Monday, 31 December 2012

Goodbye 2012 and Hello 2013!

2012 was a most memorable and amazing year for me!

As I look into 2013 I want to make just a few "reflections" , if not resolutions...

1)  Success feels wonderful, but in writing, as in life, rejection and disappointment are also part of the game. I resolve to treat them as necessary complements to all the good things that have come my way, and shrug them off in a gracious and professional manner. Yeah, really...

2) People are more important than the work. I resolve to make more of a fuss about the amazing supporters who have made my writing life (and life, in general) such a happy and enjoyable one. Thank you, awesome friends!

3) I will never pay attention to other writer's word counts. I will never follow trends. I will never beat myself up over real or imagined inadequacies. (Actually, I only need to address the final resolution. I wouldn't know a trend if it bit me--what is steam-punk anyway--and know only too well how easy it is to write 5,000 words of utter dross) Damn, there I go beating myself up, again!

4) I will attend more SCBWI socials and events. SCBWI is the truly the gift that keeps on giving!

5) I will try to make the world a better place by speaking out when I need to and shutting up when I should. (Guess which of these will be the hardest?)

6) I will waste even more time on social media because that's where all the cool people hang out!

Here's to a happy, healthy and creative year for all of us.



Friday, 21 December 2012

Merry Christmas!

It's been quiet on the blog recently, as I've been in the writing cave  (OK, at the writing desk in the somewhat cave-like bedroom...).

I'd like to sign off 2012 by wishing all my friends and family a very Merry Christmas and a Happy 2013. It's been a brilliantly tumultuous year, and one that has changed my life in many ways. The best thing about it?

Not the events...

Not the book launches...

Not the travels...

But the wonderful people...and here are just a few of them!

Friday, 23 November 2012

The Next Big Thing

Last week, fellow American transplant (such an unlovely term for such a lovely person!) Teresa Flavin, author of the Blackhope Enigma trilogy, tagged me in the series "The Next Big Thing," which started with Lari Don's blog and involves "tagging" five fellow UK based children's writers and having them answer questions about their latest work in progress. I met Teresa at the Edinburgh International Book Festival this summer, and am delighted to take part.


I have been unable to find five writers to tag. Writers I contacted had already been tagged or weren't bloggers, or didn't feel comfortable writing about their latest WIP.

So, I have broken the chain--and we all know what that means! Fortunately, I broke every chain letter I ever received as a child and didn't suffer any adverse effects (despite all the warnings about "BREAKING THE CHAIN!!"). Hopefully, I've built up some chain-breaking hex immunity.

I'm also going to be a little tongue in cheek about my answers to most of the questions. Due to the closing of the Frances Lincoln children's fiction list, I have a novel that is on submission at the moment and the "next big thing" that I'm writing about today hasn't been seen by my agent yet!

What is the working title of your latest book?

That School Thingy

Where did the idea for the story come from?

I've always thought of schools as evil places.

What genre does your book fall under?

A MG (11+) mystery.

What actors would you choose to cast in a movie version of your book?

Can't decide between Rufus Sewell or Javier Bardem for the male lead (OK, if Teresa wants Javier, I'll graciously accept Rufus). Adult female characters? Helen McCrory, Frances Barber, Jodie Whittaker. Most of the parts would be played by children, though...

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book? 

A lonely girl discovers the horrifying truth about Javier Bardem (or Rufus Sewell) and other stuff. (How's that for an amazing pitch?)  

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

The idea for this story has taken several was actually a screenplay at one time, with the focus on the adult characters. This draft has taken about 6 months, but a lot of the basic planning had been done before. My first draft of At Yellow Lake took over 2 years!

Will your book be self-published or are you represented by an agent? 

I am very lucky to be represented by Sallyanne Sweeney at Watson, Little.

Again, thanks to Teresa and all the other writers who have taken part. Hopefully, I'll be able to include clearer details on this (and other) work in the near future.

In the meantime....Javier, if you're reading this, I'm more than happy to write in a part for Penelope, too!

Saturday, 10 November 2012

A Good News Week: Holy Trinity College, Carnegie, and YLG/SLANI Ireland Book Day

A lovely week....

On Friday I found out that At Yellow Lake has been longlisted for the 2013 CILIP Carnegie award! A great surprise, and a wonderful honour.

On Tuesday, I travelled to County Antrim for the CILIP YLG/SLANI Wendy Drewett Ireland Book Day conference.  I appeared on a panel for debut writers, with Dave Cousins and Sarah Hammond and met other writers, including Diana Hendry, Paul Howard, Liz Pinchon and Katherine Roberts.
Sarah Hammond, Dave Cousins and I on the debut novelists  panel moderated by Rachel Levy

Joy Court moderating the New Directions panel with Paul Howard, Diana  Hendry and Katherine Roberts 

The day before, I had the pleasure of doing a workshop at Holy Trinity College, in Cookstown, Co. Tyrone. Here are some photos of the workshop and of two of the classes I had the pleasure to work with.

A great group--enthusiastic and creative

I loved the Q & A session with Year 8. Very insightful questions!

The loveliest group of Year 8s I've ever met!
Thanks to staff and students for a wonderful day!

Monday, 5 November 2012

Which Side Are You On?

There's an election in the US tomorrow and, although I do my best to steer clear of party political American shenanigans, I've not been able to distance myself from it completely.

Sorry, wrong Romney! This is Mitt's dad, politician and chairman of the American Motors Car Company. who  ran for president in 1968. No wonder Mitt loves "family values"! 

America is very polarised country. Mitt Romney famously poured scorn on the 49% of Americans who don't pay taxes and were therefore worthy of his derision and contempt. The divides in the US are not just economic--political difference also means a profound diversion on issues that are ostensibly "religious" such as reproductive rights, gay marriage, the teaching of non-scientific creation stories, etc. However, for all conservatives, even those of a more libertarian bent, being poor, and particularly having to rely on any kind of government assistance is also "moral" issue. It's just wrong, dammit. It's a sin. It's taking money from the pockets of hard-working, decent, honest American taxpayers.

Mitt Romney and other hard-working taxpayers at Bain Capital 
This attitude has not softened in my lifetime. It has hardened considerably, in fact. It is also, to some extent, crossing the Atlantic. Emotive or  pejorative terms such as "taxpayer" (good) and "welfare" (bad) are now used regularly in the UK.

Well, what does that have to do with writing for young people, you may ask?

A lot, in my opinion.

I think that as writers we must be advocates for our readers. Here in the UK, cuts in education, in library services, the dropping of EMA and the rise of tuition fees, have had a profound implications for virtually all young people. The cuts that are directed specifically at the poor or vulnerable--for example, the forced displacement of inner London families due to draconian cuts in housing benefit, the axing of benefits and programmes for young people with disabilities--have even more impact.

This doesn't mean, of course, that our writing should be "political", or we should only write about the poor and dispossessed, or make rich people the bad guys. My own writing isn't particularly political and in "At Yellow Lake" the bad guys are as poor, if not poorer, than the "goodies." It also doesn't mean that well-off people don't have problems. Many issues that affect young people--depression, eating disorders, family break-up, neglectful parenting, drug or alcohol abuse--don't discriminate between rich or poor.

But I do think it's important to keep our eyes open and think about the many political decisions that affect young people. We can do this actively. Many writers have worked tirelessly against UK library cuts. Others may blog about education. I know writers who work with Amnesty and refugee organisations.

We can also reflect this in our own practice. I don't mean we have to be joylessly "worthy" but I think somewhere, in our subconscious writing minds, we have to be aware that while life for all young people is full of challenges, there are others for whom life is even more daunting. When a government or political party  disregards or disrespects the needs of some groups of  people, while privileging the desires and wants of other groups, I think writers should take sides.

And the side we should be on is the side of the disregarded or disrespected. The privileged can take care of themselves.

They usually do.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

MeNoLikeNo NaNoWriMo

Well, it's almost November again, and that means that the NaNoWriMo hashtag will be soon be appearing on Twitter feeds and Facebook posts all over the English-speaking world.

I'm a writer of sorts, so this is the type of thing that should warm the cockles of my heart, fuel my imagination and cause my "I can type 100 wpm" fingertips to tingle with delight and anticipation.

Should. But doesn't. In fact, I have real problems with NaNoWriMo, and in this post I'll tell you why.

Before I begin...I'm sure that many people will have a fantastically enjoyable month. Some writers may find it beneficial to their work and it may even release untapped creative skill, energy and inspiration. To those people, I can only say: "Well done, and I'm glad you enjoyed the experience."

So, what's your big problem, then, Jane, you may ask yourself. Are you jealous or something?

I don't know if I'm jealous of someone who can write 100,000 words in a month, though I know damn well that I couldn't. This feeling is similar to the non-jealousy I feel about some fool--oh, sorry, I mean person--who runs a marathon. I couldn't do it, so from that perspective a marathon runner has something over on me---big-time. Am I jealous of that person? It's possible, but not very likely.

Back to NaNoWriMo. This event strikes me as something akin to "National Loose a Bunch of Weight Real Fast Month" Yes, rapid weight loss might enable some people to lower dangerously high BMIs. It might encourage other to make permanent healthy lifestyle changes. But for most people, such a month would eventually backfire, the weight would pile back on, and the experience of wild success followed by rapid failure would demoralise and depress, making any real weight even harder to shift.

Of course, with NaNoWriMo, there's no chance of such a reversal. You write the words and nobody takes them away if you don't keep up the momentum (At least, I don't think they do.)

But what happens when an aspiring writer runs out of steam on, say the 10th of the month? Does he or she feel like a loser? Not like a proper "novelist"?  There may be many talented people for whom failure during NaNoWriMo is a real personal defeat. They may not realise that, in fact, writing a novel in a month, is actually quite a daft (if not dangerous) aspiration.

And what about other writers, who are struggling with deadlines, or desperately trying to get a new project off the ground after a submission to an agent or publisher has come back to them, rejected? How do they feel--the blocked, the demoralised--when a million wannabees are posting:  Just nailed my daily 5,000 words!  #nanowrimo

Sick, that's how they feel!

Obviously, I'm being just a tad flippant. Any serious writer would know that  NaNoWriMo is a bit of fun, or use the challenge to push themselves through a stagnant or dormant piece of writing. A real writer wouldn't expect success after only month, or give up if they failed to hit their word-count.

What really bothers me, though, is the way NaNoWriMo seems to present writing as something that anybody can succeed at as long as they write enough words in a short enough time. Of course, many people can write novels, but only with talent, and only after long periods of hard work, diligence and devotion to craft. Similarly, many people can write 100,000 words or so in a month, but the chances of producing something even remotely resembling a "novel" are extremely unlikely.

To me, NaNoWriMo  trivialises both writers and writing.

Maybe I just know too many good writers who are still struggling to get published, or too many authors who've worked for years and years before seeing their work in print. I know the hard slog that real writers put in day after day. To have that dedication and perseverance mocked by an event that makes writing seem like a hobby (buy an official Thermos!), a sport (wear badges and stickers!) or even a  charity (try on a yellow wristbands!) really annoys me.

Yes, anyone can call themselves a writer.That's not new. Grab yourself a notebook and a pen, put on a beret, sit in a cafe.  But to call yourself a novelist? Just because you went on-line, did a lot of typing and used a hashtag?

 That's really #takingthepiss

Friday, 5 October 2012

Write Through This

Sometimes it's hard to be a writer (sung to the tune of "Stand by Your Man" by Tammy Wynette)

OK, let's change that to all the time it's hard to be a writer (doesn't scan very well, but never mind)...

Firstly, there's the self-doubt that needs to be overcome (or at least contained) on a daily basis.

Secondly, there's the ever-present reality of rejection, misunderstandings, dashed or thwarted hopes.

Thirdly, there is the difficulty of getting a piece of work started and the hard slog of getting it finished, edited, polished, submitted...

Not easy. Not for the faint-hearted or the lazy or the insecure.

But there are times when being a writer is made even harder by circumstances well beyond the world of agents and publishers, far outside the processes of drafting, editing, submitting.

There's the day job, for one. For most writers, a paid job is essential. For some writers, work may be a hard physical slog or one that seems menial and soul-destroying.   For others, that day job can be a demanding one like teaching or social work, which are not stressful and time-consuming, but can also use up valuable of creative energy...

And then there are those pesky kids, who are generally more time-consuming (and stress-inducing) than any spell of 9-5!

And if all these things aren't enough of a hindrance to creative work, there are the other difficulties, often invisible to the outside world. There are personal problems--illnesses, relationship issues, financial hardship, worries about children, parents, friends.

Writers may seem to non-writers as people who thrive on conflict and high drama, but what most writers need in order to to flourish and to stay focussed is quiet and calm. What can we do, then, when the "real" world just isn't co-operating.

The answer is, of course, to paraphrase the title of Hole's 1994 album: "Write Through This."

I have never liked the idea of writing as "therapy" (except in certain clinical situations, obviously). I have never written about my own experiences--I was never a journal-keeper or a diary writer, even as a teen. But writing has, at times, been a sanctuary from a turbulent emotional situation or, at least, a place to hide out or lay low for awhile.

Writing can be a safe haven, where the writer can, temporarily, stay in control. It's an escape hatch to a world that can be molded into any shape. And even though it may be hard to write when the world is caving in or the bullets are flying, writing can be a bunker, a suit of armour, a shelter from the storm.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

On the "New Normal" and Not Giving Up

I'm just back from a wonderful two weeks in the USA, part of it spent at my family's
cabin on Yellow Lake. As some readers will know, the last time I was there was in the July of 2011, when the area was hit with 100 mph winds. This storm's effects were devastating to the region and to my own family: our beloved cabin was damaged and all the trees which surrounded it were downed.

I'm happy to report that there's a "new normal" at the lake, thanks to the hard work of my sister, brother-in-law and many other family members and friends. Trees have been planted and there is green grass growing once again. It may not look the same, but the things that really mattered are still there. The cabin looks as sturdy and as lovely as ever. The woods to the north of the cabin are full of saplings which will eventually grow to be mighty oaks and tall pines. Eagles still swoop through the skies, squirrels still chatter, foxes still leave paw prints on the beach...

The essence of this special place couldn't be changed, even if the landscape was altered

And the lake? Well, part of the "new normal" is the panoramic view!

I'm not sure if there are any wider lessons or morals to be learned from my experience.

In hindsight, the storm, which seemed so catastrophic while it was happening, was a minor event. No one died. Nothing was destroyed that could not be replaced, repaired or replanted.  My family was not ruined financially or made homeless.

But my experience of returning to the lake has told me that hard work, intense love and a bit of time can turn a bad experience into something that is not only positive, but worth celebrating.

And seeing how quickly and how deeply the "new normal" has taken root makes me understand something even more important:  it's better to wait and see before giving up on anyone or anything, whether it's a career, a book, a child, a relationship...

Or a  very special place.

Sunday, 26 August 2012

Three Days in Edinburgh!

I 've returned from three days in the beautiful (and sunny!) city of Edinburgh, where I presented a writing workshop for the EIBF's Schools Programme.

The event itself was delight--about 70 14-year-olds and me in a tent, talking about creating fictional settings, characters and conflict. With such intelligent and engaging students, and such high calibre TAs, including the Guardian's own Julia Eccleshare, the hour flew by.

So, what of the rest of my Edinburgh experience?

It began two days earlier when I met up with my son and daughter, and other friends. Hannah was working at as production intern for the comedy organisation responsible for the prodigiously talented The Boy With Tape on His Face, and I was lucky enough to get a ticket for his sold-out show.


...the next day I saw my son Sean (also prodigiously talented, of course) perform in his own free fringe comedy show with Adam (Prodigiously Talented) Hess. 

On Thursday, it was time for the main event (mine, anyway, if not the Edinburgh Festival's!)

The workshop went well (again, thanks to the superb EIBF staff!) and afterwards I signed copies of at Yellow Lake and chatted informally to the dedicated and enthusastic teachers who'd brought their students to my event. I can't thank the participating schools enough. I can't over-praise the behaviour, effort and talent of the students, either--they were fantastic!

After the signing, of course, there was time to relax....

And again, outside the writer's yurt, I struck gold--sparkling companions, perfect weather...

The Ab Fabs and me! 

 And, of course, the legendary (well, it soon will be if I have anything to do with it)  Authors' Toilet...

Teri Terry's grinning and bearing it...

...Dave Cousins is bearing it...just.

From an unforgettable day to a lovely evening.

The Teen Titles party, sponsored by Edinburgh City Council's Teen Titles Magazine, brought together writers, readers, teachers and librarians.

Here's lone Englishwoman, Kate Harrison, being totally outnumbered by Americans Teresa Flavin, Jane McLoughlin and Elizabeth Wein. Thanks to Linda Strachan for the lovely pic!

Again, thank you to everyone who made this such an exceptional experience for me!  


Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Twas the Night Before Edinburgh

Last night, I had a wonderful prelude to my Schools Programme event at the Edinburgh Festival on Thursday: a long, animated conversation about "At Yellow Lake" with my own niece and nephew, who are aged 14 and 12.

Seamus (far left) and Molly (irght)at the launch of  At Yellow Lake

Molly and Seamus, by their own admission, aren't avid readers. Seamus, in fact, rarely reads, and like may 12-year-old boys, gets most of his "story" action from computer games. They also admitted that if their auntie hadn't written it, it was unlikely they ever have picked up a copy of "At Yellow Lake."

But what made the night such an unexpected pleasure for me, was the way these young (and somewhat reluctant) readers became so involved in At Yellow Lake--the characters, the setting, the plot. They both "got" what I had tried to do, and to hear Molly's insightful ideas and Seamus' amazing recollection of details made me feel proud, not of my book, but of two brilliant kids who are related to me!

However, the highlight of the night wasn't just the perceptive character analyses, or even the generously poured glasses o "Dino." It was the Seamus and Molly's coining of a new, and inspired euphemism for, well...let's just call it "wigwamming."

So, well done and thank you, Molly and Seamus.  No only did you make me laugh, but you inspired me as a writer and made me more aware than ever of what young readers relate to and are excited by.

I couldn't have asked for a better Edinburgh eve!

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Holiday Sounds

The best thing about a holiday to me is not the sun, or the sea, or even the sights...

It's the sound.

Sometimes it's the lack of sound...a quiet place away from other people, away from traffic, away from music, even...

Sometimes it's the sound of strangers' voices, the babel of foreign tongues, whether in a market in Dhaka or a Croatian beach, relying on inflection, inferring meaning, imagining an abstract painting of words.

Another sound that I relish on holiday is the silencing of my own writer's voice. No planning, no drafting, no thinking about character or plot or market...

Without access to social media the sound of virtual voices goes quiet, too. No mention of reviews or word counts, no iamediting hashtags.

The world makes its own noise for a change, without any input from me.


Monday, 23 July 2012

School's Out Forever

My final teaching day was earlier this week and I said goodbye to some of the classes I've worked with for almost a year. It's always (OK, usually) sad, saying goodbye to children, and I was genuinely touched by my students' good wishes and their reasonably convincing refrains of  "We'll miss you, Miss."

Although I'm happy to be leaving teaching, I wish my students every success and hope they continue to enjoy their learning. (10YA: there's your promised plug!)

I'd intended to write a longer post, sharing some final thoughts on teaching and education....the need for more creative time and space, my hopes for a  "slow-learning movement" in English, which could create a real appreciation of literature and writing for all students, not just the most able or motivated.

I'd hoped to thank (again) the brilliant support and SEN staff at my school, who make inclusion work and remind us that education is for everyone, regardless of what trolls like Toby Young may think.

But...the sun is shining and the year is over and I've already forgotten that I ever was a teacher!

"Igor" Young and his evil master Govenstein have been reduced to shadowy figures in a year 7 story that ends with the phrase "and it was all a dream."

This nightmare will recur, of course, but in the meantime...

what Alice says!

Friday, 13 July 2012

What Teaching Has Taught Me About Kids

Last week I wrote about the hard work and dedication of the many teachers I've known and worked with over the past ten years.

As I approach my final week as a class-room teaching, I'm thinking back on what I've learned about students. I've only worked as a qualified teacher in one school--a comprehensive in a rural and suburban community--so my observations may not ring true for every teacher. In fact, I trained in a school where there were many more "challenging" students. If I'd spent ten years there, I'm sure my attitudes would have been more Trunchbullian by now.

Anyway, here are a just few of my observations:

1) Children are not the enemy.

It's often easy and tempting (not to mention satisfying) to see teenagers as a potential massed army of droogs, but it's simply not a fair picture. Most of the moral panics involving youth crime are either a repeat of an earlier panic (teddy boys=hoodies) or involve heinous acts that are extremely rare.

2) Children are not all bad.

OK, maybe kids are irritating, noisy, confused, troubled, troubling, selfish, irresponsible, rude, highly-strung, aggressive, challenging, defiant, nasty, disobedient, arrogant, lazy, or annoying....

...but they're not all bad. Really.

3) Young people need adult support and approval as much, if not more, than they ever did.

In a school situation this is hard at times, especally as kids often act out their frustrations and insecurities in ways that are challenging (that word again) and disruptive. Frankly, I'm operating in "do as I say, not as I do" mode now. I've always found it hard to see beyond bad behaviour and find somethig positive in every kid.

But something good is always there.

 4) In short, what teaching has taught me about kids is that young people are kind, co-operative, hard-working, funny, caring, intelligent, energetic, hopeful, entertaining compassionate, inquisitive, easy-going, supportive, talented, charming and above all, good.


Most of them, anyway...