When writing historical fiction carry your research lightly. We the reader do not need to know every tiny detail of making a dress in 1840 when your character is a dressmaker, or skinning a rabbit when your character is a poacher. It is great that you have researched and know exactly how these things are done but for us it may be a bit boring to have too much detail.
Get the voice right and consistent. Ye Olde English can be pretty trying to read but the odd word used here and there can place a character very firmly in a time and place which is not here and now. Read books written at the time your novel is set in to get a sense of language.
Look at old photos, paintings and other source material for details that can help your book feel time specific. How did a hospital look in 1917? There are pictures to help. What was London like in 1925? There are pictures there to help. Best not to guess or think it was like today but with horses.
“I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops” Stephen King
Be careful of adverbs. Running quickly, smiling happily, whispering quietly … Its easy to do and completely unnecessary if we are seeing the characters doing those things in context.
Thank you Stephen King for all your insight in On Writing and it is on adverbs that I quote the master story teller here:
“Adverbs you will remember from your own version of Business English, are words that modify adjectives, or other verbs. They’re the ones the usually end in -ly. Adverbs, like the passive voice, seem to have been created with the timid writer in mind. With the passive voice, the writer usually expresses fear of not being taken seriously: it is the voice of little boys wearing shoepolish mustaches and little girl’s clumping around in Mommy’s high heels.”
Have courage in your voice. Keep it simple. Show it through characters action and look at this great example of good and bad.
“put it down!” She shouted.
“Give it back” he pleaded, “it’s mine.”
“Don’t be such a fool, Jekyll,” Utterson said.
… Now look at these dubious revisions:
“Put it down! she shouted menacingly.
“Give it back,” he pleaded abjectly, ‘It’s mine.”
“Don’t be such a fool, Jekyll.” Utterson said contemptuously.
The three latter sentences are all weaker than the former ones, and most readers will see why immediately.
Stephen King ON WRITING published by New English Library
Know your characters. Not just what they look like and where they live but what they would vote in the EU referendum and which of their neighbour’s houses do they covet, or pity.
For an author to create characters that readers care about they have to be absolutely perfectly imagined. We readers don’t want to know all that stuff but we feel it when it is there and when it is not.
Write a list of 10 things you know about your character (scared of cats, loves gnocchi etc) 10 things that they would tell their friends about themselves, and 10 ways that their siblings would describe them. Get in to the habit of really knowing your characters, warts and all. Even ‘heros’ have their bad points and ‘baddies’ their good.
In my new role as Editor-at-Large at Pushkin Press I am delighted to be working on an initiative to encourage authors to send me their unpublished works of fiction. I will consider the first 20 pages and a synopsis and there is a twenty four hour period from 00.01am in the early hours to 23.59pm on the 20th June 2016. I am looking for originality, strong characters, emotional impact and compellingly readable books for young readers 8+. Please see the Press Release that went out this week. If you are looking for tips on how to write a great synopsis this is a good place to start https://janefriedman.com/novel-synopsis/
Pushkin Press Announces Open Submission Initiative
Following the appointment of Sarah Odedina as Editor-at-Large for their children’s imprint, Pushkin Press is thrilled to announce the Pushkin Press Open Submission Initiative. Both Pushkin and Odedina believe whole-heartedly in encouraging new talent and this initiative will provide unpublished writers with a golden opportunity to have their work seen by a leading figure in the literary world.
Authors are invited to submit the first 20 pages and a synopsis of their novel, which will then be read by Odedina. Submissions will be open for full length novels for readers 8+.
Odedina previously launched and ran Bonnier imprint Hot Key Books, and before that she was Editor-in-Chief for children’s books at Bloomsbury, where she oversaw publication of the Harry Potter series as well as publishing Neil Gaiman, Louis Sachar, Celia Rees and Chris Priestley.
She said: ‘It takes a lot of energy and courage to finish a book and authors must find the process of getting published daunting. Pushkin Press are very positive about talking directly with authors and we hope that our Open Submissions Initiative will help us build bridges with the writing community and lead to some exciting books being published.’
Adam Freudenheim, Publisher at Pushkin Press, said: ‘Until now, Pushkin Children’s has focussed on previously published books, contemporary and classic, from all over the world. Sarah’s appointment is part of building and extending the Children’s list, and this open submissions initiative is one innovative way we hope to reach out to and discover up-and-coming writers.’
The 24 hour submission period will take place on the 20th June from 00.00 to 23.59, to coincide with the announcement of the 2016 Carnegie Medal, the UK’s most prestigious book prize for fiction for young readers.
Submissions should be sent to email@example.com with the subject line ‘SARAH ODEDINA OPEN SUBMISSION MATERIAL’.
On June 8th at Free Word Lecture Theatre, 60 Farringdon Road, London at 6:45 pm the authors Piers Torday and Diana McCaulay will be in conversation about their writing for young readers, the role of the environment in their books, the empowered characters they create and so much more. It will be a stimulating and thought provoking evening about literature and all the important ways it can question the world and influence readers.
The Free Word website tells us: What do you get if you cross a dolphin with a pigeon? Join storytellers Diana McCaulay and Piers Torday to find out! Not only will the animals of two wonderful fiction worlds collide, their prize-winning authors will also tell us how these stories draw readers closer into an understanding of the world we all inhabit.
We’re thrilled to have award-winning Jamaican writer Diana McCaulay here in London with her new book Gone to Drift, a powerful story of one boy’s discoveries about the planet we call home and humanity’s harmful impact upon the marine environment.
Diana will be in conversation with Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize winner Piers Torday, author of The Last Wild Trilogy, “a fantastic example of how a book for children can be serious without preaching … a sobering parable about our attitude to the natural world” [Gillian Cross] and children’s publisher and chair of this event, Sarah Odedina.
Join them for a conversation about writing and publishing environmental writing aimed at younger readers.
I am delighted to introduce you to Anna, a 14 year old reader with some strong views on why children don’t read the classics anymore. Her opinions are music to the ears of writers and publishers who are trying to create a more varied and interesting diet for young readers. ENJOY!
“I’ve read countless rants from old people on facebook to old people in the guardian who oddly take some sort of pleasure out of voicing how this degenerate generation doesn’t take pleasure in reading from paper any more. Not bored of saying kids don’t read enough, it appears that they also read the wrong books. I read recently in the guardian that the number of kids reading classics like The Secret Garden and The Chronicles of Narnia have decreased as readers move over to David Walliams and the Hunger Games.
But why is this? Why have children lost interest in the classics, and what makes modern YA so popular? Here are some of my thoughts and to explain some of my points, I’m going to choose five classic books: The Secret Garden,The Chronicles of Narnia, Five Children and It, The Wind In The Willows and The Railway Children.
These are some of the most loved books by ‘older generations’ and now overlooked by kids. No doubt they deserve their status as classics as they are all fantastic in their own way. And in contrast five modern books that are popular books, The Hunger Games, Refugee boy, The Boy in the Dress, The Fault in our Stars and The Percy Jackson series. These books have overtaken as the favourites on modern day book shelves.
Between the classic and modern titles, there is far more diversity in the modern books. Yes, there were books like Amazing Grace, but without the help of google, I couldn’t think of any books containing ethnic minorities, disabilities or LGBT that fits in to the classic bracket. Yes, that is because of my limited knowledge of classic kids literature. But at the end of the day, a modern younger kid would not have any more knowledge of classics than I would, unless of course they actively searched. But when you have modern diverse books in your school library, a kid wouldn’t look any further than them (of course this is a sweeping statement, but bare with me.)
Going back to the classics I chose lets look at them a little more closely. There is The Secret Garden – we have an orphan (white) moves into a rich family’s house (white) and befriends a boy who lives on the grounds (white.) Granted, Colin is disabled and the mother is dead. But I’ll get on to that later. Next there is Five (white) children and it, a wartime story, The wind in the willows, (animals) The chronicles of rich white children in Narnia, a wartime story and lastly The (white) Railway Children another war time story.
The modern books I chose are different. You have The Hunger Games (okay they are mostly white) but we have single parents, secondary characters who are more diverse, and at the centre, a definite lack of rich family with the token tragedy trope.
Then we have Refugee Boy, a mature kids book about an Eritrean/Somalian refugee in Britain. There is The Boy in the Dress, with a poor single fathered family and a cross dressing eleven year old. The Fault in our Stars, which has two cancer patients, and lastly Percy Jackson, with a single mother, a black protagonist and a dyslexic main character just in the first book.
The raw truth is the classic books are full of either very rich/very poor, very white and very healthy characters. While in contemporary books, all the kids who aren’t white and 100% able bodied and Neurotypical have representation and heroes.
I have to admit that for bereaved children and poor children, classic books do deliver. But now we are finally breaking into an age where ethnic minorities, refugees, cross dressing, gay, bullied, and outcasts but most notably the kids with learning difficulties have heroes. I haven’t even mentioned the steep rise in heroic female characters. In the past all the girls seemed to watch from the sidelines and cry occasionally, then need a rescue from time to time, and if we are lucky they would scream. That was about as good as our female heroes got. Now a new age of Katnisses are here and ready to be a role model for all the little girls a bit left behind on the hero scene. But we definitely shouldn’t stop here, there is still a really tragic lack of diversity in contemporary teen and YA literature.
On the whole the situations in modern books are a lot more realistic than in the classics. Real people, real conditions, real issues. Readers can directly relate to more of the presented issues in modern novels such as using phones and social media, and the wider scientific knowledge we have today means characters with illnesses have their conditions named and explained. Take Colin’s miraculously cured and completely ambiguous illness in The Secret Garden and compare it to The Fault in our Stars, where the two kids have a definitely incurable and terminal cancer. It’s quite hard to empathise with Colin if you’re in a wheelchair. But on the whole he wouldn’t be a bad role model right up until he gets up and goes for a little stroll. It must have been a bit annoying for all the kids reading The Secret Garden.
Dystopia and war is a noticeable pattern in popular modern novels. But why do kids love things like Hunger Games, Divergent and The Maze Runner? These are the big daddies, the most popular. I believe that these books tick every box for today’s readers: diversity, tragedy, and a really messed up future. A theory I found on google is that ‘It represents how teenagers feel oppressed by old people and want to stop them ruining everything’ which I think makes sense. In the stories it always seems to be teenagers who seemingly can’t tie their shoelaces that manage to take down the unbreakable and corrupt governments. So does it ignite and exercise that inner thought everyone has what it takes to take down the government? These YA books contain ‘politics with stabilisers’. Very black and white and unrealistic dictatorships, a government where you have to blow it up and start again to change anything. I think kids read political YA to feel grown up, and feel like they have a good understanding of the real world after reading it.”
‘My name is Anna. I’m fourteen. I don’t read that much because I prefer movies, but when I do read, my favourite genre is horror and sci fi. My favourite books are: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime and Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. I don’t have a favourite author so far. I like to read to pass time, because it is like a movie that you can direct and make in your head, and there is more explanation than a movie. Book covers and titles are always the reason I get attracted to books. My pet peeves: forced romance, adventure, boring heroes and books that are the same but slightly altered variables. I buy books mainly because they are nicer when new and it is something to call your own. I look for a good motive, good characters, an interesting story and scary/ strange themes.’
Brian Conaghan is relatively new to the world of children’s books but not to the world of young people. He was a teacher for 17 years before giving it up to become a full-time writer when he secured a publishing contract with Bloomsbury for his first book with them, When Mr Dog Bites. He explained that as a child he didn’t read until he was about 17 and he considers himself to have been what is now termed a ‘reluctant reader’ He said “I hated the idea of people telling me what to do” and he feels that readers have to learn to enjoy reading rather than be forced to read. With this in mind he says that he read all sort of books with his pupils and felt that his motivation was to ‘grab’ readers with books like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, Refugee Boy, and early Roddy Doyle novels. Books, he tells me proudly “with swearing in them and about people like them” It is a literary canon that his own powerful novels very happily sits amongst. “Swearing doesn’t have a profound effect on kids but what does have a profound effect is when characters open up their emotions and express love through the pages to these kids” he asserts. When Mr Dog Bites garnered much praise for its original and brave story telling and also suffered some criticism for the amount of swearing in the book. But it isn’t possible to imagine an honest portrayal of such a complex character without the swearing. As a writer Brian aims to represent real life in his books and in the case of the books hero, Dylan Mint, real life includes having Tourettes Syndrome and an incredible ability to swear. Like all writers Brian makes a choice about who is going to represent and it is the good fortune of many many readers that he is choosing to go to the less frequently fictionalized characters for his heroes.
Brian goes on to explain that he is “interested in the individual who is lost and not heard and oppressed within the school environment and the social environment. Who isn’t valued by their society and their community. You see them constantly as a teacher. Kids at the back of the classroom, do the work, don’t give you any bother or hassle and it just seems that no one has asked them their opinion or their thoughts or feelings. These are the voices and kids I am interested in. The disenfranchised.” And to create these characters Brian has an incredibly original and unique voice himself. Amongst the very crowded shelves of teen and YA fiction there are few authors prepared to go so out on a limb and Brian comments that “ignorance is bliss. I can’t say I’ve read all these other books. I think we live in a derivative world. It is very difficult to be unique but what I do think you can be is honest, and I think you can be true, and I think you can represent people accurately.”
“The reason I like writing about teenagers is that I feel sometimes that irrespective of where you live in the world, which direction your life is taking and the social and economic political situation I think sometimes that what unifies teenagers is that we have all got the same fears about ourselves, about our bodies and about how other people see us and about how we see ourselves.” And it is this understanding about the universality and shared emotional world that we inhabit that gives Brian’s characters such universal appeal – regardless of the particular circumstances of their stories. He tells me “I just feel we are not that different. Other than the aesthetics and the language of it all we are not that different. I feel it is what’s in your head and in your heart that counts.” And in that Brian reveals the profoundly humanitarian and kind pulse of his books. Brian’s second book with Bloomsbury has just published and I am delighted to review The Bombs That Brought Us Together which has the hallmarks of the unique Conaghan voice, the unlikely hero, and a brave approach to telling the truth for his readers, but this time he sets his characters in a much bigger political arena.
After the huge critical success and a Carnegie Medal shortlisting for When Mr Dog Bites, Brian Conaghan’s second book with Bloomsbury, The Bombs That Brought Us Together, has just published. How do you follow a debut that caused such a sensational amount of interest? By writing something else brave, original and complex it seems.
In this moving novel Brian takes us on a more overtly political journey than its predecessor, yet at its core remains a touching portrayal of boys and their friendships. Brian explained: “I try to write tenderly about boys and I look at my own friendships as a kid and while we were into football and underage drinking we loved each other intensely and were always very open and honest with each other.”
When Charlie Law meets Pavel Duda it is at a time of great social unrest in Little Town. A suffocating regime is firmly in place with the laws laid out for all to obey and the enemy, in the form of Old Country, lurking menacingly across the border. Pavel’s story of migration from Old Country to Little Town, arriving with nothing but a flimsy understanding of the native language, is particularly resonant today. Brian started writing the book in 2014 as wars were being fought at the edges of Europe and the humanitarian crisis in Syria was sending shock-waves across the world. Struck by the nightly news pictures of families walking out of war zones, often with their entire lives packed in a small rucksack, he felt moved to write on their plight. . The people in the news stories, Brian understood, are just like the rest of us; not in any way less human or empathetic because of the cards that life dealt them. He was also aware of the Scottish Referendum and considered the imbalance of power between Scotland and England and he says “it got me thinking, what if this big place, a mighty powerful neighbour, would become a bully.”
The Bombs That Brought Us Together is inspired by and reflects real life events. The book creates a relatable story that humanises and personalises those events for the reader. At the core of Brian’s writing is the desire to understand his characters and their motivation. He wants to paint portraits that are honest and through the portrayal of those lives allow the reader to get closer to understanding a bigger political context.
Brian believes that today we “live in a culture of fear. We have to look for answers as a country and as a community and look at why we are demonising young people”. He argues that this demonisation comes from a wider attack on working class values and working class communities being vilified by the media and politicians. Brian wants to show his readers that people are fundamentally not that different and when any differences are emphasised it is done in the name of greater political ambitions. In Little Town these differences are amplified to create a culture of fear in order to help the regime maintain the skewed power balance. Pavel’s arrival shows Charlie that he has been taken in by the propaganda, blindly accepting its sweeping generalisations, and the friendship that Pavel and Charlie go on to form is a safety net for both of them. While on the surface it might appear to the reader that it is Pavel who has most to gain from the friendship, we soon see that both boys benefit from the relationship in a profoundly important way. When Old Country invades Little Town and Charlie and Pavel find themselves on the wrong side of the regime, it is the courage and confidence that their friendship has given them that gives Charlie the strength to resist and take a course of action that will change their lives.
Dealing with big political issues in The Bombs That Brought Us Together is something that Brian feels is very important. He was brought up to be politically motivated and he is concerned that the disenchantment felt today about the democratic process is down to a failure of the system. He feels that books like his, that directly address political themes, are empowering young people and offer the opportunity for readers to realise that they have a part to play in the narrative and that they can question the disparity of power. He writes to give voice to the silent, both in the personal and domestic arenas and the larger political arena.
In the end The Bombs That Brought Us Together is full of optimism and hope for the future as, at its core, is the belief that people can overcome their hardships; that they can change; that they can find strength and security through friendship and love, and that caring for their friends and families has its own reward
The Bombs That Brought Us Together is a powerful book about important issues. It is a book with a strong voice and a book that doesn’t shy away from looking directly at a problem,. Like the best YA writing, its power is in its characters and their interplay as they contend with moral and social dilemmas that the reader can empathise with. Brain Conaghan’s book joins others such as Maggot Moon, in giving the world a different view of boys, their friendships and their hopes and dreams. Brian is a thrilling writer whose respect for his audience is such that he doesn’t shy away from the truth. Happily for us, he tells me that he is a fast writer and that there are other books in the pipeline, which I for one am very much looking forward to.
At the end of May Singapore will host the AFCC – a wonderful conference with delegates from around the world talking about all forms of creative content for children. Each year the focus is on a different country and this year the focus country is Japan. Held in the National Library the talks span the interests of a vast range of audiences from writers of picture books to YA books, film makers, illustrators, academics and publishers. It is a fabulous opportunity to find out about all sorts of things you didn’t know about as well as to take time with other people in the business to talk about this specialised and special area of the creative industries – content for children.
For the full picture of the range of talks and activities visit the web site and if you are anywhere in the country, or in the region, do go along. There is so much to be discovered, shared and enjoyed. http://afcc.com.sg/
Bologna Children’s Bookfair has finished for another year with lots of really great good news stories coming out of it. One of the most exciting initiatives is the plan to launch an international children’s festival in Aarhus in 2017 which will include a publication of the best 39 European writers of YA literature under 40. Come on everyone … lets get behind and support this.