Tag Archives: YA

The new feminists

I’ve finished the book! (Cue happy dance with triumphant knee-slide across the living room floor). Yes! I’m taking the time to savour the moment and not entertaining the thought of agent and publisher rejections. No I will not think about that. Bugger, I’m thinking about that. But I’m also celebrating the achievement. It’s only when you reach the end of a book (well the draft that you’re going to send out) that you wonder how on earth you did it.

So here is Soul Sister. I’ve uploaded it on this site, if you want to check it out. It’s about a modern day teenager that meets the woman she was in a past life – the suffragette Emily Wilding Davison. It’s about souls clashing in one life and meeting in another to make peace. It’s about first love. It’s about being happy in your own skin, standing up for yourself and having a voice.

In my book, I’m exploring what it is to be a girl today. Girls pick up on society’s expectations of them to be pretty, skinny and sexy. It was what, in part, set me off writing this book because it can lead to body image problems, eating disorders, and low self-esteem and I think it’s terrible that we’re doing that to our daughters.  You only have to look at the Protein World advert of the bikini clad woman and the slogan Are you Beach Body Ready? to get some idea of how blatant that pressure is.

Protein World's beach body ad on the London underground

There’s been a huge backlash in London, with women answering the advert’s question by writing their thoughts on the posters on the tube. This is a watershed moment, I think. The moment when women said: ‘Enough! I’m not interested in how you think I should look on the beach. Or anywhere else. I am proud of the body I have and I will take it anywhere I please.’ The suffragettes would be proud.

Girls and women are kicking, quite literally, against limiting definitions and expectations of who they should be and what they should look like and turning stereotypes upside down. imagesLike the nine-year-old girl on Britain’s Got Talent, Jesse McParland, cute as you like, and launches into an amazing, acrobatic martial arts routine to rival The Karate Kid, Zorro and the Three Musketeers put together. Fierce! And totally expressing who she is. She tried ballet and Irish dancing, she said, but she didn’t like it.

And yesterday I read about Danielle Taylor whose Prom theme was ‘Sweet Dreams’, presumably based on the 80s romance books, but anyway likely to be iUnknownnterpreted in pink with hearts. Yes, a school, basically saying, ‘we’ve given you an education but what is really important is being pretty enough to get a boyfriend’. Deciding the prom theme was a giant let-down, Danielle designed her own spectacular outfit based on the hooded DC Comics super-hero, Green Arrow, which, let’s face it, rocks.

I’m seeing a new wave of feminism and strong female role-models. Since I started writing Soul Sister three years ago, Emma Watson has launched the HeforShe campaign to engage men in the movement for gender equality and 17-year-old Malala Yousafzai has won the Nobel Peace Prize for her work as an activist for education. She was shot by the Taliban on her way to school because she believed girls had a right to an education and was writing a blog about it. The Taliban tried to silence her, but her voice is now being heard world-wide and she’s speaking for oppressed girls everywhere.

Teenagers are blogging about feminism and there are fabulous magazines for young women like The Feminist Times and Vagenda, set up by two students in 2012 because they were in fits of laughter after reading out loud excerpts from a weekly women’s magazine whose articles were ridiculous and irrelevant. They decided to set up an online magazine to ‘call the bullshit’ on the mainstream women’s press.

Twenty years ago my friend and I had a similar conversation, lamenting all the ‘how to catch your man’ articles and talked about setting up a women’s magazine for real women with interesting news and features but we did nothing about it.

I’m glad someone has. I love the dynamism and self-assured spirit of young women today. Respect.

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.

Books, creeks and paddles

I haven’t posted recently about the process of writing my book, (which was supposed to be the point of this blog) or even about the process of not writing. This is because I’ve been in a strop.

I had started on the Suffragette idea and had some joyful moments of ‘flow’ before losing my paddle. Not only that but I started to question whether I was writing the right book. Up the creek. Again.

I got to the same place with the last idea – my Inca adventure / romance – and bailed out because it just wasn’t coming to me. I lost faith in it. And here I was in the same situation.

But then Lee Weatherly, a writer friend and mentor, got me thinking about what I wanted to write rather than what I thought would sell. I loved writing my last book, The Smuggler’s Daughter, but I’d not got a book deal. So this time I’d been focusing on getting the right idea. A marketable idea. But perhaps I was focusing too much on the goal of getting published.

Wordism: Focus on the process of writing and the joy of that rather than on the end product.

So, I thought, what do I want to write? What do I enjoy? I like writing YA fiction. I enjoy adventure stories. And love stories. I like strong female characters. This led me back to my Inca idea. Is that my paddle over there?

I made a foray into a possible first chapter and had some fun, before getting stuck. But this time, rather than feeling blocked, I recognised that the idea needed work.

I hold on to the paddle, I don’t jump ship (or canoe), I think about how to find my way out. I stop thinking and notice the creek is pretty, even if it doesn’t go anywhere. Ideas begin to rain. I could develop the fantasy element. Maybe it’s set in the future. Or an alternative present. I can feel the boat shifting. Pretty soon I’ll be off the mud flats and into the stream of a first chapter and, I hope, swept into the exhilarating white waters of a novel.

Review: Revolver by Marcus Sedgwick

Revolver by Marcus Sedgwick is a brilliant, sparsely written YA thriller set in the Arctic at the turn of the 20th century. Sig Andersson is alone in an isolated cabin with the body of his dead father, when there’s a knock at the door.

It’s Gunther Wolff, who has unfinished business with Sig’s father, Einar. And if Einar is not alive, then his business is with Sig. He wants to know where the gold is.

Sig has no idea but the man doesn’t believe him. Wolff has been chasing Einar for ten years and isn’t going to walk away empty handed.

As a story of Arctic gold-lust unfolds, Sig’s mind turns to his father’s prized Colt revolver. His mother had preached that faith was the answer but his father had said there were times when faith ran out and a gun was the answer. Was this one of those times? Should he resort to violence or have faith?

This is a finely crafted novel that seamlessly switches between Sig being held captive and his father’s story ten years earlier. For a writer, it’s a lesson in how to create suspense, how to reveal back story and how to create atmosphere.  Not just the isolation and the cold, which practically gave me frostbite, but how to really draw a reader in. Marcus Sedgwick evokes the world brilliantly. I was in that cabin with Sig, I felt his loss and his fear. I struggled with his dilemma, and, I admit, I was willing him to use the gun to save himself.

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.