arrived this week.
Originally we were going to make a trailer for Lia's Guide, but Callum kept on flying off to warzones and the UN, and it never happened. So we started early with Another Life, and reckoned it would be a good way of drawing attention to the new covers for the whole trilogy.
We brainstormed ideas for the trailer and came up with two -  scenes from a boxing club, and a boy running and jumping his way along a roof. Callum actually had some footage from a boxing club, and a suitably aged teenage son, so all we had to do was find our roof.
Food from the Sky: not much room for running
We called our local supermarket, the very wonderful Budgens in Crouch End because we knew there was access to their roof for the very impressive Food from the Sky project, in which they grow fresh produce on the roof to sell in store. They were happy for us to come and visit. We climbed up the staircase to the roof and found a green haven of herbs, salads and vegetables, but no space at all for running and jumping, and a sensible but (for us) unhelpfully secure fence all the way around the garden.
Next we tried Waitrose. The staff were very interested, but needed permission from head office -  health and safety . We took the area manager's number and moved on.
 Further up the road the buildings are taller and older. We tried my hairdresser's -  but the manager, who I know, was out. And then my opticians, the exceptionally wonderful A View. There we struck gold. Not only did they have builders working on their roof, but they were going to have to call Terry, owner of the top floor flat with access to the roof, and get him to leave work early and come home to allow the builders to climb out through his flat. What's more, when Terry arrived he turned out to be an amateur filmmaker, who was only too happy to allow us to run around on his roof. We were on! Filming set for the following week.

Terry helps get Finlay and equiptment up onto the roof
Luckily, the rain held off that weekend (surprisingly, because it's rained virtually every day since March). We arrived at Terry's flat and surveyed the scary ladder out to the roof.  Did I mention that I'm scared of heights? So was Callum. Finlay, the runner and jumper, luckily was not, but as soon as we got out onto the roof and surveyed the sheer drops on either side, Callum and I spent the entire time taking deep breaths and saying 'Finlay! Be careful!' and 'Come away from the edge!'
Finlay was very good-natured about the whole thing and ran and jumped brilliantly, despite gravel, nails, junk and people telling him not to go near the edge.
The edge! Scary!
And that was that. Callum and colleagues started editing and composing music, creating graphics and deciding along the way that we didn't need the boxing club footage. I waited. Eventually I got an email from Callum. It's done! Here's the link!
Unfortunately we were away at the time, celebrating my husband's birthday at a hotel by the seaside (yes it rained, but we had a great time anyway). The link came through in the evening, when we'd had a nice meal and a few glasses of wine. It took ages to get an internet link, but eventually I did it.  'Wow!' I texted back to Callum 'I love it! It just needs one thing -  a screen at the end with the name of the book,the publishers and the date of publication. September 2013.'
Well, never ask an author for accurate information when she's a) had a few drinks and b) just seen the amazing trailer for her book. Yes, they added the end shot. No, the book is not published in 2013. It's published in 2012!!!! It took a remarkably long time to sort out that error.
In the meantime I've been showing the trailer on school visits, and getting a good response. Some pupils have suggested that it'd make a great film.  I think Callum's done an extraordinary job of getting inside Ty's head (or maybe this is Archie?) and encapsulating the essence of the book.  Thank you, once again!

Monday, 7 May 2012

What's your name?

One of the things I thought would be the easiest things about writing books turns out to be one of the hardest. Why is it so difficult to name my characters?
It's not, as I fondly imagined, just a case of picking your favourite names and sprinkling them around. Naming characters is an intricate alchemy, part art, part science and the more books you write the more difficult it gets.
Some things to consider:
 - your character's age. Which names work for someone of their age, class, nationality and with those particular parents? Some authors make the mistake of thinking that the names of teenagers when they were teens (in my case Tracey, Susan, Dave, Gary) are still used for teens today. Others pick the names they'd give a baby now and apply it to a 16 year old.
 - the  names of other characters in your book. It's just too confusing to have Kieran, Kevin, Kerry and Karen in the same book. Oh how I wish I'd remembered that when I named Claire and Carl in When I Was Joe.I had to rename Edward in Almost True when Claire started wittering on about Twilight..it took me ages to find and love the name Patrick.
 - the names of your friends, your friends' children, your children's friends, your family.  Claire in When I Was Joe was originally called Katie..but I have a good friend called Katie. When Katie's role grew, the weirdness of her being called Katie provoked a rethink, and she became Claire. My dad's name is Joseph, called Joe by non family members, but Joseph in the family. Quite a few people think I named my book after my dad.
 -  how to pronounce the names you've chosen. I got somewhat fed up with the number of people - my agent, my writing group -  who called Raf (from Lia's Guide) Rafe. In the end I made a point of explaining it in the text.
 -  How the name works internationally. Jack in Lia's Guide was going to be Jamie, until a friend told me it was a girls' name in America.

Some people use baby name guides to find character names, I prefer Facebook (just find a connection of the right sort of age and look at their friend list). Another very useful tool is a new blog which maps baby naming patterns for England and Wales since 1996. Want to know how many girls were called Champagne in 1996? This is where to find out (that it was zero, interestingly enough). 

Sometimes people name characters after friends or colleagues or important people in the children's book industry. I have a plant in Another Life which, I am reliably informed, bears the same name as a plant owned by a Carnegie judge...which Carnegie judge I am not entirely certain...anyway it has to work, doesn't it?

Sometimes I ask Twitter. People are only too happy to help, sometimes volunteering their own names, never mind the character. This is how my sometime colleague Marcus has ended up with TWO characters named after him -  a whinging failed X Factor winner in Lia's Guide and a whinging stoner in Another Life.The real Marcus is nothing like either of his namesakes, I hasten to add.

I've been asked by kids I know to put them in a book -  which is fine, but it has to be the right kid and the right book. Keja, you made it into Another Life -  but I changed the spelling to reflect how you pronounce your name. Sorry!

Sometimes writers suffer retrospective naming regret once a book is in print, and  can hardly bear to be reminded that they once thought that 'Graham' or 'Trevor' was a cool name for their hero. Others only realise after the book is published that Alistair is spelled Alastair for half of the book *whistles casually and walks away from the scene of the crime*.

The problem is that often you're called upon to name a whole bunch of people all at once, so all the fun of picking names evaporates in the panic of finding the right names that all go together without losing the thread of what you want to say about them. Pick the wrong name and...it just sounds wrong. It spoils the character. It puts you off.

I'm naming characters right now. I have a Sadie and a Hannah -  two names I love, but both are the names of friends of my children, both will probably have to change. I have a Tom -  feels wrong, may grow on me. And there's Emmy, who is perfect. For the moment.

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Sad news

Some of you may already know that my publisher, Frances Lincoln Children's Books are no longer going to be publishing Young Adult books. This decision has been taken by Quarto, the company that took over FLCB and parent company Frances Lincoln in August.
The decision to end the YA list, which only launched in 2010, has not been officially announced by Quarto, but it was widely discussed on Facebook today among writerly people, and I just saw it mentioned on Twitter. So I thought I'd better say my bit.
First, my next book Another Life will still be published as planned in September, and the new covers for When I Was Joe and Almost True will also go ahead.  Frances Lincoln will continue to sell and market my books, including Lia's Guide to Winning the Lottery. I am relieved that this is the case, and happy that there will still be a dedicated sales and marketing team to work with.

I am, however, beyond sad to know that the brilliant editorial team will be broken up. Maurice Lyon, the editorial director was the person who saw the potential in When I Was Joe, when other publishers doubted the market for 'gritty realism'. Every award it has won (five), every nomination and short-listing it has achieved (a further 14) probably would not have happened without Maurice. He and I were jointly shortlisted for the Branford Boase award. When I Was Joe  earned back its advance within a year, it has sold nearly 20,000 copies. I'm not saying any of this to boast, just to show that Maurice's instincts seem to have been proved right.

Maurice and Emily are both great editors to work with, providing subtle guidance on the big stuff and keen-eyed attention to detail for the rest (not forgetting Yvonne, another member of the FL team whose eye for a misplaced comma is legendary). I'm certain that they will go on to great things at whichever publishing houses are lucky enough to employ them.
The news is devastating for many other authors who were writing books for Frances Lincoln, authors who had seen the high production values in place and were delighted to work with such a wonderful team. To mention just one, Jane McLoughlin's book At Yellow Lake is due to be published in a few weeks' time.  I read a preview copy and so did my 12-year-old son, we were both captivated by Jane's story. My son said it was the best book he'd read all year, and asked me to buy him a copy of the book when published -  this is a boy who never re-reads anything.
Britain at the moment feels like a place which is more about cuts and closures, pessimism and pratfalls, than optimism, imagination and investment. We're all learning that we can't depend on institutions- companies, government, the media -  to make good or positive decisions. But we're all in charge of our own response to bad news, and, without sounding impossibly mawkish,  mine is to face the future with a hopeful smile. And get writing. The stakes just got higher.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Ty Italiano

 It's Ty! In Venice! What is he doing there?

No, this is not a sneak peek at the plot of Another Life. It's an Italian YA book spotted by my eagle-eyed editor Emily Sharratt at the recent Bologna Children's Book Fair. 
It's called The Descent of Light and according to this blog post, it's a kind of Dan Brown meets the Mayans, SF/timeshift epic romance, set in Italy and Mexico. 
I whipped the blog post into Google Translate and this is what I got:
'The Descent of Light that, as adults, although it is YA literature, intrigues me most, is now known of the Mayan prophecy about the end of the world in 2012. The places where the story takes place is full of charm and mystery of Venice, the Tuscan hills, the ruins of Mexico. The characters by which we follow are Jude and Viola.In Venice comes a wonderful guy. Jude was instructed by his father to find a Maya text, that can save humanity from the provisions of the awful apocalyptic prophecy. During the searches in the Library of Archaeology Jude knows Viola, a student who has a bond with their dramatic Mayan code that the guy is trying.The meeting of two born a love, not wanted, but overwhelming, that will survive the events that occur at some point and that will take them in Tuscany and then back in Mexico. Events that they will meet / collide with characters who, like them, are seeking the all-important code.But the story is not simple as it might seem. It is not just a search, friends, enemies, loves, tragedies and ancient vendettas. There is an element that gives the story a different perspective. Why Jude is not simply a nice guy as a god by Jude is far, far away. It comes from another world, that of SO-CALLED Bright ... (with all the implications, in my opinion, this can result in the past history of the human race and its Gods ... But I'm just assuming ...). Enjoy!

Wow! I am especially thrilled that Ty is called Jude, because that is my son's name.  And it is great to see him in another guise. He looks suitable moody and I think they've made his eyes very blue. 
It's not surprising to find the same picture popping up on a different book, because the photo was sourced from a big photo library. I wonder if the original model knows about Ty and Jude. And I wonder what other uses have been made of his image. Someone once told me that'd seen Ty on a poster warning of STDs. I've never been able to find it, and I'm happy that way.

Monday, 2 April 2012

UKYA:a blog is born

It started, as so many things do, with a conversation on Twitter.  A chat about the difference between teen books and Young Adult, which morphed into a wider debate about American and British books, and spawned a hashtag #UKYA.
It crystallised a feeling that quite a few of us had, that American books for teens get a lot more attention than British ones, even in the UK. We go into bookshops and see special displays of imported YA books from the US. We see publicists for UK publishers promoting the latest transatlantic buy-in. And we suspect that YA is almost defined by that Mean Girls/Twilight High School feel, the proms, the basketball games, the road trips, so that reading about British kids doing GCSEs and watching EastEnders somehow feels all wrong.

Now, there's nothing wrong with American YA books, and indeed it is we British teen authors who enthusiastically rush to buy, read and praise writers like John Green. Meg Cabot and Maureen Johnson.

 But then I stumbled across a group on Goodreads where American readers were asking for recommendations of British teen books, and coming up with little more than Harry Potter.  And I kept on reading American YA books set in Britain, which came across as inauthentic as those awful episodes of Friends set in London. Or British characters in American YA books who sounded as British as Dick Van Dyke. And then I saw an internet query from an American family planning to travel to London with a teenager. Which books should they read to get them in the mood? Suggestions ranged from Oliver Twist to Swallows and Amazons. Oh and Harry Potter got a mention.

Well, there is more to UK YA than Harry Potter. To prove the point (and hopefully provide something on the internet for anyone in the world looking for authentically British books) we have set up a new blog, which should be a showcase for the best of British teen fiction. You can find it here  and I hope you'll follow, share and generally shout about it.

When I say we, the very wonderful Keris Stainton and Susie Day have done all the hard work (Hurray!). We'd love to get more blog posts, recommendations and comments. Please do get in touch if you'd like to be involved.

There have been moments when I've worried that our site is a bit Little Englandy -  too parochial, too inwards looking and a bit unfriendly towards foreigners. But that's not the aim. We just want to celebrate the great fiction being written in Britain (not just by Brits either. Some of our best UKYA writers are in fact Americans, but they live here, so that's OK) and redress the balance a bit.

Right now the British children's best-selling lists are dominated by American Wimpy Kids and American dystopians . Sometimes I go into supermarkets or even bookshops and  have to look hard to find an actual British teen book. I'd love to see Waterstones or WH Smith put on a Best of British teen book promotion. In the meantime, use that UKYA hashtag and start telling the world about our blog.

Thursday, 29 March 2012

Lia in America

This is the week that Lia’s Guide to Winning the Lottery was unleashed on the unsuspecting American and Canadian market, and my wonderful American publicists (oh how I love those words) have suggested that I wrote a blog post to mark the occasion. So, here we go. Some warnings for American readers.

1) Lia’s Guide is about a 16 year old girl. You may not like her very much. This is because I carried out extensive research into the ways of British girls (including being one myself, between 1976 and 1982) and discovered that they are mostly locked in battle with their mothers from the age of 14-16, they are self-centred, snarky and loudly assured of their own rightness. American girls may well not be like this. Anyway, stick with her, with a lot of money and some interesting experiences, she improves.

2) The book has not been translated into American. Lia walks on pavements, shops at Primark (cheap clothes, long queues), goes to the loo. Draw on your deep knowledge of British slang gained from reading Louise Rennison, Harry Potter and my other books. But don’t worry, Lia does not speak exactly like a London teenage does, because then her slang would date within minutes and no one would be able to understand her. So I have spared you sentences such as ‘That boy is bare butters,’ which means ‘That boy is very ugly’ - or it did last time I asked, anyway.

3) British culture is much more tolerant of drinking than you are in America. Binge-drinking is virtually a national sport.  So it is relatively normal (although not desirable or sensible) for British teenagers to indulge in the sort of behaviour that most Americans don’t get round to until they are at college.

4) However, a British teenager who drives and has their own car is extremely unusual. They don’t start learning to drive until they are at least 17, and the insurance payments for a teen driver are sky high. You’d have to win the lottery…oh, hang on…

5) Lottery winners get the whole lot as a lump sum right away. There’s no question of having it paid out bit by bit as happens in your sensible nation. This system enables people like Michael Carroll to spend his entire £9m jackpot in a matter of years. He provided lots of entertainment for the rest of us, not to mention the chance for eminent writers such as Martin Amis to moralise about how poor people are just too criminal and undeserving to be trusted with large amounts of money, therefore providing a powerful case for the good old British class system, designed to keep money and power in the hands of a privileged few....

6) ..and the class system is alive and well in this book. The way people join the upper classes is by going to Public School, which is not at all the same as a public school in the US. In Britain Public Schools are very very expensive and attended by the aristocracy, the nouveau riche and foreigners.  Be aware that Raf’s poshness makes him exotic and strange in an ordinary London school. Quite apart from all the other things that make him exotic, strange and possibly paranormal.

7) I have adopted a revolutionary approach to sex in YA fiction, by portraying teen sexual encounters that MAY not end in pregnancy or disease. This is because I am fed up with books that suggest that sex is always disasterous/tacky/regrettable or described only in terms of the boy's plumbing. So, add your own health warnings.

8) American librarians, I can happily tell you that there are NO F-BOMBS in Lia's Guide. Not one.

9)  You'll notice that Lia dreams of going to New York or San Francisco. So do I. Buy enough copies and may be I will...

Saturday, 3 March 2012

Silver linings

This is a picture taken on my phone at the top of Parliament Hill today -  if you've read Lia's Guide, it's the place where Lia and Raf go to fly her kite.

I've had the sort of week when the grey storm clouds gather overhead, when life seems harsh and unfair, and full of worries.  Even little disappointments sting, let alone the big ones.
But still, good things happened last week. My mum's operation went well. Our car was smashed up -  but no one was hurt.  I had good feedback for new projects, I got a brilliant email from a reader, I visited two lovely schools. I'm  loving the evening class I'm teaching at City University, and it's exciting to see students taking risks with their writing and imagining.
So, this picture seemed to sum up my week. Let the silver linings shine, and the kites fly high. And it didn't rain at all.

Monday, 27 February 2012

Protecting Witnesses

Today the Leveson enquiry into press standards heard that the News of the World  had details of people in witness protection.  Read more about it here.

This month, it was revealed that in 2008, the Metropolitan police paid out £550,000 to a teenage witness whose details were passed by prosecutors to the people he was testifying against. The boy and his family had to flee their home and go into witness protection. Read more about it here.

Earlier this month, a report by the Her Majesty's Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate (HMCPSI) and Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) found that young witnesses were 'left to flounder' in the criminal justice system, with vulnerable young witnesses often denied the opportunity to testify by videolink. Read more about it here.

Changes to the legal aid system means that young witnesses put at risk like the one compensated in 2008, will no longer be funded to sue for compensation. His family say that he no longer trusts the criminal justice system and if he were to witness a crime today (he is now 24) he would not make a statement.

When I wrote When I Was Joe and Almost True, I wondered if I was being unfair to the police in making the witness protection scheme seem, well, not exactly 100% perfect. American readers have expressed their surprise to me that, as one librarian put it, 'the witness protection scheme is so flaky in the UK.' But I'd worked on a newsdesk and I'd talked to lawyers and I knew about shot witnesses, betrayed witnesses, dodgy mobile phone networks and suchlike.

 The hardest question for me to anwer on school visits is the one which goes 'If you witnessed a crime, would you give evidence, even if it put your life at risk?' I know what I should say -  but I don't know what I would do.

Sunday, 29 January 2012

If you enjoyed When I Was Joe...

A few weeks ago I wrote a little list of book recommendations for readers who'd enjoyed When I Was Joe and Almost True and wanted something to read during the seven-month (sorry) wait for Another Life.
Here are some more books that might appeal.
If you liked reading about an ordinary boy with big problems - try Fifteen Days without a Head by Dave Cousins. Laurence's mum has a drink problem and has gone missing - but Laurence and his little brother can't tell anyone. Their story is funny, unexpected and heart-breaking -  and really makes you think about what should happen in families where the parents aren't coping. By the end I was all set to call the social workers myself...except that's not the solution that Dave wrote. 
If you're into grappling with thorny moral issues, read Katie Dale's Someone Else's Life (which, by the way has the most gorgeous cover).  Rosie's mum has died of Huntingdon's disease, and she must decide whether to find out if she carries the disease herself -  a devastating diagnosis if positive. But then Rosie discovers long-buried secrets which destroy everything she ever believed to be true. I've rarely read a book which gets you so involved in the lives of the characters -  at times I'd have cheerfully throttled all of them, including Rosie's lovely Gran - or which twists and turns so fast and furiously. The dilemmas faced by Rosie and others -  I don't want to give anything away -  are so huge, that you're left pondering them for ages afterwards.
If you're a fan of psychological thrillers -  and especially if you liked the ghost/hallucination aspect of Almost True, not to mention the unreliable narrator of both Joe books -  then Cat Clarke's Torn is a must-read. It starts off a bit Pretty Little Liars-ish with a motley crew of girls sharing a cabin in the wilderness, then things go seriously wrong when Alice, Cass, Polly and Rae decide to teach popular but bitchy Tara a lesson. Torn is scary, believable and utterly compelling and Cat is completely brilliant at getting inside the head of a teenage girl who lets insecurity and low self esteem lead her to disaster.

Monday, 23 January 2012

New look

Coming your way in September...
  I'm getting a new look! Or at least my books are. To coincide with the release of Another Life, in September, the first two books in the series, When I Was Joe and Almost True are getting new covers to match.

The Egg of Death in Danny's fridge

Ty/Joe's brown/green eyes...
 The new look is bold, bright and eye-catching, the work of designer Arianna Osti, who also designed the cover for Lia's Guide to Winning the Lottery. People have been asking me about the inspiration for the covers, so I put a few questions to Arianna.

  Tell us a bit about yourself and your career.

I was brought up with an artist in the family and a house full of books so it’s not surprising I chose a creative career.
After graduating from Camberwell College of Arts and training in a few design studios I started working at Frances Lincoln Publishers. I have always been interested in print design and I have a passion for typography so publishing feels like the perfect industry for me to be in.

What was the process of planning the new jackets? Did you have a completely free hand, or was there a discussion first about which direction to take? (NB The first I heard of the new covers was when they were all done and finished and my editor said 'I've got a surprise for you!')

In designing book covers there is usually a preliminary meeting with the Sales team to discuss the feel and the audience of a book. This is where we thought that, as we had a third book in the same series as When I Was Joe and Almost True, it would be good to launch the third title, Another Life, with a brand new look, re-jacketing the previous titles to boost the series. After the success of the cover
of Lia’s Guide to Winning the Lottery we thought it would be good to stick to a simple but bold cover style. So the direction to pursue was that of a striking graphic and typographic cover.

Did you come up with other ideas and then reject them?

I did come up with a few different ideas.
Ibarajo Road -  out August 2012
and sounds brilliant
It is quite unusual that the first design idea for a cover ends up being the final cover. It can happen, and it did happen for example with Ibarajo Road. However, generally you tend to come up with a few different ideas and then through discussions and meetings some of the ideas get rejected or approved. Some of the ideas I had seemed to work better on some titles rather than others, so they did get rejected, as the same design had to be applied to all three books in order for them to work as a series.

   How did you pick the colours?

The colours were partly dictated by the plot and by the graphic elements (eye, egg and knife) used on each of the books. The background colour came later, first it was Joe’s brown eyes, then the yellow of the egg yolk and the red of the bloody knife – all significant parts of the books. These were the obvious, realistic colours so for the background colours I had to try a combination that would work for each cover and then as a series of three.
The colours are there to create a mood and to help communicate the feel of the book so muted colours seemed to work best for a dark, edgy thriller series.

Saul Bass design
Someone mentioned the iconic cover for Catch-22 was that an inspiration? Others mentioned 1950s film posters and pulp fiction paperbacks. What were your influences?

I’m not sure the cover for Catch-22 ‘caught’ my eye as much as Saul Bass’ work.
Saul Bass again
He was a graphic-designer and filmmaker best know for his title sequences and film posters – so yes, in that respect 1950s film posters and typefaces have been an influence. I was also inspired by Agatha Christie’s paperback covers with hand-lettered type for the author’s name. But Saul Bass’ use of type and his concise, powerful and clever illustrations influenced me to create covers with strong type and

Iconic byline
a simple graphic icon. 

Saul Bass poster -
I love this film
You also designed the cover for Lia’s Guide to Winning the Lottery. What was the thinking behind that one?

It’s a sharp, sassy fiction story that deals with girls and the problems arising after winning the lottery – including the art of shopping. So we wanted something bold and striking, but feminine and sophisticated. While thinking about shopping, The Devil Wears Prada came to mind – that was the starting point. Immediately the red stiletto shoe communicates power, sex and elegance. Then the type says girlie, light-hearted and funny.
Power, sex and elegance!

 How much do you think about the target audience when planning covers?

The target audience is very important while designing covers as you have to communicate to the right people. It’s really the first thing to think about as you have to try and get into the mind of an 8 year-old, a 12 year-old or a 16 year-old.
I’ve been designing books for the adult market as well but the children’s audience is certainly more challenging.

What other covers (by you and other people) are your favourites?

Designed by David Pearson
I am very pleased with the poetry fiction covers I have designed for Janetta Otter-Barry Books such as An Imaginary Menagerie, The Language of Cat, Hey Little Bug and Come Into this Poem.
I am always looking at the competition, at other designer’s work and it’s always good to get inspiration from the masters of the past. My favourite book cover designs are by Gray318 (especially the Jonathan Safran Foer books) and David Pearson.
Designed by Gray318
(You can contact Arianna at ianna84@yahoo.it)

Saturday, 7 January 2012

How to respond to bad reviews.

Ignore them. It's as easy as that. But, funnily enough, not everyone does.
Julie Halpern is a writer of YA books. I'd never heard of her before this week, when a blogging, twittering storm blew up because she wrote a foot-stamping, tantrumy, Violet Elizabath Bott of a response to a negative review that she found on the internet.
Ms Halpern has now taken down her post, and the equally cringe-worthy 'poor little me' ones that followed. But you can read the original review here and the responses were all about how the author had poured her heart and sould and time into her work, while the blogger had just dashed off a piece of snark, and the author was in a higher place than the reviewer and no one should write negative reviews at all, because it might but readers off, and authors have feeling too, and google should create a negative review filter (I think she was employing hyperbole at some points, but the general hysterical nature of the thing made it hard to tell).
It's blindingly obvious to most of  us, I hope, that  if an author thinks a review is unfair, offensive, wrong, sloppy or whatever, she should not take it personally, and should absolutely not attack the reviewer in public. Find someone to moan to who knows you are not an egotisical brat -  or who knows that you are an egotisical brat, but loves you anyway.
If you absolutely have to contact the reviewer, be humble. Thank her for spending time reading and reviewing your books, point out nicely that she's got the main character's name wrong, or misunderstood the central metaphor, or given a whacking great spoiler, say how much her good opinion matters to you.  But truly  it's best to maintain a certain authorly distance at these painful moments.
A lot of people have told Ms Halpern this, and maybe she will now spend a lifetime lying awake in darkened rooms asking herself why...why....?
But I have a further criticism of her rant.
The reviewer didn't like her fake kidnap plotline - ('Can I just say – uhhh. The entire Penny debacle was kinda ridiculous.') Ms Halpern was shocked that anyone could doubt the premise because it had actually happened to a friend of hers  ('Ugh! I didn't make it up, beyotch! I had a friend who faked her own kidnapping! Grrrr.').
I've heard this defence before. I asked a writer about the baffling relationship of two people in her otherwise delightful book, and why on earth they didn't divorce -  to be told that they were based on two people she actually knew and were therefore, well, true to life.  I felt short-changed, and was none the wiser. A tiny hint at sexual obsession or financial complexity would have worked far better,
Writers, it is not enough to base your characters and plots on real life and real people. You have to make them plausible to your reader.They are reading a work of fiction, not a memoir or a piece of journalism.
Quite often I've had things happen to me that I regretfully realise would not work in a piece of fiction, because the coincidence is too unlikely or the story is almost too neat. It's fine to use real life events and people as inspiration, but it's not a justification or a defence when people don't believe it.
Early on, I had a review for When I Was Joe which doubted that anything so extreme could happen in the UK ('From the onset it is particularly difficult to accept that the initial event really justifies the extreme of witness protection and this makes the attempt to create a sense of urgency and danger rather tenuous.')  and went on to criticise the characters as obnoxious and unlikeable. For that reader, I'd failed to make the situation feel believable and I hadn't managed to connect wth their emotions either. That was my failing. Their opinion was perfectly valid. Luckily, not many other readers seem to feel the same way, but I try to take the view that I can learn as much, if not more, from negative reviews than from positive ones.
Not that I like them, of course.  Bring on that negative review Google filter.

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

The murder of Stephen Lawrence

When I worked on the newsdesk at The Independent I dealt with dozens of reports every day. It's difficult to pick out individual stories, nearly twenty years later. The murder of Stephen Lawrence is an exception.

I was working an afternoon shift, and the environment correspondent, Nick Schoon came up to talk to me. 'I've got a story for you,' he said, 'and it's a bit unusual. It's a crime story.' The story he outlined was terribly sad. A teenager, stabbed to death on a London street. Racist motivation suspected. It was the kind of story that I'd have thought of as suitable for a local rather than a national paper. It wasn't even that uncommon -  as Nick's report stated, this was the second racist murder in the area in a matter of weeks.

Nick was offering the story because Stephen's father Neville Lawrence had worked for him as a  plasterer and had rung him the night of Stephen's death, in tears, asking him to write about his son's murder. His death did not make the front page of any national paper, and  many did not run it at all. I asked Nick to write 400 words which I placed on page 4. This was his report.  I didn't expect to hear much about it again, perhaps a news-in-brief paragraph saying that someone had been charged and later convicted.  (Nick's memories of his report are here)

Well, I was wrong, and so was almost everyone else. The killing of Stephen Lawrence was described today by a senior police officer as 'one of the most significant cases of its time.'  Two of Stephen's killers were finally convicted today -  an extraordinary 18 years after his death. The Metropolitan Police's original  investigation into his death was appallingly incompetent. Neville and Doreen Lawrence never ceased in their battle for justice for their son, backed by another paper, the Daily Mail, whose editor, Paul Dacre had also, I believe, employed Stephen's father. Their efforts eventually led to a public inquiry which revealed the Met's institutionalised racism -  a racism that reached beyond the police and into wider society. The case changed the UK in many ways -  summarised here - but I believe that not enough has changed.

In his recent book, Out of the Ashes, David Lammy, MP for Tottenham, recalls telling the then Prime Minister, Gordon Brown about mothers from his constituency, feeling helpless to stop their sons getting caught up in the violence. "What are we doing for these women?" he asked the Prime Minister.
"Tax credits," replied Brown.
Things haven't changed.  In the aftermath of this summer's riots (riots which overwhelmingly targetted property, not people), the current Prime Minister David Cameron pledged £1.25 million to fight gangs in London. As Lammy pointed out, that sum wouldn't buy a house in many London neighbourhoods.
The trial which has just ended was also notable for exposing the trauma of young people who witness murder. Stephen's friend Duwayne Brooks was quizzed about differences in his account in court and his original statement s to police. Mr Brooks -  now a councillor -  giving evidence just after the death of his father, explained that he had suffered post-traumatic stress disorder after Stephen's murder.  From the BBC's court report:
Mr Brooks' original eyewitness statement was read back to him, and he was asked: "Did that actually happen?"
He replied: "I made a statement some months after when I began to remember other parts of the incident which for some reason I couldn't remember because it was too distressing, it was too scary to remember and it was very upsetting."
Stephen Lawrence and his family got some justice today, but the slaughter of young men on the streets of London goes on, and the vast majority are black. Of course, not all are killed in racist attacks, but  -  as Stephen's mother pointed out this afternoon -  some are. Others are victims of gang and random violence.

Stephen's family have set up a charity in his name which works for criminal and social justice: '
fostering positive community relationships, and enabling people to realise their potential.  Through creative methods the Trust addresses the causes of urban decay; youth disaffection and educational underachievement and supports young people by developing pathways into aspirational and sustainable employment.

I do believe that if white, middle-class teenagers were being killed on our streets at the same rate as poorer black children are, far more would be done about it. Supporting the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust is one place to start.