Friday 25 April 2014

We Are Writers

I'm delighted to have been named Patron of Reading for Kincorth in Aberdeen, Scotland. Check out the link for information on how writers can become patrons and how schools can benefit taking advantage of this marvellous service, which helps professional children's writers establish a literarary relationship with a school in England, Scotland or Wales.

I'm looking forward to visiting my school, Kincorth Academy sometime in the Autumn term, but in the meanwhile, I've been asked to write a foreword to the school's literary anthology, to be published later this year. The title of the anthology is such an inspirational one--We are Writers--and the school has kindly let me publish the foreword on my blog.

We are writers.

I can’t think of a more appropriate or inspirational title for an anthology of young people’s writing, and I’m proud to have the opportunity to add a few of my words to those of the writers in this book.

Being a writer is not always easy. Writing is usually a lot of fun but, like anything that’s important and worth doing, it can sometimes be a challenge.  The words don’t always come out the way you want them to, or—even worse—they don’t come out at all.  The words you think are amazing, that story or article or poem that you’ve worked so tirelessly over, can be criticised or ignored by others. That’s the reality of being a writer and there’s no real way around it, other than to keep writing and to say to yourself, “I am a writer, and this is what writers do.”

When you say “I am a writer” it doesn't mean that you’ll always be brilliant, or never make mistakes. It certainly doesn't mean you’ll be instantly successful, or end up rich and famous! 

What it does mean is that you’ll take your writing seriously.  It means that you value what you do, and have respect for the work of your fellow writers, too. It means that you strive to be the best that you can be and to hone your craft by reading, writing and then writing (and reading) some more. It means ignoring that annoying voice in your head (every writer hears it!) that tells you that you’re not really a writer, so what right do you have to call yourself one?

When you say “I am a writer” you are giving yourself permission to write. You are also giving yourself permission to falter, and even to fail.  It is through the faltering and the frustration that you learn to understand another important aspect of being a writer. When you say, “I am a writer,” it means you never give up. You persevere because you are a writer, and that’s what writers do.   

Congratulations to all the writers in this anthology. You’ve taken the first steps on what I hope will be a happy and fulfilling creative journey.

We are writers—all of us!    

Wednesday 26 February 2014

Undiscovered Voices--So Much to Celebrate!

Tonight sees the launch of the 2014 edition  of SCBWI British Isles' Undiscovered Voices

I was part of the 2010 cohort, and I'd like to take this opportunity to wish the authors and illustrators featured in this year's edition the best of luck!

Getting into this anthology does change lives, and not always in ways that seem obvious.

Many of us have been lucky enough to get signed with agents as a result, or to get a book deal. Inclusion in the anthology (or getting a coveted Honourable Mention place) is a real step up the ladder to publication, but that's not the only thing that being included in Undiscovered Voices can do for a writer (though, that's pretty amazing!)

And many more titles have been added to this list! 

For me, being part of  Undiscovered Voices has felt like getting a fantastic gift that never stops giving.

Writing is a lonely, often frustrating, and sometimes heartbreaking undertaking. Through Undiscovered Voices I've met fellow writers who have become my friends. I've met people who've been there to help me celebrate the good stuff, and who've also helped me through the tough times. Struggling with a passage in your WIP? Dealing with a disappointing rejection?  Finding it hard to meet a deadline? Unsure of whether it's even worth it any more? Chances are that someone you've met through Undiscovered Voices has felt this way, too, and can offer support and encouragement when it's most needed.

The UV2010 Gang!

Very few of us are lucky enough to avoid at least some setbacks on the writing road, either before publication or afterwards. It's a long journey, and a sometimes turbulent one. How wonderful it is to have fellow travellers who are wise, generous and, above all, know what that whole "slings and arrows" thing is really like. To be in the company of such great people, each of them accomplished and talented in their own right, has been a real honour.

So, class of 2014--consider yourself fortunate to be part of such a special group of writers and illustrators. I wish you all success, but more than that, I wish you the goodwill and support that I've been given.

Thanks to the editors, the judges, and especially the wonderful writers and illustrators who have made such a difference to me!

Tuesday 4 February 2014

National Libraries Day--Still Not Just About Books

Saturday, 8 February, is National Libraries Day in the UK. This wonderful event was set up three years ago to highlight the threat of library closures across the country and to celebrate the amazing work that's done by Britain's trained and dedicated professional librarians.

Last year, I wrote the following post for National Libraries Day. One year on, libraries seem more precious than ever...  

For most of us, libraries are about books--about cultivating the love and joy of reading.

But libraries serve the public, and the public good, in many other ways...

My husband grew up in West London. His family was not bookish (and neither was he, for the most part--playing football was his obsession). But he was an intelligent kid who had lost out in the 11+ selection lottery of those days and was sent by the local LEA to a less-than-inspiring or enabling Secondary Modern. 

My husband's childhood hero was Stan Bowles, not Charles Dickens...

However, Jim wanted to learn--even though the system had determined that he had no right to--and and he wanted to carry on with his education.

To do that he needed to find things out--information about colleges, about what exams he might need to get to university. His parents, though highly supportive, couldn't really offer him much help in this area and the system, as I said, had already written him off.

So where could he and his family go for guidance? There was no internet in the 1970s, so where could they find the information needed to improve Jim's chances in life?

In the library, of course--his very own search engine, as he once called it.   

The local library provided him with information. and with trained professionals who could help him find it. It  also became the safe, quiet space where, once he began his post-16 education, he could work and study. 

Jim ended up becoming a university lecturer. He's taught thousands of young people throughout his career, and probably values comprehensive education more than anyone I know. He had to fight for his chances-- they certainly weren't handed to him as a matter of course--and he hates to see anyone denied the opportunities he was finally able to take advantage of.  Don't talk to him about how great grammar schools were, OK?  Just don't...

Libraries have changed since those days, of course. But there are still plenty of Jims in the UK. There are still avid readers (more than ever, in these hard times) for whom books are not part of the standard household kit. There are still plenty of students who don't have access to the internet at home, or an adequate study area, or who need a quiet, safe, and free space to linger over an essay or just be alone for awhile. 

If we care about people, young, old or in-between, we must care about these valuable public spaces. Closing libraries--or limiting access hours or the numbers of trained librarians--limits opportunity, diminishes life chances and lessens social mobility.

Libraries are great equalisers, and they are there for us all, regardless of age or ability to pay. We lose more than just books if we let them disappear.  

Your library--Use it, love it, join it!

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!