Hello, January. I’ve been expecting you. I’m currently in the middle of several projects – a proposal for a new children’s series (writing good proposals takes a long time – I’ll blog about it soon as it’s vital to get your proposal right), the first book in that new series, a book about whales and dolphins (non fiction), writing the text for my book festival brochure (Mountains to Sea dlr Book Festival in March), and researching a new novel for adults.

My New Children's Novel, Out in March 2016

My New Children’s Novel, Out in March 2016

I find starting projects the easy part, it’s hitting the half way mark that I find most difficult. So here are some words for those of you who are mid way through a project and need some motivation.

Many writers get to around 40k or 50k words and then they hit a wall (novels for adults tend to be around 80k to 100k depending on the genre). They say ‘There is so much more to write, so much more work involved, I don’t think I can do this.’ It’s important to note that all writers have off days or weeks, published or unpublished, and it’s important to develop a ‘writing habit’ if you want to finish a whole book. As Clare Dowling says in her excellent writing tips (below) ‘writing is a craft and the best way to learn it is to practice.’

But how do you stay motivated?

All writers find writing a book tough going. I often hit a difficult patch roughly half way through a book, knowing that I still have a lot of work ahead of me. It’s perfectly normal to feel a bit overwhelmed at any stage of the writing process. You are writing a book after all. And if you are a huge reader like me, you have a responsibility to both yourself and the future reader to produce something worthwhile, something special, something original.

Woody Allan once said that ‘90% of success is just showing up’. And for writers, showing up at the page day after day, week after week is vital. For some, the effort proves too much, and the book never gets finished.

Here are some of my favourite quotes about motivation and staying the course:

The mere habit of writing, of constantly keeping at it, of never giving up, ultimately teaches you how to write. Gabriel Fielding

The only certainty about writing and trying to be a writer is that it has to be done, not dreamed of or planned and never written, or talked about, but simply written; it’s a dreadful, awful fact that writing is like any other work. Janet Frame

The way to write a book is to actually write a book. Anne Enright

And I particularly like this one, also by Anne Enright:

Remember if you sit at your desk for 15 or 20 years every day it changes you. It just does. It may not improve your temper but it fixes something else. It makes you more free.

She is quite right, it does change you. It does make you more free.

If you’re finding writing difficult and need some encouragement, here are some suggestions:

1/ Keep a writing diary

My Diary Collection 1986 to 2015

My Diary Collection 1986 to 2015

Every time you’ve finished writing, jot down how many words you’ve managed and how you feel your work is progressing. If you respond well to deadlines, keep deadlines. For example: Monday – write 500 words, Tuesday – finish Chapter Two. If you’ve stuck to your deadlines reward yourself with some television or a bar of chocolate.

2/ Attend writing workshops, readings and talks

Many libraries host regular events for writers. Check your local library for details. I love hearing other writers read their work or talk about their work, and I always learn something valuable or that makes me think. It’s a real treat to be around fellow book lovers too.

3/ Read books about writing:

On Writing by Stephen King

Inspiring and full of good advice – worth buying

The Right to Write by Julia Cameron

One of the best books about being a writer and living a writer’s life I’ve ever found. Succinct, direct and truthful, a book I come back to over and over again if I’m in need of a little writerly pick me up.

4/ Pencil in some internet free days. I check my social media accounts on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. I spend one hour on each of these days writing blogs/content for posts, reading and commenting on other people’s posts and replying to my messages. That’s three hours a week. I check in after working hours too, but I don’t waste my writing time online. Perhaps you could set yourself some internet ‘rules’ too.

If your writing has come to a standstill and you need some practical assistance the following might help:

1/ Ask for advice and/or encouragement from a respected friend or work colleague; someone who loves reading and who will give you an honest but kind opinion. Explain that you need honest feedback, but ask them to be kind. If you don’t know anyone suitable, see number 3.

2/ Join a writers’ group

Many libraries host regular writers’ groups. These are not for everyone, but many writers swear by them. Many published writers are in writing groups, others have writing friends who they talk to about their work and any problems they are having. I have several writer friends and they are a Godsend. Writing can be a lonely old business, and having someone to talk to who understands is very important. Seek out fellow writers on the internet or in person.

3/ Contact a writer’s advisory service

For a professional opinion on your work, the following advisory services are recommended – www.cornerstones.co.uk/  and www.inkwellwriters.ie

Inkwell are based in Ireland, Cornerstones in the UK and both are excellent, well respected professionally run organisations.

On the Practical Side of Things

Even if you don’t feel like writing try to do something writing related: research, editing, making notes. Sometimes you may be simply too mentally tired or out of sorts to write, never force yourself, take a break and come back to it the following day instead. Try to approach the page with optimism and enthusiasm, not dread! Sometimes you will have to talk yourself into a positive frame of mind, but you’re a writer – you are smart, creative and powerful. If you can create a whole world on paper, you can certainly cajole yourself into a bit of writing.

Never use ‘I’m too busy’ as an excuse. Your house will probably be less tidy and sometimes the dishes will sit in the sink for the evening, but these are the sacrifices a writer has to make!

Once you’ve set your writing time aside try to sit down at your desk regularly so your story will stay fresh in your mind. If you can’t write every day, think about your characters and your plot when you can. Agatha Christie once said she did her best plotting while washing the dishes.

Try to write at a desk or table in a well lit and if possible quiet area. Buy yourself nice notebooks and coloured pens – these small things make writing more of a pleasure.

If possible get your hands on a computer. Typing directly onto a computer takes a while to get used to but it makes writing and most especially editing so much less painful – plus you have spell check!

How long does it take to write a book?

The old expression ‘how long is a piece of string’ springs to mind. Each writer is different. Popular fiction writers are often contracted to write a book a year. If you can manage to write 2,000 words a week for example, it will take you just under a year to write a whole book. Try to find a writing pace that suits you and your lifestyle.

The honest fact? I can’t motivate you to write. No-one can do that but yourself. If you want to write badly enough, you will find the time and the energy.

Yours in writing,

Sarah XXX

Tips on Staying Motivated by Clare Dowling

1/ Get into the habit of writing. This doesn’t mean you have to knock out a thousand words of a novel a day; it can be emails, letters to friends, or a description of your cat. Writing is a craft and the best way to learn it is to practise.

2/ Get yourself a proper writing space. Some people can write a book on the kitchen table amongst the dinner dishes but most of us can’t. It really helps if you have a special place for writing and when you arrive at it, your brain clicks into writing mode.

3/ Don’t wait for genius to strike. It probably won’t, and you’ll achieve tonnes more if you spent your time practising your writing, developing interesting characters, and thinking hard about what you’d really like to say. Most successful writers aren’t published because brilliant ideas visit them on a daily basis, but because they work very hard and stay motivated.

4/ Read, read, read. We can all learn from other authors’ work – how they construct a plot, how characters are effectively drawn; how they manage to make a scene in a supermarket the most memorable you’ve read all year. Don’t be afraid that you’re going to copy their style; you won’t. But you might find that that you learn lots of new techniques that will lift your own writing up a level.

See the writing.ie article I contributed to here.

Who represents Eoin Colfer? Who helped Derek Landy climb to the top? Who represents Cathy Cassidy? A few years ago I wrote a blog about the best children’s agents – my most popular blog ever. So here is a brand new, updated version.

I’d like to pay tribute to Philip Ardagh who posted a question on Facebook recently – ‘Who is your agent and would you recommend them?’ Lots of writers responded (myself included) and it was useful for this blog. Thank you to Philip and all the writers who answered his question.

I’ve had the good luck to work with one of the best agents in the business, the wonderful Philippa Milnes Smith from LAW (details below).

Good luck in finding someone as clever, kind and supportive as Philippa.

So firstly I’m often asked ‘Why do you need an agent? Can’t you just go it alone?’

In Ireland we are lucky to have the O’Brien Press whose editors are happy to read unsolicited manuscripts. You can send your book directly to one of their editors. Details of how to do this are here: http://www.obrien.ie/guidelines.cfm

Little Island (Ireland) will also read unsolicited manuscripts – www.littleisland.ie

Penguin Ireland have just appointed highly experienced writer and teacher, Claire Hennessy as their Children’s and YA Editor – Claire will read unsolicited manuscripts and will accept them by email. Submission guidelines here.

But most UK publishers do not accept unsolicited manuscripts so you will need to submit your work through an agent.

 What does an agent do exactly?

1/ An agent can advise you on your manuscript and on how to make it more attractive to a publisher. Some of them will act as unofficial editors to their clients or at the very least can suggest changes or improvements. They are also excellent at coming up with zippy titles as I’ve discovered.

2/ An agent can find the right editor or publisher for your work – like a book matchmaker. And they can sell your UK, US, digital and foreign rights. They can also look after any film or television rights.

3/ Agents deal with the difficult and technical area of contracts. This is particularly important at the moment as digital rights can be tricky.

4/ Financial back up – they can chase up your royalties and talk to your publishers about outstanding monies owed to you.

These days having potential isn’t enough, your manuscript must be as perfect as you can make it before it goes anywhere near a publisher. A good agent can play a vital role in this process.

 

Who Represents Who?

The Agents Who Represent Some of the Most Successful Irish Children’s Writers (with Contact Details) and Children’s Agents Highly Recommended by UK Writers

 Remember to check each agent’s website for submission guidelines before you send anything out. Or ring the agency for details – I know it’s daunting but they are always happy to advise you on how (or if) to submit. Be warned – you may get the agent herself/himself on the phone. Be prepared.

 Highly Recommended Children’s Agents:

Eoin Colfer is represented by Sophie Hicks. Sophie is a very experienced agent and her writers rate her highly. She has just set up her own agency and is currently taking submissions (2014).

www.sophiehicksagency.com

Derek Landy is represented by Michelle Kass, who also represents Patrick Ness. office@michellekass.co.uk

Darren Shan is represented by Christopher Little For general enquiries please email: info@christopherlittle.net

Sarah Webb and Chris Judge are represented by Philippa Milnes Smith at LAW

Contact: All submissions should be sent, in hard copy, by post to:

LAW, 14 Vernon Street, London, W14 0RJ

www.lawagency.co.uk

Marita Conlon McKenna is represented by Caroline Sheldon www.carolinesheldon.co.uk

Irish Writer, Elizabeth Rose Murray recommends her agent, Sallyanne Sweeney of Mulcahy Associates (London). She says she’s ‘supportive, thorough, creative, knowledgeable & really champions her authors. And she really loves children’s/YA literature too – always a bonus!’ She’s also from Dublin originally.

Other Recommended Children’s Agents:

(Check their websites for submission details)

Cathy Cassidy is represented by Darley Anderson.

Julia Churchill at A M Heath

 Eve White, Eve White Literary Agency

Veronique Baxter at David Higham

Catherine Clarke at Felicity Bryan

Robert Kirby at United Agents; Jodie Hodges at United Agents; also Catherine Mary Summerhayes, Jo Unwin and Clare Conville at United Agents

Polly Nolan at Green House

(Polly is from Galway, now based in the UK and is a highly experienced editor as well as an agent.)

Hilary Delamere at The Agency

Lindsey Fraser at Fraser Ross

Gemma Cooper at The Bent Agency

Penny Holroyde at Caroline Sheldon

Elizabeth Roy – www.elizabethroy.co.uk

Laura Cecil – www.lauracecil.co.uk

Madeleine Milburn – www.madeleinemilburn.co.uk

Sam Copeland and Claire Wilson at Rogers Coleridge and White – www.rcwlitagency.com

 

A West Cork Island

A West Cork Island

I’m writing a new series for readers of age 9+ at the moment. It’s about a group of girls – Mollie, Sunny, Min, Rory and Alanna – who live on a small island off the coast of West Cork. I came up with a title for the series – The Wishing Girls. ‘Too young’ my publishers said. ‘Sounds like a Rainbow Fairy book’. So I had to start again.

I produced a list of over twenty different titles. My editor added some, as did my agent. My editor narrowed it down to about a dozen and then I picked my favourite three:

The Songbird Café Girls

The Butterfly Island Girls

The Firefly Bay Girls

I asked some bookseller + writer friends and they liked both Butterfly Island and Songbird Café. Apart from the boy, who liked Firefly Bay. But they thought Songbird Café was the most original so that’s the one I went for in the end. Which suits the book perfectly as the island is full of songbirds.songbird5

It took eighteen months to come up with a series title and the process got me thinking about other writers and how they picked titles. I asked them about their title process for this blog. As I got so many responses, I will use some of their wonderful words of wisdom in my next blog also.

Judi Curtin

For me, choosing titles is like pulling teeth. It’s the last thing I do, and I have to be honest, I’m not entirely happy with all of my choices. My editor often helps, and has come up with some great ideas. Occasionally, a title chooses itself, like Bonjour, Alice and Alice in the Middle.

eva and the hidden diary

My most recent book is Eva and the Hidden Diary. At first it was to be called ‘Eva and the Secret Diary’, but I changed it at the last minute, due to great advice from a writer friend, who suggested that it was wasteful to use two precious words like ‘diary’ and ‘secret’ in the same book. (That would have been me – Sarah).

Paula Leyden

Titles … Sometimes hard, sometimes easy …

The Sleeping Baobab Tree ended up as this because much of the story revolved round a wondrous ancient baobab that at some stage in its history fell on its side but carried on growing. In local folklore it is known as ‘ngombe ilede’ (the sleeping cow – as this is what it resembles ) and this was the book’s first title, but over time it became The Sleeping Baobab Tree. I am very happy with it.

covers blog 1

I love titles and I love the process of arriving at one but think that even though it can be discussed ad infinitum with agent, editor, friends and family at the end of it all it has to be yours.

Alan Nolan

My next book is called ‘Fintan’s Fifteen’ and I chose the title myself.

When I pitched it to my publisher it was a story about the worst U12s soccer team in Ireland, but we took a decision quite early on to change the sport to hurling. It made very little difference to the story (a falling-apart team gets better by recruiting players from different sporting backgrounds and foils a robbery along the way to winning the cup) but it made a huge difference to the title – the original title was ‘Oisín’s Eleven’ (obviously a play on ‘Ocean’s Eleven’…), but as there are fifteen players on a hurling team it necessitated a title change to ‘Fintan’s Fifteen’ and a corresponding change to the main character.

I have a notebook full of prospective book titles and character names, most of which are still in search of stories to go with them!

Deirdre Sullivan

prim cover

Prim Improper popped into my head when I was writing book one. I blogged with a friend whose online name was improper miss and another friend had written a book called Mary Modern, endearing two word titles featuring names to me. Improper Order popped into my head two thirds of the way through book two. I was fiddling with other titles “Prime Impropriety” and “Properly Prim” being two other possibilities but once I came up with Improper Order I kind of liked the way it fit the themes and also how it sounded like a crappy straight to video action movie featuring Dolph Lundgren. Or Steven Segal, I’m not sure which.

Oisin McGann

Oisin McGann
Oisin McGann

The title of my most recent novel is ‘Rat Runners’. I chose it, but it wasn’t my original title, as Random asked me to change it. I might still use the original one for another book, so I won’t tell you what it is! Random saw a pitch for this book before I’d got very far into the writing, so it was the title almost from the start.

I like to have a title before I start writing a book, partly to help me give it an identity to keep my sights set on, but also as practical means of keeping notes when I’m working on more than one book.

I have some ground rules for any title: It must be compelling, it should reflect the theme or feel of the book and I’ll always try and pick a combination of words that don’t already score a direct hit on Google. I don’t want a title that someone has used before . . . for anything.

Sometimes I get the title right straight off, other times I have to write out lists of combinations of words. It’s a process I enjoy, so even when it’s challenging, I don’t find it difficult. This was the case with ‘Rat Runners’, but once I had it, I was very happy with it. I liked the suggestion of urban action (having thought of it, I then found out a rat-run is route along small roads to avoid traffic on main routes) and the real underground air it gave the story.

Wendy Meddour

covers wendy quill

The original title of ‘Wendy Quill is a Crocodile’s Bottom’ was ‘Wendy Quill gets a little bit Famous’. But Oxford University Press thought title of my first chapter was funnier. And I agreed.

But it’s a bit embarrassing when I have to go and stage at Award Ceremonies and they say: ‘Wendy Quill is a Crocodile’s Bottom.’ I feel like shrugging my shoulders and saying: ‘Yes, I am.’

And my little boy said: ‘I’m only giving you 4 stars our of 5 because you’ve used a rude word on the cover.’ So there you go. That told me :)

More tales of book titles in February – stay tuned! And a huge thanks to all the writers who helped me with this blog post. You are superstars!

Yours in books,

Sarah XXX

This blog post first appeared on the Girls Heart Books website – www.girlsheartbooks.com

 

I love writing dialogue and it’s only taken me fifteen years to nail it. My first novel was called Three Times a Lady and it was published in 2000. The dialogue is riddled with unnecessary dialogue tags and adverbs.

She said lovingly, he said angrily, he demanded furiously, she retorted with a snort – it’s all in there! My first novels were definitely my ‘learner novels’ but I’m still I’m very proud of them.

These days my dialogue is much tighter and I’ve dropped the adverbs. I’m not alone. In an interview, Gabriel García Márquez once said: ‘Before ‘Chronicle of a Death Foretold there are many (adverbs). In ‘Chronicle’ there is one. After that, in ‘Love’ there are none.’

Why does dialogue matter? Here’s a short extract from Self-editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King (an excellent book):

What’s the first thing editors look for when they begin reading a fiction submission? Several editors we know have answered that question the same way: ‘The first thing I do is find a scene with some dialogue. If the dialogue doesn’t work, the manuscript gets bounced. If it’s good, I start reading.’

Top 10 Tips for Writing Dialogue

1/ Dialogue must have a purpose. It must reveal character, move the plot along and build tension. And above all it must be interesting.

2/ Dialogue tags

She said/he said is almost invisible when read on the page. The eye skims over it. It does not skim over she replied, he retorted, she answered. Use other verbs sparingly in dialogue.

3/ Adverbs

Nor does the eye skim over:

She said sadly, while gazing at him adoringly.

He snarled angrily (back to this one in a second).

Use adverbs sparingly. Show how your character is saying something (or feeling) using your dialogue.

You may notice in older books that more adverbs are used – see the Alice in Wonderland extract below for eg.

4/ Back to the snarling. You cannot snarl a sentence. You cannot laugh or giggle a sentence.

NO – ‘You are the worst person I’ve ever met in the whole world,’ he snarled.

YES – ‘You’re a nasty piece of work,’ he said.

5/ Be consistent.

Don’t use:

Sarah said

Ms Webb said

And my amazing teacher said all on the same page.

6/ More than 3 or 4 people in a conversation can be difficult, one on one is much easier to follow for the reader (and easier to write).

7/ Ellipses (. . . ) mean the sentence is tailing off

When someone stops abruptly or is interrupted you use a dash –

8/ Name before noun (generally)

Sarah said, not said Sarah

In older books, you will notice more said Sarahs – but in modern books, it’s mostly Sarah saids – if in doubt read the dialogue out loud to yourself and see which works best.

9/ Good dialogue is not realistic. It is a smarter, more dramatic version of real speech.

10/ Every one of your characters should speak differently.

Give them favourite words or phrases.

Are they articulate or shy?

Good dialogue shows the reader what your characters are like. Take this piece from Alice in Wonderland for example:

‘Do you mean that you think you can find out the answer to it?’ said the March Hare.

‘Exactly so,’ said Alice.

‘Then you should say what you mean,’ the March Hare went on.

‘I do,’ Alice hastily replied. ‘At least – at least I mean what I say – that’s the same thing, you know.’

‘Not the same thing a bit!’ said the Hatter. ‘You might as well say that “I see what I eat” is the same thing as “I eat what I see”!’

Here the reader learns that the March Hare and the Mad Hatter are pernickety when it comes to language and riddles, and Alice is thoughtful and polite.

Your characters come alive when they speak – work on your dialogue and your book will sing.

Yours in writing,

Sarah XXX

I’ve posted a dialogue exercise below for you to try.

Dialogue Exercise – correct the following:

(Adapted from one of my early books, Always the Bridesmaid)

The paranoia all started to kick in when my seventeen-year-old sister Suzi came home from Australia last December with Matt in tow, a boy she’d picked up while travelling in Australia. I thought things couldn’t get any worse. I was wrong.

“Suzi, have you told Mum and Dad about Matt?” I demanded anxiously as we were loading my Golf with the bags in the airport car park. Matt had kindly offered to get rid of the baggage trolley.

“About what?” she asked quickly.

“About Matt,” I replied. “Do they know he’s come to live in Dublin?” She certainly hadn’t told me and I’d got rather a shock when I’d seen the whole six-foot-something of him coming through the arrivals gate with his arm draped over my sister’s shoulders.

“Not exactly,” she giggled nervously. “But they’ll love him and there’s loads of room in the house and . . . ”

“The house,” I interrupted, trying to keep my voice level. “You and Matt are planning to live at home?”

“Well, we want to save for a house and I’m sure Mum and Dad won’t mind,” Suzi responded.

“Right, a house,” I muttered darkly.

“Do you think it’ll be a problem?” Suzi asked anxiously, biting her lip. She was clearly nervous.

“No,” I lied. “They’re so excited about having you home, I’m sure they won’t mind.”

Suzi nudged me. Matt was smiling at her across the car’s roof.

“Let’s go!” Suzi exclaimed excitedly. “I can’t wait to introduce you to my parents, Matt. They’re going to love you,” she added lovingly.

I rolled my eyes. My darling sister was so naïve.

 Dialogue Answer (Suggested answer only – you may have a different version)

 Here I have cut out many of the adverbs and unnecessary dialogue tags, and added some tension towards the end.

The paranoia all started to kick in when my seventeen-year-old sister Suzi came home from Australia last December with Matt in tow, a boy she’d picked up while travelling in Australia. I thought things couldn’t get any worse. I was wrong.

“Suzi, have you told Mum and Dad about Matt?” I asked my little sister as we were loading my Golf with the bags in the airport car park. Suzis’s new boyfriend, Matt had kindly offered to get rid of the baggage trolley.

“About what?”

“About Matt. Do they know he’s come to live in Dublin?” She certainly hadn’t told me and I’d got rather a shock when I’d seen the whole six-foot-something of him coming through the arrivals gate with his arm draped over my sister’s shoulders.

“Not exactly.” She giggled nervously. “But they’ll love him and there’s loads of room in the house and-“

“The house?” I tried to keep my voice level. “You and Matt are planning to live at home?”

“Well, we want to save for a house and I’m sure Mum and Dad won’t mind.”

“A house, right,” I muttered under my breath.

“Do you think it’ll be a problem?” Suzi started biting at her lower lip.

I stared at her. Was she deranged? “You’re seventeen, Suzi. What do you think?”

Suzi wasn’t listening to me. Matt was smiling at her across the car’s roof. She’d always been a sucker for a handsome face. She smiled back at him. The pair of them made my stomach turn. Bloody men! Oh, he’s smiling now all right, dear sister, but he hasn’t met Mum yet. Just you wait.

“Let’s go!” Suzi said, “I can’t wait to introduce you to my parents, Matt. They’re going to love you.” She was still gazing at him adoringly.

I rolled my eyes. My darling sister was so naïve.

Since my first book for age 10+ (Ask Amy Green: Boy Trouble) I’ve been working with young editors. My first young editors were Emma and Kate. They read an early manuscript of Boy Trouble and gave me some valuable feedback. They are both now in first year at college and Kate is studying English and hopes to be a writer some day.

Sarah with some young readers

Sarah with some young readers

For the past two years I’ve held a Young Editor Competition to find new readers to help me edit the Amy Green books. In 2011 Yazmin and Anna won the competition and gave me useful feedback on Ask Amy Green: Dancing Daze.

I asked Anna about her experience and this is what she said:

1/ Did you enjoy being one of my Young Editors?

Yes, it gave me a chance to see what it’s like and helped me decide if I want to take writing up as a career choice.

2/ Was it hard work?

I didn’t think it was especially hard; the only worrying/hard bit was reading the book in time and giving the feedback that I thought would be useful.

3/ What did you learn about writing a book?

I learnt that it’s not as easy as I thought as you have to do multiple drafts and changes before getting to the final copy.

4/ Would you like to edit another book in the future?

Yes, or maybe even write one of my own . . .

5/ Do you have any tips for Amy Green fans entering the new Young Editor Competition (2013)?

My tips are to give your honest opinion and say lots of likes and dislikes – some people might be afraid of telling the dislikes but don’t be afraid as it helps the writer a lot. (She’s quite right too!)

This year I had five young editors as they all sent in such good entries to the Young Editor Competition – Alice, Niamh, Iseult, Ellen and Sophie. Here is some of their feedback (they worked on Wedding Belles):

The Latest Amy Green Book

The Latest Amy Green Book

Niamh: First of all, this was actually my favourite book out of the series. I think it was because you could see how all the characters have developed since the start of the series. Amy has grown up a lot. We can see this through her relationships with all the characters in the book but especially with Seth and Clover. Amy’s a great character because she’s not perfect but she tries to do what’s right and you still root for her.

Iseult: I really enjoyed the experience of being a young editor for this book. I have to admit it was really hard work and sometimes I felt like giving up. The way I have edited is I read it once and then I read it again and if I found anything that I found confusing or something I didn’t understand I’d write a note about it. Overall the book was really great and brought a tear to my eye at the end.

 How Would You Like to be One of My New Young Editors (2013)?girls jumping

All you have to do is to log onto www.askamygreen.com and click on the Young Editor Competition button and tell me in 300 words or less why you like Wedding Belles (the new Ask Amy Green book), who your favourite character is and why. Enter before 30th November. Good luck!

Yours in books, Sarah X

(This blog first appeared on the Girls Heart Books website)

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Biography

Born in Dublin, Oisín McGann spent his childhood there and in Drogheda, County Louth. He studied at Ballyfermot Senior College and Dun Laoghaire School of Art and Design, and went on to work in illustration, design and film animation, later moving to London to work as an art director and copy writer in advertising.

He now lives back in Ireland and works full time as an author and illustrator. He has written and illustrated numerous books for all ages of reader, including the Mad Grandad series, The Forbidden Files series, and eight novels, including The Gods And Their Machines, Small-Minded Giants, and his steampunk trilogy, The Wildenstern Saga. His new novel for readers of 10 years and upwards, Rat Runners, has just been published.

Oisin, can you tell us about your latest book, Rat Runners, and where the idea came from?

The core idea that sparked the story was based on a very simple premise: we’re observed by surveillance cameras every day now, but what if there was a person standing there, staring at you instead? Then I took it further and thought: what if they had the means, not just to observe you, but to examine you in detail? That’s where the Safe-Guards came from. I was originally going to have it as a fantasy story, with these figures like you’d see in a Terry Gilliam film, with contraptions on their heads holding loads of lenses. But the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to bring it closer to home.

The Safe-Guards have sophisticated cameras and sensors that can study you with X-rays, thermal vision, check your identity with facial recognition, they can listen with highly sensitive mikes and use chemical analyzers to check out your smell. All of this technology is based on equipment that’s already in use.

Once I had this surveillance society, as an environment, run by an organization known as WatchWorld, it made sense to have the kids as experts at evading this surveillance – young professional criminals, but ones who work for some very serious villains. This triggered a whole load of ideas about the characters, what type of people they were, and the kind of mystery they’d become involved in solving. It all starts with a murder, then the search for a mysterious box, all while trying to avoid being watched by the system. The situation means that even just getting from place to place becomes a challenge.

How long did it take you to write?

From the point where I wrote the first line, I think it took a little under six months, which is about typical. I had a lot of other stuff going on, so it came together very well. I normally take between four and six months to write a novel.

How do you organise your writing day? For example, where do you write?

In an ideal situation, I’d work from late morning and into the evening. I have an office/studio where I work normally, but sometimes I’ll sit down at the kitchen table with the notebook, or pace around. I do a lot of pacing. But I have a very varied schedule, doing a lot of events, running courses and all the other bits and pieces you have to do when you’re self-employed. I rarely write for more then three or four hours in a day, but I plan things out pretty thoroughly, so by the time I start typing it out, I get straight to the point.

And at what time of the day are you at your writing best?

I think evening is the best time, but it’s a bit antisocial if you have a family. I can write any time when the house is quiet – which doesn’t seem to be that often these days!

Do you use a computer or write long hand?

I plan with my notebook, making copious notes, but once I start writing, I like to be at my desk, typing it straight in.

Do you edit as you go along? Or at the end of the first draft? Do you find rewriting difficult?

I do edit as I go. Whenever I sit down to write, I’ll read what I wrote last. I also make some changes after the first draft, but then normally I hand it round to friends and family who make suggestions before I send it to my agent. I don’t find rewriting difficult – it can be very satisfying to tighten up the story, but at some point you have to choose to finish.

 Do you use the internet for research? Do you find it useful? What other research tips can you give writers?

I do absolutely use the web for research, it’s fantastic, but it can also be treacherous. For anything important or anything I’m in doubt about, I’d make sure I’m checking more than one source – three or four is best. For the legends I’ve rewritten, I found at least seven or eight versions of each before getting started.

As far as the use of research goes, it’s vital that you sound like you know what you’re talking about, but never put in more information than the story demands. A lot of writers fall in love with their research, assuming that if they love this subject then their readers will too. The information, the detail, should carry the story forward, not weigh it down with excessive detail. You can also end up doing far more reading than you do writing, which is an excellent way to avoid finishing your book. The other hazard with research, is that you focus on the things that interest you, but neglect the things that don’t. It’s something I’m always trying to pull myself up on.

Are there any books or websites you would particularly recommend for writers?

Anybody who wants to get published should get themselves a copy of The Writers & Artists’ Yearbook. It comes out every year. Children’s Books Ireland also have a section called cb-info on their site (http://www.childrensbooksireland.ie/resources/cbinfo/), which is really useful generally, but particularly for the Irish market. Writing.ie has a lot of good stuff too.

How did you get your first book published? Was it difficult?

It didn’t happen quite the way I planned! I’d been pitching my first novel, The Harvest Tide Project to agents in the UK when I lived in London, but then I moved back to Ireland and started looking for work as an illustrator. The O’Brien Press liked one of the styles I worked in, wanting to use it in their Flyers range, but they didn’t have any stories at that point. So I pitched three stories to them, and they took two – the first two Mad Grandad books. Then they asked if I’d ever considered writing a novel. By that time, I’d finished The Gods and Their Machines, so I slapped the manuscripts for that and Harvest Tide on the table. They contracted for those and a sequel to The Harvest Tide Project, which became Under Fragile Stone.

Have you always written for children? Have you ever written anything for adults?

I consider all my books suitable for everyone, and a lot of adults read my YA stuff. I think that’s the definition of Young Adult; it’s something both young and adult readers can enjoy. I’ve written one other novel that’s aimed at older teenage and above, but it’s a step away from my normal stuff, and I’ve never pitched it to anyone. Not yet anyway.

Do you have an agent? And if so, how did you find her?

Having pitched to a number of agents early on, when I was living in London, I actually got published with O’Brien without one. But when I wanted to pitch my books in the UK, I knew I needed an agent. At that time, Eoin Colfer was probably the biggest name in children’s books in the UK after JK Rowling. He’d given me a great endorsement for The Gods and Their Machines, so I thought, why settle for less than the best? I sent her copies of my books with an introduction letter and the manuscript for Small-Minded Giants, telling her what I planned for the future. I met her when she came to Dublin not long after that and we signed up together.

Oisin, you have three children. How do you juggle being a dad with being a writer? Do you find it difficult?

It is very difficult at times, though it was harder when the girls were first born (they’re two and four, and my stepson is now twelve), especially when we moved into a new house that had to be renovated just weeks after our second daughter was born! Apart from all the practical stuff, having kids really increases the pressure to make a decent living, which increases the stress you already feel at being a parent of young kids (Am I doing this right? Oh, my God, who put me in charge of the lives of three little human beings?!). They’re great craic, but they’re also exhausting! It takes so much out of you, but I laugh more since I had children. You’re also tempted to write down everything they say, because you think it’s all brilliant.

 What type of books do you like to read? What books are on your bedside table at the moment? Do you have a favourite book?

I don’t have a favourite book – it’s hard to even choose some of my favourites. As for what type of books I like to read, I’ll try anything really. I’ve just finished Ursula le Guin’s second Earthsea book, The Tombs of Atuan (I read the first one years ago), and I’ll probably go on to read the third one now. I’ve recently got into Lee Child’s books, they’re cracking page-turners. Other stories I’ve thoroughly enjoyed recently would include Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead (that one took me ages!) and Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan trilogy. At different points in my life, I’ve been into crime, horror, fantasy and sci-fi, Westerns, war stories, historical fiction . . . almost everything. Romance, not so much, but I’d never rule it out.

What is the best thing about being a writer?

Doing what you love. I always look forward to work when I get up in the morning. Even after all these years, work still has the potential to thrill me.

The worst?

The financial insecurity can be tough, particularly when you make the leap into full-time writing, or when you go through quiet periods, as the majority of writers do. It’s a very wayward career, with no clear path laid out for you, so you have to be very disciplined, and as most self-employed people know, you can be your own worst boss. I’m not good at taking holidays, but my wife, Maedhbh, is good at forcing me. The promotional work can really take it out of you as well, but it can be a real buzz too.

 And finally, do you have any advice or tips for writers?

Keep at it and never quit. Learn the trade-skills and get to know the industry, but write what you genuinely enjoy writing, the kind of thing you’d take with you on holiday to read, so you’ll write it for free until you get paid to do it. Don’t write to impress. Write for fun first – all the rest will come in time.

Thank you, Oisin, for sharing your writing life with us.

Find out more about Oisin here:

Website: www.oisinmcgann.com

Blog: http://www.oisinmcgann.com/blog/

Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/oisin.mcgann.7

Twitter: @OisinMcGann

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I was at a 40th birthday in London recently and I got talking to the band – lovely Scottish lads called The Holy Ghosts.

They have been working their wee socks off, playing gigs and parties all over the UK and Europe. They’re super, their lead singer has buckets of charisma (and an amazing voice) and I know they’ll make it because a/ they’re determined b/ they’re damn good and c/ they’re putting in the hours.

I told them the story about The Beatles playing in Hamburg that I first read in Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. In the book Gladwell explains the 10,000 hours rule – how if you put in the time and work hard, success will follow.

In a nutshell The Beatles performed live in Hamburg, Germany over 1,200 times from 1960 to 1964, amassing more than 10,000 hours of playing time. According to Gladwell the hours and hours that The Beatles spent performing live shaped their talent. He quotes their biographer Philip Norman who said ‘So by the time they returned to England from Hamburg, Germany, they sounded like no one else. It was the making of them.’

Gladwell also talks about Bill Gates and how at the age of 13 in 1968 he spent over 10,000 hours programming on a high school computer.

Putting in the hours. It’s not very exciting, is it? But it’s so important. I think a lot of people starting to write don’t realise how hard writers work to get published and to stay published. How many hours they put in.

Coming up with an idea is the easy bit. Creating characters, plot . . . not so hard. Writing the first few chapters of a manuscript . . . not so difficult either. Finishing a book and then rewriting it over and over again until it’s as perfect as you can make it, that’s the hard part.

I’ve said it before but it’s worth saying again – you learn how to write by writing. By putting in the hours. At night after work, early in the morning before the kids get up, at weekends, on holidays, when you’re on top of the world, when your heart is breaking – you have to keep at it. You have to put in the hours. It’s as simple or as difficult as that.

All the very best for Christmas and 2013. Try to make some time to write over the holidays. And I’ll try to follow my own advice!

Yours in writing,

Sarah XXX

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Martina Reilly

To plot or not to plot? That is an interesting question. Over the years I have realised that it very much depends on what type of person you are.

If you are a planner – if you pack days before going away, if you know exactly where your passport is before travelling, then you’re a planner and you may need to plan your book.

If you pack the hour before leaving for the airport, if you hate planning anything weeks or months before it happens, than you’d probably think planning would kill your book’s spontaneity. And for you it might do just that.

So if you’re a planner like me – you need to plan. I’ve also interviewed a writer who is not a planner – the wonderful Martina Reilly – so you have both views.
 
So first, Martina’s answers:

Martina, how much planning do you do before starting a book?
 

I do no planning at all. I tend to get an idea of what I’d like to explore. In my next book ‘What If’ I had a few things I wanted to write about. The first, a moment where a life is changed forever (a lot of my books are about such moments, I am unable to get away from that, though in this book it is very obvious what that moment is) and the second thing I wanted to write about was Alzheimers. Having experienced first hand how devastating this disease is, I wanted to write an uplifting story where Lily uses her disease to ask forgiveness from her daughter. But how do you ask for forgiveness when you can barely remember?
That was the challenge and so I just dived straight in and began to write.    

Do you do any work on the characters?

 
None at all. I suppose I see my characters as people I have been introduced to at a party. If I like them, I leave them in the story and get to know them over the course of nine months or so (the length of time it takes me to write a book). These characters begin to grow week by week as I find out things about them. I then go back to the start of the story and flesh them out using everything I’ve learned. Some characters are much easier to know than others. In the next book, there is a prickly character called Deirdre, she was a hard one to get right, but to my mind, she is the best character in the book now.

Any story boarding/plotting?
 

No! Having said that, diving straight in can be a bit of a disaster sometimes. Maybe about 40,000 words in, I’ll discover that the way I’m telling the story is all wrong. I might need to introduce a better/stronger plot (yikes) or I might feel that the book would be much better if it were told from a first person narrative instead of a third person narrative. I fight against it for a while until I KNOW it’s not working and then I’ll go back and rework. I have found though that it doesn’t really hold me up as I get a renewed interest in making the book right and I fly along. The way I write is quite organic, I suppose. I like to surprise myself with the story so that way I hope the reader is surprised too. If I plotted and planned, I think I’d lose the spontaneity with which I write.
I’m also a very impulsive person, so plotting and planning would drive me mental.

How much editing do you do after the first draft?

 
Very little. I suppose I edit as I go so most of my books (bar three) have been published with very minor changes.

And now I’ll ask myself the very same questions:

Sarah, how much planning do you do before starting a book?

 

My Dancing Daze Notebook

Lots! Unlike Martina I can’t start writing a book if I haven’t thought about the characters and the plot for many weeks (even months or years in some cases). Once I have the initial idea – for example ‘a book about a young Irish girl who dreams of being a famous ballerina’ – I grab a yellow A4 notebook and I start jotting down notes. I also collect clippings from magazines and newspapers on the subject and I read extensively around the subject. All these things trigger my own plot ideas and make me more confident that I know what I’m writing about.
 

Do you do any work on the characters?
 

Yes. I write down everything I know or am starting to find out about the main characters – what they look like, their birthdays, their dreams, hopes, fears . . .
I give them names – I love naming characters. Once I find the right name for a character they become much easier to visualise and understand.

Any story boarding/plotting?
 

My Scene By Scene Plot Notes

Again, yes. I go through the book scene by scene, jotting down notes about what I’d like to happen. This is all very much subject to change, it’s just a way of keeping myself going. It also means that I’m not so frightened about getting ‘stuck’ half way through the book. I always know how the book is going to end – the middle is a little more vague.

How much editing do you do after the first draft?

 

Again, a lot. I usually do around five or six rewrites, often more, depending on the book. Some books require more rewriting than others. Ask Amy Green: Dancing Daze didn’t require too much rewriting; The Shoestring Club, my latest adult book required quite a bit of rewriting. In fact the first draft is very different to the final book. Pretty much everything changed and I think it’s a much better book for all the thought, planning and rewriting.

So there you go, two writers, two very different approaches. Now which type of writer are you? Do you need to plan or are you happier just sitting down and writing? I’d love to know.

Yours in writing,

Sarah XXX

(And a big thank you to Martina for giving me her time)