Notes from the London Book Fair

 

I went on the Tuesday and Thursday this year using the SCBWI members three day ticket. Fellow SCBWI’s have been asking if the Fair is worth it and I would say, yes, if you are gearing up for submission, if you want to meet/hear/talk to well known authors and publishers and if you want to find out about new releases and the publishing world in general.

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Little Tiger stand, The Children’s Hub @LBF

There are agents and editors about but unless you know them or have pre-booked the 15 minute pitch slots, it’s unlikely you’ll get time with them. Their priority is selling rights and networking, not new authors. Having said that, I did manage to get 20 minutes with an editor I’ve been having an email conversation with about one of my stories. It is always good to put names to faces.

YA & MEG ROSOFF

Meg is one of my favourite authors and I found her in the Penn Literary Salon talking about writing and her new adult screwball comedy, Jonathan Unleashed. Meg has also just won the prestigious Astrid Lindgren Prize for her YA novels and deservedly so, her characters are quirky and original, and she is superb at first person voice.

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Meg Rosoff: Winner of the 2016 Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award

Meg says she “writes on the edge of reality, where the strange might happen,” weaves into her stories the two big questions teens and young adults are preoccupied with. Will anybody love me? and What will I do with my life?

She says her stories reflect her “cape crusader personality”. She believes in “being good in an unconventional way,” and that life is not about finding happiness, “it’s about being useful and being loved.”

She spends a lot of her day thinking and a small part writing and then rewriting and rewriting and rewriting, until her characters resonate.

Seminar Notes: The Power of Pictures: Working with Picture Book Creators in Primary Schools.

I stumbled upon this talk and I’m so glad I did!

This is a three year Arts Council funded project, from Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE), where nine author illustrators have worked alongside teachers to help them understand the creative process that goes into writing picture books. The teachers use this experience to support the children in their classes to become better readers and writers. Author/illustrators taking part included Mini Grey, Nicola Davies, Alexis Deacon and Benji Davies.

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“Good picture books are complex”

Charlotte Hacking, the CLPE programme leader, demonstrated the complexity of the picture books chosen and how they communicate subtle layers of meaning through: body language, expression, line of vision, background, context, colour, page breaks, page turns, rhythms and rhymes, the contrast between words and pictures, and so on.

With a teacher or parent’s support, picture books not only entertain children, they encourage them to use their imagination, organise their thoughts and look for deeper meaning in stories. When children engage fully with a story it can help them learn life skills; one of the most important is EMPATHY.

The CLPE aren’t the only ones thinking like this. Agents/editors are currently seeking picture books that feature a life lesson, e.g. loss, worries, standing up for yourself, finding love, etc. Take a look at the latest SCBWI Slush pile challenge; this is exactly what Helen from Bell Lomax Moreton wants.

I asked the sales reps at some of the  children’s publisher stands: “What’s selling well in picture books at the moment – in the UK and aboard?”

And guess what! Books with a life lesson, stories that make children think, stories that evoke emotion and resonate with both children and adults do, and importantly, they must be humourous.

And bonus! They export well, especially in the Far East’s growing markets.

There was a lot of talk about picture books being relevant to ALL ages. Why do we frown on 7+ year old children reading picture books and push novels on them as soon as possible? Charlotte Hacking advocates breadth of reading for all ages: magazines, digital, comics, picture books and novels, because, “breadth of reading builds reading stamina for life.” 

Seminar: The Future of Children’s Publishing

In this later session, there was a warning and an opportunity. Children’s market are still growing, buoyed in part by adults buying children’s books (seeking what they loved as a child and recognizing the great new writing in this market) and super child readers (from affluent middleclass backgrounds) who are consuming more than their weight in books. Overall though, children of 6+ years are spending less time reading due to digital platforms (YouTube and Apps) becoming more accessible and more attractive. Ensuring diversity and breadth of appeal in children’s publishing is key and creative concepts, which can cross formats are a real opportunity.

INSPIRING AUTHORS

I also attended talks by crime author Peter James, children’s writer Judith Kerr, and watched a ‘Dragons Den’ style panel event called the Write Stuff where five brave authors pitched their novels to agents.

Listening to them talk, it was obvious that successful authors pour their life experiences and passions into their books. Peter James enjoys accompanying the police on raids and his real life tales are every bit as fascinating as his fictional ones.

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Peter James, crime writer

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Judith Kerr, 93

Judith Kerr’s novel, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, was based on her childhood experiences as a jewish refugee narrowly escaping Nazi persecution. The winner of the Write Stuff pitched a book about the fallout of a relationship after a soldier arrived home from a conflict zone, psychologically damaged and irrevocably changed. Both the author and her husband have been deployed in the Middle East and it was a story she needed to tell.

This kind of passion is catching and inspiring and sells lots of books.

Lastly, here’s my pile of children’s publisher catalogues featuring current lists and what’s debuting spring and autumn this year!

I wonder what the gaps in the market are…..

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How to write fantastic descriptive passages

Part 1. Places

We’ve had lots of conversations in my critique group lately about how to describe places and people.

So I thought I would check out how children’s greatest and best authors tackle it, starting with place…

Here’s an extract from…

His Dark Materials, by Phillip Pullman.

imagesDirectly ahead of the ship a mountain rose, green-flanked and snow-capped, and a little town and harbour lay below it: wooden houses with steep roofs, an oratory spire, cranes in the harbour, and clouds of gulls wheeling and crying. The smell was of fish, but mixed with it came the land-smell too: pine-resin and earth and something animal and musky, and something else that was cold and blank and wild: it might have been snow. It was the smell of the North.

Isn’t he a master at painting scenes with words!

The passage is packed with detail. He starts by describing what Lyra can see from the deck of the ship and then he explores the smell of the place, slowly, so we are standing right next to Lyra tasting the air with her, trying to identify that part new, part familiar smell. The description also conveys a sense of Lyra’s anticipation and excitement. She has finally arrived in the North.

Also check out the punctuation. He uses a mixture of colons, commas and the conjunction ‘and’ to structure the scene. This variation prevents the passage from feeling blocky. He has also achieved a rhythmical quality with lots of doubled-up descriptions e.g. “green-flanked and snow capped,” “wooden houses and steep roofs,” “pine-resin and earth.” It’s a lovely passage to read aloud.

The Way We Live Now, by Meg Rosoff

images-3This short passage is from an early scene when Daisy arrives at her aunt’s farm jetlagged and overwhelmed. It’s appropriately short, as Daisy literally can’t take everything in. Rosoff describes the farm and its inhabitants in one broad sweep to reflect her character’s mood.

There was a welcoming committee staring at me through the window and in it were four kids, and a goat and a couple of dogs…and in the background I saw some cats scooting around after a bunch of ducks that for some reason or other were hanging out on the lawn.

A few pages later, when Daisy’s had a chance to explore, Meg Rosoff lets her pen flow.

First let’s get it clear that the house is practically falling down, but for some reason that doesn’t seem to make any difference to how beautiful it is. It’s made of big chunks of yellowish stone, and has a steep roof, and is shaped like an L around a big courtyard with fat pebbles set in the ground. The short part of the L has a wide arched doorway and it used to be the stable, but now it’s the kitchen and it’s huge, with zigzag brick floors and big windows all across the front and a stable door that’s left open, Whenever it’s not actually snowing, says Edmond….

 Daisy has a wonderful voice and it’s a neat technique, having your main character give the reader a tour of the house and grounds. A benefit of first person POV.

The passage goes on for two pages, which tells us that Daisy is curious by nature and rather enjoying her change of scene.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, by J.K Rowling.

I have to include Harry Potter because it haHarry Potter landscapes such iconic imagery and fantasy settings are the product of the author’s imagination, so in theory tougher for the writer to convey. What’s particularly interesting about the The Philosopher’s Stone, and typical of J.K Rowling’s style as a whole, are the scattered short descriptive passages. Individually they’re not terribly clever. They don’t have the poetic quality of Philip Pullman or the voice of Meg Rosoff’s, Daisy; but J.K Rowling works another trick here. She weaves her description around the character’s action and dialogue so cleverly, the reader feels as if the story is unfolding in its entirety in front of their eyes. A cinematic quality, which perhaps is the reason the books are so popular with such a wide range of readers.

“Yeh’ll ger yers firs’ sight o’ Hogwarts in a sec,’ Hagrid called over his shoulder, ‘jus’ round this bend here. There was a loud ‘Oooooh!’ The narrow path had opened suddenly on to the edge of a black lake. Perched atop a high mountain on the other side, its window sparkling in the starry sky, was a vast castle with many turrets and windows.  ‘No more’n four to a boat,’ Hagrid called, pointing to a fleet of little boats sitting in the water by the shore.

Checkout that structure! Dialogue/characterisation (with a touch of foreshadowing),then action, reaction, place description, dialogue and place description again.  Great storytelling!

So five things to remember:

  • Show’ a place from the character’s viewpoint (not the author’s). A character’s mood and ability to observe/feel their surroundings can change considerably from scene to scene.
  • Detail, detail detail! Pin sharp detail makes a place seem real. A great setting can influence the mood of your protagonist and set a mood for the whole book. Know your setting’s quirks like you know the quirks of your characters.
  • Utilise all the senses. Authors rely far too much on sight.
  • Think about the descriptive words you use and the structure of your sentences. Similes, metaphors, rhythm and repetition can massively enhance a descriptive passage, as can active verbs and well placed adjectives, and yes, even the odd helpful adverb.
  • Don’t write your descriptive passages in a great lump of prose unless you are very skilled at all the above techniques, in which case, you may be excused as “being literary.”

Next post: How to write fantastic description – Part 2. People