As a SCBWI virgin attending my first event in London yesterday I pondered upon several questuons, perhaps you can guess my answers:
1) Decline free ice cream at the station - yes/no (no, OK, it's autumn, it was 20 degrees, but I didn't want to drop any down my front).
2) Wear unusual jewellry yes/no (yes, everyone needs a teapot necklace to play with, maybe I could hypnotise and agent into taking on my novel)
3) Eat before event yes/no (yes, who wants to listen to my stomach rumbling during a lull in conversation).
4) Drink before event yes/no (yes, before, during, after, but not all alcohol, must not send drunken tweets again)
5) Spot any other eggs from the Golden Egg clutch yes/no (I don't know, I seem to be the only one with the canvas bag declaring my eggdom, and it's hard to recognise people from a Facebook thumbnail profile pic)
6) Discuss event with non-writer friends who aren't the slightest bit interested and ask if I'm going dressed as Velma or Daphne?
Anyhow, I got to the Savoy Tup and everyone was friendly and welcoming, with plenty of positive vibes from the panel. Sarah Stuart, senior editor at Usborne, Julia Churchill of AM Heath (I make a mental note to check if I have submitted to her already - yes, best not try again), Dee Shulman, illustrator and SF Said author (we have and love Varkak Paw at home), hosted by another lovely SCWBI, Mandy Rabin.
Publication is a tricky goal. It's like an acquisition of a material item, it only brings temporary euphoria, there's the thrill of seeing an actual book in an actual book store that contains or proclaims a story you have written, publication makes it real. I'm too shy to shout about a little story that was published as part of a collection, but I will dance around the kitchen about it. But what do you do then? Then there is the tumble weed of other material in the wilderness, the pause, the very long, long pause, before anything else is published.If it ever is.
Dee Shulman says a lot of it is down to luck, to be published, you need to be in the right place at the right time, and that is true, but, as SF Said points out, the harder you work, the more your luck increases. As authors, they are no stranger to rejection, so persistence helps. I'm developing a terrier-like tenacity, like a dog with a bone. After all, what else would I do - stop writing? There is work that takes me away from writing, but there are spaces in my life that can always be filled by words.
Julia gets over 150 submissions a week, most days she can know if it's not for her in seconds, and she prefers a pitch covering letter, not a synopsis (inner writers cheer), a hook. She has 30-40 clients, so no longer feels an urgent need to look for new ones, suggests looking at agents who are staring out in your field and need to build a client list. An agent should help develop you as a writer, find you good editors and publishers, they should be the person to give you the best possible advice.
I've had many rejections, I've had feedback, I've had teaser emails asking for more, I've had whole manuscripts requested, then rejected on the basis that they love it, but are representing something similar. I just have to keep going. I could get to the end of my time on this earth with little evidence of a writing career, except one small published story, but I will have been spending my time doing something that I love, something that I need to do, and if publication isn't going to happen, so be it, but I'm going to have a bloody good try anyway.
Friday, 23 September 2016
Friday, 2 September 2016
When I qualified as a teacher, way, way back in 1992, one of the first books I bought was a copy of 'Heard it in the Playground' A selection of school based poems that proved an immediate hit with my unruly Year Threes. Peace descended in the classroom when I read from it, even more so when I found another of his poems 'Dog In the Playground' just after we had a dog in the playground. These were pre Google and internet days, days where I would search the picture book section of the local library, or later, Waterstones on Bold Street, Liverpool. Now you can source an Ahlberg Poem within seconds and a touch of a smart phone, but it lacks the charm of a print edition. Burglar Bill became a favourite at school and for my own children, (bogla Bol) I can recall the story as well as We're Going on a Bear Hunt or Where the Wild Things Are. It's a classic, and deservedly so. I took it with me to the annual Phillipa Pearce Lecture, and was delighted when Allan Ahlberg pulled out the same edition as part of his 'ramble.' I felt like throwing mine into the air and shouting 'snap!'
There's a gentleness to Allan in his manner and speech that's reflected in his work. A kindness and strength, mischief and a maverick streak too. He takes the stage and removes a crumpled blue linen jacket, sitting at a desk scattered with papers, clippings and objects, as if he is about to write. And that is what we get for the next hour, not a lecture, but a glimpse into the creative process of a beautiful mind, a preamble through thought and purpose, thought and literature with some strong and salient points along the way.
He confesses to a tendency to gabble as he gets older, he's now 78, and his shy, soft voice is sometimes lost in the hall, the mikes don't pick up and project, but when he reads aloud, its clear and intentional. It doesn't stop the two women behind me from constantly complaining in loud and stroppy whispers, how rude. They would make fitting characters in an Ahlberg book, heads bent together in a sea of white hair and glasses.
Alan apologises. His voice is like a shoal of pebbles falling, amongst the pebbles are nuggets, although we strain to hear, we pay attention. He bears on (So we beat on, boats against the current - apologies to Fitzgerald) as we must, he believes. He admires John Wayne, not for his politics or personal issues, but for his tenacity, we must carry on.
'I'm inclined to keep going, like John Wayne, keep going anyway.' He writes out of love and purpose, 'If you're not going to put your heart and soul into it, it's not worth doing,' and recalls a time when his wife and illustrative partner, Janet, was interviewed about what she did for a living, she said she loved it, but it was strange that two adults would work together and sit having conversations about talking biscuits. The biscuits turned up as a blurb on the back of a miniature toytown annual inside The Jolly Christmas Postman.
Allan meanders through his subject matter, reading from a jumble of books and letters, yellowing snippets of newspaper cuttings and there emerges a theme, push against the rules, find the joy in life.
'What remarkable creatures we are to to be vaguely comic about life, the universe and everything.' He reminds us of the importance of home made things, cakes and books, how they both taste better. The significance of the personal. The story of Burglar Bill came to life when he was deputy head in a Leicestershire school and had to cover a class of five year olds at short notice. He began to tell the story of Burglar Bill and used the register to name each child's house that Bill burgled.
'So he came to number One, the house of Alice Hicks, he saw an umbrella in the hall, "That's a nice umbrella, I'll have that" He went into the kitchen where Alice's mother was, "that's a nice mother, I'll have her." The children were delighted and vied to be next to have Burglar Bill call at their house and steal their mother.
Allan opens a suitcase of old toys to show us the importance of love, soft toys are loved objects for any child 9think of Shirley Hughes, Dogger)'My grandaughter at eighteen months fully understands the importance of a cuddle.' He brings out a panda similar to one he mangled as a child, nods to the war time childhood of "Peepo" here, it's on his desk at home where he is writing a story about a panda, 'I'm auditioning him for a part.' The ramble continues with blasts of music, a waltz through a life in words, thanks for those who help him make his work, 'It takes a whole lot of us to make a book.'It's an insight into an artists mind, a stream of conscious sharing of thought, and I'm glad I was there to listen. Bogla Bol!
Saturday, 30 July 2016
I am standing behind Rey in a lift. I don't know whether to tell her that Bandai is on my foot. I decide not to, it's not heavy. This is my first experience of YALC. Encouraged by Comi Con downstairs I have made a half hearted effort to dress up, I look like something from my mother's era; Dark blue denim roll up's, a secret cinema Dirty Dancing Kellerman's t-shirt and a head scarf. There's a lot of pastel hair and piercings. I have pastel hair envy. I dyed mine pale pink using Bleach London the day before. It washed out and didn't cover the grey.
I'm a middle aged mother writer in a sea of teen girls. There are others of my clan, you can spot them eagerly clutching notebooks, business cards and neatly typed synopsis for our yet-unpublished novels. I put mine back in my bag and decide to just enjoy the experience.
Young Adult is written for teens and not by teens so why is it so popular? Maybe it's the authenticity. For the same reason I used to rush home from my secondary comp to watch Grange Hill, it's more of the same - seeing other characters experiencing what I was experiencing. Jenny McLachlan (Star Struck)in the talk ' She Who Laughs Last Laughs Laughiest' agrees:
'No matter how bad your day, something worse has happened to one of the characters in my book.'
'Failing is so important, all interesting people fail.' Heartened I decide to stay on for the agent 1-2-1 anyway and meet the lovely Gemma Cooper of The Bent Agency. We spend most of our five minutes discussing my Kellermans t-shirt, but I manage to pitch my novel Girl In The Box and get a contact. I pick up as many freebies as I can carry, bump into an ex-Birkbeck MA colleague and buy her book, (The excellent The Otherlife - Julia Gray), she signs it for me and I coo at her baby, meet up wtih Kathryn Kettle for the Golden Egg Academy and then head home.
If you're a writer of YA, give YALC a go, it's good to see what else is out there, enjoy the community of writers, workshops and talk and the teen fans, after all, they are your audience. Just don't try dying your hair.
Monday, 11 April 2016
The Cambridge Literature Festival has blossomed and grown, there's now a supply of live music and champagne outside the union and the one in, one out author timetable reflects its popularity. It's given me the opportunity to see writers, thinkers and actors close at hand - Clive James, Ali Smith, Bill Nighy and now one of my favourite comedians and all round people - Ruby Wax.
Inside, the chamber is packed. We are pitched in rows as if for battle, our attention drawn by the entrance of a small woman who takes her seat on stage. When she speaks it's scatter-gun with purpose, like the voice of an MGM cartoon character with the wisdom of Aristotle. You can't help but listen. She's dynamic, effervescent, a pocket rocket, a firecracker exclamation of black hair and red lips. I could go on with a ready supply of attempts at fronted adverbial's, but it turns out Ruby is just like the rest of us - Frazzled. Hence the name of her new book born out of research into mindfulness and the achievement of a Masters in mindfulness based cognitive therapy at Oxford Univeristy (The Cambridge Dons in the audience wince). The study was born out of the desire to understand and control the depression that was hounding her with its black dog ways. The process seems to have been successful, her work on mental health awareness gained her an OBE a few years back.
Why Frazzled? 'It's in my veins, and they say, write about something you know.... so I thought, lets build a career on that.' There is a rush of laughter around the chamber, we know she's only half joking. She was drawn to mindfulness because of the science behind it's effects. 'There's a plague of slight hysteria everywhere. Not everyone, there are people who live out of this, somewhere in Oxfordshire, milking their chickens, but the rest of us battle with overload in our reactive culture. We have to accept that stress is not a badge of honour, it breaks down your immune defence, its a disease and its reaching epidemic proportions.'
I know Ruby Wax from her comedy persona, appearing in Girls On Top alongside Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders, then there was the writing and her documentary work. She wanted to be noticed, she created this character, this loud, American stereotype; People started treating her like that,
'I was running on non-stop adrenaline, I'd be doing stand up for the milkman.' Ruby explains how we have yet to evolve beyond our stress response, 'You're always, 'on' we haven't evolved to have a handbrake for this stress, we don't have an off switch, now the fear is invisible' It's not a sabre tooth tiger lurking round the corner.
She ask us not to judge ourselves for the flow of negative thoughts, we haven't done anything wrong, 'Four out of our five thoughts are negative, we have to counterbalance that.' and then she gives the audience a few exercise to try, and we are quiet, reflective, listening to her instruction, focusing on the senses. I feel it would be good to try this with a fractious class and stressed staff in the school where I work.
It's not a cure all, it won't work for everybody, but 'Mindfulness is good practice, (it won't replace medication, if you're ill you need to take the medication, she says) thoughts can lose their solidity, minds can be scrambled, it's like watching a thunderstorm from under an umbrella. You have to get ready for when the shit hits the fan.
So armed, I buy a copy of her book and get her to sign it for my teenage daughter, but I'll read it first.