Showing posts with label Sally Nicholls. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Sally Nicholls. Show all posts

Wednesday, 5 February 2020

Writing forward by Alex English

I’ve always had the habit of writing in bits and bobs, going back and forwards through my story picking out various scenes, tweaking here and changing there. When I wrote my forthcoming novel, Sky Pirates: Echo Quickthorn and the Great Beyond, I had no idea if it would be a series or a stand-alone book (or even whether it would be published). I just wrote it, very much pantsing my way through and discovering the world along with my character. I didn't have a long series arc mapped out or plans for a trilogy. But now that the first book is more-or-less finished (off to typesetting this week – hurrah!) and I have started writing the second book in the series, I’ve realised that this time I can’t go back and change the beginning. The first book is fixed and I have to go on. A scary thought for a fiddler like me.
Help! Photo by Daniel Jensen on Unsplash
In an improv workshop with Sally Nichols many years ago at a SCBWI retreat we played various games but one particularly stuck in my mind. We stood in a circle and built a story step by step – each person had to make up one story beat, the story then moved on to the next person and the next around the circle. I can’t remember the fine details of the exercise, but one thing that did really stick with me was Sally’s exhortation to keep the story progressing forward. Each beat needed to change something and move the story on, but more than that there was no possibility of going back to seed in something at the beginning that you need at the end. 
Often when I write it’s only when I get to the end that I realise what the beginning needs to be. But when stories are told orally and real-time like this you can only use what you already have, however small the detail, and build on it.

Whenever we got stuck in the improv exercise, Sally urged us to look back at what had gone before. What skills did our characters have? What experiences had they gone through? What possessions did they own? Which of those side-characters that made cameos earlier could come in useful now? Which of those small details that we thought were just for colour could prove to be more significant?

Onward! Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash
As I was chatting to a friend at the recent Folly Farm retreat, it occurred to me that this concept is going to come in very useful when writing a series. Yes, the first book is finished. Any opportunities to go back and sneak in a crucial clue for use in future books are now gone. But that’s okay – thinking back to Sally’s workshop has made me realise I have everything I need. I'll take what I have and write forward. The only way out is on! 

Alex English is a graduate of Bath Spa University's MA Writing for Young People. Her new middle-grade series SKY PIRATES launches in July 2020 with Simon & Schuster. 

Her picture books Yuck said the Yak, Pirates Don't Drive Diggers and Mine Mine Mine said the Porcupine are published by Maverick Arts Publishing. More of her picture books are forthcoming in 2021/2022.

Thursday, 5 January 2017

More Books Please by Savita Kalhan

Happy New Year!

Last year I did my usual reading challenge. It used to be to read 55 books, but for 2016 I decided to up it to 60 books. As usual, the mix of books I've read range from middle grade to teen to young adult to adult, and they include a vast range of genres.

I read the middle grade and teen books for the library reading group that I run in Finchley Church End library, which now also includes some pre-teens as well as 13 to 15 year olds. Here are a few of our favourite reads for 2016. These books made the kids laugh, cry, hold their breath, or cheer. They have held them captive and made them seek out the authors so they can read more by them.

Some of the older teens in the group are now interested in reading young adult books, but I remember when they first started, just under two years ago, when all they wanted to read were older middle grade and young teen books. Some of them only managed to read a book a month then. Now they're are all taking up to four books a month to read for the reading group. It has been so satisfying to see the kids' reading habits develop and their love of reading increasing month by month.

The only thing that's holding us back is the budget for teen books. I'm sure the problem is the same for all libraries. I would love for my group to have more choice available to them. 

So if there are any publishers out there who would like their teen books read and reviewed by a teen reading group and would like to donate some books in exchange, or would just like to donate teen books, then please feel free to get in touch with us!

Savita's WEBSITE

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Who Would You Be? by Keren David

It’s unusual to be completely thrown by a question from the audience, but a teenager in the audience at my most recent event managed to do just that.
The event was the Hay Festival, my fellow panellists were Sally Nicholls and Anne Cassidy and the question was this: ‘If you could be any other writer, who would you be?’
‘Homer,’ said Sally, for his wonderful stories and use of language.  ‘J K Rowling,’ said Anne, ‘just think of the money.’
I mumbled something about Shakespeare, but it wasn’t really true, and over the last few weeks I’ve been wondering which writer I should have picked. Anne Tyler, whose novel ‘The Accidental Tourist’ is written so beautifully that I have line-envy on every page? Antonia Forest, because then I’d know more about the Marlows, possibly my favourite family in children’s fiction? Hilary McKay for creating the Casson family, who run the Marlows a close second? Lauren Child, because I’d love to have her visual imagination? Jodie Picoult or Joanna Trollope, because I feel I could do what they do, but then I wouldn’t have to do it and I’d have all their royalties.
No. The answer, I realised was simple. I write because I like to create my own stories. I don’t want to write other people’s books or plays, even if they are more lucrative than mine, win more awards, are better written. I don’t want to be another writer, is what I should have said. I just want to work on being an even better version of me.

How about you? Is there an author you’d like to be? 

Monday, 24 February 2014

What You Learn on a Writing Weekend with the SAS - Liz Kessler

I am writing this blog from a train, having spent the weekend locked away in a hotel with forty wonderful children’s authors (all members of the Scattered Authors' Society, otherwise known as the 'other' SAS). And I have to say, it was a very lovely hotel to be locked away in, surrounded by trees and lakes and snowdrops.

OK, we weren’t actually locked away. We were all there by choice. And while I'm clearing up inaccuracies, I'm not in fact simply 'getting the train home'. I'm getting a...
  • Taxi to the station;
  • Train to London;
  • Tube across London;
  • Train to the airport;
  • Flight to Newquay (not because I’m a posh jet setter who normally gets around via aeroplane, but because train lines in and out of Cornwall are currently out of action due to the recent storms);
  • Lift home in a car.

I’m not saying all this in an attempt to impress anyone with my mammoth journey, but to show how much trouble I am willing to go to in order to spend a weekend with not only some of the finest children’s authors in the country, but some of the loveliest people to boot. (I don’t think I’ve ever used the expression ‘to boot’ before. I like it.)

In other words, it was a wonderful weekend.

As writers generally work at home on their own, you can perhaps imagine how we feel about getting together like this. It’s a bit like a group of work colleagues who have LOADS to talk about, but only get to hang out around the water cooler three times a year.

It’s not just a whole load of fun; you also learn things. So, here are ten things I learned this time.

1. Writers’ fortunes go up and down so much that we really shouldn’t worry too much when times are tough – or get complacent when they’re good. It’s probably all gonna look different when you come back and see everyone again next year.

2. The Scattered Authors’ Society will always support you in the former of those times and cheer for you in the latter.

3. Most children’s authors seem to have black swimming costumes.

4. Tim Collins is extremely good at coping with being surrounded by forty women (and is also very clever and very funny).

5. Anne Rooney is totally amazing at putting together huge amounts of interesting information and producing a fascinating PowerPoint presentation in the time it takes other people to sleep, have breakfast and brush their teeth.

6. Sally Nicholls will always be the winner if you get into a game of ‘How many people have you killed off in a single novel?’ (Unless you know anyone who has killed more than 45% of Europe.)

7. Malorie Blackman is, basically, wonderful.

8. If you get ten SAS members sitting in a bar at an event like this, you are quite likely to discover that you have 156 years' experience of the publishing industry around the table.

9. My A Level in Maths wasn’t all for nothing, as I managed to correctly work out the above without the use of a calculator.

10. When you’re running late with your blog post and haven’t got any ideas of your own, someone else will usually have a good one you can nick/share. Thanks Abie! 

(Please head over to Abie Longstaff’s sister blog today!)

MASSIVE thanks to the wonderful duo, Mary Hoffman and Anne Rooney, for working so hard to put together such a fab weekend. Hope to see lots of you around the water cooler again soon.

Follow Liz on Twitter
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Check out Liz's Website

Saturday, 9 July 2011

History - Sally Nicholls

One of the things I love about being a children's author is the freedom. While adult authors moan about how they're stuck writing science fiction, or chick lit, or historical fiction, even though they've had this great idea for a book about Napoleon's aunt, I have – to date – written a realistic novel, a fantasy novel and a historical novel, and am in the middle of something completely different again.

One of the things I hate about being a children's author is the freedom. I get carried away with all these brilliant ideas - “Let's write a book about the green man!” “Let's write a book about the Black Death!”, my brilliantly accommodating editor gets all excited, and it's not until I'm about 10,000 words in that I realise I don't know anything about how to write fantasy novels. Or medieval England.

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Secrets of the Secrets - Sally Nicholls

The new edition of Season of Secrets is out this month - hurrah! It's a story about a child whose mother has died, and whose grief cycle mimics that both of the seasonal year, and of the battle between the Oak King and the Holly King - pagans gods who rule over summer and winter, and do battle at the spring and autumn equinoxes.

When I first started writing children's books, all of my stories were realistic. My first book, 'Ways to Live Forever', is very realistic. I'm interested in people, paricularly damaged people, and there seemed to be so much interesting stuff to write about in the real world - love, death, happiness, unhappiness, abuse, loneliness, families, friendships, sex etc - that I wasn't really sure what the point of adding fairies was.

But I've always been fascinated by the Oak King. Like Eliot's Fisher King, he brings life and health to the land as he grows. And when he is killed in autumn, death comes. The plants die. The summer vanishes. It's winter. And then, in spring, he's born again and the life comes back.

It was the Oak King's damagedness which interested me. Here is someone so powerful that they change the world just by existing - yet each year they go through this painful and destructive cycle of death and rebirth. I wanted to write about him, but I wanted to do it through the medium of a real child.

How would this child's story be connected to the Oak King's? The idea that emotions affect the physical world is another old one - Demeter, in Greek mythology, brings winter through her grief for her stolen daughter Persephone. And winter is a good metaphor for grief, because although the spring does come back, winter is never truly gone - the sadness and the happiness will always be part of your life.

The myth became - not a metaphor, exactly - but a way of exploring Molly's grief for her mother. And because stories are much more interesting and fascinating than metaphors, it became a way of exploring her feelings towards her absent father - and a way of figuring her father. It's been described as a love story, and though that isn't what I intended when I wrote it, it's become that as well.

Aren't stories great?

Sally's website:
Buy 'Season of Secrets':

Thursday, 31 December 2009

Who Are You Writing For, Again? - Sally Nicholls

It's an commonly-held belief that 'the best children's books work for adults too'. Into this category are dumped either the children's books written with one eye on an adult audience (the picture books with rude jokes or the 9-12 year-old books which mention Plato), or the books aimed very firmly at children which are just SO DAMN GOOD that everyone loves them.

Astrid Lingren (of Pippi Longstocking fame) was very against the first sort of books. Why put in a joke that children won't find funny in a book AIMED AT CHILDREN? Why make a reference that your target audience won't get? She believed that children's writing should be aimed directly at the people it's for - the children - and that anything aimed at anyone else should be deleted.

(This doesn't mean she was against clever references, btw. Terry Pratchett includes just as many references in his children's Discworld books as he does in those aimed at adults. They're just references to the Famous Five and Hans Christian Anderson, rather than They Might Be Giants and Aristotle).

I'm on Astrid's side (I think), although I think kids are cleverer than adults give them credit for, and I'm not afraid of making them work a bit when reading my books. I also don't think its true that a good children's book will be loved by adults. Adults have singularly failed to get Jacqueline Wilson, Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl. Does this make them bad children's authors? Or are they better authors because they tap into something that cleverer authors have forgot?

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

The Film of the Book - Sally Nicholls

My first book is going to be made into a film.
Actually, that's something of an understatement. 'Ways to Live Forever' is being made into a film right now.
Somewhere up in Newcastle there are about fifty people standing around in the cold holding esoteric job titles like Best Boy and Continuity. There are two women whose job it is to pick clothes for my characters. There are people with clapper boards and three full-time drivers and a catering van and a whole team of producers and even a tutor for the child actors, like something out of Noel Streatfield. And all of this attention is focused on one or two of the actors for something like an hour, in order to produce thirty seconds worth of film.
It's bizarre.
The whole thing is, of course, very, very exciting. Imagine watching a troupe of grown men and women acting out scenes from the back of your imagination - taking silly things you scribbled down on a back of an envelope deeply seriously - playing with lights and colours and camera angles absolutely seriously, to capture something that you only put in to dig yourself out of a plot hole, or to fill in the gap between two important scenes. I've seen some of the early rushes, and the whole thing is going to look gorgeous.
On another level, it is of course not my imagination at all. Nobody looks exactly like I imagined them (although the boy playing Sam comes close) - everyone else looks more like film stars. The house is bigger than I pictured it, and the emphasis has been placed in slightly different places, which makes it very definitely the product of the very talented people making the film, rather than me.
In some ways, this makes it much more interesting to watch. When I was first sent the script, I was too frightened to open the attachment in case the story was very different from my book. When I did read it, the problem was almost the opposite - the film is very faithful, and so much of my dialogue has been used that reading the script was like hearing your own voice played back to you on tape - too raw to enjoy.
The best parts of the script-reading experience were seeing my jokes taken out of context, or visualised, or exaggerated in ways I hadn't expected. I describe one character as looking like a French spy, for example - in the film he's spotlighted, fedora down, in dramatic silhouette.
Another throwaway line nearly made me cry reading the script. A character in the novel remarks that once Sam - my narrator - is dead, he's going to steal all the royalties from his book and go to the Caribbean. It's a funny line in the book, nothing more. In the film, the little scene ends and Felix switches on the film camera and delivers the line face-on. It's unexpectedly poignant, because you know he isn't going to survive the film either.
Seeing someone else make something completely different out of my story is like standing ten paces back from it - almost like approaching it as a disinterested reader. I noticed mistakes in my writing that I never spotted while editing. But the director's characters touched me in a way my own never did.
I can't wait to see the finished thing.

Click here to see the young actors preparing for their roles,

Here to find out more about the film,

And here for my website.

Friday, 6 November 2009

Medina Hill - Sally Nicholls

I'm writing this blog a day early in order to take part in the blog tour of Trilby Kent's 'Medina Hill', which came out last month. Trilby's book will be travelling across blogs in Britain, Canada and America, receiving reviews (wonderful idea, Trilby) and today it's visiting the Awfully Big Blog Adventure.

'Medina Hill' is the story of eleven-year-old Dominic, who has suffered from selective mutism since his mother became ill. In the summer of 1935, Dominic and his sister Marlo are sent to stay with their Uncle Roo in Cornwall while their mother is in hospital. As with many classic children's books, we suspect that everything is about to change ...

Everything changes through the unlikely medium of a small green book entitled 'Incredible Adventures for Boys: Colonel Lawrence and the Revolt in the Desert'. Dominic quickly becomes entranced with Lawrence of Arabia and dreams of imitating his hero - of becoming part of a strange culture, being accepted into a foreign tribe and freeing them. He gets his chance when he meets Sancha, a Romany girl whose family are in danger of being turfed off their land. Can Dominic - like Lawrence of Arabia before him - overcome his shortcomings and liberate his new friends?

'Medina Hill' reads very much like a traditional children's book. All the elements from the books of my childhood are there - the ginger beer, the 'bathes' in seaside coves, the gypsies in 1930s caravans. Trilby Kent has worked hard to avoid stereotypes, however. Her Romany are well-researched and interesting - their romance is still there, but the hardness of their life and the complexity of their language and customs are emphasised. Similarly, the parts dealing with T. E. Lawrence are fascinating - we learn that he was originally refused entry into the army, and that his usefulness to Britain stemmed not from his military might but his knowledge of Arabic. The characters are great too - Dominic's sister Marlo is very well-observed, and I would have loved Uncle Roo's artists colony as a child.

There are times where the storytelling falters - the end is a little too neat and predictable and the pace a little too fast - we are told about Marlo's friendship with the Reverend, for example, rather than see it develop. I would have liked Dominic's problems to be a little harder to solve - the main quest is acheived in several chapters and the hidden treasure found in the first place he looks.

All in all, however, this was a great read, and one which made me interested to find out more about Lawrence and the Romany. Lawrence is an inspiring hero for this age group, and I loved that Dominic's victory is given as much weight for the reader as his hero's. A clever, richly textured book, both for modern children and traditionalists like me.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Women and Men - Sally Nicholls

Before you read this post, take a look at these statistics from women's writing magazine Mslexia:

authors of books published 1991 65% 36%
authors of books reviewed 1991 73% 24%
authors of reviews autumn 1991 77% 23%
authors of books reviewed autumn 1998 68% 32%
authors of reviews autumn 1998 73% 27%

and these:

Nobel Prize for literature (1902-1997) 96% 4%
Booker Prize short-list (1969-1995) 65% 35%
Booker Prize winners (1969-1998) 69% 31%
Betty Trask Award for romantic fiction winners (1984-1995) 62% 38%
Whitbread novel winners (1971-97) 67% 33%
TS Eliot Poetry Prize winners (1993-8) 100% 0%
Forward Poetry Prize winners (1992-8) 92% 8%
Whitbread poetry winners (1971-97) 90% 10%

Scary stuff, no? Other evidence in the article linked to above suggests women's work is likely to be underrated simply because it is written by a woman - in a study in which pieces of writing were given to readers to rate, identical pieces of writing were consistently rated higher if they had a male name attached to them.

But children's fiction is different. Isn't it? There certainly seem to be a lot more women floating around children's fiction - I don't have precise figures, but a glance at any children's writer's forum, conference, or organisation shows an overwhelming female predomince. Look at publisher's catalogues and you'll see the same phenomenon. "Oh yes," someone at my publisher (Scholastic) said when I asked about this. "Most of our authors are women, definitely."

Fantastic. (Though rather sad for all the male authors and readers). Or is it? "Of course," my source continued, "All our highest selling authors are male. Philip Pullman, Philip Reeve, Terry Deary ..."

A look at children's prizes shows a similar female focus. The Branford Boase has been won by 70% women and 30% men and the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize by 59% women and 41% men. Only the Carnegie Medal - considered by some to be the Children's Booker - strikes a discordant note, with 53% of medals awarded to women - still a majority, but a much smaller majority than the number of women writing for young people would suggest. Also the Children's Laureateship, which to date has been held by four men and two women, although the sample size is much too small to draw any conclusions from this.

I don't want this blog post to imply that I'm against men writing for children. I'm not. I think children need as wide a range of writing as possible, something that can only be provided if the are given writing by as wide a range of authors as possible; male, female, white, black, Asian, British, European, American, poets, scriptwriters, comedians, tragedians, whatever. I think male writers for young people should be encouraged. Nor do have a problem with any of the men chosen as Laureates or awarded Carnegie Medals. I think children's fiction is in a much better state than adult fiction, and has a lot to be proud of.

I just think it interesting that in an industry so dominated by women, with so many successful women writers, male writers are still disproportionately recognised at the highest levels.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Truth and Fiction - Sally Nicholls

When I was a child, I valued truth in my reading matter. I wanted to read about children who behaved like the children I knew. I wanted their maths books to look like our maths books, and their arguments to sound like our arguments. It infuriated me that children who found secret passages and mysterious fairies didn't run immediately to tell everyone they knew (I would have done, and so would all the children I knew. Children love sharing exciting details of their life with adults. The old 'I didn't think anyone would believe me' argument never really washed with me.)

When I wasn't trying to make books work like real life, I was trying to make real life work like books. I wanted secret societies that didn't collapse after half a meeting because no one would listen to the chair and someone's little sister wanted to play 'tag'. Passwords worked really well in the Secret Seven books, but people either forgot them or said disturbingly logical things like "You know it's me, let me in," which made you wonder why the Secret Seven bothered. I could never understand families which only consisted of parents and children - I had hundreds of aunts, uncles, family friends and distant relatives who swooped in in times of crisis. Even at 8 I thought it was lazy writing when no one seemed to have siblings - all my friends had siblings.

As a writer, I'm starting to understand. Why waste words introducing aunts and uncles that serve no purpose other than to make your character more realistic? If your child does show her parents the magic fairy, how does it remain her story? If your children aren't allowed out on their own or are too scared to go out alone at night, how will they do all the things they need to do?

I err more on the side of realism than my stories probably suit, mainly because I'm aware that I'm writing for ten-year-olds like me, and because I want that younger me to recognise herself in the books, rather than throw them down in disgust. I can still remember getting excited aged 11 reading Jacqueline Wilson's 'The Suitcase Kid' because the characters watched Neighbours like my friends kid. If I'm not writing for that little girl, how can I call myself an honest writer?

Monday, 24 August 2009

Name That Cat - Sally Nicholls

Just a very quick cheeky blog to say that I've started a competition on my website to name my main character's cat in Book Three. The winning cat namer will be able to read about a cat with the winning name, and will be acknowledged in the acknowledgements of the finished book.

If you're interested in entering (or would like to pass on the competition details to any children's writing groups/book groups you are involved in) please leave a comment on my website. The competition will run for about a month, or until I finish my third draft, whichever is sooner.

Now go and read Karen's post (below).

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Pace - Sally Nicholls

Pace is, quite simply, a pain in the arse.
Pace is how fast a story is being told. It's annoying because it's not easy to explain WHY something is paced too fast or two slow. The only way to figure it out, as far as I can tell, is to read a lot of books, then print out your manuscript and read it like a book, noting down the places where the story is getting boring (pace too slow) or you blink at half a year's gone by (pace too fast).
With my last book, 'Season of Secrets', my pace was mostly too slow - mainly because I set myself targets like 'write a thousand words in a day', with the result that I frantically wrote a load of rubbish to meet my deadline. Editing then mainly became cutting, which is a wonderful process - my target then became 'delete a thousand words a day', which is frankly easier and gives one a wonderful sense of freedom as the story emerges from all the dross, shiny and streamlined. I've deleted about 20,000 words from both of my first two books, neither of which is longer than 37,000 words in total.
With the latest book, however I set myself the target of finishing sections - write two sections per week, I told myself. This has resulted in lots of ridiculously short sections, which are paced far too quickly.
I now just need to add stuff - which I have no idea how to do. Aargh! Help would be gratefully received!

Saturday, 27 June 2009

Writing for Pleasure - Sally Nicholls

I was recently at a celebration for the summer solstice. As part of the event, participants shared poems and stories which they had written, many on appropriate themes.

Now, as you can imagine, most of the poems were dreadful, but that wasn't the point. They were fun. They were silly, and irreverent, and the authors had obviously had a great time writing them. They weren't intended to be published - at least I hope not - they were simply a way of having a good time, and creating something personal to be shared with the writer's friends.

Which got me thinking. Everyone who kicks a football round the park doesn't want to be a professional football player. Everyone who cooks doesn't want to be a chef. So why is there this assumption that if you write, you must want to do it professionally?

Whatever happened to writing for fun? Not to have it published - be that in a book, in a magazine, or on the internet. Not to worry about how many people have bought or downloaded it. Not for someone else to read at all. Simply for yourself or a few friends. For itself.

I used to write a diary, many years ago. I used to write funny sketches about the madness that was my university house - for my university friends to read. I have been known to write bad poetry for the eyes of my forgiving boyfriend only.

What happened to that? To writing for fun?

Friday, 8 May 2009

Big Books - Sally Nicholls

Last month, 'Ways to Live Forever' was involved in School Library Journal's Battle of the Books (hurrah!).

Sadly, it got knocked out in the first round by Octavian Nothing (alas).

The competition was a tournament, with judges deciding which of a pair of books would make it through into the next round. Cue lots of moaning about comparing apples and pears (trying to compare The Hunger Games and Octavian Nothing - the final two books - is a bit like trying to decide whether Jane Eyre or Winnie the Pooh is a better book). And, of course, cue lots of replies that actually this is what judging any literary award is like and that's why it's such a bloody difficult thing to do.

It also raised the question of what makes a good children's book. Should you pick the one you think is the better book (and let's not get into a discussion about whether that is even possible)? Or should you pick the one you think children would rather read?

Judges varied (giving a nicely random air to the competition). But what interested me was why this was seen as particularly important in a children's prize.

Surely it's just the old 'should The Da Vinci Code win the Booker' debate?

And yes, for reference I think a children's book which too advanced for most children isn't a children's book. And being a book which people want to read is most definitely a good thing, and should be considered when judging any competition - including the Booker.

But ... that's only one point out of many - plot, characters, style, beauty, emotional or intellectual truth, originality. And yes, there is space in children's bookshelves for the equivalent of The Da Vinci Code. But children are not a separate species - they are little human beings. And they deserve books as rich and complicated as Octavian Nothing (which won to a crowd-pleaser).

There are many, many children's prizes which are voted for by children and go to the books they want to read.

And there is room in children's literature for dark, powerful, complicated, intellectually challenging books.

And there are children who read them, too.

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Comfort Reading - Sally Nicholls

I've been wondering about doing some reviews for a while. About the sort of books you fall in love with, the sort you return to over and over again and read until the pages start falling out.

As a child, I had a lot of 'comfort books'. Noel Streatfield, Enid Blyton, Frances Hodgeson Burnett ... With a library consisting of three shelves in a little white-painted bookcase, my books suffered a lot of re-reading. Even now, my copies of 'Watership Down' and 'The Borrowers' are held together with glue and spit. And the book I read most as a young teenager now has a spine composed entirely of masking tape, with LORD OF THE RINGS printed across it in permanent marker.

As an adult, I've discovered two new 'comfort authors', who make me laugh no matter where I open their books, who I can read again and again until I know whole passages off my heart.

The first is Hilary McKay, in particular her Casson family books, in particular 'Saffy's Angel', which won a well-deserved Whitbread Award for Children's Fiction. The Cassons are a wonderfully anarchic family, with four children all named after paint colours, a mother who sleeps in a garden shed and a father who drops in every now and then from London, dripping expensive accessories. With the help of Saffy's friend Sarah and Cadmium's sexy driving instructor, the Cassons manage to get all around the world in search of love, family and a sense of belonging.

The second is Jaclyn Moriarty, and her three scrapbook books all set in two Australian secondary schools and composed entirely of letters, emails and other ephemera. 'Finding Cassie Crazy' is my favourite, but they're all brilliant. I lent one to a friend recently and she returned it saying, 'I was just like that as a teenager ... I thought I was the only one!' Her teenage girls are bright, spunky, rebellious, vulnerable, imaginative and slightly silly. They are perfectly capable of running away to join the circus one minute, and fighting to preserve their right to privacy and a fair trial the next.

Go and read them immediately.

Monday, 2 March 2009

Sure-Fire Method To Avoid Procrastination - Sally Nicholls

Like most writers, I occasionally procrastinate. This is probably a bad thing. This is why, today, I am bringing you my sure-fire method to avoid procrastinating when supposedly writing your novel, otherwise known as Use The Procrastination. It Is Your Friend.
Confused? Read on.
The method is simple. First, find something very important and very difficult/dull which needs to be done (preferably on a computer). This can be anything from tax returns to Scout Club minutes to essays (I learnt this technique while studying for a Masters). This works best when the thing is urgent and overdue, but it does need to involve your brain, or at least more brain than your novel.
Then ... turn on your computer. Stare at the screen. Say to yourself, "I really must do that tax return". Whistle. Think, "Oh, I'll just write a few paragraphs of novel first."
Suddenly, novel stops being Work and Difficult and becomes Procrastination and Fun, and you wake up at the end of the day to discover that you've written 1000 words (hurrah!) and ... er ... not done that tax return (less hurrah).
I probably shouldn't admit to how useful I find this method ...

PS Yes, I was interested, Penny. Today I have spent the whole afternoon reading a proof copy of Girl Meets Cake by Susie Day, which is utterly hilarious and well recommended. Out in April. Also reading Dangerous Liasons, for fun (and it is fun too, makes me want to be a libertine), In Bed With ..., a collection of erotic short stories, for research (because I'm going to have to write a sex scene for the work in progress, and I'm terrified) and an envelope full of short stories for work (I'm a competition judge).

Friday, 6 February 2009

Why Write For Children? - Sally Nicholls

Why do you write for children? is a question I get asked every now and then. It's a good question. Here are some of the good reasons why people do it:

1. You love children’s books, and always have.
2. You have recently discovered children’s books and been blown away the amazing things writers are doing in this field (if you answered no to both of these questions - for shame! Go and read some Philip Pullman/Hilary McKay/Rosemary Sutchcliff/Mary Norton/David Almond immediately!)
3. All of your ideas are for children’s books. You aren’t sure why.
4. You have very vivid memories of being a child - many of the most significant things that ever happened to you were in childhood.
5. You are halfway through your epic fantasy about a little girl who finds a magical kingdom at the bottom of her sock drawer, and friends have suggested that it might not be suitable for adults. (This isn’t as unusual as you might think - Michael Rosen, Mark Haddon and Meg Cabot all started out thinking their writing was for adults).
6. You have no idea. You recognise it is probably an insane ambition.

And here are some of the bad reasons:

1. You’ve read some of the tosh that gets published and you can do better than that. Really? I sympathise with the desire to write something easy - when I was a little girl I wanted to write alphabet books on the same basis - but just because something looks simple, doesn’t mean it is.
2. You’ve read Harry Potter and it was utter tosh - you can do better than that. If you think Harry Potter is tosh, you’ve missed all the reasons why children love it - the humour, the read-aloud writing style, the vibrant characters, the plot twists and the deeply complex world-building. Children want to go to Hogwarts because it’s clear that J K Rowling does too - if you think what you’re writing is tosh, they will recognise this.
3. Children’s authors are loaded, right? Cue hollow laughter. Most authors earn less than minimum wage - around £6000 a year. And that’s just the ones that get published.
4. You want to be a writer and children’s books are easier than adult books. Probably true if you’re a celebrity and can afford a ghost writer. Otherwise, bear in mind that while you have to get everything right that you would in an adult book - plot, character, motivation, language etc - you also have to be aware the whole time that you are writing for people who are fundamentally not you, and come with their own needs and expectations. Not easy.
5. You’ve written a story and your children loved it. Children love attention, they love stories and they love anything created especially for them. It’s great that your kids liked your story - but this in no way means it is publishable or has any wider appeal.

Please note that neither of these lists are exclusive.

Thursday, 15 January 2009

A Day In The Life ... - Sally Nicholls

I know we've done a lot of blog posts about procrastination, but I thought you might be interested in this piece on a Day in the Life of an Author, which I did for the Manchester Book Award website.

I've only been a full-time author for about a week and a half, so I'm hoping I'm going to get better at it, not least because there's no point being at home all day if you do all your writing in the evening. We'll have to see.

8.30: Boyfriend’s alarm clock goes off. Boyfriend turns it off and rolls over. I mutter something uncomplimentary about people with proper jobs and go back to sleep.

8.40-9.30: Repeat the above step at ten minute intervals until boyfriend admits defeat and wakes up. Open the curtains and wonder about getting up. Decide against it.

10.20: Boyfriend looks at watch, says, “Aargh! I’m late!” and goes to have a shower. I wander into the kitchen and make some breakfast.

10.35: Boyfriend kisses me goodbye and runs out of the door. I curl up on the sofa under my duvet and eat my porridge.

11:00: Turn on laptop and start checking my email, playing WordTwist and seeing if anyone has bought my book on Amazon. This is called ‘preparing myself to start work’.

1.30: Start to get hungry and realise with horror that I haven’t done any writing yet. Tell myself that I’m not allowed to eat until I’ve written some words. To prepare myself, I make a cup of tea and put some music on.

3.00: Having finally written about 200 words, I make some lunch and get dressed. Reply to emails from my website, read threads on several writing websites and get depressed because no one has sent me an email in the last ten minutes.

5.00: Flatmate comes home from work and we have another cup of tea. I start to get into this writing lark and begin a new chapter. It’s interesting. It’s good! I play a quick round of Spider Solitaire and keep writing.

7.30: Boyfriend comes home from work and asks me if I want something to eat. I say, “Mmm. I’m writing,” and carry on tapping away.

8.30: Boyfriend points out that if we don’t start cooking soon we won’t eat before nine. I sigh, close down my laptop and go and see if we have any beans left.

9.00: Eat beans on toast and watch The West Wing with boyfriend. Am grumpy or cheerful depending on how many words I’ve managed to write.

10.40: Go to bed with a book. Chat to boyfriend. Feel guilty about all the things (like housework and tax returns) that I haven’t done today. Resolve to do them all (and write 1000 words) tomorrow.

11.30: Sleep.

Saturday, 20 December 2008

Schizophrenia - Sally Nicholls

My book group were reading 'Keep the Aspidistra Flying'.
"I wondered if Gordon was bi-polar," said one member, about Orwell's frustrated bookseller-poet. "Half the time he seems to think he's writing a masterpiece; the rest he seems about to give up writing altogether. That's not normal."
I glanced at the other writer in the group.
"Er ... actually I thought that was one of the most realistic parts of the book."
The other writer nodded. "Yes. That's just what it's like."

Being schizophrenic about your writing isn't something to be worried about. In fact, I doubt I could write a book without it.

Writing a novel is bloody hard. It takes months - it can take years. Months of sitting in front of a computer screen, months of angst and worry and tears and stress and refused invitations and guilt and strain. If you didn't believe you were writing something worthwhile, that you were saying something interesting or original or funny or entertaining, why would you bother?

I'm currently stuck in the middle of a difficult writing period. New words aren't coming and the words that I have seem dull and prosaic. Yet I keep writing. Why? It's not just howl of the rent check, it's because there's a small but insistent part of my brain which insists on answering interview questions ("Where did you come up with such an original idea?") writing my own reviews ("A powerful and important wrk") and planning the acceptance speech for the Noble Prize for Literature which this novel will surely win for me.

I'm exaggerating a little, but you get my point. Yet have I actually written the next Carnegie winner? No, I haven't. And this is where the other part of my brain comes in. Editing is just as long and difficult a process as writing, and if I lived in smug writer land all the time, I simply wouldn't bother. It's only because half of my brain hates everything I've written, thinks that it's dull, flat, boring, repetative, is sure that my editor will reject it and my readers hate it, can't understand why I even thought I could do this writing lark in the first place, only because this dismal and depressive side of my psyche exists that I can put in the hours of editing I need to turn my pile of words into something publishable.

Bi-polarism? Schizophrenia? Nonsense. It's all part of being a writer.