Last week I was asked to speak at a Careers Forum for the Arts at Sevenoaks School, which is where I did my A Levels nearly *mumbles* years ago. It was a great honour to be asked, and a delight to meet the other panellists who were all old girls as well. Sixth formers interested in the Arts came along to hear us speak briefly about our careers and then ask questions. I was there to represent the world of children’s literature, but also to talk about publishing and the study of creative writing at university. The others were Stina Richardson, who designs jewellery, the journalist and award-winning poet Olivia Cole and the podcaster and comedy writer Helen Zaltzman.

There has been a significant decline in take-up of Arts subjects at GCSE level, which of course means fewer pupils are going on to study them at A level and Higher Education, and this in turn will have a detrimental effect on the future for the Arts in our country. So, it was heartening to see a room full of sixth formers interested in creative subjects and fantastic to see that the school was encouraging this.

All of the speakers came from very different areas in the Arts and we had come to our present careers by varying means. However, the more we were questioned about our careers, the more it became clear that we had two things in common:

  1. At sixth form level, we had NO IDEA WHAT WE WANTED TO DO WITH OUR LIVES.
  2. We have found ourselves where we are today by remaining flexible and open to new opportunities.

And yet, the over-riding concern of all the pupils was, ‘Which subject should I study and which university should I go to if I want a job like yours?’

It was clear from the questions we were asked that the sixth formers were anxious that they had to know RIGHT NOW what it was they were going to do as a career and they wanted us to tell them EXACTLY HOW they should be going about it.

As Philip Ardagh, author of the Eddie Dickens series of children’s books, said in a recent article for The Bookseller:

“I think students nowadays are more geared towards the job market and, although the Arts generate millions of pounds for the UK economy they somehow seem less tangible – their specific jobs less definable – than a career in, say, science or accountancy. Gone are the days when knowledge for knowledge’s sake was seen as a way of enriching people’s lives. Students are ‘taught to the test’ and schools themselves are monitored and graded. A truly rounded education doesn’t even seem to be a goal in the 21st Century.”

This is a real problem. Not only are we dissuading children from taking up the Arts in the first place, attaching unhelpful words such as ‘soft skills’ to subjects such as Drama, English, Art and Music, but we are also making them paranoid about studying the ‘right’ courses at the ‘right’ universities. (Of course the fact that a university education is no longer provided free of charge does nothing to help this.)

My experience of being an Arts student was very similar to that of my fellow speakers, even though they were all about ten years younger than I am and all are in different fields.

Stina, for example, started out as a model. She soon realised this was not going to be a career she was likely to be able to continue with throughout her life and also said that ‘much of the time I was bored – hanging around, waiting to be told what to do next’. She noticed someone making jewellery one day and asked them to teach her how to do it. Before long she was spotted wearing something she had made, and she had her first customer. That customer was seen in a magazine wearing the jewellery and was asked who had made it, and Stina had more sales off the back of that. She said that at school she enjoyed spending her days in the art room, but could never have predicted she would end up as a designer.

Olivia and Helen both described themselves as being a ‘bit of a nerd’ at school. They both loved English and went on to read that subject at university, but neither of them made that decision as a conscious career move. They just ‘loved words’.

I was the same. I loved languages, loved words and had only a vague idea that I wanted to write. I studied French and German at university and most of the literature I read was ancient stuff, from Mediaeval to nineteenth century – hardly a career move, unless I was going to stay in academia. But the point was, I LOVED IT. Getting an Arts degree was about following my passion, not about ticking a box.

I hope that if the sixth formers took anything away from the Careers Forum, it was this: that the Arts will only survive in this country if we have new blood coming from our schools and universities and that if you are passionate about something, be it making things, writing things, painting things or drawing things, JUST DO IT! You never know where it might lead.

 

 

Most of the time, being a writer is a solitary job. I was going to say ‘lonely’, but that wouldn’t be true, as that implies that we writers feel sad, sitting alone at our desks all day. On the contrary: writing is what makes us very happy. It is true, though, that we are alone a lot of the time (unless you take into account the company of hundreds of made-up characters who romp around inside our heads!)

However, every once in a while we get to go out into the world and talk about our books. I have posted here before about going to festivals and schools and libraries. I love doing this as I like nothing better than to meet my readers face to face.

But today, I did something incredibly extra-special: I WENT ON THE TELLYBOX! Yes, I was on TV. I can hardly believe it actually happened now that I am back at my desk, typing this, but here is a photo to prove it:

IMG_4697

I was asked to appear on the ITV breakfast show Good Morning Britain to be interviewed by presenters Kate Garraway and Ben Shephard about Roald Dahl. Why? Firstly, because today is the day that the delumptious, scrumdiddlyumptious Dahl Dictionary is published by Oxford University Press. And secondly, because I MET ROALD DAHL WHEN I WAS TEN YEARS OLD!!

Which is why, in the photo above, you can see his autograph on a page of pink paper. (Sadly I have written his name again for him underneath his signature. Clearly I didn’t think much of his messy handwriting.)

As soon as I had agreed to do the interview, I started panicking. What should I say? Would I be nervous? What should I wear? Should I wear make-up? Mostly I just wanted to scream hysterically and jump up and down. Luckily my kids were at home and they kept me calm, told me not to wear anything with animal print on (tricky as most of my wardrobe has something animally in it) and took the mickey out of me to keep me sane.

Roald_Dahl

Roald Dahl means a lot to me, so I was thrilled to get the chance to go on telly to talk about him. I first came across his books when I was a member of The Puffin Club in the early 1980s and I started to collect all his stories. Not only did I read and re-read (and still do) his delumptious classic children’s tales such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, Matilda and so on and so on, but I also went on to read his writing for older readers too. One of my favourites is The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and other stories.

IMG_4698

This collection was published by Puffin Books as a ‘Puffin Plus’ title for older readers, long before the terms ‘Young Adult’ or ‘YA’ were coined. They were also the basis for a television programme I was an avid fan of called Tales of the Unexpected. In these stories, Dahl shows off the dark side of his writing far more than in any of the books for younger readers. Some of these ‘Tales of the Unexpected’ gave me nightmares, but I still wanted to read them and watch the TV adaptations!

One of the stories in the collection is not a horror story, it is actually the tale of how Dahl himself came to be published for the first time. It is called Lucky Break. In this tale, Dahl touches on his time at school which was a famously terrible time for him (if you want to know more, read his autobiography, Boy). He also gives some excellent top tips for writers as follows:

  1. You should have a lively imagination.
  2. You should be able to write well. By that I mean that you should be able to make a scene come alive in a reader’s mind. Not everybody has this ability. It is a gift and you either have it or you don’t.
  3. You must have stamina. In other words you must be able to stick to what you are doing and never give up for hour after hour, day after day, week after week and month after month.
  4. You must be a perfectionist. That means you must never be satisfied with what you have written until you have rewritten it again and again, making it as good as you possibly can.
  5. You must have strong self-discipline. You are working alone. No one is employing you. No one is around to give you the sack if you don’t turn up for work, or tick you off if you start slacking.
  6. It helps a lot if you have a keen sense of humour. This is not essential when writing for grown-ups, but for children it is vital.
  7. You must have a degree of humility. The writer who thinks his work is marvellous is heading for trouble.

These tips have stayed with me ever since the first time I read them when I was twelve years old. I paraphrase them and use them over and over again when I talk to people about writing.

The other thing that struck me was how inspirational it was for Dahl himself to have met his own favourite author. He was a big fan of C S Forester who wrote the historical Hornblower novels. It was when Dahl met Forester and told him about his own experiences of war as a WWII pilot, that Dahl’s own writing career started – this is the ‘lucky break’ of the title. Dahl says of meeting Forester:

‘What astonished me was that he looked so ordinary. There was nothing in the least unusual about him […] and yet here was a writer of stories who was famous the world over […] Tt was then I began to realise for the first time that there are two distinct sides to a writer of fiction. First, there is the side he displays to the public, that of an ordinary person like anyone else, a person who does ordinary things and speaks in an ordinary language. Second, there is the secret side which comes out in him only after he has closed the door of his workroom and is completely alone. It is then that he slips into another world altogether, a world where his imagination takes over and he finds himself actually living in the places he is writing about at that moment.’

When I finally got to meet Roald Dahl, I had that exact same feeling that Dahl himself had had when he shook the hand of C S Forester.

WOW, I thought. I want to be like that. I want to become a person who has a secret, magic life, writing stories.

And, guess what? Reader, I did!

So, this summer, get out to your local libraries, book festivals and bookshops, and bury yourself in stories. You never know where they might take you. Who knows, one day you might meet your literary hero and be inspired to write something yourself . . .

The main character in my latest book, The Parent Problem, is a massive bookworm. She is also a budding writer. No coincidence there. The more you read, the better you will become at writing. Don’t just take it from me:

If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write – Stephen King

I have posted before about the importance of reading if you want to be a writer, but I feel the need to do it again. Perhaps this is because The Parent Problem has been chosen as one of the recommended titles for this year’s Summer Reading Challenge, otherwise known as The Big Friendly Read (take a look at this list to see the full line-up of recommended reads).

9781509801312 Parent Problem Low Res

Or maybe it’s because I am once again involved in the Bradford-on-Avon Mini Book Festival  in July, which is all about promoting reading.

Or it might just be because I find time and again that the link between reading and writing is extremely important to me. The more I read, the more I want to write. And the more I read, the more ideas I have, too. That doesn’t mean that I copy other people’s ideas; it’s just that the weird and wonderful magic of having other people’s stories in my head seems to feed into my own creativity. I am not the only writer to experience this. Neil Gaiman said that as a child he started writing by ‘kidnapping’ his favourite authors:

I got to kidnap all of the authors whose work I liked, living and dead […] I got to lock them in an enormous castle and make them collaborate on these huge-plot books. And I would tell them what the plots were.

I have been thinking about this a lot during the recent craziness over SATs. There is so much focus now on ‘how to write proper English’ that I am worried we have forgotten the most important thing of all:

IT SHOULD BE FUN!

It should be just as much fun as reading.

Imagine if you sat down to read and, instead of letting yourself get carried away with the action and what the characters were thinking, saying and feeling, you had to start by asking yourself if the author had used subordinating conjunctions, prepositions and parallel constructions. Imagine having to pull apart each sentence to check that it was written ‘correctly’ before you were allowed to immerse yourself in the story. Imagine having to understand the grammatical term for the way each phrase, word and sentence has been constructed before you were able to understand the sense of the story itself.

URGH!

It would be hideous. It would be deeply unpleasant. It would be BORING.

It seems to me that this is what is happening to writing stories in school time. It has become a tedious exercise in putting the ‘right’ words in the ‘correct’ order on the page.

NO REAL LIFE WRITER THINKS LIKE THIS.

We writers like to play with language. We like to put CAPITAL LETTERS in the middle of a sentence. And sometimes we like to start sentences with ‘and’. Sometimes we don’t write ‘proper’ sentences at all. Because. It’s. Fun. To. Play. Sometimes we say ‘sometimes’ a lot.

If you read lots and lots you will see how writers play – how they bring stories alive, how the words bounce off the page into your own imagination. You see the fun the writers are having, you see how they are doing it, and then when you go to write, you know how a story works. You know what makes you want to read on as a reader, so you know how to do this for your own readers. You have a go at copying the shape of someone else’s story; playing around with language and punctuation in the same way your favourite author does; making your own words bounce off the page into someone else’s head.

As I have said before, if you want to be a writer, you have to be a READER first. Maybe start this summer with The Big Friendly Read. Go to your local library and sign up for the reading challenge. There’s so much to choose from: there are funny, scary, sad, romantic, poetic, factual, illustrated books and short stories and picture books. There is something for everyone. You never know, reading some of these might then inspire you to go ahead and write your own story.

If you live in the Bradford-on-Avon area and would like some tips on how to write, come along to the Bradford-on-Avon Mini Book Festival on 15th and 16th July in the town library and join in with activities and workshops. It would be great to see you there.

In the meantime, whatever you do, don’t forget to HAVE FUN!

 

 

Last Monday I had the honour of being asked to host a Twitter Q&A for the fabulous Golden Egg Academy: “a team of experienced children’s publishing and creative writing professionals providing inspiration, industry-led direction and networking opportunities to talented writers for children”.

I passed a fast and furious half hour, answering questions about editing and structure (with a few curve balls!). It was tough, coming up with answers quickly and fitting them into 140 characters, but that’s just the kind of challenge to which I rise: writing to length.

The reason for such nerdishness is possibly because I was an editor of children’s books in a former life. Nowadays I spend most of my time writing my own books. However, I also teach part-time on the Bath Spa Creative Writing courses (both BA and MA) where I get to bang on endlessly about the merits of self-editing and taking advice from experienced editors.

So basically, I am a bit of a nerd when it comes to editing and structure.

Since doing the Q&A, people have suggested that I write a blogpost about some of the questions that were raised. I have therefore chosen my top ten from the questions asked last week (my favourite being the rather cheeky one at number 10). Here goes:

1.I am editing my story for middle-grade readers. Any tips?

Be firm with yourself. When you are in the throes of re-writing or editing your own work, you KNOW deep down when something isn’t working. Be prepared to cut and slash away at those bits which niggle. But don’t bury them just yet – keep them in a file marked ‘Murdered Darlings’ or, for the more security-concious amongst you, ‘Stuff’. You never know when those hacked off bits might come in useful in a future burst of creativity

2. Any tips on over-editing? I am currently worried I am cutting too much and making it worse, not better.

See above! You can never over-edit, unless you have rashly chucked away your previous drafts. In any case, I think it is usually a case of ‘if in doubt, cut it out’, so over-editing is never a problem for me. I over-write to begin with, so I love a bit of over-editing to sort out the wood from the trees.

3. How long do you spend editing?

That very much depends on the length and complexity of the book, not to mention the deadline. A first ‘edit’ is more like a structural re-write and that can take from weeks to months. A final line-edit is more of a tidy-up and takes a matter of days. But unless a deadline is imposed from above, I wouldn’t set a time limit on it, as it’s all about getting into the best shape possible, no matter how long it takes.

4. Do you think you become less emotional about your writing over time?

No! I still bristle when I get a list of editorial points from my publisher. I have learnt to read it through while I mutter to myself, then put it to one side for a few hours (or days, if time is not of the essence). I feel calmer then, and more open to my editor’s suggestions, which are pretty much always (infuriatingly!) correct . . .

5. What helped you most with improving the quality of your writing when you were trying to break through?

Listening to advice from my agent and editor. I started out writing short stories and picture books and learnt an incredible amount about structure from that. Also I read A LOT. Reading good, well edited work continues to teach me pretty much all I need to know.

6. How did you manage to get an authentic voice for an eight-year-old boy protagonist?

This is, strictly speaking, not an editing question (it referred to my Monkey Business and Monkey Madness titles). However, I often get asked about ‘voice’. How do you achieve it? Where does it come from? The answer is LISTEN to the sort of people you want to mimic and then do just that. Make notes – on the bus, in a cafe, once you have done the school run . . I listened to my son and his friends and copied everything they said! And then edited it to make it less rambling and bonkers!

7. How do you plot?

Erm, I don’t. Not before I start writing anyway. I don’t sit down and work out a plan and then write the book, chapter by chapter. I have to get the voice first. Once I have that, I write a couple of scenes which are bugging me. After this I feel I have a sense of the story, so I start to plot, thinking about character arc, scene development and where the reveal should come. John Yorke’s fabulous book on structure, Into the Woods, has helped enormously in recent times.

8. How do you plan an ending before you have got there?

Again, I don’t! I rarely know how a story is going to end when I first start writing, and even if I think I do, it changes once I am into the business of getting the bones down. Don’t feel hampered by this. Start writing the way it feels most natural for you to start. Set yourself a daily limit: 100, 1000, 1500 words. Whatever. JUST DO IT.

9. What is the biggest change between being an editor now and 15 years ago?

I have not worked commercially as an editor for about five years now, so I am a little bit out of the loop as far as in-house editing goes. But I would say, from where I am sitting as an author, that the whole business is a lot more sales focused now. There is little time to develop a story in house from a basic first concept: authors need to have done a pretty clean first draft before any editorial conversations begin. Personally I think that is a bit of a shame, as some of the best books I worked on in house started off as little more than a chat over coffee and were true collaborations between the editor and the writer/illustrator. I think that kind of relationship is rare these days.

10. I see you studied medieval languages – did that ever come in useful for your writing?

OK, this is the curve ball! I did indeed study medieval languages: French and German to be precise. I also studied 18th and 19th century French and German. Of course it has not impacted directly on my writing for English-speaking middle-grade readers! But I did learn an awful lot about story-telling, characterisation, cultural differences in these things, the structure of language, grammar, expression . . . all those ingredients have added flavour to my appreciation, and thus, I hope, my creation, of my own stories.

If you want to follow these fab Golden Academy Q&As which are hosted by published authors, follow #GEAQA on Twitter every Monday night from 7.30pm.

 

It is National Poetry Day today, and I have spent most of it thinking of my dad who loved a good poem. (He loved quite a few bad ones, too, but let’s not dwell on that.)

I realised, rather late in the day, that my dad was probably my main inspiration when it came to deciding to give it a go as a writer. When I was a child, he was the one who would read the bedtime stories (doing ALL the voices – no one else does Gollum like he did). He also helped long car journeys whizz by with renditions of songs and poems to which my sister and I soon learned all the words so that we could join in (much to the annoyance, no doubt, of anyone else in the car at the time).

He was a true wordsmith: a man who loved language in all its shapes and forms and who liked nothing better than the challenge of composing a limerick at the drop of a hat for someone’s birthday or simply to commemorate a good evening with friends. And he LOVED nonsense. In fact, towards the end of his life, it became clear that seeing the absurd in life was what got him through the tough times.

One of my fondest memories of Dad is when he would recite the little ditty below, written by Samuel Foote in the late 18th century. Foote wrote it as a joke for the benefit of an actor, Charles Macklin, who is said to have boasted that he could recite anything by heart after reading it only once. Foote promptly wrote this piece and packed it with made-up words in the hope that he could trip Macklin up. Dad used to recite it regularly when we were kids, and I can still hear him now saying the last line, with particular emphasis, both vocal and facial, on the word ‘heeeeeeels’!

So, this is for you, Dad. With thanks for the love of poetry and language that you passed on to me. Happy National Poetry Day.

IMG_3562

So she went into the garden to cut a cabbage-leaf to make an apple-pie;

and at the same time a great she-bear, coming up the street, pops its head into the shop.

“What! No soap?”

So he died, and she very imprudently married the barber;

and there were present the Picninnies, and the Joblillies, and the Garyulies

and the grand Panjandrum himself,

with the little round button at top,

and they all fell to playing the game of catch as catch can

till the gunpowder ran out at the heels of their boots.

As I type, the Bath Children’s Literature Festival is in full swing – the only festival of its kind in the country. It is always an honour to be asked to participate, so when the opportunity arose, I said YES immediately. I then promptly panicked, as I had been asked to provide an ‘Alice in Wonderland storytelling event’. So . . . nothing to do with my own books.

What had I been thinking? Was I MAD?

IMG_3731

Um, yes.

Ah well, in for a penny, in for a hat costing ten shillings and sixpence (or £4 on EBay) . . . I decided to go for it and dress as the Mad Hatter to tell Alice’s adventures from his point of view.

As the Cheshire Cat says, ‘We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad. You must be, or you wouldn’t have come here.’ That seemed to just about sum it all up.

IMG_3828

The Cheshire Cat giving me advice. Mainly on how bad my Cheshire accent was.

And so I took my audience on a trip to Wonderland, drinking strange potions and eating magic cakes, growing and shrinking, swimming in our own tears, running a Caucus Race to dry off, meeting a (dubiously) zen Caterpillar and eating a magic mushroom – all with the strict proviso that none of these things should be tried at home.

IMG_3765

The White Rabbit made an appearance. He did a photo call, but no autographs.

My audiences were very obliging and joined in with everything, including an enthusiastic ‘Off with his head!’ at the end.

IMG_3821

The best way to explain a Caucus Race is to do one.

I hope that comment did not reflect the audiences’ opinion of the show. At any rate, they were not as judgmental as the Queen in Wonderland, who famously declared: ‘Sentence first–verdict afterwards!’

The new term is well underway: homework is piling up for my kids and deadlines are piling up for me; schools are getting in touch to book in visits; students are emailing me to chase marks and reports on assignments. In short, the summer is over and it’s Back to Life, Back to Reality.

I had a funny summer. Things had happened which had forced me to take a break from writing. I was, frankly, beginning to worry that I would never be able to find the focus to write again.

But the thing about being forced to take a break is that often the mind uses that time to mull things over. As the wise philosopher, Winnie-the-Pooh says:

“Don’t underestimate the value of Doing Nothing, of just going along, listening to all the things you can’t hear, and not bothering.”

Pooh_Shepard1928

This is what I did for a large chunk of the summer. I sat and stared out to sea. I sat and gazed downstream and let my mind drift along with the current. I climbed a cliff and let my eyes follow the line of the horizon until my vision blurred and I wasn’t really seeing anything any more. I let my thoughts meander through meadows and linger in leafy lanes.

IMG_3207

It turns out Pooh is right about this too:

“Poetry and Hums aren’t things which you get, they’re things which get you. And all you can do it go where they can find you.”

IMG_5600

In taking time out, and letting go of the panicky feeling of writer’s block, I seem to have freed up a bit of space in my head. I am now writing again. It is a fantastic feeling, to be itching to get to my keyboard every day, to be desperate to scribble down the next idea or snatch of dialogue.

But I have learnt something this summer: that there really is a value beyond measure in Doing Nothing. And so I intend to find space for that – even for a few moments – every day from now on. I hope you can too.

Happy new term, everyone. And happy dreaming!