Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Happy Brave New Year

It's been a quiet time on the blog, what preparations for the holidays, trying to forge ahead with a new work-in-progress, and batting away the agents of creative despair and self-doubt that have been winging their way to me with alarming regularity...

Now, after a lovely and cheering Christmas, it's time to slap down those pesky negative tricksters and look ahead into an exciting 2014!

I'm not exactly sure what I have to look forward to in 2014, but I'm doing my best to make that uncertainty part of the thrill! I'm determined to take a few more healthy risks in life and work and see where that leads. My new motto is going to be--what's the worst that can happen?

Of course, on the inside I'll be busy compiling a long list of the things that can happen, culminating in the worst (which will involve being plunged into an abyss or attacked by wolves or being thrust into a real-life "Gravity" scenario without Sandra Bullock's superhuman survival skills--and not in 3D either, so every horrible thing happening will be crystal clear, not seen through a disorienting green haze).

But on the outside, I'll be all "Yes, of course!" and "Why not ?" and no one will know that my "inner marshmallow" is quivering like an overturned blancmange (whatever a blancmange is...).

This is what a blancmange is...

So, here's to a brave new year for all of us. I hope that a little courageous front and false bravado is all we'll need to see us through.

But for the times when we may need real courage and strength, I hope we find that, too.

Happy new year, my friends! Have a wonderful and exciting 2014!

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

A Writer Gives Thanks...Finally

Last week Thanksgiving Day was celebrated in the USA.

I felt a bit sheepish about all the wonderful "Happy Thanksgiving" wishes I received from my lovely American friends here in the UK, and even more so about the kind greetings from family and friends in the USA.

You see, although I'm an American, I'm a total fraud. I didn't make a pumpkin pie, or a turkey dinner or cranberry sauce.

To be honest, I haven't even been feeling all that thankful lately.

The worst of it is that I thought Thanksgiving Day had been the week before, and if it hadn't been for facebook and Twitter, the day would have passed me by as just another dark and dismal November Thursday in southern England..

It's the same thing on the 4th of July. When people mention it to me I wonder, "Why are they getting so worked up about the 4th of July--how can they know it's my sister's birthday?" Then I remember what they really mean by the 4th of July, and I hang my head in shame.

But this is what sometimes happens when you live "abroad" (or "overseas" as we Yanks say). Unless you make a huge effort, your national identity eventually unravels, and only by  making a huge effort do you become completely immersed in the culture of the country you've moved to. 

I'm pretty lazy. This means that I've let most American customs disappear from my life (except for eating too much, and talking non-stop) but haven't picked up enough Limey tendencies (OK, I've clung to the "calling- Brits-Limeys" habit) to pass as a native. 

Even after 30 years there are phrases I don't understand (When is 'teatime' anyway? Is a 'rum do' good or bad?) There are cultural traits I don't get either. Why do people use Sellotape when they can buy Scotch Tape? Misplaced national pride? ("Yes, this product is inferior--so useless that it will take all week to wrap my Christmas presents--but it's part of the old Dunkirk Spirit")

And of course, there are the larger issues.The royal family stuff. The school uniform obsession. The constant apologies. And, from the opposite point of view, I can no longer fathom (not that I ever could) America's love affair with guns or its abhorrence of universal health care or why men who have hair would ever wear a baseball cap.

But as a writer for young people it's the smaller things that can be more of a challenge.

It's important to get "world building" right, in whatever genre you're working. Because I don't write fantasy novels, but books that are set in the here and now, this can be a problem.  

I feel that America is the place I still, after all these years, after so many changes, feel. But it's not the America of "now" but of "then", and then was a long time ago! And, because I grew up in a very rural community, my early years were spent in a place that wasn't typically American, even at that time.

On the other side of the equasion, I've spent 12 years teaching in UK schools. My now-adult children, who were born and raised here, are British. I've lived here so long, but still...I don't think I really understand the mind of a British child or teen (or adult, for that matter.) 

So, what to do? 

Well, I sometimes set stories in odd or remote places, that don't reflect mainstream culture, whether American or British. If the story is set in a school, it's going to be out-of-the-way, freakish in some way. I write settings that are cut off from the rest of the world, even though they are (I hope) recognisable as real places that could actually exist and the stories set there are contemporary and (usually) realistic.

I write--like many children's writers--about characters who don't feel quite at home in their surroundings. Or whose homes or communities are unstable or insecure.

Maybe, then, being a stranger in a sometimes perplexing land is a good thing for a writer. Being taken aback, surprised, wrong-footed--these can be inspiring things. They are also part of the experience of being young--aren't children and teens constantly changing? Don't they struggle to make sense of the shifting world in which they've been planted? Aren't they perpetual strangers--to their families, their friends, themselves.

Aren't they sometimes vilified and feared?

OK, so nobody's scared of me, dammit.  Bad analogy.

In the end, it's probably not where you are from, what your background is like or even what cultural baggage you carry with you.

It's probably about how honest you can be. How truthfully you let your experiences--past and present, real and imagined, good and bad--filter into the new worlds (and characters) you are trying to create.

So, for those experiences--the many people, the many places, near and far--I am truly thankful...

...a week late

Monday, 25 November 2013

Why I Love the SCBWI Conference

I've just returned from the SCBWI British Isles annual conference in Winchester and I'm buzzing with enthusiasm and happiness after spending time in the company of so many wonderful writers and illustrators.

Before the bubbles burst (actually, I think the SCBWI "high" will last a long time!) I'd like to share my top ten conference experiences. OR--so that it fits into the Words and Pictures blog remit--my top ten reasons Why I Love the SCBWI Conference.

1) Most heartwarming moment: Being part of the crowd that honoured the gracious Natasha Biebow for her 15 years of service as regional adviser, "growing" SCBWI British Isles from 35 members to 700, and overseeing the launch of so many helpful and innovative projects.

2)Proudest moment: Watching Dave Cousins receive the SCBWI Crystal Kite Award for Europe. Dave was part of  our Undiscovered Voices 2010 cohort, and I am always thrilled by the success of any "gang members." Just remember, world...we 2010ers knew Dave first!

3)Most helpful moments: The many chats with fellow writers, when we shared our ups and downs, gained a sense of perspective and re-invigorated our self-confidence and our commitment tp writing.

4) Funniest moment. Being "crowned" a cyberman at the launch party by my fantastic (and imaginative)  co-compere Mo O'Hara. Yes, I can laugh about it now...

5) Most embarrassing moment: During Elizabeth Wein and Sheena Wilkinson's Sunday workshop on "world building," I destroyed an entire Playmobile "universe" with my butt. Not on purpose. And in front of many witnesses. All of whom found it hilarious...

They did not realise how little time they had left...

6) Happiest moment:  Realising that there was still wine left after Mo and I had finished our compering duties!

7) Most exhausting moment: Going upstairs after the "after party".

8) Most comfortable moment...kicking off those high heels.

9) All around best moment: Celebrating everyone's successes! 

Congrats, 2013 authors and fellow Cyberman! 


10) Looking forward to it all again in 2014! 

Monday, 11 November 2013

In Praise of Author Visits

Last month I had the privilege of helping Candy Gourlay launch her touching, brilliant new book Shine at Archway Library in London.

Before the evening events, Candy assembled a group of published authors to discuss short pieces of fiction written by students from nearby schools. It was a great chance for young writers to meet working authors, and the discussion we had was (for me, at least) entertaining and enlightening. It was also inspiring--the standard of students' work was high (very high...there's lots of new competition out there, folks!) and it was clear that the proud teachers and librarians who supported the event valued the opportunity to stretch their students as writers.

I'm preparing for several school visits in the this half-term. I'm not sure if all writers for children enjoy visiting schools. It's part of the "writer-as-performer" trend that some may not feel comfortable or confident with. But, like most writers, I love them, and here are some reasons why.

1) I am a frustrated former performer, and school visits give me the chance to get in touch with my inner (OK, maybe outer as well) ham.I like being on stage, and school visits are (sadly) my only remaining platform.

Check out those jazz hands! 

2) I'm also a former teacher, so school visits also let me practice the art of the "teacher look." You know, that across-the-room glare that's unnoticeable to others, but strikes terror (hopefully) into the heart of the student it's aimed at. I haven't had the opportunity to use this very often, sadly, but I'm happy to report that once you've got the look, you never lose it. (Without the smouldering cigarette, of course...)

3) School visits give me that ex-teacher thrill of walking across the car park at the end of a day without lugging a massive bag of marking.

On a more serious note...

4) School visits are inspiring. Meeting dedicated teachers, charming and hard-working students, energetic librarians and support staff, gives me hope for the future of education, regardless of what rubbish the current gang of bullies and know-nothings at the top are trying to promote.

5) School visits help me become clearer about writing. I don't always know "how" I work, but talking about writing--whether it's the students' or my own--gives me insights into the creative process. Exploring techniques and strategies with young writers strengthens my own work by helping me develop ideas or discovering ways of working that I hadn't considered before.

6) School visits let me, and other authors, bring out the best in students, regardless of their confidence or inclination to write. As authors, we don't have to judge student's "output" on some exam board's assessment criteria. Unlike so much work that students have to do in school, the activities we can help them with are largely about self-expression and creativity for its own sake.

7) School visits allow different types of "creatives"--students, writers, teachers, librarians--to work together and learn from each other's expertise. How fantastic is that?

8) Oh, I already mentioned doing the "no marking" dance, didn't I...well here it is again!

Monday, 9 September 2013

Back to School Special

As I didn't get a chance to blog about my July visits and events before the summer holidays, I'd like to put up a few photos and thank some lovely people.

Firstly, my final visit of the year was at Croydon High School for Girls.

This was a great opportunity to work with some exceptionally talented girls. I was well-looked after by the school's librarian and teachers, and, again, was very impressed by the students' high abilities. A great way to end the year! Thanks, everyone!

And finally,

I was delighted to have been asked to compere the Sussex Schools Amazing Book Awards at Shoreham academy in Shoreham,West Sussex. 

The shortlist was so strong: Teri Terry for Slated, Anne Cassidy for Dead Time, Ed Hogan for Daylight Saving, J.M. Browne for Wolfe Blood and Sam Hawksmoor for The Repossession. 

The event was well attended by students, teachers and parents, and it was hard to believe it was only the second year the event was run. It was a fabulous night, with Teri Terry taking the first prize, as voted for by the students of dozens of Sussex Schools. 

The event, (as well as a few proseccos to celebrate Teri's win!) made for an exceptional evening to round off the school year.

Congrats to the shortlisted writers and to Teri--and thanks again to the brilliant librarians who organised the event! 

Friday, 30 August 2013

How to be a Writer

For some time, I've been thinking about doing a "writing tips" post. Sadly, I don't actually have any writing tips, other than "avoid adverbs," advice I've clearly failed to follow in this opening paragraph (count 'em!)

Oh, and some guy I met in a bar once told me never to use the word."that".

So that's the end of that...aargh!

However, although I don't feel confident sharing tips about the writing process itself, I do feel I know a little bit about being a writer.

So here are my "how to be a writer" tips:

1) Write. Thinking about being a writer won't make you one. Dreaming of being a writer won't make you one. Talking about being a writer (even when very drunk) won't make you one. Blogging or tweeting won't work either. Only writing will make you a writer.

2) Be patient. Be patient with yourself--you won't be a writer in a few months, or even a few years. And unless you are very, very very lucky, you'll need to be patient with the publishing process. It may take a long time to find an agent or a publisher for your work. In fact, every aspect of being a writer requires patience--from waiting for feedback, to getting a response to a query or submission. Even the time between signing a book deal and seeing your book in print takes ages. So whatever you're waiting for (and there's always something!) use your time well.

3) Persevere. I once read that patience is the active form of patience, and I like that definition. It means never stopping, never giving up, moving forward even though you have no idea if you will ever reach your destination..

4) Be nice to yourself. I was going to say "be confident" but that's not always possible. Most artistic types lack faith in their abilities. But you can be nice to yourself by taking your work seriously, and by fighting the urge to self-critique when that's really the job of others. I say this as someone who once almost talked an editor out of publishing one of my short stories (yes, it's true), and whose acting teacher once said, "Jane, instead of telling us how crap your scene is going to be, why don't you just do the scene and let us tell you how crap it was."

5) Be nice to others, especially other writers. To be a writer, you really do need the support of colleagues who are in the same game, regardless of where you or they are on the "writing journey." I've never met any writers who've been unkind or unsupportive to me, and I don't expect to meet any. But, just in case any of you are thinking about becoming a condescending jerk or an arrogant git, I must advise against it.

6) Grow a thick skin. One of the benefits of being a writer is that, unlike actors or other performers, you get to fail in the privacy of your own home. The sting of rejection is felt at home, too, and nobody has to hear your pathetic sobs other than family members or close friends.

 However, this doesn't change the fact that rejection hurts, and that other distressing setbacks and disappointments can (and will)  occur in the life of a writer. So, leather up your hide and/or buy some strong armour. You will need it.

7) Rejoice in the many positives, whether that's breaking out the bubbly after getting a book deal, or eating some delicious cake after reaching a word count. Taking pleasure at the success of other writers also helps, even if through gritted teeth!

8) Learn to smile and/or chuckle amiably when people say, "So, are you going to be the next JK Rowling?"  

And finally...

9) Never, ever ask another writer about their current work in progress. It will always be the same as what you're working on, only much, much better.

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Summertime and the Reading is Easy

I'm not "on holiday" as I don't technically have a job...

I'm feeling none of that "school's out" euphoria and freedom that summer brings to teachers (and students). There's no "got to cram a year's worth of chores/partying/travel into two weeks" for lucky, lucky me. 

But still, getting to "the end" of my WIP in mid-July means that I've been feeling freer than usual, and the past few weeks of summer have felt like proper holiday time. 

As old habits die hard, I've done what I've always done during summer vacations--I've gone on a reading binge.

I'm still on one, in fact.

What have I been reading this summer? Let's start with the birthday presents--

May We Be Forgiven by A.M. Homes 

Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel 

Then are there are the "beach reads":

The Angel's Game and Prisoner of Heaven  by Carlos Ruiz Safron (both re-reads, but as I was in and around Barcelona...) 

The Paris Wife by Pauline McLain

The Victoria Vanishes (Bryant and May investigate) by Christopher Fowler.

When will Bryant and May be a TV series?   

There have been some shorter books, squeezed into a day's reading

Mist in the Mirror by Susan Hill

Joyland by Stephen King

I hope I like the book as much as I do the cover! 

And on my TBR pile are This Book Will Save your Life (A.N. Homes again) and Where'd You Go, Bernadette?" by Maria Semple.

So, what do my choices say about me? 

1) I need a strong narrative.

2) I like genre fiction (historical, horror, ghost, mystery) but only when written by the very best. I struggle with thrillers, for example, because the writing is usually more Dan Brown than John LeCarre.  

3) I relish stories that have very specific locations (London for the Bryant and May series and the Mantel, Barcelona for the Ruiz Safron, though I wasn't at all convinced by the Europe of The Paris Wife.)

And finally...

4) There are no children's or YA books on my summer reading list...

Gulp. Sorry...

I've got a big YA TBR pile, so I can only conclude that as writing for young people is my "work", reading YA in the summer holidays feels a bit like work, too. 

As much as I love reading YA or middle grade, I don't seem to be able to lose myself as easily or completely as I do with an "adult" book. I tend to read more consciously, analysing structure and pace and language and dialogue--there is so much to learn from other writers! 

Of course, I'm learning from Hilary Mantel and Christopher Fowler, too, but it's a more immersive (if that's a word) and less conscious educational experience. But who knows, one day I may want to write a charming, exciting and literate mystery of my own, or even challenge the greatest historical (or any) novelist of her (or any) time...

But for now, I'll let them do the writing while I take it easy and have all the fun.

Happy reading everyone! 

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Publication--One Year Later

My debut novel At Yellow Lake was published in the UK just over a year ago.

And what a year it has been--magnificent launch party, school and festival events, a nomination for the Carnegie Medal as well Waterstones Prize and Branford Boase longlistings--heady stuff! In many ways, my life has changed immeasurably. I'm proud of At Yellow Lake's reception into the world, and will never forget this wonderful "debut" year!

Let's have yet another look at that amazing US launch cake...

The memory of this (and other) launch cakes has seen me through my darkest moments...

Of course, there have been a few disappointments, too.

As most people who follow children's publishing in the UK know, my publisher, Frances Lincoln, was taken over by another company and their children's fiction list pulled. I've blogged about this before, as have others who were affected--many of them more adversely than me--by this decision. This meant that the book I'd hoped would be my follow-up to At Yellow Lake wasn't going to be published by Frances Lincoln.

Nor by anyone else, as it turned out...

Bryony Pearce in the SCBWI Words and Pictures magazine wrote about her own post-debut disappointments. Happily, she has just published her second novel with a new publisher, and I'm sure it will be a great success--and worth waiting for!

But, as she points out in that honest and insighful post, it's pretty disheartening when things don't quite go to plan. When the natural follow-on to publication--further publication--doesn't happen straight away, or even at all, it's demoralising to say the least. If you suffer from nagging self-doubt, and want to boost your levels up to "crippling", this is a good way to do it.

But still....this is the way it is. Even if you're published, disappointments can (OK, will, eventually) occur.

Maybe you're published by a major publisher but aren't "lead title". Your book may not get the attention you know it deserves. Your sales may suffer. You may feel like a bridesmaid, instead of a bride--and at your own wedding! Or, maybe your sales have slipped and you've had the last two books of a series contract pulled. Or, maybe you finished the books in your contract, and no others are asked for.

Maybe, maybe...

I had a wonderful lunch with some of my fellow 2010 Undiscovered Voices in London last month.  Between jokes and stories and opinions (not to mention mouthfuls of delicious foods and the occasion glug of wine) we talked about these things. The near-miss at acquisitions, the lost agent, the fear of being published only once (or never at all), the gnawing insecurities we all feel and all face as writers.

In the end, there are no guarantees. Some of us may never get published or signed with an agent. Some of us may be one hit wonders (although "hit" would probably closer to the mark in my case!)

Again, this is part of the game, par for the course. In a creative industry where the sellers vastly outnumber the buyers, this will always be the case, and even moreso in today's turbulent climate.  

So, what advice can I give based on my debut year experience?

1) Relish the good stuff! Celebrate and enjoy any success that comes your way, and never take it for granted.

2) Be thankful for the support of family and friends as well as writing and publishing colleagues. Meeting new people and making new friends has been one of the best things to come out of my writing and publishing experience.

3) Be appreciative of those who champion your book, whether they are events organisers, school librarians, book shop owners, or your (many, I hope) readers. We owe these people so much!

4) In the end, it's the work, the writing itself, that is the best, most lasting and most important thing, so never give in to the disappointments and fear.


Monday, 20 May 2013

The Writer's Waiting Game

Look at Facebook. Tweet.

Check e-mails....again.

Pay attention to neglected children/partner/job/friends.

Then sigh, pace, flip through the diary pages--how many days has it been now?

And do it all again.

I think it was Alan Bennett who said, "Writing is mostly making cups of tea."

But there are two types of tea drinking for writers. There's the "creative", mulling things over, taking a break from the desk or paper or screen, the stretching and yawning reward cup of tea.

Then there's the "waiting" cup of  tea. Altogether different. This stewed and bitter brew is just a time-killing cup of tea, and it doesn't taste nearly as delicious.

The waiting that I'm talking about is, of course, is that killer time that happens after a work in progress is nominally "finished."  It's waiting to get feedback from your critique group or hear from an agent, publisher or a competition judge. Ultimately, it's waiting for judgement--rejection or acceptance, yes or no.

When you're waiting to get a response from a query, or even to hear back from the wonderful agent you feel so lucky to have, time does strange things. Think back to being a child, and having to wait for your birthday, or the start of the summer holidays, or Christmas.

In Minnesota, where I grew up, my community followed the Nordic custom of opening presents on Christmas Eve. This made for some lovely memories--a roaring fire, Christmas tree lights twinkling in the darkness and, outside the window, starry skies and clean white snow.

But it also made for a long, excruciating, almost unbearable wait till the evening. My parents had plenty of suggestions for passing the time--go play in the snow, take a nap, help out in the kitchen (as if!). Nothing worked. Timed just dragged.

So now, years later, I try the same thing, looking for similar ideas that will distract me during the weeks of waiting to hear back from my agent or get news from a publisher. Playing in the snow? Well, maybe I'll go on a series of long walks, or even a short holiday. Taking a nap? OK, I'll try reading. Help out in the kitchen? God knows those cupboards could use a good clean...

What else helps?

Starting a new piece of writing, obviously, but I'm still rather attached to the piece I've just finished, so instead of starting something new, I go back to my manuscript and do what I call "scab-picking." You know--tweaks and tiny changes that are pointless at best, damaging at worst.

Blogging does--I've made this post "last" by writing two words a day, clever me!

But generally, there's nothing to be done but carry on with life, and with writing.

And tweet, of course.

And check that inbox one more time....

while drinking a cup of tea.