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!


Tracy said...

Great post, Lorna, and thank you very much for sharing.
And good luck with your own writing.

Tina Waller said...

Thanks so much Lorna for your amazing feedback. I was the one furiously touch-typing at the back to make sure I got all the gems down, and I hope when I come to write it up I give as comprehensive account as you have managed here!

We would like to thank the panel for taking part, and to all you delegates that have a passion for writing and for children. It's down to you that the UK children's publishing industry is something to be excited and not gloomy about!

(One of the Chickens)

Katherine Roberts said...

Lovely post, and good to hear Barry and his team are still excited about publishing books! After working with him for many years, I know how dedicated Chicken House are to producing a quality product for young readers.

Self-publishing is an interesting field. I held back for many years, but as a published author with a backlist out of print I have taken the leap into self-publishing my older titles as e-books, and am finding that this has re-energised my writing in unexpected ways.

Wendy Hue said...

What a grand write up of Saturday's Masterclass, which has just brought me right back to the Simpson room. Good luck with your quite clearly wonderful writing. Wendy

Lorna F said...

Tracy, Tina, Katherine and Wendy - thank you so much for your kind comments. I'm glad you enjoyed the post.Good luck, Katherine, with bringing your work back to the public eye. Tina, I look forward to the next masterclass!

Amanda Craig said...

Delighted you found it useful and inspiring, and thanks for your kind comments.
It was also lovely to meet you, and good luck with The Terrier.

Lorna F said...

Amanda, it was great to meet you at last. Thanks for the good wishes with The Terrier!

jongleuse said...

Great post! I enjoyed the afternoon tremendously and like you I was struck by the energy, enthusiasm and sheer love of children's literature from the panel and the members of the Chicken House team.

Lorna F said...

Thanks Jongleuse! Maybe see you at the next one ...

Joseph Wesley said...


Have you thought about switching from Blogger to Wordpress? I think it's something that would be good for your blog.

Feel free to e-mail me if you have any questions about transferring your content.

P. J. Benney said...

Really interesting thoughts here; thank you for sharing. I've only just started reading your blog but, as a creative writing student & first time blogger, am enjoying it already.

I'm looking forward to reading more from you.

Lorna F said...

Joseph - yes I have considered Wordpress but the current blog is well established and well, I'll keep considering it ...

Peter, thanks for stopping by and commenting. I'm glad you enjoyed what I had to say - keep reading !