Thursday, 29 December 2011

Book and Writing Review of the Year

Everybody's doing it, of course: listing their books of the year, assessing the progress they've made with their writing, summing up 2011 as good, bad or indifferent. Everybody's looking back and looking forward as we approach that ambivalent transition point between this year and the next. So here's my contribution, as I look back over my Literascribe and Fictionfire year.

Those of you who are regular readers will know how disillusioned I've been for quite some time with the A Level system here in England and how I've struggled with the tick-box examining system and the undermining of those aspects of literature teaching I always valued. (Don't worry, I'm not going to get onto my high horse about it just now ...). This is not to say there isn't still a great deal of pleasure and fulfilment to be had from sharing my love of good books with my students and helping them to understand the hows and whys of great writing. However, it's been all the more fulfilling for me this year to have continued to develop my Fictionfire activities. I've met some lovely people and have read some fascinating manuscripts: I've done more mentoring and appraisal work than ever and I've started up the Focus Workshops, which have gone really well. At its best, a workshop or class is like a wonderful get-together with friends, all sharing and exclaiming over literary discoveries. Plus Fictionfire is my baby - when I'm raging against the dictats of this or that exam board, it matters hugely to me that I've set up, designed and run my own business my own way - and to know that there are writers whom I've helped and encouraged. It has become another form of creativity for me. Thank you to all my clients - I look forward to more enthusiasm, fun and industry in the coming year!

On Literascribe, I've interviewed writers who are tackling varied ways of getting their books out to potential readerships. This has been an amazing and often confusing year in the world of publishing. I interviewed  Bobbie Darbyshire (http://literascribe.blogspot.com/2011/06/hand-selling-phenomenon-interview-with.html), who has made a great success from hand-selling her books, which are published by Sandstone Press and Cinnamon Press. I interviewed Mark Edwards and Louise Voss (http://literascribe.blogspot.com/2011/05/kindle-publishing-interview-with-mark.html), who published to Kindle so successfully that they landed a deal with HarperCollins - Catch Your Death http://www.amazon.co.uk/Catch-Your-Death-Louise-Voss/dp/0007460708/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1325175801&sr=8-2is coming out on January 5th. John Harding guest-posted (http://literascribe.blogspot.com/2011/10/john-hardings-guest-post-apprentice-wh.html), having been published mainstream, about the challenges of ensuring 'discoverability' for his book, and Joanna Penn of The Creative Penn guest-posted back in February about publishing her novel, Pentecost, as an indie publisher: http://literascribe.blogspot.com/2011/02/indie-publishing-what-it-is-and-why.html. The second in her series, Prophecy, will be on Kindle any day now!

It's also been another year of buying too many books (!) and reading too few, so I want briefly to talk about my favourites of the year. I'm not picking a single Book of the Year because my reading is so eclectic it doesn't seem fair. So what have I enjoyed in 2011? In non-fiction, Jackie Kay's Red Dust Road stands out for its warmth and humour and James Attlee's Nocturne for its quirky poetic celebration of the moon. (See my blogpost here). Good reads have included historical novels (of course!) such as Arianna Franklin's The Assassin's Prayer - I'm so sad that Diana Norman (Arianna Franklin was a pseudonym) has now died and we will hear no more of her heroine, Adelia Aguilar - and C.J. Sansom's Heartstone, with its powerful depiction of the sinking of the Tudor warship the Mary Rose. I've loved re-reading Helen Dunmore's Zennor in Darkness and Ann Kelley's The Bower Bird, with their wonderful descriptions of the far west of Cornwall. In children's fiction I enjoyed Philip Webb's Six Days (my review here) and Martyn Bedford's Flip (my review here). Other damn good reads included Zoe Ferraris' fascinating and compelling City of Veils set in Saudi Arabia,  Michelle Paver's ghost story in the Arctic, Dark Matter, Rachel Hore's A Place of Secrets,  Emma Donoghue's unsettling Room, Mark Edwards' and Louise Voss's dual-narrator Killing Cupid, Linda Gillard's poignant family mystery House of Silence, and John Harding's quirky and chilling Florence and Giles (my review here: http://literascribe.blogspot.com/2011/10/florence-and-giles-by-john-harding.html). On Kindle I've caught up with books I read in childhood - all of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Martian series, for instance, and Jeffery Farnol's Black Bartlemy's Treasure, which my mother loved. I've also had the pleasure of seeing a book I helped edit, supernatural fantasy Lycopolis, published by my friend Ali Luke to Kindle.

By the way, my favourite covers of the year were those of Florence and Giles, Nocturne and Dark Matter. Follow the links above to see what you think.

Finally, it's not just a case of 'What have I read?' - it's also 'What am I going to read?' In my next post, I'll tell you about my top To Be Read titles, all jostling for precedence! In the meantime, I hope you all had a wonderful Christmas and I wish you a very Happy and Totally Fulfilling New Year!

Fictionfire in 2012: 


Focus Workshops: Cracking Openings 2 (Jan 21st); A Sense of Place (Feb 4th); The Inner Lives of Characters (Feb 18th).

Fictionfire Day Courses at Trinity College: Write It! (May 19th); Edit It! (May 20th); Publish It! (May 26th); Market It! (May 27th)

Full details of these and of the mentoring, manuscript appraisal and editing services I offer are on the website: www.fictionfire.co.uk

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Announcing new Fictionfire Focus Workshops

I know we're all completely embroiled in preparations for Christmas right now, but the new year is approaching fast. A new year marks a time for new beginnings and new commitments to what we feel is important to us. If you're thinking of maintaining or renewing your commitment to the writing life, I'm delighted to announce my upcoming trio of Fictionfire Focus Workshops. I really enjoyed the autumn ones and have, I hope, come up with topics you'll be keen to explore.

Here are details of dates and topics - please cross over to the Focus Workshop page of my Fictionfire site for further descriptions of the workshops and booking information:

January 21st:      Cracking Openings 2
February 4th:      A Sense of Place
February 18th:    The Inner Lives of Characters

I hope you can join us!

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Teenage Identity Focus: Martyn Bedford's 'Flip'

One of the pleasures of giving talks and workshops is the chance to meet other writers. I met Martyn Bedford back in October, when  I gave a talk at the Calderdale Writers' Roadshow in Halifax. Martyn  has published five adult novels and has now written a YA novel, Flip. After my talk, he very kindly allowed me to sit in on his fascinating workshop on writing for teenagers. (And by the way, some excellent pieces were written by students on that course - I was so impressed by how they were able to recapture the teenage mindset with incredible wit and sympathy).


I was curious about how writers make the transition from writing adult fiction to children's fiction and Martyn agreed to guest-post about this on Literascribe. Since then, I've read Flip and loved it: he succeeds so well in getting inside the head of his teenage hero, Alex, who, poor lad, has inadvertently got inside the body of another boy... The novel explores how Alex wakes up in another life, with another family, and with the kind of good looks and health he's always longed to possess - and how he copes with this abrupt and scary transition, how he learns what has really happened to the Alex he once was, how he sets about taking charge of his life - his real life. The story covers all the emotional angles and I felt the attitudes and dialogue rang very true. Even minor characters are depicted with realism and sensitivity. There's humour, pathos and a great deal of suspense - I wondered how on earth Martyn was going to resolve the central issue of the plot: he pulls it off magnificently.


It's wonderful to learn that Flip is now on the running for two major awards: it's just been shortlisted for the Costa Children's Book prize and longlisted for the Carnegie Medal. Respect! I wish Martyn every good luck with both of these. His work is yet another example of the very high quality of current children's fiction. Here's his guest post:

There's no such thing as an advice-free lunch (or how I came to write my first novel for teenagers)

I have a former editor to thank for my first novel for teenagers ... I wrote it because he advised me not to. Back in 2005, he took me out to lunch to celebrate the deal to publish The Island of Lost Souls, my fifth novel. We went to Pizza Express in Leeds. Towards the end of the meal he asked what I planned to write next. Up to then all my novels had been for adults, straddling the border between mainstream literary fiction and psychological thriller. But I'd an idea for a story more suited to a teenage and young-adult audience. When I mentioned this, the editor shook his head.
     'You don't want to write one of those.'
     'Why not?' I asked.
     But, beyond a mumbled platitude about my strengths lying elsewhere, he didn't really give a reason. Thanks to Rowling, Pullman, Haddon, Sachar et al, the teen/YA market was buoyant back then (and remains so today), so it seemed unlikely that he was being dismissive of the genre. Perhaps he suspected me of jumping on the bandwagon, or that I wouldn't be able to turn my hand to that type of writing. Maybe he foresaw a 'rebranding' problem for his sales and marketing people. I don't know. Whatever his rationale, I came away from that lunch feeling miffed that he'd tried to discourage me from writing the book without even asking what it was about. Like any author, I also resented being told what to write; in this case, what not to write. I decided to go ahead with my teen novel and to hell with him, even if he had just paid for my pizza.
     In the end, for reasons which are too convoluted to go into, it was 2008 before I started work on my teen book, called Flip. It tells the story of Alex, a 14-year-old who wakes up one morning to find that his soul (consciousness, spirit, psyche, or whatever you care to call it) has switched to another boy's body and he faces a life-and-death quest to return to his own skin or be trapped for ever in the wrong existence.
     As soon as I had the idea for Flip, I realized it was a book for teenagers - not just due to the age of the protagonist but because of the story's themes. Issues of identity, self-awareness and self-image are at the heart of the novel and I drew on some of my own experiences of being Alex's age. That difficult transition from childhood to adolescence, where you have to reinvent a sense of who you are and how you relate to people, and where you worry so much about your appearance and what your peers think of you.
     So, having decided to write teen/YA fiction, I read more than a hundred novels for this age range in preparation, immersing myself in the genre to get a feel for the tone of voice, style, characters, stories, settings, themes and subjects that are to be found in modern teenage fiction. I also read other novelists' tips on the Dos and Don'ts of writing for teens. Youngsters, it seems, are more inclined than adults to give up on a book, so I gave the storyline a strong forward momentum and incorporated twists and turns, end-of-chapter cliffhangers and the like. I placed my hero and the other teenage characters at the centre of the action, with adults (parents, teachers) at the margins. And I used very few expletives and avoided sex scenes altogether - not because today's teenagers don't swear or have sex, but because I copped out. Publishers of 12+ fiction are still uneasy about these issues and, as a newcomer, I wasn't ready to test the boundaries. Similarly, I chose a 3rd person narration rather than adopt the 1st person voice of a teenager, for fear of sounding like a middle-aged writer trying to be down with the kids. Of course there are plenty of very good 1st person teen novels but I wasn't brave enough to write on on my first foray. What I didn't do was dumb down the vocabulary, or the ideas which the novel explores. Young people are brighter than we give them credit for and I was determined not to patronise my readers.
     Along the way, I received helpful feedback on various drafts of Flip from a handful of teenage readers - a niece, and a neighbour's son and daughter - and from my wife, who is a high-school librarian. but the funny thing was that, as I sat tapping away at my PC, I never really felt like I was writing 'for' a teenage audience. Writers write to please themselves, first of all. So you could say the only teenager I was writing for was the teenager I once was.
     With the manuscript completed, I sent it to Jonny Geller, my agent at the Curtis Brown literary agency in London. I knew he didn't represent teen/YA fiction but I hoped he might pass the typescript to a colleague at the agency who specialized in that area. He did and, fortunately, she liked the book enough to take it on. That agent, Stephanie Thwaites, has been brilliant. Firstly, as critic - the novel is much better for the revisions I made in response to her feedback; secondly, as a wheeler-dealer. Flip went to auction on both sides of the Atlantic and was published in spring 2011 by Walker Books in the UK and by Random House in the U.S. and Canada. It has also been translated into German, Italian, Dutch, Russian, Chinese and Thai. At the time of writing, Flip is on the longlist or shorlist for a total of five prizes for YA fiction - including a longlist nomination for the prestigious Carnegie Medal - and is a Red House Children's Book Awards 'Pick of the Year' title in its age category.
     Naturally, I'm delighted and thankful that my first teenage novel has gone down so well. But perhaps the greatest debt of gratitude is owed to that editor, in Pizza Express, whose advice was the best I've never taken.

Thanks so much for this, Martyn! I find this article both informative and inspirational, especially as I'm currently engaged in revising and adapting a children's book for a slightly higher age-group. The main lesson that emerges (apart from ignoring editors!) is that you need to be aware of market-considerations but also remain true to your own aims. Because, as Martyn says, he was 'writing for the teenager [he] once was', his story rang true.  


Martyn's website is www.martynbedford.com and Flip is available on Amazon at http://www.amazon.co.uk/Flip-Martyn-Bedford/dp/1406329894/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1321443513&sr=1-1  


Friday, 11 November 2011

Was it for this the clay grew tall?

Wilfred Owen
I'm writing this a few minutes after 11.11.11 - and like many others, feeling the need to acknowledge the significance of the day and the hour. I'm currently teaching Wilfred Owen's poetry and remember as a fifteen year old schoolgirl encountering war poetry for the first time. I reacted as we all do to the absurd hubristic nonsense of human aggression and its justifications. The poem that struck me then more than any other was Owen's 'Futility'. More than the visceral horrors of 'Dulce et Decorum Est' or the plaintive Keatsian melancholy of 'Anthem for Doomed Youth', 'Futility', in its simplicity, brought home that essential message of WWI. The waste. Owen said that his subject was war and the pity of war, that the poetry was in the pity: well, it's here, in a poem that questions the purpose and meaning of individuals coming into the world, being nurtured to maturity - only to be slaughtered. He even questions the cosmic purpose of the sun in warming a planet into organic life - if all that results is pointless destruction.

Move him into the sun -
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields half-sown.
Always it woke him, even in France.
Until this morning and this snow.
If anything might rouse him now
The kind old sun will know.


Think how it wakes the seeds -
Woke once the clays of a cold star.
Are limbs, so dear-achieved, are sides,
Full-nerved, still warm, too hard to stir?
Was it for this the clay grew tall?
- O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth's sleep at all?

Owen's poetry is famous for its superbly shocking images: the soldier floundering in the 'green sea' of gas, the sentry reeling from the blast, his eyes 'huge-bulged like squids'', the God's eye view of the battlefield where lines of men are like 'caterpillars' and he sees how they 'ramped' on one another. His sensory language is muscular and gripping: the gassed soldier is 'guttering, choking, drowning', the weapons of war are spiteful and gleeful - 'How cold steel is, and keen with hunger of blood:/Blue with all malice'. The sounds of blast and gunfire echo over the decades to us with their 'rapid rattle' and 'whizz-bangs' through the 'shrieking air'. In 'Exposure' he shares with us the bone-aching cold and long suspense, waiting for the signal for battle:

Our brains ache, in the merciless iced east winds that knive us ...
Wearied we keep awake because the night is silent ...
Low, drooping flares confuse our memory of the salient ...
Worried by silence, sentries whisper, curious, nervous,
     But nothing happens. 

He haunts us, as he was haunted, in the halls of hell in 'Strange Meeting', where he encounters the dead German he has killed and listens to the lesson we hear now, and every year, and yet never act upon:

For by my glee might many men have laughed,
And of my weeping something had been left,
Which must die now. I mean the truth untold,
The pity of war, the pity war distilled.
Now men will go content with what we spoiled,
Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled.

He also, like his mentor Sassoon, lets us know how angered and bitter he feels, how nothing back in Blighty can match the camaraderie of the Front, how no immature concepts of romantic love and fleeting beauty can compare with the fellowship he has found: in 'Apologia pro Poemate Meo' he lists the paradoxes of finding exultation in the berserkr mood of battle, the 'passion of oblation' on the faces of his fellow soldiers, how he:

heard music in the silentness of duty;
Found peace where shell-storms spouted reddest spate.


Nevertheless, except you share 
With them in hell the sorrowful dark of hell,
Whose world is but the trembling of a flare,
And heaven but as the highway for a shell,


You shall not hear their mirth:
You shall not come to think them well content
By any jest of mine. These men are worth
Your tears. You are not worth their merriment.

It's ironic that when he died, one week before the Armistice, he was little known (ironic, but not unusual - so many times the long trajectory of fame only starts to climb after the artist's death) - and Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves and Rupert Brooke would have been better known back then. Nowadays, it's Wilfred who is the poster boy for the Great War - it's his words that are most familiar to us. This should not devalue them. I've taught these poems so many times but still somehow there's the shock of the new.

Siegfried Sassoon
I want to include in this post, however, one of my other favourite WWI poems - Sassoon's 'The General'. It's a wonderfully spiky little verse, dealing with one of the themes of the literature of war - that soldiers are 'lions led by donkeys':

"Good morning, good morning!" the General said
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of 'em dead,
And we're cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
"He's a cheery old card," grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.


But he did for them both by his plan of attack.


In our current conflicts, conflicts which we neither seem to understand nor see a way out of once embroiled, conflicts where all sorts of moral muddiness is stirred up in what seemed to be the clear pool of heroism,  the poets of nearly a century ago still have much to say. And it's sad that they still have to say it.

Harry Patch
Here's a link to the post I wrote in 2008 about the wonderful Harry Patch, who was one of the last survivors of the Great War. Now Claude Choules, who had emigrated to Australia, is gone too - and there's no one left to bear witness with living breath to what was done and seen and lost. But we have archive film and audio recordings and the printed word.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning, 
We will remember them.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Last day to book Focus Workshop 5th November!


This is just a brief reminder - as I'm deep in the throes of National Novel Writing Month composition - that this Saturday's Focus Workshop will be on Sourcing and Growing Ideas. Booking closes today - 2nd November - so if you're interested, check out the details on the Focus Workshops page of my website, http://www.fictionfire.co.uk. On the 19th November, the subject will be Cracking Openings, and on the 3rd December, Dynamic Dialogue.


Now, off to write my NaNo quota - if you're not familiar with how NaNo works, here's the link to one of my posts about it last year: and I'll be letting you know later in the month how I'm getting on with this year's torture travail experience!

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

John Harding's Guest Post: 'The Apprentice', W.H. Auden and Me

Last week I posted my review of John Harding's novel Florence and Giles - and with Hallowe'en fast approaching, nothing more suitable for reading at dark o' night!

Here, as promised, is John's guest-post for Literascribe, a cogent, thoughtful and spirited exploration of the strictures and challenges of author 'branding': enjoy!

The Apprentice, W.H. Auden and Me

At first glance there doesn't seem to be anything to link the poet W.H. Auden and the reality TV show The Apprentice but there is and it's me. Leaving aside Auden for the moment, let's talk about The Apprentice which, as anyone who's ever seen it will know, isn't anything to do with learning a trade or making something, but all about selling. And the key to success there, as Lord Sugar hammers home every series, is not the product itself, but its branding. Branding means creating an individual identity for a product that the consumer will instantly recognise, be attracted to, and buy. It's the thing that makes it stand out from the rest of the crowd on the supermarket shelf.

These days of course books are sold in the same way as baked beans (although Waterstone's has just - somewhat belatedly - realised that selling three very different books by different authors isn't quite the same as selling three perfectly identical packs of washing powder). And in confirmation of this, read any of the growing number of books about how to market your novel and they all talk about the brand. As the author, the brand is you.

Play the branding name association game. Say Heinz and you think of baked beans; say P.D. James and it's crime; Stephen King and horror: Joanna Trollope and Aga saga; John Harding and ...? This is my problem. Even if you've heard of me, even if you've read all of my published books, you won't be able to fill in the blanks. I don't have a brand.

The reason is that I've written four very different books that are difficult to find a common slot for. I've had two publishers and both have been frustrated by this and I sympathise. It makes me difficult to market in an age when everything is pigeonholed, where there's so much out there that you get lost if you don't have a niche.

Increasingly publishers rely on the brand to sell the book. They're reluctant to spend money on advertising, with some justification. It's rarely cost effective. The only one of my books to have any advertising recorded my lowest sales. Marketing strategy seems to be left with two prongs. In my experience in-store promotion is the most vital. It's the main way the reading public is going to be made aware of your book. Publishers will always tell the author, 'We think this is a book we think will sell by word of mouth', but for the elusive word of mouth to happen some people have to see it and read it first, so they can talk about it and spread the word. If the book isn't prominently in the shops, this doesn't happen.

My current publisher didn't manage to get Florence and Giles into the shops in any great numbers. Smiths took 300 between their 600 shops, and it was only in 100 of the 300 or so Waterstone's stores, and then not very prominently. Even if this isn't the case and the book gets into shops, it's extremely difficult to establish a title in the public's mind, as publishers now believe books have such a short shelf life, typically three weeks to three months. After that all but the bestsellers disappear from view. By the time your first readers have actually got round to reading the book and telling their friends about it, it's no longer in the stores. Word of mouth is silenced before it begins.

One publisher I was speaking to recently questioned the wisdom of this, especially in the digital age, reckoning that these days new books have a much longer shelf life - he reckoned it at 18 months rather than three - even if they're not actually on bookstore shelves. And you can see the wisdom of this point of view. Some of the bestselling books on Amazon Kindle recently have been books that came out not last month or even last year but several years ago. There's a new equalising process happening on Amazon, where age matters much less than quality.

Talk to any author who's not a major seller these days and they will tell you the same. Publishers do virtually nothing in the way of promotion - the only thing I can think of mine doing with Florence and Giles was sending out copies wrapped in black paper with a wax seal (it's literary Gothic thriller) to a few celebrities and bookshops, with predictable results - and increasingly the task of selling the book is left to the author, who may be a good writer, but is not necessarily a good salesman.

If an author is clued up about Internet book sites - by which I guess I really mean Amazon - and has a Kindle (every author should these days) and is a consumer rather than just a salesman, he or she may know more about how things work than the publisher, who is often too busy to engage at this level. So it was that I suggested to my publisher than they lower the ebook price of Florence and Giles to 99p. On Amazon it's the publisher who fixes the selling price of ebooks. The point was that at nearly the same price as the paperback it was selling virtually nothing on Kindle. As a Kindle reader myself I understood that it goes against the grain for readers to pay the same price for a virtual book as for one that has paper, printing and shipping costs factored in. At 99p a throw the publisher makes very little and the author virtually nothing on each copy sold, but that's not what matters. Cheap ebooks attract casual browsers who will often take a punt on a 99p book that sounds good. If they like it they tell their friends - and that can be a lot of friends if they use social networks - and you start to get word of mouth. A 99p ebook isn't a profit maker, but it's a terrific marketing too. As word of mouth has started to spread about Florence and Giles, I've seen not only an increase in ebook sales, but in paperback sales too, as some of the people who've heard about it from their Kindle-reading friends have gone for the print copy. Fortunately I'm able to engage in a dialogue with my publisher, who readily accepted the suggestion, and it's working well.

At the same time, they had a digital idea of their own that I wasn't impressed by, which was to launch an ebook edition of Florence and Giles, combined with the Henry James novella The Turn of the Screw which inspired it, priced at £2.99. I can see this might have seemed a great idea to anyone who doesn't spend time researching their book on Amazon, but I predicted it wouldn't succeed as a simple search reveals you can download Turn of the Screw for free on Kindle. they were charging an extra £2 for a book readers could buy for nothing. Predictably the rankings for this edition show it's sold virtually no copies. But the good thing is, other than that, my publisher is supportive of my online campaign, retweeting reviews, and responding to my suggestions about Amazon categories - it's better to put your book in a category where it can make the top 100 rather than one where it won't.

In the dozen years since I was first published, the Internet has opened up and it's much easier for writers to publicise their books via social media. In the last two or three months Florence and Giles has really started to build a buzz on Twitter after some great reader reaction and wonderfully positive reviews which have added to the good reviews it had in the national press.

For the author, engaging with social media is both a joy and a burden. A joy because I've met some terrific people on the Twittersphere, many of them other authors or aspiring writers, and have even gone on to turn a couple of those virtual friendships into actual meetings. It's also proved to be a great way to engage with readers who otherwise would never have the opportunity to have an exchange with a published author, except at the rare public appearance, and the feedback has been wonderfully supportive for someone like me, who, like many authors, finds self-doubt and insecurity a constant problem when writing a book. Every compliment on Twitter helps shore up self-belief for the book I'm currently working on.

I said online social media was both a joy and a burden. The burdensome part is that it's incredibly time-consuming. It can take up several hours a day, just responding to all my new friends, writing blogs like this one, doing podcast interviews and the like. And all of this time has to be factored in over and above my normal life, mornings spend writing a novel, afternoons reviewing and writing reviews, and of course, family life. Since I started promoting the book online a few months ago, I've hardly managed to get out to the cinema (a great passion) or to see old actual friends as opposed to tweeting to new virtual ones.

What I haven't managed to do is create that elusive brand although I have at least identified for myself what I would like that brand to be, which brings me back to Auden. Writing on the death of the Russian composer Stravinsky, Auden made the distinction between craft and Art: 'the draftsman starts work knowing exactly what the finished result will be; the artist doesn't know what he is making until it is made.' When you set out to make a table, you need to have a precise plan from the outset. Get your measurements wrong and the top won't be level and your freshly heated bowl of Heinz tomato soup will slide off the edge and hit the floor. When you release a sculpture from a block of stone, the excitement comes from not knowing quite what will emerge. It's the not knowing that's the whole point.

Auden goes on to say that an artist is always refining himself; once he has done something to his satisfaction, he forgets it and attempts next to do something new that he has never done before. This strikes at the heart of why I've never wanted to write the same book, or even the same type of book, twice, commercially sensible though that might be. Now I'm not making any claims for my books as works of art, nor am I presumptuous or pretentious enough to describe myself as an artist, far from it. But it's what I aspire to and for me that ambition is critical to writing a good book.

So there we have it, the pigeonhole I would like to create for myself, the brand I would like to establish: someone who will always do different from before, who will always attempt to do better next time, and, above all, will always try his level best to write you a good book. Is there a section for that in Waterstone's?


Thank you so much for this, John. Now some readers may have found some of the things John has to say as chillingly unsettling as his character Florence (author shelf-life, anyone?). However, I think most of us who are writing these days know that publishers have been known not to deliver quite as strongly as promised on the marketing front, that publishers often do want writers to keep churning out essentially the same or same type of story as first garnered them success, and that for any one unknown writer to make their voice heard is the biggest challenge of all.  Last week, Mike French, editor of The View from Here magazine, memorably said this is 'like standing out in a storm trying to make yourself heard to someone standing ten miles away or asking someone to hit you in the face with a large stick all day' (He's drawing attention for his novel The Ascent of Isaac Steward, by the way.)

So it's all the more heartening when the efforts of writers and publishers pay off and the readers do hear the murmur, the whisper in the grass. A few months ago I interviewed Mark Edwards and Louise Voss, who published straight to Kindle and went on to win a publishing deal with HarperCollins. John Harding has shown the acumen to advise his publishers to take a hit on the profits on Florence and Giles in order to raise public awareness of his book - and by Jove it's working!

Looking forward to your next one, John, in the sureness that it will be joyfully unpredictable. Oh, and by the way, I'm one of those readers who came across Florence and Giles on Kindle and have since bought the print copy, to have and to hold.

The link to my review of Florence and Giles is here. John's website is here. You can follow him on Twitter @JohnRHarding.



Meanwhile, my new Fictionfire Focus Workshops are coming up in November and December - go to the Focus Workshops page on my website for details of dates and topics. Booking is also open for my spring day courses: Write It!, Edit It!, Publish It!, Market It! - details here.






Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Florence and Giles by John Harding: mastery of language and narrative voice

I'm so delighted that the lovely John Harding is going to guest-post on Literascribe, but before he does, I thought I'd say something about his latest novel, Florence and Giles, which I read a few months ago and have been recommending to everybody ever since. John has written four novels, all very different from one another, which can be a problem, given publishers' preference for writers who plough one furrow and one alone. Florence and Giles is a Gothic story: The Times said of it 'imagine The Turn of the Screw reworked by Edgar Allan Poe.' Yes, it has elements of Henry James (but is, thank God, far more readable!) and elements of Poe - but its appeal is more subtle and original than that of pastiche Victorian creepy story.

John says that 'the first thing that came to me was Florence's voice' and for the reader, this is what captures and holds the attention. His central character is a little girl living in the standard-issue Gothic mansion, orphaned, forbidden to learn to read - though she circumvents this by sneaky visits to the house's library. She devours books and acquires a strange language all of her own, part-naive, part-scarily adult, which breaks grammatical rules all the time. Nouns become verbs, verbs become nouns - ordinary language is subverted and refreshed for the reader. You become alert to nuance and shades of significance because you are constantly being startled by these small linguistic ambushes.

At first I feared I'd find such verbal precocity an irritation - or even twee. But before long I was totally seduced and enchanted. Like her language, Florence inspires sympathy and wariness - her preternatural calculation of meaning and intention is unnerving, her vulnerability makes you want to protect her, her love for her younger brother, love which drives her to extreme actions, is utterly believable.

You find yourself beginning to think like Florence and to find her phraseology natural and right. John achieves the same sort of economy Shakespeare achieved when compressing whole clauses into single telling words: Shakespeare's Antony, facing defeat by Octavius Caesar, asks his servant whether he'd want to be 'window'd in great Rome', his lover Cleopatra fears that 'rhymers' will 'Ballad us out o' tune' and that she'll see 'some squeaking Cleopatra boy [her] greatness/I' the posture of a whore.' With similar economy, Florence refers to how her first governess 'tragicked' in a boating accident. She talks of a 'puzzlery of papers' and a 'twiddlery of thumbs', of how she and her brother, when happy, 'had halcyoned it for four whole months', how in the isolated house, she 'fairytaled in my tower, Rapunzelled above all my known world'.

The novel is peopled with strong characters, my favourite being Florence's gangly asthmatic friend Theo van Hoosier. The scariest is the second governess, Miss Taylor, who tries to take control of Florence's life and rob her of that which is most dear to her. The duel between the intense, resourceful young girl and the chilling determination of the older woman is absolutely riveting.

The other focus of interest in the novel is the question of Florence's reliability as a narrator. As with The Turn of the Screw, there is doubt for the reader about what is and what may be. We are shown and told a great deal but we have to make judgements and discriminations. We're desperate to know and wonder if we ever will know. Florence and Giles is rich in atmosphere and description, has twists and turns and genuinely scary moments. When you've read it, you'll be very careful about looking into mirrors ...

In my next post, John will talk about his experience of promoting Florence and Giles and the whole issue of author 'branding'. John's website is http://www.john-harding.co.uk
You can also follow him on Twitter @JohnRHarding
Florence and Giles is available on Amazon and has been a great success on Kindle.

Meanwhile, my new Fictionfire Focus Workshops are coming up in November and December - go to the Focus Workshops page on my website for details of dates and topics. Booking is also open for my spring day courses: Write It!, Edit It!, Publish It!, Market It! - details here.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Historical Novelists event at Goldsboro Books

It was a week for getting out to listen to and meet other writers: on Tuesday I was at Kellogg College, here in Oxford, where students on the M.St. course in creative writing read their poems and excerpts from their fiction.  They were incredibly young and incredibly confident in their delivery. Really impressive stuff. Dr Clare Morgan, who is in charge of the course, read from her novel A Book for All and None, which involves an academic quest for the truth about Virginia Woolf and Nietsche. The guest reader was Philip Pullman who, as ever, gave wonderful readings from  The Amber Spyglass and from his new version of selected Grimm's fairytales. He set about enchanting us all with his verve, his sense of pace and pitch - and doing the voice of Iorek Byrnison in a startlingly loud growl that contrasted dramatically with his usual urbane huskiness!

Underside of St Martin's portico
On Thursday I set off for London, not the place I'd normally choose to head for on a day of extraordinary heat ... Goldsboro Books were holding a special event in and outside their shop in Cecil Court, near Leicester Square. I arrived mid-afternoon, so amused myself by visiting St Martin's in the Fields and the National Portrait Gallery.

Interior of St Martin's in the Fields
Chrysanthemum in the NPG cafe
In the NPG, it was great to rediscover my old favourites - although one of those, the portrait of John Donne, had been taken off the wall for conservation, dammit. Went round Glamour of the Gods, the gallery's exhibition of photographs from the golden age of Hollywood. Gorgeous, dahling! Loved the pictures of Gloria Swanson - wearing an extraordinary white peacock headdress - , Louise Brooks, Garbo and Gilbert, Clark Gable with a young Joan Crawford, Elizabeth Taylor while filming Suddenly Last Summer. Harlow, Dietrich, Rita Hayworth (starting to sound like Madonna's lyrics for Vogue!), Vivien Leigh, Ava Gardner ... Too, too delicious! Both disconcerted and reassured to see an example of the huge amount of retouching that went on, back in the days before the digital airbrushing of looks, to create that Hollywood gloss, that ethereal supramortal glamour. My favourite was the show's centrepiece photo of Rock Hudson in his heyday, looking haunted, vulnerable and utterly, gorgeously male.

Early evening, then, and on to Goldsboro Books, and its gathering of authors and readers devoted to writing about and reading about earlier times. It was an extraordinary event, bringing together writers who write about everything from the ancient Romans through to the middle of the 20th century, by way of Anglo-Saxon warriors, Crusader knights, Tudor detectives ... in fact, detectives of pretty much every era. Writers devoted to intrigue, crime, adventure, religion and romance. Writers bound to justify and explain their knowledge of background to fans eager to adore and equally eager, perhaps, to catch them out!

Copious quantities of wine were drunk and 'medieval pie' was served (like a blend of mince pies and bread and butter pudding!), books were bought and signed. Everyone was happy. Luminaries like Bernard Cornwell were there. I tried, and failed, to see C.J. Sansom (regular readers of this blog will know how keen I am on his books). Stella Duffy, Laura Wilson, Barbara Erskine, Michael Jenks, Elizabeth Chadwick, Robyn Young, Harry Sidebottom, Manda Scott ... that's just a selection.

Karen Maitland
Well, I wasn't going to come away without buying a book or two, now was I? I treated myself to Rory Clement's latest Tudor mystery, Prince, and to Karen Maitland's The Gallows Curse - and I had excellent chats with both of them. I've read Karen's two previous medieval novels, Company of Liars and The Owl Killers - and think they're superb. She knows her era in exquisitely horrible detail! She pulls no punches in the depiction of the dark and superstitious lives of her characters and her stories are rich in texture and voice. She's especially good at depicting the lives of women and the spiritual oppression of the time. Rory's books - Prince is the third in a series featuring John Shakespeare, brother of the more famous Bill - are going from strength to strength. They're dynamic, pacey adventures which make full use of his knowledge of Elizabethan intrigue and treachery, featuring famous characters like Drake, Essex and Cecil.

Doug Jackson and Robert Fabbri - through a lens darkly:
forgot to use flash because I'd had too much wine!
I was also delighted to make the acquaintance of a fellow-Scot, Douglas Jackson, who writes both thrillers and historicals (The Doomsday Testament, Caligula - part of his Roman trilogy) and of Robert Fabbri, who writes about the Emperor Vespasian, starting with Tribune of Rome.

So many books to read, so little time! Visit the Goldsboro Books website to find out more: the bookshop is an excellent source of signed first editions if you're a collector. I'm sure after the success of this event and of their previous Crime in the Court evening, there will be more opportunities to meet and greet the authors you love!

Finally, I'm delighted to announce that novelist John Harding will be guest-posting on Literascribe in the next few days, talking about his varied output as a writer and his latest (absolutely brilliant) novel, Florence and Giles.

Monday, 22 August 2011

Vibrant Voice: Review of Six Days by Philip Webb


As a creative writing teacher I'm so often asked about the secrets of constructing the perfect plot: it's a core area of fiction writing and it's an aspect that new writers (and experienced ones!) find daunting. However, another crucial area when it comes to creating reader-involvement is the use of voice. If you get this right, the reader is fascinated and feels an emotional connection with the story. Voice can replace ten pages-worth of external description of a character: it takes you straight into the character's mind, attitudes and soul. It's about immediacy and intimacy, it's about contact.

It's interesting, then that my two most recent reads have worked for me by just that: a convincing, engaging, often quirky use of voice. (They're also good on plot too, by the way!)  The first is Florence and Giles, by John Harding - and I'll be saying more about this book very soon as John will be guest-posting on Literascribe. The second is Six Days by Philip Webb, which I won in a prize draw run by those lovely people at Chicken House Publishing. So thanks, Chicken House, for a great reading experience!

Six Days is a YA fantasy set in a dystopian future: the heroine, Cass Westerby (described by one of the other characters as 'Mad, brave, headstrong'), lives in a post-apocalyptic London, a London being torn down and chewed up, bit by bit, by 'scavs' - scavengers and their crushing machines, frantically searching for a lost artefact with amazing powers (and you always need an artefact in a sci-fi story ...). I found the descriptions of a London slowly vanishing, building by building, landmark by landmark, into the jaws of industrial destruction, very moving, very graphic. Next time you're near the Houses of Parliament, you'll value them more, I assure you. As buildings, anyway.

The scavs are searching for the artefact while under the control of the Vlads, their Russian masters. Cass has become inured to their bleak existence and has a can-do pragmatic approach to life: no point repining, just get on with things. Her brother Wilbur, though, is different: he's a dreamer and he is searching for his own clues as to the artefact's location. Cass feels a mixture of tenderness and exasperation towards him, all through the novel, and that impatience with a sibling, mixed with total loyalty, is one of the convincing aspects of the characterisation.

Well, whaddya know, Wilbur's on the right track: they meet some strangers and join up with them on a quest which has all the usual selling-points, not least the ticking-clock aspect. Yes, it's called Six Days for a reason. The story broadens out historically and cosmically and those days start passing more and more quickly - can Cass and Wilbur save the world?

I thought the book was very well-constructed and its tone meshed poignancy and humour effectively. There were moments of real beauty and of grotesque horror. Philip Webb comes up with some original variations on familiar riffs from science fiction and the plot was fast-paced and gripping - I also felt he left the way clear for a sequel and I really think that would work.

But I started this review with the idea of voice - and it was that more than anything that brought Cass to life for me. She speaks directly to us in an impatient teenage semi-Cockneyese (ain't, gunk, gob, pigging, gaff, bonce, flippin', zit, gut rot), full of physical texture, slang and some swearing, her wise-cracking asides and exclamations used as a reinforcement of her own courage. The slang is very contemporary and there were occasions where, given the fluidity of street-language, I wondered if the notion that it would continue so far in the future was altogether convincing. Ultimately, though, I could hear her, I could believe in her: the carapace of cynical bravery, the exasperated love for her brother - they were all there from page 1. She blusters and threatens but by page 14 she's risking her life for Wilbur. When she rescues him and he bursts into tears, she says,  'And I don't know whether to shake him to death or hug him.' I think we all, parents or siblings, have been there! (Well, not clambering about on the face of Big Ben, but grabbing your kid as they dart out onto the road - that kind of thing.)

The book has wit, pace and pathos - I recommend it. It will make you chuckle and it will make you cheer: go Cass!


http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/images/1906427623/ref=dp_image_z_0?ie=UTF8&n=266239&s=books

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Cornwall Inspiration

The Men an Tol
Cornwall. In the early days of our relationship, my husband would often rave about holidays he'd had there and tell me how much I'd like the place. Loyalty to my own Scottish cliff-and-sea-and-fishing-village heritage made me baulk at this: nothing could be more beautiful than the Moray Firth and the sunsets and the wild white horses in the bay. Nothing.

Pendeen coastline
Ten years ago, though, we had our first Cornish holiday, staying at Hayle on St Ives Bay. I was hooked, I was smitten, I was entranced - and have been ever since. And this is no disloyalty to Scotland, because on every subsequent visit to West Cornwall, I've been struck by the similarities in the landscapes and seascapes, the seafaring heritage and the mindsets of the people who in times gone by had to struggle for their living in a place of wild and often hostile beauty.


The Longships Lighthouse at sunset

Sunrise over Hayle
There are differences of course: the temperature, for a start! The old engine houses of tin mines dotting the landscape. The extraordinary proliferation of ancient monuments. The granite outcrops studding hillsides clad in gorse and bracken. But the beaches of St Ives and Carbis Bay, Porthkidney and Hayle Towans are like those of Cullen and Sandend and Lossiemouth: palest gold and silky. There is the same sense of being under a big sky and at the end of things - it's a pioneer feeling, somehow. It's more accentuated, though, when you stand at Cape Cornwall or Sennen and know that nothing will get in the way if you start sailing for America. That's an extraordinary sensation. There's the fluctuation between grey and gurly seas and Mediterranean waters in rich tints of jade and aquamarine. There's mizzle and mist that come down in an instant to soak and bewilder you. There's the disappearance of the everyday world - this is so precious - because once you cross into West Penwith or motor down the Lizard, you've put yourself out onto a limb of the world and you've entered a place which takes you out of your quotidian routine. It puts you in touch with the timeless.

I certainly don't want to come across as all New-Agey because I'm not that sort of person - but at the same time there's the temptation, to which so many incomers have succumbed, to chuck aside all normality and practicality, to up sticks and take refuge in this magical location. So far my rational self has  prevailed: I have the sense to know that I couldn't make life work for me here, not really - and I would miss Oxford terribly.

The Merry Maidens in a mist


I'm posting a very tiny selection of the many photos I took, some of which have great significance for my current writing. I also include the Merry Maidens circle looking very spooky in the mist and an offering of a potato and some corn in a hollow at the centre of that circle, deposited by those who are indeed New Agey. In St Ives I very much enjoyed meeting up with writers Marion Whybrow and Sarah Duncan. At the Penzance literary festival we attended an evening at the Admiral Benbow in Penzance to enjoy Cornish tales, readings from an old miner's diary and the marvellous singing of traditional songs by Boilerhouse, a quartet of male singers.
We had coffee in the lovely airy white cafe of the Tate Gallery in St Ives and we had pub lunches at the Tinners' Arms in Zennor (where D.H. Lawrence once drank) and at the Old Inn in Mullion. We walked the cliff paths and we breathed in the air as if to aerate polluted alveoli and cleanse them for the city winter.

We revisited old haunts and explored some new ones - and all the time inspiration and ideas rose like a silent stream within me. Cornwall does that to me, every time.

St Ives and Godrevy from the Tate Gallery


Monday, 8 August 2011

If you've emailed me, try again!

This is just an interim blogpost, now that I'm back from Cornwall - I'll be posting in full about our holiday there very soon. However, I just wanted to say that if in the past couple of weeks you tried to email me, either directly or at fictionfire (info@fictionfire.co.uk), some of my emails have been irretrievably lost while I was away, so would you please resend your message?

Thanks! And here's a lovely Cornish photo to keep you going!

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Fictionfire announcement

Last week I taught, for the tenth time, a summer school in novel writing for Oxford University's Department for Continuing Education. As usual, my students came from a variety of backgrounds and locations, from an 18 year old Australian on a gap year to a Vietnam veteran from Las Vegas. The mix this year was particularly good and I very much enjoyed their amazing company and their fascinating stories!

This ends what is always a very busy section of my year, pretty much from Easter onwards, a period filled with A level exam preparations, fictionfire courses, Winchester and OUSSA (the summer school). Now it's time to step back and take stock. My next creative writing gig will be in Halifax, giving a talk during the Calderdale Writers' Roadshow. Fictionfire courses will resume - and I'll post more details of this in late August. I was going to announce on my website that I'm not accepting editing/critiquing/mentoring commissions from now until 15th August - but, with the usual incredible sense of timing technology exhibits, the website is down and the host is experiencing 'technical difficulties' - so I'm announcing it here instead. I'll also be out of email contact, though you can still call me on 07827 455723 if you have any fictionfire enquiries. If you're off on holiday, I wish you a wonderful, relaxing time, time to take stock as well, time to recharge your batteries, time to observe and absorb the material that will go towards making new stories. Have a wonderful break - you deserve it! We all deserve it!

Monday, 11 July 2011

Winchester Conference Write-Up: Barry Cunningham, Barbara Large et al

Well, I'm a bit overdue on my annual review of the Writers' Conference at Winchester, because I'm currently engaged in teaching a summer school for Oxford Uni's Dept for Continuing Education. Here we are, though!

As ever, it was a wild and whirling weekend, fast-paced and exhausting (the vertical hill-location doesn't help). I was delighted to meet up with old friends, especially Sally Spedding, Teri Terry, who was basking in the glory of a book deal with Orchard, and Ali Luke, who's already blogged about my course on character at her site aliventures. Thanks for the kind words, Ali!

I taught that mini-course on the Friday, to an absolutely delightful group of people. We had such fun that it didn't seem like work at all! Apart from the new faces, Ali was there, and so were Paul Budd and Mary Durndell, who've been attending my courses for several years. We had a great time talking about our favourite literary characters and examining all the ways you can bring a character to life, from names to clothes, from habits to catchphrases, from coming at character from the outside to focussing on their internal lives.

On Saturday, this year's Plenary Speaker was publisher Barry Cunningham - a great coincidence given I'd met him in London only the week before at the Times/Chicken House Masterclass (see my previous post). It was also appropriate that he should be speaking because the final Harry Potter film has just come out, with the usual three-ringed circus of publicity going on - and Barry was the publisher at Bloomsbury who first signed her, having been sent Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone by her agent Christopher Little. He talked about how J.K. Rowling had been turned down by the world and his wife, and said that 'rejection is part of the process of publishing'. Oh yes. Sadly yes ... (By the way, because I was published by Bloomsbury, I once stood right next to J.K.Rowling at a publisher's party. There you go. My claim to fame. Probably the closest I'll ever come to the megabucks!)

Barry was interested in her but worried about the title including the great big daunting word 'Philosopher'. He invited her to discuss things and although she was extremely nervous, what comes across from Barry's description is her strength: she outlined the plot of the whole 7 book series, and she wanted her hero to grow up during the course of the story, not be locked as most children's series' characters are, into a timeless statis at a certain age. She also refused to change the title. Yay!

What did he do? He told her to get a day job. She wasn't having any. He signed her. The rest, dear readers, is history.

What did he see in her, apart from that single-mindedness and that vision? First of all, a really authentic voice. Then, a story that conveyed the values of friendship and courage. Finally, humour.

He also talked more generally about publishing, about the exciting times ahead: that authors can have a dynamic relationship with their readers through websites and apps, through insights into the process of composition, the alternative endings a book can have. And he feels strongly that kids look to books for their 'anonymous friend' - the friend they can confide in, the friend who shows, by the story they've written, that they still know how it is to be a child, to feel rage and frustration, loneliness, self-questioning, the desire for adventure, the desire to be tested and not found wanting. He said how important it is for children to meet authors and how they rely on 'the still small voice that comes into your head, the author's voice'.

He talked also, very entertainingly, about his early career, where he was in marketing and had to dress up as a Puffin! His first boss, Kay Webb, editor at Puffin, said to him that in a children's book, 'You can get away with one big lie but after that everything has to be true.' I loved that quote: so true that the fictional world you create, whether it's beyond the stars, back in the past or down at the bottom of your garden, must have its own internal consistency, so that your reader, the child you are befriending, can crawl into that world as they would into a den, and feel that it's a special place and that it's their place.

After the Barry Cunningham talk, I had various one-to-one appointments with aspiring writers - and two of them had produced work which I was really impressed by. It won't take much to make them publishable. In the afternoon, I gave my talk, 'Place is Paramount', where I examined the importance of setting in fiction: all the uses you can make of it, all the methods by which you can make it live for the reader. The title of the talk was a phrase Annie Proulx, one of my favourite writers, used in an interview I once saw.

Had a little lie-down after that! On the Saturday evening, it was time for food, drink, speeches and generally making merry. Jane Wenham-Jones bravely battled with a recalcitrant microphone to entertain us with her after-dinner speech and the toastmaster gave us collective heart failure with his over-enthusiastic banging of the gavel. Finally, many thanks were given to Barbara Large, who founded this conference decades ago (this was its 31st year!) and who is unfailingly idealistic in a cynical world and indefatigable when an event of this demands organisational talents of a high order. I've attended the conference both as a delegate and a teacher for so many years now and she is always warm and welcoming: congratulations, Barbara, on another year, and may there be many many more!

Monday, 27 June 2011

Times/Chicken House Masterclass in Children's Publishing

On Saturday I nipped up to London to attend a masterclass held by Chicken House Publishing at Waterstone's on Piccadilly: an event I'd heard of because I follow the head of Chicken House, Barry Cunningham, on Twitter. There were fifty places available at the masterclass, and unsurprisingly, the vast majority there present - whether delegates or representatives of the publishing world, were female.

The event began with a panel discussion: the members of the panel were Barry Cunningham, Neil Blair (a partner in the Christopher Little literary agency which represents J.K. Rowling), Amanda Craig (The Times' children's literary critic and novelist in her own right), Sarah Clarke (children's fiction buyer for Waterstone's), Sophia Bennett (past winner of The Times/Chicken House Fiction Competition with her novel Threads) and Michelle Paver, author of the children's series Chronicles of Ancient Darkness, set in the Stone Age.

Quite a line-up, you'll agree. Why did I choose to go to this event? Well, I wanted (after being out of the loop for a little while) to update my awareness of current children's publishing. I was interested in the balance of publishing professionals and writers. I wanted to meet Michelle Paver - I have all her Chronicles books and think they're wonderful - as is her recent adult novel, Dark Matter. Nobody does descriptions of nature like she does. She's steeped in arcane knowledge and knows how to tell a pacey, gripping yarn. I hadn't read Sophia Bennett - because I have two sons who aren't much interested in novels about the fashion industry: but she was sharp and witty and, having written 17 drafts of Threads, had clearly paid her dues and deserved her success.

What struck me most, as I look back on the class, was the tone of it: so often when you attend publishing-related events, the atmosphere is one of gloom and doom. God knows, the industry is in a phase of intense self-questioning about the direction it takes in these days of recession, poor literacy levels, e-publishing and the like. Chicken House, which calls itself a 'plucky publisher of children's books', is cheerily crowing from the heights. There was a genuine sense of enthusiasm and positivity, a can-do attitude, an 'isn't this exciting' message - and I found that so refreshing. All too often you get the feeling that publishers really don't like writers (especially writers who may have their own opinions about how things should be done!) - but Barry and his team actively welcome interaction and debate with writers. They're actively looking for fresh new voices and seem keen on building a good editorial relationship with those writers they take on. If you're interested in seeing Barry's five top tips, go to his video on YouTube.

Anyway, if you're setting out to be a published children's author, what salient points were being made on Saturday? Neil Blair stressed that from the agent's perspective, it's a good idea to have international appeal and also for your work to have the potential for digital enhancement (graphics, animation, apps). J.K. Rowling's announcement of the 'Pottermore' site is a case in point: it will allow fans to interact with the stories and characters and it will be a platform through which she can sell e-books. There's been a big fuss in the press about how she has turned to 'self-publishing'  but I'm sorry: I do see a huge gap between what I define as self-publishing and what she, a 'brand' author with massive backing and audience awareness, might call self-publishing! When it was pointed out that there's nothing more English, less international, than Harry Potter, Barry came up with a great phrase which suits HP and other standard British texts which sell worldwide: 'universally English'!

Barry is less interested in the internationality (though Chicken House has very strong links with Germany) and talked with huge enthusiasm about the importance of voice, of being able to take yourself back into the thoughts and feelings of the age-group you're writing for, of the 'cracking big idea' you feel passionate about. He quoted Roald Dahl as having stressed the importance of employing 'the valour in children'.

Michelle Paver, who took sixteen years to be published (and I don't know whether to be heartened or discouraged by that!) said 'If you over-analyse the market you kill the story stone-dead' and that what 'matters is to write what you want to write'. Indeed, but this really is a case of steering between Scylla (cynical writing to an imagined market) and Charybdis (writing self-indulgently and irrelevantly). The balance between being in tune with the industry and fulfilling your own personal objective of writing your story is always so hard to achieve. I myself feel that in recent years, because I've been professionally involved in teaching writing and in editing, I've gone over to the dark side rather too much! I know too much and it's inhibiting. I need to get back to my first fine careless rapture ...

It's interesting that Michelle does not use the internet - gasps of disbelief from the audience. How is that possible, girlfriend! The irony is that I wouldn't have been sitting in that room listening to her, had it not been for Twitter.

Michelle's novels are set thousands of years ago, in the Stone Age. Previously, she'd written a book set in Viking times, only to be told the foreign setting and period detail would alienate readers. Doesn't that just make your heart sink? This is what they mean when they say 'write the story you want to write': who knew the world would love a boy and his broomstick at boarding school? Who knew the world would love a boy and his friend Wolf roaming the forests and glaciers of six thousand years ago? As Michelle says, 'Is there no market - or is there a gap in the market?'

Amanda Craig, after movingly describing what books meant to her as an asthmatic child, echoed the idea that you do need to know what else is out there when you submit your book and said that she thinks there is a current gap in the market for standalone books aimed at the 6-9 age group, because this is the time when boys often stop reading. Barry and Neil were interested in series books, but Sarah Clarke preferred standalone: after all, a series is a big commitment for a bookshop when ordering.

The panel covered the usual advice about submitting manuscripts: do your research, present your work well, show awareness of others in your field, write an excellent cover letter. Reassuringly, Barry and Neil both stressed how they like to work with a writer, ensuring that the work becomes as good as it possibly can be. You need to be open to this: you'll need to redraft your work more times than you thought humanly possible.

At the end of the panel discussion, we paused for tea, coffee, chat and networking, and then delegates were divided into groups to pitch and ask questions of individual editors. I was with Elinor Bagenal, Rights Manager, who was a lovely lady, kind, responsive and informative. Two or three writers in my group pitched ideas (and one of those  stories I think touched us all: I hope to see it published sometime soon!), others were on Creative Writing MAs and were on the point of completing or were struggling with maintaining output once the formal structure of a writing course (and the validation it provides) were over. During all this various members of the panel dropped by the groups to chat: I got the chance to embarrass Michelle with my enthusiasm for Torak and Wolf! I got into debate with Barry about self-publishing, which unsurprisingly, he does not approve of, taking the line that publishers and agents often do: that without the quality filter they provide, the volume of self-pubbed material out there becomes a deafening 'white noise'. I don't disagree (there is indeed a lot of dross out there, a lot of unedited, undisciplined self-indulgence) - but at the same time (as regular readers of this blog will know), given the enormous delays in the publishing process and the pull-up-the-drawbridge attitude of many agents/publishers, I do think that writers have the right to bring the work to the public in any way that works well for them. But please, please, please, if you're considering self-publishing, get yourself properly edited!

What about me? What did I get from the day? Well, I started by rereading my own novel the day before, having not looked at it for some time. I've been through the mill with this one and have spent some time in a dark cave with my hood pulled up over my head. However, this book, this idea, this series: it's The Terrier. It sank its little white teeth into the hem of my jeans some years ago and every so often it gives a little snarl and a shake and worries at me some more. The blighter just won't let go. When I re-read it, a great deal of it still made me proud, excited; some of it called out for restructuring, re-pacing. A work, you see, is never ever done. You just choose to leave it. I left it for three years, but now I'm going back. I'm going to redraft it during August and I'm probably going to submit it for the Times/Chicken House fiction competition. We'll see. If that takes me nowhere, well, it's not the end. You don't groom the Terrier and then not give him his chance to be Best in Show.

I end with two quotes from the panel:
Barry: 'Publishing is a cross between gambling and librarianship.'
Amanda: 'You must above all have faith.'

Thanks to the panel and to Chicken House - I think all those who attended enjoyed the day enormously and we hope you'll run more events like these!

Last minute chance to book Winchester Writers' Conference

Just a quick mention before I write my main blog-post of the day: even though booking officially closed last week, I understand the Writers' Conference in Winchester can still take some last-minute phone bookings: call 01962 826367. Check out what's on offer at the conference website.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Writers' Conference Winchester - Last Day to Book!

If you were thinking of attending next week's Writers' Conference in Winchester, today is essentially the last day to make your booking, as tomorrow (22nd June) is the latest date for accepting applications.

The conference offers all sorts of opportunities - you can attend for the full week, the weekend or the day. Workshops, mini-courses and talks galore are available, along with the chance to book one-to-one appointments with writers, agents and editors.

I'll be teaching my course on Character Building next Friday (1st July) and will be giving a talk on the importance of location in your writing on Saturday 2nd July. I'm looking forward to seeing old friends and new faces!

Let's hope the weather perks up! Last year was glorious. For my previous posts on the Conference go to 2010, 2009 and 2008, to get a sense of what goes on. Also, get over to the Conference website and enjoy a good browse.