Monday, 31 January 2011

News round-up

There are so many blog posts I want to write, and so little time to do today I have a news round up for you. Normal blogging service will be resumed sometime.
1. Here is the cover for Lia's Guide to Winning the Lottery. It's published on August 4. You can (if you wish)  pre-order and read the first chapter  here .
2. When I was Joe won the North East Teenage Book Award! This was most exciting because it's an award voted for by 300 teenagers at schools in the North East of England, I have never won anything in my life before and the shortlist was packed full of fabulous books (Wasted by Nicola Morgan, which was Highly Commended, Auslander by Paul Doweswell, The Dead House by Anne Cassidy, Rowan the Strange by Julie Hearn and Savannah Grey by Cliff McNish). Still a bit shocked..but very happy...
3. Anne Cassidy and I, together with Gillian Philip and Linda Strachan have set up a new blog, called Crime Central  to showcase crime fiction for teens. Take a look, follow, let us know what you think..
4. I'm going to write a new book about Ty. Provisionally entitled Another Life it will pick up Ty's story from the end of Almost True - but from another narrator's point of view. I'm starting work on it now, with a view to publication in I won't have much time for blogging, Facebooking etc. I won't neglect this blog completely though.
5 This is a great speech by YA writer Sara Zarr, as reported by Candy Gourlay.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

As I was saying...

‘So,’ says Joe*, ‘Have you got any hints for writing dialogue?  You know…making it sound as though the people in your books are real.’
‘Errr…I dunno really….’
‘When I write dialogue it never sounds real. Everyone is kind of one-dimensional. You know, flat. Dull. Lifeless.’
‘Oh, I'm sure that's not true.'
 'It is! Tell me what to do!'
'Well, the main thing, when you're writing my sort of book, is is to listen out for good stuff you can pinch.’
‘What sort of stuff?’
‘Things people say. For example, the other day, I was in the car listening to the radio. It was a phone-in about undercover policemen and this guy called in to talk about going undercover with a gang of criminals.’
‘Sounds interesting,’
‘Yes it was. Anyway, he said something like “Things happened to me like getting beaten up and stabbed and other unpleasantness.” And I thought, wow, good quote,  must use that sometime.’
‘Did you write it down?’
‘Well, no, I didn’t because I was driving along at the time and if I’d whipped out a notebook I might have got arrested. Sometimes I do write things down though. When I was in the sixth form at school I used to sit with a notebook and write down everything that everyone was saying in a kind of stream of consciousness –  
‘OK..that’s a bit weird...’
‘ -  and later on I became a reporter, so I learned shorthand and then I was paid to write down the exact words that people use. Because I’m a dinosaur, there weren’t any mini-recorders then, and anyway I find it incredibly boring to transcribe from a tape – ’
‘There weren’t any recorders? Oh my God! How old are you?’
‘Not that old. I was a teenage reporter. Very, very young. Anyway I learned a lot from doing that. I learned that people rarely speak with good grammar, that they sometimes rattle on for ages, and sometimes just stop. In mid-sentence. So you have to reflect that in the way you punctuate dialogue.’
‘Umm..punctuation’s a bit boring, isn’t it?’
‘Yes. It is. Talking about it is, anyway. So…moving swiftly on. A reporter is looking through the waffle for good quotes. Interesting phrases. Things that sum up an argument or a story. And that's more or less what I do in fiction too.'
' out good quotes,' 
'Yes, and only use dialogue for the good stuff. The rest can be told in other ways.Keep dialogue punchy and to the point. Have things about your characters that you show through dialogue.’
‘Like what?’
‘Well..Ty for example, is someone who thinks a lot but doesn’t say as much. Archie in Almost True is the opposite.  Nicki, Ty’s mum, is very aspirational, and wants Ty to speak like a television presenter, but when she loses her temper she forgets all about setting a good example.’
‘Oh…OK…I think I get it.’
‘And don’t overuse it. Know what you need to get across in the bit of dialogue, and finish it off. Stuff it full of good quotes. ’
‘OK. So your advice is to eavesdrop on people, write stuff down –'
'And listen out for really good quotes. The kind of thing people say and you remember and repeat.  For example, when my daughter was six we were watching EastEnders and someone was talking about her abortion and my daughter said "I didn't know you could quit a baby" I still remembered it years later and it made its way into When I Was Joe.'
'Oh, right.'
 ‘And read dialogue out loud when you’ve written it, to see if it sounds real.’
‘So I have to eavesdrop...write down what people say...say it out loud? People will think I’m a nutter!’
‘That’s the price you have to pay…hang on! Where are you going? Come back! I've got more to say!’

 *Joe in this instance is @UnashamedlyJoe on Twitter who asked me to write a blog post about writing dialogue.  And who'd also like some more followers.

Sunday, 16 January 2011

California dreaming

San Diego sunshine
When I was 18, I went for my first ever job interview, to be a messenger girl on a newspaper, a job that could lead to an apprenticeship as a junior reporter. As far as I was concerned there could be no more exciting workplace than a newspaper office, but I realised that I must not say so. I didn’t want them to think that I had unrealistic expectations.
 So when the paper’s Deputy Editor asked: ‘Why do you want to be a journalist?’ I told him that I knew journalism wasn’t glamorous or exciting, I knew it was very hard work, I knew much of it might be boring or routine. After listening to my earnest assurances, he grinned.
‘Actually,’ he said, ‘it’s not that bad.’
And likewise, becoming an author, I knew would mean hard work and rejection, disappointment and more hard work. And I was right. But, you know what, just like journalism, it’s not that bad. And sometimes it’s downright fabulous.
 For example, last weekend I flew all the way to San Diego for the weekend. That’s California! For the weekend! If such a thing ever happens again then I’d have to say that being an author is turning out quite glam after all.
I think everyone does a double-take..
The Frances Lincoln 'booth'
The courtyard at the Horton Grand
Anyway, I was in San Diego for the American Library Association’s mid-winter conference, along with thousands of librarians, hundreds of publishing peeps and millions of books.  There were hundreds of stalls (or booths as the Americans seemed to call them) all displaying mouth-watering (or indeed eye-watering, when you saw what a vast amount of competition there is for any one book to make its way)  displays of books. 
And there was loads of swag for the librarians to collect. Free books. Badges. Big shopping bags. Sweets. Pens. The conference hall filled up with librarians staggering under the weight of all the free stuff they could collect. One stall cleverly offered neck massages. Another sold insteps to massage your feet.
Some of the time there were important meetings going on where librarians decided which books to give awards to, or put on recommended lists. Sometimes there were presentations by publishers, or speeches from authors (OK, there was a Neil Gaiman event. And I couldn’t go to it. And that was disappointing. I’m over it though.)
I had to do a lot of selling over the weekend. I found out the things that worry librarians in Middle Schools – ‘Sex, violence and swearing,’ said one, counting them off on her fingers. ‘Mostly swearing. Are there any f-bombs in your book?’ Another wasn’t too worried about swearing or violence: ‘But our parent body is very concerned about sex.’
‘Why is your book outstanding?’ asked one stern librarian - didn’t she realise that English people are taught from birth that it is unseemly to blow their own trumpets? I stumbled out an answer, she pointed to the boy on the cover. ‘How old is he meant to be? He looks older than 14.’
Librarians laden with swag
Frances Lincoln, my publishers, hold an annual tea party at the midwinter conference, and the venue was the Horton Grand Hotel, a building with quite a few stories to tell. Assembled from the remains of two hotels, bought by the city for $1 each, the Horton is on the site of a former brothel - when it was raided by police in 1912, the Mayor of San Diego and three councilmen were found on the premises.
I collected badges for my son
Just some of the books I gathered
Anyway, the tea was a chance to tell around 50 lovely librarians a bit about me and my books, and how I came to write them, and try and appear relatively cool about the fact that…squee…here I was in California, and …double squeee….some of them had already read When I Was Joe and Almost True is going to be on sale in the US in April. I didn’t squee out loud, but I felt like it. They were the world’s nicest audience. They laughed at all my jokes. After a year of speaking to rooms full of teenagers, where joke-telling can be a bit hit and miss, this made me feel as witty as Victoria Wood.  
One lady had already read When I Was Joe and although she assured me that she’d loved it, she didn’t want to read Almost True -  in fact she was very cross about the sample chapter at the end of Joe. She didn’t want Ty to suffer any more, she said. I assured her that although Ty does suffer a bit more in Almost True, good things happen to him too. Then I tried to think whether that was true. Yes, it’s just about almost true.
Other great things about San Diego: meeting the wonderful people from Publishers Group West, distributors of Frances Lincoln books in the US and Canada, and as enthusiastic about the books as anyone in the UK. Spending time with Frances Lindoln’s Editorial Director Maurice Lyon and trying to persuade him that my mad new idea is actually a stroke of genius (Maurice is super-diplomatic, so I have no idea if he was truly persuaded or not. And I’m not sure if I can pull off my mad new idea. We shall have to wait and see).
Then there was walking in the sunshine. Sitting outside to eat in the sunshine. Sunshine.  What a bonus in the middle of a cold, grey, freezing miserable London winter.  
One of the interesting things about spending a slither of time in another culture is spotting the cultural differences. These were as small as the speed in which a waitress will clear your plate and bring the bill, to as huge as the response to the horrific shootings in Tucson, which took place while we were there.
While we Brits were amazed at the lack of debate over gun control, the way the gunman bought his ammunition from Walmart, Americans talked about the language of political discourse. ‘Words matter,’ said PBS correspondent Miles O’Brien. ‘If nothing else, if it removes the gun analogies from the discussion, the killing analogies, we’ve made some progress.’
It was simultaneously impressive to see a nation so concerned about the power of language and metaphor and shocking that people seemed infinitely less  interested in the availability of lethal hardware. Similarly the healthcare debate seemed to be more about political theory - the role of the state - and less about the welfare of sick people. I came away with the feeling that the US is more engaged with abstract notions than we Europeans - a great strength and perhaps a weakness as well.
Sculpture on the San Diego seafront
Halfway home, as our plane flew from one time zone to another, a disc of glass fell out of nowhere and landed on my hand. No one knew what it was – could it be part of the plane? The steward took it to show the pilot...but when I came to change the time on my watch I realised that the glass front was missing…yes, my watch had spontaneously self-destructed in mid-air. It seemed a perfect metaphor for the exhausted jet-lag involved in flying thousands of miles for one weekend.
This week back in wintery, wet London, San Diego's sometimes felt a little like a dream - but then I realise my watch is missing, and I know I really did have my weekend in California.
Oh, and I almost forgot the best bit. In one of those meeting rooms, some of those librarians were picking  a list of their favourite YA fiction of 2011. And When I Was Joe was on the list.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Three years on

I count my life as an author in years from January 5th 2008. That's when we went to have lunch with our friends Anna and Philip and Anna suggested that I sign up for the course in writing for children at City University that she'd just taken. The course started nine days later, it still had places. I signed up.
One year later, I'd written a book, I had an agent. January 5th was the day -  the mind-boggling, incredible day -  that the editorial director of Frances Lincoln Children's Books wrote to my agent to express 'serious interest' in When I Was Joe. Serious interest took just over a month to turn into a deal.
When I Was Joe was published -  not on January 5th 2010, somewhat to my disappointment, as I'd decided it was a magical day - but on the 2nd. I think the 5th might have been the first day I saw it for sale in an actual bookshop.
So, what's tomorrow going to bring? I'm going to see the bound proofs of Lia's Guide to Winning the Lottery for the first time! I might write the first bit of the first chapter of my fourth book (fourth? How did that happen?) And -  most amazingly of all -  I'm going to be packing up to fly to San Diego the following day to attend the American Librarians' Association mid-winter conference. My family have already banned me from even mentioning San Diego, because they're so fed up with my burbling excitement.
All in all, I'm delighted I took Anna's advice. She and I would never have believed it, if we'd been able to see three years into the future.
And I wonder what future Janaury 5ths will  bring.

Saturday, 1 January 2011

Back to Booktrust

The spectacle of the government wriggling out of the Booktrust funding debacle was entertaining.  It’s to be expected, I suppose, that after a long period of one-party government, the new boys won’t be too competent. To see them get it so wrong though  - well, you have to laugh.
Anyway, since then a few right-wing commentators have started bleating in the newspapers about the decision. The points they made can be summarised thus:

-        the government has given in to vested interests. Wealthy authors and publishers want their lush lifestyles to be subsidised by the tax-payer.Squillionaire novelists should fund the book-giving schemes.
-        The government is weak, and accepts its orders from the chattering classes.

-        it is ludicrous and unnecessary to give free books to middle class children. If free books are to be given at all, they should go to the proven poor.

-        The government should not be involved in this kind of social experiment. It is the job of charity, and charity alone.

Taking these points in order. First, the vast majority of Booktrust’s funding comes from the publishing industry. Authors and publishers accept reduced royalties if their books are chosen for the scheme. The government’s funding is used to generate private contributions.
Most authors are far from wealthy. The average annual income for a children’s author is £5,000. Even the very few authors who are rich will most probably have spent years earning next to nothing before they achieve a reasonable income. And when they do, they pay their taxes.

This government and the last may be weak, but that comes from their lack of mandate and competence. They certainly do not accept their orders from the chattering classes. On the contrary, they seem to have very little interest in furthering the cause of reading among children. The Labour government installed a dull and unimaginative literacy programme in schools which raised extracts over real books. The Coalition is doing nothing to prevent the closure of many libraries. The government’s weakness in this case comes from its own ineptitude. If it had cut Booktrust’s funding by half and not allowed the news to dribble out just before Christmas, the impact of the outcry would have been decimated.

It may seem wasteful and unnecessary for state agents to hand free books to wealthy pampered middle class babies. Fine. If your health visitor offers you a free gift that you don’t need, just say no.  Once those babies are starting secondary school however, their parents may well have lost their complacency about their reading habits.  They think their child will keep their early love for books. They often find that they are wrong.
Actually, most parents I meet know diddly-squat about children and reading and still less about teens. Parents don’t know how to encourage their children to read, and they don’t know which books to buy for them.  They employ tutors to encourage their children to read for pleasure -  how strange is that? They didn’t grow up with the vast range of entertainment options that their children have, nor with the load of school work. Expect those smug columnists to be wringing their hands and begging for help weaning their child away from a screen in a few years’ time.
A universal gift of a free book at age 5 or 11 catches all those kids whose parents could buy them books but don’t, or those whose parents can’t afford to buy them books but don’t qualify for free school meals (I have been one of those parents and believe me, it is painful).  Universality means there is no stigma attached to your free book, and it gets a classroom of children chatting about their choices. It introduces children to new authors, new genres, new ideas. If you believe in the nudge theory, as David Cameron is supposed to, it’s a nudge in the right direction.

How about the argument that the government should not be involved in schemes like this, that it is an initiative which should be purely funded by voluntary donations? If Cameron has a big idea, it is that the state should be rolled back to a few key functions. That ‘society’ should take its place. The burden on the taxpayer should be lifted, allowing people to choose where their money goes.
Is  the government truly committed to rolling back state influence? It isn’t. When I read about civil servants at the Department of Education checking the curriculum choices of the new ‘free’ schools, or devising new phonics tests for the nation’s six-year-olds, I see the age-old hypocrisy at work.Ministers are all for cuts -  unless it cuts their own influence.
I remember watching the party leaders debating before the election. I remember David Cameron saying that savings would be found from identifying wasteful practices in the system -  massage suites for NHS managers was the example he offered. He did not stand for election with a message of ideologically based cuts to create a very different Britain. Nor was he elected with any kind of majority – thus the coalition. He is acting as though he won a landslide victory for his vision of government. He did not, and it is profoundly undemocratic to suggest that he does.
It may be that organisations such as Booktrust find they are better off operating without the interference of people like Cameron and Gove. That’s another question altogether.