I wrote an article for The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators’ Words and Pictures Magazine about the evolution of SCBWI’s relationship with The Edinburgh International Book Festival, which you can read here:
There is something magical about Edinburgh in August. The historic city springs to life with the Fringe and Book Festival, with visitors from all over the world coming to soak up the celebratory atmosphere. Whether you are a fan of drama, comedy, literature, or anything in between, there is something around almost every corner, and a walk down the Royal Mile turns into a wonderful assault of the senses.
For me though, August in Edinburgh means only one thing – the Edinburgh International Book Festival. I will never forget the first time I visited four years ago. As I stepped through the foyer into a tented Charlotte Square, I felt every part of me relax. I knew this was where I belonged, and it was as if all the everyday issues and stresses just fell away.
I have been back every year since, and have seen some fabulous author events, attended random variety acts in the Spiegeltent in the evenings, and met up with some writer friends for summer picnics.
Taking my sister and daughter for the first time this year / the Chasing Time Team /
with Kelly Lacey of Love Books Group
However, this year has to top it all. This year I was c0-chairing an event for The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) and so was granted access to the hallowed Authors’ Yurt. Surely if heaven exists, it will look a lot like that. To breathe the same air as some of my literary heroes was an experience I will never forget.
The event itself – Freedom to Read, Freedom to Write – went better than we could have imagined and the buzz has stayed with me. It was a gift of a panel (Candy Gourlay, Elizabeth Wein and Lari Don), but the most rewarding elements were seeing how engaged the children were, and hearing some of their questions answered and their love of reading nurtured.
For the first time this year I made it through for all three weekends, beautifully rounded off by the Kelpies Prize party, where extracts from all three finalists were read out and the winner announced as Hannah Foley, seen below being presented with her prize by Lari Don. (I’m glad it was Kelpies who were picking the winner and not me, as they were all so good!)
I’m already missing it, so roll on August 2019!
As we come close to the end of 2017, I thought I would share some of my writing-related highlights in what has been a busy and eventful year. I hope your year has been a good one too, and I love reading about what everyone is up to.
In February I was lucky enough to visit Ruth Bennett at Stripes Publishing and have a tour of the offices, finished off by a chat about my upper Middle Grade book, Sunk!, which I was editing at the time. She was lovely and encouraging, and I was in my element surrounded by all those books and the whole publishing process.
This was followed in March by the annual Scottish Association of Writers’ Conference at the Westerwood Hotel in Cumbernauld, which I attend with a contingent of Angus Writers’ Circle friends, and which is always a high point of my writing year. Thankfully I kept up my record of being placed in their competitions this year too.
Each month I also attended my SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) YA critique group in Edinburgh, as well as a number of fab SCBWI workshops and seminars throughout the year. A major highlight however, had to be getting asked to become the joint co-ordinator for the South East Scotland network with the wonderful Sarah Broadley ( @sarahpbroadley ) and we’re really excited about all the plans we have lined up for the coming year.
August of course brings the Edinburgh International Book Festival and all the amazingness that entails, and I was lucky enough to manage to get through for quite a few different events this year.
Then September was a notable month for two fantastic reasons. The first of these was the official launch of our Chasing Time Writing Retreats with our inaugural retreat taking place over the last weekend of the month, which saw all of our plans and hopes come to fruition. It’s fantastic working with two such lovely fellow writers and hopefully in 2018 we’ll go from strength to strength. Our next retreat in February is already down to only one remaining space, which is so encouraging. Watch this space for further writers’ services and offerings coming soon…
It’s also gratifying that we’re starting to have our work recognised, especially Sandra‘s shortlisting for the Saltire Society Literary Awards First Book of the Year with #BeneathTheSkin and Dawn’s many journalistic achievements, as well as her signing up with a literary agent for her YA novel, which is currently out on submission. For myself, I am beyond thrilled that my own YA manuscript has been longlisted in The Bath Children’s Novel Award, and I have less than a week now to find out if it’s made the shortlist – eek!!
The other brilliant thing that happened in September was a Bronte field trip with three of my fellow ‘Novellers’ (we meet most months and exchange chapters and feedback for our current works in progress) to Haworth, where we were each lucky enough to write a line of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights as part of artist Clare Twomey’s ( @CTwomeyStudio ) project to re-create the long lost manuscript.
Rounding off the year was a visit to Aberdeen for the launch of Granite Noir with a poisoned cocktail party – never trust writers!
Who knows what 2018 will bring, but I’m off to make some writing goals/resolutions (including blogging more regularly and updating my Goodreads page more often, as well as tackling a whole new manuscript, which is only at the very faint general idea stage in my mind at present). I hope you all have a happy, healthy and successful year and wish you all the best with your own writing goals.
Well, August came and went pretty quickly, huh? But what a month it was. Between managing to get lots of writing done on my own YA novel, Sixteen Again, whilst on holiday, to coming home and launching straight into the fabulous Edinburgh Book Festival, then formalising lots of arrangements for our first Chasing Time Writing Retreat in Angus at the end of the month, it’s been all go.
The Edinburgh Book Festival has quickly become a highlight of my literary year, and this year I was lucky enough to include an overnight stay in Edinburgh and to attend lots of author events, as well as two SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) crit groups in the Spiegeltent. Special mention has also to be made of the Unbound evening on the 18th, where singer/songwriter Genevieve Dawson ( @gdawsonmusic ) and novelist Sarah Perry ( @_sarah_perry ) in particular were amazing. (Watch out for Sarah’s book coming out – the writing is beautiful and I was seriously holding back tears by the end).
It was also the first time that I had heard Matt Haig speak, and he had us all spellbound, even as it was touch and go at one point as to whether the Bosco Theatre venue would be blown away by the fierce winds outside. And of course, there was the sold out SCBWI event, The Great Gender Debate, with authors Jonathan Stroud, David Leviathan and Kathryn Evans, ably chaired by the South East Scotland SCBWI Coordinators, Sarah Broadley and Anita Gallo.
I even managed to squeeze in a visit to Blackwell’s Writers at the Fringe to support my lovely author friend, Sandra Ireland, who was one of five authors reading from their books. (Check out ‘Beneath the Skin’ by Sandra if you love a slice of gothic noir and fantastically well-written novels).
So that brings me smoothly on to the writing retreats that Sandra, Dawn Geddes and I are launching, with the first one being at the end of this month. It’s come round fast and we’re really looking forward to welcoming all our guests soon. The venue is superbly atmospheric and bound to inspire, and I might even be able to squeeze some more of my own writing in over the weekend too!
The Chasing Time team
For more information go to http://www.chasingtimescotland.wordpress.com/retreats
Hope your own writing/reading is going well too – bye for now.
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”.
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)
WHAT EDITORS WANT
A SOCIETY OF CHILDREN’S BOOK WRITERS AND ILLUSTRATORS (SCBWI) PANEL AT THE EDINBURGH INTERNATIONAL BOOK FESTIVAL, 18 AUGUST 2016.
Panel – Barry Cunningham, Chicken House Publishing
Lauren Fortune, Scholastic
Sally Polson, Floris Books
Chaired By Louise Kelly and Sheila M Averbuch
I was lucky enough to attend an interesting and lively panel event at this year’s Edinburgh Book Festival in the esteemed company of an amazing panel of children’s/YA book industry heavyweights, so I thought I would share some of their comments and advice here.
Q. What does editing entail?
How much work we do completely varies from author to author. We are looking for something to identify with, or to be transported to a fantastic land, but the kernel is to find something you love and something similar to the feeling you had as a child when discovering your favourite books.
Editors are far more engaged in the process now and think we look for a manuscript in all its possibilities and for how it works in its broader sense. We could perhaps be seen as a ‘midwife for books’ but ultimately represent our readers and must look at how it will work around the world and in the context of how our other books work.
With debut authors we can tell if something has been worked on so much that the voice has been lost and so it is a case of having to go back to the beginning to re-establish that unique thing.
Have you got a good villain/problem/disadvantage? Children’s books tend to be about struggle. Maybe change the POV?
Q. What personality traits do you like in your authors and book characters?
I enjoy working with writers that like receiving feedback and are quite open minded in receiving criticism and are then able to go off and find their own way. For example, Ross McKenzie of ‘The Nowhere Emporium’ and ‘Shadowsmith’ is good to work with as he takes feedback well and writes excellent villains.
Characters – are they memorable and will they stay with me?
A general comment would be that if we commission a book, the position in the schedule can determine how much/how quickly it is worked on. We tend to do one structural edit – i.e. plot, beginning/end, characters, pacing…
Monsters and villains are so important. An example would be ‘Robyn Silver: The Midnight Chimes’ by Paula Harrison.
Things that are not so good: are writers reluctant to make their characters suffer? Would always encourage writers to put their characters in difficult situations.
We have to see the main character change. Linking back to the last question, ‘The Girl of Ink and Stars’ by Kiran Millwood Hargrave was originally written in 3rd person, but when Kiran changed it into 1st person it brought it to life.
Also, it’s important for characters to have some loss as well as victory.
Q. Would you encourage reading as ‘writers’ as well as simply for enjoyment?
Reading is an enormous part of writing, you absorb a lot, sometimes without realising. Dialogue, for example, is hugely important and difficult to do.
Reading also helps writers to understand the market.
Q. What are the new trends in illustration?
MG illustrated fiction (black and white line pictures) is having a moment. It is good for more reluctant readers and we are very keen on this at Scholastic. David Baddiel and Jim Field are a great example of when an author and illustrator work well together.
Floris are keen on it too, but don’t have an author/illustrator in that field at present.
Chicken House don’t do picture books any more as are not keen on them and find a lot don’t have much story and leave the art to do all the work.
However, we are now seeing more illustrated content even in older books, including YA, which sit somewhere between the more traditional books and graphic novels.
Q. What about age banding? Are there any issues/shifts occurring?
Older MG is different in America where it is up to 14 years of age instead of 12 here, but a lot of books are being bought by a wide range of ages. For overseas markets we sometimes get advice to bring content down or similar and YA is fracturing into older and younger YA.
Age banding is more for publishing categories though rather than reader categories.
Q. Is there anything that you would like to see?
More diverse, ethnic, disabilities, plus a series for 6-8 year olds, e.g. ‘Thorfinn the Nicest Viking’. Are also looking for author/illustrators as don’t have a lot of these.
This can be influenced by the demands of the list. Scholastic is strong on series fiction, so are more looking for standalone stories, and would also like to see a YA fantasy. Anything page turning, cinematic, high concept.
For non-fiction we publish the ‘Horrible Histories’ books and would look at others to tie around an historical event or similar.
Q. What do you look for in a book?
Humour, superlative villain or dark force, great dialogue.
Would recommend that authors write complete character studies even though a lot doesn’t end up in the book as you will get to know the character better.
Q. What would be the main reason(s) to reject a ‘nearly there’ manuscript?
It could be to do with other factors, e.g. the existing list, or it doesn’t quite fit, or may need author to be in Scotland…
Can always work on plot, but is looking for an original voice and that bit of ‘magic’. It has to stay with her. Can pick up one page and recognise the author.
Whether he thinks he can work with the author and share the same vision. Mostly if don’t think they can work with the author to make it better.
- Should we use dialect or not?
Could use an element, but sustaining it for a whole book may be hard.
If it fits into a broader narrative would welcome it, but should always read dialogue aloud when writing it.
Plus a child must be able to understand it.
- What do you not want?
Something you’ve seen before told in a fairly familiar voice.
A misunderstanding of being unique, where people might think they need to be completely wacky and all over the place.
Would be scared of multi volume fantasy where the synopsis is longer than the first book.
“I’d quite like that!”
- Should writers look at current themes?
There’s no point as publishers and agents tend to be inundated with these and they would be likely to be over too soon by the time any book was ready for publication.
Perhaps look at themes but then strip out the actual theme and see what’s left that works and has the broad appeal.
- Would you advise authors to use freelance editorial services?
Not sure you can tell which manuscripts have or haven’t used one.
If we see something that has come from Golden Egg then ears immediately prick up.
So there you have it! I found the event to be very useful and hope my notes are of some interest to you too.