Monday 31 March 2008

SCBWI Critique Group in the North West

I met up with fellow writers in the North West for the first time yesterday. We meet in the function room at Waterstones on Deansgate, Manchester. It’s a part of town I love. And Waterstones is a bookshop, and therefore enjoyable, even though I have some concerns about the commercial activity of the giants, like Waterstones and the way they are squeezing out the independents. The function room itself is amazingly big, especially for the three of us who met. But we sat around a delightful old, faded-but –it-would-be-good-with-a-little-TLC table.

There were the normal discussions about the three manuscripts in front of us: was too much detail given too early? Were the characters consistent? Was the point of view consistent? Were relationships clear? There was a fair amount of agreement. This makes you feel good, even if it’s not your manuscript which is being read.

I do miss my London group and my Winchester group. The London one is abandoned because we have all had to go our separate ways. The Winchester one meets mid week. Even Writers in Southampton meet in the week. Yet the North West SCBWI group meets on Sundays. I’m always in the wrong place.

Still, some of my books were in Waterstones. They were selling them three for two. I can’t decide whether that is a good thing or a bad thing.

Monday 24 March 2008

Book Launch “The Lombardy Grotto” and “Food Assembly Instructions”

We launched the two books on a cold afternoon, Easter Saturday, 22nd March, 2008. It actually snowed outside a little and a cold bitter wind was blowing. When I arrived, I took the last parking place. Everyone else who arrived also reported taking the last parking space.

We were a bijou number. However, everyone who turned up bought at least one copy of each book. We now have to order more of “Food Assembly Instructions”.

Marco, the new owner of the Village Tea Rooms at Hamble did us proud. They parked me in the middle of the “L” of the dining room. I could see both halves of the café easily and therefore all of my guests.The upstairs room was not ready to hire out yet and the café itself was not officially ready. But it looked fantastic. All the tables and chairs match and each table for two or four people had a red checked table cloth, and also a vase with a single tulip in it. The paint was so fresh you could still smell it.

The cakes are still homemade by the people who always made cakes before – including Sue Pullen, the former owner. A lot better than what’s available from the chains with the possible exception of Druckers. Marco served us a delicious orange and strawberry drink. He’s not licensed yet, but will be soon. That was just right, though, considering “The Lombardy Grotto” is a children’s book.

Yes, we were scuppered a little by the weather and the time of year and the fact that I’d not spent enough time on the invites. But it worked. I gave a copy of each book to Marco and he has also agreed to sell both books in the café

The most exciting news of all, though, is that he is interested in the Creative Café. He even understands it exactly. That is great news.

Wednesday 19 March 2008

Working with Smaller Groups

I worked with just six Y6 students yesterday. It was in a very rural school deep in Kent. Three of the six had passed the eleven-plus to go to the local Grammar School. The others had tried and failed. But it was very clear that these kids loved reading and loved story. From the conversations we had, they were pretty good at it too.

I really did much the same talk that I’ve done in my other visits. I start off asking them to guess which are the two questions that writers dread getting. This particular group didn’t get there. Then I ask them about their story-telling and ask them where they get stories from. I then go on to talk about how I came to write The Lombardy Grotto and read a passage from it. I either use Chapter Two, and ask them what they think of the characters. So far, it’s been very gratifying: most schools have got the ages of the children right and their characters, and have given a good description of Uncle Sparky. Or I read Chapter Five and ask them to work out why the Lombarders call the wizard Old Fuzzy Locks. I sometimes ask them if they like chocolate, and then we talk a little about how you would describe chocolate to someone who had never tasted it before. Unusually, yesterday, I read a short piece from when the mansion starts to dissolve.

The response was good. They all became enthusiastic about the book and one of them bought it. Three others took home order forms. Working with a smaller group was good. It was easier to engage them. A couple of times I had to remind them of the etiquette of talking in a group, but it was only because they were enthusiastic.

As I left the school, their class teacher popped his head out of the door.

“They’ve come back very motivated,” he said.

Ah well, I guess that was the purpose of the exercise.

Thursday 13 March 2008

Wales Book of the Year Long List Launch

I attended this yesterday evening. It was held jointly in Cardiff and Wrexham, organised by Academi, the organisation which supports and promotes Welsh literature. I am a member of Academi because I graduated with a Creative Writing degree from a Welsh university - Bangor. I attended the Wrexham event, naturally.

The Long List is the ten best books written in Welsh and the ten best books written in English. Our host for the evening was Hedd ap Emlyn and two of the judges spoke –Mavis Nicholson for the books in English and Huw Meirion Edwards for those in Welsh. The actress Angharad Llwyd read extracts from four of the books – two in Welsh, two in English.

It was a good opportunity for me to try out my Welsh again. I understood about one fifth of what I heard, but half of the presentations were in English anyway. I still get the feeling that there is a tendency for people to go to these events just because of the language.

What a task for the judges, though. They had to read about 120 books. There was some poorly written material, apparently. I’d go along with that. I think there’s hardly a book today which escapes any mistake at all.

And of course, there were books to be bought and I couldn’t resist.

I also had the chance to talk at length to Hedd ap Emlyn at length, suggesting that there should be something similar for children’s books. I think I may also have persuaded him to get me on the school’s tour.

Monday 10 March 2008

Writers' Earnings

Some interesting questions came up on my latest school visit. One group did become very obsessed with how much a writer earns. Well, of course, the frightening thing about writing fiction is that one never knows whether one will be paid at all, and even if one is, there’s never any surety about how many books will sell – no matter how good they are – or bad.

If you are very lucky you get 10% of the price the publisher sells to the retailer. This tends to happen only after you have sold 2000 copies. Before then it can be just 7.5%.

Standard discounts are 35% to bookshops but supermarkets and Amazon expect 60%, leaving very little profit margin for the publisher and low royalties for the writer. However, supermarkets increase sales, so it may be worth it for writers and their publishers. Amazon is a great equalizer. Books that don’t have a chance in getting into a bookshop appear there and are sometimes linked to books which sell very well.

My most lucrative book?

That has to be the “World of French Revision” series which has earned me £6,000. The best paid work, though, is the case study I did for NAWE. £100 for an hour’s work.

One of the nice things, though, is that you carry on earning years after you’ve written the books. And as I tend to go on holiday in September and as royalties are often paid at the end of September, I can feel quite smug as I sit and sunbathe.

Thursday 6 March 2008

The Lombardy Knot

I decided yesterday that my sessions in primary schools need to be a little more interactive. So, I bought some pipe cleaners and spent a good while yesterday evening perfecting the art of the
Lombardy knot as created by Jayne in “The Lombardy Grotto”.

Jayne had to use strips of leather, but they are strips of leather reinforced with wire, which are used amongst other things, for tying up the girls’ and the women’s hair. Pipe-cleaners are a good substitute here.

You take five. It’s good to use three different colours, say two white, two yellow and one black. (See picture 1.)

You wrap the black one, or whichever one is on its own, round the other four. Right in the middle.

Carry on wrapping it until it is all used up.

Then join the two lots of two whites together to form loops.

Now weave the yellow strands round the white ones. It looks a bit like a butterfly now. In fact, like the very butterfly on the back of my book form where the imprint Butterfly gets its name.

Watch this spot for photos. My camera suddenly died. I’m hoping it’s just a battery problem, but I fear it may be more. It had two pips left and it happened very suddenly.

Wednesday 5 March 2008

Creating Stories

I worked yesterday with a school set in the Northamptonshire countryside. A beautiful little village school which has just had a new play area built for the children – all artificial grass and soft tarmac. All the same child-friendly material. The teachers sit in a conservatory which overlooks the play area at break-times. I was lucky again: the secretary had been there exactly seven years. There was cake and chocolates.

The Headteacher, about my age, was being very brave. She had put two classes together for the day. It was noisy and cramped, but the ideas just flew around. The children were going to spend all day on stories, the Head explained. So, I brought story theory into my talk about “The Lombardy Grotto”. We looked at four archetypal characters: the protagonist, the friend, the enemy and the mentor. We also looked at story structure: inciting incident, growing complications – oops! oh dear, oh, no, crisis, almost resolution, rug pulling, and resolution. I also did a little of “writing with the senses” and related this to Jayne’ experience of chocolate. When I left, each child had two sides of A4 which they could us as a basis for a story.

There was a lovely looking pub over the road. It did serve food. But I didn’t think it would look so good if I went straight there from the school. I drove to the next one, also nice, but not quite so charming. And I sat and watched the characters in the bar, thinking of my own next story.

Tuesday 4 March 2008

A Leap of Faith

I was at a school yesterday which caters for children who can’t fit into mainstream education, usually because of emotional or mental problems, often associated with a spell in hospital. Here were just five students there – a Year 4 girl and four boys years 7-9, not particularly good readers.

The whole visit was delightfully informal, with me having a coffee first with two of the staff, while they explained how the school worked. Then I sat with the five students and four staff and did my usual talk about “The Lombardy Grotto”. I say usual: it comes out different every time. I talked to them about being a writer and how I came to write “The Lombardy Grotto”. I read them Chapter Five, where Jayne and her brothers and her uncle first meet the wizard. At the end of this chapter, as Jayne eats the most delicious chocolate, her little brother Michael disappears.

Apparently, during break they were speculating about what had happened to Michael. Really, “The Lombardy Grotto” is more suitable for Key Stage 2, but the children here are generally late developers.

After break we sat with drinks and mini chocolate rolls and flapjacks – interestingly, there has been some sort of celebration in every school I’ve been in in the last week, but here the cakes were in my honour. A bonus, I guess.

We had a great discussion about what might have happened to Michael. Then, there were more questions about being a writer. I explained how we are all actually a little bit mad. We spend hours at our computers, never knowing if we’re ever going to be paid, let alone be paid a living wage, even if the manuscript is accepted.

“So, it’s sort of a leap of faith?” suggested one of the boys.

The eyes of the other adults in the room popped. Such touching wisdom from one of these emotionally fragile children.

A leap of faith indeed. I’ll remember that.

Monday 3 March 2008

Book Launches

I was at a Graeme Harper’s book launch last week. It was a joyous occasion – in a lovely setting with lots of people I knew, including Graeme himself, of course. Louise, his wife, had made some fabulous food. It was held at the sailing club at Llanfairfechan. Graeme, or rather should I say Brooke Biaz, launched his previous book from a sailing club. They do have a bit of atmosphere.

Martin and I both have books out as well – his “Food Assembly Instructions” and my “The Lombardy Grotto”. They both look good. And book launches are good fun.

Copyright Laws Gone Mad

See Writers’ News December 2007, front page. Think, who owns a certian wizard? Not J K Rowling.