Making conversation

Is it global warming? Or just coincidence? Or a blip? The trees this autumn are GORGEOUS. We went down to Winchester on Thursday so I could do a talk with Barry Cunningham at the Wessex Festival and the whole journey was like something out of a documentary about New England in the Fall. Which, if you’ve never been, is GORGEOUS. Red, yellow and gold and gob-smackingly stunning. It’s impossible not to be uplifted after a journey like that.

Especially when you have Barry Cunningham waiting for you at the other end. Barry is nothing if not a crowd-pleaser. He mentioned the bit where Jo Rowling (she’s ‘Jo’ to her friends, apparently) rang him up and talked about … something. I think we were all too busy going WOW at the ‘rang me up’ part.

We then chatted – that’s me and Barry, not me and ‘Jo’, who is still JK to me – about the ins and outs of writing a book and getting it published. Barry was very accomplished and technical and informative and I was the one going Well, it was HARD, but it was AMAZING. What else can you say? I think I said a lot more stuff, actually, but I can’t remember what it was.

The best bit was afterwards. Our audience had been the good people of Winchester and thereabouts who are trying to write, or thinking about writing books for children. Winchester is a hotbed of children’s writing. I had no idea. Some of them came up to talk about where they were up to, and what they wanted to do next, and how they were dealing with the struggle of getting to the end of the story. It was a mini self-help group for writers and simply wonderful to be a part of it. I hope my story gave them the courage to keep going because you can make it happen – oh yes you can.

It helps if you have Barry on your side. Oh, here’s a tip from the talk: do not send in your manuscript with a covering letter merely saying ‘Read my book’, as some people do. It will elicit the response of ‘Make me.’ Or even ‘Shan’t.’ Barry is a busy man, with lots of other manuscripts on his desk. He needs to be persuaded that yours will be interesting, and that you are interesting too. (But you might need to wait until spring to do it. The current Times/Chicken House competition closed yesterday, I believe, and the next one will start in March sometime. If you’re entering, GOOD LUCK.)

What else? I think the plot for book 4 has finally come together. Hallelujah! Mind you, I often think that so we’ll see if I agree with myself in the morning … Meanwhile, Threads is coming out in Brazil in a couple of weeks. Yay! Stupidly excited about this. Brazil! Where the nuts come from. (And gazillions of YA readers, apparently. Go all of you!). Sequins, Stars and Spotlights is already starting to sell on Amazon despite not being out for another three months. Fascinating. Sorry to anyone who’s waiting. I’ll put an extract on the threadsthebook website soon to keep you going. And the cover of Threads in the US (where it’s Sequins, Secrets and Silver Linings) has been slightly tweaked to bring out Nonie’s fashion conscience. She’s now wearing a badge saying ‘Make Clothes Not War’. It’s brilliant! Absolutely brilliant! Why didn’t I think of that? I spent ages thinking of slogans and I never thought of that one. Art direction guys at Scholastic, I salute you. I’ll have to get my very own badge made to match it. It all comes down to accessories in the end.



If in doubt, add an aunt

Children in Ireland write a lot of stories. This is one of the things I learned on the Wildest Dreams tour. Nobody, this time, wanted to know what my favourite colour was, or whether I have bodyguards (they’re taking tea with the chauffeur, by the way). Instead, many of them wanted to know how to end a story if you’re stuck, or how to get beyond through the middle ‘when you get to that bit when you’re bored with the plot’.

Oh, I know, I know … I gave them many serious answers, based on personal experience, about keeping going regardless, falling in love with your characters, not underestimating your readers and including a twist. Sarah and Judi suggested practical things like giving your character a problem to solve. None of us suggested what the teachers wanted to hear, as it turned out, which is ‘Don’t end with “And it all turned out to be a dream.”‘ But don’t. Everyone else in your class is doing it. It’s boring, strangely predictable and leaves the reader feeling cheated of a proper solution to the puzzle you’ve created. They did in in Dallas in about 1984 (in which a whole series turned out to have been a dream – mucho annoying). It didn’t work then and it doesn’t work now.

But, as Carrie Bradshaw says, it got me thinking. How do authors get over these obstacles? Do they even experience them, or is it just me? Then, thanks to David Maybury (from Dublin – many good things come from Dublin) I came across this interview with Eva Ibbotson, just before  she died last week.

“When I get stuck in a book now, I usually try putting an aunt in,” says Eva Ibbotson, matter-of-factly. “I find it difficult to write a book without aunts. With The Ogre I had to put in three aunts, if I remember rightly.”

I had actually seriously considered this as a problem-solver for book 4. So glad I’m not alone. So glad, in fact, that I’m in such exalted company. A few months ago I was visiting a school in Cheltenham and a couple of girls told me that their favourite author (apart from me – go YOU girls, I LOVE you) was Eva Ibbotson. Actually, they may have mentioned she was slightly more favourite. And that their favourite book of hers was Journey to the River Sea.

Reader, I got that book out of the library pronto – already loving Eva’s glorious prose – and it’s  magical. The characters are gorgeous. The story is thrilling. The South American jungle setting is unforgettable. It’s up there as one of those works I aspire to one day, when I get serious.

In the interview with Michelle Pauli for The Guardian, Eva said she was hugely influenced by The Secret Garden, among other books, when she was growing up. A woman after my own heart. She died at 85, having approved the proofs for her latest book.

I have a great Aunt Eva who is still going strong at 91 (she mowed the lawn just before we visited her this summer and kept us entertained for hours with family stories). She makes 85 seem not such a great age, but it’s not a bad one for a working writer. I’d love to think that among my final moments I’ll be telling an eager interviewer from The Guardian about my plotting secrets after 4 decades of happy writing. And that they will include aunts, and plenty of them.

Authors at work

You may think that going on tour in Ireland with two other lady writers is a matter of sitting around in lovely restaurants, eating incredible Irish food, chatting about our books and our children and driving past Bono’s house to admire the view.

OK, it is.

But it’s also HARD WORK, I’ll have you know. There is setting up to do in various theatres and bookshops. Then there is taking down. We have hundreds of girls and boys to talk to (true – that bit’s easy and highly enjoyable). We have to sign and sign and sign and sign. You think we enjoy this?

All right, we love it. But it’s still work, OK?

Here are some pictures of us doing it. For more, look me up on Facebook and see the album I’ve just uploaded. Check out Judi’s hair – it’s gorgeous.

As is Bono’s house. (From the outside. We didn’t meet up with him and get invited for a tour round. Although a girl can dream.)

And it’s not over yet. If you’re in Dublin, come and meet us at BT2 on Grafton Street tomorrow (Saturday) between 1 and 3. There’s a fashion show on too, apparently, and Paula Reed from Grazia will be there. Not Bono, as far as I know. But I’m still dreaming.

Back soon

The bag is packed. The boarding passes are printed. I have a full itinerary, two copies of my presentation on memory sticks, travel conditioner and a book to read on the plane. The four year-old knows not to expect me to tuck him in tomorrow night and is fine with it. I am, in a word, ready.

Tomorrow, I’ll be landing in Shannon and from then on I’ll be travelling to places with mythical connotations: Limerick, Cork, Dun Laoghaire, Dublin. If I don’t see at least one magical creature, I’ll be sorely disappointed.

By day, I’ll be wearing my best black tights and some of my highest heels, and introducing unsuspecting Irish teenagers to the delights of Threads. By night, I’ll be partying on down (I hope – either that or sharing a quiet nightcap) with some wonderful writers, bloggers, children’s book programme managers and other lovely booky people. If there’s any time left over, I’ll be worrying about the plotting of book 4, but I don’t think there will be.


The Wildest Dreams tour is about to begin. Back soon.

Pure poetry

Well, that was a terrible day in north London …

ONLY KIDDING, MIN. It was fantastic. Again. But the librarian at Northwood College was reading this blog last night and was worried that I might say something awful about today’s visit. As if.

I do occasionally hear horror stories about authors visiting schools. I liked the one I heard today about an author who spent an hour vividly conjuring up his books and his life, only to face one, solitary question at the end. It was ‘Can you swim?’.

But so far this hasn’t happened to me. The girls at Northwood were, to a girl (and there were lots and lots of them), fabulous: bright, engaged, enthusiastic and interesting. Nobody once asked about my athletic abilities, but we did talk quite a lot about books and writing.

On the way home, I was confronted by pictures of David Cameron saying ‘Your country needs you’ and looking determined and grim. Well, all I can say is, by the time the country needs all the teens I meet on a regular basis travelling round it, it will be in fabulous shape. We are educating a bunch of wonderful young people. We’ll be fine.

It was National Poetry Day today, in case you hadn’t noticed, so Min introduced me with a limerick. It’s an old favourite of mine and here it is:

There was a young lady from Ryde
Who ate a bad apple and died
The apple fermented
Inside the lamented
And made cider inside ‘er inside.

It is actually quite difficult to feel depressed about anything after a few decent limericks. Perhaps they should be prescribed. “Your country needs you. And a bit of poetry.”


My secrets for successful children’s authors events …

  1. If you are six foot seven, heavily bearded, vastly experienced (like Philip Ardagh) and talking to a hundred primary school children, feature pants heavily in your talk. Lots of pants. Preferably second hand ones – or second ‘bottom’ ones. Read from the book in which the main character falls to his death in the first paragraph. Make the children gasp and laugh so loudly their teachers look slightly worried … and relax.
  2. If you are somewhat shorter, devoid of facial hair and still working on it, listen to the advice of a local bookseller (thanks, Jo) and make the children work.

Or in my case, Year 9s from Our Lady’s. A fantastic group of lively, talented girls who’d read Threads, understood the characters and picked up loads of details about them, which was going to prove important later. I totally had the best class to work with. Not that I met the other classes, but my girls were brilliant.

We made mood boards – one for each character. I say ‘we’. The girls did all the work and I wandered around, chatting. The results looked like this:

While we (they) worked, I also answered questions. I love it when someone wants to know what happens next. I spend so much of my life thinking about what that might be – it’s great to be able to share my obsessions. It was a totally fun way to spend an hour in a tent.

We were doing it in Hoxton Square, as part of the StarLit festival. It had a real festival feel, in the sense that there were lots of tents, and it was muddy. Very muddy. All it needed was Kate Moss in Hunter wellies and it could have been Glastonbury. With books. It was amazing. I hope I get the chance one day to do it again.

My Timberlands, caked in cool Hoxton mud

My unmuddy Topshop top half, back home recovering

Then I had to head off to do an interview with a secret source who’s helping me with research for book 4. Book 4, by the way is HARD. Bringing new characters to life is painful and demanding. I met up with a new author called JP Buxton at StarLit over lunch, and we mutually bemoaned how difficult it is to rework the magic after the first series is over. It was like a support group for writers. (His first book – I Am The Blade – sounds fantastic, by the way. If you’re into Arthurian legends, check it out. He also has mad hair, which I approve of.)

Anyway, back to my secret interview. It was fascinating. So good that the women at the tables either side of us were leaning forward several degrees to catch what we were saying. The actual writing part may be tough, but the finding-out-about-it part is fab. Especially when accompanied by cappuccino and shortbread. I just hope it feeds OK into the latest draft that I’m working on.

It would be so much easier if I could grow a beard, and a foot, and talk about pants.

The Bath Festival

This time it was different. Normally (OK, always), when I start my talk I ask if anyone’s read Threads and one shy girl in the front row puts up her hand and everyone else looks at their shoes.

But not this time. This time, I asked if anyone had read Threads and EVERY girl (I think) put up her hand. And some of the parents. And one very nice librarian.

So that made my introduction pretty easy. Normally I explain what Threads is about and who the characters are, but yesterday in Bath we could race along to the important bit, which is what they look like, what they wear, what they (and I) think about fashion and why it matters.

It was fun. I had a great time. There were loads of questions. And then the best bit. Signing time.

Poor, lovely John from Waterstones sat at the back and I did feel sorry for him. I like John, but I didn’t give him much business because almost everyone had bought their own copy from home for me to sign. Not brilliant for the bookselling trade but simply lovely for an author. There’s nothing like signing a book you’ve written that’s slightly bent and battered, whose corners are a bit the worse for wear, because it has clearly been read and re-read and much loved.

The last girl in the queue had a hardback edition which she told me she’s read three times, and has inspired her to do lots of her fashion illustrations. I hope she does some of her future illustrations in the book itself. It would benefit from a bit of customisation. And I hope she sends me some pictures to admire. As someone who can’t draw, I’m always in awe of people who can.

I’m currently copying a practice I learned from Lucy Christopher, which is to sprinkle something in your book as you sign. For Stolen, she uses sand. (It’s set in the desert of the Australian outback.) I use sequins and tiny pink hearts. For book 3, there will be stars.

Lucy’s onto something. There’s something special about handing a book back that has a little secret in it – more than your signature: a shiny memento of the occasion, that will one day fall out onto the reader’s unsuspecting desk, or bed, or shoes, and remind her of the day we met.

But the real magic was what the girls gave me. An hour of sharing my world. To Jodie, Maddie, Katie and everyone else who came, thank you so much. And I hope your parents have forgiven me for the scattered hearts and sequins that they are, at this moment, patiently hoovering up from wherever they fell.