Monday, 4 January 2016

My Writing (and cake-eating) Year

Goodbye 2015...

What a wonderful year this has been! 

I was delighted that The Crowham Martyrs was published in June, and was launched with much fanfare, including plenty of wine and one seriously delicious cake! 

I'm proud of the book, and so grateful to my wonderful editor and agent and publishers! 

I'm also grateful for the support of my friends, family and writing colleagues...

Thank you all! 

But Crowham's wasn't the only book launch I attended...

What a privilege it was to attend the launches of  these amazing books...

Jon Walter's My Name's Not Friday...

Tatum Flynn's The D'Evil Diaries

Keren David's This is Not a Love Story

And Catherine Johnson's mesmerising The Curious Tale of he Lady Caraboo

And, of course, every book published this year by SCBWI members, was celebrated at the Winchester Conference Mass Book Launch 2015!

Another fantastic event was the Nottingham UK Middle Grade Extravaganza, chock-full of brilliant writers (and bloggers) from around the country. Amazing!

An embarrassment of riches! 

So, another year has passed, and I've been lucky enough to celebrate, not only with my family and friends, but with a host of talented writers and lovely readers.

And, for 2016? 

Well, no book cake for me this year, though I know many friends who are publishing in 2016, so I'll grab a slice or two of theirs! 

I'm happy though that Crowham has been shortlisted for the 2016 Essex Book Awards and the 2016 Leeds Book Awards

This means meeting readers, fellow shortlisted writers and brilliant teachers and librarians--

There might even be cake...

I can't wait! 

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Je suis Paris vive La Creation

The wonderful and talented Paris-based illustrator Jion Sheibani (that's her beautiful dove of peace) has created a facebook page, welcoming her fellow creatives to express their feelings about last weekend's atrocities in Paris through in whatever way they wished. So far, some beautiful illustrations and touching reminiscences have been posted.

I've been thinking about what I could add, Thoughts, wishes, grief: they've been expressed so eloquently by others, and the hopefulness of most of the people I know (either in real life or online) has been inspiring and humbling.

But here are a few (of many) memories of Paris that I'd like to share at this time, and in this forum...

I spent the days before and after the publication of my first book At Yellow Lake, in Paris. I wasn't working that Thursday in June, 2012, and I knew Paris was the perfect city to wake up and think, "I'm a published writer now."

So, we tromped the streets, and I shoved a copy of At Yellow Lake into the hands of startled-but-willing photo-op "readers".  I explained what was going on and, of course, Paris "got it". It was a fantastic day...

More recently, I had the chance to meet up with a friend I hadn't seen in over 30 years. Jayne and I had known each other when I was at university near Seattle. We reconnected on facebook, and a few autumns ago, were reunited when she and her husband John were staying in Paris.

I spent the days writing in the jaw-droppingly gorgeous Biblioteque Mazarine...

And the evenings out with John and Jayne. The years rolled back within seconds of our meeting and we drank wine at La Tambour on Rue Monmartre...

and listened to John play an amazing set of his songs at a cabaret bar on Blvd Montparnasse...

and then, um, returned to La Tambour for more wine...

As one does, in Paris, because that's what it Paris is all about: music, wine, friendship and love.

Till next time, beautiful city!


Saturday, 18 July 2015

Writing Scared

"Why a ghost story?" I hear you ask, but The Crowham Martyrs didn't start out as a ghost story.

As is usual for me, the book started with a character--a girl who is "dumped" by her mother at a rundown boarding school, The gothic setting--an isolated school, the surrounding forest, a quaint-but-sinister local village--were also in at the beginning, and lent themselves to a story that would be supernatural and scary.

So, I had a character, I had a setting, and the story came together like a sculpture consisting of fragile bits of paper and glue, pasted onto an equally flimsy skeleton that somehow held together and become stronger as each layer was slapped on and allowed to harder. Eventually, The Crowham Martyrs went beyond ghosts, and my main character, Maddy became bullied and battered by all manner of unseen and unfathomable forces...

Not just a ghost story, then...

But now that Crowham has been published, I've had time to think about why I wrote this particular story.

I don't generally set out to write in  a particular genre. In the case of my debut, At Yellow Lake, I was surprised when it was considered a thriller. I just needed a stronger story than my original idea, so added some bad guys...who turned out to be very, very bad indeed.  The same is true for Crowham. The sinister elements, which were weak at the start, grew in strength with every new draft (and there were many!) until they took on lives of their own and became powerful forces that threatened to overwhelm both my characters and myself!

That feeling--of being almost defeated by something that you can't comprehend and have no way to fight--is a good way to answer the "why a ghost story" question.

Obviously, that feeling fuels all knds of stories, but there's something about unseen dread that makes ghost stories so satisfying to read, so much fun to write...and so true to the reality of life, especially the lives of children and teens.

I was talking to my daughter and several of her friends recently, about how their lives have changed now that they're out of school and have studied and travelled and started jobs. They talked about experiences they'd had when younger: harmful relationships; threatening encounters; confusing, often destructive behaviour (their own and other people's).

These young women repeatedly used the same phrase--I just didn't know. 

Who I can trust or even believe? How do I solve the problem?  Where should I go for help?  What is real?  In The Crowham Martyrs, Maddy asks these questions, and I thought of her while listening to my daugher and her friends talk about situations that they could only make sense of in hindsight.

Growing up is scary enough for the comfortable and cared for, much more so for the abandoned or neglected.

So what are ghosts or demons or what little Jordan in Crowham calls fings?  What are they really?

They are what we can't see. What we don't understand. What we are powerless against.  

Sunday, 5 July 2015

Brighton Rocks Books--Summer Reading Challenge

Le Select, Blvd Montparnasse, Paris, NOT Sky High Fish Bar, Portland Road, Hove

I was walking along a street in Hove one night when I bumped into a group of four up-and-coming children's writers, who all live in the neighbourhood. This both delighted and surprised me, because Portland Road, Hove, isn't (believe it or not)  Boulevard Montparnasse or the Champs Elysees.

 The local pubs and cafes would never be confused with Cafe Flore or Les Deux Magots.

In fact, my neighbourhood  would be even less likely to be mistaken for, say, another hisotircal literary enclave, San Francisco's North Beach (think The Nut and Bolt Shop, Levant Kebabs and The Denture Studio rather than, Cafe Vesuvio or City Lights Books).

Yet, there we were, discussing launches, congratulating each other on agent signings, and enquiring after works-in-progress.
St. Peter's Hove, NOT St. Suplice, Paris

Brighton and Hove (particularly the Portland Road area) may not be as glamorous as Paris in the 1920s or as cutting edge as the San Francisco of Beat Generation.

However, there's definitely a liteary buzz happening here by the sea...

When it comes to writing for children, Brighton and Hove has become something of a hub, a situation that three friends, Tatum Flynn, Nikki Sheehan and Lisa Heathfield noticed over dinner one night.

The result of this ephiphany is next Saturday's  Summer Reaching Challenge 2015 launch at Brighton's Jubilee Library, which Lisa, Tatum and Nikki have organised along Brighton and Hove Libraries and the Reading Agency.

It's going to be a great event, with workshops for children and teens, panel discussions, and a chance to meet an amazing array of authors and, if you want, to buy their books.

I'm delighed to be taking part and I can't wait for the event, which is being made even more exciting by the participation of Children's Laureate (and Brighton resident) Chris Riddell.

Come along on Saturday, 11 July, and join the excitement! In years to come when the tourist hordes clog our streets on "Children's Authors of Brighton and Hove Segway Tours" you can smile wistfully and say, "Yes, I was there the day it all kicked off."

Friday, 28 November 2014

The Crowham Martyrs--Happy News!

I'm delighted that my middle grade novel, "The Crowham Martyrs" will be published in June, 2015, by the wonderful Catnip Books!

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Boy (and Girl), Do We Need Diverse Books!

I'm prompted to write a post on diversity, not because of anything that's been recently said or written about diversity in the world of children's books...

I'm prompted because of a "controversy" that's taken place in the world of stand-up comedy this week. My son, as some of you may know, is a stand-up, so I pay attention to what's going on in his field (OK, most if it is cyberstalking so that I can sneak into his gigs without him knowing, but never mind...).

The uproar was caused by a reasonably well-known comic berating the BBC in a facebook post for the fact that comics who appear on panel shows like "Mock the Week" generally ridicule UKIP--something that he feels is unfair and fails to address the concerns over immigration that some British people have.

OK, I guess he's entitled to those thoughts, and I don't watch these programmes regularly enough to have an opinion as to their political "diversity". However, knowing the comedians that I do (and not just via cyberstalking...I've actually met some of them in person!) I am certain that the BBC would struggle to find a pro-Ukipper amongst them. In fact, in order to provide an alternate view, they'd have to dig up the graves of long-dead comics, and prop their embalmed corpses next to Dara O'Brien--something I doubt the license-fee payer would go for, even in the name of "balance."

What was distressing about this comedian's tirade was not just the predictability of its language. Of course, there was the usual "swamped" rhetoric and overuse of the word "dysfunctional" to describe everything from schools to hospitals. And this dysfuctionality was, naturally, caused by immigration.

So far, so sadly familiar.

What was most disturbing to me was how quickly he jumped from rather well-worn "truisms" to sneering jibes targeted specifically at women and people of colour. The upshot of his "argument" was not only that white comedians were pretending to be "militant liberals" whatever the hell that is, just in order to get TV gigs, but that women comedians were substandard pretenders and "ethnic comedians" as he called them, were given TV roles merely to buttress this militancy.

After the twitter storm that followed, the comedian tweeted something along the lines of "we're all entitled to our opinons, so if you don't like mine, don't follow me..."

And that, supposedly, made everything OK...

So, what does this unpleasant episode have to do with diversity in children's books?

Well, it reminded me (as if I needed reminding) of what dangerous times we live in, and how close to the surface real hatred lies. Right wing politicans can make their policies seem steeped in "common sense" and "fairness."  But what's really evident in so many of these policies--whether it's the bedroom tax, the restrictions of benefits to people with disabilities, the cutting of special needs provision in schools, the the closure of specialist shelters for female victims of domestic violence, the long slow burn of distorted facts on immigration--is a total contempt for diversity. The language may have changed, and the laws regarding incitement to hatred beefed up, but scratch the surface and things can still et pretty ugly.

Further evidence, of course, was the treatment of  our own laureate Malorie Blackman, after Sky News misreported her comments on diversity (which, even in their misreported form, didn't seem particularly contentious!) during the Edinburgh Festival. Of course, those below the byline commentators and trolls are there to hate and malign, but still, it was hard to read, and harder still to fathom the venom and hatred behind the words.

So, back to diversity, and back to children's books...

I find it hard to imagine what kind of world the "haters" out there envision, but I know it doesn't look like the world that exists. Has existed for decades, if not centuries. Will continue to exist, and hopefully thrive. Obviously, the haters can't actually turn back time (though I'm sure some of them would like to!) What they can do, though, is make diversity seem like an add-on, not something that merely expresses and reflects the way we all live now. They can make diversity seem like an aberration, not the norm.

And children's literature is one way that this distorted view of reality--of who we are--can be dimmed and replaced by a brighter, truer vision. To me, what's important about diversity is not just that all young readers are able to see their lives and experiences reflected in literature, but that everybody else does, too. That one experience is not seen to be more important, more representative, more worthy of exploration in fiction than another.

The UK is a gloriously diverse country. This is part of its cultural and political richness. There's not a big lump of us--however we define that--versus an ever-growing chunk of them.

Whatever our religion, our gender or sexuality, whatever our country of origin, wherever we live, whatever our economic means, whatever our abilities...
There really is just us, and all our stories deserve to be heard.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

#TGFW2--Thank God For Writing 2

A belated thanks for the lovely responses to the #tgfw hashtag and concept. How wonderful that so many of us see writing as a companion on the journey or a shelter in times of trouble or despair.

I do need  to add a caveat to my original post, though. For the whole "disappearing into your writing to the point where you can't distinguish what's happening on on the page from what's happening in real life" thing to work properly, "real life" has to be sufficiently grim.

Sorry, but that's just the way this works. Intractable problems, major league stresses, seemingly unbearable heartbreak--that's what it takes.

I'm not a huge fan of confessional writing, or using writing as a platform for airing woes, but many of you already know that my life over the past few months has "sucked on all cylinders". (I am, on the other hand,  a huge fan of coming up with glib catchphrases, especially ones that don't quite make sense, and that is one of my faves--feel free to RT!)

My problems have, been of the "seemingly unbearable heartbreak" variety (note the seemingly) and they have been my problems, not my children's or anyone else's. Just mine, which is what made them bearable. The fact is, I was always going to tough this out. I had no choice, obviously, but I also knew, from the very beginning, that this situation would not crush me, that despair would not triumph, and that with enough swearing and sufficient quantites of wine, I'd stagger, somewhat reluctantly, away from the pity party at the Hurt Hotel.

So, what does any of this have to do with #tgfw?

Nothing, really. Just wanted to vent...

Seriously, there is a connection. Last week I talked about writing as a helpful means of escape, of it providing a place to hide. I also think that being writers helps equip us for the harshness of real life, just as the harshness of life adds depth and richness to our work.

The biggie is of, course, rejection.

When your writing is rejected, you want to cry, you want to rage against the unfairness of it all--how could something you've worked so hard on, something you devoted your life to, be thrown back in your face as if it were nothing?

It takes time to get over a rejection. It takes time to try again or to start something new.

Rejection in life, or in love, is much the same. It feels like you're being kicked. Hard. Often. Till it hurts so much you can hardly breathe.

But eventually you get up, even when you'd rather stay on the ground and blub like a baby.

Because that's what you do. That's what everybody does. So, although being a writer with years of rejection behind you may not make this experience easier, it does at least make it make it more familiar..

Which is good, right?

And there are other, more positive connections. As writers, we have to see past the rejection, or we'd go mad. We have to accept the innate hurt in the process and hope that it will, one day, lead to  better writing and ultimately, to acceptance. So, there's hope, and there's imagination, too. As writers we build worlds that aren't actually there, so in real life it should be easier for us to envision a time when the world makes sense again, when personal pain isn't so raw. (OK, maybe that's pushing the positivity a bit too far...)

Writing also deals with conflict and resolution.

In life, conflict is inevitable and unavoidable, and sometimes the resolution is not what we hoped for. This is how stories play out, too:  plots go wayward, characters turn out to have minds of their own (selfish bastards!), wrong turnings are taken and endings are not always happy.

Sometimes you just have to go with the story and see where it ends up...

Now here comes the best part...

As writers, we know that our story can unexpectedly veer off on its own, forcing us to follow it into somewhat frightening, but always exciting, new places...

And so it is, in life...

So, there many, many reasons to TGFW.

Writing can help us see beyond our immediate problems or disruptions. It can help us to accept that being hurt is part of the game.

It can also open us up to previously unimaginedpersonal possibilities, to new adventures that are the flipside to the heartache and disappointment.

And for all those things, I am truly thankful.