Monday, 21 November 2016

SCBWI dooby doo .. where are you? In Winchester #scbwicon16

I hadn't been to Winchester before, yet there I was, preparing to dip my toe into the world of SCBWI (Society of Children's British Writers and Illustrators - a branch of the international group) as a relatively new member. The town didn't disappoint, interesting streets steeped in history sparkled under blue skies, and as the light faded festive lights glittered around the cathedral and the Christmas market.

It was lovely, but it was November and my mind was on other things - the Friday Night Critique.

After all, a writer should be read, feedback is invaluable, but it doesn't make it any easier - submitting and exposing your work to others. There's those voices, 'It's not good enough' 'It is only a first draft' 'It's a work in progress.' You have to put the excuses aside and listen. We gathered at the University to follow the Ursual Le Guin method of critique - Shut up and listen. As my group diplomatically critiques my writing, I see what I have been in denial about - Some of it's shite (they didn't put it so bluntly) but there's a good story there, I've just got to re-write it. I'm happy to take and give constructive criticism from such a supportive group, after all, we're all in the same boat.

Saturday I trudged back up the hill, cutting through the atmospheric graveyard, brave solo in the light, and settled to hear the keynote from the wonderful David Almond. I'd seen David some years before at the Cambridge Literature Festival. I love his work, the brave and poetic prose of My Name is Mina and Skellig, the dance of words in Savage. He's a writer who releases the creative without fear. He didn't disappoint either.

A writer recently said to me, 'Gone are the days when a writer could just write, like Roald Dahl disappearing into his shed.' That may be true to some extent, between the blogs, tweets, forest of social networking, personal networking, submissions, rejections, self promotion, agents, publishers and school visits we need to prioritise one thing - THE BLOODY WRITING! Thank goodness for David Almond reminding us to do just that.

With his soft Geordie lilt he enchanted the audience from start to finish and assured us that in uncertain, mad times,

'What we do is even more important than it has been before... we write for children in a state of becoming - forward thinking and moving - its an act of growth.' In the Northern town where David originated, although a rich and beautiful place, he wanted what most kids want, to be someone, to be a famous footballer or pop star, to play for Newcastle. But he made up stuff and when asked what he wanted to be when he grew up said, 'I want to be a writer.' This was an unusual persuasion for a child from Felling-on- Tyne and often met with the reaction, 'Oooh you need a good imagination to be a writer lad.' Although he doubted it, it wasn't a problem for David, who believes we're all deeply creative. From the moment we utter our first sounds we're creating, we're communicating in that babies bawl that becomes language, that becomes us.

His mother would take him as a babe in arms to his uncle's printing place down an alley in the town. There the infant David would light up as the presses rolled into motion, cooing and gaping at the most beautiful thing, that print. 'Black print on white paper is gorgeous.' He was influenced by the story tellers in his family, his aunty Jan, who had hardly read a book, could hold an audience spellbound when telling a story. My father is the same, illiterate until the age of twelve he wove stories in those Liverpool back rooms and can still spin a tale in his seventies. It's these human voices that inspire us, the parent at bedtime who tells a child 'once upon a time' the sharing of stories is a human trait. David cites his shared story place, the local library, as being a huge influence on his life, as it was for so many of us, where books to buy were a luxury. It was just across the street from where he played football, imagining he was a famous footballer as he played. 'The more I went into the library, the more I wanted to be a writer, to see a book I'd written on the shelf.' He had a fantastic day a few years ago when he went back to the library he visited as a boy, put his hand up to the shelf, and there it was, a book by David Almond and the ten year old boy inside him said 'yeahh.'

David's books begin in notebooks (who doesn't love a good notebook?)as scribbles, words and scrawls. In the process of doodling and playing he discovers things he didn't know, 'I know just about nowt.' He was generous enough to share these pages, as well as the inside of his pencil case, with it's sharpened pencils, sharpeners, highlighters and colours, 'my heart swoons for Faber Castell jumbo coloured pencils.' The process is 'turning the mess inside my head to straight lines on a page.' Then there is the computer and a process of writing up and re-drafting, printing and writing and re-writing. 'always have a title page, even if I've written only two pages, and if stuck, broaden the space between the lines.'

Skellig came from nowhere. He was walking away from the postbox having just sent a collection of short stories to his publisher (Counting Stars), when the first line ambushed him:' I found him in the garage on a Sunday afternoon.' He draws a calendar and notes how many words and days he's written each day and each week. There is still that familiar feeling of being adrift, it can come in the middle of a manuscript, the feeling that 'I just can't do it anymore, I don't know what I am doing.' It is only by force of will that he finishes at all, writing in cafes and libraries, the shed was too cold.

With his inspirational words ringing in my ears I stay for his workshop, 'Release the writer within' and find creative exercises that I can put to use with the reluctant writers and readers I teach for my bread and butter job. After lunch I attend the Practice your pitch workshop where I'm paired up with a picture book writer, and me YA. It's a good mix. We discuss the wrestling of a concept into a three line 'wow' and laugh at our choice of Hollywood style pitches. If your book were a movie it would be?..... 'Alice in Wonderland meets Houdini in Blackpool.' 'Curious George meets Hairspray' - work out the storyline from those!!!

I sneak off for the walk down the hill and a late afternoon kip in my sumptuous B&B - Two Bare Feet, before donning costume and unwieldy wig and finding a like minded soul to walk to the party with.

The party is full of cracking characters, there's a mass book launch (I didn't realise Patrice Lawrence was here, I missed her at YALC and would have brought Orangeboy for her to sign) and a great compilation rejection video. I'd had an email rejection that very day, so laugh heartily and wryly at the 'not quite right for our list' section. Sunday there is an informative and sobering keynote from Sarah Davies of the Greenhouse Literary Agency and I make the self-publishing workshop with the inspiring Susan Price, Sarah Towle, Sarah Inglis and the wonderfully named Roxie Munroe before heading back after lunch as domestic matters call.

Armed with a notebook full of names and inspiration, it will take me a good while to work through everything, I was delighted with my first SCBWI conference. It didn't disappoint; Great speakers, amazing volunteers, friendly networks and a bunch of lovely writers, illustrators, publishers and creative people. A space to compare notes and discuss like minded interests. Instead of having to 'hide' my calling in the day job or my embarrassed shuffling mumbles announcing I'm a writer to friends and family, here I was given the assurance to sing it from the rooftops - I'm a writer and proud. As David Almond put it, 'We are ordinary, but we are also extraordinary.'

Monday, 7 November 2016

It was a dark and stormy night

It was a dark and stormy night. Somewhere out of the rain stained window of the Uber, couched in the back streets, is Stretford Memorial Hospital, at the back of Old Trafford. Place of my birth, on a night not unlike this one, I came into the world by my mum, with the comfort of midwives. My dad was sleeping soundly on the sofa at her parents house. It's the ties that bind us, family and bloodlines, and the reason I'm back in the city of my origin after a break of some twenty years, dipping my toe in the past, squashed in the back of Mohammed's clean Toyota with my mother and daughter. Three generations of Lancashire lasses, although the youngest was born in another Northern city. It's my mother who brings us here, reliving her past, sharing her history with her granddaughter. I'm just along for the ride. It's a slow one at that, we reach a gridlocked Deansgate as the rain really settles in and I notice homeless camped every ten metres. That's new. It's not good. Locals on nights out, stop and chat to share cigarettes and change, there's a group of volunteers dispensing hot food later.

Our journey North had been epic, Virgin trains left Euston promptly and it was an easy ride up through an England wearing it's coat of Autumn, nostalgia bound past the Ovaltine factory, further enhanced by the warm Vimto dispensed by my godmother that afternoon, but the trains into London were awful. The next few days we wander Manchester streets, my mum remembering the city of her birth and breeding from the model post-war estate of Whythenshawe, where she grew up, and before then in the terraces of Moss Side. Her sense of place is discombobulated by demolition and change, buildings gone and new ones have popped up in their place, but she still acts as a determined guide.

Our hotel is next to Spinningfields, an area I don't recall ever being there. I used to alight at Victoria Station and walk the length of Deansgate to work at The Manchester Evening News, now dispensed as a free paper on every street corner. I don't remember the buildings of steel and glass, the bars and restaurants or the sweeping bridges across the River Irwell, but I do remember the bitter wind that came off it's waters. We wander up to the cathedral and The Mitre hotel, where my parents spent their wedding night. That's still there, as is The Shambles round the corner

Elizabethan style buildings that were moved several hundred feet some years ago, brick by brick, on rollers. Mum tells me The Shambles used to be the butchers area, the shambles would be the blood and guts they washed into the street. There's now a swish new Harvey Nichols nearby and associated chain stores, all clean and bright leading up to the mish mash of the Arndale. The Royal Exchange still thrives as a theatre and I'm pleased to see and Kendals on Deansgate, one of a clutch of Manchester department stores still in existence, although changing it's name. Up Deansgate and down King Street where the Christmas markets are setting up. King Street was the height of sophistication during my time in Manchester. Then the long, long walk down Oxford Road to the University and beyond, The Whitworth Art gallery is much further than I remember, until I realise I have been confusing it with the city centre Manchester Art Gallery.

It's newly refurbished, more steel and glass, and has a beautiful cafe that floats out into the autumn trees of Whitworth park. We wander through an eclectic mix of art, I find some sketches by Raphael and notice the walls are painted in Little Green Paint. I'm using that in our kitchen. We meet a friend and find a Spanish cocktail and tapas bar on Deansgate. It's happy hour. We're happy the cocktails are only £5, my daughter incredulous at the bar prices after living in London. In the evening we join the Manchester high life at the beautiful Tattu, sitting under the cherry tree and devouring their delicious food. My feet throb from all the walking, in time to the loud house music. I feel we should be in a club, but those days are gone.

The next days brings more memories, a wander through the Northern Quarter and to Afflecks Palace, Mecca of my student days. A wry smile that my daughter spends more time in the poster shop looking for Smiths memorabilia than I ever did. She buys vinyl, like I did, from Picadilly Records. She's the same age as me when I used to get the train from Liverpool to Manchester for shopping day trips, when the clothes were second hand, not vintage and the Northern Quarter didn't exist. My mum can go further back, she remembers Tib Street as full of pet shops, the cast iron kerbs are still there, to protect the pavements form the horses and carts.

We walk on to Manchester Art gallery, past the old Stock exchange where my father worked and would wave to my mother in the offices across the road, past Picadilly Gardens where they met. I'm delighted to see one of my favourite paintings is still there, the manic and colourful 'work'by Ford Maddox Brown

After replenishing our energy with tea and cake we walk on to the new People's History Museum. A informative and educational way to remember what made this city, and so many of our Northern cities great, the people. There's even time for a suffragette board game, Pank-a-squith. My mum proves to be a more effective suffragette than I, as does my daughter. Some things skip a generation. After our shared weekend experiences I resolve to re-activate my revolutionary fervour and plan another three generation weekend next year. I buy the board game at the shop, and leave it at the hotel. They have promised to post it on. Thank you Manchester.

Friday, 23 September 2016

SCBWI SCBWI do - How To Maximise Your Chances of Publication

As a SCBWI virgin attending my first event in London yesterday I pondered upon several questuons, perhaps you can guess my answers:

1) Decline free ice cream at the station - yes/no (no, OK, it's autumn, it was 20 degrees, but I didn't want to drop any down my front).

2) Wear unusual jewellry yes/no (yes, everyone needs a teapot necklace to play with, maybe I could hypnotise and agent into taking on my novel)

3) Eat before event yes/no (yes, who wants to listen to my stomach rumbling during a lull in conversation).

4) Drink before event yes/no (yes, before, during, after, but not all alcohol, must not send drunken tweets again)

5) Spot any other eggs from the Golden Egg clutch yes/no (I don't know, I seem to be the only one with the canvas bag declaring my eggdom, and it's hard to recognise people from a Facebook thumbnail profile pic)

6) Discuss event with non-writer friends who aren't the slightest bit interested and ask if I'm going dressed as Velma or Daphne?

Anyhow, I got to the Savoy Tup and everyone was friendly and welcoming, with plenty of positive vibes from the panel. Sarah Stuart, senior editor at Usborne, Julia Churchill of AM Heath (I make a mental note to check if I have submitted to her already - yes, best not try again), Dee Shulman, illustrator and SF Said author (we have and love Varkak Paw at home), hosted by another lovely SCWBI, Mandy Rabin.

Publication is a tricky goal. It's like an acquisition of a material item, it only brings temporary euphoria, there's the thrill of seeing an actual book in an actual book store that contains or proclaims a story you have written, publication makes it real. I'm too shy to shout about a little story that was published as part of a collection, but I will dance around the kitchen about it. But what do you do then? Then there is the tumble weed of other material in the wilderness, the pause, the very long, long pause, before anything else is published.If it ever is.

Dee Shulman says a lot of it is down to luck, to be published, you need to be in the right place at the right time, and that is true, but, as SF Said points out, the harder you work, the more your luck increases. As authors, they are no stranger to rejection, so persistence helps. I'm developing a terrier-like tenacity, like a dog with a bone. After all, what else would I do - stop writing? There is work that takes me away from writing, but there are spaces in my life that can always be filled by words.
It seems I'm doing all the right things - competitions, readings, a social media presence, targeting specific agents and publishers, testing material with an audience, workshops, courses, networking, conferences. It really does seem to be down to timing.

Julia gets over 150 submissions a week, most days she can know if it's not for her in seconds, and she prefers a pitch covering letter, not a synopsis (inner writers cheer), a hook. She has 30-40 clients, so no longer feels an urgent need to look for new ones, suggests looking at agents who are staring out in your field and need to build a client list. An agent should help develop you as a writer, find you good editors and publishers, they should be the person to give you the best possible advice.

I've had many rejections, I've had feedback, I've had teaser emails asking for more, I've had whole manuscripts requested, then rejected on the basis that they love it, but are representing something similar. I just have to keep going. I could get to the end of my time on this earth with little evidence of a writing career, except one small published story, but I will have been spending my time doing something that I love, something that I need to do, and if publication isn't going to happen, so be it, but I'm going to have a bloody good try anyway.

Friday, 2 September 2016

Alan Ahlberg - Phillipa Pearce Lecture 2016

When I qualified as a teacher, way, way back in 1992, one of the first books I bought was a copy of 'Heard it in the Playground' A selection of school based poems that proved an immediate hit with my unruly Year Threes. Peace descended in the classroom when I read from it, even more so when I found another of his poems 'Dog In the Playground' just after we had a dog in the playground. These were pre Google and internet days, days where I would search the picture book section of the local library, or later, Waterstones on Bold Street, Liverpool. Now you can source an Ahlberg Poem within seconds and a touch of a smart phone, but it lacks the charm of a print edition. Burglar Bill became a favourite at school and for my own children, (bogla Bol) I can recall the story as well as We're Going on a Bear Hunt or Where the Wild Things Are. It's a classic, and deservedly so. I took it with me to the annual Phillipa Pearce Lecture, and was delighted when Allan Ahlberg pulled out the same edition as part of his 'ramble.' I felt like throwing mine into the air and shouting 'snap!'

There's a gentleness to Allan in his manner and speech that's reflected in his work. A kindness and strength, mischief and a maverick streak too. He takes the stage and removes a crumpled blue linen jacket, sitting at a desk scattered with papers, clippings and objects, as if he is about to write. And that is what we get for the next hour, not a lecture, but a glimpse into the creative process of a beautiful mind, a preamble through thought and purpose, thought and literature with some strong and salient points along the way.

He confesses to a tendency to gabble as he gets older, he's now 78, and his shy, soft voice is sometimes lost in the hall, the mikes don't pick up and project, but when he reads aloud, its clear and intentional. It doesn't stop the two women behind me from constantly complaining in loud and stroppy whispers, how rude. They would make fitting characters in an Ahlberg book, heads bent together in a sea of white hair and glasses.

Alan apologises. His voice is like a shoal of pebbles falling, amongst the pebbles are nuggets, although we strain to hear, we pay attention. He bears on (So we beat on, boats against the current - apologies to Fitzgerald) as we must, he believes. He admires John Wayne, not for his politics or personal issues, but for his tenacity, we must carry on.
'I'm inclined to keep going, like John Wayne, keep going anyway.' He writes out of love and purpose, 'If you're not going to put your heart and soul into it, it's not worth doing,' and recalls a time when his wife and illustrative partner, Janet, was interviewed about what she did for a living, she said she loved it, but it was strange that two adults would work together and sit having conversations about talking biscuits. The biscuits turned up as a blurb on the back of a miniature toytown annual inside The Jolly Christmas Postman.

Allan meanders through his subject matter, reading from a jumble of books and letters, yellowing snippets of newspaper cuttings and there emerges a theme, push against the rules, find the joy in life.
'What remarkable creatures we are to to be vaguely comic about life, the universe and everything.' He reminds us of the importance of home made things, cakes and books, how they both taste better. The significance of the personal. The story of Burglar Bill came to life when he was deputy head in a Leicestershire school and had to cover a class of five year olds at short notice. He began to tell the story of Burglar Bill and used the register to name each child's house that Bill burgled.
'So he came to number One, the house of Alice Hicks, he saw an umbrella in the hall, "That's a nice umbrella, I'll have that" He went into the kitchen where Alice's mother was, "that's a nice mother, I'll have her." The children were delighted and vied to be next to have Burglar Bill call at their house and steal their mother.

Allan opens a suitcase of old toys to show us the importance of love, soft toys are loved objects for any child 9think of Shirley Hughes, Dogger)'My grandaughter at eighteen months fully understands the importance of a cuddle.' He brings out a panda similar to one he mangled as a child, nods to the war time childhood of "Peepo" here, it's on his desk at home where he is writing a story about a panda, 'I'm auditioning him for a part.' The ramble continues with blasts of music, a waltz through a life in words, thanks for those who help him make his work, 'It takes a whole lot of us to make a book.'It's an insight into an artists mind, a stream of conscious sharing of thought, and I'm glad I was there to listen. Bogla Bol!

Saturday, 30 July 2016

She Who Dares Writes: YALC 2016

She Who Dares Writes: YALC 2016: I am standing behind Rey in a lift. I don't know whether to tell her that Bandai is on my foot. I decide not to, it's not heavy. T...

YALC 2016

I am standing behind Rey in a lift. I don't know whether to tell her that Bandai is on my foot. I decide not to, it's not heavy. This is my first experience of YALC. Encouraged by Comi Con downstairs I have made a half hearted effort to dress up, I look like something from my mother's era; Dark blue denim roll up's, a secret cinema Dirty Dancing Kellerman's t-shirt and a head scarf. There's a lot of pastel hair and piercings. I have pastel hair envy. I dyed mine pale pink using Bleach London the day before. It washed out and didn't cover the grey.

I'm a middle aged mother writer in a sea of teen girls. There are others of my clan, you can spot them eagerly clutching notebooks, business cards and neatly typed synopsis for our yet-unpublished novels. I put mine back in my bag and decide to just enjoy the experience.

Young Adult is written for teens and not by teens so why is it so popular? Maybe it's the authenticity. For the same reason I used to rush home from my secondary comp to watch Grange Hill, it's more of the same - seeing other characters experiencing what I was experiencing. Jenny McLachlan (Star Struck)in the talk ' She Who Laughs Last Laughs Laughiest' agrees:

'No matter how bad your day, something worse has happened to one of the characters in my book.'
Nat Luurtsema (Girl Out of Water)sums up what it's like for writers,

'Failing is so important, all interesting people fail.' Heartened I decide to stay on for the agent 1-2-1 anyway and meet the lovely Gemma Cooper of The Bent Agency. We spend most of our five minutes discussing my Kellermans t-shirt, but I manage to pitch my novel Girl In The Box and get a contact. I pick up as many freebies as I can carry, bump into an ex-Birkbeck MA colleague and buy her book, (The excellent The Otherlife - Julia Gray), she signs it for me and I coo at her baby, meet up wtih Kathryn Kettle for the Golden Egg Academy and then head home.

If you're a writer of YA, give YALC a go, it's good to see what else is out there, enjoy the community of writers, workshops and talk and the teen fans, after all, they are your audience. Just don't try dying your hair.

Monday, 11 April 2016

She Who Dares Writes: Waxing Lyrical with Ruby

She Who Dares Writes: Waxing Lyrical with Ruby: The Cambridge Literature Festival has blossomed and grown, there's now a supply of live music and champagne outside the union and the o...

Waxing Lyrical with Ruby

The Cambridge Literature Festival has blossomed and grown, there's now a supply of live music and champagne outside the union and the one in, one out author timetable reflects its popularity. It's given me the opportunity to see writers, thinkers and actors close at hand - Clive James, Ali Smith, Bill Nighy and now one of my favourite comedians and all round people - Ruby Wax.

Inside, the chamber is packed. We are pitched in rows as if for battle, our attention drawn by the entrance of a small woman who takes her seat on stage. When she speaks it's scatter-gun with purpose, like the voice of an MGM cartoon character with the wisdom of Aristotle. You can't help but listen. She's dynamic, effervescent, a pocket rocket, a firecracker exclamation of black hair and red lips. I could go on with a ready supply of attempts at fronted adverbial's, but it turns out Ruby is just like the rest of us - Frazzled. Hence the name of her new book born out of research into mindfulness and the achievement of a Masters in mindfulness based cognitive therapy at Oxford Univeristy (The Cambridge Dons in the audience wince). The study was born out of the desire to understand and control the depression that was hounding her with its black dog ways. The process seems to have been successful, her work on mental health awareness gained her an OBE a few years back.

Why Frazzled? 'It's in my veins, and they say, write about something you know.... so I thought, lets build a career on that.' There is a rush of laughter around the chamber, we know she's only half joking. She was drawn to mindfulness because of the science behind it's effects. 'There's a plague of slight hysteria everywhere. Not everyone, there are people who live out of this, somewhere in Oxfordshire, milking their chickens, but the rest of us battle with overload in our reactive culture. We have to accept that stress is not a badge of honour, it breaks down your immune defence, its a disease and its reaching epidemic proportions.'

I know Ruby Wax from her comedy persona, appearing in Girls On Top alongside Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders, then there was the writing and her documentary work. She wanted to be noticed, she created this character, this loud, American stereotype; People started treating her like that,

'I was running on non-stop adrenaline, I'd be doing stand up for the milkman.' Ruby explains how we have yet to evolve beyond our stress response, 'You're always, 'on' we haven't evolved to have a handbrake for this stress, we don't have an off switch, now the fear is invisible' It's not a sabre tooth tiger lurking round the corner.

She ask us not to judge ourselves for the flow of negative thoughts, we haven't done anything wrong, 'Four out of our five thoughts are negative, we have to counterbalance that.' and then she gives the audience a few exercise to try, and we are quiet, reflective, listening to her instruction, focusing on the senses. I feel it would be good to try this with a fractious class and stressed staff in the school where I work.

It's not a cure all, it won't work for everybody, but 'Mindfulness is good practice, (it won't replace medication, if you're ill you need to take the medication, she says) thoughts can lose their solidity, minds can be scrambled, it's like watching a thunderstorm from under an umbrella. You have to get ready for when the shit hits the fan.

So armed, I buy a copy of her book and get her to sign it for my teenage daughter, but I'll read it first.

Monday, 15 February 2016

She Who Dares Writes: Nothing to Say

She Who Dares Writes: Nothing to Say: Far too much time has elapsed since I ventured into the blogosphere. Injury and illness led to extended housebound periods and a long lapse...

Nothing to Say

Far too much time has elapsed since I ventured into the blogosphere. Injury and illness led to extended housebound periods and a long lapse into reflection. I could read, and read I did, but to write evaded me. As the poet, Nan Shepherd, said:

'One reaches these dumb places in life. I suppose there's nothing for it but to go on living , Speech may come. Or it may not. And if it doesn't I suppose one just hasd to be content to be dumb. At least not shout for the mere sake of making a noise.'

Some new ventures were suspended as I gently found my way back into the world and other new ventures launched. I'm working and writing again, the fiction is on hold while I complete a project for the Story Terrace,

A biography for a client who is neither celebrity nor star, but an ordinary life with extraordinary moments. We all have a story to tell. I've been re-reading biographies, the excellent, verbose Clive James, Unreliable Memoirs, and the moving M Train by Patti Smith,
the latter being especially comforting over this period. I feel I've found a new friend. So I shall try to write the best story deserving of a man who has lived a life of 80 years and send my words into the world again.