Festivals and Events

Take Risks. Get a Haircut. How to Do Brilliant Events for Kids

Steve Simpson
Steve Simpson

I was at a day for professional children's writers recently (Mindshift, run by the Irish Writers' Centre with Children's Books Ireland) and the speakers had a lot of useful things to say about events for children.

I thought I'd share some of the best tips with you. And see my previous blog for tips on marketing and promoting your book.

Jane O'Hanlon from the Writers in Schools scheme said 'Writing is not considered an art form, which is why it is underpaid'. She explained that the rate for a 2 1/2 hour school session is e200 (plus travel expenses). 'If you undercut the rate, you undercut it for everyone,' she said.

She explained that classrooms are complex places and that writers need to be aware of this. From this year on, writers will need to be Garda vetted if they would like to visit a school. Poetry Ireland (who run the scheme) can Garda vet any writer in Ireland, even if they are not in the scheme - useful to know.

Designer and children's book illustrator, Steve Simpson also gave some fantastic advice.

Irish language picture books are better paid as they get grants and funding, he explained.

If you want to do events - being able to work with younger children (age 5 to 7 and younger) is a huge advantage. Develop different workshops for different age groups. Get them drawing - children love to draw.

Be yourself. Go to talks and workshops and see how others do it.

Get the kids involved - make it fun.

Have lots of interaction from the start. Always be prepared.

Try to get some photos of the event and use them on social media and on your blog/website. Build your platform.

Take risks.

Get a haircut.

Be passionate.

Be genuine and real.

Be prepared for the unexpected.

All great advice! Thanks, Steve and Jane. More on how to promote your workshops/events to theatres and arts centres next week.

Yours in writing,


I'm Just Crazy About Bookshops


In one of my favourite films, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Holly Golightly (played by the wonderful Audrey Hepburn) says ‘I’m just crazy about Tiffany’s . . . Nothing bad could ever happen to you there.’ Holly goes to Tiffany’s when she gets ‘the mean reds’ – when she’s afraid but doesn’t know what she’s afraid of. She says ‘The only thing that does any good is to jump in a cab and go to Tiffany's. Calms me down right away. The quietness and the proud look of it.’

I feel the same way about bookshops. When I’m feeling a bit edgy and out of sorts, I head to my local bookshop, Dubray Books in Dun Laoghaire. It’s in a not-so-exciting shopping centre but it still manages to be calm, peaceful and lovely. The staff are great too – you can always rely on them for a bit of book-related chat and a friendly smile.

Talking to Children in Dubray Books
Talking to Children in Dubray Books

I’ve loved bookshops all my life. After college I had no idea what I wanted to do (apart from write, but that was a dream I never thought would come to anything) so I reached for the nearest life raft – a bookshop.

I’ve worked in bookshops for many years and I’ve loved them all – Hodges Figgis on Dawson Street, Hughes and Hughes in St Stephen’s Green Shopping Centre, Waterstone’s on Dawson Street (where I ran the children’s department, which I adored), Eason’s Head Office in Santry and now, Dubray Books, where they kindly let me get involved in promoting children’s books and training the children’s booksellers.

When I was in Bath a few weeks ago for the Children’s Literature Festival I visited three amazing bookshops – Waterstone’s, Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights and Toppings. What a treat!

Waterstone’s has one of the best chain children’s departments I’ve ever seen outside the United States – it’s full of fantastic books for all ages. I particularly loved the table full of wonderfully chosen crossover books from the Chaos Walking trilogy to I Capture the Castle.

I visited Mr B’s with my lovely Walker editor, Annalie Grainger and what a terrific, quirky shop. It’s full of nooks and crannies, armchairs to sit and read in, hand-recommended titles and extremely friendly, helpful booksellers. If I needed a hug in the form of a warm, welcoming bookshop, that’s exactly where I’d head. It’s the kind of place that makes you feel less alone.

Mr B's Emporium
Mr B's Emporium

For a spiritual pick me up, I’d head to Toppings, in a word it’s supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. (I’ve come over all Mary Poppins recently in anticipation of the new movie, Saving Mr Banks, with Emma Thompson as P L Travers and Tom Hanks as Walt Disney.) If Bath is like walking around a living, breathing movie set, then Toppings is like stepping into Narnia. It’s truly beautiful – it even smells amazing, musty and woody, like the books’ pages are seeping into the air.

It’s plain wooden shelves are crammed with a huge range of hardbacks and the children’s department is small but magical. I nearly wept with joy when I spotted a copy of Ask Amy Green: Love and Other Drama-ramas nestling on the shelves.


Dublin has its fair share of brilliant bookshops – including the Dubray shops and Gutter Books in Temple Bar, but I must admit I was truly smitten with the bookshops of Bath.

Yours in books (and bookshops),

Sarah XXX

Dos and Don'ts for School and Library Events

book festival image 2013
book festival image 2013

On the first day of the Children's Book Festival in Ireland, I though I'd post this list - dos and don'ts for school and library visits: 1/ Do have a glass or bottle of water ready for the author.

2/ Do make sure they get fed at the relevant times – lunch is always good!

3/ If they are staying over, put them up in the hotel/guesthouse that you would choose to stay in – warm, quiet and clean. Remember some of your authors may need to write in the evenings – so do take this into consideration – a tiny room without a desk is a no no.

4/ Please don’t expect them to drive 50 or 60 miles between events – remember many authors are city slickers and more used to trains and buses.

5/ Think about the logistics and what’s best for the author – it might be a better use of their time to base them in the main library rather than slepping them all over the county.

6/ Send them directions to your school or library that are easy to follow and accurate – they do not need to go on a wild goose chase just before their event.

7/ Make sure the person at the desk/in reception knows an author is coming and greets them with a smile. Not a ‘Who? Sorry, don’t know anything about that. Wait here until I get someone.’ (More common than you might think.)

8/ Make an effort with posters – these can be ordered from the author’s publisher in advance – or at the very least type welcome and the author’s name on a sheet of paper and stick it to the front door. Make the author feel wanted – authors are sensitive souls, be kind.

9/ A follow up email/letter to say thanks for visiting is always nice.

10/ Do try to have the author’s books in stock – they will look for them on the shelves!

11/ If the author asks for 5th and 6th class girls, don’t give them 1st class boys – there is a reason for their request. And make sure the school understands this and doesn’t turn up with every child from JI to 6th class. It is a huge advantage – to both the writer and the children – if the children have read the author’s books in advance. At the very least they should know a/ who the author is and b/what books they write.

12/ Where possible, give the writer a large audience. Writers like talking to lots of children. Unless it’s a workshop – one class max for workshops. When in doubt, ask the writer – how many children do you like at your sessions?

Some of the brilliant things libraries and schools have done for me recently:

Made lovely welcome posters.

One school had a group of children who had read my books welcome me at reception and take me to the school hall where I was speaking. Usually it’s a teacher – so this was a nice touch.

In one school in Athy the mothers and teachers made cakes and came to welcome me, along with their children. This also happened in Griffeen Valley Educate Together School where the teachers and parents are very keen on reading.

Alexandra School library provided six copies of Amy Green, Teen Agony Queen for the girls to win on the day of the visit. Afterwards the students gave me a book token and a box of chocolates. Plus a follow up thank you card. Gold star to Alexandra School!

Mistakes, Failure and Writing Faith

I was in London last week (talking to one of my publishers about a new book for 2014 - more about that soon) and I picked up a copy of Psychologies Magazine at the airport. I don't often get the time to read magazines so it was a real treat. After my meeting I lay down on my hotel bed and flicked through the articles. There was a great conversation between Joanne Froggatt (Anna in Downton Abbey) and Irvine Welsh. Joanne is starring in his new film, Filth.

During the interview they discussed failure and making mistakes. 'We've all got to be prepared to make mistakes,' Joanne said. 'My dad has a very Northern saying - "Them that never do 'owt, never do 'owt wrong".'

Irvine agreed with her. 'Life is all about making mistakes,' he said. 'What's the phrase? Try again. Fail again. Fail bigger (sic). Fail better. One of the most horrible things in life would be not to be able to fail again.'

ever tried
ever tried

The phrase he quoted is one of my favourites in fact - it's by Samuel Beckett and it's a great mantra for writers.

So often we decide not to try something for fear of failure.

I won't write that blog because it won't be as good as/as funny as so and so's blog.

I find writing short stories really hard so I won't even try.

Poetry? That's for intellects.

I can't write that time travel book because I'm not sure how to plot it. I'm scared it will be rubbish.

These are my own personal writing fears and there are plenty more where they came from.

What are YOU afraid of?

Not being a good enough writer?

Not being as good as (fill in any name you like here)?

Being laughed at?

Being rejected?

Getting published? Because then you'll have a whole new set of problems and worries.

We all have our own set of writing fears.

Next month I will start writing that children's time travel novel. I have no idea how it will turn out, but I'm willing to give it a go. It may work, it may not, but at least I'll have tried.

What will you be doing? Worrying about failure? Or taking a giant leap of writing faith?

Yours in writing,

Sarah XXX

Learning From Oliver Jeffers

I’ve always liked Oliver Jeffers – both the man and his wonderful picture books. I first met him almost ten years ago, just after his first book, How to Catch a Star was published. It was at a Children’s Books Ireland conference in Dublin and from the start I loved his passion and his enthusiasm for his work.

The weekend before last I had the good luck to catch him not once but twice at Offset, a wonderful conference held in the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre in Dublin which celebrates design and illustration. He spoke to a crowd of thousands about his painting and his picture books. Afterwards he gave a very honest and inspiring public interview to one of the Offset organisers.

During this he spoke about ‘people who do things and people who talk about doing things’. Oliver works on a huge amount of different projects – often simultaneously – exhibitions of his paintings, exhibitions of his drawings, picture books, illustrating other people’s novels, book covers. He only takes on projects that he truly loves and he works HARD. His work has to mean something – to him. If it means something to him, then he figures that maybe it will mean something to other people too.

There is no secret to his success – yes, he’s talented and driven but most of all he simply ‘does things’.

He believes in his work. He believes that his work is important, yet approaches it with a sense of fun and play. Are YOU a doer or a talker? Do you believe in your work? Do you approach it with a sense of fun and play? It’s worth thinking about. We all have a lot to learn from Oliver Jeffers.

Yours in writing,


A Fairytale of Hong Kong and the Big Yes

(From the Girls Heart Books blog) Earlier this year I made a decision – I’d say YES to as many things as possible. YES to going to new plays and gigs; YES to reading at book events and festivals; YES to visiting as many schools as I could; YES to travelling to new places and having new experiences. So when the Hong Kong Young Readers' Festival asked if I’d attend their festival for a week, I took a deep breath and said YES.

It took a lot of organising. My parents very kindly offered to take my youngest two children during the trip (the eldest is 18 and said he’d stay at home and mind the rabbit and the house) and I booked the flights rather nervously. I love visiting other countries but I’m not a great flyer and it’s a twelve hour flight from London to Hong Kong. Luckily my partner said that he’d travel over with me.

On Thursday morning I arrived home from what can only be described as a whirlwind tour of Hong Kong – 9 events in 5 days.

The first events I did were nursery rhyme sessions with young children and their mum and dads. Here I am doing an action rhyme in the Hong Kong Central Library with some parents and toddlers.

Then I did lots of writing workshops and school visits, travelling all over Hong Kong to talk to students of all ages.

They were all lovely students and really interested in Ireland and Irish culture. I had great fun chatting to some of the girls after the events and finding out about their schools and what they liked to read. They told me that most people in Hong Kong have a Chinese name and also an English name which they pick themselves.

We also squeezed in time for some sightseeing. Hong Kong is full of skyscrapers and at night they are all lit up. It’s quite a sight!

I had an amazing time. If you ever get the chance to visit Hong Kong, do go! And don’t be too surprised if a Chinese girl pops up in one of my books some day soon.

Hong Kong is the kind of place that says YES to life every single day – it’s fast, busy and crowded but the people are very kind and friendly and the whole trip was a brilliant experience, one that I’ll never forget. I’m so glad I said YES!

Yours in books,

Sarah XXX

Mad About Books - Raising a Child Who Loves to Read

I'm at the Hong Kong International Young Readers Festival in March. I'm giving a talk to parents on raising a child who loves to read. This is the recommended book list for that talk.

 Mad About Books – Raising a Child Who Loves to Read

Hong Kong International Young Readers Festival 2013

Recommended Titles

1/ Babies and Toddlers – Birth to Age 2+

Sing them lullabies, read them nursery rhymes

A good nursery rhyme book – with art work you love – eg Sally Go Round the Stars (Sarah Webb – Irish)

Yummy Yucky by Leslie Patricelli (Board book)

Where’s Spot? By Eric Hill (Board book) 2/ Toddlers of Age 2 +

Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle

Owl Babies by Martin Waddell (Irish)

Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes by Mem Fox and Helen Oxenbury

A Bit Lost by Chris Haughton – (Irish)

Other books to try: We’re Going on a Bear Hunt – Michael Rosen Farmer Duck – Martin Waddell Alfie’s Feet – Shirley Hughes Dear Zoo – Rod Campbell

3/ Younger Children – age 3 or 4 +

Fairy Tales – invest in a good collection

Oliver Jeffers – Lost and Found, The Heart in the Bottle (Irish)

Chris Judge – The Brave Beast (Irish)

Mo Willems – Knuffle Bunny, Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus

Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak

Niamh Sharkey - Irish Children's Laureate  and picture book maker

Other titles to try: Clarice Bean, That’s Me – Lauren Child Olivia by Ian Falconer There are Cats in this Book by Vivian Schwarz Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans Lunchtime by Rebecca Cobb (a new picture book maker) Wolves by Emily Gravett Dogger by Shirley Hughes Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson The Tiger Who Came to Tea by Jill Kerr I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klaussen Marshall Armstrong is New To Our School by David Mackintosh (Irish) Busy Busy World by Richard Scarry The Brave Beast by Chris Judge (Irish) The Gruffalo and other picture books by Julia Donaldson

4/ Early Readers – Age 5/6+

Series books for very first readers:

Elephant and Piggie Series by Mo Willems

The Cat in the Hat and other books by Dr Seuss

Books for young readers to read for themselves:

Roddy Doyle’s The Giggler Treatment (Irish)

The Worst Boy in the World by Eoin Colfer (Irish)

Judy Moody series by Megan McDonald

The Worst Witch series by Jill Murphy 5/ Books to Read Aloud to Age 5+

The Secret Garden, Ballet Shoes and any of your personal favourite classics as a child.

Charlotte’s Web by E B White

Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearse

The Butterfly Lion by Michael Morpurgo

Roald Dahl - Fantastic Mr Fox and Matilda – pick the Dahl titles that you love the most

If they like Dahl they might also like David Walliams – who has written books like Mr Stink

6/ Confident Readers of 9+   J K Rowling Eoin Colfer (Irish) Anthony Horowitz Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan Derek Landy – Skulduggery Pleasant (Irish) Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney The Tom Gates series by L Pichon – great for Wimpy kid fans

Family/friendship books: Cathy Cassidy Jacqueline Wilson Ask Amy Green series by Sarah Webb – age 10+ Judy Blume – Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret Judi Curtin (Irish)

Award winners: Wilderness by Roddy Doyle (Irish) The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead – age 10+

Other titles to try: Holes by Louis Sacher Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech Northern Lights – Philip Pullman

7/ Older Readers of 11+

Wonder by R J Palacio

Patrick Ness – A Monster Calls The Knife of Never Letting Go

John Green – The Fault in Our Stars

The Arrival – Shaun Tan

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne (Irish)

Other titles to try: Skellig – David Almond Maus by Art Spigelman (graphic novel) Coraline by Neil Gaiman The Hunger Games series Sabriel by Gareth Nix 8/ Books for Reluctant Readers

Audio books Where’s Wally? Quiz, joke and puzzle books Non fiction – sports biographies Captain Underpants by Dav Pilkey The Wimpy Kid books Sports magazines Playstation magazines 9/ Books for Tired Parents

That’s Not My series – published by Usborne

Hug by Jez Alborough

The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle

Owl Babies by Martin Waddell 10/ Books for Parents Who Want to Know More

The Ultimate Teen Guide The Ultimate First Book Guide Both published by A and C Black

Babies Need Books by Dorothy Butler

Mad About Books: The Dubray Guide to Children’s Books by Sarah Webb www.dubraybooks.ie

More about Irish writers and picture book makers: www.childrensbooksireland.ie


1/ Choose books that YOU love to read aloud to your children 2/ Be seen reading 3/ Talk about books with your children 4/ Make books part of your family’s history and everyday life

How to Write a Bestseller – The Secret Ingredient

Last weekend I spoke at the Waterford Writers’ Festival. The subject of the panel discussion was How to Write a Bestseller. The chair of the session, the very able Vanessa O’Loughlin from www.writing.ie asked us to consider the key elements of fiction writing and what makes a bestselling novel: character, dialogue, plot, making your book stand out. Also on the panel were fellow popular fiction writers Monica McInerney, Sinead Moriarty and Niamh Greene. It got me thinking about the nature of the ‘bestseller’. A ‘bestseller’ is simply a book that sells a lot of copies, a book that has thousands of happy readers, all actively recommending it to their friends and family, and on Facebook and Twitter (which I think is the way most bestsellers are created – by word of mouth).

So I thought I’d jot down some of the things that came up during the panel discussion in case they are useful. And at the very end I’ll let you in on the secret – how to write a bestseller – as yes, there is a secret!

First of all: Character

We all agreed that creating big, interesting, real, lovable yet flawed characters is the key to writing good popular fiction. Monica McInerney said she creates her characters before plot; for Sinead Moriarty it’s the other way around. But when it comes to characters, you have to think BIG. (I covered this very topic during the 8 Week Write a Book course on this blog).

Monica writes warm, funny family dramas; Sinead’s books tend to have an issue at the centre – breast cancer, anorexia, breakdown of a family unit – and she takes her research very seriously indeed.


Sinead said something very interesting – she said that you can write about anything as long as you do your research, which she finds very freeing. You keep reading until you know your subject backwards, she said. One of her books, Pieces of My Heart (about an anorexic teenager and her family’s struggle to help her get well again) took a lot of research and after the first draft she had to go back and unpick the chapters that were too research heavy and rewrite them. She was very honest and open about this, which I think was helpful for people to hear. Rewriting is a topic that came up a lot. More about that in a second.

But next: Dialogue

Niamh Greene talked about dialogue and how important it is to get it right. She reads out her dialogue and works on it until it’s perfect. I talked about how each character has to have their own way of speaking in a book, their own voice. If you are unsure about how to approach dialogue, read some of the masters - Roddy Doyle, Marian Keyes, Anne Tyler.


I explained how important it is to select a subject/setting that you really, really want to write about. It has to be something that fascinates you and that you’re dying to tell your readers about - eg zoo keeping (my latest novel, The Shoestring Club has a zoo keeper in it), the life of a young ballerina (Ask Amy Green: Dancing Daze – now that research – in Budapest – was such fun!).

I always say there are two types of people, the planners and the seat of the pant-ers. Planners know where their passport is weeks before travelling, seat of the pant-ers don’t. If you’re a planner, you may need to plan your book. I’m a planner and I make detailed plot notes for every scene of every book. Now, often these change once I start writing, but I need the plot notes to start a book in the first place – it’s like my safely net in case I get stuck along the way. A book takes a long time to write, and you need all the help you can get!

Monica is not a planner, her books evolve as she writes; Sinead is a planner. We are all different writers, just as we are all different people.


I talked about theme, about how your book has to say something. At the heart of The Shoestring Club is a family secret and the book is about how a buried secret can have devastating consequences.

Julia, the main character, blames herself for her mother’s death – this is at the heart of every mistake she makes in life. And until she comes to terms with this, she will never live a full life.

What’s your book about? Can you tell me in a few lines? If not, you need to work on your book’s theme. And this doesn’t always come easy. Sometimes the theme won’t be clear to you until after your first or second draft.


The difference between a published novel and an unpublished novel - the rewrites. Simple as that. Your first draft is just a starting point. Keep working on it until it's a perfect as you can make it. Again, see my Write a Book Course for more on this.


You have to want to write more than anything in the world. If you don’t have this overwhelming drive and passion, there’s no point in writing. Marilyn Munroe once said:

‘I wasn’t the prettiest, I wasn’t the most talented, I simply wanted it more than anyone else.’

Do you want to get published more than anyone else?

Because that’s the secret. Motivation, tenacity, drive. And the willingness to be honest, to cut a vein and bleed all over the page; to write about things that scare you, upset you, terrify you. You have to dig deep. It has to hurt. If it doesn’t, there’s no point writing. Unless you have to write, unless you have a burning need to tell people about something that means everything to you, don’t bother.

I’ll leave you with these final words from Pablo Neruda:

‘For me writing is like breathing. I could not live without breathing and I could not live without writing.’

Yours in writing,

Sarah XXX

What Children Can Teach Us About Writing

I've been visiting schools, libraries and festivals since 1996 when my first book was published. Over the years I've talked to thousands of children about books and writing. I've also given many writing workshops to children of all ages and this is what I've discovered:1/ Children are not afraid of making mistakes - if their story isn't going well they'll just shrug and start another story, no big deal. They never worry about looking stupid on paper or getting it 'wrong'. 2/ Children love creating big, funny, unusual characters - because their books are full of larger than life characters - think of Matilda, Mr Gum, Artemis Fowl, Tracy Beaker and Skulduggery Pleasant. They know when it comes to characters, BIG is good. 3/ Children understand that stories have to be exciting, fast, funny and full of emotion (and explosions in the case of boys - maybe slightly too many explosions!). 4/ Children don't get too hung up about grammar or spelling, they just keep writing. They know they can correct that stuff later. 5/ Children write 'cos they love to write, not because they want to get published/show off to the neighbours/make a million like that Harry Potter lady. 6/ Children believe that everyone has the right to write. 7/ Children don't twist themselves up in knots about genre. If zombies appear half way through their romance, then cool, it's a zombie romance! 8/ Children write for themselves, plain and simple, and because it's fun. (However they ARE very fond of ending their stories with 'and I woke up and it was all a dream'!)

And finally they never, ever finish a book they are not enjoying. They would never say 'I spent good money on that book so I'm going to finish it' or 'It's for my book club, I have to get to the end' - they think that's crazy behaviour! We have a lot to learn from these smart kids! (But I woudn't recommend the 'I woke up and it was all a dream' ending!)

Yours in writing,

Sarah XXX

Why Do Writers Teach Creative Writing? Is It For The Money?

There was an interesting conference today in Dublin all about writing classes/workshops which I've been following on Twitter. A question came up - why do writers teach creative writing? Is it for the money? Book sales? To find material. And it got me thinking. Why do I teach?

In fact I was teaching only last night - Writing for Children at the Irish Writer's Centre. We talked about what makes a good children's book - unforgettable characters, beautiful writing, a cracking plot, emotion, drama . . . ? We talked about memory and using our past to shape fictional characters. And above all, it was fun. I learned a lot and I hope the other writers did too!

And that's the main reason I teach: because it's fun. Writing is a lonely old business, and now and again it's very healthy to step out from behind the desk and meet 'real people'. I also teach because I believe in passing things on. I've been very lucky in my writing life, many, many people have been very kind and helpful to me. And if I can help someone else, even in a small way, I believe it's my duty to do so.

I've been involved in the book world as a writer and a bookseller for nearly twenty years now, and I like passing on what I know about the business to people who are interested. Plus I adore talking about books, and as most writers are also huge readers, the book chat in workshops is always fascinating.

To answer the question posed on Twitter (and above): I genuinely don't do it for the money. Depending on the organisation, I don't always charge for workshops or talks. I don't do it for book sales - I'm not sure 15 sales (the max number I like to take in a class) would make the slightest bit of difference overall. To find material? If this means being wowed by the amazing people in the class and their life stories, then yes, often they do inspire me. I love meeting new people and, like most writers, I'm always curious about what makes or made them who they are. But their writing doesn't give me material as such, no. Writers have to find their own obsessions to write about, and my passion for Hungarian ballet probably isn't your passion for example!

For me the answer really is: I teach because 1/ I have something to share with other writers, and 2/ it's fun. Teaching children can be the most fun of all, but that's a blog for another day. Young writers can teach us oldies so much about writing.

Yours in writing,

Sarah XXX

PS The best writing talk I've ever heard was given by Patrick Ness who told the audience to 'write with joy'. If he's in Dublin again soon, check him out! He's a remarkable speaker.


What Every Writer Can Learn From Cathy, Darren and Derek

Sarah Gets Strangled by Darren Shan
Sarah Gets Strangled by Darren Shan

The Mountains to Sea Book Festival has just finished - phew - and I'm back to my desk. I programmed the children's events this year and had such fun watching the authors in action and helping at their mammoth signings. Three authors in particular really impressed me. Cathy Cassidy, Darren Shan and Derek Landy. They have such huge respect for their readers and do everything they can to send every reader home with a big smile on her or his face.

My own nephew isn't a big reader but after Darren's inspiring event went home and started writing a zombie story. My sister was astonished. Darren read two extracts from his work - one so spooky it made everyone jump in their seats and scream. Then he talked about his life as a writer and took questions from the floor. And then - then! - he signed for 3 hours solid, greeting each young reader with warmth and interest, chatting away to their parents and grandparents. It was a joy to watch.

Cathy Cassidy was equally charming to her long line of fans. She posed for photos, gave out sweets and chocolate, chatted to the girls and asked them questions about Dublin and what they liked to read. She basically made them all feel really special.

The last event of the festival was a hilarious delve into Derek Landy's weird and wonderful mind. His fans are something - I spotted lots of Skulduggery T-shirts, several hand-made Skulduggery bags and even a pair of Skulduggery runners. Again, he signed with patience and a big grin, making all his young readers laugh with him.

If a reader arrived with a pile of books, they all signed each and every book. If a child arrived with a grubby piece of paper, that was signed too. Nothing was too much trouble.

It was utterly inspiring and reminded me exactly why I love the children's book world so much - the writers are just so darned decent and lovely. To a man or woman - the picture book gang, the Irish writers, the UK writers, the Americans (Meg Rosoff and Patrick Ness) - all exceptional people. I'm sure they have their grumpy days like we all do, but they give everything they have to their readers and for that I salute them.

I'm so grateful to them all for making our festival so successful and giving so many readers an experience they will never forget.

We can all learn a lot about how to treat our readers from Cathy, Darren and Derek!

Yours in writing,

Sarah XXX

Pre-publication Nerves


Out Next Week!

I have two books out this month – Ask Amy Green: Love and Other Drama-ramas and Sally Go Round the Stars: Rhymes from an Irish Childhood – and as always I’m dreadfully nervous. Will readers like them? Will they pick them up in a bookshop? Will they buy them? Are the covers right? Did I find all the typos? This morning I woke up at 6am, my head already full of my To Do list: finish putting content on my new website (more on that in a second), write Amy 5, think about the short story I have to write for a Walker Books anthology called ‘And Then He Kissed Me’, write articles for the launch of both books, write this blog, and let’s not mention the tax return hanging over my head or the rewrite of Shoestring 2! I also programme the children’s section of a book festival, Mountains to Sea in Dun Laoghaire which starts in, gulp, a week.

My new website is almost ready to go live – on 6th September. Lisa, the designer has done an amazing job. It’s fresh looking and easy to navigate, it has a Facebook feed and all kinds of clever things like a media box (for video clips and photos). I’ve updated all the content and added lots of new content, like exclusive background details to all my books – how the titles were picked, where the idea came from etc. I’ve very proud of it and I can’t wait to share it with you all in September. I will of course be continuing my writing blog, and do please keep reading!

Writers at every stage of their careers are riddled with doubts and insecurities, especially around publication time. I’ve written eleven adult novels now (nine published, two out in the next two years), I’ve written four Amy Green novels, and lots of other children’s books, but I’m still horribly nervous about the reaction to each and every new book.

Seeing your new book on the shelf for the first time is terrifying, yet exhilarating. Not seeing it on the shelves when it’s supposed to be there is of course, far worse! I’m in the very lucky position of having publishers behind me who believe in my work and do all they can to edit, market and promote my books to the very best of their ability. And I try to do my part, writing articles for papers, magazines, blogs and websites, being interviewed by journalists on all kinds of things – yesterday it was on proposing to Ben, my partner, for the Irish Examiner – visiting the bookshops to say hi to the booksellers and to sign stock, doing school events, library events, festivals. Around publication time I generally set aside a full month to work on the publicity side of things. There is no point spending a whole year writing and rewriting a book and then just sitting back and letting it find its own way in the market, I like to get out there and do as much as I can to help it on its way.

I know some unpublished writers look forward to the bookshop visits, the interviews, talking to school children or reading their work to adults, but many don’t. After over fifteen years writing and publishing books, I guess I’m just used to it; but publication month never gets any easier – it’s exciting, joyful, stressful and exhausting. But you have to embrace all the publicity and the marketing for what it is – part of every writer’s job. And I’m very, very grateful that people actually want to read my articles, want to interview me, want me to visit their students. October is Children’s Book Festival month and I’ll be travelling around the country talking to young readers about writing and my books. But in November it’s back to my desk to finish Amy 5. And I’m already looking forward to it. Sometimes I think publication month is there to send us writers scurrying back to our desks with added dedication and vim, ready to type again until our fingers throb.

But in the meantime I’m going to take a deep breath, jump into September head first and embrace all the madness of publication month. And now I can cross ‘write blog’ off my To Do list!

Yours in writing,

Sarah XXX

Book Festivals and What They Mean to Writers

I spent a good chunk of last weekend at the Dalkey Book Festival. There was a lovely atmosphere – lots of multi-coloured bunting slung across the streets, face painting, music – a very happy, party feel to the village. I grew up in Dalkey, near the quarry, and it’s a place very close to my heart. It’s wonderful to see such a vibrant, lively festival take over the streets.

On Saturday I hosted a writing workshop for children. Billed as for age 9+, I had a 5 year old and a 7 year old ‘writing’, or more accurately drawing pictures of what they wanted to say in their work (and very good they were too). And one very brave boy who was full of excellent ideas and didn’t seem to be at all phased to be flying solo amongst so many girls.

We did several fun exercises, concentrating on using your senses in your work – especially smell – which writers starting out don’t use half enough. Certain scents transport us to different times of our life, to other countries, to sad thoughts, to happy times.

On Sunday I spoke to Amy Green readers about ideas and inspiration, and we acted out a scene from the first Amy Green book, Boy Trouble. I had a lot of fun, and I hope they did too! Meeting readers is always a pleasure and makes my ‘day job’ worthwhile.

I also got to see some of my writer friends: Martina Devlin, Don Conroy, Niamh Sharkey, Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick, Judi Curtin, Conor Kostick and Sinead Moriarty. We had lunch together, chatted and caught up. It’s always lovely to talk to other writers, they truly understand the pressures and joys of living a writer’s life.

I also listened to Martina Devlin and John Waters speak about being ‘blow-ins’ in Dalkey, which was most interesting. I always learn something new at other writers’ talks and try to attend as many as I can. I greatly enjoyed Listowel Writers’ Week for that reason – and made sure to catch as many different authors and musicians as possible, from Joe Craig on the piano, to Joseph O’Connor with ‘his’ band, and Alice Sebold.

Writing can be a lonely occupation at times, and book festivals are a fantastic opportunity to get out and meet fellow readers and writers. Feeding the mind and the soul is always a good thing. And it reminds me how important books are in so many different peoples’ lives, which as a writer is heartening and inspiring to know.

I’m already looking forward to the West Cork Literary Festival in July – David Soul and Michael Morpurgo in particular. And the Mountains to Sea Festival in September in Dun Laoghaire with Oliver Jeffers, Patrick Ness, Meg Rosoff, Emma Donoghue and Edna O’Brien.

Yours in Writing,

Sarah XXX

Writing Advice from Kate DiCamillo

Had the good fortune to meet the lovely and ultra smart Kate DiCamillo on Saturday. She gave a rousing reading and q and a session at the Mountains to Sea Festival. She gave 3 writing tips during her talk:

1/ Read 2/ Show up on the page - write every day - doesn't matter if it's short, just write daily. 3/ Be stubborn and stand up for yourself - if you want to be a writer, don't let anyone or anything stand in your way.

Good advice!

Everyone fell in love with Kate during the day - she's amazing and so funny. I do hope she comes back to Dublin soon.

I do love the questions young readers ask authors. They asked Kate - 'Are you a cat or a dog person?' (Dog!) Did you have a doll when you were little? (Yes, Victoria - and Kate still has her in a cedar chest at the end of her bed as she can't bear to give her away.) Do you like mice? (Yes!)

Far more interesting than the questions adults ask - 'where do you get your ideas?' We should all look at things through children's eyes at least once a day. Are you a cat or a dog person? Such a great question!

Yours in writing, SarahX

The Truth About Book Pr and Events

That's the funny thing about doing events and publicity for books - publication and all it entails: launches, radio interviews; writing columns; getting pics to go with the columns taken at odd times like 5pm (kids' tea time in our house and always a zoo!), Sat morning just before you have to get the kids out to soccer; book events and book tours - it makes you realise how much you actually enjoy a normal writing day. Some writers love the whole buzz of publication - but most don't. Most - me included - would like maybe 2 or 3 days of it - just to mark the fact that a new book is actually out - and would then like to be allowed slink gracefully back behind our desks to write again.

But such is the life of a writer these days - you must do whatever you can to make your book sell so that a publisher will actually pay you to write another one. And if that includes telling journalists (who I must say are mostly lovely) what you had for breakfast, so be it.

But the most important thing is the writing - get that right first. Worry about all the rest of the hoopla later.

Here's something I've learned over the last 15 years - if your book is really, really good, word of mouth is the most vital ingredient of all when it comes to book sales. You can have the best cover in the world, be on all the radio and telly shows, have bookmarks and posters coming out your ears, and if the book isn't up to scratch no one will recommend it to their friends or family.

So heads down and write!

But I must say visiting 8 schools all over England and meeting some amazing girls and teachers was an experience I will never forget. More about that next week . . .

Have a fab weekend.

And remember - heads down, the writing's the thing!

Sarah XXX