Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Two Years You’ll Never Forget - Guest Post by Marie-Louise Jensen

It can be tricky to pinpoint the moment when you first had an idea for a book. And with my Sixth Formers, I didn’t even plan to write a book. I just sat down to write a scene, based on an amusing anecdote my son had told me. 

At first, I didn’t have the voice right and I was disappointed with how it came out. But instead of putting it aside, I kept trying. Over the next week or so, I played with different characters and ideas. I still didn’t plan to write a novel. And then one afternoon, I tried writing first person in the voice of a teen boy character I’d created and suddenly voice, story and concept all came together and I was completely hooked.

I’m normally a historical fiction author, with a number of teen and 9-12  novels traditionally published by OUP and Fiction Express. I love stories set in the past. But every now and then, you need variety. For me, Sixth Formers was a huge change, and it was as refreshing as a cool shower on a hot day. I had, after all, just had two sons go through sixth form, so the life, issues, the preoccupations and the challenges were very present in my mind. It brought my own sixth form back to me in quite a powerful way. Although this story absolutely isn’t a tale of my own sixth form - which is so long ago that it might almost as well have been in the dinosaur era for its relevance to the experiences of today’s teens.

There is at least one resemblance between my sixth form and today’s, however; these two years is a way stone between childhood and adulthood. You’ve chosen your subjects. You are still in school but planning the next step into higher education or work. You are still being nurtured, but you are being trusted with more freedoms and responsibilities. A time to try out more adult friendships, and often more mature relationships too.

Sixth form is a time of freedom, but also tremendous pressure, especially in today’s competitive environment. I get frustrated when older people say that A-levels these days are easy, everyone gets an A*, because they are not and they don’t. I think there is a tendency to underestimate the pressures on young people today and what impressed me most in my own sons and their friends was their awareness of these and the maturity and humour with which they often approached them.

The two years in sixth form is also fun, though; a time when you are surrounded with other people of your own age and stage. Sixth Formers was my first attempt to write humour and this was a learning curve; a very enjoyable one. My experience is that the first draft is rarely that funny – humour is something I need to layer in on successive rewrites. It was a lovely way to work. I often ended up crying with laughter as I edited while my sons rolled their eyes in another room in the house because ‘Mum’s laughing at her own jokes again.’

I chose to self-publish the story on Kindle because being upper-end YA there simply isn’t enough of a market for it. It is a bargain at 99p, because for this story, my main wish was to share it rather than leave it on a memory stick somewhere to go out of date. 

You can read the beginning of the story for free here:

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

The Post Apocalyptic: N M Browne

I am writing this on the day after the US election. I am scared and upset and all those things that you

Image from Artificial Intelligence: A.I.

would expect a left-leaning feminist who wants a more inclusive society and a peaceful, functional world would feel. There is a lot more I can say but this post is not about politics or at least not this kind. No, what I have realised is how much culture matters. How the narratives we tell ourselves shape our world view. Stories of uncouth maverick outsiders who destroy corruption paved the way for Trump, just as all the books in which men do things and women don’t, may have made it harder for some people to see that the President of the United States could be a woman. It wasn’t just that of course. I can’t do anything about globalisation or the decline of the fortunes of the white middle class, the loss of traditional industry and the rise of the super-rich.I have always thought that what I can do is not very important. This election has changed my mind. I am a story teller and the stories we tell can change the world.

If it is stories that shape us, then I have to make sure that I tell the best ones that I can. Today I am returning to my rewrite of a post-cataclysmic adventure set in a future flooded UK with renewed enthusiasm. The story had stuck as stories do. I had got lost in an endless revision loop of the first few chapters because I had fallen out of love with it. It is a story about a young girl who tries to do the right thing in a tricky, corrupted world. She puts her life on the line to save her family and also to save her idea of what civilisation is. Suddenly it seems relevant again and worth fighting for.

 Of course as the writer I control the ending. The bleak point in the story when all is almost lost is followed by the fight back and renewed hope. There are setbacks but my heroine makes alliances across cultural divisions and most importantly she holds on to her beliefs that human beings should not be slaves and fights hard for those she loves. I can only hope that in this at least life follows art.

Monday, 28 November 2016


Some time ago, my writers' group chose to share images of their working environment. These were some of mine. I work in a room full of books, the greater part of them consisting of my late husband David's lifetime's collection of Fantasy and Science Fiction. This small collection sits just to the right of my computer, and the bits and bobs in front of the books hold very personal memories for me. There are two Walker Christmas bears dating from the years I was regularly published by Walker Books (any previously published Walker authors may recognise these - the one on the left came in a kit).  Next to the cuddly bear stands a parrot whose significance I have long forgotten, but I do love him. And then there's a shadowy image of something I will now show you in more detail - yes, it's a pottery cat, and it could well be flying. It reminded David of the flying/gliding kitten in my junior novel DRAGONCAT so he bought it for me.

As you might know, I've recently been working on a screenplay based on one of my early books which has attracted film interest (I'm not allowed to tell you which one yet as it's all under wraps). It has been a fascinating exercise and challenge, involving delving far more deeply into my characters' personalities and lives than I had when I first wrote the book. At present I'm waiting for the next stage which is legal and rights-related, so I won't bore you with that, but script and writing-wise I'm suffering from post-natal depression which, if you either write or give birth - neither very different - you'll know about.

On the subject of boring one's readers, I've recently received a 31 page brief from a (nameless) publisher I occasionally work with. Usually I'm delighted to receive a brief - these days they're a bit thin on the ground - but this one filled me with utter despair. It was like reading one of those wooden English translations from another language, and unbelievably depressing. For anyone out there who is self-published, I do find myself wondering who edits the publishers these days (comments more than welcome.) This may be the first time I will not be responding. Naively, I'd always assumed that well-written attention-grabbing stories were what young readers needed (remember all those fantastic books you encountered - like Dr Seuss - when you or your kids were little?) but the Education Mafia seems to think otherwise.

On the subject of the recent American election, I have said more than enough, so will not repeat myself here, although as a Homo Sapiens-type ape of the female gender, I could do a really deafening jungle SCREAM! 

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Sometimes you simply need 800 pages to do a story justice – Andrew Crofts.

This month I spent a week with a client in Saigon, getting a feel for their life and for their city. I’ve not been before so my expectations had been largely shaped by Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, news coverage throughout my younger life and the musical, “Miss Saigon”.

It’s called Ho Chi Minh City now of course, but that doesn’t sound nearly as romantic. It is also sprouting tower blocks, making the riverside skyline indistinguishable from other Far Eastern boom towns from Hong Kong and Beijing to Singapore and Bangkok – or even Canary Wharf for that matter.

At street level, however, some of the old magic still simmers and steams in the wet heat. You can still sit at a pavement table outside the Continental Palace Hotel or in the roof bars of the Caravelle or the Majestic, and imagine Greene lurking in a corner. 

the+quiet.jpg (316×475)

A figure as obviously foreign as me will still be offered massages by street girls and shoe shine services by young entrepreneurs as he strolls around the city centre, dodging the million or so scooters and mopeds that swarm like noisy murmurs of starlings.

Although Vietnam was one of the key words on the lips of newsreaders for so much of my life, I realised I never really understood what had happened and since I always like to be reading a book about the places I visit while I am there I downloaded Saigon, a mighty saga by Anthony Grey.  

Had I gone to buy a print version I would undoubtedly have noticed that it was 800 pages long and might well have chickened out. I’m glad that didn’t happen. Mr. Grey told the ghastly history of the country through the stories of three families, one Vietnamese, one American and one French, making it gripping and digestible. By the time I visited the city’s horrific “war crimes” museum I was consequently much more able to understand the nuances behind the gruesome and shaming displays.

Normally I am a huge advocate of brevity and hate it when publishers ask authors to pad out books simply to make them look substantial, but sometimes you actually do need 800 pages to do a story like Saigon’s justice.

I was staying at the Intercontinental, one of the new towers, at the foot of which a small pedestrianised street ran through to their version of Nôtre Dame Cathedral. It was called “Book Street” because every shop was a small, open fronted bookshop, (apart from a couple of “book themed” coffee shops). The range of books available was not wide and most people seemed to be more interested in taking selfies than actually buying or reading any of them, but the buzz was energetic and charming and made me think that perhaps the international market for the printed word will continue to limp along for a little while yet.  

Saturday, 26 November 2016

Authors and Publishers: Dipika Mukherjee considers a relationship-in-progress

In our modern western world Authors and Publishers rarely meet, let alone become good friends. 

Growing up in India, I had heard the stories of the Bengali Renaissance being ushered in by a small group of writers and publishers who were also friends, including giants like Ram Mohan Roy, Isvar Chandra Vidyasagar and Michael Madhusudan Dutt who mentored new voices as well as wrote powerfully. As an underduate student of English Literature, I read of the Hogarth Press run by the Woolfs, which gave a voice to the Bloomsbury group.
Unfortunately my very first experience of publishing was anything but congenial and friendly. I had gone to meet the publisher of Penguin, India, then headed by a man who had turned Penguin’s fortunes around in Asia and was considered no less than a God. It was made clear to me that it was my great fortune that he was meeting me at all, and after he rejected the book proposal I had come with but signed me on to edit an anthology of Southeast Asian Writing, I took those crumbs as manna from the heavens.
An early Penguin experience taught me to value the small independent publishers. Those in India and Malaysia have become good friends and colleagues, often my first readers. 
I have two publishers in London now, and perhaps due to geographical distance, I had never met them. Most of our conversations are on email, and although I have met my publicists multiple times, the editors seemed to be harder to meet.
I am in London now, to receive the Virginia Prize for fiction 2016, and launch Shambala Junction. The prize ceremony on Nov 23 in Richmond, in the place where the Woolfs started their Hogarth Press was incredibly moving, especially as my husband and son flew in from the US for the ceremony. I also finally met Cheryl Robson, Aurora Metro's most gracious publisher, who had offered to host me in her home for my launch.
The day after the book launch, we set out for the home of the publisher of Repeater Press, Tariq Goddard. Repeater had published Ode To Broken Things in May 2016, and the book was selling well; they had also just sold the audiobooks rights to Audible. But more than the sales, I had been intrigued by the emails exchanged with Tariq for over a year and a half, where he had vacillated between diplomatically telling me to stop being a prima donna to making it clear how much he loved Ode To Broken Things despite some the edits I was unwilling to make.

We stayed overnight at an 1850s farmhouse, a messy wonderful home with hidden nooks and corners stuffed with books, two children and a dog. We had a delicious meal over wine and whiskey and conversation, discussing the living local writers in the area (V.S Naipaul and Vikram Seth) as well as the dead (Thomas Hardy). 
In the morning we talked over Proust and Ferrante over tea as the sun rose over gentle green hills, the blue skies a welcome change from the recent Delhi smog. I had found someone with whom I could talk freely about how tortured I was about my next book, which wanted to be a memoir but I'd have to make it creative non-fiction if I wanted to preserve familial relationships. We talked about writing about bereavement and pain.

Looking at my family at my publisher’s home, I realized that this was the culmination of a lifelong dream, of writing talking me to beautiful places filled with erudite and witty minds. Of living many lives in the one I have been given. 
It is a very Happy Thanksgiving indeed this year. 

Friday, 25 November 2016

So. You're A Writer, Are You? - by Susan Price

When Sarah Towle asked me to explain to the audience at our SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. Catchy name) panel how I began as a conventionally published writer but am now, mostly, a self-publishing writer, I suddenly saw my career in terms of the three questions I've been asked repeatedly. This is the one that I started hearing as soon as I started publishing.

So. You're a 'writer', are you?

You see, I signed my first contract at the age of 16.

When people asked what I did, and I said, "I'm a writer," it caused cognitive disruption. Because, obviously, I was too young to be a writer, since writers are all at least 40. Or they're 80 and pickled in cigarettes.
   Even after I stopped looking young, I still had a Black Country accent. Which, obviously, writers never do. So I couldn't possibly be simply stating what I did. I must be a fantasist. Somebody who scribbled as 'a nice little hobby' and day-dreamed about being published but never had been.
     This is partly why I started answering the question, "What do you do?" with, "I work with a word-processor."  Which effectively ended that conversation.

After the total reached 63, I lost count of the number of books I'd published.

In 1987, I won the Carnegie medal for The Ghost Drum.

And in 1997, I won the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize for The Sterkarm Handshake, a book full of fighting and bloodshed.

Here's the second question I'm always getting asked.

Almost every writer for children I've ever met is sick of being asked this.

What? Like Alice in Wonderland? When I worked in a university as a Royal Literary Fund Fellow, one of the lecturers came to me with a novel they'd written. Very badly. For adults.
     I tried to give some tips on improving it but was cut short and told: "You can't understand what I'm trying to achieve because you only write for children." It says a lot for my self-discipline and restraint that the lecturer left my office without a mark.
     I often think I'd like to set people who ask this question an essay to write. Discuss, on both sides of the paper, how writing for children is less proper, or easier, than writing for adults. What part of the difficult craft of writing can you dispense with when you write for children?
     Required reading, before writing this essay, is, 'The Mouse and His Child,' by Russell Hoban. And Gaiman's 'Coraline.' Perhaps even, The Ghost Drum, which one critic described as 'a child's primer in realpolitik.' But not proper books, any of them.

And then it was 

The bankers did their stuff and the publishing industry suffered. Also, both my parents were ill around this time and died within a year of each other. As a result, I didn't write or publish anything much for four years. Just as an actor who isn't constantly on the TV is thought to be dead, if you don't publish a book a year, you vanish from the consciousness of the publishing industry - and, publishers assume, from that of readers.
     A lot of my books were going out of print at about this time, too. These three, for instance.

I've often read The Wolf's Footprint aloud in primary schools, and the children always seem to be gripped by its tale of a brother and sister, about their age, who're abandoned in a forest as darkness falls and the wolves come... Ever since it went OOP, I've had email after email, from schools, parents and grandparents, asking where it can be bought. At public appearances at least one person would ask me the same question. But no new publisher could be found for it.
     It was a similar story with The Ghost Drum. It had two sequels, Ghost Song and Ghost Dance. Emails asked me where these books could be bought. People at festivals and talks were disbelieving when I told them they were out of print. More than once I've been asked, "Why is a Carnegie winner out of print?" Well, it seems there's no demand.
     I wrote a fourth book in the series, Ghost Spell and suggested to my then agent that we find a new publisher for all four books. Or, at least, for the new book and Ghost Drum. She was keen. She thought it 'a done deal.'  But there was no deal to be had.
     And The Sterkarm Handshake. Out of print. The same story. I wrote the third book, A Sterkarm Tryst and, again, my agent thought she could find a new publisher. She couldn't.

And then my friend, Katherine Roberts, sent me an email.

"Have you seen this?" it said, and when I followed the link, it brought me to-

Kath and I had been talking about how the internet was, inevitably, going to change the publishing business and wondering how writers could take advantage of the change, as musicians had done. Because of the expense of printing, storing, distributing and advertising books and because, like most writers, we were broke, we hadn't got anywhere. But here was Amazon, offering us a chance to create and distribute ebooks at no  upfront cost. We were interested.
     We both downloaded the Amazon Terms and Conditions, read through them carefully and compared notes. Neither of us could find any reason not to try it.
     Kath is an ex-programmer and has a degree in maths (which as an innumerate I find all kinds of impressive.) She taught herself the basics and passed on her knowledge to me and several other people.
     She also pointed out that, as there were already over 2 million books on sale on Amazon at that time (2011) we had to do something to publicise the fact that our books were available.

That's why we started Authors Electric. And what a good idea that was. We now have a lively little on-line community that can be counted on for help, advice, support and laughs.

When we started, I found the task of creating an ebook head-banging. But, as with everything I've learned, it turned suddenly from ^%£(*!!* impossible to, well, not easy perhaps, but close to it. And, as before, it was impossible to say where the switch took place. There never seems to be a gradual shading from impossible to possible. It always seems that, one day, you're rattling through the job and you think: Hey! Wasn't I finding this painfully difficult last week?
     And there was a lot of help from various members of Authors Electric along the way, Most of us were trying to climb the same learning-curve and we helped each other.
     My advice to anyone trying to learn anything is: Stick at it. Grit the teeth and stick at it, even if you're fed up to the back of those teeth. One day, without warning, it will suddenly become clear.
     But there's no rest. As soon as we'd mastered ebooks, along came Createspace and the opportunity to publish paperbacks. I came late to the paperbacks, but Authors Electric were as full of help and advice as ever and now, when people ask me where they can buy The Wolf's Footprint or The Ghost Drum, I can direct them to Amazon.

But now, of course, I hear the third question


To which I can only reply:


The Sterkarm books have found another publisher in Open Road. The first two are now available in paperback and ebook and the third, A Sterkarm Tryst, will be published in January.
The Ghost World Books (The Ghost Drum, Ghost Song and Ghost Dance) are now all available as paperbacks and ebooks. 

This is an edited version of a talk I gave at the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) Conference on 20th November, 2016. My fellow speakers were Sarah Towle, Karen Inglis and the writer-illistrator, Roxie Munro.