Top 10 books set in the Med …

Brrrrr, it’s cold.

I haven’t blogged here for a while, because I’ve been busy working out how to write the new book, and then putting the book aside and enjoying a family Christmas and New Year, and then picking the book up again and – with my wonderful editor’s help – fixing some problems with my first draft and getting on with it again.

In fact, 2014 wasn’t a big blogging year for me on You Read It Here, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t blogging. Because I was. Oh yeah. And as we hit 2015 with all our new year’s resolutions fresh in our hearts, I thought I’d share some of those pieces with you. Because I worked on them a lot. And because one of my resolutions is to share more of my writing life again – as well as just doing it.

Given how cold it is, I thought I’d start with one of my favourites – I piece I wrote for the Guardian in the summer, about my top 10 books set in the Mediterranean. Here are the top 8. If you want those final 2, including the all-important adventure story that helped inspire me while I was writing The Castle, check out the original article on the Guardian website.

The Castle by Sophia Bennett

Here’s the rest …

“Italy, on a good day, is a lot sunnier than England on a bad one. As it was tipping down with rain when I started writing The Castle, I fancied spending some time in the sun – if only in my imagination. The Amalfi coast, where a lot of the book is set, is so impossibly beautiful that if you weren’t feeling slightly car sick, whipping round all those hairpin bends on the coast road, you’d hardly believe it was real.

The Med seems to bring out the adventurous spirit in writers and it provides a thrilling backdrop for tales of mystery, love and death. Here are some of the best …

1. Meet Matisse by Jean-Vincent Senac

Matisse was a master at capturing the dramatic light and colour of the south of France, and there’s a stunning exhibition of his cut-outs at the Tate Modern in London. Through this activity book you can copy his techniques and create your own cut-out works of art. If you can, visit the exhibition too. It’s a delight.

2. The Usborne Illustrated Stories from the Greek Myths

There are many versions of the myths for children out there, but I was particularly wowed by the beautiful illustrations in this one. My seven
year-old loved the gore. Every rock and island, it seems, is the site of some mythical triumph or tragedy, often involving monsters being killed in various gruesome ways, or by sailors getting eaten. Perfect bedtime reading for the not-so-squeamish.

3. The Roman Mysteries series by Caroline Lawrence

Caroline’s wonderful detective series for pre-teen readers has all of my favourite ingredients: clever kids, friendship, puzzle solving, and a window into another world – life in the Roman Empire. Also, the stories are set in some of the best Mediterranean locations, from Pompeii to Alexandria. They bring the Roman world to life better than any other books I know.

4. My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell

This was one of my favourite funny reads growing up and still makes me laugh. By chapter one, young Gerry, his eccentric mother, brothers, sister, dog called Roger and various caterpillars have left the dreary cold and rain of England for the “bright, looking-glass world of Greece”. They settle in a strawberry-pink villa in the Corfu hills, and Gerry’s adventures as a budding naturalist begin. It’s a must for any animal lover, and now you know how Clare Balding’s autobiography (My Animals and Other Family) got its name. See what she did there?

5. A World Between Us by Lydia Syson

“The sea, the sparkling sea: from the mountains they have come right across the sea again. It is beautiful.” Love, idealism and tragedy are thickly mixed in this story of the Internationales, who went off to fight in the Spanish Civil War. Lydia Syson writes gripping historical UK YA, set in the twentieth century. Look out, too, for the beautiful covers of her books, which echo the strong design aesthetic of the time.

6. The Iliad by Homer

The war between the Greeks and Trojans over Helen of Troy is somewhat older. How can a three thousand year-old poem about it possibly still be interesting, or relevant, or a good read for teens? Well, I recommend giving it a go. A bit like The Hunger Games, with chariots, ships and gods. By all means just skip to the battle scenes if you like.

7. Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie

If that’s all a bit too energetic on a summer’s day, picture Hercule Poirot in cream linen, travelling up the Nile on an old-fashioned cruise ship. Agatha Christie was inspired to write the story while on a steamer that you can still cruise on. There is something about a very hot sun and a very wicked murder plot that just seems to work.

8. The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith

Talking of wicked murder plots… Tom Ripley is sent to from America to Italy to bring back Dickie Greenleaf, a rich college kid who’s fallen in love with a lifestyle of sun, sea and jazz, and won’t come home. Trouble is, Tom comes to love Dickie’s life there as much as Dickie does…

Patricia Highsmith has a habit of making you root for the bad guy. Tom Ripley is of the most compelling serial murderers you will get to meet in fiction, and this is where it all begins.”

So those are the top 8. The other 2 are waiting for you here. Why not wrap yourself up on the sofa with a story, and send yourself off to the Med for some adventure and some hot summer sun … ?

Happy 2015!

sophia xxx

Cheltenham Lit Fest

I may have mentioned that I have the best job in the world.

It’s a bit of a scary job to have at the moment. A huge shift is happening in the publishing world, with self-publishing and e-books taking off and mail-order books taking over from our lovely, friendly bookshops, and while it’s great for readers that books seem to be getting cheaper, it’s not so great for writers until somebody, somewhere, works out how we’re still supposed to make a living out of making up stories. I hope they do. Maybe that someone will be me. Who knows?

But meanwhile, I still do get to make up stories and that’s a wonderful thing. I also get to talk about those stories and the process of writing them, and I get to do that in fun places, like schools and the Cheltenham Festival of Literature. And that is FUN.

I was there on Saturday with Barry Cunningham, my publisher, who was happy to share his tales of discovering JK Rowling (yes, he did that), and talk about what he’s looking for in children’s books now. The panel also included the agent Zoe King, and Alex O’Connell, the Arts Editor of The Times. It’s not every day you have a selfie taken by the Arts Editor of The Times (I know that means it isn’t technically a selfie, but go with me), but here’s me checking out my head mic, courtesy of Alex. Thank you!

Head micBest of all was hearing that her daughter has read and enjoyed a couple of my books. I haven’t met her, but I love her already.

I hope we were helpful to the crowded tent of aspiring authors who came to listen, and ask questions. It was inspiring to meet some teenagers in the audience who’ve already written their first books. It was so impressive to know that they’ve finished their stories. So many people start, and so few make it through to the end, so that’s an achievement in itself. We warned them that they may not find success quickly. In fact, they probably won’t. They have to really want it, and to persevere to make it happen. But with Zoe’s help – and she was keen to help them – perhaps it might.

But even better than the panel, for me, was simply being there. Festivals are full of fascinating people. If you’re lucky enough to make it backstage, you might literally find yourself bumping into Andrew Lloyd Webber (I almost did).

On the way to the Writers’ Room I managed to fangirl madly to Camila Batmanghelidjh, the inspirational founder of The Kids’ Company and one of my absolute favourite style icons, on top of the fact that she’s one of the most important fighters for the rights of underprivileged and troubled children in the country. It was very special to be able to tell her how much I admire her.

I was eating a quick supper in the Writers’ Room (they do food; it’s delicious), when I looked up and saw Richard Curtis. I think there’s a sort of unwritten rule that one doesn’t fangirl in the room itself, unless you at least vaguely know the person, so I just admired him from afar. Lots of admiring. I wish I could have heard his talk, which was about what drives screenwriting and song writing, but without a ticket or time to stay on, I had to make do with thinking happy thoughts about Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, Blackadder and Comic Relief.

I love a good rom-com, and stories that make me laugh. At the opposite end of the spectrum, I love being made to think, and given in-depth information and analysis about complex situations. Anthony Loyd is probably, right now, the journalist I most admire. He’s a war reporter who has bravely gone to Syria many times to report on the atrocities happening there, and now he’s telling the story about what happened when he was betrayed by one of his hosts, held hostage, beaten up and shot, and only just (by minutes) managed to escape being sold on to ISIS, where he might be facing beheading right now.

Anthony was there too, to give a talk related to the tale of his capture and escape in the Times Magazine. Again, I didn’t want to disturb him to say hello, so I just fangirled from afar. What he has seen, and what he has to say about it, is so important.

I absolutely love the fact that festivals like the Cheltenham one give audiences the chance to hear from people like Anthony, and Camila, and Richard, and even Barry and me.

And the chocolate tart in the Writers’ Room was excellent.

Did I mention? I have the best job in the world.

How do I get my book published?

Today I received a very polite email from a visitor to my website called Jack, asking how he might get his book published. I could write an essay on the subject (and in fact I’ll be talking about exactly this at the Cheltenham Festival on Saturday, but in more detail and with special regard to children’s books, along with my publisher Barry Cunningham and a panel of publishing folk). I’d love to have replied to Jack in greater detail, but only had time to write briefly. However, I thought this might be worth sharing for the many people out there writing their own books.

I didn’t mention self-publishing, I realise. That’s another essay. And one of increasing relevance in today’s publishing market.

Nor did I mention getting editorial input from somewhere like the Golden Egg Academy, who work with authors whose books aren’t ready yet, to turn them into something an agent and publisher can get excited about. That’s another essay.

Here, though, are the basics. This is what I said.

Hi Jack

Thanks for your message. I have various suggestions for you, and I think most authors would agree.

First – congratulations! You finished your first draft. That’s such an achievement in itself. Second, if you haven’t done this already, put the book in a metaphorical drawer and don’t look at it for a few weeks. Then get it out again and revise it as much as you need to in order to polish it to the highest possible standard. It may take a few drafts, or many, to get it right. (It took me over 30 drafts until I was happy with my first published book.)

While you’re doing that, I strongly recommend you buy or borrow the latest edition of the Writers and Artists Yearbook, which is the bible for new writers. It lists all the publishers and agents, and what they’re looking for. Each agency has different requirements and is very specific. Please follow their guidelines, down to the line spacing. Once you’ve found a few that are looking for the kind of book you’ve written, you can send off to them. If they only want a few chapters, send them what they’ve asked for, not more. Do let them know that you’re applying to more than one at a time. They will understand, but they like to be informed. Craft your covering letter as carefully as your book, and make sure that without being overconfident, you sell yourself as a writer as much as you sell your story.

And then wait! If you get any feedback, think of it as a very positive thing and use it as much as you can. And start writing your next book. Because it might be your second, or third, or fourth that’s the one that makes it.

Good luck!

sophia

Edinburgh Book Fest, Part 2

So, after my event with Holly Smale was over (and before I did a reading on behalf of Amnesty International, which was an amazing, moving event – if you ever get the chance, I urge you to go to one), it was exploring time.

Which, being me, involved a quick trip down George Street to the Edinburgh Harvey Nicks, where my son – it was him, not me, promise! – discovered … the Chocolate Lounge. They have a Chocolate Lounge at Harvey Nicks. For drinking chocolate. And eating it. How you are the supposed to get into the clothes they sell downstairs I have no idea, but frankly my dear, we didn’t give a damn.

It looked like this:

Edinburgh 2014 - 06Edinburgh 2014 - 07

 

With a conveyor belt, like a Yo Sushi! crossed with The Generation Game, but for champagne bottles and chocolate glitter teddybears. We shared this chocolate fondue:

Edinburgh 2014 - 08

 

Yes, it was as good as it looks. Sorry.

But we didn’t just do chocolate. We also did comedy. The best of it was free. Standing in the Royal Mile, we encountered this amazing ladder climbing, kilt-wearing, knife juggling (he juggled knives up there – big ones), stripping (yup) comedian, who attracted a crowd so huge we kept blocking the road. He was fantastic.

 

 

 

Edinburgh 2014 - 09Edinburgh 2014 - 10We went to the Pleasance Courtyard, the home of Fringe comedy, to see two comedians in a basement (quite funny) and a visiting American comedian, Alex Edelman, in an attic (pretty funny). Alex later won the prize for best newcomer, and can say that We Were There.

Edinburgh 2014 - 11Then we were lucky enough to stay the night with a couple of author friends, surrounded by books and cats. The perfect way to round off two days in the city.

Edinburgh, you’re brilliant. We’ll be back.

Edinburgh Book Fest, part 1

Last week was one of those ‘best job in the world’ weeks. I was invited up to the Edinburgh Book Festival, to talk about writing for teens. Every year, Charlotte Square is transformed into a tented village devoted to books, readers, coffee and cake. So basically heaven. Even if it is a little bit rainy, sometimes.

Edinburgh 2014 - 01I took my elder son with me, as I occasionally do, because he’s an avid reader and loves getting the chance to meet and talk to some of his favourite authors. (He is, however, not a fan of selfies.)

Edinburgh 2014 - 02

I didn’t have to worry about what to say, because my talk was chaired by Eve Harvey, a super-friendly writer and ex-bookseller and the only person I know who exclusively wears Doc Martens with ribbons for laces. She totally won the prize for The Coolest Footwear at the Festival. Her job was to chat with me and  the very lovely Holly Smale, who wrote … oh, you know what she wrote.

GeekGirlGeek Girl  was the best selling YA book of last year, and probably the funniest. In my humble opinion book 2, Model Misfit (set largely in Japan and featuring an irrascible cat called Kylie Minogue), is even better. If you haven’t read it, READ IT NOW. Book 3, Picture Perfect, is set in New York and I’m half way through it. That’s fab too. How does Holly do it? That woman is a WRITING MACHINE. She was also a great person to do an event with. We did a reading each and answered questions solidly for about 40 minutes.

Our biggest revelation? Probably that what you see on the page is not what we wrote the first time. Oh no. That is draft a hundred and fifty squillionth. Our first draft was rubbish. Always is. We worked on it to get it better. If you’re a writer, so can you. Don’t worry if you don’t love what you’re doing right now. Keep at it and, with practice and patience, you might write the YA smash-hit bestseller of the year. You never know.

We spent our time getting ready and chatting afterwards in the authors’ yurt. Just how gorgeous is this? (It is an actual, real yurt, not a tent, and is filled with coffee, cake, wine, helpful volunteers and famous authors. If I could live there, I probably would.)

Edinburgh 2014 - 03This picture is a bit wonky because I took it surreptitiously. The yurt is a place for looking like you hang out with Julia Donaldson and Meg Rosoff ALL THE TIME, and not wildly fangirling with your phone out. (However …)

Edinburgh 2014 - 05The Festival also has its own bookshop. This is where I’m quite pleased that I married a man whose surname is alphabetically close to Malorie Blackman’s. Shelf-wise, Malorie and I hang out quite a bit, and that’s fine by me.

Sadly, I didn’t see the real Malorie in the yurt, because she came a day later, but the Edinburgh Book Fest is the kind of place where you might find that the person pouring your coffee is the Children’s Laureate. See what I mean? Best job in the world.

But that’s not all we did in Edinburgh this year. Oh no. Coming up shortly … Edinburgh Part 2, featuring chocolate (lots of it), fairy lights, comedy, a rainbow unicorn and a semi-naked man up a ladder, juggling knives. I am only making one of those things up.

Come back soon and I’ll tell you all about it.

 

Top 10 books set in the Mediterranean

Today I’ve been lucky enough to write about one of my top 10s for The Guardian. And in honour of The Castle, this is a list of my favourite books for children and teens set against the dramatic backdrop of the Med. Lots of death and danger, and more than a little baking hot sunshine. Check it out here

Mediterranean beach

One of the Ionian Islands, home to Greek legend Odysseus, who plays an important role in Homer’s Iliad. Photograph: Alamy

 

How to Be a Writer

As you probably know, I write a regular blog post for Girls Heart Books, which is a great site run by writers of fiction for girls (or mostly girls), about us, and our books, and being a writer. If you haven’t already, check it out!

GirlsHeartBooksMy last post was advice I’d given to a 16 year-old girl called Nicole, who wrote to me asking if I could give her any help finding work experience in the field of writing.

She ended her email like this: ‘Therefore, essentially what I’m asking is, do you have any/know of any work experience opportunities for a hard working, creative and versatile 16 year old?’

It was a good question, from an articulate girl who was clearly passionate about what she wanted to do.

I remember feeling exactly how she felt when I was 16, so for Nicole, and for the 16 year-old me, and for all other teens who might be wondering what they should do to make their writing dreams real … here’s what I said last week on Girls Heart Books.

“Hi Nicole

Thanks so much for your message. I can understand your frustration and I sympathise!

While I know many writers who would just love someone to help them at home, it would end up being with all the things they have to do that aren’t writing, such as finding travel receipts, and filing, and other very boring jobs. Shadowing is also a tricky one, as all the interesting stuff is going on in an author’s head. Watching her make lots of cups of tea, procrastinate, spend too much time on the web, pick up her children from school and then madly tap away on her laptop while they’re having tea would probably not teach you much about the craft you love, sadly.

I think if you got the chance to work in a publishing company one day, that would teach you a lot about the commercial decisions that have to be made for a book to be successful. So take a job like that if you can. But as you say, they probably only take people over 18. My best suggestion would be to see if you can get a weekend job – paid or otherwise – in a bookshop. Especially an independent one. Then you’ll get your hands on lots of books and see what people are reading, what they love, what they ask for, and what booksellers like to recommend. All the booksellers I know are fonts of knowledge.

But meanwhile, the best, most obvious and most important thing you can do is ….

Just write. Every day. Read a lot and practise different styles. Finish your stories. Hone your craft. Imagining ‘what it’s like to be a writer’ (which I cheerfully admit I did all the time in my teens and twenties) is actually just an act of procrastination. When it comes to it, you just work that bit out as you go along. The important part is the writing itself, and you only learn that by doing it and doing it and doing it.

If you need to get out of the house, and you can’t do the bookshop thing, then get whatever summer jobs/helping people out jobs you can. They’ll all feed your writing. Help out at an old people’s home. Visit old ladies. Work in a kids’ camp. Meet people and see how they interact with other people. Notice what makes them tick. That’s what will make your writing rich and varied later on. Much more so than doing any writer’s filing ever could.

Good luck!

So that’s what I told Nicole. I would also add ‘Write for anyone who lets you. At this stage, don’t ask to be paid. Just do it for the experience. Create your own magazine if you have to. And keep a copy of everything you do.’

If you’re wondering what you can do on the road to becoming a writer, I hope it helps just a little bit. And if you’re a writer yourself, what advice would YOU give to someone like Nicole?”