You write – competitions

I’ve been meaning to start a new competition one of these days – to celebrate the new year by getting you guys to write a story. Or at least, the start of a story. It’s still a plan, but in the meantime, here are two (count ’em – two!) writing competitions by COOL PEOPLE, with COOL PRIZES that are really worth entering.

The first is by Liz Kessler, who’s an author I really like. I managed to get an advance copy of A Year Without Autumn, her last book, and I loved it. It has a very clever time travel element to it, some lovely characters and an aspect of the plot which will probably save lots of lives of readers and their friends and family. Literally. Really. It’s a life-saving book. And her new novel, North of Nowhere, is out next week.

Liz Kessler

The competition is run by the Guardian and you can find it here. You have to be 8-13, and you can win a digital camera and £100 worth of books for your school.

The second competition is one I’m enormously fond of. It’s the annual 500 Words competition, run by Radio 2, in association with the Hay Festival and the Telegraph. (What is it with national newspapers and cool writing competitions? I wonder if The Times runs one too. Oh yeah, it does …)


I like this comp for so many reasons. First of all, I was in Hay about three years ago when a flash Rolls Royce drove by and I was assured that Chris Evans, the Radio 2 DJ, was inside. He was visiting Hay for the first time and nobody knew what he would think of it.

Well, he loved it, just like I did. He loved it so much that he launched this competition for young writers, advertising it on his show, and last year it got over 30,000 entries. So go Chris. Woo! (The winners get their stories read out by celebs like David Walliams at Hay on Wye in the summer. But more than that, the shortlisted people will know their stories have been read by the likes of Jacqueline Wilson, Malorie Blackman, Frank Cotterell Boyce, Charlie Higson and Richard Hammond, who’s chairing the judges this year. How cool is that?)

I also like it because it’s 500 words, and that’s a fabulous number of words for a story. Difficult to squeeze it all in there, but wonderful if you can. Try it. You’ll see.

And finally, I like it because it’s for young writers, like Liz’s. As before, you have to be 13 or under (although there’s no lower age limit for this one).

So go on. Have a go. And if you’re too old for these ones, see what other competitions are out there. You never know what might happen.

After all, I entered a writing competition, and look where it got me.



Finding their spark


So why do I write what I do? Why books for girls from about 10 to 16? (Although I have to say my 90+ year-old great aunt is very nice about them.) Why do I feel as though what young teens are going through right now is so important, and that if I can have the privilege of helping, I want to try?

I came across an article in The Sunday Times last week that helped explain some of it. It was called ‘Raising girls right’ and if you’ve got access to The Times, you can read it here. It was by Steve Biddulph, based on his book ‘Raising Girls’, which is out this week. There was one section that seemed to sum it up, called ‘Help them find their spark’. Here’s an extract:

Help them find their spark

Between the ages of 10 and 14, a girl’s job is to get her roots down deep into who she is. The question is, how? Peter Benson, one of the world’s leading experts on adolescence, discovered that children and young teenagers almost always have something inside them that, if supported, gives them joy, motivation and direction. That thing is their spark.

The key to your daughter finding herself and beginning really to blossom as a person, at age 10 to 14 (or younger), might be as simple as this. Ask her: “What do you really love to do?”

Benson said there were three kinds of spark:

1 A skill or talent — for instance, to draw, write, be athletic, dance or make music.

2 A commitment — for example, to protect the natural world, to work for social justice.

3 A quality of character — a part of their personality, such as empathy, being the one who others go to talk to. Or courage — being the one who speaks up or takes the lead to get something fixed.

And reading this, I thought Wow – there you have my books, my characters, their epiphanies, what makes me dance round the house with glee when I think I’ve got it right.

It felt at first as though Benson was describing Threads. Crow has the talent for drawing, Edie has the commitment to social justice, Nonie and Jenny have strong personalities and Nonie in particular discovers, to her amazement, that she’s loyal, reliable, competent and organised. She can get things done. All the girls pool their passions and resources, work together and take charge. They make things happen and take some responsibility for the world around them. It gives them a huge, well-deserved sense of satisfaction and they’re on the way to growing up. They’ve found their spark.

In The Look, Ted finds photography, and the ability to stand up for herself, and realises that she’s a key part of her sister’s survival. In my new book, the girls find … well they find more creative talents, more inner strength and different hidden abilities they didn’t know they had. They start out as potential victims in a world that wants to exploit them, and they end up on top of it, having the time of their lives. Well, some of them do, anyway.

Did I find my spark as a teenager? Well, a bit. I wish my spark had been fashion design, or film writing, modern dance or working for the Times. They were all things I considered, tried and didn’t get as far at as I’d have liked. But some form of writing was there. I knew I had a knack for language and I was certainly encouraged. It was enough to keep me going through those tough teenage years.

My characters do better, because the books I write, though firmly set in the real world, are fairy tales. They are what I imagine to be my and my readers’ best selves. If you were a self-conscious teenage girl, and you were put in this difficult situation, what would you do? How could you possibly emerge victorious? What does it take to succeed at being you?

And the answer isn’t a boy. Boys are lovely, they really are. I like them very much. Finding the right person to share your first intimacies with is pretty fabulous if you can do it. But the thing is, if you can’t – and lots of us can’t, or didn’t – you’re still you. You can still be a success. You can still find your spark. In fact, if you find it, you’re much more likely to make all the other things, like boys and great jobs and interesting life experiences happen. But the spark is in you.

According to Steve Biddulph’s article, “Benson believes our job is to confirm and strengthen our child’s spark, to blow on it and help ignite it.”

And that, in a nutshell, is why I write.

Happy New Year!

Hmm 13, huh?

I gather Taylor Swift is thrilled. It’s her lucky number, apparently. She loved it when Times Square was full of 13s on New Year’s Eve. (Do we believe the whole her and Harry thing, by the way? I want to, but if this is what Taylor looks like when she’s madly in love, what does she look like when she’s at a business meeting? Still waiting to be convinced.)

Anyway, this is not about Tay-Ry, or Har-Lor, or whatever they are these days. This is about the new year – 2013 – which I approached with trepidation after what was not my most favourite year of all time (the rain, the recession, friends’ sad stories, my own troubles writing the new book, the rain …). Would things get worse? Would 13 live up to its reputation? But so far, a whole week in (nearly), this year is turning out to be Good.


First of all, the fireworks on the Thames. They were epic. Awesome. A wonderful reminder of the Olympics (2012 wasn’t all bad), and a great start. Then the first edit of the troublesome book. The idea for ‘You Don’t Know Me’ came to me out of the blue in January last year. What if a group of girls were on a reality TV show and they were asked to drop one of them for … reasons they didn’t fully understand. What if they actually did it? What if there was a huge public backlash, with the internet turning on them, the way the internet does these days? What would happen then?

I thought it would be easy to write. I pitched it to the people at Chicken House and they loved it. I was struggling with the idea I was supposed to be working on for them, so I switched to this. Reader, it took 8 months to get a first draft, and 8 months is a long time, when you expected it to be 3. Then the second draft. Still really, really hard. The characters and situations fought me all the way. Then, finally, I got it to the stage where it was almost ready to be sent to my editor Imogen, but not quite. I sent it anyway. Otherwise, it was never going to get finished, and deadlines were looming.

That was in December, less than a month ago. 2012 was tough. Aware of the tight deadlines, Imogen got to work on it straight away, sending it back to me in sections. I’d planned to take the children’s Christmas holidays off, so I could do things with them, but kindly emails from Imogen reminded me that we really needed to get moving, so I had to get into gear very quickly after that lovely New Year’s Eve.

And suddenly, without warning, things started to flow. Within a week, I was nearly half way through the edit, and the first half of the book was the hard part. Sections which had seemed nigh-on impossible came together with ease. Characters fleshed themselves out. Scenes and images that refused to fit before suddenly fell into place. I looked forward to writing, rather than dreading it. And I still fitted trips to The Hobbit and Windsor Castle. The children weren’t entirely neglected.

I learned a lot last year. I learned that writing professionally involves doing it when you can’t do it, struggling through when your brain is telling you you’re hopeless, that it’s not working, that you’re wasting your time. It involves writing anyway – somehow getting words onto the page. I’m proud of what I did last year, even though it took me so long, and my poor long-suffering husband had to put up with so many days of me telling him it wasn’t working. Reader, I wrote a book, in the face of a lack of confidence, and now I’m turning it into the story I always wanted to tell.

I learned in the last few days what many writers and dramatists already know – that your first draft can sometimes be a voyage of discovery. It’s a living, breathing process, an argument, an imperfect sketch, adapting as it goes, a map. It is not what I like to imagine writing to be, which is simply the telling of the story in my head, like a straightforward dictation.

I love the story that Sophie Kinsella tells, of one reader saying to her ‘How can you only write one book a year? Would it help speed things up if I typed for you as you went along?’ I laughed when I heard it, because I knew writing wasn’t like that – and yet I still felt it should be. Now I will be less demanding of my first draft: get it down, get it out there. Accept that it’s not perfect. By the time it’s done, it will tell you what kind of book it wants to be. Writing is re-writing. That’s how it goes.

The confidence thing is interesting. In order to write at all – in a market where over 100,000 books are published each year – you need huge, overweening belief in your own ability. And yet, in order to write well you need a certain humility, the ability to accept the right criticism, the willingness to work on your weak points. Finding the balance is like walking a tightrope and quite often we wobble and fall off.

Anyway, for the first week of 2013, I’m back on it. The edit’s going OK. The deadline looks reachable, just. (If I make it, look out for the new book in May.) The next book is neatly lined up behind, 10,000 words already in the bag, ready to go. The stock market has just gone over 6000, which means much of the irrational despair of the financial markets has been replaced by an equally irrational optimism, which I much prefer. Assad may soon fall in Syria, and it’s always nice to imagine that he won’t be replaced by local dictators, or gang warfare. Across India, people – men and women alike – are standing up for women’s rights. The rainfall turned out to be record-breaking, which means it may not be so bad this year. Some of those friends whose problems were so weighty last year already have good news to share.

New year, new start. Happy 2013! I hope, I sincerely hope, it’s good for us all.