Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Top Tips for Tip Top Events - by Nicola Morgan

Lots of hard work goes into producing the best school/library* events - hard work from the author/illustrator* and hard work from the organiser. Based on hundreds of different sorts of events over the years, and after learning more from my mistakes than successes, I thought I'd put together my top tips for each side.

(*I'll just say "school" from now on but I'll mean "school or library etc" and "author" will mean "author, illustrator or storyteller" - btw, see Sarah McIntyre's excellent post about authors/illustrators.)

Top Tips for Organisers

  1. Before sending the invitation: choose your author because you genuinely want that author, not just any bod with a pen; investigate their website so you know what they do; work out your budget; get relevant staff on-side.
  2. In your invitation, say you'd really love to invite them and what for; ask about fees and expenses; say what you are hoping for during the day (eg two workshops for Y4 and Y5 and a ten-minute assembly slot). 
  3. During the conversation, make sure you are clear about year groups, audience size, timings, etc, but be as flexible as you can. The author will know what works for her/him and you'll do no one any favours by making an author jump through hoops if that authors doesn't jump through hoops. 
  4. Discuss bookselling. Some authors prefer to bring their own books to sell; others prefer you to use your normal supplier. (Note that authors earn very little per book, so this does not make much difference to income, but we like to foster bookselling, for many reasons.) Don't forget to build time into the day for this.
  5. Ask the author in advance what support they need on the day: Being collected from station? Or directions. Lift/taxi back to station? //  Coffee etc on arrival? Other food during the day? Time-out?  //  Technical equipment. (Powerpoint presentations are always best sent in advance and set up ready.) Any other equipment?
  6. Well before the event, brief all relevant staff and generate excitement. Relevant subject-teachers should know about the author and have read some of their works, and class or subject-teachers should brief pupils, get them excited and have them prepare interesting questions.
  7. If you're having bookselling, make sure every child who wants to buy a book can. In practice this means sending a letter home and somehow making sure it gets there. There is little more upsetting for an author than carting dozens of books around, or expecting a bookseller to, and then no one buying one because a) time was not set aside b) book-selling was not advertised and c) money did not appear.
  8. Always introduce the author to each audience in a positive and upbeat way. "Today we have a famous author..." is a great way to boost the spirits of an author facing a class of kids who really don't know who he/she is. It boosts the audience's spirits, too.
  9. Make sure the author's books are in the libraray. It's fantastic to arrive in a school and see a display about us: could you get selected pupils to make one?
  10. Follow up: for the event to have the most effect on the pupils, the following equation is the only one to go for: preparation + good event + follow-up = great event + long effect. So, get pupils to write about or respond to the event in some way. What did thy like about it? What did they learn?
In short: positivity, clarity, professionalism, preparation, detail and excitement.

Top tips for authors
  1. Make sure your website is very clear about what you do and don't do.
  2. When the invitation arrives, wave your crystal ball and listen to the twitchings of your finger-tips. The forewarnings of a good/bad experience are usually there. The following are good signs: the organiser has obviously read your website; the organiser knows fairly clearly what she/he wants; your fee will be adequate; they really do want you. These may be bad signs: the invitation is to "Dear Sandra," when that's not your name; they try to beat your fee down to an amount you don't feel happy with or tell you what a good promotional opportunity it will be. I don't blame a school for trying, but it suggests a lack of understanding of what we do and how we (don't) earn a living. Some great events can be run on a shoestring but enthusiasm, efficiency and respect have to be 100%.
  3. Be very clear at the start exactly what you are agreeing to do and for what fee+expenses. Create a T&C document, which organisers must agree to. (Mine is on this page here - scroll down to "What to do next".) 
  4. Learn from each event what you need and what makes you work most effectively. If you need a break between each event, say so. If you need to have lunch-time on your own or go for a walk, say so. If you need a ball of candy floss, don't say so - that's just annoying. 
  5. Prepare perfectly and be über-organised. But always have a Plan B.
  6. If you're having book-selling, check that the organiser has done the requisite sending home of letters about bringing in money. And check again. 
  7. I find that the "geography" of the room makes a huge difference to how comfortable I feel and therefore how well I perform: the distance from the audience, the lectern or table, the acoustics, the position of my laptop if I'm using Powerpoint, whether teachers are pacing up and down the edges like security guards. Some of these you can't control but two things help: seeing the room beforehand, so you can adjust your table as required and stand there absorbing the vibe and imagining the event; and recognising what things make you tense and learning to breathe through them when they happen.
  8. Take easy snack foods with you - my preferred ones are nuts and dried fruit. They keep for ages and are easy to snack on when blood sugar drops, either just before or just after your talk. Ideally not in the middle, as pistachio nut in teeth is not a professional look.
  9. Remember that the organiser will very likely be stressed and nervous. Usually, they want everything to go well and a lot rides on it for them. A warm smile and a kind remark go a long way. 
  10. If something goes wrong, whoever's fault it is, keep smiling and always be professional. Learn from it, if necessary. If it goes right, be proud - and say thank you. When an event goes well, everyone gains.
In short: positivity, clarity, professionalism, preparation, detail and excitement.

I think a lot of it comes from trying to put ourselves in each other's shoes. We need to understand what schools want and they need to understand what we can give and how to help us give it.

I love the mutual buzziness of a good school event, one where they wanted me and they knew what they wanted from me, and I worked my posterior off to give it to them. 

Thinking of asking me to come and do an event on the brain/stress for your pupils? I have a better and much cheaper idea: buy a Brain Stick™ :)

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

So long, farewell, auf wiedersehen, goodbye-eee.... Megan Rix / Ruth Symes

How time has flown. I've just looked back at my blog posts and see I started way back in November 2011 and here we are 3 years later and my last post for now.

I've just finished my latest book tour as Megan Rix. This time it was for my book 'The Hero Pup' and we got to have guide dogs and hearing dogs and medical alert dogs, as well as my own two, Traffy and Bella, coming along to different sessions. It was fantastic! My favourite tour so far :) Back in 2011 I hadn't done any week long book tours and now I have 5 under my belt. I'd also never done a ppt presentation but now when we turn up at a school and they're having problems setting it up I'm (don't want to jinx it) so will just say usually able to sort it out. And requests to speak to 700 children plus staff at once - a breeze - done it twice now.

This year has been amazing. Two children's book
of the year award wins - one for 'Victory Dogs' at
lovely Stockton-on-Tees and one for 'The Bomber Dog' at beautiful Shrewsbury. Shrewsbury even provided a dog to come out on stage with me - not a german shepherd like Grey in Bomber Dog but a lively ball loving spaniel who works as a bomb sniffing dog.

Dogs are so wonderful and I never tire of telling children all the brilliant things they can do as well as showing pictures of the things my two get up to. Fortunately I have lots of pictures and the one where Bella as a tiny pup is trying to bury a sock always goes down well. As does the fox poo one :)

I've been so proud of Traffy coming into our local school with me to listen to children read. She's been such a hit and is always ready with a wag of her tail as a new child coos over her. Her special reading mat with letters on it was a true find and the children who've read to her have shown improvements even more than the school had hoped for.

The school was also the first one to hear a very early first chapter of 'Cornflake the Dragon' my new Secret Animal Society series that I'm writing as Ruth Symes. The Ruth Symes books tend to be for slightly younger children than the Megan Rix ones and I love getting letters from readers and pictures of the toys that have been made of the characters. I especially treasured an email I got recently about 'Dancing Harriet' and how the book was being used at a school in India to help teach tolerance and inclusion.

I'm going to miss not writing for ABBA for a while (other than hopefully an occasional guest post) but I've just got a bit too overworked what with running two careers as Ruth Symes and Megan Rix and so it's best to step out rather than find blogging a chore rather than a pleasure. But I'll still be reading it and looking forward to catching up with what's happening  :)

PS Just found out 'A Soldier's Friend' is one of the nominated books for 2015's Carnegie medal - yahoo! Good luck to everyone with books in it xx

PPS Thanks so much to Carol Christie for saying her son got switched back on to reading by The Bomber Dog I hadn't seen the comment at the end of my Dog Days posts until I looked back at the old posts I'd done yesterday. That's what it's all about :) and and

Monday, 20 October 2014

Out of Season - Joan Lennon

Many of us have done author events at the Wigtown Book Festival but if you're like me, you rarely leave the centre of town, where the action is fabulously, alluringly booky.  But the festival is over for another year and I'm here instead to house- and dog-sit.  And I'm seeing a whole different Wigtown, which I'd like to share with you.  From sunrises to sunsets, with some cows in-between - 

Joan Lennon's website.
Joan Lennon's blog.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Shakespeare and Company - Lucy Coats

There have been many bookshops marking all the pages of my life from childhood onwards. There was Mr Oxley's in Alresford, there was the first ever Hammicks, there were all the bookshops of Hay, there was James Thin in Edinburgh, the Libreria Aqua in Venice - each has a special place in my heart. But the one I love most is in Paris.

Shakespeare and Company sits across from the Seine, on a street slightly aslant from the Quai St Michel, and I loved it the moment I first walked into it in 1981. In those days (and probably still), you could work there for a bed in one of the book-lined upstairs rooms. 

I did for a while, and it was a place of companionship, laughter, and above all, a shared love of books. It is, quite literally, a treasure trove, a mish-mash of the new, the secondhand and the simply arcane and archaic. I went back there today with my children, and they were immediately lured in and entranced by the smell of dusty paper, the feeling that the perfect book must be just around the next corner, or just out of reach up that wooden ladder. 

For all that it is much more of a tourist destination nowadays, the old magic is still there. It has that indefinable Narnia feel which makes you believe that somewhere in there is a door or doors to another world. There are, of course, because that's what books are - but surely somewhere there's a tiny key, or a bookspine to rub which will take you somewhere else entirely. 

Every writer who visits Paris has been there - and it is a great honour to be asked to read in the little upstairs room with the sofas and the book nook with a tiny desk and endless fluttering pieces of paper, covered in scribbled dreams. Some of those writers are even featured on the wallpaper...

There is a wonderful children's and YA section, where I was happy to see many of my lovely author friends featured (though sadly not me), and an invitingly padded alcove just perfect for a child to curl up on and read one of the pile of picture books which leans against the wall. 

If you go to Paris, do try to make time to go there - and may you be as transported with delight as I have always been...(and take note of my favourite quote above)! 

New dates announced for Lucy's Guardian Masterclass on 'How to Write for Children' 
Captain Beastlie's Pirate Party is now out from Nosy Crow!
"If you’re going to select only one revolting, repulsive pirate book, this is arrrr-guably the best." Kirkus
Website and blog
Follow Lucy on Facebook 
Follow Lucy on Twitter
Lucy is represented by Sophie Hicks at The Sophie Hicks Agency

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Creative Energy and Space - Linda Strachan

It takes energy to be creative, and a certain amount of space in your head.

To bring ideas out into the light of day and shape them, change them, discard some and let others blossom.  Making hundreds of little decisions, and some big ones. To decide which ideas are worth pursuing and which are only half-baked. To hold onto the reins of a story that is burgeoning and almost out of control, takes strength of will and the time and energy to see it to the end. There is then the sheer physical task of getting those words or images down in print, paper or computer.

It is not easy having an idea, or a whole pot of ideas, that stumble and crash into each other like bubbles, as you try not to burst or lose them. The ache as they disappear into the ether, slipping away before they are fully grasped or remembered, leaving hardly a scent of themselves - lost forever.
Sometimes they stick together and at other times are subsumed into one huge mass often unwieldy mass that needs careful cutting or shaping and at times brutal harsh editing.

Corralling them into a story, or a novel is not a simple process. Moulding the ideas that crop up almost out of nowhere, shaping the characters and plot, worrying about whether what you are creating has any worth at all.

All this requires creative energy.

It is hard work, not like scrubbing a floor or digging a ditch but concentration, sometimes head-in-hands exasperation and, thankfully, moments of sheer joy!
Ideas can be forced by a deadline and that constraint will at times produce an unexpectedly interesting result but there are other times when the chaos of daily grind, surroundings and distractions, however lovely or interesting, can make it so much more difficult.

A room of one's own, a place of quiet seclusion where the writer or artist can have all distractions taken away, to allow the mind to wander at will and the imagination to blossom, can make all the difference.

A walk alone where the waves lap at the shore...

or where the leaves flutter in the breeze...  

It  will let the imagination wander and often release a knot in the mind, letting the answer unravel in the subconscious.

At times like these it may be difficult for those around us who are not writers or artists to understand the need for that particular kind of peace and space.

While inside our heads our thoughts are wrestling with the problem, it may seem to the outside world that we are not actually working.
It may be difficult for others around us to  understand the kind of energy that is required to work the creative process.

That is why the company of other writers and artists is so important; those people who understand perfectly the stresses and strains involved and the drive to keep doing this amazingly wonderful, dreadful and compulsive thing we do.

There may be times when we cannot find that creative energy, for reasons as varied as there are people. But even in those times, which eventually pass, thoughts and ideas are lingering quietly in a corner waiting for the time when the creative energy returns.

It always does.

So give your creative energy time and space, and nurture it.  You know you want to!

Linda Strachan is the author of over 60 books for all ages from picture books to teenage novels and the writing handbook Writing For Children.

She has written 10 Hamish McHaggis books illustrated by Sally J. Collins who also illustrated Linda's retelling of Greyfriars Bobby

Linda's latest YA novel is Don't Judge Me  and she is 
  Patron of Reading to Liberton High School, Edinburgh.

blog:  Bookwords 

Friday, 17 October 2014

Why I hate the word 'author': by Sarah McIntyre

I have a problem with the word 'author'. Well, it's more that I have a problem with how people use it. When I do 'Author's Visits' to schools, teachers will introduce me as an 'author', explain to the children that this means I write books. Then I have to explain to the kids that I write a little bit but, actually, I mostly draw for a living. It's confusing! Yes, I AM an author! And I would still be an author even if I never wrote a word.

Authors are the people who create the book, they're the people who turn an idea into a story. Traditionally the authors are a writer (who writes) and an illustrator(who illustrates). My co-author, Philip Reeve, and I pretty much worked like this on our Oliver and the Seawigs and Cakes in Space books (even though we brainstormed the story ideas together).

But it's not always that straightforward. For example, in making our Jampires picture book, my co-author David O'Connell and I brainstormed the story together and took turns writing drafts to submit to the editor. I created some loose thumbnail roughs, David reworked the compositions and drew the detailed pencil roughs, then I went over his pencil lines and turned them into finished artwork. So it's impossible to say that one person is the illustrator and the other is the writer; we both did both jobs. I think this working method is rather exciting; it let interesting creative things happen that shaped the book. And I think it could inspire kids, by showing them that they can try a bit of everything, they don't have to decide this early whether they want to only write or only draw.

But oh, this can cause PROBLEMS! Because my name is listed first on the book cover, people assume I'm the writer and David illustrated. Which is understandable, being the traditional format. But the thing that makes me SPITTING MAD is that often, because of this, David's name gets left out of listings altogether. I'm deemed the writer so therefore, somehow 'the boss', and his role is seen as less important. A friend told me that a respected journalist explained how he leaves out the illustrators' names because 'the writer is the one in charge'. ...NO WAY! If you want to put it that way, the editor is in charge, or the publisher, or possibly the Sales & Marketing team. The writer often has a lot less 'control' than you'd expect. (Cue loud weeping from writers with terrible book covers.)

If you're buying books and you just see the writer's name on the cover and not the illustrator's, it's misleading. You might assume that the writer also drew the pictures. Or you might assume that the illustrator isn't worth mentioning because his or her role is less important. In some books with minimal illustrations (say, a small picture on the title page), this is probably true; the writing is what conveys the story to you. But in highly illustrated books, this is unfair; you're learning as much about the story from the pictures as you are from the words. ...And the uncredited illustrator feels about this big:

Oddly, in British culture, some people DO actually believe that words are more important and more worthy than pictures. They believe a 'proper book' is one that lets them create all the images in their head, with no picture crutches. They might assume pictures are for children, a means of luring them into the REAL business of reading words.

But think about this: when people read a story set on, say, a distant planet, they still tap into pictures they have been fed from outside sources. If there aren't pictures in the book, readers will conjure up images they've seen in film, on television, in video games, advertising, etc. Their brains might use the text to tweak these images a bit, but people draw their imaginative pictures from images they've already seen. When we give them an illustration, it teaches their mind something new; they have to move beyond what they already know and they gain a new way of imagining something, they can picture a new world. Unusual illustrations can stretch the mind and make the words of a story conjure images that are much more unique to the pictures the readers might have had in their minds with plain text.

So why would people still think a writer is more important? Partly it's a mythology we've created, or even a working uniform, like a boiler suit on a mechanic. We like to think of writers as thoughtful, possibly depressed and alcoholic, but torturing themselves to pull profound truths out of their deep, dark souls.

Illustrators, on the other hand - particularly children's book illustrators - are often thought of almost childlike. People associate drawing with something they enjoyed in childhood, but put aside when they grew up. They like to think of illustrators as children who never grew up, bohemian artists, who dance about a studio splashing paint around and giggling merrily.

Guys... this just isn't true. I know a lot of writers who run around having fun and acting like children, and I know a lot of illustrators who are almost permanently attached to their work desks and computers and suffer back problems and repetitive stress injuries. Everyone's different, and works differently, but everyone's due the respect given to professional adults. And reviewers need to learn how to describe illustrations and how they enhance a story, not rely on stock phrases such as 'bright and colourful'.

This supremacy of the writer over the illustrator most certainly IS a British cultural thing. In France, the illustrator is considered far more interesting, and it's the illustrator who will get mobbed at signings. But the French attitude might not be ideal, either; illustrators find they're expected to draw more and more elaborate pictures on the dedication page at signings, often painted, in full colour. (Gallery-worthy art, really.) It gets so intense that at one festival a few years ago, a lot of French illustrators joined together in refusing to do anything more than sign their name because the expectations were getting so high. This doesn't usually happen in Britain, fans are often surprised to find they get more than a signature. Some children even panic slightly, seeing someone drawing on their book. ('But Mummy, drawing on books isn't allowed!')

But you might correctly point out: a book isn't only made by a writer and an illustrator. There's a much larger team involved. And yes, I'm hoping to see more credits given to people in the production process, starting with the editor and designer. David O'Connell and I made a deliberate point of including the names of our designer (Ness Wood) and editor (Alice Corrie) on the dedication page of our David Fickling Book, Jampires. I suggested it to my Scholastic editors when I was illustrating Superkid and they looked askance at each other and said they didn't think it would be allowed. But I recently suggested it for my upcoming book, and they seemed pleased and said they would include their names.

The only reason I can see authors might not want their editors listed in their books is that, as any aspiring writer or illustrator will know, it's quite hard to find out who the editors are at publishing houses. Even the listings in The Writers & Artists Handbook can often be incorrect because people move around a lot in these jobs. So authors might worry that, if people know the name of their editor, they will mob the editor with their own submissions. This could be a selling point for the reader but not popular with all authors. But... hey! I like to think my editors and I are strong teams, and if I can give them credit, they'll be even more glad about working with me, since people will be able to see their hand in it. The book's created by a team.

The biggest problem with crediting the book to everyone in the whole production team, including the names of the people who printed it in China, is that people can't remember more than two or three names; if you put more names than this on the book cover, they'll all be unmemorable. It's a branding thing. But this isn't a problem in films; you only get the big stars listed at the beginning of a film, but there's a big rolling list of credits at the end. I'd like to see more of this on the page with the ISBN number and all the small print. If someone really wanted to find out about the team, then they could.

So, reviewers, teachers, parents, writers, publishers, all readers: think twice when you say who a book is 'by'. Here's the simplest guide I could come up with for crediting a book:

(You could also say 'words by/pictures by', etc.) I've noticed that a couple of the organisations that used to use the first two styles of crediting books have recently changed their ways and are using the second two styles. I don't think it's something most people do deliberately; it's the sort of thing that when I point it out to them they say, 'Ah yes, well, of course'.

Some writers commit what may be an unintentional crime of putting their illustrator's artwork all over their own website - it's part of their books' branding - but then not crediting the illustrator. This rankles badly. But whenever I mention attitudes toward illustrators on social media, writers fall over themselves to say, 'Oh, but I always credit my illustrator!' or 'But it's not my fault, it's what the marketing team does!' Besides being honourable or chivalrous, crediting an illustrator makes sound business sense. Book publicity is so reliant on events these days, that it's financially silly not to have two people doing the publicity work and traipsing about the countryside to festivals and things. I love working as a team with my co-authors; it's much more fun being on stage with a friend.

I'm lucky that Philip and Dave have worked so closely with me and I love that we're completely in this business together.

Website and blog:
Twitter: @jabberworks

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Mud glorious mud... by Miriam Halahmy

I think I've had this blogpost in my heart and my mind for years, ever since I decided to set three novels on Hayling Island ( off the south coast of England, opposite the Isle of Wight.)
Mud is a major geographical feature of the Island and one of its greatest attractions. Which might sound a bit weird but bear with me.
Hayling Island is not much more than a sandbank or a 25 mile square mudflat itself. It is ruler flat, five miles in length and when the tide goes out it drains from the mainland to the Solent revealing the most marvellous terrain and providing food and sanctuary for thousands of birds. The mud for me is one of the greatest attractions and I never tire of the landscape.

I've been down on the mudflats at low tide at all sorts of different times of the year and of the day. This photo was taken at 7.00 am on an August morning this year, in the week of Hurricane Bertha. That was quite an exciting time to be down on the Island. At high tide the water flowed straight over the top of the quayside flooding the cars and benches. Our holiday let sprang a leak and I even wrote a poem about it. But despite the flooding, at low tide everything drained away completely to leave the mudflats bare, exposed and in all their glory.

That week in August was also the time when the moon was closest to the earth for 20 years. I went out to photograph it and nearly got blown down by a Force 4.8 gale.

The mudflats have their dangers too and I am very careful not to walk away from the pebbly edges. People have to be regularly rescued by coastguard as they can get stuck and it was this feature of the mud which became a focus in my second Hayling Cycle novel, ILLEGAL, which is hinted at in this extract :-

"If the boat goes to ground here we'll be stuck," said Jess.
"Don't be stupid," said Sean. "We can walk, it's not far."
"Too far in this mud. Once when I was little I walked away from my Dad and started to sink. Dad had to heave like mad to get me out. He sunk to the top of his gumboots. Hayling mud sucks you in and never lets you go."

It's like a prophecy of what is to come in the book.

Hayling Island didn't have a bridge until 1824 and it was a toll bridge. Before that the only way to reach the mainland was by ferry or by the Wadeway. This was a path built across the nudflats, marked by wooden posts and ensured that the traveller stayed out of the mud. I've walked on parts of it and it takes you right out into the middle of Chichester Harbour.

You can't walk right across to the Island anymore because they dug a deeper channel for the boats. It's a very slippery muddy walk, but quite safe because the water comes in so slowly you can easily avoid getting wet. Not like Morecombe Bay!

The mudflats change colour almost each time the tide changes. The birds swoop and settle, pecking in the mud, and out in the middle of the harbour there is a silence and a smell of wet and salt and seaweed which takes you back to another age, a time when life was slower and if you wanted to take your potatoes to market on the mainland, you loaded them on your cart and pushed them right down the Wadeway, timing your return with the tide.
I still return to Hayling several times a year despite finishing my Hayling cycle and I am never happier when messing about in the glorious mud.