So you want to write – my first ABBA blog is up

I’m a member of the Scattered Authors Society, and they run a blog about all aspects of children’s books and writing for children, called the Awfully Big Blog Adventure. I’ve just written my first blog post for them, and funnily enough … it’s all about the writing tips I’ve learned over the last few years of teaching. Here it is: So you want to write – by Sophia Bennett.

Winnie The Pooh and Piglet

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Books and friends #2 – The Children of Castle Rock, by Natasha Farrant

I know exactly when I met Natasha. It was spring of 2009. The London Book Fair was on and Chicken House were hosting an event at Beach Blanket Babylon in Notting Hill. Threads, due out that summer, was the lead title on the list and I was in heaven. Natasha had read it in her role as a book scout and was talking about it to foreign rights buyers. She knew everything about the book market. (She still does.) She was lovely. (She still is.) It was a great night.

Of course, Natasha writes too. I subsequently read and loved her funny, affectionate, very modern Bluebell Gadsby series (how wonderful that I can casually add a link to the New York Times on this) and wanted more middle grade, which is where Natasha’s true talent, I think, lies.

And here it is. There was a lot of buzz about The Children of Castle Rock before it launched. At the launch itself at Daunt’s in Cheapside, her editor was able to announce that it was already being reprinted, and I’m pretty sure it’s been reprinted again a few times since. Booksellers love to sell this book! It’s an old fashioned adventure set in the ravishing Scottish Highlands, featuring a feckless parent (a Farrant speciality), a stolen jade statue (I will read literally any book featuring a stolen jade statue) and a mismatched group of young people who need to become a team.

This is how Natasha writes:

“Imagine a house, in a garden.

The paint is flaking and the chimney is cracked and the uncut grass is wild. But ignore all that. Look here instead, at the giant wisteria with a trunk as thick as your arm, its purple flowers dripping against the old stone wall. Look at the swing hanging from that ancient oak, those cherry trees planted in a circle around the house. One of the trees is so close to a window that in summer, when it fruits, the girl who lives here can reach out to pick the cherries.

Imagine that – picking cherries from your bedroom window!”

I’ve just been teaching a session on Voice in writing for children, and my point is that the voice should suck you in and make you want to spend time with this narrator, in this world. Natasha has it in spades. You can tell she’s steeped in children’s literature herself. Is it by coincidence that Alice’s surname is Mistlethwaite? I think not. I’m sure The Children of Castle Rock will continue to sell in shedloads. She doesn’t really need my support, but she has it anyway.

I know what her next project is, and it’s awesome. Look out for that too. The girl can write.

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Books and friends #1 – Flight by Vanessa Harbour

It occurs to me, looking at the uncorrected proofs and early copies piling up on my desk, that the people I know write great books, and I should talk about it more.

So here is a short series, prompted by the pile in question, of books to think about this summer.

#1 Flight, by Vanessa Harbour

One of the lovely things about being a writer is getting to know other writers and hang out with them, online and off. I can’t remember how long I’ve known Ness for, but she has been a big support and encouragement to me and my writing, and every writer needs that, so thank you, Ness.

Vanessa teaches Creative Writing at Winchester University and works as an editor for the Golden Egg Academy. Flight is her first novel for children and I’m thrilled to see it out there at last. By ‘out there’ I mean in uncorrected proof form. It will be published by Firefly in August.

As a young reader I was obsessed by books about horses and also the suffering of the Second World War. I loved The Silver Sword and I Am David, both of which I’ve recently reread with my youngest, and I also devoured the Jill’s Gymkhana books, National Velvet and anything about horses I could get my hands on. (My youngest is more interested in sharks than horses, but each to his own.) In Flight, Ness Harbour has combined my two obsessions in a thrilling tale that captures the bravery, the danger, the sacrifice of living amongst the Nazis and trying to preserve what is good.

It’s 1945. Two children, a gypsy boy called Jakob and a Roma girl called Kizzy, set out to rescue the Lippizzaner stallions at the Spanish Riding School in Austria from a brutal Nazi officer as the Americans approach. I didn’t know the story of the Lippizzaner horses but I feel that I have lived it now. This is for anyone who likes dancing horses, great storytelling and danger. Which is most readers I know.

And if Ness would now like to do a similar tale about dancing sharks, I have a reader ready-made who would love that too.

I discover an abandoned draft and it gets me thinking

There was one file left. It was called ‘Are you in or not?’ I had no idea what it referred to, or why it was there. 

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood …

I got a new iMac earlier this year. (Not new new, but new to me. It’s very beautiful and I am in love.) Transferring my work from my old trusty (actually not so trusty any more) laptop was time-consuming and it had taken months to organise it so I could find it all easily. But finally, finally almost everything was in a folder that made sense, apart from a dozen random small files that had never made it into a folder at all. These I went through systematically, moving or deleting, until it was down to one.

I almost deleted it without looking. It had a boring title and clearly wasn’t important or it would have been saved somewhere useful. But it was the last document of all. I opened it on spec, and found …

That I can write. This is remarkably reassuring.

It’s clearly an early, unused opening for what became You Don’t Know Me – my fifth YA novel – always called Drop the Fat Girl (or DTFG) during the writing process, until very close to publication. Then, under some pressure and alarm from the publisher, I agreed that a book about bullying might in itself be used to bully, with a title like that, so we dropped Drop the Fat Girl. I’m not sure if it was the right decision. You Don’t Know Me feels too anonymous. Maybe there was a better title out there that we never found.

Lots of things are fascinating about this extract, especially as I teach writing now:
– the fact that I don’t remember writing it at all, or ever conceiving the characters in quite this way. They must have gone through a greater metamorphosis in the drafting process than my brain has space for;
– what changed in the process, and what didn’t. The main characters are there, but one is missing. The set-up is completely different and I’m not sure where this one was going exactly (what was criminal about what they were going to do? I have no idea) – though the basic plot never really changed. The made-up town I used for the setting is the same. Sasha’s home life is different. Her relationship with Jodie, and Jodie’s nature, is something else entirely;
– the brio and confidence of the writing, the rhythms of it, the giving and withholding of information, the compromised characters, the voice — all of which I love now. “But as long as nobody found out we’d be fine. Better than fine: we’d be famous.” Why did I not have confidence in it then? Why did I abandon this draft so early in the process? What put me off? I’m not sure.

Writing is such a difficult, delicate process. By our nature as writers we have to be optimistic, or we would not commit ourselves to a longlasting slog that is pure risk, with no guarantee of success at all. But was we fight through it, we constantly wonder and second guess ourselves. Is this the best choice? Will readers like it? Can I do it differently, better, with more words, with fewer? As optimists we remember and share the rare moments in our own writing lives, and others’, when it’s suddenly all flowing and making sense and we’re in love with the creative process and proud of what we can make. We tend to keep more quiet about the redrafts, the vicious edits, the blocks, the bits that didn’t make it, the days – the many days – when we question if we can do this, when we slog on anyway because it’s all we can do.

I don’t remember You Don’t Know Me as being easy, but this was largely because I was writing about cyberbullying and what it feels like, as a teenager, to go through fractured friendships and feel constantly under attack. Looking back, I must have played around a lot with the characters and the storyline too.

But I could write. I think this opening could have worked. So here, the last file on the system not to have a home, are the two pages that didn’t make it, in honour of all the abandoned drafts and redrafts, the difficult choices, the search for voice, the self-questioning, the road not taken. The road in the yellow wood.

Drop The Fat Girl

‘So, Sasha, are you in, or not?’
Jodie Evans cocked her head to one side and looked at me through eyelashes matted with thick mascara. ‘Five seconds to decide, because if you’re not, I can always find another dancer. And if you ever breathe a word …’ She narrowed her eyes until you couldn’t see her the blue of her irises at all through the layers of Maybelline.

Five seconds to decide. Whether to join a band, make a video and suddenly launch my popularity stakes from zero to the stratosphere. Or whether to stay being a nobody and have Jodie constantly peering at me, wondering whether I was about to spill her secret. It was no decision, really.

‘I’m in,’ I said, gratefully. ‘Honest, I’m in.’

There was one, teeny problem. What we were about to do was definitely illegal and probably pretty cruel, if I thought about it too hard, which I tried not to. But as long as nobody found out, we’d be fine. Better than fine: we’d be famous.

‘Let’s go and tell Rose, then,’ Jodie said. ‘And, just to be clear, you’re her best friend from now on, right?’

I nodded.

‘And all this was your idea because your mums are friends. She’d never take it coming from me.’

I breathed deeply. Jodie Evans was in the year above me: rich, pretty, catty and scarily ambitious. She was not a good person, but she was a very good singer. In fact, the best in our school, always performing solos with the choir and winning talent shows. She was the only girl who loved singing possibly even more than I did. Of course she would be the lead singer and Rose and I would be back-up. That was only to be expected. But we would be out there, performing. This would be the start of something. All I had to do was make friends with a super-shy, strange girl in my class called Rose Ireland, and persuade her to join us, and never, ever tell her why.

‘OK. D’you have her number?’

Jodie looked horrified at the very thought. ‘Of course not. Why?’

‘To check she’s home. I know where she lives, but not her phone number.’ ‘Oh, she’ll be home,’ Jodie assured me. ‘Where else would she go?’

Jodie had come to put her proposition to me on the way home from school. I wondered why she’d insisted on walking me away from my normal route and instead, down towards the large blocks of flats at the end of the road. Now I knew.

Castle Bigelow. Centre of nowhere. But very attractive to look at. Stone churches, thatched cottages, river, swans, olde worlde town buildings. Perfect if you want to shoot an Agatha Christie movie. (The number of times we found our street signs suddenly removed while they did it.) Not bad if you want a cup of coffee. (Six cafes at the last count, mostly empty, most of the time.) Less than perfect if you want to go to a cinema with more than one screen, or skate, or bowl, or see a play, or watch a band, or shop for any item of clothing that looked as if it was made after about 1947.

For all of that, you had to take a bus or the train into Winterton, twenty miles away. But if you happened to be, let’s say, a costume design assistant on an Agatha Christie movie and suddenly needed a genuine felt 1920s cloche hat, there was always ‘This Old Thing?’, my mother’s shop, just off the Market Square. And if you wanted your nails done in the latest designs, there was ‘Nailed It’, Mrs Ireland’s shop next door. Let’s just say that Castle Bigelow is so exciting that the opening of the nail salon last year made the front page of the local paper: ‘High Street lady ‘Nails It’ in new venture’. All very sweet, but if I’m not out of here by the time I’m eighteen, I will officially self-combust.

Jodie hesitated outside the bright yellow door. ‘You go in first. You know them.’

‘It’s not true, you know,’ I said.

‘What?’

‘About the smell. Rose doesn’t smell of garlic. I’ve checked.’

Jodie pursed her lips. ‘I never said she did.’ All the same, she looked relieved. Yet, still, she hesitated.

‘It’s not true about her mum, either,’ I added.

Jodie looked shifty. ‘What about her mum?’

‘That she’s a drug dealer. I don’t know who made that one up.’‘You can’t be sure,’ Jodie said. ‘I heard the evidence. It sounded pretty convincing.

Anyway, we’re not worrying about that now. We just need to get on with it.’
I’d heard all the rumours about Rose over the years, but I’d never believed them. I didn’t think anybody did, really. But clearly, I was wrong. What about the one saying Rose liked to dance around her garden naked at Midsummer, pretending to be a witch? Or that she was the secret lovechild of a major rock star? Did Jodie believe those, too?

‘She’s just … unusual, OK?‘ I said, in a last-ditch effort to calm Jodie down. We’d never get the band going if she constantly looked nervous that one of her backing singers was going to strip naked and force-feed her drugs or magic potions. Also, it wasn’t just about the band. I’d seen some of what Rose had gone through over the years. I didn’t want her to go through more of it because me. But I knew what Jodie had riding on this meeting and I hoped I could trust her to behave.

‘Yeah – weird, unusual, whatever,’ Jodie snapped. ‘As long as she can sing and play.’

‘You know she can. You told me, remember?’

Jodie nodded uncertainly, and finally I pushed open the door. A plump-faced, kindly woman with her red hair piled in a messy bun looked up from the narrow table where she sat organising nail varnish pots, and smiled hello. Her dangly earrings shimmered as she moved her head, and the bangles on her arms clinked as she waved us in.

‘Sasha Bailey! I haven’t seen you in ages. Come to get your nails done with your friend? I could do you a special rate, if you like.’ She indicated two chairs opposite her. ‘We’re very quiet today.’

‘Actually, it’s Rose we were after,’ I said, hoping the size of my smile outdid the acid look on Jodie’s face. ‘We’ve got a proposition for her.’

Mrs Ireland looked surprised and delighted. From what I knew at school, I imagined people didn’t call for Rose very often.

‘Well, isn’t that lovely? In you go then. Through that door and up the stairs. Door on the right. I’ll put the kettle on.’

Unlike us, Rose and her mum lived in the flat above the shop, which had been built about the time that Jane Austen’s characters were alive. Or alive to me, anyway. Mum always said I took my fiction too seriously. There was a set of narrow and rickety stairs, leading to an upper floor with a low ceiling and walls that seemed to lean in towards the landing, like a playing-card house.

Rose’s door was shut, so I knocked, gently. No answer. So I knocked again, harder. Eventually Jodie brushed past me and bashed on the door with her fist.

‘Are you in there, Rose?’

We heard footsteps padding across the floor and a

[And there it ends. I gave up on it and tried again. Different choices. Another road in the wood.]

Throwback Thursday – Threads

Drat – I missed it. I was too busy writing yesterday to finish this post so this is Throwback Thursday … on Friday.

I wanted to do a little celebration of Threads. It’s now 10 years exactly since I was in my local library in South London, surviving the Crash, inventing Nonie’s wardrobe and discovering Jenny’s diva nature, Edie’s intrinsic goodness and Crow’s fabulously vivid imagination. Since then the book has been published in over 20 countries (I think, I’ve lost count) and last week I received 3 new copies from China. From CHINA! Where the rights have just been re-optioned.

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I adore this cover. I like the sense of the (slightly Chinese, not-very-Ugandan) girl flying through London on the power of her dreams. I like the almost-right houses and the sense of a big London monument in the background. (There are many in the book.) And the fact that I’m not entirely sure which of the elements is my name. And that I can’t read a single word, except the subtitle of the title itself. Girls, you have really travelled, and I’m so proud of you.

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Then on to the V&A. It was Members Week this week, and reader, I spent more than I should in the shop. I saw the Future Starts Here exhibition, which you can see more of on my Instagram account. I’m working on various book ideas at the moment and it really fed into one of them. But best of all was the free members’ tote bag! Designed by Giles Deacon, it really reminded me of something.

Oh, that would be the original hardback cover of Threads which Giles kindly did for us. It’s a bit hard to make out the woman’s wonderful expression on the main cover, so here’s the closeup from the back cover too. I thought they looked good together. (And I’m quite pleased my version isn’t bald with a pink nose. Not quite sure what Giles was going for with that, but I like the dress.)

Threads is going out of print soon, so it’s good to have these memories. If you want copies you can still get them from me, for a while, while they last. Then who knows what the world will hold for Nonie and her friends? More, I hope, but I haven’t decided what and how yet.

Meanwhile, the future starts here …

Top 10 writers’ sheds

A friend was talking about writers’ sheds recently, and it reminded me of a post I did here a while ago. Here’s another version of it, with more pictures. And here’s to the shed …

If a writer is very lucky, she has that special thing Virginia Woolf famously called ‘A room of one’s own’ – a private, dedicated space to write. Virginia had a hut in the garden, although she couldn’t always use it. Roald Dahl’s shed is famous and inspirational (but not my favourite). Here are my top 10 writing spaces – but I know that all a writer really needs is a tabletop, something to write on and with, and her own imagination.

(This, by the way, is mine.)

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10. JK Rowling’s cafe in Edinburgh

9. TS Eliot – Margate

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8. George Bernard Shaw

“London” Shaw’s Corner. Photo by Eric Meyer

The best thing about the hut at the bottom of George Bernard Shaw’s garden is the name. He called it ‘London’ so that his staff could legitimately say he’d ‘gone to London’ when he was hiding here, writing.

7. Lawrence of Arabia

Clouds Hill Cottage. Image by Karyn Cuglietta

There is, I’ve witnessed it, lots of controversy about where TE Lawrence wrote, but here is one of the places. The most amazing thing about his writing life that I know (never mind his political life in the desert) is that he wrote the Seven Pillars of Wisdom Twice. The first manuscript he lost in a railway waiting room. So he did it all again …

6. Dylan Thomas

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I could sit here and write this minute.

5. Phillip Pullman

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4. Virginia Woolf

“She was always being distracted – by Leonard sorting the apples over her head in the loft, or the church bells at the bottom of the garden, or the noise of the children in the school next door, or the dog sitting next to her and scratching itself and leaving paw marks on her manuscript pages. In winter it was often so bitterly cold and damp that she couldn’t hold her pen and had to retreat indoors.” – from The Guardian

3. Mark Twain

“It is the loveliest study you ever saw…octagonal with a peaked roof, each face filled with a spacious window…perched in complete isolation on the top of an elevation that commands leagues of valley and city and retreating ranges of distant blue hills. It is a cozy nest and just room in it for a sofa, table, and three or four chairs, and when the storms sweep down the remote valley and the lighting flashes behind the hills beyond and the rain beats upon the roof over my head—imagine the luxury of it.” – Mark Twain, in a letter to William Dean Howells, 1874

2. Roald Dahl

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  1. Vita Sackville-West

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The tower room at Sissinghurst. Now, isn’t that just the most perfect place to write?

Win Desperate Romantics

How to celebrate the Easter holidays?

Well, what better than a good book and a DVD starring Aidan Turner and a heap of fabulous Victorian costumes?

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My publishers at Stripes have kindly given me the DVD of Desperate Romantics to give away. Based on the book by Franny Moyle, it tells the story of Dante Gabriel Rossetti,  John Everett Millias and the other young artists who called themselves the Pre-Raphaelites and took on the Victorian Establishment in the 1850s. They lived, as they loved, fearlessly, without rules or compromises.

 

This was the film that gave my editor the idea for a red-headed girl who goes to London and becomes one of their beautiful, complicated muses. That story became Following Ophelia and its sequel, Unveiling Venus, which came out last month.

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To win a copy of the DVD and both books, just add a comment here mentioning your favourite artist or artists. (The long list of mine includes Fra Lippo Lippi, Botticelli, Whistler, Berthe Morrisot, Matisse and Rothko.) I’ll put the names in a suitably extravagant hat and draw the winner out on Easter Monday. Make sure you check back to see if you’ve won as I’ll need your contact details. This competition applies in the UK only.

Rossetti’s sister, Christina, captured it best:

In an artist’s studio

One face looks out from all his canvasses,
One selfsame figure sits or walks or leans;
We found her hidden just behind those screens,
That mirror gave back all her loveliness.
A queenin opal or in ruby dress,
A nameless girl in freshest summer greens,
A saint, an angel; — every canvass means
The same one meaning, neither more nor less.
He feeds upon her face by day and night,
And she with true kind eyes looks back on him
Fair as the moon and joyfull as the light;
Not wan with waiting, not with sorrow dim;
Not as she is, but was when hope shone bright;
Not as she is, but as she fills his dream.
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Good luck! And Happy Easter.

Sophia xxx