Showing posts with label Karen Ball. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Karen Ball. Show all posts

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Faking Bravery - Karen Ball

Although I live in London, I'm posting this from New York. (Isn't technology great?) Everywhere I go in this city, I seem to be surrounded by publishers. These behemoth buildings make me feel like a very, very small cog in a very, very big wheel in a huge machine. I'll admit, as I gaze up at these towers I feel irrelevant.

But without authors sitting in their spare bedrooms or garden sheds, toiling away, these places wouldn't exist. International publishing corporations need someone to provide them with their raw materials (you may know these as 'stories') and without us, there wouldn't be an industry. Let's stop and think about that for a minute... Now, how are you feeling? Empowered, confident, and ready to take on the world? No? Hmmm.

Authors often feel at the bottom of the publishing pile of bricks and mortar. I'm not surprised. Our contracts can be cancelled at a moment's notice, the next manuscript just might not sell, our earnings are ... well, Anne Rooney recently pointed out in a comment on Lucy's excellent blog post that writing isn't seen as a 'real job' because few of us earn 'real money'. It's hard to feel empowered when a person's wondering how to pay the gas bill.

But I would urge us all to pull back our shoulders and stay brave. We're not the only authors who will have felt like this. Think of the Bronte sisters visiting their publisher in Mortimer Square, London for the first time, desperate to be published. Or sympathise with Hemingway. Here's what a publisher had to say about 'Torrents of Spring':

It would be extremely rotten taste, to say nothing of being horribly cruel, should we want to publish it.

It's only human to feel intimidated by the people who sit behind desks, but at least publishing has moved on. The rejections are kinder:

I’m sorry Mr. Kipling, but you just don’t know how to use the English language.

For more of these deliciously painful rejection letters, visit here.

Do you have your own rejection story to share, or tips for faking author bravery?

Visit my website at

Monday, 3 October 2011

The Juggling Act - Karen Ball

Running Marathons
Making Marmalade
Sewing Dresses
Knitting Jumpers
Growing Vegetables
Tutoring Writing Courses
Being A Lawyer
Clearing Out Ponds
Training Dogs
Attending Football Matches
Writing Blogs
Organising Conferences
Buying Shoes
Holding Down Day Jobs
Planning The Ebook Revolution

Recognise yourself or a friend? These are just some of the things that some of the authors I know are busy with when they're not writing novels, illustrating picture books, turning their hand to TV scripts or putting together a non-fiction proposal. Busy bunch, aren't we? And that's the tip of the iceberg.

If you have an established author career, you have many other things on your plate. Maybe you're busy promoting book one whilst editing book two and panicking about the deadline on book three. Transatlantic Skype interview at 9pm? Sure - all in an author's typical working day.

Or perhaps you're at the start of your writing career? A book or two out, flush with success, but still holding down the day job. That's a lot of work squeezed into a week. You may sometimes dream of giving up the 9-5 and its regular income for the giddy roller coaster of a full-time career as an author. What's that? Not just yet? Sensible decision - for your bank balance, at least, if not for your sanity.

Or maybe you're a fledgling author, working on your first novel. That probably means you're getting up before work or cancelling plans at the weekend in order to get a complete draft down on paper. Whilst all the time telling people you're 'not an author, really'. No, just practising. People ask you when the real work will start. Feel free to respond with a hollow laugh.

It's a lot of hard graft being an author. If you can't already multi-task you'd better learn quick. This career of ours is also a lot of fun, creatively satisfying and a huge and fascinating learning process. It keeps us on our toes.

How many balls do you keep in the air and do you have tips for making an author life manageable? I'd love to hear. No, really - I'd LOVE to hear!

Here's me and a friendly bloke I met in Covent Garden earlier this year. One of us is doing a lot of juggling. Can you guess who?

You can visit my website at

Saturday, 27 August 2011

The Career Merry Go Round - Karen Ball

Does your career trajectory look like this:

Or this:

Or this:

I think we all know which graph is the most accurate. This is one of the most challenging parts of being an author - we have close to a total lack of control over our own career paths. Luck is a huge part of the journey. The right manuscript landing on the right desk at the right time. Your as yet unsold novel hitting a trend that no one saw coming. The sales director having a headache the day of the acquisitions meeting. We need to have talent, craft, commitment and hope. We also need a massive dollop of luck.

When we get lucky, we want to stay lucky - but I haven't worked out the recipe for that one yet. The moment life feels good, the rug can be pulled from under an author's feet. The email that makes your face drain of blood, when the book you've slaved over is having its contract cancelled. Modest sales that leave you with a distinct sense of lukewarm enthusiasm from the editorial team who once promised you a glorious marketing strategy.

What control do we have over any of the above? Close to none. Is that likely to change? Well, some would argue yes with the advent of ebooks. Personally, I'm not rolling up my sleeves for the revolution quite yet.

Why do we keep writing when we're so tossed on the storm? Time and time again, in moments of angst, loved ones have told me, 'You do it because you have to.' They're right. The little girl who slaved over stories in her exercise books had no concept of sales figures or failing book chains. She's still part of who I am. And, oh, the rollercoaster ride! And the friends. Want to find a really good friend? Share some of your bad writing news. You'll soon find out who cares.

These are the type of friends you need when times become good again. I have a personal theory about book launches. The most important people present are usually standing at the back of the room, quietly watching, smiling, going largely unnoticed by all except the author. They're the husband, or the parent or the childhood friend who knows you're doing exactly what you should always have been doing. They're there to enjoy your good times, and they'll be there for the bad times, too. They could probably draw an accurate graph of your career trajectory, because they'll have been there every step of the way.

But they have more sense than that. Like us, they know writing isn't about plotting data.

It's about plotting.

You can visit my website at

Friday, 22 July 2011

Do You Remember The First Time? - Karen Ball

Signs you are getting old:
  • It’s not as easy to put on a pair of tights as it once was.
  • People ask you for advice and listen carefully, as if you actually know what you’re talking about.
  • When a younger author friend opens her box of advance copies for the first time in her career you think, Aw, bless! I remember that.
Yesterday, my lovely colleague, Lil Chase, took receipt of the advance copies of her debut novel, Boys For Beginners. There was much excitement, let me tell you! This event only happens once in a lifetime and I’m glad we caught the moment for posterity.

Lil’s book is being published in August by Quercus Publishing. There’s a lovely story behind this novel, as it’s based on a story Lil first wrote when she was eleven years old. She still has the original copy of her ‘book’! Like many of us, I suspect, Lil knew she wanted to be an author from a young age.

When I opened a box of my first ever advance copies, I was all alone in my little flat, with no one to show them to. I think I pushed the box under the piano and went to work. If I had my time again, I’d run out into the street, waving the books above my head and accosting strangers. I’d also have asked my publisher how I could help to promote the books and I may even have invested in some of the button badges Joanna Kenrick has been championing. But hindsight is a wonderful thing, especially when it comes to a writing career.
Do you remember the first time you opened a box of advance copies? What was it like? Is there anything you’d have done differently around that time? Or are you still waiting for this moment in your life - what would you do around your fantasy opening of a very special box?
One last thought for us all to share: NOTHING beats the sight of a grown man reading a book embellished with foil lettering, aimed at 8-12 year-old girls.

The world would be a better place if everyone stopped what they were doing to read a book like Lil’s.
Visit my blog at

Sunday, 10 July 2011

WIN: An Inspiring Giveaway - Karen Ball

When a blog celebrates its birthday and launches a new-look website, you know it’s time to celebrate. Thanks to the Literary Gift Company, we’re able to share the party with our readers. Normally, we use our ABBA blog posts to pontificate on whatever literary subject we fancy, being gloriously self-indulgent and – we hope – entertaining as well as informative. But today we’re busy eating cake and popping balloons, so we thought we’d pass the baton to you, our readers.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Survival of the Fittest – Karen Ball

Inspired by the launch of Nicola Morgan’s book, Write To Be Published, I’ve been thinking quite a lot about blogs and their ability to cement publishing deals. For anyone who doesn’t already know, Nicola’s book began as a blog called Help! I Need A Publisher into which she poured an incredibly amount of energy and a terrifying number of words. I don’t even want to think about the hours!

This week, The Guardian ran an article on the rise and rise of food bloggers and how they are becoming the new authors of cookery books. A sewing blogger, who I read fanatically - Gertie’s New Blog For Better Sewing – has found a book deal with STS Crafts/Melanie Falick Books. If my own fun sewing blog, Didyoumakethat?, found me a publisher I'd think I'd died and gone to heaven!

Finally, we can hardly ignore the food blogger who inspired a book and a film, Julie & Julia.

So, for some, blogging definitely works as a route to publication – it’s a free platform that laughs in the face of the ‘No Unsolicited Submissions’ banner on many publishers’ websites. (When I say ‘free’ I’m trying hard not to think about the blogging hours that could have been writing-a-jolly-good-manuscript hours!)

I hazard a guess that this route to publication works best in the non-fiction market. Someone has a talent or interest, shares it with the online community via well written, engaging and regular blog posts and a book deal may happen. If I was a commissioning editor for illustrated non-fiction, I’d be scouring the blogging community! (I’d love to know which way round things work. Does the blogger put together a pitch or does the publisher approach the blogger?)

How does this relate to fiction authors and publishing? Blogs provide a platform, for sure, but I’m not convinced a publisher would ever commission a novelist blogger, based on their posts. We can’t share extracts. Well, we can, but I wouldn’t advise it. It’s difficult to share the process – writing fiction does not necessarily move forwards in a linear way – and it’s probably foolish to reveal ideas.

Still, the fiction blogging community is thriving. Community blogs are popping up left, right and centre: Crime Central, Girls Heart Books and The Edge are three I know of. A group of US chidren's book professionals have had a collective blog for quite a while now, to be found at Blue Rose Girls. Forward-looking publishers have blogs, too – how brilliant was yesterday’s debate between ABBA and Nosy Crow?

Blogging is a living creature with its own evolutionary trajectory. Have we raised our knuckles from the ground yet? Are we cave men? Can we grip a pen in our furry fists to sign a publishing contract? (You betcha!) Or will traditional publishing deals lose currency as the world moves rapidly forwards? Will there soon be other credible options?

I’d love to know what you think to blogging as a route to publication and blogging as a profile builder. It feels as though 2011 marks significant shifts in this most glorious form of communication. What do you think is the next stage of evolution?

If you're not already blogged out, you can visit my writing blog at!

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Mighty Oaks From Little Acorns Grow - Karen Ball

Today marks the end of a week-long blog tour to celebrate the launch of Undiscovered Voices. For those of you who don't know, Undiscovered Voices is a joint innovation between SCBWI and Working Partners to platform unpublished and unagented writers. UK members of SCBWI are invited to submit a manuscript extract and 12 are selected by a panel of judges to be published in an anthology that is then circulated gratis around UK publishers and agents.

I've seen the anthology change lives and careers and I was lucky enough to enjoy a ringside seat from the first quiet inception of Undiscovered Voices. I've also been lucky enough this year to see several members of the Scattered Authors Society generously join in with the support and contribute to the blog tour. Published or unpublished, it's clear that our children's author community is one of the strongest going.

But how did this all start?

Two editor-writers had coffee and came up with an idea. The fact that Sara O'Connor and Sara Grant happen to be driven, energetic, optimistic go-getters helped. We can all have good ideas, but it takes chutzpah to put ideas into action.

Their first conversation was back in 2006. The following summer I was aware of meetings taking place, quiet discussions, a stack of submissions that began to grow on someone's desk. Working Partners had agreed to pay for the costs of the anthology, probably more as a goodwill gesture than anything else. SCBWI enthusiastically bought into the idea. Still, I don't think anyone expected that on the back of the first anthology, significant deals would be made and several careers successfully launched.

David Almond was the inaugural honorary chair person. Anyone who heard his speech back in 2008 will confirm how inspiring it was. Here was a successful author telling us all never to give up hope, sharing the joke that it took him 20 years to become an overnight success. In 2010, Melvyn Burgess brought his charismatic presence to the launch party and in 2012 Malorie Blackman will be the honorary chair.

But Undiscovered Voices isn't really about the Davids or Melvyns or Malories. It isn't about the two Saras who started all this. It definitely isn't about SCBWI, Working Partners, or the Scattered Authors Society, though their support will never be forgotten. It's about the people whose names we don't know yet, the writers who are honing their talent and sanding smooth the rough corners of their craft. We've all been there, working hard at our desks, swimming against the tide.

Undiscovered Voices will help some dreams come true. Not everyone who applies will make it into the final anthology and there will be disappointments. That's the writer's life. But every single person who submits an extract will have been given the opportunity to consider their work worth sharing and they'll have been given the chance to make something happen.

Two women made things happen in stupendous fashion with Undiscovered Voices. For anyone who says 'Oh, I'll never be published' or 'My manuscript landed on the wrong desk at the wrong time' or 'My type of writing just isn't in fashion' I'd advise them to think about the origins of Undiscovered Voices. It wasn't rocket science; it was good, old-fashioned hard work. People rolling their sleeves up, getting stuck in and not waiting for someone else to do it for them.

That's all it takes sometimes, the ability to get stuck in - and we can all do that.

Undiscovered Voices 2010

The very best of luck to any authors entering this year's Undiscovered Voices. And a huge thank you to the Scattered Authors Society for their support this year.

Please visit my website at

Friday, 25 March 2011

Not All Gelato and Prosecco - Karen Ball

As I type, hundreds of book publishers, agents, literary scouts and rights people are doing their laundry and checking their capsule wardrobes. At the weekend they’ll be flying or driving to Bologna, Italy for the most important annual event in the children’s publishing cycle – Bologna Book Fair.

Me? I’ve never been. I’ve heard loads about it and yearned to eat a gelato, to laugh over a late dinner of incredible food, to buy a handbag of butter soft Italian leather. Yeah, I believe some work gets done, too. That’s what they tell me.

It’s a sales event. Sometimes authors are taken to Bologna Book Fair if publishers want to impress a) the author and b) their co-publishers. But this is not a common event – don’t hold your breath waiting to be invited onto the springtime streets of a beautiful European city. There’s a big party going on and we’re not invited.

Why not? Well, it’s not about us. It’s about the publishing director of company A meeting the rights person of company B and talking. Publishing is, if nothing else, a deeply human business. In theory, all of the deals could be done via email and phone, but for some reason publishers still insist on meeting up in Italy once a year, because they want to shake hands and smile at each other. I love that this still happens. I like to think of it as their version of the Charney writing retreat, except not as good (obviously).

But my joking aside, Bologna’s not all food and fun – people do work really hard. Most people have back-to-back meetings in approximately 30 minute slots. That’s a lot of meetings squeezed into a few days and not much time to eat or pop to the loo. Some of these professionals will have been attending fairs for ten, twenty years or even longer, which means they’ve made a lot of friends in the industry. I suspect that the minutes snatched between meetings are often what seal a deal. A shared joke, colleague in common, baby photographs... If that’s what gets your stand alone YA novel a German deal, I say stay at home. Let others talk about how old their children are and, oh, does that include translation rights?

Some authors visit the fair under their own expense and I’d be interested to hear about these experiences. Some editors visit the fair under their own expense and I’d be interested to hear about those experiences, too. I know for certain that when everyone comes back we’ll be waiting to hear what the word on the fair aisle is, what the ‘next big thing’ might be. Deals are rarely done at the fair itself these days, but rights people often come back to their offices with a sense of publishing mood, what people are looking to buy and where fashions are on the wane or rise.

I just wish I could have some of that ice-cream one day.

What does Bologna Book Fair mean to you?

Visit my website at

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Kindle Guilt - Karen Ball

For my birthday, I asked for and received a Kindle. One day into ownership and I love it. I'm researching a new project and my first task was to wirelessly download a biography from Amazon and a free sample of a second biography. When I go to my writers' retreat next month, I can take a pile of research books with me should I so desire, all in the format of a slim, light device. I've also downloaded the latest novel I'm reading for my reading group and a manuscript I'm editing. I can't 'edit' on the Kindle, but I can annotate.

I was inspired to ask for this gift after seeing how the Kindle transformed my boyfriend's reading. He's gone from someone who read two books a year, to someone who now reads daily. All because he doesn't have to carry a book around with him - just a device that slips inside the inner pocket of his suit jacket. He loves technology, and that passion has made him rediscover the pleasure of reading.

I visited New York recently and saw the Barnes and Noble store on Fifth Avenue. This was the ground floor:

Nary a book in sight.

Nooks are the Barnes and Noble version of Kindle. The adult fiction had all been moved to the first floor and, I have to say, was difficult to negotiate. (For your interest, the YA department was on the lower ground floor and was MASSIVE.)

These devices are here to stay, no doubt about it. So why did I feel a sliver of guilt at joining the Kindle Club? Part of me felt as though I was being disloyal. To my fellow authors? I don't know - I don't have a clear idea of how ebook royalties work or how this development will impact on careers. To my shelves of books? I recently took bag loads to the local secondhand bookshop. To my library? I clock up so many fines that I only really loan reference books now. To the industry I've worked in for half a lifetime? I've just asked for a device that may make or break publishing as we know it.

I can't work out where my ambivalence stems from. Is it the knowledge that I'm taking a big step into a new era? I heard recently that authors are starting to carry a second pen - for signing Kindles, rather than books.

My instinct is that exciting new opportunities will come with this technological revolution. I also believe that books of paper and ink will continue to flourish alongside devices. I look to the future optimistically. But there's that definite twinge of guilt. I wish I could pin it down.

Any thoughts?

Please visit my blog at

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

I'd Be Elizabeth Taylor - Karen Ball

Following on from Nicola’s post yesterday, it’s clear that a yawning chasm lies between the reality of an author’s life and the pictures people paint of us. As I sit at my marble topped desk, writing with my solid gold ink pen, my butler butters my crumpets and we both excitedly await the latest Harrods delivery. I thought I’d kill time delving into the various portrayals of the writing and publishing world, as seen on the big and small screen. Always good for a laugh!

The launch party
My favourite of these is in 'Bridget Jones's Diary'. Salman Rushdie and Jeffrey Archer both make cameo appearances. The editor-in-chief (a US term, surely?) is bouffant, the senior editor is prim and snobbish, the publishing director is lecherous. Everyone gets drunk and there’s a cock up during the speeches. Some may say staggeringly accurate. (I couldn't possibly comment.) There is one glaring error. The London publishing offices are high tech, clean and swanky. Erm. Did these film makers even go near a typical London publishing office in the name of research?

The literary agent
This has got to be Lauren Bacall in ‘Misery’. Who wouldn’t kill to have a screen legend as their agent? Especially when she spells out home truths like these: ‘Misery Chastain put braces on your daughter's teeth and is putting her through college, bought you two houses and floor seats to the Knick games and what thanks does she get? You go and kill her.’ Oh, Paul. If only you’d listened to your agent…

The author
Take your pick. You can be Nicole Kidman with a prosthetic nose, grimly smoking hand-rolled cigarettes to show your rebellious creativity as Virginia Woolf in 'The Hours'. Or you could choose the rosy cheeks and extra padding of Renee Zellweger playing Beatrix Potter. Perhaps you prefer the absinthe madness of Ewan McGregor typing in a garret in 'Moulin Rouge!', just before a miniature Kylie Minogue pops by for a visit. The rules are all the same: you'll look mad as a hatter. I recently enjoyed the cruel irony in the last TV episode of 'Any Human Heart' when the main character only makes it into Waterstones 3-for-2 after his death. Typical!

Are there any realistic representations of what we do either on the small or big screen? Should there be? Are people ready for the truth? Personally, I can't wait to see Tim Burton cast Helena Bonham Carter as JK Rowling. And Jude Law as Philip Pullman? Come on! It's a no brainer...

Do you have any favourite cinematic publishing moments. And who would play you in the film of your career?

Please visit my blog at

Friday, 3 December 2010

Home Sweet Home - Karen Ball

Your perfect home?

What type of publisher would give you the perfect home? 'Any publisher that will have me!' some authors might be tempted to cry. Do you enjoy the small but perfectly formed, or are you more inclined to play with the big boys? Now, more than ever, this question is worth thinking about. What are the publisher pros and cons?

The lean, mean running machine
I've been watching these types with interest. Specifically, I'm thinking about Strident Publishing and Nosy Crow. Small enough to be able to move quickly, adapt, and be flexible. In our fast-changing world, do you want a publisher that is light on its feet, open-minded and able to move with the times? You may not receive the biggest deal in monetary terms, but you'd be on an exciting ride.

The weighty
I'm talking about the big corporate publishers that can change an author's world with huge advances, online marketing, author tours, international attention... The world is your oyster - and what a big world it is. Authors either sink or swim in this environment. It can be breathtaking, exhilarating, terrifying. It's the dream most of us are encouraged to chase, but is it the right dream for you? I'd encourage writers to look at themselves and ask some honest questions. Would I thrive under this scrutiny? Can I confidently satisfy my part of the deal? Is big best? It can be - oh, it can be! But remember, it's not the only option.

The man in the middle
An imprint can give you the best of both worlds. The weight and financial security of a big publisher but with the cosy, personal touch of a small, finely selected list of books. What an honour to be hand-picked! What an added bonus that the eccentric publisher has a finely oiled publicity machine behind him!

The independent publishing company
There are still a few commercially successful publishing companies that haven't been gobbled up to become a slice in a large corporate pie. These homes usually have a USP - investment in quality production, a picture book list that thrives, an ethos of publishing such as cultural diversity. There will be eccentricities to these lists and their ways of working, but something very special too - the independence to make brave publishing choices.

The ???
With the advent of ebooks and apps, are there brand new publishing companies out there waiting to burst into existence? Possibly ones that don't have an office, a printing press, or a single book to fill a shelf? Digital content only. Interesting times. Would you play?

Have I missed any out? Is there a publishing home that has earned your loyalty? Do you know what suits you best? If you're on the cusp of a deal, it's worth pausing and thinking, Is this the right home for me?

You can read my blog at

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Capturing Chapters - Karen Ball

I've been thinking about chapters a lot recently. You know, those places where you can put the bookmark between the pages, switch off the bedside lamp and snuggle under the duvet? Except chapters are so much more than markers.

I was talking to my mum about chapter endings recently. 'They're a type of punctuation, really, aren't they?' she said. 'That's EXACTLY what they are!' I cried. I'd never thought about it like that before, but of course she's right. Paragraphs, full stops, chapter endings... They all help us engage with the flow of a story.

During my work on my latest manuscript (and there's been a lot of work!), there's one chapter that I've returned to time and time again. It's relatively low key, with only two characters, a lot of conversation, not much action - and many subtle signals that I need the reader to pick up on. If this early chapter fails, the whole book fails. Why this particular, quiet chapter? Who knows. I didn't set out for it to be this way and it turns out it's true what they say - it's the quiet ones you have to watch.

I try to keep my chapters to a relatively similair word length (this allows me to believe I'm in control of the story!), but I know many writers who do not. I'm not sure it matters either way. The Dan Brown phenomenon of a few years back began a whole debate on quite how short could a short chapter go. Were short chapters the answer to short attention spans? But what about when you want to absolutely lose yourself in a character or scene, when you don't mind missing your stop or have to be nagged into putting the book down? I'm happy to swim in a longer chapter.

A simple Google search throws up reams of blog posts on the perfect chapter length. Any sensible advice tells the reader not to worry about this too much - the story will find its own pace. But my mind keeps returning to that important chapter in my own book. ARE there chapters that are more crucial than others? Should there be? Perhaps these are signpost chapters, gently guiding the reader down the path you want them to follow, like someone guiding a sleepwalker back to their bed to lose themselves in the dream we want them to have.

Writers? Manipulative? Not a bit of it! Now, if I can just crack the perfect cliffhanger chapter ending...

Do you have a theory for composing chapters or a favourite chapter in your own writing?

Visit my website at

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Beach Hut Inspiration

Writing in Mablethorpe

Yes, that's a photo of me, taken this morning. Writing my latest manuscript on a netbook by our hired beach hut in Mablethorpe. My family and I have come back for a few days to revisit the seaside resort where we spent several happy summers in the 70s. It's lovely and sunny, the resort is well cared for, and I am able to stop by the shop where my sister bought her cricket bat over 20-odd years ago and it is still there, looking exactly the same. (The shop, not the cricket bat.) I know the shop still looks the same because I remember it vividly. How lucky are we, forced by profession to endlessly cast our minds back to our own childhoods? Now I'm getting to see it all again in bricks and mortar (and sand and sweets and fish and chips!).

I know I've said it before, but I love the flexibility of being a writer. I love the fact that I was able to write on the train over here, that I can enjoy the ludicrous pleasure of writing in a beach hut (take that garden sheds!) and that I am able to sit on a bench - the only place I can pick up my wifi connection - to compose this post, schedule it for publication tomorrow (Wednesday) and hope to goodness that technology doesn't let me down.

I have worked very hard in the sunshine today. It probably doesn't meet a single health and safety regulation and I don't particularly care. It's getting a bit chilly now, so I'm going to leave this bench and duck back into the hut to crack open that bottle of wine. I wouldn't be allowed to do that in an office.

Did I mention I love writing?

What do you like best about this mad profession of ours? I highly recommend beach huts for inspiration!

Please visit my website at

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

The Naked Emperor - Karen Ball

Following on from Nicola's fascinating post yesterday, I thought I'd take a snapshot of publishing as it is right at this moment, for a typical book buyer - me! The above photo reveals three purchases that reflect what my money is being spent on, why, and what this means for our future as authors.

The hardback reference book
I read about 'Merchants of Culture' by John B Thompson online. In a blog or on Twitter, I can't remember now. I ordered it from Amazon UK - and then waited four weeks for it to be delivered. (I think it's a US edition that probably needed to be ordered in.) Wow, this book is fascinating. As soon as I tore open the box, I had to start reading. As my computer's desktop sluggishly opened, during my lunch hour, on the tube home. It's an assessment of the publishing business in the 21st century. Undoubtedly, it became out of date the moment it hit the printing press but it is the first study of its kind in 30 years and oh-so-timely. It's frank, comprehensive, well-researched, with lots of interviews with people who know - and it pulls no punches. Want to know about the rise of the literary agent or why your mid-list books aren't marketed properly or what the digital revolution means for the author in the street? Then buy this book. It's not cheap - I paid £15 - but it's brutally honest. Can your author ego take the straight-talking of 'the jackal' - America's notorious literary agent, Andrew Wylie? Here's his assessment of the writers he first encountered, putting their faith in old-school literary agents who fitted snugly in the pockets of publishers: 'the writers, were uneducated, uninformed, sentimental, self-interested fools, children.' Ouch. I think I may actually have winced at that point. But there's a lot of solid opinion and information alongside the occasional insult (!) and if you want a book that's going to tell you how it is right now and what you need to wake up to, buy this. I can't stop thinking about it.

The first edition
So, the book is dead and long live the app. Right? Well, maybe not. Some of my money recently has gone towards this gift, a first edition copy of a friend's favourite book. (I've blocked out the title to avoid spoiling surprises, in case he/she is reading this blog!) This book wasn't cheap, but it was a no-brainer as the perfect item. If we're all so fed up with books, then why are charity shops and online secondhand book traders flourishing with their sales? I think this item is a wonderful balance to my final purchase...

The app
I'm going to Paris next month, so I've downloaded the Lonely Planet Paris app. It won't be as heavy as carrying a guide book around in my tourist bag, and there'll be lots of extra features that I wouldn't enjoy via the printed page. All for £3.95 and perfect for my needs when I'm pounding the streets of a foreign city. What's to complain about?

What do these purchases tell us? I like to think that they're a fair reflection of how publishing is and will continue to be. Books flourishing alongside exciting new apps, expensive reference books still being purchased, first editions being cherished. There's room for everything. But as authors, we need to look at ourselves afresh in this brave new world. Things are changing. They've changed even since this time last year when I remember some people saying to me, 'What recession?' Now, they're saying, 'Ooh, publishers are being cautious, aren't they? And what's all this about electronic royalties?' We really need to be on our toes. Nicola Morgan has been one of the first British children's authors with a strong online presence to dare cry, 'But the emperor has no clothes!' Our authorial wardrobe has been depleted. Contracts suspended or terminated, perfectly good manuscripts rejected, names removed from party guest lists (I'm not bitter), advances reduced. All this has been stripped away and replaced with... That's the problem. Nobody knows what. Publishers are reticent and cautious and scared. They don't know what's going to happen next and they're waiting for someone else to make the first move into the future. Someone will make it - someone brave. As authors, we don't want to be left behind. My own policy is to stay connected, stay informed, keep watching, keep writing - have an opinion when it matters.

And in the meantime? Going naked can be a bit chilly, I'll admit. But it can also be exhilerating. Skinny dip, anyone? There's a big, inviting pool just waiting for someone to break the surface.

For a fascinating article on Andrew Wylie and the electronic rights debate, click here.

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Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Five Children's Books I Wish I'd Written - Karen Ball

Spot any familiar books?

To celebrate ABBA's second birthday, each contributor to this blog has volunteered to use the month of July to add to a 'Top Five' list. I chose to write about the five children's books I wish I'd written. Oh dear. This is a bit like choosing a selection of songs for Desert Island Discs. (Being a no mark, I have never been invited onto Desert Island Discs, but am regularly interviewed by Kirsty Young in my fantasies.)

So. The books... What do I wish I had the talent to write?

I Capture The Castle, Dodie Smith
Oh Dodie, how you captured my heart. I was in my thirties the first time I read this novel, but it spoke volumes to me. Topaz ironing her silk tea gown, the faded chintz curtains, drinking creme-de-menthe when the sisters go to the pub with two young American men, Neil and Simon. (Characters in a children's novel going to a pub! Radical!) 'We have been poor for five years now.' This is the tale of a family coping after the mother dies. I remember being quite thrilled as a child when my poor mother went into hospital for appendicitis. How would the family cope? As eldest daughter, I was determined to step up to the mark, and take Mum's place in the running of the household. I quietly told Dad of my plans one evening as I sat on the side of my bed. He smiled and thanked me and informed me he'd be taking time off work, there was no need to worry. I was gutted! Is this what appeals to me in 'I Capture The Castle'? The adventure of a family cast to sea without the looming shadow of a matriarchal figure? Oh my goodness me, I could spend a fortune on a therapist's couch, unpicking that one.

Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging, Louise Rennison
I love humour and I respect humour, but I don't understand humour. Is this why people can be such snobs about it? There aren't any rules to grapple with. We're cast at sea, even the experts. No one can point at a page and say with utter confidence, 'This is what makes it funny and I can tell you how it works.' Humour isn't like anything else on the page. You can learn the craft, memorise the beats, think up punch lines and jokes... But will all of that effort and energy make someone laugh? Not necessarily. Humour is deeply mysterious and that is why I love it so.

The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman
'The knife had done almost everything it was brought to that house to do, and both the blade and the handle were wet.' If I am a very good girl for the rest of my life, I might one day be able to compose a sentence half as beautiful and sinister as that. If. Might.

Little House on the Prairie, Laura Ingalls
The jury is out on whether or not this is a children's book, but as a child I adored everything ever written by this woman. The books were read over and over again, until the spines turned brittle and the pages fell out. Our entire family was in love with these books. Why? I wanted Laura's life. I wanted the heroic father, the home-made ring doughnuts flipping over in the oil, the egg nog (I had no idea what egg nog was), the dolls made by her parents, the bed in the loft, the poverty. Yes, I wanted the poverty! What is it about hardship on the page? What makes it so romantic, even to a child? Is it because the domestic sphere is so important to a young reader, and a difficult home life is the first imaginable challenge life can throw at us? I don't know. I just wanted to twist handfuls of hay into tight sticks to burn on a fire when we'd run out of logs in the winter.

Who Knows What, Karen Ball
I'm sure I'm not the only writer whose best novel will always be the next one. The final book I nominate is the one I'm waiting to write. I don't know what it will be about at this stage, but it will be soooo brilliant, lots of fun, utterly lacking in pain and heartache and make my agent fall over in shock at its wondrosity. All I need to do now is come up with an idea...

I hope this list has inspired memories and thoughts of your own. Is there a book on your shelf that you wish had your name on the spine?

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Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Look, Mum - I'm Writing Karen Ball

Nothing Like Riding A Bike

Starting a new novel is never easy. During the zillion drafts of your previous book, you've almost convinced yourself you can write. You know your characters (they're so well-rounded!), the plot is stonking (even if you say so yourself) and you can recite the first chapter with your eyes closed, you've read through it so many times. Job done! Time to pat yourself on the back, put your feet up, accept the nice reviews, ignore the bad ones, cash your royalty cheques and plan the holiday of a lifetime. Isn't it...?

After a well-deserved break, either boredom, a creative impulse or your accountant will remind you that you need to write another book. What? You mean, I have to come up with another unforgettable opening line? But I don't even know what the book's going to be about! If you're anything like me, you will drift from one idea to the next, convincing yourself that, 'Yes! This is the one!' Only to wake up a week later and groggily think, 'Huh? What was that thought I had?' Oh dear. You forgot to write it down.

Eventually, you'll be invited to a party. Innocently, you'll accept, forgetting that parties are an author's conscience. Someone will ask: 'What are you working on, now?' You gulp, turn red, stutter. That's when you know it's time to put the martini glass down and drag yourself back to your desk. Crack the knuckles, shake out the shoulders, dust off the keyboard and turn off the Internet.

Some people start by gathering research, even going on trips. Others write a detailed outline. Still more people stare at a blank screen and listen to the sound of their brain frying. Ever wasted hours staring at a computer keyboard when you could have been outside, enjoying the sunshine? I have.

I wish I could say that I carefully plan each of my books, but I don't. I just start writing and see what comes out. Then, at least, I have something to mould. An opening chapter can work wonders for a writer's confidence, not least because you can see what's not working. Which means you have an idea of what might work. Which suggests you know what you're doing and where you want this story to go. I greatly admire the simple advice to write 1000 words a day and before you know it, you'll have a first draft. I love the moment when you pass the halfway mark, when you know that whatever else you write is taking you towards two golden words: The End. During all of this process, you've reclaimed your identity as a writer. This is me. This is what I do. Look, Mum - I'm writing!

Writing isn't like riding a bike, you can't always just get back on. Every novel is a brand new learning curve during which you will stumble and go down wrong paths. This much, I can guarantee. It's a very humbling experience and not one suited to everyone. The next time you meet a famous author (Hey! Because that happens a lot, right?) and find yourself trembling, don't imagine them naked - imagine them writing the first line of their next book. I bet they find it every bit as scary as we do.

Look, Mum - I made a poll! Vote here and allow us a unique insight into how most authors start a novel. There are no right or wrong answers here. Which option would you choose?

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Thursday, 6 May 2010

Not Waving But Writing - Karen Ball

Hello, writers-I-mean-voters. By the time you read this you may have voted already, be rushing out of the door to vote, wondering where the heck you put that polling card, what time the stations stay open until, how much you remember from the live debates and - oh god! I need to pick up the dry cleaning. Voting in a general election is likely to be just one more task you squeeze into a busy day. The future of my country? I'll decide that after I've walked the dog.

We're told that MPs work an average of 85 hours a week. Another great unprovable is that women are better multi-taskers than men. Oh, please. Whoever mooted these theories clearly has never met an author. We laugh in the face of an MP's workload and shake our heads in wry dismay at any claim that multi-tasking is a gender issue. As far as I'm concerned, the people who have to spin the most plates in this world are authors and illustrators. Our profession is what we do when everything else on the 'To Do' list has been done. A room of one's own? I'd kill for an hour to myself.

Several years ago, The Society of Authors produced a statistic that the average author earns £7000pa. That's not a liveable income, so most of us are also doing another job, either full or part-time. Many of us have families, commitments, a home to run and - dare I suggest? - other interests. Weekends become a blurred concept for a writer. That's when I do my writing. So does that mean I'm working seven days a week or indulging my interests in my spare time? It's a fine line sometimes, especially when a deadline is pressing. There's often an assumption that authors and illustrators will work weekends when schedules are being drawn. That Christmas is a great opportunity to nail a revised draft or that Bank Holidays are God's way of stopping you from going insane. Great! Another day for that rewrite. Of course, this flexibility is also the beauty of the craft. Some of us love writing in the wee small hours and wouldn't have it any other way. 9-5? Hell will freeze over first.

But, still. It's a lot to juggle, isn't it? Today I have to blog, vote, drag a suitcase to the office with me, do a morning's work, run to catch a train, do some work on the train, then... Ahhhh. Catch a plane, lie in the sun, read novels (for fun, not research!), drink cocktails, do nothing. Oh dear. I can see boredom on the horizon. A few days into my holiday, I'll probably start thinking about my next manuscript. I've already decided to pack my netbook for the break. Might I become the mad woman in large hat and sunglasses, squinting at a monitor when all around are sipping their Tequila Sunrises?

It's an affliction, you see, this itch to write. Why else would we do this to ourselves? I love being a writer almost as much as I enjoy being a martyr. Now, where did I put that polling card...

Do you squeeze writing in alongside another job? Do your children moan about monopoly of the family PC? It's not just me, is it?

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Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Where Do You Do It? - Karen Ball

Come on, don't be shy. Okay, I'll go first. Here are some of the places I've done it:
  • On a train.
  • Beside the Thames.
  • At my parents' house.
  • Beneath the stairs.
  • In the back garden.
  • Surrounded by strangers at St Pancras International.
Interestingly, never in a library. I'm talking about writing, of course. I hear lots of stories and I've seen the pictures: of people writing from a sleeping bag, in their sheds, from cafes around the world and on planes. The Weekend Guardian ran a fantastic series, photographing authors' studies. How I envied each and every one of those rooms! The interesting piece of furniture from a far-flung part of the world. The letter from a famous friend. The rows of foreign editions. Why did no one have a wobbly IKEA bookshelf, a fluffly blue pen with a butterfly on the end or - as in my particular case - a little pile of make-up brushes in a chipped whisky glass? I take comfort from the fact that I don't need a room of my own, I can write anywhere. All I need is a pen and paper ... ah, here's the rub. I don't think I could write longhand if you paid me lots and lots of money. I left that talent behind at university and even then it was giving me wrist ache. So all I need is a power point, a netbook, a wireless mouse (keeping up?), a notebook, a pen, a table, a kindly waitress... But most of these things I can find. And I do.

Writing is one of the most portable activities there is. But do these different venues affect my writing? I recently turned up at a day retreat, battling through rain, and immediately hated the new venue. I spent a day making my main character really, really angry. My attempts to write at the Starbucks in St Pancras were sensationally disastrous. All those other people milling around, looking a bit lost and forlorn, on their way somewhere but not there yet? Every word I wrote at that venue was equally lost and may as well have been ripped up and used for confetti. But I've had successes too. I once sat in my back garden and gazed up from my empty laptop screen to the blue flowers at the base of the cherry tree. Inspiration! A few hours later I'd completed a short story that - yes! - would be published. And I love writing on trains, if not at train stations.

Daphne du Maurier famously wrote 'Rebecca' whilst living in Egypt. Egypt! Her novel drips Cornish beauty: the shoreline, that house, those storms. Could Emily Bronte have written about the dark passions of 'Wuthering Heights' if she'd been holed up in leafy Surrey? (I grew up amongst the Derbyshire moors. When visiting Surrey for the first time as a naive 20-year-old I looked around and declared, 'But it's so ... green.' Made my boyfriend's mum laugh a lot. I never did like her.)

Sorry, I'm getting distracted. Venues. In 1930s Egypt, Daphne du Maurier's imagination yearned for the coasts of Cornwall and she evoked them brilliantly in her novel. I suspect locations matter just as much or as little as you allow them to. It's your imagination that counts and I've discovered that once you're visiting that part of your brain, the rest of the world can go whistle. You're oblivious.

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Sunday, 7 March 2010

More Than One - Karen Ball

Charney 2009: Some of the people who contributed to my latest WIP.

How many people does it take to write a novel? More than one, I can tell you that much. I've been working on my current project for about 18 months now. Phew - that sounds like a long time, doesn't it? But this was definitely me raising the bar for myself, charting new territory, having a go at something I'd never done before. I wanted a new challenge and, my goodness, I found it. So I'm not going to worry too much that it's taking this amount of time or this many drafts. I'm learning. And I'm definitely not learning alone.

So much is said about the solitary nature of writing, but I thought I'd take a moment to credit some of the mystery contributors to my latest WIP:
The bloggers
When I first began my YA novel I had some general rules in mind. I knew an approximate word count, what to leave out, how to excite. I had an idea. But without some of the advice that came to me via the blogging community, I'm not sure I'd have managed my first draft at all. I'd like to give particular thanks to Nicola Morgan, whose blog -
Help! I Need A Publisher - should be required reading for all aspiring authors.
My agent
I feel really lucky to have signed with an agent, Jenny Savill of
Andrew Nurnberg, who did two things that were important to me. First, she took me on. Second, she fed back. And fed back, and fed back. Her editorial guidance and patience have been invaluable as I felt my way forwards, stumbling sometimes. I now understand why so many authors talk in reverential tones about their agents.
A writing group
When first invited to join one, I shuddered. Read out extracts of my work in progress? Not on your nelly! But I was reassured that wasn't how this writers' group worked and so I nervously signed up. How glad I am. Limited to a group of four, we meet once a month. Not only has the feedback on extracts proved invaluable, but I have become heavily dependent on the emotional support and understanding that comes from peers doing the same thing. I hope I give back as much as I receive.
The Scattered Authors Society
Once upon a time I existed in a world that didn't include the
SAS. Er, how? Since signing up, I have attended the Charney retreat where I spent time polishing my first draft prior to submitting to an agent. I did a bit of napping there, too. I have made several good friends through the SAS and felt buoyed up by a writing community that shares so generously and often in a very practical manner. Where would we be without each other?
My long-suffering other half
Cups of tea. Cups of tea. Cups of tea. Oh, and the occasional order to get back to my desk and get writing! We all need a whip-cracker in our lives.

I have no idea where this manuscript will end up. If I think about it too much I get scared, as I know that the bottom drawer is a very real possibility. When I started writing I tried not to care, reminded myself how slim the chances were of publication. At some point during the process I realised that care had crept up on me - that I cared deeply. 'Blast,' I muttered. 'I'm going to be really upset now if nothing happens.' But that's the way it has to be, really, isn't it? We have to care. And the people around us have to care.

Publishing is often painted as a hard-nosed, ridiculous industry, with corporate accountants leading us all through the gates of hell as book chains crumble around us. That's not the whole picture - not by a long way. I know editors who are inspiring, authors who are generous, agents who don't scare me and publishers who are human. Crazy! Oh, and I know people who are kind.

How many people does it take to write a novel? More than one. Wherever the journey ends, I'm glad I set out on it. I wouldn't have half as many friends otherwise.

Who are the other people who contribute to your writing?

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Saturday, 6 February 2010

Publication Day - the biggest myth going Karen Ball

There are lots of myths that surround the life of a writer. That we earn lots of money. That we have lived every experience we write about. That ideas are easy or that we are kind and friendly people who pat children on the head and have a stash of chocolate in our pockets to hand out whenever meeting a new fan. All wrong. (Well, in my case at least. I give chocolate to no one.)

There's another myth that does the rounds, but one that is possibly less discussed. Publication day. You know that all important day when your book hits the shelves in a riot of publicity and promotion? Your publisher takes you out for a champagne dinner, fans queue up around the block, your parents weep with pride and the first editions become immediately priceless. That's the way it works, right? Possibly for some people. My publication days have always been quiet. I know several of you enjoy 24 hours that are full of flowers, interviews, attention, joy and activity, but I hazard a guess that even then there is something uniquely isolating about being the only person at the eye of the storm.

So, what is publication day? Usually in the middle of the month, but it could be one of any number between 1 and 31. It doesn't really matter to me, as not much happens. I get up, have some breakfast, get on with the day. If I'm feeling reckless, I'll wander into a bookshop to see if I can spot a copy of my book, but I know that's a dangerous dance with the devil. There might be a card from the publisher. But often, the day continues much as any other. This momentous event that has been creeping up on me for months and months turns out to be ... well, not so very momentous after all.

I have similair issues with the day you find out your book is going to be published. That phone call or email after an acquisitions meeting is possibly one of the moments of purest delight I've ever known. But then what happens? When I took the call saying my first novel was going to be published, I was cycling home. I pulled over, wrestled my mobile to my ear with sweaty palms, tried to sound like a Professional Author rather than harassed cyclist, then when the phone call was over, I... Did a dance? Pulled strangers to me and kissed them? Threw my bike aside and went out for an evening of debauchery? No, I put my feet back on the pedals, cycled the rest of the way home, made a few phone calls and watched Eastenders. This really big moment in my career remained caught up with the mundane details of my workaday life. I am certain I was tucked up in bed by 10.30pm, ready for the next day in the office.

Is this one of a writer's biggest secrets? There's a hole in the middle of the polo. A writer's world exists largely in the mind, and never is that more obvious than when real, concrete things are happening - somewhere else. In a meeting or a warehouse or a bookshop but not in my home and not in front of me. 'What does it feel like to be published?' people ask. I don't know. Publication is what happens somewhere, out there, in the ether. Perhaps it's all a big dupe. Perhaps none of us are really published at all? Perhaps... Oh no, I'm veering into conspiracy theory territory. No one would do that to us, would they? Kid us, I mean?

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