Perfect Podcasts

I’ve recommended my favourite podcasts to my fellow writing buddies and thought it was about time to posted about it here.

My favourites are ‘Writing Excuses’ (http://www.writingexcuses.com/) and ‘Helping Writers become Authors’ by K.M Weiland (https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/).

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Both are weekly podcasts about writing. Writing Excuses is hosted by fantasy authors, Brandon Sanderson, Mary Robinette Kowal, Howard Tayler and Dan Wells. Though it has a fantasy leaning, the topics each week look at issues that touch upon writing in any genre. Some examples of they give of certain aspects of writing are mainly fantasy stories but, otherwise, it’s useful for all aspiring writers.

K.M Weiland started out self-publishing before she got traditionally published. She writes fantasy novels and books on how to structure and outline your novel.

Both are amazingly useful in touching upon topics that get to the heart of the nitty-gritty of putting words on page, editing, revising, structure, starts and endings, characters, conflict, etc, etc.

K.M Weiland is definitely in the ‘plotter’ camp in that she outlines extensively and advocates her approach to writing. I’m firmly in her plotting camp and, not surprisingly, find her mind and approach to writing very much in tune with my own. The guys at Writing Excuses vary on the plotter-pantser scale. They also have guests on each week that vary in genre. There’s is more of discussion, you get multiple points of view on the topic of the week which is fab.

The benefit to me of these podcasts is that I can listen in the car to and from work and soak-up the ideas, tips and advice. Sometimes, it’s just nice to hear that published authors struggle with the same things as I do. Knowing whether or not a happy or sad ending is the right ending; diagnosing the flaws in scenes that appear to lack power, etc They help to flesh out the writing world for me and help me to think through issues that are troubling me now or have troubled me in the past.

Both series are 15-20 minutes long and are incredibly valuable.

If you’ve never tried listening to podcasts to help your writing, give it a try. What reason can there be not to?

So, you’re out of excuses… get listening!

Golden Egg Foundation Year – so far, so great!

The Golden Egg Academy is led by Imogen Cooper, former Head of Fiction for Chicken House Publishing. They have a close relationship with Barry Cunningham (famously, the finder of J.K. Rowling) at Chicken House with whom they have a ‘first look’ agreement.

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In my post of 19th Dec 2016, I expressed my delight at being accepted on the inaugural Golden Egg Foundation Year which began in January 2017. I am now in my second term and loving every minute of it!

The Foundation Year was added to precede the Academy programme. It’s designed to help writers finish manuscripts they’ve started or re-draft and improve manuscripts they have already finished. It teaches the nuts-n-bolts of the craft. Academy students all have completed manuscripts that they are perfecting and learning to pitch to agents and publishers. My hope (and, I am sure, the hope of my fellow students) is to finish my work-in-progress before the end of the third term so that I can get a full appraisal of my story and, hopefully, be accepted into the Academy next year.

In the first term we looked closely at identifying the central spine and theme of a story while looking at the current market and what publishers are interested in. This helped everyone take a good look at their work in progress and to consider critically if the spine of their story and theme were clear enough. We all beavered away progressing our stories, re-writing and reporting to each other at the weekly Facebook group meetings. Everyone chats about how they are getting on and we encourage and help one another in our own private Facebook motivation group. Trust me, it’s a REALLY nice place to be! A 1-2-1 with my fab editor, Emma Greenwood at the end of the term really helped me think about my story and how to make it better. Not only did I cut flab from the start of the story to get it moving more quickly, I also re-wrote the first 14,000 words to switch it from first person to third!

Now, in term two, we are looking much more closely at mapping our stories and using the ‘Golden Egg Story Foundation Sheet,’ a mapping tool similar to the well known Blake Snyder ‘beat sheet’. It helps us writers to consider more deeply how our story arcs move and change and the craft that goes into moulding a tale in a way that creates a fantastic ride for the reader. We’ve even been drawing graphs to help us visualise the ups and downs of how stories work! Maths has never been more fun!

I have also been working on making my prose more visceral, and thinking hard about what motivates my protagonist’s actions which, in turn, drive the plot at key points on the beat sheet. All thanks for my new-found (fledgling!) ability to see and address what’s important in a story goes to Emma at Golden Egg for whom my gratitude is boundless.

Before the course started, I had self-published two middle grade humorous adventure stories, both of which have been well received by readers and reviewers. But there’s is no doubt that the Golden Egg Foundation Course has really helped develop my appreciation of what is needed to craft a story of real quality that can draw upon primal themes. I am learning how to take my writing to the next level.

One major benefit of being in the nest is that Golden Egg have contacts and access to people who can say ‘yes!’ The Academy has a strong reputation for producing work of high quality. Anyone emerging from the nest will benefit from that reputation. In a business which is fiercely competitive, the help that the Golden Egg reputation may give an aspiring ‘egg’ is very welcome indeed. The Academy can help get you noticed.

If anyone reading this post truly wants to write for children and to, one day, see their book on a shelf in Waterstones or, better still, in the hands of a young child (rather than an Xbox controller!) then the Golden Egg Foundation Year is an amazing place to start. Unparalleled, professional guidance from people ‘in the know’ who know people.

And, what’s more, you’ll make some fab new friends who may well join you on your writing journey for many years to come.

Book Review – My sister lives on the mantelpiece by Annabel Pitcher

Uplifting, beautiful, brilliant, funny, tender and wonderful are but a few of the words other reviewers have used to describe this book.

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We experience the story through the eyes of ten year old Jamie whose elder sister (one of two twin girls) was killed by a Muslim suicide bomber when he was very young. Her death made his father turn to drink, ruined his parents marriage and made his single-parent father despise all Muslims. Told in the first person, Jamie has a very strong voice and is surprisingly nonchalant about his sister’s death to begin with. The story moves with him as he joins a new school while longing to see his estranged mother and befriending a Muslim girl in his class. As you can imagine, trouble awaits when his father finds out about his new friendship.

It touches upon a very important political and social issue currently in terms of extremism leading to prejudice against all Muslims in the minds of some. The story exposes this thought process for what it is though Jamie’s friendship with a Muslim girl which is beautifully written.

While an important and wonderfully written book, I do wonder whether it’s adults enjoying the story more than actual children reading it. Though the protagonist is a boy, I can’t honestly see by two boys (9 and 11) ever reading this. A more thoughtful and emotionally engaged girl of 9-12 might like it but I suspect it’s girls of an older age, say 12-15 (more in the YA range) who might actually read and engage with it properly. My daughter was in that age range when she read and enjoyed it. It’s definitely an upper middle grade novel.

Rating out of 5: ♦♦♦♦

Suggested age: Girls 12+

Book Review – A boy called Hope – Lara Williamson

When 11 year old Dan Hope sees his father for the first time in four years, on TV, he sets out on a quest to reunited his family only to find that he was with his true family all the time.

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This is a fun story. Dan’s relationship with his sister, ‘Ninja Grace’, his mum and stepfather, Dave are all nicely don as is his desire to get his father (who ran off with ‘Babs’ from the chip shop) back in his life. He sets out to meet his father while, at the same time, staking-out Dave (his stepfather) whom he suspects of cheating on his mother (just like his father did) I love the way, written in the first person, we see the world through Dan’s eyes including the simple ways in which children often view the world and how the complexities of adult life and relationships pass them by. The end is quite sad in some ways, uplifting in others as Dan discovers that he was with his real dad all the time.

It’s not a story with a clear antagonist, there’s no ‘bad guy’. The reader follows Dan on his journey, wrapped-up in his desires and schemes as these are explored as themes. It’s quite funny in places and Dan Hope is a very likeable character. It would suit more thoughtful children and raises awareness of families and what really matters in a father-son relationship.

Rating out of 5: ♦♦♦♦

Suggested age: 10+

Book Review – Little Bits of Sky by S.E. Durrant

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This isn’t the sort of book I would normally read but I’m glad that I did. I had it recommended to me as a fine example of a middle grade book written in the first person and getting really close in to the protagonist. It does exactly that and is an impressive debut.

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The story follows the heart-breaking – and yet uplifting – story of Miracle (Ira) and her younger brother, Zac who are ‘care kids’. They have a ‘book of memories’ that shows them on a chair with a black dog, but that’s about it. They dream of a time when they may find their mum again or of being wanted by a normal family. They expect very little out of life. It may sound too maudlin for children but it’s a real consciousness raiser for children who’ve perhaps had little reason to think much about how other, less fortunate, children grow up.

It’s set in the 1980’s which seems to be a very popular setting for a few middle grade books at the moment (Time Travelling with a Hamster comes to mind). There are Poll Tax protests and later in the book, Ira and Zac get caught-up in a riot in central London with heartrending consequences.

Despite all her problems and worries, Ira remains a stoic and likeable character. She begins the book nine years old and ends it eleven. I was a little bit surprised that the writing changed very little to show that change in age but it didn’t really effect my read too much. She and Zac start spending an increasing amount of time with a lady called, Martha but, even then, you really feel for Ira as her narration suggests that she has no expectations of where this time spent with Martha might lead. She dismisses pretty quickly any hope that begins to bloom within her. Hope does not come easily to Ira and any adult reading this book will want to hug her for it.

Overall, it’s an uplifting, thought-provoking book. Perhaps more suited to girls that boys but there’s enough there for boys to latch onto. It explores what it is to grow up in care, to hope for nothing more complicated that a family and to enjoy life when you have so much to be unhappy about.

Thankfully, there is a happy ending but it’s not an easy route for the children. Highly recommended to children (girls particularly) between 10-12.

Rating out of 5: ♦♦♦♦♦

Suggested age: 10+

Writing against intolerance.

Look, I’ll keep this short but I have to say something about the abomination that is Donald Trump and the worrying direction in which western society appears to be moving.

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The recent decision of Donald Trump to ban residents of seven predominantly Muslim countries is troubling beyond words. I hope we we’ll all get through this madness and reflect on our profound relief that his repellant antics didn’t send the world plunging into an abyss but, right now, I can’t be certain of that being the final outcome.

What I am clear on if that we must ensure that such overt racism and isolationist and intolerant behavior does not influence our children. The world has come so far since the early part of the 20th century when, let’s face it, the vast majority of the western world was overtly (and ignorantly) racist, foreigners were feared, degraded and/or persecuted for no other reason than they were different. Okay, such attitudes still exist today in parts of the world and I am making some wide-sweeping generalisations here but the point, I believe, is broadly true. Integration, free movement of people and embracing difference (tolerance) is the way forward. The World Wars taught us that but it appears many of us have forgotten. This is worrying. The world is going backwards.

As human beings, parents, friends and writers, we all have a collective duty to not allow these moves towards a less tolerant and less inclusive society to prevail.

I write for children. Many people reading this will too. Let’s make sure that we address this as an issue in our work to do our bit to try to keep our readers minds attuned to what is good. Let’s help them avoid falling for the scaremongering propaganda of fear, intolerance and hatred.

 

Book Review – Time Travelling with a Hamster by Ross Welford

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I have just finished this and have been left more wowed than I have in years. What an amazing story!

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Al’s father is dead and on his 12th birthday he’s given a letter that his late father left for him. This explains that his father had discovered a way to travel in time and he wants Al to go back in time to prevent his death. As the book cover suggests, this doesn’t all go to plan as Al’s father dies a second time and it’s all Al’s fault!

The writing is superb. Al’s travels are full of asides about TV, growing up and his endearing relationship with his grandfather as well as drawing numerous contrasts between modern childhood and the experiences of children in the 1980’s. Written in the first person, these asides allow us to get to know Al really well, draws us into his troubles and makes us root for him.

The book never slows down. It moves at a cracking pace. The sheer number of different, well thought-out, events is impressive. I confess to being a little bit surprised though at the amount of science in the book (you really do learn about the physics of time travel!). I’m not convinced that I would have followed it all completely at the age of twelve but it’s done well and through the eyes of Al. That said, Al is a pretty smart kid and I suspect that this book is very much aimed towards the upper end of the age range it’s positioned for.

I also couldn’t help but wonder at the cover artwork. It struck me as being likely to attract younger readers, especially as the title involves a hamster! Alan Shearer (Al’s hamster) does have a key role to play but this is not a cute story about a boy and his pet. It’s a sophisticated story about time travel and a boys quest to save his father and the dangers that come with meddling in space-time.

The story is also quite complex. The planning that must have gone into it is mind-boggling, not to mention very, very impressive indeed. Various strands of the tale draw together at the end to provide a truly memorable ending that will leave you wanting to start all over again.

It’s a fabulous story and one of the best middle grade books I have read in years. Highly recommended to children 10+.

Rating out of 5: ♦♦♦♦♦

Suggested age: 10+

Golden Egg Foundation Year

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I was absolutely thrilled this past weekend to learn that I had been accepted onto the Golden Egg Foundation Year!

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I am not able to call myself an ‘Egg’ yet as that accolade is reserved for those lucky few in the Academy but I am on my way.

For anyone who knows me or has read this blog, you will know that my writing journey has included reading lots of books, attending classes, engaging in long distance writing courses and self-publishing two books. It’s given me a good foundation for writing stories (and I am genuinely very proud of my book coming out in January, The Mad Moon Mission) but I thought it was time to go back to school, as such, and take a good hard look at what I have learned from study and practice and try to polish my writing skills with the help of Golden Egg.

For anyone reading this who isn’t familiar with Golden Egg their website can be found here – https://www.goldeneggacademy.co.uk . This is what they say about themselves…

“We are a team of experienced children’s publishing and creative writing professionals providing traditional structural editing, industry-led direction and networking opportunities to talented writers for children.

We cater for writers who wish to submit their work to agents and publishers. Golden Egg works closely with Barry Cunningham at Chicken House Publishing, with whom we have a First Look Deal.”

Wow! What an opportunity. There’s little doubt that aspiring writers can achieve their dream of being traditionally published via Golden Egg. The number of people who have done just that is testimony to that.

I love writing stories. I love the thought that children will read them, enjoy them, pick up the hidden messages and that I may have enriched that child’s life just a little bit. But children need to find them first before they can read them. As a self-published author, getting noticed is REALLY tough in a market where self-publishing is now relatively easy to do. The number of books out there is massive. This is why I want to try to go down the traditionally published route (possibly along side my self-publishing). This is to give my stories a better chance of reaching their audience but also to work with people who will help me become a better writer.

Spending time with the hugely experienced people at Golden Egg will, I have no doubt, help me continue to improve. I feel that I have just been given the opportunity to give my writing skills a real boost and for that I will be eternally grateful.

Now the hard work starts. I’m going back to school. I just hope that I have learned how to behave!

Book Review: Podkin One-Ear by Kieran Larwood

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I had been looking forward to this book all year having pre-ordered it on Amazon what seems like ages ago.

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The story follows the struggles of Podkin (a rabbit), his sister Paz and baby brother Pook as they flee into the snowy woods after the evil Gorm – mentally twisted, blood-thirsty, iron-clad rabbits – have overrun their warren and killed their father, the chief.
The story is told by a wandering bard on Bramblemass Eve to a clutch of entranced young rabbits. We cut from the tale every now and then to remind us of how the story is being told and for the bard to field questions from the young rabbits.
It opens really well. Atmospheric and engaging as the bard trudges through the snow to the burrow.
The Gorm are tracking Podkin as he has a fabled dagger that can cut anything other than iron. As they flee, Pod, Paz and Pook find friends and foes as they try to keep one step ahead of the Gorm.
I enjoyed the story very much but did find a number of aspects rather odd (spoilers imminent!). The story is entitled ‘Podkin One-Ear’ so I sort of assumed that the loss of his ear would be of some significance in the story. Nope. He loses it very early on, trapped under a portcullis fleeing a warren. Pretty unlucky but of no other importance. I then wondered if it would ‘mark’ him in some fashion, make him easier for the Gorm to find… nope. No one is searching for a rabbit with one ear. I then wondered if it would have some significance in the final scenes of the book. Nope.
The book ends well all the same. There’s a little twist, which I won’t spoil here, in a satisfying ending. Although very few in number, there are some wonderful double-page illustrations at key stages in the book. Personally, I would have happily seen more of those.
I’ve seen that other reviewers compare it to Watership Down. Other than the characters being rabbits, I don’t really follow the comparison at all. It’s a good book in its own right. Kids will enjoy the relationship between the three rabbits and the characters they meet along the way. It’s action packed and a sequel seems assured.

The Gorm are not yet defeated…

Rating out of 5: ♦♦♦♦

Suggested age: 7 -10

My first writing conference! – SCBWI Con 2016

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So, what did I think of my first ever writing conference?

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OMG!

I can’t believe I’ve never been before! I’ve been on tons of writing courses with lots of different people at lots of different stages in their writing journey. It’s always really fantastic to spend time with people who love writing like I do. What was different is the fact that the conference is over a weekend so there’s more socialising and everyone there (including me, of course!) are passionate about children’s books.

The conference was well attended with authors, agents and people who are there to help you get published. You can book a one-to-one with an agent to get feedback on a idea you’re working on, things like that.

While there was still a good breadth of interests from picture books to YA as well as many illustrators, everyone is close enough in their interests to engage well together and enthuse about what they love doing. It’s not quite the same when you’re with someone who writes chick lit, or horror. They have slightly different agendas.

There were key note speeches from highly respected and experienced authors, illustrators, agents and editors each with important messages to pass on. There was a wide variety of groups and sessions that catered for all aspects of children’s writing, illustration and marketing yourself.

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A lot of what I heard in key note speeches and group sessions wasn’t new but, for some reason, this time round for me it really sank in. I found myself scribbling away in Cliff NcNish’s Heroes and Villains groups fleshing out a couple of chapter sketches for stories I am working on and finding a new clarity in my planning. Something has finally fallen into place (I think!). I have wondered since why that is? Perhaps Cliff is a literary genius whose passion (he’s an engaging, funny chap) and thought processes have rubbed off on me? Or perhaps his approach and thought process reflects how my own mind works? Maybe it’s that this weekend has caught me at the right time in my own development curve as a writer? Who knows!? Frankly, I don’t care. I really feel as if this weekend has launched me forward as a writer. It’s given me a turbo boost that I hope will propel me into 2017 and beyond.

I met loads of fantastic people, felt honoured to be discussing writing techniques and actually developing stories with traditionally published authors who I hold in high regard. I was in awe of those, who, on Saturday afternoon, had the guts to get up on stage in front of 200-300 people and pitch their books to a panel of four literary agents akin to Dragons Den. That is gut-liquefying stuff right there. Not just the getting up and speaking part but handling the irritating little voice inside that was, most likely, taunting each and every one of them – Ha ha, you’re making a fool of yourself, you can’t write! Your stuff is rubbish! All five of them are legends in my eyes, all of them writers.

I met a chap there called Patrick. He is just starting out with his writing journey and he has begun in just the right way. I encourage anyone embarking on a life of writing to throw themselves into a conference. I wish I had done so years ago. You will meet people who will inspire you, point you in the right direction and you will see many others who have toiled away at their laptops and sketch pads for years and have succeeded, just like you will if you get involved with others looking to achieve the same things.

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But I won’t know anyone there, you say? That may be true before but I promise you it will change by the time you leave… and you’ll want to go back. You can even dress up!

What more can you ask for?