Tag Archives: teenage

Three cheers for Emma Watson

I am furious, as a woman and on behalf of Emma Watson, actor and UN Goodwill Ambassador, at the threat to publish nude pictures of her and trolls posting under the hashtag RIP Emma Watson, following her impassioned speech on gender equality. It turns out that the threat was empty, but that makes it no less hateful. Seriously, dudes, where are your brains?

She gave a wonderful, heartfelt speech to the UN at the launch of the HeForShe campaign. I honestly don’t understand how anyone can listen to that speech and not agree with it. She’s right that gender inequality has an adverse effect on men too. And for the sakes of our sons, our brothers and our husbands, as well as our daughters, we should all be pulling towards the goal of equal rights for men and women.

Emma Watson totally reflected my views on feminism. I don’t get why some men fear or ridicule it  or why some women want to distance themselves from it. For me, the question ‘Are you a feminist?’ is the same as, ‘Do you value yourself as a woman?’ It’s not about man-hating. It’s not about having a high-flying career. It is about having the opportunity to go for that career, if you want to. A woman who chooses to be a housewife or a stay-at-home mum is still a feminist if she believes in having the choice, the opportunity, the right to live her life as she sees fit.

Both sexes should have the right to an education, to have equal pay for equal work, to have a say in the policies of their country, to be able to parent their children without that impacting adversely on their career, to express the full range of emotions and for that not to be considered feminine and, therefore, ‘weak’.

I agree with Emma Watson that ‘It is time that we all perceive gender on a spectrum instead of two opposing sets of ideals.’

I see it every day. Men who have lost touch with their feelings, who have been brought up not to cry and who therefore suppress feelings of sadness, fear, inadequacy or vulnerability and consider it ‘being strong’. The feelings, of course, come out somehow, usually as anger or withdrawal. It can kill marriages. I see fathers that want to be around more for their children but, like working mothers, find it tricky in the office to convince people that they still take their careers seriously. I, too, know men who have been made fragile because ‘of a distorted sense of what constitutes male success’.

I know many feminist men that want strong, confident daughters and want equality of opportunity for them. I know men that are stay-at-home dads. I know men that have moved country to support their wife’s career. I know women that are breadwinners and their partners are ok with that. And it is good that these people have been able to make the choices they want. But as Emma Watson said: ‘No country in the world can yet say they have achieved gender equality.’

I am writing a Young Adult book about a teenage girl who meets a former incarnation of herself. In a past life she was the suffragette Emily Wilding Davison, who was killed under the King’s Horse in the 1913 Derby, trying to pin the suffragette colours to the bridle. It’s about a sexual awakening and a feminist awakening.

And so I was interested to hear about Emma Watson’s feminist awakening. She says: ‘When I was eight, I was confused at being called ‘bossy’ because I wanted to direct the plays we would put of for our parents, but the boys were not. When at 14 I started to be sexualised by certain elements of the press. When at 15 my girlfriends started dropping out of their beloved sports teams because they didn’t want to appear ‘muscly’. When at 18 my male friends were unable to express their feelings. I decided I was a feminist and this seemed uncomplicated to me.’

It is the pressures I see on girls and young women today, to be pretty, skinny, sexy, to be good, to be perfect, that inspired me to write my book. There’s also the pressure to have a great career, to have children, to have it all, and then, goddammit, to look ever youthful. Because it is youth and beauty that is valued in women and the women’s magazines, perversely, promote that. Where is the space to just be yourself? Because it is in that space that you achieve your full potential.

It distressed me to see Emma Watson, who I saw grow up on screen as Hermione Granger in Harry Potter, being attacked for launching this inclusive campaign. Harry Potter was written by another wonderful woman, JK Rowling, who was advised not to go by the name Joanne because publishers thought that boys wouldn’t read a fantasy book written by a woman.

But this gender-stereotyping shouldn’t surprise us. After all, we live in a world where a campaign to put a Jane Austen on the British ten pound note, saw Caroline Criado-Perez subjected to rape and death threats on twitter. Why should the thought of a female literary icon on a ten pound note provoke violence?

And so we come full circle and Emma Watson grows up and makes a speech that expresses nothing but love, respect and affection for men, a speech that is all about freedom and humanity, that asks men to join the campaign and these idiots, these online thugs try to tear her down.

It is great to see men as well as women coming out in support of HeFor She and rallying around Emma Watson. I am heartened there has been a tremendous backlash against the online trolls.

I applaud Emma Watson and rise to her call of ‘ If not me, who? If not now, when?’

Where do ideas come from?

The idea of this blog was to bring you on the journey with me as I wrote a book. And after about 20 posts about writer’s block and procrastination, I finally got writing but stopped blogging. So I feel I owe you a couple of retrospective posts.

Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start . When you read you begin with ABC, when you sing you begin with … Excuse me, no idea why I was suddenly chanelling Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music. Actually, I do know. It started with the words: ‘Let’s start at the very beginning’ and the tune came into my head. It started with the WORDS…

So many ideas come as you write. It’s the magic, the very essence of creativity. So don’t sit there waiting for a great idea. Write and the ideas will follow and then you can shape them.

One idea I had stemmed from an image in Vogue magazine of a model on the Mongolian steppes with an eagle. Woman and bird were in profile, gazing into the distance. It was beautiful, striking. I decided to do an exercise with her as a character. I’d been playing around with a parallel world idea but as I started to write, the photo gave me a new beginning, actually a a whole new incarnation of the book, starting in the parallel world and having the character from our world fall into it.

The book I’m currently working on started because of news articles and TV programmes about the pressures on girls to be skinny, pretty and sexy. I was horrified that girls as  young as seven were worrying about their body image! In one programme girls were shown photos of themselves along with images photoshopped so they looked skinnier and fatter. In almost every case, the girls picked the skinniest version of themselves as being the best. I’d also read about teenagers aspiring to be models or wives of footballers, or just to be on the latest reality TV programme.

Then I heard the crime author PD James talking on Radio 4. She’s in her nineties and that got me thinking about what she must have seen and experienced in her lifetime and how it couldn’t have been easy for a female crime writer early in her career, then, BAM, suffragettes popped into my head. What would the suffragettes make of the world today? What if a modern day teenager met one? That was the genesis of my book.

So the media seems to be a big source of inspiration for me. Looking at the obituaries might seem morbid but they feature interesting lives and that gets you thinking. Or a crime report might give you a plot idea. Overheard snippets of conversation on a bus can spark an idea or a character’s voice, people-watching in cafes is endlessly fascinating, making up lives for them. Putting down your phone so that you’re not picking up emails and posting on twitter but actually observing the world helps a lot. Just asking the question: What if…? Your dreams could give you an idea. Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight came from a dream. According to wikipedia, it led to Meyer writing a draft of what became chapter 13 of the book.

Travelling is good. Anything that makes you an outsider, that gets you looking at the world differently can trigger creativity. I recently went to an amazing hot spring in Malaysia with a big pool of geothermic water  surrounded by towering verdant limestone karsts with caves beneath. I felt humbled and inspired by those great architects, nature and time. It could have been another world. It could have been Eden.

The magnificent cavern with stalagtites and stalagmites that had been turned into a wine bar, was quite spectacular. A brilliant setting for a book. Something gothic, perhaps. If Stephanie Meyer had been to this place, Edward Cullen would have taken Bella on a date there.

Your own lives and experiences will give you ideas  – you may not write about them directly but they will certainly inform your writing. And once you’re writing, you start to think like a writer and notice things that you didn’t before. I will hear someone’s name and I’ll think, that’s a great name for a character and off I go. In short, ideas are all around you and you shouldn’t worry about the idea, just the sitting on your bum to write.

Whether it’s a commercial idea is another matter. What publishers are looking for is a good concept that will sell. This often comes from two ideas coming together. Vampirates, for example. Suzanne Collins is reported to have got the idea for the Hunger Games  while channel surfing. On one station was a reality TV show and on another was the invasion of Iraq and the two began to blur in her mind and she ended up with the idea of a dysptopian world where there’s an annual, televised, gladiatorial fight to the death.

I find thinking too much about commerciality blocks my writing, so I’m not going to put too much emphasis on this. The most important thing is to have something that you are compelled to write. If you have something special you can bring to it, you are an immigrant writing about the immigrant experience for example, all the better. You become commercial. The publisher can market you and you will sell your book. My friend Liz Trenow wrote The Last Telegram, which is set in the second world war – always popular– but she had a unique selling point. She comes from a family of silk weavers and she set her novel in a silk factory making parachutes for the RAF with her heroine running the factory.  As well as going to book fairs she goes to textile fairs to give readings. She knows her stuff and the sensuality the silk weaves through her story made it something that no one else could have written.

Write for yourself first but have your reader in mind. Be aware of trends but don’t try to follow them or predict them. You can help a publisher if you can give them a way to market it, something to peg it on. But underneath all that, they need a strong voice, a brilliantly evoked world, great characters and a cracking story.

How to chip away at the block

I know, it’s been ages. My apologies. You see, I’ve actually started writing. Yay! hang out the bunting, do a happy dance and eat cake (not necessarily in that order). The thing is, my writer’s block had taken such a hold that even when I started writing, I thought it may be another false start. I didn’t want to blog about it for fear of jinxing it.

The problem was I had two ideas and kept swinging from one to the other. I’d have a crisis of confidence about whether one was a good, marketable idea and then,  like a sailing boat adrift, bang! An ill wind would catch the mainsail and go swinging across my boat, often knocking me overboard in the process, before I got going on the other idea.

Somewhere in all this, I figured out that both were good ideas, it was more a matter of which to write first? I plumped for the one with the more developed plot. It was also more time sensitive because I could peg it on the anniversary of the death of suffragette Emily Wilding Davison who threw herself under the king’s horse at the 1913 Derby.

However, with all my prevaricating, I have missed that deadline by a mile. I should have been submitting it to agents last year. But on a positive note, the suffragette movement carried on well after that so I reckon it’s still marketable. Plus, I think the book will appeal to teenage girls because it’s about all kinds of issues affecting them. The pressures that they come under to be academic, pretty, sexy, skinny and, above all, to fit in, when hormones are raging and your mind is on boys and the whole world should be opening up for you but actually, the expectations are overwhelming and in some cases crippling.

My  ‘lift pitch’ – in case I meet an agent in a lift and I have 10 seconds to pitch it – is: Modern-day girl meets a suffragette. A contemporary story with an historical twist.

Wordism: It’s important you can summarise your book in a couple of sentences. It means it has a strong concept and publishers are looking for ‘high concept’ books.

Anyway, while I’m hoping that I can sell my book, the most important thing is I’m back writing and seven chapters in.

So, advice on how to break writer’s block? Actually, there wasn’t a big breakthrough moment, the muse didn’t show up one day and suddenly I could write. No, I just kept chipping away at it. I got to the point of nearly giving up, which I found frightening. Writing is such a big part of my identity that it felt like giving up on myself. And then what became important was just writing. Not selling it, not the vagaries of the market, just the act of writing. A little bit here, a little bit there until you’re writing everyday, which develops into a compulsion to write rather than procrastinate, at which point, you start living your characters, inhabiting their world, thinking about it all the time.

Wordism: Don’t give up, keep going. Just a few words is better than nothing. Write a journal if the book isn’t coming. Don’t judge what you write. Just write. Observations, what you’re feeling… Write in a stream of consciousness. Read The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron – it’s a bit spiritual, which isn’t for everyone, but it’s also practical.

I explored my main character by letting her vent what was on her mind without worrying about story or plot. Her character developed around her voice, a plot emerged from her character. And also from thinking about the suffragette and what part she would play. I have to be careful that Emily plays at least an equal part to the romance in the novel. Feminists may not approve of what I do with the romance but then they’re not my audience. Teenage girls are my readers. And if I can get one teenage girl to google ‘suffragette’ or ‘Emily Wilding Davison’, I’ll be happy with that.

Something to try: If you have a character in mind, allow them to vent on the page. Write whatever’s on their mind in the first person. If you’re not working on a project right now but want to get the creative juices flowing, find a picture of a person in a magazine, a newspaper or in a work of art (as Tracy Chevalier did in Girl with a Pearl Earring) and imagine what they are thinking. What is their world like? Then give them a voice. Who knows where it will lead.

Hope shimmers on the horizon

The new year has started with a glimmer of hope. I sent the first three chapters of The Smuggler’s Daughter  to a small independent press in Dublin after I heard the managing editor speak at a SCBWI retreat at the end of 2011. I received a lovely email back saying she was ‘impressed’ by my work and I had ‘real talent’ and she wanted to see the rest. Woohoo!

This was tempered by her preparing me for the ‘not right for our list’ rejection as they are a small press and only have one historical title which is also set in Napoleonic times. But she still wanted to read it and she was interested to hear my ideas for my next project. Hope shimmers on the horizon. I’m praying it’s not a mirage.

Are the stars are aligning, at last? Or maybe it’s just taking a positive step like going to a writing retreat that is continuing to reverberate in opportunity and  possibility. I needed the encouragement and support of fellow writers. They understand about the process, about dealing with rejection, about picking yourself up, about persevering. Steve Hartley, who wrote the children’s series Danny Baker Record Breaker, spoke about how it took him 15 years to get published and was afraid that might discourage us. But as someone who has spent 12 years writing (well 10 years writing and two years sulking), it gave me hope. I wasn’t alone.

I’m happy putting the time and effort in to learn the craft. With each of my three books, I’ve got better and got closer, getting shortlisted for competitions and having agents ask to see the rest of my book after years of standard rejection letters. Then, with Smugglers, which I wrote for my MA in Creative Writing (another of those positive steps), I found my voice and got lots of agent interest and a couple wanting to represent me. And then came the barrage of publishers’ rejections and two years of writer’s block.

It’s  harder to pick yourself up when you’ve got so close. But it’s what you have to do and my fellow writers encouraged me not to lose faith in the book. Children’s author Patricia Forde (Hedgehogs do Not Like Heights) gave me the nudge I needed to talk to the editor about Smuggler’s and it worked. It’s being considered again.

Wordism: Take positive steps to achieving your goal of finishing your book or getting it published. Take courses, go on retreats, join a writer’s group, network all you can, develop an online presence.

Just after the retreat, I discovered that my MA friend Liz Trenow had got a two-book deal with Harper Collins’ Avon imprint for her book The Last Telegram. Again, it gives me hope that it can and does happen. The following day, I saw a familiar name on the SCBWI Facebook page. Tina Orr-Munro – a former colleague from my days as a journalist. She had a book cover as her Facebook photo, Ellie Foster’s English Courseworkand sure enough, when I got in touch, I discovered that she too had got published. Not only that, but she’d been through the same journey as me. She’d got an agent only to be knocked back by the big publishers. She gave up writing for two years then decided to try some small independent presses and, hey presto, Rickshaw jumped at it.

The right book has to land on the right desk at the right time. You can have the talent. You can have the craft. But what you really need is luck. I wish you lots of it!

Egmont UK – what the editors say

I went along to the first of the SCBWI Professional Series events in London last night and heard commissioning editors Peter Marley and Ali Dougal talk about what Egmont UK is looking for in a manuscript.

Egmont publish Lemony Snicket and Mr Gum but is publishing more teenage fiction now, picking up on the paranormal trend with The Dark Divine by Bree Despain. The vampire trend is beginning to fall off, according to Ali, but paranormal is still going strong with angels and werewolves taking up the slack. Michael Morpurgo’s brilliant War Horse is on Egmont’s list and the film, directed by Stephen Spielberg, is out soon.

With a picture book, Peter Marley is looking for ‘iconic’, memorable characters that are full of personality. He likes funny or quirky characters. Writing must be concise – around 800 words – and age appropriate. There should be a good story arc and a strong ending.

Ali Dougal deals with young fiction (age 5+) through to YA and crossover. She’s is looking for a clear ‘hook’. By which she means a plot you can hold in the palm of your hand, a high concept.  She has to champion a book to her sales and marketing team at the acquisition meeting, so it needs to be an easily understood, marketable concept. One submission that stood out recently, she said, was a book called Au Revoir, Crazy European Chick (brilliant title), a YA action thriller that was fast paced and fun. It was ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off meets Kill Bill‘. This hook helped her pitch it to the acquisition team.  It’s due out later this year.

To make Ali sit up and take notice, it needs one or more of the following: A stunning voice, mass market appeal, a character she loves or something genuinely funny. It can be commercial or have prize-winning potential. If it has both, all the better. International appeal (they have offices in the US and Australia) or film potential also hits the right buttons. Basically, she has to absolutely love it and it has to have the potential to ‘sell by the truckload.’ Publishing is a business, after all.

Ali mentioned a couple of other memorable submissions, also out later this year. The Shadowing, a horror series for boys aged 10+, which had a clear series arc, was commercial and the writing was great. And Dear Dylan, a coming of age story written in email form which dealt with issues but was also fun and had a very real voice.

Egmont is the biggest children’s publisher in the UK and one of the only ones that still accept unsolicited manuscripts. A junior staff member will read them first and pass those they like to an editor. But Ali warned that they receive 180 unsolicited submissions in a two week period so it does take time. If you have an agent, of course, it will go straight to an editor. But all submissions are read. Send your manuscripts to: childrensreader@euk.egmont.com

Thanks to SCBWI for hosting a great event.

British Books Challenge 2011

I’ve joined the British Books Challenge 2011, which involves reading 12 books by British authors over the year. I figure I’ll be reading books anyway, why not join the challenge, connect with other readers, writers and reviewers, give British authors a plug and share my reviews on my blog.

I’ll be reviewing YA fiction as that’s what I’m writing. First on my reading list is Marcus Sedgewick’s Revolver, which I think has been shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal. I’ve previously read Dark Horse by the same author and loved it, very atmospheric.

I’ll also be reading Hello Mum by Bernadine Evaristo, which is sitting on my desk and is a story of murder and heartbreak, according to the strapline. It’s a slim novella that looks like it’ll be urban and gritty and, as I’m writing a contemporary teen book, I thought I should read some similar titles. Both of these books were published in 2010 but I’ll be on the look-out for 2011 titles too.

I do tend to read books that will inform my writing in some way. Books I hope to learn from.  I will review as a reader, of course, but also as a writer.

This is all a bit new and I’m hoping I can follow the challenge’s sign up instructions, which involves linking the site to my review and widgets were mentioned but I’ve forgotten what they are. Still, I’ll do my best.

So watch this space for YA reviews and if anyone else wants to get involved you need to sign up before the end of the month.