I’ve been on a novel writing retreat here and it was amazing!
As per Sandra’s post on her own website, which I shared here earlier this month, I have more exciting news about the launch of our tutored residential writing retreats. Two writing friends and I have set up Chasing Time Writing Retreats in a beautiful and quirky Scottish country house, and are excited to share our passion for writing with others. The programme is now up and running and we have taken our first bookings.
Having been lucky enough to go on various writing retreats myself, I know how valuable it can be to escape the everyday routines and commitments you may have at home, and be able to concentrate solely on developing your writing. In Rosely Country House Hotel, Arbroath, we have found the perfect place to host our retreats, with its uniquely atmospheric setting sure to provide writing motivation around every corner.
If this is the sort of thing that appeals, why not click on the link below and check out the rest of our website? We’d love to see you there. 🙂
This week saw the launch of a new writing retreat in the heart of Angus – Chasing Time Writing Retreats. I have to admit to a little bias in bringing this to your attention, as it is being run by two writing friends, Sandra Ireland and Dawn Geddes, and me.
We were inspired by the hugely unique and atmospheric Rosely Country House Hotel, where we meet as part of Angus Writers’ Circle, and felt it would make the perfect setting for our new business venture. We’re excited at the prospect of inviting other writers onto our tutored retreats and to share our passion for writing with those attending. We can’t wait to get started!
You can read about our trial run here, on a post shared by Sandra earlier this evening.
Buying a gift for a writer is easy. An elegant pen, a bespoke notebook. A new edition of a much-loved classic. But ask a writer what their dream gift would be, and it might well be something you can’t pick up online.
We crave it, can’t get enough of it. We want time that is elastic, time that stands still. Time that will work with us, and allow us to craft that perfect chapter before the kids come home, or the dog demands to be walked.
We all desire it, we’re all chasing it. You can’t buy it, but you can make it, if you allow a little space in your hectic schedule. Last month, three intrepid scribblers set out to do just that!
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Some useful comments here regarding recommended word lengths in children’s fiction…
You might have caught a glimpse of this post a while back. I accidentally published the draft. Then I had a nervous breakdown trying to reel it in.
Luckily, there were no swear words in that draft. Nothing too incriminating. It’s a miracle, really. Considering the topic.
Let me begin with a disclaimer: Unlike most of my posts, this one’s not gospel.
This is a ROUGH guide. Categories in kid lit vary hugely and are always and forever evolving. That’s why this topic is a headwreck.
Board books: Newborn to age 3
Standard board books are 16 pages. Or 8 pages. Depends…
There’s not a lot of scope for writers in this category. It’s more of an illustrators’ playground. A lot of the manuscripts for these books are written in-house or commissioned. Or purloined from the kid lit canon. You know, let’s do a series of board books based on nursery rhymes… No author…
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I’m just back from this year’s Scottish Association of Writers Conference at The Westerwood Hotel (@TheWesterwoodQ) in Cumbernauld. And what another fantastic weekend it has been! The SAW Council work hard to put on such a great event and this year we had the biggest turn out from our writing group, @AWCAngus since I started attending a few years ago. It’s so good to be able to spend more time with friends and get to know each other better, as well as just generally soak up the buzz of being in the company of like-minded people. The icing on the cake is that we again came away with some prizes and placings in the various competitions that are adjudicated over the weekend, including top prizes of The Dorothy Dunbar Rose Bowl for poetry for our Club Secretary, Sandra Ireland (author of ‘Beneath The Skin’), and The Constable Silver Stag for a General Novel to Pam Turner.
Last year I was lucky enough to win the beautiful T.C. Farries trophy for a Children’s Novel, and it was with a certain reluctance that I found myself packing it up in order to pass the baton. However the consolation was that this year it was awarded to fellow Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCWBI) member, Sheila Adamson, so it was a bit like keeping it in the family.
Apart from the competitions and the social side, there are a number of fantastic SAW workshops to attend, and my favourite two of the weekend were run by YA authors Keith Gray and Victoria Gemmell (another fellow SCBWI). Thank you both for being so lovely and helping to turn it into such a special weekend once again. I was also able to attend an outside workshop run by editor and literary consultant, Claire Wingfield (www.clairewingfield.co.uk) and between the three of them, have left feeling inspired and keen to get back to my own work in progress.
Our keynote speaker was the very funny Helen Lederer who rounded off a brilliant conference.
If you would like to know more about Angus Writers’ Circle you can follow us on Twitter @AWCAngus, and I hope your own writing is going well.
As promised, here’s another post borne out of the fantastic SCBWI conference held in Winchester at the end of last year. This time it is to share words of wisdom, hints, tips and an agent’s insider perspective in to the world of trying to be published in children’s fiction. The keynote speaker was Sarah Davies of The Greenhouse Literary Agency and her talk was both enlightening and inspirational for those of us plugging away with our writing for children and young adults. I hope you similarly find some of the following to be of interest…
In 2007 Sarah had been working in UK publishing for many years but was engaged to an American and felt it was time to move on. She saw this as an opportunity to create a transatlantic literary agency and so The Greenhouse Literary Agency was born. They have around 70 clients, are also very active in the film and TV world and love to nurture talent. Their mantra is ‘we represent authors and not just books’.
She views them as talent spotters, but also as developers of talent. Writing comes out of who you are, “you could give me half a page of writing by any of my clients and I think I could tell who wrote it.”
Voice is the first thing they look at and they use this to base their decision as to whether or not to go on and take on a client. “Train yourself to pick up colour and cadence of voice as if you were Mozart. Everyone can improve their voice and listening is the best way to do it.”
So what does it take to succeed in today’s marketplace?
They receive between 10,000 to 15,000 submissions per year so potential authors need to produce something that is seriously attention grabbing. Ask yourself, ‘how do I find my edge?’ The most common rejection is, ‘I didn’t love it enough’. Therefore, how can you write something that can get under the skin of the publisher?
If you aren’t writing because you love it and really can’t not write, then the business can really sap your spirit – it’s as much about passion as it is anything else.
Two words dominate every day of her life (and also where she chooses to invest her time, as time is the most difficult thing to manage as an agent):
CONCEPT & CRAFT
These come before everything.
So, what is an inspired concept – how do you know if you have one, and are there any ways to help you find one? Is there something that makes you sit up? It’s simple and easy to describe. ‘Almost viral’.
One key could be a useful little phrase – ‘what if’. (Perhaps it can be based on something that hasn’t happened but could have). This can help writers think in less predictable ways.
Any concept, as with the writing itself, needs to have big emotional and intellectual scope.
Look at the tip of the story iceberg and know that underneath the water everything else is waiting to be discovered and explored.
Does the concept give you enough to work with or is it too thin?
A great concept is a ‘hook’ – when you pitch your book you are going fishing to catch agents and they need that hook to catch editors.
The good news is that agents are desperate to be hooked and are looking all the time. Notice people’s body language and you will soon pick up who is hooked by your concept.
What should we be thinking of before we even begin to write? At this point I think one of Sarah’s presentation slides summarises it perfectly:
Plant seeds of writing – things to think about before you even begin to write:
Conflict and character – need to try and know your character at a deep level and certainly before you write page 1. For writers this starts way before the actual writing – characters are real, they exist.
Also consider the sense of place as this can give a wonderful sense of reality.
Build a story on great foundations. Maximise how efficiently you work – writing to find your story is very time consuming although it may work for some people, but best to have an idea of your story before you start. A rudimentary outline can help you home in on what you’re trying to do. Try to write with focussed intention so you know what you’re trying to achieve. Experiment with structure, point of view, tense. Write three chapters then stop and look again. Who is story for? Age group and core reader?
Your goal as a writer is to sprinkle fairly dust over your topic, not tell everything you know. You are looking for a reaction. What are you trying to say? What are you going to leave the reader with after the final page? (But not in a didactic way).
One of the key things that will be embedded in a great concept is HIGH STAKES. What you give us has to matter, you have to make it matter. A great story will make a reader ask, ‘what if I was in that position, what would I do?’ From her many years as an agent she knows that we have a driving need to have others go there for us. Many submissions they see don’t have high enough stakes.
There are elements of the thriller in every story and it is the writer’s job to make us turn the page.
Try to spin an idea differently to how anyone else has spun it before. E.g. Jay Asher’s ‘Thirteen Reasons Why’ stands apart because the girl in question is almost entirely off stage and it’s all about the aftermath. It also has a compressed time frame so it reads like a thriller rather than an issues led story.
Another example is Lauren Oliver’s ‘Before I fall’, where the protagonist comes back to live her final day six times over, and each time comes closer to understanding herself/being compassionate/learning to love, until she’s ready to let go.
Both stories reveal in a deep sense what it feels like to be human.
Writers need a great idea, but it needs to feed through to something else, so needs to have a deeply felt theme – people have to relate to the story and its underlying characters.
One of Sarah’s favourite quotes is, ‘In an extraordinary story, in the very best stories, we don’t just discover more about the characters, we discover more about ourselves.’
Other notable quotes come from Picasso, who said, ‘Art is the lie that enables us to discover the truth’, and L P Hartley, ‘It’s better to write about things you feel than about what you know.’
Writing great fiction isn’t about, or from, your intellect, it’s about your emotional response.
“Write something without any expectation of someone reading it and write from the white hot centre of your subconscious.” However you write your story it has to come from a place of passion inside.
Your story needs to give you a USP – without this it will struggle to stand out and editors would struggle to put it across to booksellers. The aim is to deeply get the chaos of being human and everything it comprises and then be able to create a unique story framework to create order from the chaos.
Consider finding new ways to see things. ‘Significant detail’ is important – pick out the specific to create the emotional impact. This puts me in mind of the famous quote by Anton Chekhov, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” (One of my own favourites).
Stay current – read and read but don’t be derivative. (It’s also useful to keep abreast of what is happening – subscribe to the Bookseller?)
- Wow factor
- What if?
- Big questions
- High stakes
- Spinning ideas differently
- A deeply felt theme
“Write it, put it away and forget about it, then when you get it out again ask yourself these revision questions”.
Sarah often says to clients when they’re out on submission to not write for two weeks as she feels they also need ‘thinking time’.
I’ll leave you with this thought…
“Go to your desk as if it’s the last day of your life, and then write as if you have all the time in the world”.
Here’s a useful post for those writing for children, with thanks to Lou Treleaven for highlighting…
If you have a picture book text that’s too long for publishers’ requirements, have you considered the short story market? There are a small number of magazines out there, both in print and online, that accept children’s stories and will happily consider a longer length. Here’s my current (short) list which also includes markets for older children’s fiction and young adult; if you know of any others please do comment and I will add them.
The US-based Cricket family of children’s print and digital magazines includes Babybug for up to three years, Ladybug for 3-6 years, Spider for 6-9, Cricket for 9-14 and Cicada for over 14s. They all have different submission requirements so be sure to check out the word counts required by each one.
This beautifully produced Irish-based print magazine accepts stories up to 1,000 words as well as poetry and art.
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This comes to you a little later than hoped as, like many it seems, we have been a little laid up with colds and flu over December and then we hit the madness of Christmas and the New Year. Speaking of which, Happy New Year and hope 2017 will be a happy, healthy and productive year for all of you.
Anyway, I had earlier promised to post some highlights of my recent Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) conference so I thought I would start with pitching, especially as this also ties in nicely with recent Twitter pitches that I have taken part in over the past few weeks.
At the conference I attended a pitching session with Benjamin Scott who said that ‘our goal in pitching is simply to excite another person about our story… whether an agent, editor, parent or reader’. Simple, huh? Why is it then that as soon as somebody asks what our book/story is about, many of us struggle to summarise it, or can turn into gibbering idiots? (I find the latter tends to happen to me, especially when you throw an agent into the mix!) He continued that ‘the expectation should be that sounds like an interesting idea, tell me more’ not ‘this is going to get me an agent, publisher, make me the next JK Rowling. These lower expectations immediately lessen the pressure.’
Pitching is therefore just presenting your work in the best possible light for maximum excitement, but you should bear the following in mind;
- You can choose to pitch – it’s never compulsory
- Relax – having a prepared pitch makes it easier to relax
- Versatility – a good pitch is useful for many things
- Creative aid – when constructing one it can act as a great developmental tool as it helps identify what’s at the heart of your book
- What is the peril, the conflict, and the consequences?
Conflict is the beating heart of the story and what happens is an expression of the conflict. So avoid listing what happens, e.g. ‘Steph goes to her brother, then her mother, and then the bank to borrow money. Lastly she goes to a drug dealer,’ and focus on the conflicts at the core of the story instead. Avoid using bespoke and confusing story language, distill the best bits, ignore the subplots and try to focus on the heart of the story.
A good pitch should introduce the main protagonist, give an indication of target audience and genre, lay out the core conflict and leave people wanting more, i.e. what is happening, to who, and why? What is at stake?
Also perhaps, is it similar in style to any other books on the market? Or can the writing style be likened to other authors (this can be particularly helpful if it is similar to another author you know the person likes, or perhaps already represents). One technique can be to use XXX meets XXX, something which is also apparently quite popular when pitching scripts to Hollywood.
You have probably heard of the ‘elevator pitch’ concept, where you should be able to summarise your book in the short space of time it would take to ride in a lift between floors (in the unlikely event that the agent/publisher of your dreams just happens to get in the lift with you). This is similar to a paragraph synopsis, which I’ve also seen some writing competitions ask for alongside your writing sample.
To challenge yourself even more, it seems that Twitter pitches are becoming more common as well. These are organised events with a designated hashtag where you have to tweet your pitch in around 136 characters (to leave sufficient room for the appropriate hashtag), and where agents and publishers are able to dip in and out and favourite any tweets that grab their attention. This is in effect an invitation to submit directly to them and skip the dreaded slush pile. A recent example was organised by Emergents CIC Ltd and XPO North in Scotland, with the hashtag #xpo (followed by the appropriate letter for your genre of book). Or look out for #PitchMAS, which takes place each December and was set up by two US authors. It’s a long-shot, but if you don’t put yourself out there then you never know!
Now, back to the conference. I’m not holding myself up as an expert by any means, but thought you may be interested in seeing what I came up with during the breakout session. In general it seemed to do the job, with both Benjamin and our surprise guest, Imogen Cooper of the fantastic Golden Egg, giving me decent feedback and encouragement.
The Maze Runner meets Alex Rider in a contemporary upper MG thriller featuring a sinkhole, a sinister cult and a secret bunker of trapped children. When disillusioned 15-year-old Will sees a sinkhole appear in their living room and swallow his twin brother and sister, this is no simple freak of nature. Sunk! is a story of siblings, where one is being hunted above ground and the others are trapped below the earth. Where can you turn when you’ve been betrayed by those you trust the most?
I’ll leave things here for now but will lay out some valuable words of wisdom from one of our keynote speakers, Sarah Davies of the Greenhouse Literary Agency, in my next post.
A couple of weekends ago I travelled to Winchester for my first ever Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) Conference and I’m still buzzing!
Over the next couple of weeks I’ll be reporting on the various workshops and keynote speakers (once I’ve calmed down enough to be able to decipher my notes) and hope to share some of the useful tips and words of wisdom from what was a jam-packed weekend.
One highlight for me though has to be the Mass Book Launch Party on the Saturday night, where we were invited to dress up as one of our favourite book characters. My first thought was perhaps Mary Poppins, but then the logistics of transporting the outfit, her bag and of course the famous parrot umbrella on an over eight hour train journey ruled that out.
Being a (Scottish) Harry Potter fan, my next option was very obvious. Who else could I choose but Professor Minerva McGonagall? As it turned out, I was in very good company as Harry himself was there, along with a couple of Luna Lovegoods, Professor Snape, Bellatrix Lestrange, Dolores Umbridge and even Hedwig! To make things extra special, see if you can work out who Professor Dumbledore is…
(Clue – he is someone very instrumental in bringing the world of Harry Potter to us all)
Last week, on the 19th-23rd October 2016, my home town welcomed back the Dundee Literary Festival. This year it was special for three reasons:
- It was the festival’s tenth year in operation;
- It was the first time I had managed to attend as it falls during the October school holidays and we are normally away;
- My friend, Sandra Ireland, was featured talking about her debut novel, ‘Beneath the Skin’, alongside Shelley Day and her debut, ‘The Confession of Stella Moon’.
The Literary Dundee website says the following:
Literary Dundee is a cultural organisation, part of the University of Dundee, which celebrates readers and writers, and brings the best writers in the world to Dundee.
We support the literary community in Dundee through the Dundee Literary Festival (October), publications such as New Writing Dundee, projects such as the Dundee International Book Prize, and a series of year round events, including our Literary Lock-Ins, produced in partnership with bright sparks within the University and outside it.
What’s not to like?
I feel lucky to live in a place that is so supportive of literary pursuits and am embarrassed that it has taken so long to be able to attend some of the fantastic and varied talks and events over the period of the festival, some with fellow writers and some with my young children.
As well as Sandra’s event I also managed to attend a lecture on The Fall of the Tay Bridge with David Swinfen; a Memoir and the Art of Life Writing showcase with writers from the University of Dundee’s Continuing Life Writing course and their course tutor, Josie Jules Andrews; a talk by Scotland’s Booker Prize winner James Kelman about his new novel, ‘Dirt Road’; a fascinating discussion about Shirley Jackson (of ‘The Lottery’ fame) and Josephine Tey; and two events for younger people – a ‘Rock and Roald Dahl party’ with Matthew Fitt, who has translated some of Dahl’s books into Scots, and a ‘Create a Comic workshop with Jim Glen. My two eight year olds had a blast. Here’s a picture of Georgia with a certain recognisable DC Thomson character…
I can’t sign off without mention of the Ex Libris Book Fair on the last day, which was a treasure trove for anyone with a love of the arts. As an added bonus I met a fellow SCBWI member, Elizabeth Wein, who I only previously knew through the Society’s Facebook page, and it was lovely, as always, to put a face to a name.
All in all it was a fantastic few days and a new highlight of my year. I think I have a bit of reading to do judging by my literary haul!