Six talk paragraphing at MMU

There was the killer camel, although luckily it didn’t succeed, or we’d have been one mcbf organiser short. If you suffer from asthma, don’t wear dusty camels on your head. (If that camel is lucky, it will be photographed one day soon.) Other than that, and the mermaid and the bunting, MMU Plaza – as I like to call it – was surprisingly empty on Thursday evening. That’s because the book festival proper hasn’t quite begun, and the stalls were waiting for Saturday to arrive. (Usually happens after Friday.)

And between you and me, like so many other venues, it is nicer when its designated users aren’t there. What am I saying? I didn’t mean that. Hundreds of children will enhance the place no end. Looking forward to it.

Liz Kessler, N M Browne, Julia Green, Lorrie Porter, Jacqueline Roy and Iris Feindt

I was there last night to hear whether there is any point in going to uni to learn to write children’s books. Five – or six, depending on your mathematical abilities – authors had come to talk to hopefuls and other interested people about paragraphing and commas, feedback and whingeing.

I have doubted that writing courses like the MA offered by the MMU and universities like Kingston and Bath Spa actually do any good, feeling that either you’ve got it or you don’t. But, you know, maybe there is something in this, after all. MMU certainly have a good track record, and Liz Kessler from their very first batch was there to prove how well you can do.

Several of the others both write and teach, and all have had different experiences of learning and publishing. MMU’s Jacqueline Roy chaired the discussion (since Sherry Ashworth had gone off to admire brand new grandchild), noting that all six of them were female. Reviewers, on the other hand, are often male.

Nicky Browne reckons she is still learning to write, after all those books she’s written. She writes fast, but only when she feels like it, and then she writes too much. She’s on her third identity as an author, and has temporarily given up her male persona of N M Browne.

Liz Kessler told how she wanted to hand back her advance when she found the writing hard going, but once she’d wanted to hand it back for several books, she recognised it as one of the things that happen, and which will pass. You learn through doing.

Julia Green’s parents read to her, and her father still checks out children’s books after all these years. She went on a writing course for David Almond once, and his encouragement was very important to her. Julia now teaches at Bath Spa, and one thing she finds her students doing is polishing their writing for the assessment, rather than for the work itself.

Lorrie Porter is a recent MMU graduate, with a contract for two books, the first of which will be published in February next year. She feels that writing is different from most jobs because you need to feel you can do it. ‘Normal’ jobs you just do, without thinking about it. She said it’s vital that you invest time in yourself. And it definitely is harder writing for children, because they will put down a boring book.

Iris Feindt was a reluctant reader and a bad speller, but once she learned to like reading and found Enid Blyton, it all changed. She recently graduated from MMU as well, and now teaches there, among other things. She calls herself the Queen of Paragraphing and thinks it’s good to teach, because it helps you learn. Giving feedback to others also helps.

Jacqueline Roy starts in the middle, with what she most wants to write. Otherwise she is scared. They all seem to have something they do to fool themselves. Jacqueline mentioned the importance of drafting, when asked for advice. And her editor always points out she has too much food in her books.

Julia found it useful realising that revision actually means ‘seeing again,’ and her advice is to consider point of view; making sure you get it right. Nicky warned against trying too hard, and her editor wants her ‘flashing teeth’ to flash a bit less. Iris thinks over-writing is a common mistake.

Liz favours ‘show, not tell’ and has her mother to thank for getting rid of lurching stomachs in all her books. Time travel is always risky, and it’s worth keeping in mind that Saturday comes after Friday. Every time.

The most important thing is to persist. But an MA in creative writing is no bad thing, and if that’s not feasible, then Arvon came highly recommended.

Maybe it was the tea and coconut cake before the event, but I couldn’t help admiring Nicky’s lovely dress. Or Liz’s boots and Julia’s jacket and Lorrie’s lace top. Jacqueline’s armband was great and she out-earringed even Nicky. For spotty dress (and I’m not even mentioning her bag) you couldn’t do spottier than Iris.

Unless you’re Liz’s Poppy (of pirate dog fame). Her lovely Dalmatian was not present, but we were given to understand that Poppy has adapted well to being famous.

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3 responses to “Six talk paragraphing at MMU

  1. I would definitely subscribe to the view that if you’ve ‘got it’, then an MA or similar course would bring it out much faster than the DIY trial-and-error approach. Or, conversely, make you realise that this work might not be for you after all. My view is that you definitely can’t teach someone who is fundamentally not a fiction writer to be one, but you can help them uncover their potential if it’s there. It might make the difference between a ten-year apprenticeship and a five-year one.

  2. As always, a very sensible comment. Wish I’d thought of it.

  3. Pingback: Christmas in the Northwest | Bookwitch

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