Monday, 28 May 2012

Spinach, strawberries, and the Society of Authors Children's Literacy Campaign

"Reading for pleasure" is a phrase we hear a lot. It's become a bit of a cliché and the real problem with clichés is that we stop thinking about their meaning. They lose their power.

The other problem with the phrase is that "pleasure" often implies less importance or worth. It implies that perhaps we shouldn't do too much of it, that we should make sure we've done the "work" parts of our reading before we deserve the "pleasure" parts. Reading for pleasure seems somehow more frivolous, epicurean, than reading for benefit, information, work.

It is not; and we fall into some dangerous traps if we think so. Reading for pleasure should come first. It is essential to reading at all. Let me explain.

Once, each of us had to learn to read. We were very young when we had to learn this activity which is difficult, unnatural, and for which we are not, in fact, evolutionarily programmed. There is no part of the brain which is "for" reading, though there are parts which are involved in the separate skills which reading requires. (See Maryanne Woolf's fascinating Proust and the Squid for details about the evolutionary aspects of reading in our brains.)

You cannot get small children to do something just because it's good for them. It has to be pleasurable. We need many hours practice to learn something so complex, and we simply will not get children to put in the hours if they don't enjoy it. Many children enjoy reading immediately because they find it easy immediately. Those children will sail through learning to read because they don't even notice they are learning: they are having too much pleasure. (Including the pleasure they derive from the act of succeeding itself.)

Other children, with differently wired brains - and remember that since our brains are not wired for reading we all have to "borrow" brain cells and connections from certain brain parts in order to find ways to reading success - will find it harder. They will experience early failure. Show me an adult, let alone a child, who finds pleasure in failure. 

For these children, being told they must read this text because it's good for them, because it's part of schoolwork, because they need to skills to succeed in life, will go no way towards them ever enjoying, and therefore ever adequately practising, the act of reading. They are being offered medicine, instead of food. Hard work instead of enjoyment.

By the time these children are around eight years old, they have seen their friends learn to read easily and wondered why they can't. They have discovered that they "can't", or at least can't easily or well. They now enjoy it even less and probably not at all. They switch off, find other ways to shine, and sometimes the way to shine is to become the naughty child, the disruptive one, the one that the other children love to watch getting into trouble. Or they hide. They retreat into a shell inside which every effort goes into avoiding reading.

Initiatives by schools and governments to get them reading will have absolutely no positive effect if the focus isn't reading for pleasure. You can thrust the exercises and worksheets at them, you can drag them to a reading session for ten minutes every lunchtime, you can even fill the library with books and make them sit in it, but if reading for pleasure is not the whole focus - the WHOLE focus - you might as well chuck the money and the effort and the books into the sea. Because they will not practise for the required number of hours. It's that simple.

This is why I talk about spinach and strawberries. Both are good for us. When we eat spinach, even if we also like it (as I do), we still eat it with a sense of "This is good for me. Its health benefits are more obvious than the pleasure of its taste." When we eat strawberries (or any other fruit you happen to love better), we don't do so thinking about the health benefits, merely about the fact that we enjoy the taste.

That's what reading should be like. Reading is fantastically "good" for us but we shouldn't be thinking about that when we do it. And, most crucially, we should NOT, please, please, please, offer reading to children as some kind of medicinal or healthy activity, even if, like spinach, it is. We should offer it purely as enjoyable. And our whole aim should be to find a book that a child will enjoy reading.

Because otherwise, why would he do it?

That's why I support, with all my heart and with the loudest voice I have, the children's literacy campaign by the Society of Authors.

That's why I recently agreed, proudly, to be one of the new Ambassadors for Dyslexia Scotland, at the invitation of Sir Jackie Stewart, who knows all too well what it is like to go through school feeling a failure because of failure to learn one thing: how print works.

That is why I write for young people.

And that is why I'm proud to write not books but strawberries. Because I know strawberries are good for you but I only want you to think of the taste.

I will be talking more about this in Glasgow on June 16th, where I'm doing the keynote speech for a conference aimed at parents who want to know more about reading and how to encourage it. Do come!

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Listen to constructive criticism

I recently had a very interesting (not in a particularly good way) conversation with a writer who had benefited from the Romantic Novelists' Association New Writers' Scheme. This is a fabulous, fabulous scheme; writers are selected on the basis of the quality of their writing and they receive a free critique on their novel from an expert, worth several hundreds of pounds if they were paying a consultancy. Everything I've heard about the RNA scheme is excellent and places are highly valued. I also know from my work for Pen2Publication just how hard giving such feedback is and how difficult it is to give hard-headed, honest advice on a topic which is inevitably somewhat subjective.

So, what's my problem?

Well, I heard this writer say to another one on the scheme, "Do listen to the positive feedback but take the negative with a pinch of salt." She might have said "ignore", but the meaning was clear.

My hackles rose. She continued by explaining that the person giving her feedback had said lots of positive things but had suggested that x and y should be changed, but that she'd actually got a publishing deal and x and y were retained. Therefore, the person giving the feedback was wrong.

Oh goshy goshy gosh. And feckity gosh all over again.

Where do I begin?

Imperfect books get published, yes? Not that I'm saying this writer's work was imperfect - I've no idea and I have no time or desire to find out. But, the fact that a knowledgeable person gave an enormous amount of time to offer an honest opinion and highlighted a wart or two, and that a publisher decided to offer a deal even with the wart, and even admired the wart, does not mean that the opinion was wrong or that it should have been ignored rather than properly considered. You wrote some something with warts and it got published? How is this news? Warty stuff often sells.

I do agree, and always say to my clients, that you should only effect changes when you agree with them. Certainly, if after careful thought you really believe that a suggested change wouldn't work or be right, you shouldn't make it. But my point is only this: that the fact that an expert made a suggestion and that another expert disagreed, does not make the first expert wrong. After all, most writers have had a book rejected that then went on to become published. It does not make the rejecting publishers wrong. It just means they didn't like it or didn't know how to sell it.

Any writer who dismisses the negative but laps up the positive had better be ready for the negative reviews of her book which will come.

I have had books published. Some of them have won awards. Some of the ones that have won awards have had yuckity reviews. Some of those reviews I (try to) ignore because I don't value the opinion of the giver, BUT if someone says something positive and negative, how on earth could I justify believing the good but not the bad?? If I value someone's opinion I cannot only value it when it suits me. That doesn't mean I have to kow-tow to it but it does mean I should not dismiss it out of hand as this writer seemed to, and to dismiss it so disrespectfully. For a start, the critique opinion seeks to give you the best chance of publication, about which there are no certainties.

It is incredibly important to decide WHOM you believe, perhaps more than WHAT you believe. True, you can't believe everything, but you cannot only believe what suits you.

This was the mark of a new writer, who was rightly excited to be published, and for that I forgive her. I wish her well in her journey, and I hope she learns how to listen to negative and positive and to understand the value of professional feedback, especially when it honestly suggests improvement, not just dismiss it as wrong.

There is no right or wrong, only best guessing.

Monday, 21 May 2012

Pitch para - Dragonfire by Misha Herwin

As you may know, I'm giving published and self-published writers a chance to show us a pitch paragraph for their book and you the chance to comment, to the benefit of all concerned. Please see the post here for details of how to pitch your own book and about the possibility of it appearing in my forthcoming Dear Agent book. And meanwhile, PLEASE comment below - the writer would like your feedback as well as mine!

Today's paragraph is from a self-published children's book, Dragonfire by Misha Herwin and is a fantasy adventure. The age range that Misha gives is 8-12, but I should point out that if this was being pitched to an agent or publisher, that range would need to be narrowed. The convention is that no more than three years should be spanned - eg 8-10, 9-11. (Though you can say "teenage" or "young adult" if you mean 12+.)

I've explained to Misha that I'm happy to put it on the blog but I won't use it in Dear Agent (forthcoming book about covering letters), partly because I've got enough example paragraphs now, and partly because if I was actually advising her how to pitch it to an agent I'd first be gently suggesting that some things about the book changed, not just the pitch, and that's not the subject of Dear Agent!

Dragonfire by Misha Herwin
"Polly Miller has never belonged.  Orphaned as a baby when the firework factory exploded, wherever she goes she is followed by a trail of mysterious fires.  Thrown out of every foster home she ends up at St. Savlons, The Care Home for Truly Disruptive Kids.  Here she meets Courtliegh Jones and Sprog, who doesn’t speak but makes it clear that he is the little brother she never knew she had.  When he is kidnapped by the evil Lady Serena who wants him for her experiments to prove that magic and science are one and the same, Polly and Courtleigh set out to rescue him.  To do so they discover under the surface of this world another realm of shape changers and lost kingdoms.  Courtleigh learns he can speak to animals as if he is one of them, Polly that she can breathe fire.  They break into the Bioflex Foundation and face Lady Serena, who says that no one will believe kids from St. Savlons.  They simply don’t matter.  Furious Polly takes a deep breath and as the whole building goes up in flames, she Courtleigh and Sprog run for their lives."

OK, here are my comments:
  • Nice and lively, with emotion and action. The names suggest humour and lightness in the story - fine if that's truly the tone of the book. It does label it as a particular type of story, though, so do be sure that's what you intend.
  • "the" firework factory? As in the place where she lived/her parents worked? Or what? "the" is odd.
  • "Courtleigh" is spelled in two different ways - this simple error would indicate to me (as a prospective reader on Amazon, for example, OR as an agent) that the book may also be full of errors.
  • "To do so they discover under the surface of this world another realm of shape changers and lost kingdoms." Problems with this sentence: need commas to separate the phrases, otherwise it's hard to read first time; you don't mean "to do so" but "in doing so". Also, what do you mean by "under the surface of this world"? Do you mean underground, or metaphorically? Lack of clarity in a pitch raises flags for agents and other experts.
  • "Furious Polly" - I think you mean "Furious, Polly..."
  • In terms of the plot, I very much like the idea that at the core is an issue about science versus magic.  On the other hand, I find the fire-breathing skill and plot device a little problematic and not fully realised in terms of character and development. Also, you say she is thrown out of every care home - does that take up much of the actual story or is that back-story? That feels ambiguous and is, again, something the agent really does need to know in order to feel what sort of book it is.
  • For a pitch paragraph, we need to know something of the resolution, though I do appreciate you don't want to give that away to actual readers.
  • In terms of character development, you start by saying that Polly has never belonged, yet you never refer to this again or present it as a strong element, which it could/should be. Sprog "doesn't speak" - can you develop this and make it feel important? If not, leave it out.
  • I think that rather than focus quite a few words on details (such as what Lady Serena said) you could pump more emotional and dramatic content in, with more wide-sweeping dramatic phrases.
So, if I was looking for an adventure/fantasy to buy for this age group, (and I do have several young relatives of the right age!), I wouldn't buy it as it's described here, simply because the writing of the pitch isn't tight enough for my liking. HOWEVER, if I was an agent looking for an adventure/fantasy for this age group, I might be tempted to read the first couple of pages of the submission, and if the writing there is good then I would stop worrying about the pitch paragraph.

In short, there's a lot that could be done to sell more copies of Dragonfire by tightening the blurb and I do hope Misha looks at some of the suggestions and sees which she agrees with. It's her call and my comments are only suggestions.

And if you are interested in reading an extract from the actual book, the link is here! But please comment on the pitch first.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Pitch paragraph example - Shedworking by Alex Johnson

Here is the first of the pitch paragraph examples, as advertised in a recent post. If you would like to offer your own pitch, please do read that post as I won't repeat myself. I will, however, stress that there is a quid pro quo, as follows:

What I get: the ability to feature your pitch, and my comments, in my forthcoming book, Dear Agent, in order to help writers write good covering letters to go with their submissions. I will let you know if I'm using your pitch in the book and will give you the chance to veto my comments. (Though I am very careful not to embarrass anyone with undue negativity.)

What you get: two things. First, the chance to have your pitch improved (if, for example, your book is available on Amazon/anywhere and you'd like to think about making it even better). Second, the chance to pitch your book to potential readers. It's a fab opportunity, I believe, and I actually think you gain more than I do, so there.

My first example is a non-fiction pitch, for a published book.

Shedworking by Alex Johnson
(This is book is published by Frances Lincoln and, as I write this paragraph, my very own shed is currently being installed in my garden, in unremitting pouring rain.)

Alex’s pitch:
The traditional workplace is dying. Technology is killing the commute. In the 21st century hundreds of thousands of people across the planet are quietly forging a lifestyle revolution. They are going to work in garden offices. They are shedworkers. In the UK alone, latest research shows the shedworking economy will top £8 billion this year, up 25% from 2010. Writers, designers, lawyers, bankers, small businessmen and women in all areas of work are all following the lead of famous shedworkers such as Roald Dahl, Mozart, Walt Disney and motorbike pioneers William S. Harley and Arthur Davidson. Inspired by Shedworking (, the internationally popular blog which attracts more than 50,000 readers a month, Shedworking: The Alternative Workplace Revolution by Alex Johnson is the first book to document this seachange in how we work. A fully illustrated guide with superb photographs and real life case studies, it looks at every aspect of shedworking, from its long and distinguished history to how to build your own, and explains how anybody can join the growing army of people who have decided to swap the traffic jam for the 90 second commute.

My thoughts:
It’s pretty damn brilliant. But I can't just say that, can I? Where would my crabbit reputation be then??So, OK, for my taste, there’s a tiny bit too much info. After all, the submission for a non-fiction book will include a proposal which will give the facts and figures, and things like the examples of famous shedworkers. However, this would be perfect for a press release, and I do realise that Alex wasn't really writing this to acquire an agent or a deal, which he already has. I also know that he would have preferred to split it into two or three separate paragraphs, but he was being very good and doing exactly what I asked for… So, what would I leave out? I think Roald Dahl, Mozart and Walt Disney are sufficient examples, so I'd omit the others, especially as they require that extra phrase to describe them. As a copy-writing freak, I’d omit “across the planet”, as being unnecessary. I’d love to have an argument about that first sentence, too, but it should probably stay for its impact alone!

Excellent job, anyway. Nice and full, well-crafted, and does what it needs to do. Crucially for non-fiction, it specifices Alex's platform (the blog) and the facts which make this book fill a gap in the market. (By the way, the bit about platform could equally well go in the rest of the covering letters, but that's the subject of another chapter in my booky book.)

And it's a lovely book, too, a perfect present for anyone who works in an office in the garden.

Any comments, anyone?

Monday, 14 May 2012

Front list to back list to the void?

In publishing terms, "front list" means the book that an author has recently produced, the one that publishers will actively (you hope) promote. "Back list" means all previous books, including the newest one once it's not new any more. Those books rarely find themselves promoted. One of the frustrating things for most authors is how quickly that new front list book becomes regarded as back list.

Thus, the back list often sinks into obscurity, a limbo where it is technically in print, but isn't actually moving. You, the author, might still be busting a gut to promote it, but you will probably not be able to influence sales sufficiently.

This leads to another frustrating aspect: the feeling that your hard work in writing the damn thing gorgeous book earned you diddly squat and there's still untapped potential for your work to earn more and have new life. "Frustrating" is an under-statement. Crikey, "under-statement" is an under-statement.

Sometimes, however, a publisher decides that new life is indeed what your work can have. And this, I'm pleased to say, is what is happening to me with Walker Books.

Until a few months ago, the situation was this:
  • My brain books (Blame My Brain and Know Your Brain) were ticking along with modest sales, but were well and truly back list, having been published in 2005 and 2007.
  • Despite fab reviews, sales of the two highwayman books (The Highwayman's Footsteps and the Highwayman's Curse) were less than modest, in the sense that there was absolutely no need to feign any modesty at all. I was waiting for them to go out of print.
  • Yes, OK: Wasted was doing rather well, but that was not going to have an effect on the above books, which are in different markets.
Now the situation is this:
  • Walker are planning an ebook of Blame My Brain, updated with new material by me, and lots of interesting links. (Be patient - there's lots to do first!) 
  • Possible TV interest has arisen in Blame My Brain, after a TV company heard me on the Simon Mayo show. (This might lead to nothing, but I'm hopeful.)
  • Both highwayman books have had a huge surge of interest from schools (more of that later) and have not only reprinted twice in the last few months, but are also being put into ebook format. I'll be doing school events in primary schools, as the books are pitched at 10+.
So, suddenly, my back list is being given a new life. This is very hoorayish.

Why has this happened? What can we learn from it?

  • I hope the fact that the books are good was helpful, so people wanted to buy them even without promotion.
  • Blame My Brain continues to be sui generis and I am always being asked to do events, not just in schools but in all sorts of situations: medical, social work, religious.... (Yikes!)  
  • I have deliberately built a reputation as someone who works hard and will always step up to the plate to help a publisher promote my work. 
  • Walker Books increasingly see my online activity. Other publishers are also noticing. Profile is important when it comes to selling books and the harder you work the easier that becomes. (Confession time: I couldn't give a toss about profile - I just like talking!)
  • Crucially, schools have suddenly bought the highwayman books, and bought, and bought them. The first I knew of this was when a school supplier in Scotland contacted me to say they had heard that the highwayman books were going out of print and could I please urge my publisher to reprint. They guaranteed to order 1000 copies if they did. That is extraordinary. Until then, I'd no idea schools had even noticed them. (I'm going to blog about this separately as I'm going to talk about the importance of school visits and links soon.)
What is the lesson for writers?
That back-list books can have a new life; that a lot of this is luck; but that you have to keep doing the right stuff to make luck happen. You have to keep working and working hard. So, writers, keep behaving professionally; keep active online and off; keep smiling and seem positive even when you don't feel it; keep being good to work with and keep writing the best books you can. 

Soon, to celebrate the sudden success of the highwayman books, I'm organising a major competition, with a category for schools and adults and lots of books to be won. Details later, here and on my website. But I have to warn you: you'll need to read one of the books, otherwise you won't be able to do the simple task I'm going to set. :) So, people, do try the Highwayman's Footsteps and The Highwayman's Curse. Ebook or print, I don't mind! Well, actually, the ebooks aren't live yet...

Monday, 7 May 2012

From book to stage

How do books get turned into theatre productions? Actually, I know precious little about it, but I can tell you how it has happened/ is happening to one of my novels.

Because, yes, hoorayishly for me, Fleshmarket has been acquired for stage adaptation. I have signed the contract and, if all goes well, it should begin a run in a London theatre by the end of next year. The only reason I am able to say this quite calmly is because I have just dosed myself with chocolate and am in a state of somnolent bliss.

How did I bring this about? By doing sod all. Yes, there may be ways of making it happen, but I didn't do them. People often said Fleshmarket really should be a film, but a stage play? I didn't understand enough about the stage even to know if the book was suitable. Unconnectedly, last year I'd had a helpful conversation with a man who specialises in writing stage plays, and he'd strongly suggested that I should DO something, by which he meant I should write the play and take it to amateur dramatic groups. But I didn't because a) I have no time and b) I wouldn't even know where to begin.

However, several years ago a dramatist had read Fleshmarket and approached my agent, expressing interest in writing a stage version. The theatre she had in mind was the Unicorn Theatre in London. My agent told her that yes, the rights were available. And then we heard nothing, but to be honest I never expected to. That conversation was maybe three or more years ago.

About eighteen months ago, out of the blue, she contacted my agent again and said the story of Fleshmarket wouldn't leave her head and she really wanted to do it. She'd been talking to the theatre. Were the rights still available? Yes, they were.

About six months ago, she told my agent that the Unicorn Theatre was definitely interested in commissioning her to write the adaptation. Were the rights still available? Yup. Shortly after that, the theatre director contacted us and a contract was duly negotiated. Which is what I signed last week.

Hooray! *pauses to let it sink in*

Some questions you might have about the process:

How does the money work with a theatre deal?
I am paid a non-refundable advance. Then, when (or "if" - see below) it is performed at the theatre, I get a percentage of box office takings, as does the dramatist doing the adaptation.

Will it definitely be performed?
Nothing is definite in life but this is not like a film option deal, where the film is more often not made. A theatre contract is a specific undertaking to create the adaptation with a view to performing it within a set time-scale. (That is how I know it is supposed to happen before the end of 2013, because if it doesn't the contract ends and I keep the advance. The adapter would also keep her fee, so a theatre really only enters into these contracts if it's as sure as possible that the play will be performed.)

Do I have to do anything?
No! Except come to see it. And naturally I'll want to drum up lots of interest when the time comes, but I don't actually have to do anything. I'd LOVE to sit in on a rehearsal when it gets to that stage, but they might not want me. :(

Can they change the title?
The contract says that the title must be Fleshmarket unless we agree otherwise. I find it conceivable that I would.

Do I have any say in the adaptation?
No. I have to trust the writer. However, I already know that this will very much be an adaptation so I can't be precious about the story. I have to respect that a play is very different from a novel, especially a novel where so much of the action is in one character's head. I am quite relaxed about what they might do with it, as long as history is not entirely rewritten. I'll be very cross if they make Burke and Hare into body-snatchers, for example.

Anything else?
Yes, there's been some interest from someone else in doing a radio play... Not sure if anything is happening with that suggestion.

Any other benefits?
Well, I expect it to help sales of the book. Also, I wonder if schools might be interested in performing a version in school drama lessons. That would be wonderful. Because so many schools study Fleshmarket, it would make huge sense to create a school drama version.

I am very excited and delighted. Especially since I don't have to do anything. It's lovely to think that a piece of work I did over ten years ago still has life in it. I think a first class train ticket to the press launch is definitely in order.

I am a tad worried about how they will create the first scene and whether the audience will all faint, however... Please bring your smelling salts.

Friday, 4 May 2012

Creative writing degree course?

Are you considering taking a creative writing degree course? If so, I thoroughly recommend a blog post by Danuta Kean. Do read it and then come back here, please. *taps fingers while waiting*

Wednesday, 2 May 2012


I was helping someone with her synopsis recently. (Please don't be tempted to ask me to help you, by the way! This was a special situation. To you, I will merely say, "I wrote Write a Great Synopsis - BUY IT!" )

Anyways. During the conversation, this arose: