Getting Published

With a Little Help from Your Friends: Festivals + Friendship

sarah-webb-and-judi-curtin.jpg

Last weekend my friend, Judi Curtin and I were on stage at the Mountains to Sea Book Festival (I run the children’s bit of it in fact), talking about our friendship. We’ve known each other since her first book (for adults), Sorry, Walter was published in 2003.

Our First Meeting: Judi (who has a much better memory than I do), says I invited her to a writers’ dinner in town and we ate pizza and chatted about books and writing.

Since that time, both of us have written lots of books for young readers. We’ve also gone on two book tours together which I talked about in another post here:

During the talk last weekend the lovely Sarah McIntyre drew this sweet picture of us on stage together:

Sarah McIntyre's sketch of me and Judi
Sarah McIntyre's sketch of me and Judi

And took a pic of and me and Judi:

me and judi
me and judi

And of the audience, plus the lovely Philip Reeve, her book writing partner:

me and judi audience
me and judi audience

Afterwards we met lots of young readers and signed their books. We also caught up with lots of our writer friends at a big writers’ dinner: Sarah McIntyre and Philip Reeve (who were wearing the best costumes ever), Oisin McGann, and lots of others, and also met some new friends.

Best costumes ever!
Best costumes ever!

Book festivals are a wonderful way of bringing writers and book lovers together. Over the next few months Judi and I will visit West Cork, Kerry, Dublin and many other places on our Friendship Tour. We’ve both decided that it’s much more fun touring together than alone. Roll on festival season!

What’s your favourite book festival? Who have you met at a book event? I’d love to know!

Yours in books (and festivals and friendship),

Sarah XXX

A Day in the Life - the CBI Conference and Thoughts for Writers

eoin-colfer.jpg

Right, because I love you all and I know many of you could not make the Children’s Books Ireland Conference today in the Lexicon Library in Dun Laoghaire, here are some notes and thoughts on the day. The title was: A Day in the Life

Eoin Colfer

Eoin Colfer and Friends
Eoin Colfer and Friends

Eoin Colfer kicked off the proceedings in a lively manner with a funny and thought provoking talk about writing, his love of Ireland, how ‘place’ informs writers’ books and how his Laureate-ship is shaping up so far.

On writing he said: ‘It starts with character for me. My criminal mastermind, Artemis is based on my brother, Donal.’

‘People often say don’t write a local story. I think write a local story with universal themes.’

He said for him, having a new book out never gets old and he never takes it for granted:

‘It’s amazing to be published – to hold a new book in your hands – it’s always fantastic. Whatever else happens in your life, you’ll always have that.’

His aim with the Laureate events is to visit ‘tiny schools on remote islands who don’t normally get author visits… As a child I didn’t realise that writers were real people.’

He said: ‘Reaching that one kid, planting the seed of story in their head, that’s what the Laureate’s all about.’

On why Irish people are such good storytellers and writers:

Eoin explained that it’s in our blood. We grow up hearing stories.

‘Myths and legends are on the curriculum in Ireland. I was surprised to find this wasn’t the case in other countries.’

Alan Nolan

Next up was Alan Nolan who talked about the books he had written and the comics that had influenced him as a child.

‘The way to get children reading is to get them hooked on a series,’ he said. His job as Illustrator in Residence in the Church of Ireland College of Education is to ‘remind trainee teachers how much fun children’s books are.’

Monster Doodle

During lunch there was a wonderful Monster Doodle for adults – where everyone got stuck in.

Sarah Crossan

Sarah Crossan
Sarah Crossan

Next up was Sarah Crossan in conversation with the wonderful Colm Keegan, Writer in Residence at dlr Libraries.

She spoke passionately about engaging teens with poetry and why she writes novels in verse for teens. Her new novel in verse, One (and not Won as she pointed out) will be published in August and is about conjoined twins. It sounds great.

Next up where the New Writers – many new writers took to the stage to share their books with the audience in 5 minute sessions.

This was an interesting insight into the way people approached being asked to do this. Some gave some background to the book, others gave a straight reading without any intro. The ones that worked the best I think did a little of both. The ones that stood out for me were Dave Rudden who is an excellent reader of his own work and gave a short intro which set the scene well and Moira Fowley-Doyle. She read with a lot of passion and it’s my kind of book – a family/friendship drama with a clever and fresh premise. It’s called The Accident Season and it’s about a family who for one month a year are horribly and tragically accident prone. She read the perfect section (from the start of the book so it didn’t need an intro) and I really enjoyed her reading.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed them all (other writers included Patricia Forde, Kim Hood, Shane Hegarty and a lovely picture book guy), but it did make me ponder the importance of professional development for writers and how new writers need help preparing for readings and events. I am going to write a series of blogs on events/readings and how to write and deliver them when I get a chance as I think it might be helpful to newer writers.

I was a nervous wreck when I started out doing events! I love doing them now, as long as I am well prepared. You can throw me in front of any age group from babies and toddlers to teens and I'll have something to say, but it wasn't always the case. It's taken me years to be confident in front of an audience. I would have loved to shadow a writer before I started doing events. And I would have loved some guidance on how to put a good talk together. So I'll share what I can soon, I promise!

I'll also post some publicity and marketing tips and interviews with publishing pr people this year - remind me if I forget!

Julia Eccleshare

Julia Eccleshare
Julia Eccleshare

Finally after a very nice coffee break – with biscuits – was the inspiring Julia Eccleshare, Children’s Books Editor for the Guardian. I thought she was FANTASTIC and spoke such sense. Of course, she did say that writers made extra-good reviewers as they understood things like a writer’s intent and theme, so I may be slightly biased.

She spoke lyrically about her job – how she has to sift through over 10k children’s books a year to select the 45 books she can review in the Guardian.

She is passionate about books and stories. She said ‘I never go anywhere without thinking about a story.’

And ‘Everything in my life is coloured by the stories I read.’

She explained how these days writers have to be advocates for their books. Gone are the days where you could write a book and sit back on your laurels. You have to get out there and do events. ‘You cannot sit at home and be shy.’

She told us how JK Rowling’s books were game changers – how after the Harry Potter series, children’s books became cool and people started talking about stories and children’s books like never before. She mentioned Philip Pullman winning the overall Whitbread Award with The Amber Spyglass and quoted him: ‘Children’s books are the home of the story.’

She spoke about the importance of children’s books: ‘Children learn things from children’s books that their parents don’t want them to know… There is no serendipity for children anymore. They are the most watched children ever. How do they learn that things go wrong (if they are always being watched)?’

Books help them explore dangerous worlds and allow them have adventures and decide what kind of people they would like to be, she explained.

It was a wonderful talk and she’s a powerhouse.

The day ended with a drinks reception where I talked to Julia and many writers and readers and ate some very fine finger food.

So ended the CBI Day – thanks to all the speakers, to Marian Keyes who provided the wonderful venue and to the girls at CBI, Elaina, Jenny and Aoife for a cracking event.

Yours in books,

Sarah XXX

PS If you read my blog and find it useful, do let me know via the comments or on Facebook or Twitter. :)

sarah crossan book cover
sarah crossan book cover

Getting Published - Irish Publishers Tell All

I was at an excellent event at the Dublin Book Festival today and I took some notes just for you. They are particularly relevant if you are writing for children or teenagers. As you may know, it's my area and I love sharing news about the children's book world, especially good news. And there was lots of good news at this event. 

Grainne Clear from Little Island Books

To be accurate I was at the first 1/2 of the event (I had to talk at my own event after that) - Meet the Publishers and Agents with Grainne Clear from Little Island Books, Sarah Davis-Goff from Tramp Press, Nicki Howard from Gill and Macmillan (soon to be just Gill) and Peter O'Connell (ex Liberties and now book pr). Sadly I missed the second part - with the agents.

Grainne Clear gave an excellent talk about the children's book world and Little Island Books in particular. She reads chapter 1 of a submission (and yes, they take unsolicited) and then the start of the next few chapters - to see how the story progresses. If she likes what she reads, she asks to see the whole book.

90% of their sales are printed books (not e books - most young children up to age 12 are not ebook readers).

Her job is not to give you feedback on an early draft - so don't send first drafts or ideas. She wants to see finished books which have been worked on.

She likes honesty and personality in a cover letter.

Nicki Howard, Gill and Macmillan

Nicki explained that Gill and Macmillan publish Irish interest books, mainly non fiction but are NOW ACTIVELY LOOKING FOR CHILDREN'S NON FICTION AND FICTION. This is great news for children's writers. They also accept unsolicited manuscripts.

She said 'publishing adds value to the space between the writer and the reader'.

Sarah Davis-Goff from Tramp Press

Sarah Davis-Goff from Tramp Press is looking for 'stonkingly brilliant fiction', including genre fiction and YA. She also gave a thumbs up to unsolicited manuscripts.

She hates submission letters that begin 'Dear Sir' as Tramp Press is run by two women! Little Island Books also.

All three women said that your cover letter is your calling card and to work on it and make it great.

Interesting facts:

Tramp Books - they would consider a debut novel a success if it sold 2k copies in a year

Gill and Macmillan - would look for at least 5k sales for a title over a year (but some of their books, like the Neven Maguire cook books would sell up to 10k a year, and The Pope's Children by David McWilliams sold 100k)

Little Island - a debut novel would be deemed successful if it sold 1.5k to 2k over a year to 18 months - Grainne mentioned that they are looking for longevity in a title and said award winning novels have a good track record for them in the long term.

Thanks to Grainne, Sarah and Nicki for all the useful information. And great to hear Gill and Macmillan are now looking for children's fiction.

Yours in books,

Sarah XXX

PS I met a young man who is writing for teenagers - I asked him what he liked to read, he said he wasn't a big reader. NEVER SAY THIS TO ANYONE IF YOU ARE INTERESTED IN GETTING PUBLISHED. Poor man, think I gave him a bit of an earful.

PPS If you are serious about getting published, www.writing.ie is a super website - do check it out.

The Book That Changed My Life

Last Saturday I ran a book lunch in Dublin for lots of readers (grown ups, although I do run ones for young readers too). I asked the writers hosting tables at the lunch to think about a book that changed their life.It got me thinking about my own reading history and the books that have made an impact on my life.

busy busy world
busy busy world

The earliest book to make a huge impact was Busy, Busy World by Richard Scarry. I just loved this book. I didn’t travel much as a child – I took my first flight at age 18 – but I travelled in my imagination thanks to this book which takes you all over the world with its wonderful animal characters.

An interior from Busy, Busy World
An interior from Busy, Busy World

Enid Blyton’s books were also important to me. I adored the Famous Five series and the first full book I wrote (age 11) was called The Magic Sofa and was about three children who have to go and stay with their horrible aunt for the holidays. It was heavily inspired by the Famous Five books!

IMG_4461[1]
IMG_4461[1]
IMG_4462[1]
IMG_4462[1]
enid blyton
enid blyton

But the book that has made the most lasting impression on me is Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume. When I first read it as a teenager I remember thinking is she really writing about bras, and periods, and kissing boys? Can you really do that in a book? It’s such an honest, open and funny book and I re-read it every year because a/ it’s so wonderful and it makes me laugh out loud and b/ it reminds me what it feels like to be 13.

Judy Blume
Judy Blume
This is the edition I had as a young teen - the cover looks a lot different now!
This is the edition I had as a young teen - the cover looks a lot different now!
New cover of the same book
New cover of the same book

When I was a young bookseller in Waterstone’s on Dawson Street, Dublin (a shop that sadly no longer exists) I had the great pleasure of meeting Judy Blume. She did several school events for me and after one of the events we had lunch together, just the two of us. I was a single mother at the time and finding it hard to juggle work and looking after my toddler son. I told her that one day I’d love to write a book. ‘Write for children,’ she told me. ‘They’re the best audience ever. And I think you’d be great at it.’

I took her encouragement to heart. The following year my first children’s book, Kids Can Cook was published, a truly life changing experience. Having a book published was the second most exciting thing that had ever happened to me, after having my son. Twenty years on, I’m still writing. It hasn’t always been an easy journey, I’ve hit some pot holes and speed bumps along the way, but overall it’s a good life, a satisfying, life affirming life. And from time to time I like to look back and to think about all the writers and books that have inspired me along the way.

Is there a book that inspired you or changed your life? I’d love to know.

Yours in writing,

Sarah XXX

This post first appeared on www.girlsheartbooks.com

The Best Children's Book Agents in Ireland + the UK

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

 

Writing.ie Book Lunch - With Special Guest, Jennifer Johnston

Writing.ie Book Lunch – An Author at Every Table

In Association with Dubray Books

With Special Guest, Jennifer Johnston

Jennifer Johnston
Jennifer Johnston

Venue: Royal St George Yacht Club

Date: Saturday 18th October

Time: 12.00pm until 3.30pm (lunch will be served at 12.30pm)

Cost: e28.50 – includes a three course meal plus tea/coffee

Bookshop on site provided by Dubray Books – all the writers’ books will be in stock

To book: ring Kate at 01 2801811 (places limited, please book quickly)

You can book a whole table for your book club, or come with a friend or individually

To request to be seated with a particular author, please email sarahsamwebb@gmail.com before 10th October and we will do our best to accommodate you

About the Lunch:

Join some of Ireland’s top writers at this exclusive book lunch in the beautiful surroundings of the Royal St George Yacht Club on Dun Laoghaire’s sea front. Talk books and writing with your table host, and hear an after lunch conversation with the award winning novelist, Jennifer Johnston.

This lunch will be presented by Vanessa O’Loughlin from writing.ie and writer, Sarah Webb.

Our Author Hosts:

jennifer j books
jennifer j books

Literary powerhouse, Jennifer Johnston (latest novel - A Sixpenny Song); writer and historian, Turtle Bunbury (published in October - The Glorious Madness: Tales of the Irish and the Great War);  bestselling authors, Sheila O’Flanagan (latest novel - If You Were Me) and Emma Hannigan (published in October - The Heart of Winter); author of the critically acclaimed The House When It Happened, Martina Devlin; award-winning author of The Playground, Julia Kelly; historical novelists, Kate Beaufoy (pen name of Kate Thompson, latest novel - Liberty Silk) and Lia Mills (latest novel - Fallen); crime novelists Liz Nugent (debut novel - the muct praised Unravelling Oliver) and Karen Perry (Paul Perry and Karen Gillece – debut novel, The Boy Who Never Was); and finally, TV3 chef, Andrew Rudd (latest book - Entertaining with Andrew Rudd).

www.writing.ie

www.dubray.ie

How To Get Published by Breakthrough YA Author, Louise O’Neill

Louise O'Neill
Louise O'Neill

Louise will be appearing at the Mountains to Sea dlr Book Festival on 13th September (details below)

Upon hearing that I’ve written a novel, some people want to know where I get my ideas from, as if there’s an idea-shop you can just pop in to on your way home from work. Lidl will probably start offering ‘Idee’s’ soon. They’re basically the same thing as ideas but far cheaper.  Others ask about the storyline. ‘It’s a dystopian tale exploring the contemporary obsession with the female body. Think The Handmaid’s Tale for teenagers.’  I answer, watching as every man in a two mile radius backs away. No wonder I’m still single. And then, of course, there are the frustrated writers, lips tightening with barely concealed envy when they hear my good news. I know these people. I was one of them, poring over a newspaper article about some child of fifteen who has sold their first novel for half a million euro, trying to ignore the hatred threatening to suck me under, as greedy as a slurry pit. There is nothing more disheartening than seeing someone else realising your dreams.

So, here are my top tips on how to finally write that novel.

  • Read voraciously. Stephen King said ‘If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time to write.’ A badly written book will demonstrate what not to do and a well written book will inspire you. Be warned, a masterpiece will merely leave you with a general sense of hopelessness as your novel will never be anywhere as good. I had to take to my bed for a few days after finishing ‘Cloud Atlas’ like a Victorian maiden with a case of the vapours.
  • Think of your writing skills as a muscle. The more you use them, the stronger they will become. The thought of completing an entire manuscript can seem so insurmountable we find ourselves unable to take the first step. Set yourself smaller tasks to begin with. Write an article for your local newspaper. Write a short story. Write five hundred words on your first holy communion. Julia Cameron, in her excellent book The Artist’s Way, recommends ‘morning pages’ and I’ve found freehand writing to be an effective tool of unblocking creativity.
  • When you do decide to start your novel, make sure you’re passionate about your idea. This might sound obvious but you’ll be working on this project for the next nine to twelve months, or more. There will be days when you hate your book, you hate your brain for generating the original idea and you hate your laptop for having the audacity to record all these stupid words. If you don’t adore the idea at the beginning, you will likely ever reach the end.
  • Set yourself a deadline. When I first moved back to Ireland from New York on September 1st, 2011, I decided to take a year out to work on the novel that I had spent the last ten years threatening to write. I finished the first draft on August 31st, 2012.
  • I remember phoning my father from New York, complaining that my job in fashion ‘didn’t make my heart sing.’ I know. Oprah has a lot to answer for. He told me if I wanted to write so badly I should take any opportunity that I had to do so. Bring a notebook with you and write on the subway, he advised, unaware that I spent my subway journey gawking surreptitiously at barefoot crack heads or avoiding eye contact with anyone I might feel compelled to offer my seat to. (Apologies to that pregnant lady on crutches. My bad.) Once back in Clonakilty, I made myself sit at my desk from 7am to noon every day, whether I felt like it or not. Some days, the words came. Other days, I sat there, staring at the blank page. It didn’t matter. I still sat at my desk at the same time every day. Of course, I was lucky enough to have parents who provided a room ‘of one’s own’ and, more importantly, a new laptop to put in that room.  I don’t have children or a tyrannical boss or a crippling mortgage to pay and I’m aware that these must feel like truly impossible obstacles. But you owe to yourself to at least try to carve out some time every week that you can use to write.
  • Social media, while beneficial for ‘research’, is really only a method of distraction. When asked how one of the authors on his roster managed to maintain such a prolific work rate, Jonny Geller, an agent with Curtis Brown, replied ‘He doesn’t have twitter.’ Until novels come in a 140 character size, it’s not helping you.
  • Be prepared to make sacrifices. In my case, the first casualty was an active social life. Jodi Picoult describes writing as ‘successful schizophrenia’ and I found it very difficult at times to interact normally with other people when all I could think about was this world I had created in my head. Personal aesthetic standards also suffered. When I worked in fashion, I didn’t own any items of clothing that could ever be described as ‘practical’. Or, indeed, anyway comfortable. Things are so bad that when I wash my hair, my father asks if I’m going anywhere special and my mother claps her hands in glee, like I’m a toddler learning to use the potty.
  • Some authors edit their work as they go along but I saved all my editing for the end, like the crappy pink and brown Roses at the bottom of the tin that no one wants at Christmas. There is a peculiar type of shame in reading ‘Slowly, she walked slowly down the corridor slowly.’ In case you don’t comprehend the subtlety of my brilliance, I was trying to convey that the character was very, very, very slow.
  •  Once you finish the first draft, edit, edit and then edit some more. As Faulkner said, ‘...kill all your darlings.’ You’re just showing off anyway. Ask a friend who is an avid reader to take a look at your manuscript. Choose someone you trust to be both honest and gentle with you.
  • When you have a finished manuscript in fairly good nick, you need to find an agent. An agent will take a proportion of your earnings (generally around 15%) but they are essential, as most publishing companies don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts. When submitting to an agency, they usually want to see the first three chapters, a covering letter and your CV but check their websites for individual guidelines. Choose an agent that has authors you admire on their roster or who represents authors who are writing in similar genre to you. Make your covering letter engaging. If you’re someone’s love child, now is the time to mention it. Unless it’s someone embarrassing, like Mick Hucknell. Keep that to yourself. Forever.
  • Be prepared for rejection and don’t take it personally. JK Rowling famously received twelve rejection letters and I think she’s managing to pay her electricity bill these days. You want your agent to fight for your book when they’re trying to sell it to a publisher. If they don’t ‘get’ it, then they’re not the right agent for you anyway.

Going Too Far? Panel Discussion on YA Fiction with CBI

Venue: dlr Lexicon, Dun Laoghaire, Co Dublin

Date: Sat 13th Sept @ 4.30-6.30pm

Price: e8/e5 students

Age: Students and adults

only ever yours
only ever yours

Booking: www.mountainstosea.ie or 01 2312929

Writing Tips from Award Winning Author, Sheena Wilkinson

Writing Tips from Sheena Wilkinson

Sheena Wilkinson with Elaina Ryan of CBI and Writer, Deirdre Sullivan
Sheena Wilkinson with Elaina Ryan of CBI and Writer, Deirdre Sullivan

See Sheena at the Mountains to Sea Book Festival (details below)

  1. Everyone will say the same thing here; that’s because it’s so important. READ. Read everything. Read in your favourite genre and outside it. Read to see how stories work. Read to remind yourself that books are magic, and that you want to create that magic for someone else.
  2. Find out what works for you. I faffed around with unfinished novels for years because I kept stopping to edit as I went along, always aiming for that perfect first chapter. For me, it’s better to write to the end of a rough first draft and then go back and redraft, and redraft, and redraft. It’s less work in the long run, and for me having a complete draft, even though it’s rubbishy, gives me a feeling of achievement and something to work on. This seems to work for lots of writers. It may not work for you but it’s worth trying if, like me until about six years ago, you find it hard to get to the end. And the first drafts are getting better.
  3. Give yourself goals. It may be that you’ll write for an hour a day, or that you’ll finish a sort story by the end of the month, or that you’ll do a thousand words a day, or 500 or even 100. You can move the goalposts as you get more serious. If I think about the whole project of a novel, I feel a bit gulpy and want to go and lie down, but if I think that I aim to do 6,000 words a week and that means 1,000 words day with a day off, that seems more manageable. I have printed off a geeky calendar so I can waste time filling it in and adding happy/sad faces accordingly. You can get software to do this for you, but why bother, when you can use up hours of writing time colouring in and highlighting?
  4. Fall in love. With your book. I can’t get into something and spend a year – or, in the case of my forthcoming novel, 2 ½ years (I took time off to write another book in the middle) – on it unless I love it. So don’t follow the market or write about something because you think you ‘should’: write what you love. It helps to have a bit of  a crush on at least one character. BUT, however in love you are…
  5. Don’t be precious! You know how being in love is great, but it can make you a bit blind to someone’s actual qualities? That. So when your editor/agent/writing buddy/mum suggests that something in your book could maybe work better, consider that they might be right. After all, you want them to fall in love with your book too.

Sheena will be appearing on the Going Too Far? Panel Discussion at the Mountains to Sea Book Festival 2014 with debut novelist, Louise O'Neill, David O'Callaghan from Eason, reviewer and writer, Mary Arrigan and reader, Aaron Williams.

A must for anyone interested in writing or reading YA fiction.

Saturday 13th September, Lexicon, Dun Laoghaire (new library) 4.40-6pm

e8 adults/e5 students

The Kids are All Write - the Irish Children's Book World

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Divergent - the movie

Sarah Webb – Published 18 May 2014 in the Sunday Independent

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THERE has been a lot of doom and gloom about the state of the Irish book trade in the press recently. Happily, however, children's books are holding their own and now account for up to 25 per cent of overall book sales, a figure which is increasing year on year.

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Irish writers are in great demand internationally, and rising star of the Irish children's publishing world David Maybury has just been appointed to the important post of Commissioning Editor of Scholastic Children's Books, UK.

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Watching Back to the Future with my children last week, I was amused to see the flying cars and insane clothes predicted to be all the rage in 2015. Books were also a thing of the past, with all children reading electronically. Many thought this would indeed be the case, that children would be the first to switch over to e-readers. However, we underestimated children's love of physical books.

The supremely talented Eoin Colfer, who was inaugurated as Children's Laureate na nOg last week, put it perfectly when he said: "Every 50 years something comes along and people say 'That's the end of books'. We'll have to adapt, but physical books will definitely endure... Books will never die."

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"Books are tactile," he told me. "You can hug a book. You can sit down with your dad or mum and read a book together. Books are a badge of honour. A way to be identified. What is on your shelf says a lot about you. I had The Lord of the Rings and all my Batman comics (on my shelves). If anyone came into my room they knew who I was."

Colfer is right – books define who children and teenagers are. My own daughter is an avid fantasy reader and her shelves are crammed with Skulduggery Pleasant and Manga books. She has never expressed an interest for an electronic reader. Many of her friends own them and use them only when travelling. The statistics are there to prove that children love physical books: less than eight per cent of children's books are read electronically.

"Only four per cent of our children's book sales are electronic sales," says Ivan O'Brien, MD of O'Brien Press. "There's still a huge appetite for good, strong children's titles and potential for books to break out." O'Brien has had great success with its translation sales and has sold books by Irish authors like Judi Curtin and Marita Conlon-McKenna into many different territories.

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Books for our younger readers now account for 22-25 per cent of the overall book market, according to David O'Callaghan, Children's Book Buyer at Eason. "They've really entered the mainstream," he says.

"The big trends for us at the moment are Minecraft and Divergent. I think reality based YA (young adult) novels like John Green's The Fault in Our Stars are definitely going to be the next big thing. And the new Irish writers coming through the ranks, like Shane Hegarty are worth watching."

The spotlight was on Hegarty recently when the news of his "substantial six figure deal" hit the headlines. Darkmouth, his first book for children with HarperCollins, will be published next year.

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Last month, 26-year-old Cavan man Dave Rudden signed a deal with Puffin for his YA fantasy adventure trilogy, The Borrowed Dark, due in 2016; and journalist Darragh McManus's debut YA novel, Shiver the Whole Night Through, will be published by Hot Key Books in November.

And it won't just be little people reading their work. Adults are reading YA and crossover books like never before, and many authors are reaching rock star status.

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US writer John Green filled the RDS last year with more than 800 screaming fans. Who says teenagers don't read? Titles like The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, the Harry Potter books, Twilight, The Hunger Games and most recently, the Divergent series are openly read by adults on the DART, and discussed at book clubs.

Colfer is an inspired choice for the third Children's Laureate. A brilliantly funny speaker, his love of words is infectious. He says, "I want to tell a story to every child in Ireland." He has exciting plans to put together a show based around stories and books and to tour it internationally.

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"Ireland's history is story," he says. "We've always been a nation of storytellers. It's in our blood."

Previous Laureates Siobhan Parkinson and Niamh Sharkey are tough acts to follow. Parkinson set up a Laureate Library which still travels the country, introducing books from all over the world to Irish children.

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Niamh curated the Pictiur exhibition, work from 21 Irish illustrators which has travelled to Bologna and Brussels and was recently seen by more than 45,000 people at IMMA. You can catch it in Lismore Castle Arts, Waterford, in September, the Linenhall Arts Centre, Castlebar, in October and finally in the new Library and Cultural Centre in Dun Laoghaire at the end of the year.

Children's Books Ireland is also behind the prestigious Children's Books Ireland Award (previously the Bisto Award), which was announced last Tuesday. The overall winner of this year's Award was Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick for Hagwitch, a novel about theatre, puppets and magic, set partly in 16th-Century London. Oliver Jeffers won the Children's Choice Award for The Day the Crayons Quit; and Honour Awards went to Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick, P J Lynch and Paula Leyden.

The next big event on the calender is the Children Books Ireland Conference, where our newly minted Laureate will be joined by fashion illustrator and milliner turned book guru David Roberts (Dirty Bertie), spoken word darling and best friend of Adele (yes, that Adele), Laura Dockrill, and US picture book maker, Leslie Patricelli.

Taking place at the cool Lighthouse Cinema in Smithfield, Dublin, next Saturday and Sunday, it's a must for anyone who wants to find out more about children's books.

For further info about the world of children's books visit www.childrensbooksireland.ie

Sarah Webb is a writer and a children's book commentator. She is the Children's Curator for the Mountains to Sea DLR Book Festival

How to Write Short Stories (and Win Writing Competitions)

ghb comp
ghb comp

Want to win the Beyond the Stars Short Story Competition and be published along with Eoin Colfer, Judi Curtin and Derek Landy? Or simply want to find out how to write a brilliant story? Then read on.

1/ Before you start writing, think about your story and your characters. Go for a walk and mull it all over in your head, then grab a notebook and start scribbling down some ideas.

2/ You could start with your own memories or things that have happened to you or a friend – as this is what will make your story different. For example: Is there a favourite place you love to hide? Do you have a tree house or a club house? Have you ever had a fight with your best friend?

3/ Or try using a traditional story as your starting point and re-write it in a new or unusual way eg an Irish or English (or Welsh or Scottish) Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty, based in your home town. You could re-write a traditional legend using modern characters and setting.

4/ Your characters can be children, teenagers, giants, talking animals or astronauts – the sky is the limit. But make them realistic and give them carefully thought out names that suit who they are. Think of Matilda, Charlie and James in Dahl’s books. The Harry Potter books are full of great names, as are Cathy Cassidy’s books.

5/ Once you have mapped out your main characters (for a short story don’t use too many main characters – two or three is plenty), and your plot, give your story an exciting or intriguing opening. Start at the point where the action begins – you don’t need to add back story. Avoid any long descriptions, readers will be eager to learn what happens in the story, not what the sky looks like.

6/ Think about the setting of your story – where will it take place? And add details – icicles, food. Use your senses to add depth to the tale – smell, taste, touch. What does the forest/back garden smell like?

7/ Conflict is vital in any story. Without the Big Bad Wolf, Little Red Riding Hood wouldn’t be a very interesting story. Think of the favourite traditional tales – Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, even Pinocchio – they are full of larger than life characters and HUGE emotions. Love, hate, revenge . . . think big and don’t be afraid to use strong emotions.

8/ Keep rewriting the story until it’s as good as you can make it. I rewrite each of my Ask Amy Green books many times before handing them over to my editor. And finally, ask a trusted friend to look over your work before you submit, a second pair of eyes can make all the difference.

Good Luck!

Yours in writing, Sarah XXX

(Editor of Beyond the Stars)

This post first appeared on the Girls Heart Books website.

Book an Appointment with The Writing Doctors - 4th April

east coast fm balloon
east coast fm balloon

Exclusive Slots with with The Writing Doctors, Vanessa O'Loughlin and Sarah Webb at East Coast FM's Coffee Morning in Aid of Wicklow Cancer Support Services The Beach House, Greystones Friday 4th April 10am to 12pm e10 for a 15 minute session with Vanessa or Sarah (e20 for 30 minutes) - please pay at the door (all money will be donated to cancer support services in Co Wicklow)

Writing a book and want to know how to get it published? Looking for the right literary agent? Or just need some writing help? Join publishing and writing experts, Vanessa and Sarah for some expert advice.

Vanessa runs the highly successful writing website, writing.ie and is also a literary scout for several UK and Irish agents; Sarah is an experienced writer and writing teacher. Together they are the Writing Doctors. If they can't fix your book, no-one can!

To book a time slot with Sarah or Vanessa (4th April, 10-12, The Beach House, Greystones) please email Sarah before 3rd April - sarah at sarahwebb dot ie - stating which Writing Doctor you'd like to see and your ideal time – 10.00, 10.30, 11.00, 11.30 etc Places are limited, please book asap

(Last year over e46,000 was raised for cancer support services in the Wicklow area – please help this year by attending one of the coffee mornings or our clinic and bring your friends. PS There will be a certain Irish X Factor singer entertaining the troops in Greystones - so come early!)

What's in a Name? Titles and How Writers Pick Them (Part 2)

Last month I wrote a piece about book titles and how writers picked them. I asked lots of my writer friends to tell me how they did it. So many of them answered (lovely people that they are) that I have great material for a second blog – hurrah!(Some of them write for children, some write for adults, some write for both.) So how do writers pick their titles – take it away, writers:

titles what if
titles what if

Martina Murphy (Writes for adults and children)

I've picked titles myself, had titles picked by the publisher and more often than not, picked a title and then as the book evolves, I realise that the book has outgrown its name and needs a new one. I suppose I never know what a book is about, until I finish it. My last book - What If - was originally called Moments - as I had envisioned three intertwining stories that hinged on moments. However, I soon realised that all the moments in life have that 'What If' question at the heart of them. A sort of crossroads and that it is the decisions we make in those moments that determine the course of a life. And so What If? was born!

Martina Devlin (Writes for adults)

My next book, to be published in September (2014), is called The House Where It Happened and choosing the title has been like digging out all of my teeth one by one, without anaesthetic, using a blunt spoon. Endless possibilities were considered and discarded. It's a ghost story set in 1711. I finally went for something to do with the house at the centre of the mystery, rather than a more general title, because the house is the focus for all sorts of events. The house actually exists, I didn't make it up. I've stood outside and looked at it. I can't pretend I felt any sense of dread, much as I wanted to - it just looked like an old house. Anyhow, the name of the house is not easy to pronounce - the word is Scottish and sounds different to the way it looks on paper. So I decided not to use that, or I'd go round correcting people all the time, the way I'm compelled to do if they say Tyrone wrong (it's Tir not Tie, for anyone who's unsure). In the end, I thought The House Where It Happened worked, partly because of the alliteration with the two Hs. And partly because that's exactly what it's about: a house where something inexplicable happens. Unless you factor in in ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggedy beasties and things that go bump in the night...

The following writers all blog on the wonderful Girls Heart Books blog and write mainly for children.

titles marshmallow
titles marshmallow

Karen McCombie

Occasionally I have a title that needs a bit of thinking about, or a bit of tweaking, but loads ping fully formed into my (fuzzy) mind. Probably my longest - and most random - was 'Marshmallow Magic and the Wild Rose Rouge'. That parked itself in my head, and I HAD to come up with a story to go with it!

Diane Messidoro My last (and only, so far!) book started off as 'How to Keep a Man as a Pet'. It was a comedy/non-fiction idea, really, as I've always thought dealing with men was a bit like dealing with pets - not in a mean way (I adore men!) just in that they're generally far more straightforward than we think they are. When I decided to turn my random 'male human pet training' instructions into a story, however, Circe Shaw turned up in my head and as she was 15-something, I tweaked the title to 'Boy'.

Caroline Juskus

Here's how I came up with the title THE LADYBIRD CODE. I had just read Dan Brown's De Vinci Code and wanted to do something similar for kids. I decided to base the code on Morse code but instead of using dots and dashes I opted for large and small dots. Then I looked for a way to use the spots and came up with ladybirds conveying top secret messages on their backs!

Julia Golding

My book out this month is called Storm and Stone (as Joss Stirling). Why? Because I wanted to follow the Sherlock and Watson/Starsky and Hutch/Cagney and Lacey pattern of cops/detectives but add an earthy, close to paranormal feel by choosing surnames that were elemental. The story is a teen romance set in a spooky English boarding school. And it just sounded right!

Kate Maryon

I chose the title for my latest book, Invisible Girl, because it tackles the issue of child runaways/homelessness and in real life these children are known as Invisible Children. This phrased was coined because these very vulnerable children hide in the shadows to avoid being picked up by the police and being returned to wherever they've run from. What makes this so tragic is that the fear of being picked up means they don't have access to healthcare, food supplies, care, etc. My story is about 12 year-old, Gabriella, who finds herself alone and living on the streets in Manchester.

Julie Sykes

My latest book is Amber. Amber's lost her memory and took her name from the beautiful amber necklace she was found with. Once she'd walked into my life with her story there really wasn't anything else I could call the book!

Marie-Louise Jensen

My titles are chosen collaboratively with my publishers and it's very tricky. None of us are very good at coming up with them and it can take ages. My upcoming book Runaway was especially difficult. All the really exciting titles we came up with gave the whole plot away. In the end, publication had to be delayed 3 months because we still hadn't come up with anything we were all happy with. In the end, they took a suggestion of mine they had previously rejected (The Runaway) and tweaked it to Runaway which they were happier with.

Thanks for all the great insights, writers!

Yours in books, Sarah Webb

(A version of this post first appeared on the Girls Heart Books blog)

Brilliant PR Tips - Help Promote Your Children's Book

Mary Byrne
Mary Byrne

Have you written a children's book?

Do you want to promote it but have no idea where to start?

Never fear - Mary Byrne, pr guru from HarperCollins Children's Books gave a cracking workshop on PR for children's writers.

Here are some notes from that day. The workshop was very detailed and comprehensive, thanks to Mary for giving such great advice. Any mistakes are my own.

PR is all about communicating and managing reputation - managing what people (and the media) say about you.

When it comes to PR, planning is everything but don't worry about changing your plan as you go along.

First - decide your pr objectives pre publication - these could be:

1/ Social media - To have 500 followers on Twitter; to have 500 likes on Facebook.

2/ To have 3 pre-publication reviews - get early endorsements - you can use child reviewers. (The reviews are to use as content for social media etc when the book comes out.)

3/ To reach the gatekeepers - influential reviewers, teachers, librarians, bloggers.

4/ To talk to your local bookshop and library - and ask what you can do for them - a workshop/ fun event - something original.

5/ To create good, original content to use online. Content is vital - before your book comes out, write and produce lots of content for your website, blog and social media pages.

6/ To bank tweetable and Facebookable photos to use online.

7/ To set up 3 events where you can talk about your book.

With social media, decide your own boundaries - make your message relevant. Don't share personal information on your pets, children etc.

Make a good impression. Watch out for # (hashtags) on different subjects that you are interested in on Twitter and join the conversation.

Work out your PR strategy well in advance. Ask for a meeting with the PR person in your publishing house and talk through your and their plans. See how you can work together to get your book out there.

Who is your target audience? Decide. Parents/teachers/librarians or children themselves?

Work out how to reach them. What tools to use. What your PR message is.

Every writer must have online visibility. But think of yourself as a brand - and decide how you want to engage with your audience.

Don't react to online critics. Don't say anything that you wouldn't say in front of a guard/policeman.

Twitter competitions work very well - use these to drum up interest in your book once it's out.

Sign up for Good Reads and create your own writer's page. Write a blog and generate a band of followers on Good Reads. Mary showed us Steve 'Polarbear' Camden's Good Reads page - Steve is one of Mary's authors.

Netgalley - for industry professionals - ask your publisher to put your book up here. www.netgalley.com

Bloggers - make contact with them and offer them reading copies of your book.

How much time should you spend on social media? Mary suggested that writers should tweet at least 3/4 times a day and use Facebook a couple of times a week.

Events and Workshops: Create an original workshop for schools and approach schools with your idea.

Podcasts/You Tube clips: You could do a Q and A with your target audience - age 12+ for eg.

Print Material: give the readers something to bring home after events.

Blog: Set up a blog and blog about things that mean something to you. Again, content is king. You can then tweet/Facebook your blog posts.

Local media: Local newspapers often cover new books by local writers - ditto local radio stations.

But be disciplined, don't waste time you could be writing on social media.

And finally remember to tell your publisher/pr person about all your plans.

So there you go, words of wisdom from one of the best in the business. Hope it's helpful.

Yours in writing,

Sarah

What's in a Name? Titles and Why Writers Pick Them

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

songbird5
songbird5

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.

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
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
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 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

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
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

Words of Wisdom from 3 of Ireland’s Top Children’s Editors

Are You the Next Judi Curtin?
Are You the Next Judi Curtin?

This week I invited three editors to speak to my writing class at the Irish Writers’ Centre: Helen Carr from the O’Brien Press, Grainne Clear from Little Island and David Maybury from Penguin and Brown Bag Films. All wonderfully honest and entertaining speakers.

Here are some notes from their talk – I hope you find them useful. All three editors take (and actively encourage) unsolicited manuscripts – check their various publishers’ websites for submission details.

 How They Decide What to Publish

Helen Carr explained that she’s looking for ‘the new Derek Landy’ – great fantasy/action adventure for age 9+, books for girls a la Judi Curtin and Anna Carey, YA books like John Green’s. No pressure then! She keeps a close eye on the newspapers, trade press and social media – to see what’s topical and what people are talking about.

 Writers and Social Media

All editors agreed that having a social media presence is vital for emerging and established writers alike. The first thing they all do when they read a manuscript they are considering is to google the author. A well written blog or website is a bonus; odd things on their Facebook/Twitter feeds is a no no. So keep it relevant and PG, folks if you want to write for children.

 The Cover Letter

They all emphasised the importance of a good cover letter – clear, short and well thought out. Find out the editor’s name and address your submission to them directly. Always type your cover letter. Do no open the letter with ‘Hi! I’m Molly McGolly and I LOVE children.’ Grainne Clear says that she ‘judges people on their cover letter’. David Maybury says to avoid the ‘my mum/class/sister loves this book!’ Don’t put in anything too personal and only include relevant information. The fact that you are a teacher/librarian/bookseller is relevant; the fact that you studied science/accounting/languages at college is not (unless your book is related to this).

 The Importance of a Strong Opening

If the editors like the covering letter, they will read the first 50 or so pages of the book. But no more. If they like your  book after reading 50 pages, they will read on, if they don't they will put it aside and move on to the next manuscript. So make your opening as strong as you can, grip the reader in the opening sentences and don’t let them go.

 The Importance of Dialogue

Helen Carr says good dialogue is timeless. All the editors look for strong, sharply written dialogue. All dislike adverbs (he said longingly, she shouted loudly) and Grainne Clear mentioned the fact that you can’t laugh out a sentence. Avoid ‘It’s a fine mess,’ she laughed. When in doubt, she/he said is the default.

 Digital Road Testing

throne of glass
throne of glass

David Maybury is happy for writers to test out their writing on sites like Wattpad. He says this works especially well for YA novels and for younger writers. He mentioned the success of Throne of Glass by Sarah J Maas, which started life on www.fictionpress.com.

 Unsolicited Manuscripts

All three editors accept and encourage (good, well written) unsolicited manuscripts. David Maybury from Penguin is sent over 30 Irish manuscripts a week. It takes the editors several months to read manuscripts – so be patient. And be professional at all times. An email or phone call to see where your manuscript is in the process is fine, hassling or stalking is certainly not. You want to come across as a person who is good to work with.

The good news is that all three are actively looking for new voices. Maybe 2014 will be your year. Good luck!

Yours in writing,

Sarah XXX

She Said, He Said: Top 10 Tips for Writing Dialogue

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.

Haiku for Aliens - How to Write the Perfect Picture Book

Me Reading a Picture Book to a Child
Me Reading a Picture Book to a Child

I’ve been teaching a course on writing for children at the Irish Writers’ Centre. I love teaching and the class is one of the highlights of my week – two hours spent in the company of like minded people who all love children’s books as much as I do.

Last week we looked at picture books. As two of the class were sick I promised I’d give them some notes. I’m sharing them here in case they are useful to you also.

Writing picture books has been described as writing ‘haiku for aliens’. It’s definitely closer to writing poetry than anything else.

lost and found cover
lost and found cover

A lot of people think ‘Hey, I could write a picture book. Bang out a story about a teddy bear or a talking rabbit, get my mate to draw some pictures and bingo!’ But they are so wrong. Picture books are the hardest books of all to write. Every word matters. Every single line has to move the story along. Every page turn has to be a cliff hanger. Easy? No way, José!

 What is a picture book?

A picture book is an illustrated book for young children of age 18 months to about 5 or 6 (or 44 – I love picture books!). There are usually colour illustrations on every page and the story is told through the words and pictures.

 Why do they have to be brilliant?

Unlike novels for older children, picture books are read over and over again. Not only do you have to appeal to children, you also have to appeal to adults – parents, teachers, librarians. They are the ones reading Busy, Busy World or Where The Wild Things Are hundreds of times!

 How long should a picture book be?

Between 150 and 600 words. Ideally 400 to 500 words. Of course, if you’re the next Shaun Tan or Lauren Child, a publisher may make an exception.

Shaun Tan's Work
Shaun Tan's Work

 How many pages?

The average picture book has 32 pages – count them!

This is broken down into 24 pages of text and illustration or 12 double page spreads (sometimes slightly more if the end papers are used).

Again, if you are Oliver Jeffers, you may get away with a longer story, but if it’s your first book, it’s best to stick to the norm.

 Do I need to be an artist too?

lost and found
lost and found

No. Publishers have plenty of great illustrators on their books. They are looking for strong, original picture book texts.

 Where do I start?

I would suggest starting with your own childhood – as this is what will make your story different. For example:

Is there a favourite toy you had as a child? Did it ever get lost? (Dogger by Shirley Hughes is a great example of a lost toy story)

Was there a favourite place you loved to go as a child? Did you have a tree house? A Wendy house? A special dressing up box?

heart and bottle
heart and bottle

Don’t be afraid of using strong emotion in your text – Lost and Found by Oliver Jeffers is about loneliness and friendship; The Heart and the Bottle is about love and loss.

What about universal stories? You could write about one of the following in a new or original way:

Overcoming the Monster – Little Red Riding Hood

Rags to Riches – Cinderella

Rebirth – The Very Hungry Caterpillar

The Quest – Lost and Found

Voyage and Return; Comedy; even Tragedy (Not Now, Bernard by David McKee).

You could rewrite an old fairy tale in a clever way or an Irish myth or legend.

Think warmth, humour, family, love and universal themes.

Good luck with your mini masterpieces!

Yours in writing,

Sarah XXX

 Some Recommended Picture Books

Oliver Jeffers – Lost and Found and The Heart and the Bottle

Lauren Child – Clarice Bean, That’s Me

where the wild things are
where the wild things are

Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak

Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus by Mo Willems

Knuffle Bunny by Mo Willems

The Red Tree by Shaun Tan

If you’d like more information on writing picture books try:

writing with pictures
writing with pictures

How To Write a Children’s Picture Book by Andrea Shavick or Writing with Pictures by Uri Shelevitz

Behind The Memory Box - Q and A with Sarah Webb

I did this Q and A recently for a UK website, I hope you like it. 1. Tell us about your new book The Memory Box.

Just published
Just published

My latest novel, ‘The Memory Box’ is the story of an Irish woman, Pandora Schuster who on the eve of her thirtieth birthday discovers that she may have her mum’s heredity cancer gene, Breast Cancer Gene 1. This sends her into a complete tail spin, and makes her question her life and also the future of her nine-year-old daughter, Iris. Pandora is a single mum and she has never told Olivier, her ex-boyfriend that he has a daughter. So she travels to Paris to find him, with disastrous consequences.

2.       Why did you decide to take the book over to Paris?

Pandora is passionate about clothes and it made sense for her to study fashion in Paris. Plus it’s one of my favourite cities in the world.

3.       Did you spend any time there to write about your surroundings?

Yes, I spent four months in Paris during college, working in McDonald’s, so that was helpful. I’ve been back a few times since then, most recently for my 40th birthday.

4.       Do you have a memory box in your life?

No, but I do have a large chest full of my children’s school books, drawings, craft, photographs. I’m very much a hoarder.

5.       Why was a memory box such a good device for story telling for this book?

The Memory Box was a way of unfolding Pandora’s past life for the reader without using an excessive amount of flashbacks. The letters Pandora writes to her daughter, Iris and puts in the box give the reader glimpses of Pandora’s life in Paris and her deep love for Olivier.

And then the box is accidentally discovered. I won’t say any more in case you'd like to read it.

amy6
amy6

6.       You have recently published another book in the Amy Green series, so what can you tell us about this?

Yes, Wedding Belles has just been published. It’s the 6th book in the Ask Amy Green series, about a 13 year old Irish girl and her 17 year old crazy aunt, Clover who works as an agony aunt for a teen magazine. Together they are planning Amy’s mum’s second marriage in this book, but things start to go horribly wrong …

7.       How much do you have to look into Pandora’s hereditary illness for the book?

I took the research very seriously. I read cancer memoirs, including Emma Hannigan’s excellent ‘Talk to the Headscarf’. I read blogs and forums about cancer and most especially Breast Cancer Gene 1, the gene that Pandora may have (she’s waiting for the test results during the book). I also spoke to a breast cancer specialist, an amazing woman consultant surgeon called Sarah Rastell, who very kindly read my manuscript for accuracy.

I also tried to ‘feel’ how Pandora would feel while waiting for her test results – anxious, scared, alone, but yet determined to fight. Emotional truth is also vital and a character’s reactions must be honest and believable.

8.       Tell us about your inspiration behind the story.

I’m not sure where the story came from to be honest. I’d read about the breast cancer gene and it just fitted this story. The characters grew and developed as I wrote the book and some of their passions are also my passions – art, family, Paris.

9.       What is your writing process?

I plan a little to start with, then I think about the characters and their motivation obsessively. I do some early research at this stage also – but I often don’t know what I need to know, so I don’t spend too long on this at the early stages of writing. Once I’m happy that I know my characters well I start to write, leaving gaps where I need to do some more detailed research – I add that in later. I write several drafts – between 5 and 8 – and learn a lot more about my plot and characters during this stage of writing.

10. What is next for you?

I’m currently working on the first book in a new children’s series for age 9+ and I’m also writing a new book for adults. Both will be published in 2015, all being well.

Behind The Memory Box - Q and A with Sarah Webb

I did this Q and A recently for a UK website, I hope you like it. 1. Tell us about your new book The Memory Box.

Just published
Just published

My latest novel, ‘The Memory Box’ is the story of an Irish woman, Pandora Schuster who on the eve of her thirtieth birthday discovers that she may have her mum’s heredity cancer gene, Breast Cancer Gene 1. This sends her into a complete tail spin, and makes her question her life and also the future of her nine-year-old daughter, Iris. Pandora is a single mum and she has never told Olivier, her ex-boyfriend that he has a daughter. So she travels to Paris to find him, with disastrous consequences.

2.       Why did you decide to take the book over to Paris?

Pandora is passionate about clothes and it made sense for her to study fashion in Paris. Plus it’s one of my favourite cities in the world.

3.       Did you spend any time there to write about your surroundings?

Yes, I spent four months in Paris during college, working in McDonald’s, so that was helpful. I’ve been back a few times since then, most recently for my 40th birthday.

4.       Do you have a memory box in your life?

No, but I do have a large chest full of my children’s school books, drawings, craft, photographs. I’m very much a hoarder.

5.       Why was a memory box such a good device for story telling for this book?

The Memory Box was a way of unfolding Pandora’s past life for the reader without using an excessive amount of flashbacks. The letters Pandora writes to her daughter, Iris and puts in the box give the reader glimpses of Pandora’s life in Paris and her deep love for Olivier.

And then the box is accidentally discovered. I won’t say any more in case you'd like to read it.

amy6
amy6

6.       You have recently published another book in the Amy Green series, so what can you tell us about this?

Yes, Wedding Belles has just been published. It’s the 6th book in the Ask Amy Green series, about a 13 year old Irish girl and her 17 year old crazy aunt, Clover who works as an agony aunt for a teen magazine. Together they are planning Amy’s mum’s second marriage in this book, but things start to go horribly wrong …

7.       How much do you have to look into Pandora’s hereditary illness for the book?

I took the research very seriously. I read cancer memoirs, including Emma Hannigan’s excellent ‘Talk to the Headscarf’. I read blogs and forums about cancer and most especially Breast Cancer Gene 1, the gene that Pandora may have (she’s waiting for the test results during the book). I also spoke to a breast cancer specialist, an amazing woman consultant surgeon called Sarah Rastell, who very kindly read my manuscript for accuracy.

I also tried to ‘feel’ how Pandora would feel while waiting for her test results – anxious, scared, alone, but yet determined to fight. Emotional truth is also vital and a character’s reactions must be honest and believable.

8.       Tell us about your inspiration behind the story.

I’m not sure where the story came from to be honest. I’d read about the breast cancer gene and it just fitted this story. The characters grew and developed as I wrote the book and some of their passions are also my passions – art, family, Paris.

9.       What is your writing process?

I plan a little to start with, then I think about the characters and their motivation obsessively. I do some early research at this stage also – but I often don’t know what I need to know, so I don’t spend too long on this at the early stages of writing. Once I’m happy that I know my characters well I start to write, leaving gaps where I need to do some more detailed research – I add that in later. I write several drafts – between 5 and 8 – and learn a lot more about my plot and characters during this stage of writing.

10. What is next for you?

I’m currently working on the first book in a new children’s series for age 9+ and I’m also writing a new book for adults. Both will be published in 2015, all being well.

5 Tips - How to Write a Winning Book Blurb

Books are nothing without readers. There are many ways that readers are encouraged to pick up a book in a bookshop or library, or to purchase a book on-line. Catchy or memorable titles are vital. Book covers are also very important. If a book looks attractive and interesting, a customer will pick it up. What do they do then? They turn it over and read the jacket copy or blurb. The blurb is the short description on the back of the book. Sometimes there is also a tag line or shout line on the front or back cover, plus some quotes from reviewers or from other writers.

Here is an example of a shout line, taken from one of my own books: Ask Amy Green: Dancing Daze. The book is for readers of age 10+.

Ask Amy Green: Any problem solved!

And here is the blurb:

Dancing dilemmas . . .

Mills’s ballerina sister has just landed the role of a lifetime – but something is very wrong with the young star.

A worried Mills begs best friend Amy for help. How can Amy refuse, even though she has big problems of her own to solve? Luckily, Clover is happy to lend a hand.

And saving dancing divas is all in a day’s work for the intrepid twosome.

amy5.jpg

There’s also a quote from Cathy Cassidy: ‘A fab and funny read.’

Here’s the blurb of another one of my books, an adult novel this time called The Memory Box (out in September in paperback):

Pandora Schuster is about to turn thirty but that’s the least of her worries. She’s just been tested for a hereditary cancer gene and, expecting the worst, is desperate for her ex-boyfriend and father of nine-year-old Iris to be a part of her daughter’s life.

However there are two major problems: Olivier Huppert lives in Paris and he has no idea that Iris even exists. Pandora tries to find Olivier during her Parisian birthday weekend but it all ends in disaster.

Pandora is determined for Iris to know the truth about her handsome, charismatic father. So she creates a memory box filled with photos, letters and mementoes of the magical time she spent in Paris with Olivier.

But when the past and the present start to collide, Pandora finds herself having to choose between her head and her heart . . .

And the shout line:

Can you ever really forget your first love?

My Latest Book
My Latest Book

Hopefully both my blurbs (and shout lines) tell the potential reader something about the book and make them want to find out more.

So how do you write a really great blurb? Here are some tips:

1/ Read the blurbs of lots of other books that are similar (in genre/age group) to yours. Look at their length and style. Note any that are particularly good and study how they are written.

2/ Keep it short and sweet. You need to draw the reader in quickly and hold their attention. Use key words like ‘secret’, ‘mystery’, ‘betrayal’, ‘revenge’, ‘magic’ to whet a reader’s appetite.

3/ You don’t need to describe the whole plot in the blurb, just give the reader an idea of what the book is about and the main character or characters. Keep your blurb simple yet interesting.

4/ The blurb should be written in a similar voice to the book. If it’s a comedy, the blurb needs to reflect this.

5/ If the book has a strong theme, bring this out in the blurb. Is your book about first love, the enduring bonds of friendship, or betrayal? Is it ‘a deeply moving story of family and friendship’ (from the blurb of A Thousand Splendid Suns), or ‘a deeply affecting coming-of-age story’ (from the blurb of The Perks of Being a Wallflower)?

5/ Remember to edit the blurb carefully. There’s nothing as off-putting as spelling mistakes in a blurb.

Sarah Kettle, Creative Copywriter with Puffin explains how to write a blurb – "read a manuscript, note down words and quotes with instant appeal, atmosphere, an air of mystery, a sense of character, a sense of place and put the all together in a coherent and exciting way. So that whoever picks up the book reads the blurb and thinks ‘I must read this book. I must have this book in my life. To the till we shall go. Immediately.’"

Best of luck writing your blurb!

Yours in writing,

Sarah XXX