Monday, October 31, 2011

Hello fear, my old friend

Happy Halloween! A number of bloggers have been posting about what they most fear. I've got plenty of fears to share. But in the midst of drafting Project Fun for Faux Nano, I've been thinking about the fear to write, which manages to catch me out almost every morning, silencing my words, plaguing me with doubt and insecurity. Recently, in an attempt to exorcise my demons of fear, I started singing (to the tune of the first line of Simon & Garfunkel's Sound of Silence), "Hello fear, my old friend." Because of course naming your fear is half the battle. In the spirit of Halloween, I decided to finish rewriting the lyrics to share them with you. Apologies to S&G for bastardizing their words and scansion. But at least now I have a whole song with which to face down my fear.

Hello fear, my old friend
I’ve come to talk with you again
Because a story softly creeping
Left its premise while I was sleeping
And the story that was planted in my brain
Still remains
Within the sound of silence

After restless dreams I tried to write
In the early morning light
Scribbling with pen on paper
I closed my eyes to all my failure
When my eyes were stabbed by Word’s blinking cursor
It split my will
And rallied the sound of silence

In the computer’s white light I saw
Ten thousand emails maybe more
Agents rejecting because there is no market
Editors rejecting because there is no money
Writers dreaming stories that readers never share
I no longer dare
Disturb the sound of silence

“Fool,” said I, “You already know,”
Fear like a cancer grows
I should write my words that I might capture them
Tell my stories that I might reach them
But my words like quiet snowfall melt
And exit my mind in silence

Writers like me bowed and prayed
To the fancy blogs we made
While the New York Times flashed out its warning
Via Facebook and Twittering,
The headline cried, “The book industry is already cold and dead.”
Where has my courage gone?
To whisper in the sound of silence.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Books are this girl's best friends

Earlier this year, when I expected to move back to the US, I got rid of a number of books. I donated them to charity bookstores, gave them away to friends, and brought a stack I couldn't part with to my parents' house. I was down to a single shelf of books, if you can believe it.

Then October happened. And suddenly the number of books in my apartment has doubled. Pretty neat trick, huh?

At the beginning of this month, I treated myself to three new books: Imaginary Girls by Nova Ren Suma, Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor, and The Lighter Side of Life and Death by CK Kelly Martin. I read (and love) all three authors' blogs, and their most recent books have been getting rave reviews, so I figured I could guarantee a good read (plus support authors and blogs I love). By the way, a special shout out to Nova Ren Suma. She's been running a creepy, thoughtful, and FUN blog series for this month called "What Scares You?" which features numerous ya authors. Definitely check it out.

Then, just as I was tearing into my new books, the Bath Kids Lit Fest happened, in all of its mad glory, and as my thank you for volunteering present I got to select several free books from their shelves. Woo-hoo! Free books!

Then a few writing buddies loaned me some must-reads.

Then I had an incredibly lucky run. Author Carmella Van Vleet posted on the MiG blog about her daughter's struggles with her growth disorder (it's a really educational post, and worth reading). In a random drawing for commenting on the post, I won a copy of Nava Atlas' The Literary Ladies' Guide to the Writing Life (thanks so much, MiG ladies!). Author SJ Kincaid had a giveaway on her blog, and I won White Cat by Holly Black (a favorite book from this past year that I've been desperately wanting to reread--thanks, SJ!). And I won CK Kelly Martin's newest book, My Beating Teenage Heart, from author Audrey Vernick's blog (thanks to both Audrey and CK!).

I know. I was a little embarrassed by all my luck, to be honest. My husband told me I should be playing the lotto instead of entering book contests. But I won books! Can't argue with that! In the coming months, I'll be sharing reviews of Nava Atlas' book and CK Kelly Martin's (and Audrey and SJ's books are already on the shopping list). Whenever I catch up on all this reading!

Course, as much as my husband teases me about my book winnings, he knows what I love. He got me the first omnibus volume of the comic Girl Genius (which I've been lusting after ever since The Book Smugglers' fab review) for our anniversary (who knew comics were the appropriate gift for eight years of marriage?!).

So many lovely books. I'm feeling a little overwhelmed. But in a good way. One can never have too many books.

What are you reading at the moment? What books are you lusting after?

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Thinking through our characters

I frequently reach moments in my rough drafts that read something like this:

Clara had no idea what to do. She was lost. Totally, utterly lost. Lost lost lost. "I know," she thought. "I'll make a list. One side of the page will be all the pros for going into the deep, dark forest after Jed (I think I love him, he could be in danger, I'm getting bored...), on the other side will be all the cons (he could be in danger, I've heard there might be rabid beasts in the forest, and there are those strange noises coming from the back yard every evening that haven't yet been explained)." Clara sat down on her bed and drew up her list. But it wasn't enough. She couldn't make up her mind. What if there was a third option she hadn't thought of? "Better journal for a while," she thought.

Of course, this is an exaggeration. And there's nothing wrong with characters sharing their thought process. But when I find my characters totally lost, resorting to making lists, or journaling their way out of problems, or going to the library, it's time to put down my rough draft and do some brainstorming off the page. No one wants to read my thought process.

Anyone else guilty of this?

Note: Clara and Jed are not characters in Project Fun. I just totally made them up. But I have to say, I'm now intrigued by what might happen next...

Monday, October 24, 2011

My Life as a Plotter: Project Fun Update

I'm still going strong with Project Fun. I managed to write a scene every day this week and by Sunday was up to 18K (boy do I love watching those words add up!). Special thanks to Sharon Jones and Deanna Carlyle for all their support on Twitter (we're using the tag #fauxnano, if anyone would like to join in).

Most importantly, of course, I'm still having fun. Though I'm far enough along that I'm plagued with the never-ending novelist questions: Is this any good? Did I dig deep enough? What if my character is too weird? What if this only makes sense in my head? And on and on and on. I try to fix what I can, but otherwise just keep writing. It's all I can do.

However, my biggest fear was that writing a scene-by-scene outline in advance would ruin everything. Tons of novelists swear against outlines; they find joy in the writing, in discovering their story as they go. But strangely, at least so far, that hasn't been a problem.

As I get to know my characters better, they're doing unexpected, even surprising things. So while part of me knows what's coming, another part of me is enjoying the ride, looking ahead to the big loop-de-loop and wondering what that's going to feel like, and what new twist my car might take. Very exciting.

I've also discovered an unexpected benefit to advance-plotting. Obviously there's the benefit of having a sentence jotted down for each scene, so I'm avoiding the dreaded blank page. But that structure also gives me the freedom to skip pointless paragraphs where I try to move my character from point A to point B.

For example, say a scene starts over breakfast, with a young girl arguing with her mom. She slams the door as she heads off to school. The next scene happens that evening, when the girl and her mom confront each other again over dinner.

If I were writing this story as I created it, I'd tell you about school that day, how crummy and boring it was, how noisy, how many kids there were in the halls, pushing and shoving... but you don't care. You want to know what's going to happen with the girl and her mom.

Having an outline in front of me gives me permission to jump to the next scene. It saves me lots of pointless paragraphs that will just be cut later anyway.

Pretty neat, huh? Course, next week I might be bemoaning the evil outline. We'll see.

How are your Nano or Nano Lite or Faux Nano goals coming along?

Friday, October 21, 2011

Where are you from?

The other day I was out grocery shopping, and bumped into a person on the street soliciting for a charity (this is a daily thing in the UK; college-aged students are hired by charities to accost--I mean, sign-up--passersby for regular donations).

I've gotten good at politely avoiding these people: "Sorry, not interested." Every so often they get pushy, and I'll explain to them that I prefer not to conduct business transactions on the street. But I try not to say too much. Because frequently, whenever I so much as open my mouth, they jump on my accent.

"Where you are from?"

I think they're trying to be friendly, to get me talking, perhaps willing to donate (or even entertain them while they stand on the street, probably bored out of their minds). But this question has the exact opposite effect. I'll mumble something hurriedly (the other day it was, "Here, I'm from Bristol.") and leave as quickly as possible.

I HATE being asked where I'm from.

And I should say, this doesn't just happen with charity workers. I get it from the supermarket, from people at the bus stop, from cafes. Everywhere I go, I get asked "Where are you from?"

I don't mind so much when it's part of a conversation. But if it's out of the blue, to me it's the equivalent of saying, "You're not from around here. You don't belong." Because, obviously, they're not asking the people with British accents "Where are you from?" I don't mind the question as a tourist, but as someone who's lived in Bristol for four years, I resent being told I don't belong. I can only imagine how annoying this is after twenty years.

Growing up, I was told never to ask where someone's from. I was taught that even if someone has a different skin color to mine, or a different accent, they can still be American. Maybe that's not so much of a British sensibility.

But perhaps I'm being too sensitive. I truly don't think these people mean to be nasty or exclusive. At best, they're curious. Perhaps I just don't like being asked personal questions on the street.

Because minutes later, I went into my favorite deli (Chandos! Love them!), and the two guys behind the counter were debating whether Matt Damon would run for US President. I placed my order, and then one of the guys, one I've chatted with before, asked, "Hey, where are you from again?" and I didn't resent it at all. He wanted to include me in the conversation, get the American perspective on whether Matt Damon would run (uhhh... no).

The funny thing is, I love talking about where I'm from. I love discussing Chicago, snowy winters, the Great Lakes, US politics, American food...

All of this made me wonder whether maybe I need a new "Where are you from?" policy.

Perhaps I should be less prickly and say, Chicago, or Michigan, or the US.

Or perhaps I should take the opportunity to let them know that I find the question upsetting, and I wish they wouldn't ask it, because it implies that people with different accents can't belong here.

More than likely, I'll just glare, mumble "Here," and hurry away again.

What do you think? Is it a fair question? How would you answer it?

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Dear Mr. Hemingway,

I owe you an apology.

I know you're not around anymore, and I know you probably don't care what I have to write anyway. But I've spent a lot of my life saying hateful things about you, so I feel the need to apologize publicly.

I first read Ernest Hemingway in an American Lit class in high school. I loved the teacher, loved everything we read, except I loathed Hemingway. We read his Nick Adams short stories. Our teacher discussed his terse style, interest in war, bull-fighting, the outdoors. To me his writing felt arrogant, filled with false-bravado. I couldn't see the draw at all.

In college, discovering that most of my classmates had read Old Man and the Sea, I gave that a try. Same style. After just a few pages, I put it down.

Years later, I ended up teaching American Lit. A fellow teacher suggested a Hemingway short story ("A Day's Wait"). I wrinkled my nose, but she promised me it was good. It was. It was a breathtakingly beautiful story, honest and sad. The only good Hemingway I ever read. It didn't inspire me to read anymore, but at least I could say I taught Hemingway. Sort of.

Fast forward to now, and my Bristol book group. The lone man in the group suggested we read For Whom the Bell Tolls. I made a face. I told the group I'd happily give it a try, but in truth I didn't intend to read more than a few pages. Especially when I saw the novel was over 400. I repeated my mantra, said I found Hemingway's writing masculine, arrogant, and dull.

This Thursday when we meet for book group, I'm planning to eat my words.

I LOVED For Whom the Bell Tolls.

Admittedly, it was a slow start. The writing was the same terse style I'd come to hate. But I pressed on, figuring I should at least finish the first chapter. And I was loathe to admit it, but every so often there were some beautiful sentences. Then I pushed on to the second chapter, thinking I should at least say I read 50 pages. By page 50, I stopped making excuses, and finally admitted I was totally absorbed in this story of an American dynamiter fighting in Spain's Civil War, and all the politics, the people who say one thing, but mean another, and everyone in their own way confronting death as they plan to blow up a bridge to stop the Fascist Army.

But not only was the story absorbing, the characters fascinating (though it did take a while to actually get to the bridge...), the best part was that this terse style became like a writing masterclass.

I mean, listen to this! "He knelt by the stream and, pushing his automatic pistol around on his belt to the small of his back so that it would not be wet, he lowered himself with a hand on each of two boulders and drank from the stream. The water was achingly cold."

Achingly cold. It gives me chills (literally, not just figuratively!). Talk about a beautiful use of an adverb (which writers are never supposed to use!).

Most of the language was slow, plodding, yet brief. It was meant to capture Spanish in translation, and I did truly feel like I was reading Spanish and then slowly translating the language into English in my mind. It also forced me to read every word, which took a long time, but is a neat trick.

But better, Hemingway plays with that rhythm, changing it at different points, and he changes the pace of his language to convey dialogue, description, thought, sex. I was mesmerized. I would love to quote one of his sex scenes, but I don't quite dare. Read the book!

I also loved the cursing in the novel (yes, sex, cursing, see what this Hemingway love hath wrought?!). Actually, he didn't curse outwardly, he did everything he could to get around it. As a young adult author, I thought there was a lot to learn here:

"Where the hell are you going? Agustín asked the grave little man as he came up.
“To my duty,” Fernando said with dignity.
“Thy duty,” said Agustín mockingly. “I besmirch the milk of thy duty.” Then turning to the woman, “Where the un-nameable is this vileness that I am to guard?”
“In the cave,” Pilar said. “In two sacks. And I am tired of thy obscenity.”
“I obscenity in the milk of thy tiredness,” Agustín said.
“Then go and befoul thyself,” Pilar said to him without heat.
“Thy mother,” Agustín replied.

Apparently this annoys a lot of people, but it absolutely cracked me up. You know (roughly) all the obscene things the characters are saying, but Hemingway is avoiding all censorship. In a later passage, in the main character's own head, so there is no Spanish translation, the word muck is substituted. But muck becomes just as angry and as effective as anything else.

Finally, and perhaps best of all, I didn't find the novel overly arrogant or masculine, or any of those other hateful things I said before about Mr. Hemingway. Instead, I found it full of questions, about masculinity, bravery, killing, what it means to be a soldier, whether war really accomplishes any purpose, whether democracies can ever be fair.

The love interest, Maria, prior to the novel's opening, has been gang-raped. This isn't handled well (sex and loving the "right man" will make it all better!), but considering it was the early 1940s, I was impressed it was there in the first place, discussed, and that Maria was treated gently and sensitively because of it.

It was a beautiful and truly thought-provoking read. And strangely enough, I'm anxious to read more. Anyone have any Hemingway recommendations? Any writers you hate?

Monday, October 17, 2011

Faux NaNo

Ah, fall. When the air turns crisp, the leaves turn into breathtaking reds, oranges, and golds, and writers' thoughts turn to drafting a novel in a month.

Yep, it's nearly November, which means most of my internet writing friends are agonizing over whether or not to do NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). Over the years, I've come to realize that NaNo really isn't my thing. I'm a slower writer, and speeding up just means more plot holes and poorly drawn characters. Last year I participated in my own version of NaNo, October and November National Novel Writing Month with No Guilt (shorthand, OctAnNaNoWriMowithNoGuilt-o, of course). It's purpose was met, in that I started fervently drafting my novel Project Demo, and got some serious page accumulation (even if it wasn't quite the official NaNo goal of 50K).

Still, I love the determination and support that NaNo fosters, and I love to be a part of that, in however small a way. I laid Project Demo aside at the end of August, as we both needed a break from each other and something fresh. So I'm in a lucky spot where I can again use some of the NaNo spirit to push through my draft. This year I'm keeping things simple and calling it Faux NaNo.

The goal? Finish a rough draft of Project Fun by the end of November.

What? You haven't heard about Project Fun?

Well, that's probably because I haven't said much about it yet. As you may have gathered from the blog, life has been rather full-on lately. But I spent much of September using John Truby's 22-step method to plot out Project Fun. I started actually writing on October 4th (so really, I'm already two weeks into Faux NaNo!).

How's it going? Well... I'm a total pantser, so this a very new and strange way for me to write. But so far it seems to be going okay. Project Fun is still fun, which was about 80% of the point of writing it. But it's also very much early days. I'm pressing forward, aiming for a chapter a day, roughly 500-1500 words. And we'll see what it looks like when I come out the other end of November.

In the meantime, now that Project Demo isn't giving me nasty looks on a daily basis, and the Bath Kids Lit Fest is over, I should have a bit more time to blog, and share some updates on Project Fun throughout the remaining month and a half of my Faux NaNo.

Total as of yesterday: 11,600

What about you? Have your thoughts turned to NaNo? Anyone else doing a sort of Faux NaNo?

Friday, October 14, 2011

A different kind of visa application

I've been very quiet recently about what the next year might bring, but regular readers will know this past year wasn't particularly easy.

I originally moved to Bristol, in the United Kingdom, because of a research grant my husband received. Then he received another, which finished two weeks ago. He's spent the past year hunting for a more permanent job, but you all know how difficult the market has been. I kept hoping for good news to share here, but even this summer, I honestly didn't know where in the world we'd end up next.

Well, finally, good news: Phil has been offered (and accepted!) a one-year position at the University of Bristol. It was only this week that we submitted our new visa applications (and they still haven't been processed, but we're crossing our fingers!).

It's been an arduous few weeks (not to mention almost a year of uncertainty!). There was a lot of bureaucracy involved, and then the applications themselves can be quite demanding. We had to get photos taken, prove we're native English speakers, assemble proof of bank accounts, our marriage, and academic degrees, along with filling out miles of paperwork. And then there's the fees, many hundreds of pounds just to process the applications.

I do understand, though. The government wants to make sure we're here legally, that we can afford to stay here, and that we'll add value to the country through Phil's work.

But I've spent much of the past few weeks wondering how the application process might look different if perhaps we weren't judged by bank accounts and university degrees, but rather by the life we've led the past four years.

For example, when this position at the University opened up, Phil's colleagues unanimously wanted to offer it to Phil (I'm his wife, I can brag on his behalf!).

And when I told the primary school teacher I volunteer with once a week that I might not be back the following year, she offered to write a letter to the Border Agency herself, letting them know how useful I've been.

Of course, there's more to integrating into a country than work.

The Border Agency would probably want character references. So I think about all the friends we've made here. I think about my writing friends, my library book group, my orchestra, four years of Thanksgiving celebrations in our packed living room.

But perhaps the UK government would also like to know that we're not complete outsiders, that we've absorbed our share of British culture. Well, besides an MA in Writing for Young People, I've mastered a mean scone recipe (the quickest way to my heart, of course, being my stomach). I might be trying out some more baking after the past two months watching The Great British Bake-Off. I'm totally addicted to Downton Abbey, and may or may not (it's unconfirmed) have a thing for Kevin McCloud, the host of Grand Designs.

Of course, there's also the matter of dancing in front of hundreds of kids as the beloved Horrid Henry while volunteering for the Bath Kids Lit Fest. Surely that's got to count for something? I could even send my picture in the Telegraph in as evidence!

The more I thought about what this type of application would look like, the more certain I was that Phil and I would pass it. Over four years, Bristol really has become part of my life, and a home in all senses of the word. I've spent a lot of time looking forward to going back to the US, but I have to admit, now that I'm not going, I'm kind of looking forward to another year here.

As long as those visa applications get approved. Maybe I should send the Border Agency this link?

Thanks, everyone, and especially my British friends. Guess we'll have to put up with each other for another year!

Me & Phil at a Bristol Badgers baseball game

All pictures are mine (except the Great British Bake Off shot): Me "steering" the SS Great Britain, the Clifton Suspension Bridge, and the Balloon Fiesta over Bristol's skyline

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Do you tell people you're a writer?

I try to avoid it if I can. That's why my landlord thinks I live a life of leisure.

If I tell people I'm a writer, then people (understandably) ask, "What have you written?"

Then I have to tell them none of my novels have been published, and they secretly feel bad for me, because I must not be a very good writer. Either that or I just don't understand how to market myself. Sometimes they try to help me with that.

Or they ask "What's your book about?" and if I'm feeling brave I might give a pitch. Or I might not, if I can't bear that empty silence or disinterested gaze one more time.

So I'll them it's for teenagers, and hope they don't ask anymore.

"Is it about vampires?"


But eventually, I have to tell people. At least, friends, acquaintances. The type of people who ask how your weekend was, and I need to explain how I spend long portions of my life sitting inside, staring into space.

The worst is when I see them again. "Is your book published now?"


Thankfully the best and closest friends understand. Or they're writers themselves.

Do you tell people you're a writer?

Monday, October 10, 2011

Do characters have to be likable?

At the beginning of the Kids Lit Fest, knowing I was going to be traveling back and forth to Bath frequently, I downloaded from my library the audiobook for a well-respected, literary adult novel. I took it on my walk later that day, and hadn't even made it to the end of my street before I was sick of it. Both main characters were whiny, immature know-it-alls.

Fair? No, probably not. I looked the book up on Goodreads when I got home, and it's gotten numerous good reviews. Several readers point out that while the characters are annoying at the beginning, they mature through the course of the novel.

Maybe I should've given the book another shot, but it happened to be the second literary novel I'd encountered in the past month with this issue. If I'm going to devote hours of my time (11+ in the case of this audiobook), I don't want to spend it with whiny, immature people.

So I've been thinking lately about unsympathetic characters, and when they work and when they don't. I'm happy to root for Scarlett in Gone With the Wind. There's nothing likable about Richard III or Dr. House, yet I watch with interest. So a character doesn't have to be a saint to capture my imagination. But there still has to be something there.

Meg Rosoff in her talk at the Bath Kids Lit Fest said she dealt with an unsympathetic narrator (Bob, the 19-year-old god in There Is No Dog) by giving him flashes of brilliance.

Meg and Melvin Burgess also talked about how in Melvin's book, Kill All Enemies, the characters start out unlikable, but as the reader learns more about them, the reader becomes more sympathetic.

I think the author has to do something to either help the reader engage with her character (make him funny or fascinating, brilliant or sympathetic) or her story (even though the reader can't stand the character, she reads on because she HAS to know what this character's going to do next).

Can you think of any other ways to entice readers with an unsympathetic character? And do you have any favorite unsympathetic characters?

I think ya author Courtney Summers is a master at making readers care about her characters, even though they do terrible things.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Bath Festival of Children's Literature Day 3

This is my final post on the Bath Kids Lit Fest (see Day 1 here and Day 2 here). Writing these posts has almost been like volunteering and attending the events: exhausting and time-consuming, yet fascinating and inspirational. I'm glad that not only have I been able to capture many of my memories, but that I've been able to share them with you.

A week ago Thursday was Writing for Children and Teenagers, the annual event hosted by the the MA in Writing for Young People at Bath Spa University. There were brief readings and discussion from four authors, Bath Spa's Writer in Residence, Marcus Sedgwick (his most recent book is Midwinterblood), Gill Lewis (Sky Hawk), Sam Gayton (The Snow Merchant), and Karen Saunders (Baby Badger's Wonderful Night). The course director (and my amazing tutor) Julia Green moderated.

It was a fascinating juxtaposition of stories and opinions, though like many of the multiple-author events, I wished I could have heard more from some of the authors. Marcus Sedgwick shared about being behind deadline, scrapping his work in progress, and starting the novel that became Midwinterblood after being inspired by a painting. Midwinterblood has a unique, risky structure (14 narrators, 7 time periods), so Marcus talked about breaking publishers' rules. He also argued that children's stories can have adult narrators. I'm not sure I agree, but it's interesting to ponder.

Sam Gayton shared about his writing process and the development of The Snow Merchant. He compared the writing itself to snow falling, slowly but steadily building up. Such a beautiful (and true!) image.

Gill Lewis talked about how her childhood fascination with animals, and her adult career as a vet, inspired her novel Sky Hawk. She also shared her amazing publication journey. She got an agent in the space of a week or so, and Oxford University Press offered her a contract in less than 24-hours.

I was so grateful for Karen Saunders contrasting story: her novel was almost picked up by two publishers, but ultimately turned down. Then her agent shopped a picture book manuscript she had written on the course. That was accepted for publication, but her publisher asked her to cut half of it and change the title and character names. She put her foot down when they asked if she could use an animal other than badgers. But now, six years since the completion of her MA, her picture book is out and she's at work on the next. And it's a lovely story, with gorgeous illustrations.

I've been thankful for the writers this week who have dared to say how difficult writing and publication can be. In the past, I've heard authors glibly tell stories, like that they wrote their book overnight, and I think those sorts of expectations can set writers up for disappointment.

Jacqueline Wilson was another author this week who was honest about her struggles to become a published author. And what an event that was!

For those of you (Americans!) who don't know who Jacqueline Wilson is, she's a rock star over here, an institution. I blogged about her here.

The Kids Lit Fest set a record for attendance at their Saturday Jacqueline Wilson event: 1426 people. And I managed the line! It circled almost completely around the block, and was filled with girls and their mothers (and a few lovely sons and fathers) clutching battered copies of Jacqueline Wilson books to their chests. And all on the hottest October day in Bath ever.

We packed into the Forum (a giant auditorium / church). The stage was enormous, with only a single chair and table for Jacqueline. It looked ridiculous, but when Jacqueline came out, somehow her presence managed to easily fill the space. She was charming and funny. She shared her story of becoming an author, living in a boarding house's linen closet while she worked for a children's magazine. For a while she wrote the horoscopes, and she admitted she knew nothing about stars or signs, so she made it all up. But she filled her own horoscope with all sorts of dreams of fame. Quite amazing how much has come true for her.

But she encouraged writers to be true to themselves. She got into the business as a teenager, when she saw a magazine's call for teen writers. They were looking for beauty and fashion tips and romance stories. Instead she wrote a story about being the awkward girl at the dance, pretending to look like she was having fun, taking long trips to the bathroom, and afterwards smiling and telling her family what a nice time she had before she cried in her room. The magazine bought it, and that was her first publication credit.

Jacqueline also shared her more recent history, including her heart attack that required three months of recuperation. It resulted in her first historical fiction novel, Hetty Feather, a book that she had desperately wanted to write, but could never find the time to research. Funny how life isn't always up to us. But Hetty Feather has become her favorite character from all her books.

One thing I take away from the Fest every year is how different all the good talks are. Some authors show movies, others bring artifacts, some run around and scream, some (Jacqueline Wilson) sit on a single chair on a giant stage and yet fill the whole room. I think the best talks (like the best books) come from the authors who just act like themselves. After all, that's what we're there to see, anyway.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Bath Festival of Children's Literature Day 2

The fun continues... (see my last post about the Bath Kids Lit Fest here)

Last Monday, I volunteered for the Festival first for the Queens of Teen talk, with Cathy Cassidy, Joanna Nadin, Samantha Mackintosh, and Karen McCombie. Unfortunately, I haven't read any of their books, but the talk was hysterical, with the women sharing their favorite scenes, embarrassing moments from childhood, how much of their characters are really them. I could easily tell why their books have been so successful: they were a riot!

I was surprised that so many of them based their characters on themselves almost completely. Many of them also used real situations from their lives, and real people as friends and enemies. Perhaps that comes with writing contemporary humor. Maybe their lives are funnier than mine? Or at least, they can make them out to be funnier?

Next was the talk by David Almond, Melvin Burgess, and Meg Rosoff. There's so much to say, I don't really know where to begin. Perhaps that's one of the problems with inviting three amazing authors for one talk. There was almost too much going on, and I didn't feel I got to hear enough from any of the authors.

One of the best bits was just seeing each author walk into the Green Room beforehand. Why yes, I was screaming in my head, OMG, THAT'S MEG ROSOFF! *jumping up and down* Thankfully it all stayed inside my head. And then watching them all greet each other, chat with each other... Meg and Melvin know each other best, but they all seemed to be friends, colleagues at their job. Throughout much of the talk they joked with each other, complimented each other.

My favorite line was when the moderator asked David Almond what he thought of Melvin Burgess' new book, Kill All Enemies (yes, the moderator really did ask those sorts of pointless questions. *sigh*). Anyway, Melvin patted David on the back, beamed at the audience, and said, "David Almond loves my book. He told me so." I cracked up.

The authors talked a bit about unsympathetic narrators, which I thought was fascinating. Meg Rosoff's newest book, There Is No Dog, imagines the universe if God were an obnoxious 19-year-old guy named Bob. Bob isn't supposed to be very sympathetic. That's the point, Meg exploring why, if there is a god, all sorts of strange and terrible things happen. But Meg explained how she tried to keep the reader engaged with Bob by giving him "flashes of brilliance" like when he makes whales float in the sky.

She also talked about how one of the main characters in Melvin's book (again, stupid moderator question, "Meg, what did you think of Melvin's book?" Grrr!) started out unsympathetic, but the more you learned about him, and the more layers were revealed, the more you grew to care about him. That's how people work in real life, too.

That brought up one of Melvin Burgess' personal rules for his writing: never be judgmental. I thought that was a great rule, and so true of his books. After all, if we as adults start judging the characters we're writing about, how can we ever get into their skin, let alone tell the truth?

The authors also talked about the unconscious. Meg Rosoff described how authors, through years of work, have developed a worn path between their conscious and subconscious minds, so they can travel there more quickly and unintentionally (sometimes in the middle of conversations). Melvin Burgess spoke of getting his best ideas in the bath.

Someone in the audience asked about choosing to write YA books. None of the authors believed they chose to write YA, but rather that their subjects and characters were innate in them, and YA was the category that best described their stories (actually, Rosoff's books are sold as adult novels in the US). Meg Rosoff had an interesting point about how much of great literature is a coming of age story, and could be classified as YA: Pride and Prejudice, Henry IV, Dickens, Wuthering Heights.

I haven't mentioned much about David Almond. He wasn't as talkative as Meg and Melvin. But I totally lucked out, because Tuesday night he spoke in Bristol at a local library. I almost didn't go, because, stupid me, I thought I had just heard David Almond the night before. Thankfully, I DID go because it was an absolutely magical evening.

David Almond is a storyteller, and while he talked for an hour in the library, I felt as if I was in an old stone pub, sitting by the fireplace, drinking something lovely, and listening to stories. I could've sat there all night.

He made a point of saying how grateful he was that people of all ages were there. He did a great job of pitching his talk to both children and adults. But the kids were always first, and most important, and of course that's how it should be. He said that people always ask him when he started writing, and he says he's always been writing. Because kids write, for school, but also for themselves. It's adults that stop. He talked about his childhood, the storytellers who inspired him (a gossipy relative, a poet uncle). He talked about visiting his local library and dreaming that someday one of his books would be on the shelf. He said it wasn't until he learned to tell his own stories, about his childhood, about the people he knew, that his writing took off. As he said, he learned to take the ordinary and make it extraordinary.

I was really grateful that he talked about how hard writing (and publication) is, and how long it took him to become published. He said for all the prizes he's won, he's grateful to be published, that that was the big victory.

He also took the time to answer every question, running slightly over his allotted time (but I certainly didn't mind!). There were several writers in the audience, so he ended up talking about plotting (he's a total pantser), finding stories, how growing up Catholic inspired much of the magic in his stories.

He had a lovely story about writing Skellig. When he first started, he knew there was someone in the garage, but he didn't know who it was. It wasn't until the main character, Michael, puts his arm around Skellig and feels something in his back, skin flaps and bone, that David Almond realized it was a wing. He discovered he was writing about an angel at the same moment as Michael.

David Almond also talked about how, even as a kid, books amazed him. They were so orderly, with their straight black lines. But when he first tried writing, he was distraught at how messy it all was. He couldn't figure out how to make his lines (and his stories) work the same way. Then he showed us his notebook, filled with scribbles and boxes and writing in all different directions. He admitted that he has an untidy mind. But he told us that all writers have untidy minds; the trick of writing is to work hard enough to take everything inside and make it into accessible straight lines.

I was mesmerized. Thanks, David Almond, for a truly memorable talk.

And thanks to the Bath Kids Lit Fest (and Bristol Libraries) for two amazing days. I'll do one final post about my Festival experiences on Thursday.

Oh, I almost forgot! Remember how I got to dress up as Horrid Henry last Saturday? Well, there ARE pictures (follow the link for a much bigger picture). And I got a shout-out in the Telegraph: "Hats off, also, to the writer Anne M Leone who wore the Horrid Henry suit. She had to learn, walking round the Green Room, how to walk steadily while wearing a giant suit, with an enormous costume head, and wearing massive comedy-sized shoes." Pretty cool, huh? Almost famous.

I should say, Martin Chilton with the Telegraph has been doing a wonderful (and much more timely!) job capturing the highs of the Festival. You can see all of his articles here.