Monday, June 8, 2015

What to do when you're waiting for notes from your editor. (Or The Bee's Tongue)

Hello readers!

I'm waiting for edits on book two, and so have turned my attention to my other other great love: nature. 

With book three in mind, I've been learning about natural foods, and have found lots of wild rocket growing near my house. Look out for it when you're out and about, it loves to grow in cracks in the pavement or by the side of foot and cycle paths. And remember to leave some behind for the next creatures too.

I've also made elderflower champagne, which I will blog about (with recipe) soon.

Elderflower champagne-to-be

Best of all, a bee flew into my window and I fed it sweetened water. My flat is something of a hotspot on the Bee Highway, and I sometimes rescue four or five bumble bees a day (or the same bumble bee four or five times a day.) This, however, was a honey bee, and I noticed it crawling very slowly across my floor, like a woman left too long in the desert (if women had six legs, and also wings.) Giving this bee a drink of sweetened water is honestly one of the best things I've ever done, because previously I didn't know bees had tongues. 

To capture this wonderful discovery, I made an astonishingly bad video on my phone. 


How like a kitten the humble bee laps its sugar water! Is this the cutest thing you've ever seen?

Please excuse the poor quality and daft narration, this is the first video I've ever posted. Expect great things in the future...

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Arvon Talk with Melvin Burgess and Lucy Christopher

Today I'm returning to The Hurst in Shropshire to talk about Infinite Sky to a group of YA writers on an Arvon course led by Lucy Christopher and Melvin Burgess.

I met Lucy last year when her book The Killing Woods was shortlisted for the Leeds Book Awards alongside Infinite Sky, and I'm really looking forward to talking more to her about writing and books over dinner. Lucy also won the Branford Boase Award, for her debut novel, Stolen, which won the Printz Medal too in the US. Visit her website for more info.

Image result for the killing woods lucy christopher

I have met Melvin before too, at The Hurst, when I did a course he was running with Malorie Blackman about Writing for Young Adults. At which the lovely Simmone Howell (author of the marvellous Everything Beautiful) was the guest tutor. Melvin wrote one of my favourite YA books (and one I actually read as a teenager) Junk, and has written lots of books since. Have a look at his website to find out more.

Image result for melvin burgess junk

He was a great teacher, and fun too, and I'm looking forward to seeing him again. He led us in a workshop exercise in which we interviewed each other, while channelling our teen selves, and it was one of the best writing exercises I've done, because of the way that it connected the group. The writing I got from it was fine, but the stories I listened to, and the emotions people came up with as a result were quite amazing.

I am really delighted to be going back to the Hurst again, and to have the opportunity to meet writers and talk books, in such a pretty setting.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Branford Boase Award Shortlist

Forget the general election for a minute, and let's congratulate all the authors shortlisted for the 2015 Branford Boase Award! Full shortlist here.

To celebrate the prize, I have interviewed Dave Shelton, winner of the Branford Boase Award for A Boy and a Bear in a Boat in 2013, and judge (with great taste) of the 2014 prize, which I won with Infinite Sky in case you had forgotten. He is also author of Thirteen Chairs and Good Dog Bad Dog.

Hi Dave! As you know, the Branford Boase shortlist is announced today. Mostly, we agreed easily on the shortlist, but there were a few books that split opinion. Did you enjoy the judging process?

I really did, yes. Admittedly a small part of that was a sizeable sense of relief that all the reading was over (I’m naturally a rather slow reader and we’d had, I think, 29 books to get through in the end – which was quite a challenge) but mostly it was just a joy to talk about books and writing in the very good company of my fellow judges. And we too agreed pretty easily on a shortlist. In fact I was almost disappointed that things went so smoothly – I kind of felt like there ought to be some heated arguments along the way, but the fact was there really was no need.

How easy do you think it is to judge books across different genres?

Oh it’s not difficult, it’s impossible, really, isn’t it? Which is ‘better’: this madcap comedy about a purple alien living in a council estate in Swindon, or this heart-rending story about living with a relative with dementia? This fruitcake or this sports car?* The best you can do is to try to judge each book’s success in achieving its own apparent ambitions. But in the end, to some extent, you just have to accept that these things are a bit arbitrary and the personal tastes of the judges are going to hold some sway, however fair and impartial they try to be. 

How did winning the Branford Boase Award impact your career?

Yes. I’m sure it raised my profile a bit, and I suspect it helped sell quite a few more copies of the book (A Boy and a Bear in a Boat – available in all good book shops. Highly recommended). And it gave me the excuse to change my name by deed poll from ‘Dave Shelton’ to ‘Award-winning Dave Shelton’. So that was nice.

Do you think prizes and shortlists are particularly important to debut authors, or do you think the more experienced novelist requires them more?

I think it’s pretty tough for everyone these days and there’s maybe not much in it, but yes, it’s a bit more important for debut authors (well, for non-celebrity debut authors anyway). I would imagine that if you’re still going after getting half a dozen or so books out then you’ve hopefully achieved a bit of momentum and recognition and maybe shortlists and the like are a bit less important, but there are so many books coming out these days that anything that gives you a smidge of an advantage in being noticed is a bit of a godsend. Plus, we tend to be a touch on the insecure side so a little bit of reassurance that, yes, you did an okay job that time, is very welcome too.

Good Dog, Bad Dog and A Boy in a Bear in a Boat cater for slightly younger readers, while Thirteen Chairs would probably scare the bejesus out of seven year olds, which kind of books do you most enjoy writing?

I’ve not really decided yet. Thirteen Chairs felt like harder work than the other two (which were quite hard enough themselves, thank you very much) but I think that was because I tied myself up in knots a bit with the structure of it. So there was a lot of rewriting and editing and re-rewriting and re-editing that turned it, at times, into a bit of a slog. But I don’t think that was especially to do with the age range I was writing for, it was more just (as is so often the case) me being an idiot. I think, of the three, I enjoyed creating Good Dog, Bad Dog more, because it was originally made in three page episodes and published weekly in a comic. So there was a certain seat of the pants improvisation to it, with lots of odd, unforeseen little ideas getting thrown in along the way, and a bit of mad energy to it. But it may just be that it’s the one that I did longest ago so I’ve had more time to forget the bad bits. All my books have driven me at least a little bit mad along the way but I’m coming round to accepting that maybe that just comes with the territory.

Do you enjoy writing books? It seems like it would be more enjoyable when you are illustrating it too – is this the case?

Well, as I kind of implied in my last answer, I do find it hard work. And I do make great efforts to find excuses to do something else for rather too much of the time (thanks for sending me these questions by the way...) I keep fooling myself that the next book will be easier. And luckily I have a terrible memory so I can forget quite how bad the worst bits were last time round. Mostly I enjoy having written rather more than I enjoy writing (I think I may be stealing this line from Dorothy Parker or someone, but it’s no less true for its unoriginality). But ... but ... those occasional (all too rare) glorious days when it’s all going right and you write happily and the words just flow out as if by magic. Or some bit of plot just falls satisfyingly into place in a way you’d in no way planned for or expected. Or a character says something that makes you laugh... Those are the high points that keep you going. That and the increasingly alarming credit card statements.

When you are reading and enjoying another person’s book, do you think about how you would illustrate their world/characters?

Almost never. I’m sure I must have on some occasions but it’s very rare. I’m more likely to imagine someone else’s illustrations for something I’m reading. Or even to imagine someone else’s illustrations for something I’m writing (there’s a beautiful alternative version of A Boy and a Bear in a Boat that exists in my head with illustrations by my mate Tom Gauld, for instance).

How do you think UK YA compares with American?

I read too little of either to have an opinion. Though I would hope that the UK books make more use of the letter u.

Who are your favourite writers for young people? Your biggest influences, generally?

Again, I’ve read too little to have a hugely worthwhile opinion but I’m certainly looking forward to reading more of the late Mal Peet’s books. And, you know, if you ever finish anything else I might give it a passing glance... In terms of influences in general I think most of my biggest influences come from outside of children’s books. It’s occurred to me relatively recently that Radio 4 is probably the biggest single influence on my writing. Prior to the availability of on demand media I’d often have the radio on more or less for whole days while I was working (this is back when I was only illustrating – I pretty much need silence when I’m writing) and I think that kind of constant presence of a variety of voices can’t help but to seep in to your brain and have some effect. Other influences come from films and telly and comics, but the books that I feel have most affected my own style (such as it is) are probably ones written for adults that I read in my mid teens to my early twenties. I’m pretty sure there’s a tiny bit of Douglas Adams in there somewhere, possibly some PG Wodehouse, but all so mixed in with all the non-book influences that nobody else would see it but me.

What are you working on at the moment?

I am currently somewhat behind with the writing of a comedy murder mystery set in a 1950s girls’ boarding school with a schoolgirl detective lead. Unfortunately, though there didn’t seem to be anything much like it when I first mentioned the idea to my publisher because I’m so slow, it seems like everyone is writing schoolgirl detective stories now (most prominently Robin Stevens is multiple books ahead of me with her Wells and Wong titles). But I’m hoping that my natural oddness will set my book apart from all the others. Either that or I’ll take so long to finish it that the bandwagon will have disappeared over the horizon and I’ll be seen as bravely trying to revive the genre. Anyway, I think it’s going to be quite good, and it’ll have lots of illustrations again, like A Boy and a Bear in a Boat did.

If you could be sailed across the sea by a benevolent talking animal, besides a bear, what would it be? 

I’d have to say our dog, Barney. I could use his enormous ears as sails.


*Bad example. Obviously the cake is better.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

The Hull Book Awards

Congratulations to Chris D'Lacey who was voted the winner for his teen thriller A Dark Inheritance at The James Reckitt Hull Book Awards yesterday. A Dark Inheritance is a must-read for fans of The X Files, and those with more than a passing interest in dragons.

Embedded image permalink

Jeff Norton was there for his most recent book, Memoirs of a Neurotic Zombie, and on the way to the ceremony, he regaled me with the insane and amazing plots and premises to his many novels. If you know any youngsters that love ponies, go out and buy them a Princess Pony book immediately (Jeff writes these with a partner under the pseudonym Chloe Ryder).

Sam Angus moved everyone deeply with her speech about the role and treatment of donkeys in the First World War, of which I previously knew nothing about. Those with friends interested in the First World War should pick up her most recent book Captain for them, it has lots of crossover appeal, and would suit adults as well as sensitive, intelligent teens.

Martyn Bedford was shortlisted for Never Ending, a beautifully written, emotional read, which would appeal to Jenny Downham and Gayle Foreman fans. It has parallels with Infinite Sky too, featuring a sudden act of violence and the death of a beloved sibling.

Unfortunately, Sarah Moore Fitzgerald couldn't make it, though she sent us a message over Twitter.

It was great to see the warm and hard working team in Hull again and to catch up with some of the students that voted for Infinite Sky last year.

The teens were enthusiastic about all of the books, with lots being bought and signed, and I wasn't sure who was going to win right up until it was announced (more tense than the X Factor, with two rounds of drum rolls). Chris seemed truly delighted to hear his name called out, and gave a heartfelt speech, which was lovely to hear. Martyn had talked to me earlier about the importance of regional book prizes, and how much of a difference they can make to an author's career, and he's right. 

The event is a real celebration of reading and books and authors, and it was lovely to return as mistress of ceremonies. It's a great thing the team at Hull Libraries are doing, and it's been a pleasure being involved.

Finally, I checked in with Larkin, he sends his regards.

Embedded image permalink

Monday, March 30, 2015

Bookish News...

I haven't written a blog for so long I thought I'd become allergic or developed a phobia, but it turns out I was just a bit frightened.

So far this year I am mainly reading UK YA debuts as I am judging the 2014 Branford Boase Award. I am over halfway through the nominated books, and have found some new authors to love in the process. Have a look at the longlist.

lowres.jpeg (318×262)

Dave Shelton who won the year before me with his wonderful book, A Boy and a Bear in a Boat (which was also shortlisted for the Carnegie and Costa that year) has been giving me tips about how to approach the judging process. (The one that I especially listened to is not to read all the books in a stupidly short period of time.)

So he can share more of his niblets of wisdom with you, he has agreed to be interviewed here, about writing and judging books and what it is like to be an illustrator - and a person as well. So, watch out for that. And if you have any questions for him, tweet me or post in the comments below. In the meantime, have a look at his blog, it's really lovely.

Dave-Shelton-illustration-007.jpg (460×276)
A boy and a bear in a boat. 

The other thing I have do A LOT is work on Book Two, which I have announced so many titles for that I swear from here on to refer to only as Book Two until the thing is finished. It is taking me a long time, and I've written hundreds of thousands of words - many of which will not even be in the book - but then that's the joys of being a writer. Right?

Don't worry though, it's going to be extremely good, and you, especially, will really love it.

Infinite Sky has been shortlisted for two more prizes this year: the Angus Book Award and the We Read Prize, so keep your fingers crossed that it wins if you like me, and also please keep your fingers crossed that it wins if you don't like me. Just as a nice favour.

Also this year, I am returning to Hull of which I am now informally and forever the Queen since winning a book prize there last year (I think that is what they said the prize was). Thus, I will be hosting the James Reckitt Hull Children's Book Award there this year, and I am really excited to return, and pass on the glory - though not the crown, there is only one informal Queen of Hull - to the next winner.
roslin_glen_0610o_hawthornden_castle.jpg (1280×851)
Dreamy Hawthornden Castle

Finally, I have been awarded a Hawthornden Castle Fellowship for September, and plan to work on a novel for adults in my time there, as well as camping in the surrounding wildlands. I am a lucky lucky thing.

So that's everything, I think. What have you been up to? How do you feel today? Leave me a comment, and make me happy...

Friday, October 17, 2014

Book events in Falmouth...

Tomorrow, I'm heading down to the Falmouth Book Festival to do a few bookish things.

Falmouth is a place very dear to me. It's where I went to university, had my first short story published, and lived out my wilderness years (which is a phrase stolen from Gwendoline Riley's Cold Water). I read Cold Water when I lived there, and its young author and her writing about the every day truths of her life (Gwendoline was 22 when it came out; I 20) tempted me with the notion that I could be a writer now.

The Falmouth Book Festival is in association with Telltales, which is an organisation that I set up with my dear friend Clare Howdle in 2008, and which I am incredibly happy to see continuing to bring bookish good times to the south west, and beyond.

I'm doing a variety of different events with fellow Simon and Schusterite Rupert Wallis, who I know from the Telltales days, and whose debut Young Adult novel The Dark Inside is accruing great reviews, and has recently been nominated for the Edinburgh First Book Award (which closes at midnight tonight, so go and vote!)

Our first public event, is on Monday 20/10 at Dolly's Wine Bar at 2pm. Talented screen, stage and story writer, Jane Pugh will be asking Rupert and I about our books, journeys to publication, and that sort of thing, as well as opening it up for a Q and A and readings. Come along, and see what you think. It's free, and will be entertaining, I promise.

Tuesday night is again at Dolly's Wine Bar, this time for a Young Adult Speakeasy, starting at 7pm, with Telltales, the Writing Squad and the Story Republic. It is a free event, suitable for adults and young adults, and is another chance to hear Rupert and I read, and check out the local, young writing talent (not in a creepy way, you.)

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Bristol Biennial Review: We Used To Wait

Last night, after fifty minutes of awkwardness, hand-holding and some dancing, I walked home feeling fairly elated. I had been to see We Used to Wait, a play about how developing technologies effect human interaction by Massive Owl.

The performance took place at The Island, as part of the Bristol Biennial Festival, which ends today. We arrived before the show was to begin, and got our hands scrawled on in a well-lit waiting room where dozens of people tapped and swiped at their phones. I had a terrible feeling that this was where the performance was going to be.

I'd met Danny the week before (he knows my housemate) and we'd talked about the show. He'd said that the audience didn't always know when it had begun, as it had a subtle start, and so my theory that this was in fact the show was not so wild. Luckily, somebody came to usher us out of the waiting room. The phone-swipers, blinking, roused themselves from feeling bad about their social lives or having not caught up with Gran in such a long time or whatever, and we filed into another room.

The next room was more the kind of thing an (unenlightened theatre) person would expect to see a show in. Big-ish, rectangle, seats set around the edges. It was a bit bright for a person who blushes easily and is scared of interaction, who finds themself at a participatory theatre event, but I guess that if we are going to have a moment of unadulterated human connection we needed to see each other. And we were, or so Massive Owl hoped.

We faced each other shiftily, knowing that soon we would be snogging or holding hands or tying blindfolds onto one another. What we didn't know was when, or with whom. There were lots of mostly white people of different ages. Lots of pops of colour and dangly earrings. Quite a few stylish grey haircuts. Much embarrassed giggling, whispering.

You see, we could all see each other (see lighting) and we didn't all know each other, and the human eye of a stranger can be a very tricky customer. When you see it, it sees you, and it knows it's seeing you. It knows that you are seeing it seeing you. Etc. Awkward for people who used to making eye contact only with those they know or have been forced into getting to know by some social contract or other.

And, of course, this was the point.

Here's Massive Owl on Massive Owl: "[We Used] To Wait explores what it means to be ‘live’ and present together in an increasingly digital world. We Used To Wait invites its audience to question why falling asleep on a stranger’s shoulder, playing a spontaneous game and feeling the wind of someone run past you might be important. A rectangle of chairs. Audience and performers sat side by side. No set. Just us together. And a gentle invitation to interact…"

Not a fresh subject, but a relevant one.

Each of the performers - Danny Prosser, Sam Powell, Jenny Duffy, Jack Jago - was charismatic, likeable and watchable as they sprinted around the room, wrestled with each other and introduced themselves as Arnold. They told mundane stories about moments of connection with strangers, entirely without epiphany. The epiphany being that there had been connection.

Over the course of fifty minutes, the ensemble (pictured below) broke down the barriers between us, The Strangers, and gifted us a shared experience. The third time I was asked to hold hands with the people next to me, I didn't mind too much if I let go asap or not. I went for their hands before they went for mine. It felt natural. There was something special about us being there together - sentient and with language! - all at the same time. Massive Owl helped us to appreciate the wonder of that.

My favourite part of the show was a segment when Danny sprinted round the room. Reaching a certain corner, he saw someone that interested him and raced around the room again to get another look. Each time, he looked as long as he could without stopping, and there was something so comical and so sad about it. He managed to communicate so much about time and attraction and the failings of language. This thread was picked up again later and turned into an audience participation game, which, for me, diminished the simple power of the earlier moment.

Again there was a powerful part where the players began to introduce members of the audience to each other. It was exciting and reminded us of the value of each other, of how much possibility an individual contains, and how silly it is that we don't always talk more freely when seated so close (and inhabiting the world) together. But this too was stepped up and turned into something less meaningful that detracted from the integrity of what it had started out as.

I suppose it isn't theatre if you just run around a rectangle for ten minutes, then introduce everyone in the room to each other before playing a music and encouraging them to dance.

Still, with the theme of human connection at its centre, I wonder if Massive Owl could have striven to lay the dynamism of the production a little lower and allowed genuine human connection to rise above without the interference of games, without pulling everything back into the control of the performers.

And perhaps all this review is really saying is how apt and timely and important Massive Owl's entirely hackneyed subject is, because going to a performance designed to create, celebrate and promote human connection, I still left feeling starved of it.