Monday, 21 May 2018

Twin books, non-identical processes. June 9th birth! by Anne Booth

I am the fortunate mother of non-identical twins, and on June 9th I will also have non-identical twin books!

'The Sleepy Hummingbirds'  is for 7-9 year olds and will be published by OUP on the 9th June.

This is the first of a series about The Magical Kingdom of Birds, initially of six books, and I  am loving writing them.

The series is for 7-9 year olds and is about a girl, Maya, who travels to the Magical Kingdom of Birds and rides on a magic magpie, helping a fairy Princess foil the plans of her wicked uncle, Lord Astor . It occurred to me that Maya could be a disabled heroine without the storyline being affected, and it has been fun and satisfying for me that Maya's disability has nothing to do with the plot and that disabled and able-bodied readers alike will be able to identify with her. Maya and Princess Willow defeat Lord Astor as he targets one bird species after another in his attempts  to gain control of The Kingdom of Birds, and all that can easily be done on the back of a magpie or with the help of other birds. Birds spend most of their time in the air - why can't Maya?  It has been very satisfying to put a disabled heroine in a mainstream commercial fiction series, and great to work with my friend, a sportswoman and special needs teacher and also someone who herself has a disability, to check that I am getting it right. I really wanted to describe Fairy Princess Willow as having black, curly hair and brown eyes, as a little neighbour of mine, whose dad is Nigerian and mother Scottish, said that princesses don't look like her.  The lovely illustrator Rosie Butcher has drawn her  beautifully, so I am very happy that we are involved in subverting the golden haired blue eyed Princess idea. I think that the recent Royal wedding may have more effectively changed assumptions (!), but I have to say that 'The Sleepy Hummingbirds' had Princess Willow even before Prince Harry  and Meghan announced their engagement! This series is so much fun to write - I love writing about fairies and talking birds and magical colouring books, I can let myself have fun making Lord Astor shake his fist when Maya and the fairies foil his wicked plots, and I am learning so much about real-life birds!

The second book which will be 'born' on the 9th June is 'Across The Divide', for 9-12 year olds. It is about a girl who wants to join army cadets, which causes tensions between her, her  Pacifist mother and her grandfather in the military, and problems within her friendship groups at school.  She is sent to stay on the island of Lindisfarne with a father she doesn't really know, and there is a time-slip plot and a link with World War One. I have loved writing and researching this one too, and I enjoyed visiting Lindisfarne and staying on the beautiful island and learning about the birds there too. It is contemporary and political and links with history  in the way 'Girl with a White Dog' does, and  I also hope children enjoy it the way I loved books like 'A Traveller in Time' by Alison Uttley or 'Tom's Midnight Garden' by Philippa Pearce or 'Charlotte Sometimes' by Penelope Farmer.

Both books have been copyedited too, and now they are ready.

I am really proud of them both, and now, in the nervous time before the due date, I must proudly await the delivery of my different but equally loved, bookish,  non-identical twins...

The cover of the proof of 'Across The Divide' - final cover coming soon...

Sunday, 20 May 2018

Podcasts by Writers - Joan Lennon

Back in January, Dan Metcalf gave us his Top 6 Podcasts for Us Writery Types, with links to recorded interviews with writers, artists and scriptwriters.  If you liked those, how about some from the Royal Literary Fund website?  Vox is a collection of short (3-4 minutes) podcasts by writers of all sorts (children's, YA, poets, playwrights, adult novels) on topics such as How I Write, Life-Changing Literature, Writers Who Inspire Me, Why I Write, and others.  Bite-size bits of enlightenment, inspiration and entertainment.  AND you'll come across some familiar names from An Awfully Big Blog Adventure on the site.  Happy listening! 

(If you're up for a longer podcastly commitment, why not try Writers Aloud?  There are other delights as well in the essay section Collected, and the short films found in In Focus.

Visit Joan Lennon's RLF page 
to listen to short podcasts on 
Writers Who Inspire Me
Letter to My Younger Self
and Why I Write

Saturday, 19 May 2018

Desk Worrier vs Desk Warrior - Lucy Coats

How many times have you sat at your desk, staring at a blank or partially-filled screen and worrying about words? Words that won't come, words that seem wrong, words that don't sound right, too many, too few...  Writing is not always a jolly picnic, and I'd like to bet that every writer has sat staring into the black hole of despair over words at some point. I certainly have and do, and as I suffer from depression anyway, I have to be careful not to let myself get sucked in, or to let the anxiety over any of those wordy panics grow, especially when deadlines are looming.

Sometimes I go and do something else till I've calmed down. I have some strategies that mostly work, but not always. Sometimes writing something totally different works -- a poem, maybe. Or using a random slew of word prompts from a writing friend who posts them on Facebook to write something that doesn't really matter (one recent collection was bellybutton, conquest, dark, shock, date, cool, kisser, sprawled, melt, split, wrist). Sometimes I give in and procrastinate on social media, which is not good for mental health either. Or I take a creative nap, which means lying horizontal and sleeping for a bit.

What I've never done is to take the advice of many (including my doctor and some well-meaning friends) and go for a walk, convincing myself that I couldn't do any form of physical exercise (and that I hated it). For many reasons I won't go into at length, I gave up on exercise a long time ago. Copious amounts of steroids, a myriad operations, mental and physical illness all gave me perfectly valid excuses (I thought) to just let my body do what it wanted, which was mostly to sit down and eat chocolate whenever the mood took me, with predictable results. After all, I was in my mid-50s, I told myself, it was too late and who cared if I was a size 20? Then, in March last year, I hurt my knee and it wasn't getting better, even with physiotherapy. That was when the knee surgeon came in and shocked me out of my lethargy with a diagnosis of pretty bad arthritis, and a few well-chosen words.

"It's a question of mechanics," he said politely but firmly. "The more weight on your joints, the more wear and tear. You'll be in a wheelchair by the time you're 65 if you don't do something about it now." 
 A year later, I have indeed 'done something about it', and a month ago, much to my own surprise, I took up the Couch-to-5k challenge, inspired by two other writers (you know who you are!). And that's where the Desk Warrior bit comes in. Again, much to my surprise, when I'm running, my mind kicks into creative gear. Those word worries seem to disappear, and ideas flow. It's a sort of miracle as far as I am concerned, and I get back to my desk in definite warrior mindstate. Maybe it's those exercise endorphins I never truly believed in before, maybe it's just that running (and the in-between walking bits) free my mind and put it into creative reset again. And I guess that if I, of all unlikely people, can run three times a week (sometimes in the freezing rain) in the face of all the blocks and barriers against exercise I set for myself, then a mere writing block or word worry seems much less scary. My running is still very much a work in progress, but I'd like to apologise for all the snarling I did in my head (and sometimes aloud) to all those people who told me that exercise would help more than just my depression. It really, truly does. And it turns out you can teach an old dog new tricks after all.

OUT NOW: Cleo 2: Chosen and Cleo (UKYA historical fantasy about the teenage Cleopatra VII) '[a] sparkling thriller packed with historical intrigue, humour, loyalty and poison.' Amanda Craig, New Statesman
Also out:  Beasts of Olympus series "rippingly funny" Publishers Weekly US starred review
Lucy's Website Twitter - Facebook - Instagram
Lucy is represented by Sophie Hicks at The Sophie Hicks Agency

Friday, 18 May 2018

The Value of a Good Teacher - by Lu Hersey

Last week was National Teacher Appreciation Week (I only find out these things thanks to twitter) – and any writer who visits schools regularly knows what a difference the class teacher makes. Your workshop will go a lot better and you’ll feel a lot less stressed if you get help and back up from a good teacher.

 I only remember three good teachers from when I was at school. I also remember some REALLY bad ones, including two very vindictive nuns, but this is about good teachers, not the ones that should never have been allowed near children.

The first teacher to make a massive impact on my life was called Miss Morley. I was seven. Miss Morley was not only amazing, she was beautiful, and everyone was in love with her (except my mother, who swore that if she had to hear the words ‘Miss Morley says’ one more time, she was personally going to throttle the bloody woman).

Miss Morley taught us about everything from the mating rituals of animals, to the complexities of long division. And the greatest joy I can remember – she read aloud to the class, EVERY SINGLE DAY. A whole chapter of Five on a Treasure Island. It changed my life. To my mother’s horror (she was easily horrified) I read every book Enid Blyton ever wrote, by myself, after that term – and it was all thanks to Miss Morley. (Or that bloody Miss Morley’s fault, depending on your point of view)

My other two inspirational teachers were at secondary school and helped give me a lifelong interest in history and literature. Looking back, what made these teachers stand out was their obvious enthusiasm for sharing knowledge and wanting you to enjoy the subjects with them. There were lots of other teachers at my secondary school, mediocre, tired, not interested in anything much (especially children) – and some who really shouldn’t have been allowed to teach. But the ones who were brilliant really made a real difference, and are the ones I remember most.

Over the last year I’ve been teaching creative writing in various schools around Bristol, most recently for the wonderful Bristol based educational charity, Ablaze. And I’ve come to realise that teachers are incredible. How do they do this every day, week in, week out? Even the ones that don’t engage with my workshops are doing an amazing job just being there – and I realise they’ve got a lot else on their plates.

 Then sometimes you meet a truly exceptional teacher, and it’s a real joy. I’m currently holding a series of creative writing workshops for Year 5s in a school in a deprived area on the outskirts of Bristol. It’s the kind of school that gets terrible Ofsted reports, and the sort of high crime area people want to move out of as soon as they can.

But the class teacher is one of those rare, inspirational teachers, who holds the attention of the whole class and gets them to work hard because they like him and want his approval – and he cares about them. He helps to encourage the children taking part and praises all their work. Between workshops, he gets them to work on their stories and go over the ground I’ve covered – and even to prepare for the next class. (In some schools, teachers regard having you there as a great opportunity for them to do something else – which makes it so much harder.)

He could probably get a job in any school and inspire the kids, but it’s fantastic that he’s working in a school like this. I asked the kids what they want to do when they leave school, and they all want to be teachers, pilots, astronauts, writers or accountants. In the last school (in a similar area) I asked the same question and the kids wanted to work at a checkout in Tesco or behind the counter in Domino’s Pizza. (Fair enough, but the kids in both schools were equally bright and came from very similar backgrounds).

 And that’s the difference a good teacher makes. They help kids believe in themselves and their abilities. I don’t think kids forget a teacher like that. Hopefully they help make a better future.

Lu Hersey

twitter: @LuWrites

Thursday, 17 May 2018

What are the ingredients of a universally appealing early fiction series? By Chitra Soundar

Before I start, I wish to make a full disclaimer that I wrote this, in 2015, as part of my MA in Writing for Young People at Bath Spa University. So it doesn't cite newer series. And that's why it has some clever quotes from academic references. This is not normal for me.

Early series fiction is the staple diet of a newly independent reader. Graduating from being read to with picture books to early readers, children aged 6-8 years old devour stories about everything – from animals to adventures, school life to sports.

At this age, these newly independent readers are not only reading for pleasure, but they are also understanding the new world of primary school, figuring out social life and coping with every-day challenges.

Transitioning from nursery and reception to the big school in Year 1 & 2, these children are discovering and making sense of the world around them. Series fiction in this new world is like a BFF – best friend forever with characters to get to know, make friends with and to return to again and again. And it is more joyful when they can share these characters with their real-life best friends too – as Lauren Child shows us in her Utterly Me – Clarice Bean.

As Denson puts it, ‘a “system of repetition and variation” is the basic stuff of seriality itself.’ (2011:5)

Characters in such series get into all sorts of interesting escapades not unlike the reader’s own life or at least what they hope they’d be able to do. Series fiction gives the reader the safety of the familiar to explore the unfamiliar.

This could be anything from having a pet (in the Lulu series by Hilary McKay) to finding out you have a new cousin who is very different (in the Ruby Lu series by Lenore Look).

As Makowski (1998:2) notes in ‘Serious about Series: Evaluations and Annotations of Teen Fiction in Paperback Series’, ‘single texts of fiction are like “one-night stand[s]”, while series aims to provide the reader with “that same grand experience night after night, week after week, year after year, ad infinitum.”’

I wanted to examine the ingredients that make an early fiction series appealing.

As a child, I too devoured every series I could lay my hands on – which in my childhood in India was predominantly R K Narayan’s Malgudi Days, combined with Enid Blyton’s Secret Seven, Famous Five, Malory Towers and the American Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys collections.

Even though most of these books were set in a different country and in some cases in a different decade, and even though the lives of the characters appeared so different from my own – there was something comforting to return to find out what the characters in these books were up to. This can be compared to children and adults returning again and again to popular sitcoms that revolve around a group of friends or lead characters.

The most conventional narrative series, serials, and sequels for young people are characterized by a constant narrative presence, a common set of characters, the same or similar settings, recurring plot structures, and familiar themes. (Reimer, Ali, England, and Unrau, 2014: 10)

And that is the security blanket that young people want after they have left behind their favourite teddy to go to the big school. Early fiction with familiar characters of family, school and neighbourhood reinforces a child’s understanding of the world. Very often the writer brings the reader into a conspiratorial whisper, perhaps making fun of their family/school situations or the grownups in their lives, just like a best friend does.

It is important that they recognize familiar settings in the stories – so they can learn to read by context more easily. They are newly independent readers and reading and recognizing words through context boosts their confidence immensely.

Philosopher Rolli  (2012:96) observes, “many of our everyday experiences are embedded in a structure of repetition; we believe in the world, we believe that the world will continue to exist even when we close our eyes.”

So what goes into a successful young fiction series?

Almost every series written for this age group is funny. That does not mean they don’t have some serious stuff in them – they do. But the approach to voice, plot and cast are aimed to keep the tone light, the humour irreverent and the plot slap-stick. This is true whether it is Steve Voake’s Hooey Higgins or Francesca Simon’s Horrid Henry or Joanna Nadin’s Penny Dreadful or The World of Norm series by Jonathan Meres.

 Almost all of these books use the white space on the page creatively. The illustrator plays a key role in bringing these characters to life. Whether it involves B&W drawings, lists, doodles or use of font face and sizes, these books are not densely written novels – but more often journals filled with doodles. Whether it is a catchphrase, or disasters caused by character flaws of the lead character or one of the ensemble, the humour and tone of the stories showcase the joy of the writer.

 An ensemble cast

A regular ensemble cast supports the main character – either to help or hinder, sometimes both. This includes the friends, family, bully, teachers, friendly and unfriendly neighbours. Some of the cast might come and go. But a few would stay in the core team and in many cases a lead character has a partner in crime.

Cohesive and consistent portrayal of plot and characters

Once the rules of the world are laid out, the characters obey these rules, across different stories in the same series. The characters might discover new strengths and weaknesses as they go along, but they do not contradict themselves across the series.

In the humorous Agatha Parrot series by Kjartan Poskitt and David Tazzyman, there is a cast of characters with specific likes, dislikes and ambitions. Their behaviour in the entire series is driven out of these characteristics and personality traits.

While there is a familiarity and comfort across the series, each book in the series stands on its own. Each story has a beginning, middle and end, with all major plot points tied up. For this age group rarely are crumbs of clues left in to be picked up in a future story. In an early fiction series, when a reader discovers a book out of sequence, he/she finds sufficient introduction of the cast and the premise to follow the story. Of course if they like the book, they go on to read every single book in the set.

A distinct main character with a unique-selling-point
Like all good stories, series fiction is primarily led by character. While the main character has to be distinct and likeable, they must have something special that differentiates them from so many other series. For example, series with girl characters as leads, there are many successful series in print and each main character has to hold her place on the bookshelf.

Anna Hibiscus by Atinuke, Penny Dreadful by Joanna Nadin, Agatha Parrot by Kjartan Poskitti, Iggy and Me by Jenny Valentine, Ottoline by Chris Riddell are just some of the funny ones with girls as leads. Each lead character is different, special and distinctively funny.

Universal themes

The underlying theme of each story should be universal. Whether set in Africa in the family of Anna Hibiscus by Atinuke or the Precious series by Alexander McCall Smith or set in contemporary England in Joanna Nadin’s Penny Dreadful’s life or Horrid Henry in Francesca Simon’s popular series – the themes revolve around the key concerns of this age-group: friendships, new school, losing someone, getting into trouble, dealing with conflict and loss of control.

These books deal with emotions that children of this age group are coming to grips with – from anger and jealousy to empathy, hope and joy; but with a twinkle in the eye, a wink here and a smile there.
Going from here, I also examined what goes into making a successful series with a BAME character as the lead. But as this is my last post for 2018 on ABBA (sorry everyone, life is getting in the way)… I’ve put the part two of my post on my blog. Click here to read, What additional ingredients are required to create a series that is led by a character from Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic heritages?

Chitra Soundar writes picture books and series fiction. Her second book in the Prince Veera series, A Jar of Pickles and a Pinch of Justice (Walker Books, illustrated by Uma Krishnaswamy) has been shortlisted for the Surrey Children’s Book Award. Her latest book out is You’re Safe With Me (illustrated by Poonam Mistry and published by Lantana Publishing). Follow her on Twitter @csoundar.

Wednesday, 16 May 2018

Ideas in 60 Seconds by Claire Fayers

This blog post is dedicated to my mother-in-law. Who, on learning I was planning more books said, “I don’t know where she gets all these ideas from. I’d have to sit down and think really hard.”

I’m not entirely sure what people think authors do all day, but sitting down and thinking really hard is a large part of the job. And also walking about and thinking really hard. And doing the gardening and thinking really hard. And eating cake and thinking really hard.

I spent a most enjoyable time teaching a writing masterclass at the inaugural Pontypridd Childen’s Book Festival last Saturday. (A quick plug to Scott Evans who blogged the entire day.) I’ve been playing about with story prompts recently, so I led a series of 60 second exercises on making ideas.

I’m sure you all have your own favourite exercises (if you do, please add them to the comments) but here are mine.

1. The 60 second List

Set your timer for one minute and write down anything and everything you’re interested in. There doesn’t have to be any particular theme or pattern to it – in fact, a random collection may spark off more story ideas.
My list today included:
Buried treasure
A mysterious tree
A heist

2. The 60 second Premise

My husband bought me this little gem of a book for Christmas.

Inside, you'll find pages divided into strips which you can mix and match to create stories.


After playing with the strips for a while (all right, for hours, until my husband begged me to stop), I realised the pattern is always the same. The first strip sets when the story happens, the second strip gives you the main character and the third strip sets out what happens.

I’m really quite bad at writing complete premises, but I reckoned even I could manage a third of a premise.

And so...

Set a timer for one minute and write down as many ‘when’ phrases as you can.
Repeat with ‘who’.
Rpeat again with ‘what.’
Then mix and match and see how many new stories you can come up with!

3. The 60 Second Character

Ideally, your characters will drive your story forward with their choices and actions. For this to happen, they need a clear goal, strong motivation and plenty of obstacles to overcome.

Take one of the characters from exercise 2, give yourself another minute, and ask:
What do they want?
Why do they want it?
Why can’t they get it?

This proved the most challenging exercise for my class and we all agreed that it will take far more than one minute to come up with a believable character.

Still, the one minute rule was generally a good thing. The time limit made the task feel manageable – we can all concentrate for one minute. And because we only had a minute, there was no time for thinking really hard and rejecting every idea as not good enough. Anything and everything had to go down on the paper. The results might not be the world’s best literature, but they’re all starting points, and that’s what really matters.

Thanks once again to Ponty Book Festival for having me on Saturday. Here's to many more festivals, and many more story ideas.

Tuesday, 15 May 2018

When the urge to give up is overwhelming - by Rowena House

Back in February this year, in the run up to the launch of The Goose Road, the work-in-progress stalled and I was seriously thinking about quitting the world of fiction. Three months later I’m up to my ears in historical research again, and carefully crafting the opening scenes of Book 2.

Why the change of heart?

Because in the intervening months I came face-to-face with the reality of not writing another novel – and ran away screaming.

I won’t go into details about the alternative career path I thought I could follow, beyond saying it would have been full-time for at least 18 months, then, potentially, given me some free time to write.

What I will admit is that on Day One of the initial training course I found myself in tears, because beneath the surface of the rational decision ‘to get a proper job’ there were demons who turned out to be worthy of Hieronymus Bosch.

These demons demanded more than time in return for a wage. My public behaviour and the sort of values I would have had to promote were also prescribed. When faced with such a loss of autonomy I couldn’t go through with it.

There were other, more practical factors at play as well, but standing at that cross-roads, with a yes/no decision to make, I saw more clearly than ever what a privilege it is to be able to express one’s worldview through fiction, and how much I’d regret turning my back on the opportunity to do it again.

So where next?

In terms of the work-in-progress it’s back to France, this time in 1944.

It is sad to be leaving the First World War behind after more than four years dwelling there in my imagination, but the Great War’s impact on France fed directly into the country’s role in the 1939-45 conflict, so the knowledge acquired for The Goose Road certainly isn’t going to waste.

In terms of character, I’m making deliberate efforts to differentiate my new heroine from the protagonist in The Goose Road, and finding the OCEAN personality profiling system hugely useful once more.

I blogged on ABBA before about these Big Five character traits and how they can be useful when plotting epiphanies. The link in case anyone’s interested is here.

One thing I didn’t expect back in February was how much the fun and games of launching The Goose Road would liberate me to write Book 2.

In fact, the month of guest blogs and pinging around social media all but exhausted my interest in Angelique’s story, which isn’t exactly helpful when the marketing effort for the book has in many ways only just begun. But it is great in terms of engaging emotionally with Manon, the heroine of Book 2. A good writer friend told me this might happen. So thanks, Eden. You were right!

Plotting Book 2 prior to the launch did, however, yield another unexpected benefit: because I knew that the heart of this story was something I truly cared about, the decision to return to it whole-heartedly was a positive, concrete and informed choice, not a mere cop out when confronted with those ‘proper job’ demons.

This little lesson might well not apply another time, nor to anyone else, since most of us feel our way into a story through instinct, trial and error, rather than by thinking about themes up front. But given how tough this business is, I wonder if delving into the heart and soul of our works-in-progress might not be a useful trick to maintain – or regain – momentum whenever the urge to give up becomes overwhelming.
Happy writing!

Twitter: @houserowena