Thursday, 30 September 2010

Roses From Dark Places - Banned Books Week 2010 (Continued)

Sometimes, just sometimes, good comes out of bad.  Since I wrote my last post I have been overwhelmed by the responses I have received on a personal level, both from the book community and from the wider world outside it.  It has, at times, made me very emotional.  Scribble City Central has has had well over a thousand visitors in just a few days (a lot for a blog such as this) and the number is growing by the hour. Yesterday I was interviewed by Alison Flood of The Guardian newspaper, who wrote this article, bringing the #SpeakLoudly campaign to the attention of British readers, and that has now been picked up by the Huffington Post in the USA too.  So right now, I would just like to thank all of you who have taken the time to visit and comment here, on Twitter, on Facebook, on #SpeakLoudly and elsewhere--you are wonderful, and it means a great deal to me. 

The thing which has really overwhelmed me, though, is the private emails I have had from so many women, telling me their own stories of abuse as children and teenagers.  I will not tell you what they said--I do not intend to break the confidences I have been entrusted with.  However, they all had one thing in common which I can reveal.  Each told me that 'I'm not as brave as you. I'm not brave enough to speak out'.  I want to say this to them.  They were brave.  They were brave enough to write to me. And I will try to be another voice for them, along with Laurie Halse Anderson, Cheryl Rainfield, Ellen Hopkins and the myriad wonderful writers of YA and other fiction all over the world who continue to let the sunshine into the dark places of abuse and fear and shame and guilt and enable the roses to grow. I'd like to leave you with Ellen Hopkins' wonderful poem on the subject of book banning from her article in today's Huffington Post.  It says it all, really.


To you zealots and bigots and false
patriots who live in fear of discourse.
You screamers and banners and burners
who would force books
off shelves in your brand name
of greater good.

You say you're afraid for children,
innocents ripe for corruption
by perversion or sorcery on the page.
But sticks and stones do break
bones, and ignorance is no armor.
You do not speak for me,
and will not deny my kids magic
in favor of miracles.

You say you're afraid for America,
the red, white, and blue corroded
by terrorists, socialists, the sexually
confused. But we are a vast quilt
of patchwork cultures and multi-gendered
identities. You cannot speak for those
whose ancestors braved
different seas.

You say you're afraid for God,
the living word eroded by Muhammed
and Darwin and Magdalene.
But the omnipotent sculptor of heaven
and earth designed intelligence.
Surely you dare not speak
for the father, who opens
his arms to all.

A word to the unwise.
Torch every book.
Char every page.
Burn every word to ash.
Ideas are incombustible.
And therein lies your real fear.

© Ellen Hopkins 2010
PS: If you would like to join the fight against book banning, please sign up to SPEAK LOUDLYThe more who join in, the more powerful our voices will be.  And if you think that small things don't make a difference, just try going to bed with a mosquito in the room.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Can't You Hear Me? Then I'll Speak Louder! - Banned Books Week 2010

This may be the most difficult post I have ever written.  Be warned: some of it may not make easy reading.  But I want to speak out, because finally, after 40 odd years, I feel brave enough to do so. 

First, though, I want to talk about Speak the book. You may have heard of it.  It's been all over Twitter (with its own #SpeakLoudly hashtag) and the internet this week. This is because one Wesley Scroggins, Associate Professor of Management at Missouri State University would like it to be banned from the Republic School District on the grounds that he thinks it is 'soft porn'.  Let me quote some of what he says about it. 
   "This is a book about a very dysfunctional family. Schoolteachers are losers, adults are losers and the cheerleading squad scores more than the football team. They have sex on Saturday night and then are goddesses at church on Sunday morning. The cheer squad also gets their group-rate abortions at prom time."

Now I have just finished Speak, and let me tell you that this man has a very different idea of what this book is about than I do.  The particular (small) part of the book he is focussing on in the last part of the sentence is not even a major plot element, but a brief and ironic flash of thought from the teenage protagonist, Melinda.  What the book is actually about is the effect of rape on one young girl.  I will also quote what the author, Laurie Halse Anderson, said about Scroggins' interpretation, because I can't put it better than she does.
   "To call rape "pornography" (as Scroggins did in his editorial) thus considering it as a sexually exciting act, is horrifying."  Yep.  Correct.  Halse Anderson also says, "If you use Scroggins' technique of cherry-picking lines from books, you can falsely accuse any story of just about anything you want. That is a destructive and shameful practice."  Once again, yep.  Correct.

The poet Louis Macneice once said that "the writer today should be not so much the mouthpiece of a its conscience, its critical faculty, its generous instinct."  What Halse Anderson does in her book is brave, extraordinary, marvellous, sensitively handled and it fits right in with Macneice's criteria.  She shines a light on something uncomfortable, yes.  But the rape and abuse of schoolgirls by schoolboys is something which undeniably happens, and which, because of raw shame and paralysing fear, is almost never talked about in public by the victims and exposed to the sunlight.  It is because of this book that I have taken a very deep breath and decided to go public with my own story.  As a writer and someone who is lucky enough to have a voice and words to use as tools, I have written over 25 books for children.  My YA novel has as one of its themes bullying--a thing which I abhor. I use fiction to make my points mostly (although I have written several times on this blog about my fight with depression--another uncomfortable subject for many people).  What you are about to read is not fiction, and it has taken me over 40 years to let it out from the drawer in my head where it was locked up tight. 

It was a hot August afternoon and I was about 8 years old.  I was flattered that the two older boys wanted to play Doctors with me. They usually took no notice of me (and I wish that they had gone on doing so).  They laid me on a straw bale in the shed and took off my knickers and top.  I can still feel the prickliness of the straw on my back, and see the algae-stained transparent corrugated plastic roof with the jagged bit broken off the left-hand corner.  The sun shone and shone, and I could hear the voices of the strawberry pickers in the distance. The boys examined me thoroughly in their doctor roles.  It hurt a bit, but I was suddenly too scared to say anything.  They were a lot bigger than me.  Then they went outside to discuss the 'diagnosis'.  I can remember exactly what they said, and I shan't repeat it here.   In effect, they were arguing about whether to go 'all the way'. One wanted to, one was less sure.  I should say here that at that age, I had no idea about the 'facts of life'.  It was the '60's. You weren't told things like that at 8, then.  The one who was less sure won, thank God (who had taken her eye off me for a moment).  But I was told by both boys that if I ever said anything about what they had done, then they would tell everyone that I was 'a dirty little slut'.  I didn't know what that was, but it sounded bad, and I felt ashamed and filthy.  I didn't tell.  I never have.  Till now. 

Banning books like Halse Anderson's is wrong-headed, ignorant madness. She herself says that it has helped many victims of rape and abuse to come forward and begin the process of healing. So please join me, Speak Loudly and spread the word further about this fine and splendid novel.  And if my own story helps just one person who has suffered sexual abuse at the hands of another child,  it will have been worth telling.  
More about Banned Books Week and Speak HERE and HERE

Thursday, 16 September 2010

A Writing 101 Production - Part 11: Beating Your Submission Letter Into Shape

It's a horrible hissy word, SUBMISSION.  A lot of essssses.  Makes you think of snakes--or wolves rolling over and showing their throats to the pack-leader (that would be me).  But I promised to talk about the scary business of submitting, and I am always a blogger of my word (well, except in the case of writing about Twitter--but I have a PLAN about that, so watch this space). 

When I think now about the very first submission letter I sent to an editor back in 1991, I feel a frisson of embarrassment go right down to my typing fingertips.  Shall I tell you about it?  Oh, all right then.  If I must.  You'll probably hate me for it, but I can't help that.  Warning: there may be footnotes. Indulge me.

I'd written a picture book text.  On a Scottish river bank*. In ten minutes. I rather liked it.  In fact, I thought it would probably be good enough to send to a publisher when I'd sat on it for a while**.  Now, for those of you who are new here, I should tell you that I had, in a previous life, been a children's book editor.  So I had CONTACTS.  This was good.  I also had experience of looking at lots and lots of submission letters*** so, I suppose I kind of knew how one should go.  I would like to draw a quiet veil here, but I suppose I'd better show you the letter I actually sent (see above).****  I'd no more send a letter as long as that or laid out like that now than die.  It's just not very professional-looking, is it?.  Luckily for me, the editor I sent it to ignored the horribleness of my typing,  liked the text--and made me an offer THE VERY NEXT DAY*****.  I know.  It's the fairytale ending we all dream of.  However...THESE DAYS IT JUST DOESN'T HAPPEN LIKE THAT. Sorry!

So, back to you and your submission letter.  Are you just starting out? Submitting to an agent? Submitting to a publisher? For the purposes of this I'm going assume that you're a newbie and that you're writing children's or YA books.  If you've already had a book published and want to go through it all again don't go away, though.  You might still find my eccentricities riveting. 

Right.  You've got your brilliant manuscript all finished, and you've written your fantastic synopsis using my previous advice.  Now you've got to send the damn thing to someone, which means writing that all-important submission letter.

But before I get to that (it's coming, don't worry), here's something to think about.  As I said up there, fairy tale endings for authors are pretty much rarer than hen's teeth these days.  So, if you want your work to be in the best shape possible, you could do a lot worse than contact Natascha Biebow's brand-new venture, Blue Elephant Storyshaping.  Natascha has considerable experience as a Senior Commissioning Editor--so she knows what she's talking about and she can add a shiny bit of polish, or give excellent advice to those who are just not sure if what they have is good enough.  But, just for now, let's assume your work is as good as you can get it, and you want to send it out into the Big Bad World.

Rule #1:   Do your research. Before you start writing The Letter, ask 'who am I pitching to? Do they actually deal with or publish my kind of book?'  This applies to both agents and publishers, by the way. Your first port of call is the essential Children's Writers' and Artists' Yearbook.  Every would-be writer should have a current copy of this at their elbow--it will give you all sorts of useful advice and tips.  If you're submitting straight to a publisher, your second port of call is the bookshop (preferably a large independent, and also a chain for comparison purposes).  Look at what's out there.  Look at the 3 for 2's and the top tens in the chain, and who the publisher is.  (Incidentally, the publishers have paid out good money for their books to be in those promotions--they don't just magically appear there, you know.)   Might your book fit into one particular list? Were you thinking of submitting your YA fantasy novel to a house which deals mostly in non-fiction? (Clue here...big mistake).  It is quite amazing to me how many new writers don't bother with this essential basic research.   Trust me. Do it. Know Thy Market.

Rule #2: Enquire first. No really.  Once you've chosen an agent or a publisher to submit to, ring up (or email), and ask if they are willing to look at your stuff.  It's no good blindly submitting to somewhere which has a closed list or does not take unsolicited manuscripts.  But DO NOT contact anyone about pitching via Twitter.  If you don't follow @caroleagent on Twitter, you should.  She is quite clear on this subject. It's a huge NO NO, and just makes the people you want to impress Very Cross.

Rule #3: Set your letter out properly.  Remember those painful letter writing lessons you had at school?  Address/phone/email (yours) at the top; Address (theirs) underneath to the left; Date on the right; Dear whoever (not Hi! or Yo!); A short, factual piece setting out what you are sending (not too much detail, you've covered most of your bases in the synopsis, haven't you?); End with something polite like "I'll look forward to hearing from you about (insert name of piece) in due course.  With best wishes, Yours sincerely...." . Attach all the bits (double spaced, please), put in an envelope, send and pray.

Rule #4: Do not expect an answer anytime soon! Don't Panic, Frood--even established authors have to wait.  It might take anything up to 6 months for you to hear--though it might be 3 if you're lucky.  Don't hold your breath or you will possibly turn blue and die.  Relax--make a cuppa. Eat some strawberry shortbread.  And Good Luck!

PS: If all else fails, adopt a meercat (Uncle Sergei makes good tea, I believe).  

* It wasn't all wonderful--it was pouring with rain, the midges were biting like a bugger, and I had terrible morning-sickness.
** Despite the urge to throw your work on the world as soon as it is born, I find it's always best to sit on it for a bit and fiddle.  Other people might call this the cowardice of fear.  I call it sensible.
*** Some of them hand-written on what looked like the back of an old envelope.  No.  I'm not kidding you.
**** The fact that I had an ancient American AppleMac and a rotten printer which took the kind of thin cheap paper that has a strip of tear-off holes all down the side is no excuse for the dreadful layout of a chatty bit and then one scrunched paragraph of blurb all single spaced. At least the address and date and stuff were ok.
***** Told you you'd hate me. But it was the day the first Gulf War broke out, so I needed cheering up.

Links to all my other Writing 101 Productions on one handy page! Have a browse....

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

A Writing 101 Production - Part 10: Constructing The Perfect Synopsis (You Hope)

Now that Mythic Fridays are finished, it's time to fire up the Writing 101 Productions again and give you the benefit of my charmingly eccentric writer wisdom.  Today it's the turn of the synopsis to go under the 101 spotlight.  Trust me--you need to know this stuff.

So...why should I bother with a synopsis? 

Quick answer: because agents and publishers are more time-poor than ever and they like a bit of shorthand as to what your book is about, who it's for and why they should even bother turning to page one. 

In the old days (when life was sunny and fairies danced in the meadows...and editors said 'yes' every morning), I never wrote a synopsis.  Now I do.  What's more I slave over it every bit as hard as I do my books.  I have news for you.  The rainclouds are overhead, the fairies have gone back to Tir na n-Og...and children's book editors (and agents) say yes as often as geese lay golden eggs.  A professional-looking synopsis is therefore essential.

Aarrgh!  Scary!  So how do I construct one?

Glad you asked.  First of all, get all those romantic wishy-washy writer dreams out of the way--or mostly out of the way for the purposes of this exercise. I know you're the one with the imagination and the ability to write but publishing is a business, so:

  • Synopsis Essential Rule #1: Think commercial. That first page is vital.  You have to sell your story/novel/series, so make it jump out.
Before you even start, go and look at some bestselling book advertising and blurbs (a blurb is the stuff on the back or the inside of the book jacket.  For those who didn't know that already). Ask yourself why the ad/blurb worked (or didn't). Why is your book so special that a publisher would cut their own throat rather than let it go to someone else (yes, you can dream about that--we all do)? In other words--what is its USP?
Right.  You've done that.  Have your USP firmly at the forefront of your mind. Now you're ready to begin.

First, head the page with:
  • Book title and a strapline or very short paragraph to seize the editor's attention.
eg: The Hobbit
     by JRR Tolkien
Wizards, dwarves, trolls, elves, wolves, spiders...and a fiery dragon. How will reluctant thief Bilbo survive his terrifying journey to Smaug's mountain?

Second up on the page is your:
  • Proposal
Again, keep it brief and simple. Use bullet points. How many books will there be (if it's a series), or, if not, is there scope for a sequel. (Don't worry if it's a one off. One offs are fine.) Who is your target audience (and who will the book/s appeal to)? Sometimes it's helpful to be aware of the rival 'competition' here (ie if a particular readership group bought that, they'll like this). What age-group are you aiming for? Will the book need illustrations? How many words will it be? Is there a useful subject link to the National Curriculum or anywhere else? Is it fiction or non-fiction?

Third up is your:
  • Concept
You don't need to write a thesis.  What you need is a concise and interesting summary of what the book is about (or the series. Or whatever. You get the idea). Where is the book set?  This is really important if it's in any way magical or fantasy or otherworldy.  Who is your main character, what kind of personality are they and what is their 'journey' (do NOT mention Tony Blair here or you will go straight to the rejection pile *joke*)?   If it's an adventure, you might like to write a little (a little) about how it begins.  If it's a series, you might like to say how many books you are planning--but DO NOT scare a publisher into fits by being unrealistic.  If you are the new Robert Jordan and are planning a 13-book cycle which will last for your entire life, perhaps don't mention it here! If there's background that needs explaining here, do it BRIEFLY and SIMPLY. Remember overload=overkill. You can also work in a snappy line about your USP here (you do have one, remember?).

Fourth up is your:
  • Plot Description
Here, you'll need a fairly detailed plot outline (or, if it is a series, a plot outline of book one), plus a list of other important characters. Again, you're not writing the whole book here.  The word is
S-U-M-M-A-R-Y.  You might also want to give brief sketched plot outlines of any sequels or further storyline ideas here.  BUT ONLY IF THEY ARE RELEVANT! 

Last, but not least:
  • Who are you?
If you're unagented and submitting direct to a publisher (or if you're submitting to an agent with a view to being represented), for the Lord's sake tell them a bit about you. Again, keep it relevant and short, just a mini-CV, please.  No one needs to know about the poetry you recited to the hens when you were ten.

Ok.  So now you've written your synopsis.  What next?  Why, the even scarier business of submitting, of course.  But that's a 101 for another day.  For now just remember the wise words of meercat supremo Aleksandr Orlov:


Links to all my other Writing 101 Productions are right HERE on one handy page.  Have a browse, why don't you?

Friday, 3 September 2010

Edinburgh International Book Festival: Part 2 - The Author is Wrangled

I'm not used to having a minder. It's rather nice, and luckily Orion has a pretty high class sort of author wrangler in Kate and Nina. Nina was having a well-deserved Bank Holiday off--her first in 7 years which shows an unprecedented devotion to duty--so Kate drew the short straw of wrangling me.  The poor girl had her work cut out because the hideous edbookfest lurgie had struck me down, and by the Tuesday morning my voice sounded a bit like a baby dragon fart--all squeaky and raspy.  Luckily I wasn't breathing fire, so she had that to be thankful for. However, The Show Must Go On, and so, dosed with hideous concoctions and breathing Fisherman's Friend fumes, I was miked up to the hilt and strode into the Scottish Power Studio Theatre in Charlotte Square.  Well, I say strode, but I don't know if one can stride on legs which feel like jellybeans. 

I feel that this is the point at which I should mention Author Nerves. There we are, writing away in our little garrets or (add ivory tower location of choice here). The email pings, and in comes a lovely invitation from a school or library or, in this case, festival.  Warm feeling of being wanted ensues, and one agrees to do it in a burst of love for all humankind (it takes very little to make an author happy--chocolate is one of them, being treated as a real author is another).  Then, just before the event, panic ensues.  At least it does in my case.  Will I forget what I'm saying and babble?  Will the PowerPoint work (this is a new worry)? Will there be a classroom riot because the kids are bored/hate me/are demons in disguise?  If you took my pulse before an event, I would probably be on the endangered health list.  This time, not only did I have a really big (for me) audience of about 200 kids (yes, my event was SOLD OUT!), but I also had the Russian roulette scenario of whether my next word was even going to be comprehensible.  Also, the clock was broken, so I had NO IDEA how long I had left. 

I got through it.  My voice held out. I even made them laugh--at least twice.  They clapped enthusiastically.  And best of all, they kept on asking good questions till we ran out of time (I made a bad error though--note to self: never give the child who has told you a delightfully long and rambling story about his lego Minotaur the chance to DO IT AGAIN. It's very dark in that theatre, and I am easily confused.) 

After that there was time for a much needed throat-soothing cup of tea and a small pause...

before the 'signing of the books' ritual in the signing tent.  All those who hadn't asked their questions came up and did so.  Very chatty they were too.  I had a photo opportunity with the nice kids from Strathyre in the Trossachs who'd come a long way and very nearly not made it.  And then...then I had tea in the yurt with the Bookwitch and her lovely daughter, Helen.  The Bookwitch writes a pretty fabulous blog, so the next day I was flattered to feature in it along with my lucky red coat.  She was even polite about my talk.

As I left Waverly Station on the Train That Was Destined Never to Arrive, I had a thought.  What a bloody marvellous thing the Edinburgh International Book Festival is.  I do hope they invite me again one day.

Part 1 Edinburgh International Book Festival - The Outreach Author is here

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Edinburgh International Book Festival: Part 1 - The Outreach Author

I was terribly flattered to be asked, of course.  Which author wouldn't be? I mean the Edinburgh International Book Festival--it's BIG!  They have proper famous people there.  Like Pullman and Rowling and Donaldson (more about her in the next post). So, yes please (I'm polite like that) and yippee! I said.  That was last year. It seemed a long way off then.  Safe, even.  But when it got to last Sunday, and I found myself on a packed and joggly train pulling out of Kings Cross Station (not, sadly from Platform 9 3/4), I started to feel a bit nervous.  The stomach butterflies weren't helped by the family of messy tuna eaters, either.  But I shall cut at once to the authors' yurt--all domed canvas roofs and exotic carpets, where I fitted in right away with my lucky red coat.
The yurt has been much written about, so I shall say no more than that I met (finally) the ineffably Crabbit Nicola Morgan and the wolfy Gillian Philip there, as well as lovely Danuta Kean, who has a razor-sharp wit and a talent for knowing all the good gossip.  Wolfy Gillian was keen to show me that authors have their own exclusive yurty toilets (very deluxe).  She also persuaded me to be photographed with her.
There was much wine, and I shall draw a veil over the rest of the evening and proceed straight to the next morning, which was when I had to do my first event.

Outreach is a fantastic scheme, taking Festival authors out to local schools (which might otherwise miss out). As an official EIBF author, you get given the chance to opt in or out.  I opted in (always up for anything that helps to get books to kids).  Which is how I found myself speeding along country roads in a taxi.  My destination was Kirkliston Library, and the P5 class of Kirkliston Primary.  Author nerves were at their most tightly wound...would the PowerPoint work? (It did, thanks to the fab Colm Linnane, Reading Champion of the Edinburgh City Library & Information Service.)  These kids were brighter than shiny buttons--and they were well prepared for a foray into the ancient world (not always the case).  There wasn't much wriggling, and the questions were focused and intelligent.  They'd even emailed me beforehand (though there was a slight mix-up in the spelling of the word book, involving a misplaced 'b', which made me wonder for a second whether I'd been spammed!).

I think they liked it--anyway, they certainly all wanted to be put in my next book, with one boy volunteering to be the monster (his peers seemed to agree that he'd be perfect for the part).  One down, one to go...but then the dreaded lurgie stepped in and bit me....come back tomorrow to find out whether I survived!

Part 2: Edinburgh International Book Festival - The Author is Wrangled is here
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