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Over the past few months I've travelled the length and breadth of Great Britain visiting lots of schools and libraries to share stories, poems and rhymes, talk about writing and being a writer, lead writing workshops and answer any and all questions - it's usually fun and inspiring and always utterly exhausting.
My aim is to get children enthused and excited about books and stories, reading and writing - and also to try and demystify the process of writing and being an author - and of course to promote myself and my books at the same time. To make each session personal and unique to the groups I'm working with I encourage lots of questions and interaction as the sessions progress, and barring a few exceptions, the questions posed are generally of the same type - Where do you get your ideas? How much do you earn? What's your favourite animal? I've got a cat!!! and Are you famous? (always a little deflating that one - but no... I'm not famous). With this final question, however, I like to play a little game...
I always tell the audience (children and adults alike) that there are lots of brilliant authors that write books for children but there aren't many really famous ones. People involved with children's books - be it authors, publishers, librarians etc can make a long list of authors, but sadly, it's not as easy for others.
I'm a little naughty with this game as I tell the audience that they should name an author that is still alive (and they should also try and name a different one from the person next to them) but to compensate for this I do give the group three lives...
There are some exceptions but sadly, most groups do not progress very far before losing all of their lives. Some children can't name any authors at all and look completely blank - I'm a nice guy and tell them not to worry (no need to embarrass an individual child) - so quickly move on to the next.
I've made a note of the answers that have been bounced back over the last few months and here they are (in no particular order);
J.K. Rowling, Roald Dahl, Enid Blyton, Dav Pilky, Jeff Kinney, Julia Donaldson, You (raised eyebrow and smile here), Jacqueline Wilson, David Walliams, Francesca Simon, Michael Morpurgo, Dick King Smith and a few more (but not many).
In a couple of schools other authors have been named too - Malorie Blackman, Steve Cole, Adam Blade, Daisy Meadows and William Shakespeare to name a few.
The point of the game is to show that fame isn't everything and that few writers write to become famous - there's more to life than that (keep telling yourself this and I'm sure it'll be fine) - just why writers, or me in particular, write, will be the subject of a later post...
Teachers often pop their hands up so they can join in the game, but occasionally not - and for some reason or other the devil inside can't help encouraging them to join in whether they want to or not. At a recent bout of sessions held in a library, children from a school that had been targeted as being reluctant readers were brought in. During the session the Fame Game was played and teachers were encouraged to join in. I, and the librarians were dismayed when the two teachers only managed to name one author between them and then declared that they weren't really book people !!! And they wonder why the children are reluctant readers...
Finding time to read out loud to children in a class isn't always easy - there are lots of things in a school day that can eat up the time and reading and sharing books and stories can easily get pushed to the back... but it's such an important thing to do and it's something that continues to be important even when children can read for themselves.
So no... being famous isn't important. There are far more important things than that... though the money that can go with fame would be most welcome.
7th March 2013 was World Book Day. As usual, the requests came in: “Would you like to visit our school for Book Week...the children would love to meet a real, live author”. This year I visited primaries in Sheffield, Leeds, North Yorkshire and Edinburgh and, now that all the rushing about is over, I’ve time to reflect a bit about what authors can bring to schools.
When I visit a school, part of it is “the talk” – often to an assembly group. In this session I’m trying to do a few things: share my excitement about books and reading, get across that reading is not a “worthy” activity but something that can take you into new worlds and generate real, edge-of –the-seat excitement; and convey that my job is fundamentally about STORY – creating narratives that people want to read, and where all the time they are demanding “what happens next?”
It’s important for primary children to realise that this is an entirely different skill to handwriting, spelling or punctuation (which they may be bad at, and heartily dislike.) It’s not necessarily got much to do with adverbs, “openers”, “connectives” or “wow words” either. These are just parts of the tool-kit, that can be brought out when required. The aim is to create the world – the characters within it – and their story. As well as talking to the children, I do workshops. I spend a lot of time preparing these, and asking myself the question – what extra thing can I, as a writer, bring to the children? What can I provide, that a teacher, however well-trained and inspired, might not?
....What if your mother was a witch?
Increasingly, I focus on story. A lot of the writing that children do is not based around creating stories – yet for me, that is the key part of being a writer. And it’s hard, incredibly hard, to come up with a gripping story – one that holds attention, suspends disbelief and both surprises and satisfies.
Imagine Jessica's problem....
So most of my workshops are about finding different ways into a story. Whether it’s about inventing a surprising character (a mermaid who can’t swim, a dragon that can’t breathe fire), looking at a place you know and searching out the things that happen there, or thinking about a “What If...” situation...What if your mother was a witch? (Jessica Haggerthwaite: Witch Dispatcher). What if your new dog turned out to be a wolf? (Wolfie).
Some of the most fun I’ve had in schools recently has been creating stories in groups. I start the ball rolling...”What is your character’s name?” “How old are they?” And in a surprisingly short time we will develop a story...sometimes an amazing story, in which I will be astonished by the creativity and imagination all around me. “I think I’ll steal this one for my next book” I tell them (actually quite tempted!)
Best of all are the comments from teachers, about the children who have taken their stories home, or gone on working at them at playtime or in class. Sometimes I’m sent copies of the finished versions!
No, not visits from dead authors. I mean seeing author events from the other side, the side that's not the author's side. And not from the audience's side, either. From the event organiser's side.
I was thinking this the other day, after writing another blog post about organising author events, which was aimed at organisers. It struck me that sometimes we - the people giving the talk - spend a lot of time working to make sure that the audience has a beneficial experience and also a fair amount of time afterwards fretting about whether we've been given coffee, treated well, introduced properly, paid sufficiently, respected. Those things - how well we prepare and how well we are looked after - are very important to the overall experience of not just us, but our audience, because if we are relaxed and positive we are likely to do a better job. But they are far from the whole story and we may have become blind to something else important and useful.
How about we walk a mile in the shoes of the event organiser? I'm not talking about stealing their shoes, though if they were gorgeous I might well be tempted. I'm talking about looking inside their heads, properly, sympathetically, and then using what we find there to help create a really good event, one that is not only great for the audience and us but great for the person who bridges the void between the audience and us, person who can make a real difference: the organiser. Because just as the event is better when I'm happy, the event is better when the organiser is happy, too.
Let's call the event organiser Mary. (This is not code for "I'm thinking of an actual person called Mary but let's pretend I'm not." As far as I can remember I don't know a Mary who has ever organised an event for me. It's just a name, and a very nice one.)
Mary may be nervous about meeting us. This is apparent from phrases we often hear Mary use when introducing us to people, such as "real live author" or "famous author", or from her high-pitched laugh or her exasperated voice as she tells a group of kids, "I told you five times that the library would be closed at lunch-time - we have an author visit." To Mary, we are not just a stranger, we are a stranger who has been dominating her emails/work/life for a few weeks or months; we are a stranger who may be strange - and often are; we are a stranger who may wreck her day and reputation by delivering a bad event; we are a stranger whose services take up some of her department's precious money; we are a stranger who may actually be "famous"; we are a stranger who may be judging her and leaping to wrong conclusions about her.
Mary's nerves may also be apparent from the fact that she forgets to introduce us, or introduces us badly, or says, "This is Nicola Morgan, who needs no introduction." She may genuinely think I need no introduction. I do very need one, because without one I feel inadequate, but Mary doesn't know that. She just wants to get the hell off the stage and back into the audience. I had one organiser once who was so nervous that she forgot my name entirely, at the very moment when she said, "I'd like to welcome..."
Mary has other things to do than my event. My event is not actually the most important thing in her life. It may well be the most important thing of that week, possibly even longer, but it's not the only thing she's worrying about.
Mary has no idea what I'm feeling. She has never had to "perform" in front of a large audience of 14year-old strangers. She probably thinks, if she thinks about it at all, that because I've done it for years I am totally relaxed. She would almost be right, but it's that "almost" that's crucial. She certainly doesn't know that there are several innocent things she can do which will topple my equilibrium. Years ago, before I was published, I had to organise an author visit to my daughters' school. I'm cringing as I think about how little I understood what those "famous" authors were thinking or how cack-handedly I treated them, but I know that I was wrapped up in my own stress.
Mary is worried that she might have forgotten something. She's made a huge list on the back of her repeat prescription form, but, although she knows she's done everything on the list, apart from order her repeat prescription, she's still worried she might have forgotten to put something on the list in the first place. Which is worrying.
She is also worried that George is going to do his mad-March-hare-crazy misbehaving thing again and she is particularly worried because she's just noticed that George is sitting next to Michael, which she'd expressly asked the teachers to make sure didn't happen, not least because Michael is supposed to be leaving early for his anger management class.
She is not only worried: she is also excited. She has a lot invested in this day. She had to bid for the funding and she's going to have to justify the outcomes. She really wants it to go well. She wants the pupils to be inspired by the talk, library borrowings and reading interest to rise in the ensuing weeks, the teachers to feel it was worthwhile and me to be happy and impressed with the school, the pupils and the library and...and...she's studying my face as I arrive and I'm looking a bit tense and now she's worried that I've just had the experience of walking through the foyer while Year 9 were stampeding to lunch. Or meeting Shannon and Donna from Year 10, who she's pretty sure are waiting outside the Head's office. Because they often are.
So, Mary is nervous, worried and excited and that's a recipe for things not to be completely perfect.
How can we, the authors, help Mary and therefore help ourselves? In my view, it's simple, as soon as weve have recognised what Mary's shoes feel like to walk in. Here are my five tips:
1. Prepare Mary. Make sure that she knows exactly what we need, in advance. In my case, these needs are on my website, on the page which I have asked her to read, and can be summed up as follows: a) she (or someone) will give me an introduction which makes the kids feel they are going to have a great event b) the kids will have been prepared and at least some will have looked at my website and thought about questions c) a few minutes of peace and quiet just before an event and between events. That's all. If Mary knows that, she can stop a whole load of her worrying.
2. Remind Mary. Mary may have forgotten everything in point 1 above, so remind her a couple of days before the event.
3. Forgive Mary. Because you have walked in her shoes and noticed that they are a bit leaky in wet weather and not really as comfortable as they could be. Especially the bit pressing on the toe that the pile of books fell on last week.
4. Smile at Mary. Smile at everybody you meet, even George and Michael and Shannon and Donna. Smile when you arrive. Smile when you shake Mary's hand. Smile as you walk with her to the library and after she's told the kids yet again that the library is closed because there's an author visit. As the well-known saying almost goes: "Smile and Mary will smile with you." And then everything will be all right and, if it isn't, smile anyway.
I honestly think point 4 is far more important than we might think. It's about first impressions, chemistry, putting people at ease. You're a bit anxious, but Mary is more anxious; take control of the situation; don't be a victim of Mary's anxiety or your own - cure it with a smile. Even if Year 9 did stampede all over you on their way to lunch and you met George on a mad March hare crazy day and Michael when he'd forgotten his medication and Shannon and Donna when they were just being Shannon and Donna. George, Michael, Shannon and Donna are probably nervous, too. And Mary. Besides you get to go home and not come back; they don't.
And you have chocolate in your bag. Because that's the fifth tip: Have chocolate in your bag.
You’re publishing a book so you are bound to have a book launch? Right? Wrong. Of the many children’s books published each year, few are “launched” – at least, not in the traditional manner with nibbles and champagne. There may be a flurry of activity on Facebook. Or it may just be that the author buys herself a celebratory cappuccino that morning, or even, sitting at her desk, suddenly thinks “wait a minute, wasn’t my new book out today?”
I’d never had a book launch. But for my 2011 book How Not To Make Bad Children Good, I did have a book signing at Waterstones in Leeds. As it turned out, lots of people came along, the store sold out of the book, and there was a real “buzz” in store. So when Wolfie came out, I decided to take the next step and have an official launch party.
Waterstones very kindly offered me a Friday evening after the store was closed, glasses for drinks, and staff to hand them out. Other than that (my publisher could only support me from a distance) I knew the organisation was mainly down to me.
Was it a wise decision? A few hours before, with my voice a mere croak from a bad cold, no idea of how many people were turning up, no posters in store, no idea where to park (without taking out a second mortgage), and my nearest and dearest stuck on trains across the country, it felt like a very bad idea indeed.
But then... my sister designed a poster and the local print shop printed it in minutes. My baking pal produced lovely eats – and she knew where to park, too. Suddenly there were crowds of little wolves running about the aisles, their parents were happily quaffing, my voice held out...just about...as I did my reading. People were queuing to buy the books and get them signed. I met some fans of my previous books. It was actually fun!
So should you have a book launch for your book? Maybe. Here are some things to consider.
1) It’s a great way to tell people about your book. You can invite not only friends and family, but also schools where you have visited, librarians, reading groups, book festival organisers, bookshop owners, journalists and so forth. Whether or not they come, you are still reminding them about you and your book. And when children turn up because they have loved your previous books, that is very special.
2) Media Coverage. A launch event is more interesting to journalists than simply “local author writes book”. I got coverage in the local newspaper, on various blogs, and local radio.
3) Social Media. Again, a launch is something to shout about on Facebook and Twitter, and is especially good for FB as you can post lots of photos. (So make sure there are photos!)
4) Book sales – I suppose this is the big question. Does it have an impact? All I can say is that Waterstones were delighted with sales on the day, and the Amazon rating was right up in the following weeks.
5) Above all, though, it’s FUN, and celebrates the fact that your book is finally, after so much hard work, in print!
1) It’s a LOT of work. Unless you are in the cushy position of having an event organiser, then you are going to be sending invites (and personal ones are best), writing press releases, organising food, liaising with the bookshop etc. It’s time that could be spent writing.
2) Don’t even think about it unless you know lots of people to invite. Remember, many you invite won’t be able to come. Few people will walk in off the street – unless you are a “name”. And if it’s a kids’ book, then you need to know people in the right age group. If you don’t, it may be better to do a school or other group-based event instead.
1) For a children’s event, you need children, and they like to have things to do. My book is about a wolf, so I had wolf-themed Word Searches, Colouring Sheets, Quizzes and Dressing-Up and a competition to Guess How Many Hamburgers A Wolf Can Eat in One Setting (its ninety, amazingly). For a kids’ event (probably any event) keep readings – and any speeches – SHORT.
2) Photos. Press tend to have quite strict requirements for photos. They like faces, looking straight at camera, and closely cropped. Tell your photographer in advance. If using your own camera, make sure the BATTERY IS CHARGED. Ask children’s parents if they are happy for their children’s images to be used.
3) Exploit your friends! You may not be able to make wonderful refreshments, design great posters, take publishable photos etc, but you probably know people who can. So ask them. And then thank them and pay them, if it is appropriate, or give them a lovely present.
4) Cake. You can now order cakes with your book’s cover from supermarkets or online companies. Easy, inexpensive and delicious!
5) Invite a Group. Library-based book groups, brownies cubs, scouts may all be interested. Schools, though, can be less receptive than you’d think – most teachers are busy, and not looking for extra outings, and head teachers may be reluctant to publicise events that only certain pupils can attend. On the other hand, I invited the Friends group from my local park, where some of my story is set, and although the age-group seemed wrong several came along to buy signed copies for their grandchildren.
6) Think About Stock. If your launch is at a bookshop, bear in mind that they will not want to be left with lots of unsold copies, and will order cautiously. On the other hand, you don’t want people who are keen to buy being unable to do so. So it’s a good idea for you or your publisher to bring along extra stock, which the bookshop can sell (and then replace later) if its own stock runs out.
7) For press coverage you need to get your timing right, and you need to write a snappy press release. Don’t assume that journalists will have time to interview you or write insightful pieces about your work – instead write good copy yourself and provide strong images. Send out press releases in the week before and tweet local media. I found one good tactic was to put the press release on my web-site and tweet the link. Send out photos as soon after the event as possible. And finally:
8) RELAX. You can’t completely control your book launch. So long as you are not collapsing drunkenly in the aisles (this is not the publicity you are looking for) you might as well enjoy it!
It’s been a busy couple of weeks. Those around World Book Day always are. I’ve been at the Whatever It Takes Author Week in Leicester, the Aye Write Festival in Glasgow, and schools in Gloucestershire, Surrey, Essex & Nottinghamshire.
I’ve also been at the International School of Aberdeen, where in addition to some of my usual sessions they asked me to do a few sessions on poetry for older children.
I don’t normally work with groups above primary-age - simply because I don’t often visit schools that aren’t primaries -
The scene from my hotel window!
and the last time I did instructional work on poetry I was a teacher rather than a visiting author; but, well, I thought, why not? Because I’m really nervous about it, a voice in my head replied, but I ignored it and got thinking.
Planning has never been my forte - too much of it and I find it difficult to adapt on the spur of the moment - so I decided the best plan was to fling a few ideas into the cauldron of my cerebrum, stir them round, and leave them to stew.
One thing I knew I was going to need, though, was a practical sort of joining-in activity that would get some kind of response from the group without putting any pressure on the individual. I settled on bubbles.
The simple bubble-wand was one of my main props as a supply teacher. I got the idea from a former colleague, the lovely Mrs Pam Hotchkiss (hello, Pam, if you’re reading this!). It’s beautifully simple. You blow some bubbles, get the kids to describe them, ask them to elaborate on the description, and take it from there; and one of the lovely things about it is that it adapts for any age. I, er, hoped. I’d never tried it with secondary-school kids.
Well, I tried it with the first group - 8th-Graders: 12-14 years old, I suppose, though they looked bigger and older than that. They’d been great, but there had been a certain amount of Teenage Cool in the room. Until I took out the wand and blew.
“Ooooh! Bubbles!!!” Instantly, some of their reserve just, well, popped. It was great. We talked about them in general terms, got a few words to describe them - fragile, colourful, that sort of thing - and then we began to differentiate.
As the conversation developed, it became clear that these meant different things to different children. One said they reminded her of pink skies in the morning; another of unstable chemical compounds.
One girl said they reminded her of funerals. There was a bit of nervous giggling around her. I asked her why.
“Well,” she said, smiling, “at my friend’s funeral they blew bubbles over the coffin, and we’d been all sad, but suddenly it was happy again.”
That was a moment, I can tell you, and it wasn’t the only one. At another point during the session, the subject of the bubbles’ endings came up. We’d been talking about how they drift down.
“And what happens then?” I asked.
There was a pause, during which I waited for the usual reflections on mortality. And then one boy put his hand up.
I've had a book birthday this week - Bear's Best Friend is born and out in the world now, and garnering some nice reviews and media attention, (which is a thing that always makes authors happy). The ever-wonderful Armadillo Magazine have done an interview with me, which you can read HERE - there's a signed copy of the book to win there too, so it's well worth having a look!
Of course, a book birthday also means that the Publicity Event Train sets out on its journey round the country. Normally, I talk to schools and festivals about Greek myths. I've been giving my Journey Into Greek Myth talk for many years. I know my stuff, and it's a well-honed, well-oiled machine by now. But Bear's Best Friend is a picture book. I've been out of the picture book loop for a long time, so as well as giving birth to a book, I've also had to give birth to a brand new event to go with it. Luckily this time, I don't have to do it alone. For the first time ever I'm part of a double act, since my wonderful illustrator,Sarah Dyeris an integral part of this new creation.
As a writer, working with an illustrator is, for me, a bit like magic. There are my words, spilled out of my head and onto paper in black and white rows, and then there they are, magically translated into pictures through the amazing lens of an artist’s imagination. It's a process that never ceases to amaze me. But doing a joint gig? How was that going to work? Who would go first? How would we structure the event? It was a step into the unknown for both of us.
We talked a lot on the phone. We emailed each other ideas. What emerged was an interactive event based around our Bear's (slightly strange) hobby of topiary, with parts for both of us to play, including props of bear ears/hats, leaves, a foolproof way to draw a teddy, and, of course, many many bears. But would it work in practice?
On Saturday, we set off to find out, and I'm glad to report that the answer is - it did, brilliantly! Sarah and I have just finished our first ever joint session at the fabulous Seven Stories in Newcastle (which I wrote about here a couple of months ago). Public events can be tricky to handle, but not only did we manage to get through storytelling, animal noises and chatting about best friends (my bit), but also an incredible amount of top-notch creative stuff (Sarah's bit). By the end, the whole place was a sea of Beary pictures, some of which were pretty impressive, given that the average age of the artists was 3 1/2. (I'm sorry I can't show them to you here due to a slight technical hitch on the photography front).
Now that we've cracked the whole joint event thing, I'm looking forward to doing a lot more with Sarah. We'll be at the Tales on Moon Lane Bookshop on Tuesday 28th May and at the Discover Story Centre on 1st June, so do come and see us in action if you're nearby and have small kids. I can't speak for Sarah, but personally I can't wait to put on my fluffy bear ears again! Lucy and Sarah's new picture book, Bear's Best Friend, is published by Bloomsbury "A charming story about the magic of friendship which may bring a tear to your eye" Parents in Touch "The language is a joy…thoughtful and enjoyable" Armadillo Magazine. Her latest series for 7-9s, Greek Beasts and Heroesis out now from Orion Children's Books.
I entered an exclusive club recently... A friend, who’s a teacher, had been very excited at the prospect of my first novel coming out and immediately suggested I did an author visit at her school.
In November, I got an email from her telling me how much she’d loved reading my book... but that in fact she and the head of English didn’t feel it had ‘appropriate content to promote to our students.’
Her reasons were that the issues touched upon - single parent families in inner city London, a little on teen pregnancy, drug abuse (but these aren’t the main themes of the story, which is more about forgiveness and belonging) were beyond the realms of the experience of their students at this small independent school.
So, what to make of it?
Recently I’ve seen some slightly Shocked and Appalled responses to such instances - cries of book banning and the stifling of pupils. But I just wanted to give a shout out in defense of teachers and librarians who have to make this call.
Saying an author’s book might not be right for the demographic of students represented at a particular school is not the same as banning that book.
Teachers have a responsibility of care for all their students, and while some might be ready to discuss certain issues or explore realities beyond their own experience, maybe some are not. Isn’t this the very reason teen fiction isn’t put into age categories? So whilst I've been to some schools where the librarians have got Year 7s reading my novel, I've been to others where I've met with the Sixth Form.
Is discussing issues raised in a book the same as 'promoting' its content? Are teachers too conservative?
Twenty years ago if you had told me I would be writing this today I would probably have laughed at the very idea. I had no real aspirations to be a published writer, in fact it was not even on the horizon. I got my first publishing contract in 1996 and I have never looked back. Today I can't imagine why I didn't start writing long before that.
I often tell my young audiences 'I have the best job in the world'
Having a job doing something you love is a delight and a privilege, even if it is almost scary (just in case someone decides that you are actually a fraud and stops letting you do it any more!). To discover that a book I have written has encouraged someone to start reading is wonderful. To hear that someone has enjoyed reading my books or is encouraged to start writing themselves because of something I have said or written, lights up my day.
I'm not saying there aren't times when it is hard and things are not quite so wonderful. It seems like all doom and gloom out there, with all the problems that libraries, librarians and school librarians are having with closures, no funding and job cuts, and the retail side of things being squashed until there are so few bookshops left; not to mention publishers and publishing contracts being even harder to come by.
But despite all that.....
But what's not to like?
I wake up in the morning and I get to be anyone or anything I like.
A 'booky' dragon or perhaps a secret agent,
a teenager, a five year old child, a man or a woman, a boy or a girl
Last weekend I went to see Swallows and Amazons. It’s a musical version, currently touring theatres across the country, and probably the best children’s show I’ve ever seen.
As well as being funny, clever and moving, having a great story and songs which are still going round and round my head, it was also thought-provoking. John, Susan, Titty and Roger are – wait for it – twelve, eleven, nine and seven (and the seven-year-old can’t swim) when they are set loose on their yacht, unaccompanied, to sail and camp around a Cumbrian lake.
I love competitions and find it pretty hard to resist entering a writing one, even if I hardly ever win. I think they're a great way to practice writing and beat the dreaded writers block and you never know when that story might come in useful.
I'd like to say a huge thank you to everyone who entered some of the recent ones there's been for 'The Great Escape.'
And Congratulations go to Bethany Westoby from Hamstel Junior School who won the NPM Great Escape competition with her story entry 'Canine Confessions' and received a signed copy of the book and an author visit to her school.
And congratulations to Samuel Hart who won The Scribbler magazine competition with his story about Huxley to win a copy of the book and an mp3 player.
And congratulations to everyone who won books in the Bedford Link competition and the Your Cat giveaway.
And finally congratulations to Little M, Danilo Paganelli and Shahini Vijay who won books in the girlsheartbooks contest - and look out for the Cat Magic one coming in August.
There's only 10 days left... to enter Young Times and Puffin's 'My Pet, My Hero' competition before it closes on the 31st July and judging by the enthusiastic response every time I mention it on a school visit there's going to be an awful lot of entries!
The prize is to name a character in my next book. I've found that what most of the children would really like is to have their pet's name in the book - or even their pet.
This week I visited Hamstel Junior School in Southend where Bethany had won a nationwide story-writing competition with a great story told from a collie puppy's POV.
I asked the 120 or so Year 6 children at Hamstel if any of them had a pet they thought was brave enough to star in my next book set during the Blitz in WW2. Most of the children thought they had. One thought his cat would jump on a burglars head,
To my mind, Edinburgh is the acme of Book Festivals. That doesn’t mean I don’t love visiting others too. But because it’s my original home town, Edinburgh will always be special.
I’ve been going to Edinburgh for years – mostly to the children’s events. It was here, a few years back, that I got to see two of my childhood idols: Anthony Buckeridge, the creator of the hilarious Jennings, and Diana Wynne Jones, who wrote Howl’s Moving Castle.
I’ve been able to prowl around the fabulous book tents, scoff the fabulous ice-cream and even sneak into the authors’ yurt, when invited by my lovely publisher or author friends. So naturally it’s become a burning ambition to do an event at Edinburgh myself.
Last year it almost came true when my book How (Not) To Make Bad Children Good came out at the same time as the Festival, and I signed the first ever copy of the first edition in the Festival bookshop. And this year it finally happened. I was asked to do an event. I was to present my book, Wolfie – hot off the presses – to a tent full of Edinburgh school children.
Yay hay! In triumphant mood I went along to the yurt to collect my author’s pass and complimentary tickets. Complimentary tickets! I gloated over them for a little while. Then I had a quick nose into the yurt itself. It’s a lovely space, but at that moment bursting with scary looking literary types, all deep in conversation. I slunk out and decided to check out the book tent first.
Dismay! I couldn’t find my books. Then I realised they were there – and spread out over two stands.
I had a couple of days before my event and I made good use of them. One session I enjoyed was with sci-fi writer Neal Stephenson, and scientist and novelist Jennifer Rohmer, about the lack of scientists in fiction. I’m well aware of that. My own books, Jessica Haggerthwaite: Witch Dispatcher (and now Wolfie) are two of the few I’ve encountered for children where science is integral to the plot.
I also made a diversion to visit Parliament. The Holyrood one. As part of the Festival of Politics, there was a Carnegie-sponsored panel discussion on children’s reading, with author Theresa Breslin among others, and I was able to go along.
Back at the Book Festival, I made a discovery. Not only is there the lovely authors’ yurt – with FREE CAKE – but there is even a special authors’ toilet. Who knows who you might bump into?
And yesterday, my big day arrived. The lovely people in the yurt told me that there were 150 children attending – a bit of a shock, as I was expecting about 50. I was miked up, and I met my wonderful Chair from the Scottish Booktrust, who put me right at ease.
We were off!
After that first moment of blinking into the lights, I forgot my nerves. They were a lovely audience (some of them even knew the latin name for wolf!) and it was all great fun. The quiz was just the right side of chaos. But I couldn’t resist bragging about the free cake in the yurt.
So not a surprise when I bumped into one young member of the audience in there later...
On Friday morning I realised that at my current rate of writing, about 1000 words a day, I wasn't going to make the 21st of January deadline for my next novel. I like having deadlines, either from a publisher or self-imposed, as they help me to focus on what I need to get done but realising I couldn't make it produced: A) Panic - the sort of trapped by headlights and get nothing done panic B) Action - I emailed my publisher to ask for a few weeks extension. C) More action - during the weekend that's just gone, from 5pm on Friday until 5pm on Sunday, I wrote l0,140 words. I'd already planned out the story and had the thumbs up from my publisher so knew where I was going (roughly) with it - all I had to do was get words on paper.
Were they the best, most considered words? Nope. Does that matter? Not a bit in a first, scribble, draft. Those 10,000 words can become polished and honed later - what I have got now is a much better knowledge of my characters (including one who had a minor part but is now a major player) and most of the crucial scenes written.
Here's how I did it:
Friday 10 am - stared at my book writing schedule calendar and realised that writing I,000 words a day would not get my next book finished by mid-January.
10.30 am - went downstairs and told husband, Eric, my concern.
11 am – nearby Travelodge booked for the weekend.
12 pm – Eric buys food and drink that only needs a kettle (at the most) to make. I pack some clothes and my work and make sure the dogs will be OK.
4pm – arrive at Travelodge and make ‘proper’ coffee using aeropress (more details of everything I used on my website.) Just make sure you screw the bottom on really well or you might end up with coffee everywhere like I did.
5pm – start writing by longhand using my Echo pen that can convert handwriting to text.
7.30pm – first 2000 words written.
Saturday and Sunday… Write! Write! Written! 4,000 words done each day. Tips to make your writing weekend go smoothly:
1. No TV – I pulled the TV plug out and plugged my computer into the socket instead – the TV didn’t get turned on once (although I did watch a DVD on my computer about the subject I was writing on.)
2. Use the internet only to check emails and do absolutely necessary research. I was also in contact with my husband 3 or 4 times a day via Face Time. The dogs were also very interested in me chatting to them via the screen at first but soon got used to it. Loved how one of them kept tilting her head from side to side as she looked at the screen. (I did worry it was cruel initially but they got used to it pretty quick and made me laugh when one went and got a toy and brought it back.)
3. Be in the mind zone to write and pumped up to get on – this is exciting! Having nothing else to concentrate on besides writing meant I could write like the wind and I did.What writing in this speedy fashion meant is that now I can dip in and out of the book, secure that I like how it’s working and growing. It's a good feeling. Prior to taking this action I usually manage to write about l,000 words a day - so 4,000 a day was a bit of a jump!
Three other new things I’ve tried recently:
1. Not listening to other people’s opinions unless I want to:
I used to get upset by the odd bad review but now findI’ve reached the stage where I can shrug them off. I even managed a smile at an email from an irate American reader recently who’d spotteda grammar mistake in my adult book, The Puppy that Came for Christmas' and wrote a back-handed compliment of: 'If a good writer like you can make a mistake like this what hope is there for the world.' Indeed. On the reverse side I had an email from one of my editor’s this week saying she’d been so busy reading my manuscript on the bus she’d missed her stop – a very nice compliment from a person whose opinion I value highly. 2. Being Vegan:
When I said I was going to take part in November's World Vegan mouth some people reacted with horror. ‘What are you going to eat?’ ‘How will you survive?’ I was asked.
The truth is being vegan wasn't any hardship at all and in fact it was a pleasure. I got to try lots of yummy foods and made friends with some lovely new people and blogged about it here:
I had my first book 'The Master of Secrets' published by Puffin in 1997 and a few years later I got a letter to say that it was going to be remaindered. It was a horrible sick feeling being told this - at first I couldn't believe it and bought up lots of copies. But the publisher did stop printing it and I went on to write other books and my first effort wasn't forgotten about (I often give a copy as a present to my creative writing students saying I hope one day to read their first book) but I certainly didn't expect to hear much more about it. But in the past few weeks I've had first one email and then another and another from English language students in Argentina who are studying the book and it's been great. I'm so glad that there's life in the old book yet and it's being enjoyed again somewhere. One of the students even became my first newsletter subscriber.
Megan’s book 'The Great Escape' has recently been shortlisted for the East Sussex Children’s Book Award. She writes as Megan Rix and Ruth Symes and her websites are www.ruthsymes.comand www.meganrix.com