Tag Archives: Arvon

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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Writing for children

I can’t believe it’s almost five years since my Arvon course. It was one of those things I very much wanted to do, but felt I couldn’t use up funds while there was no money coming in. But I felt it so very strongly that in the end I signed up anyway, when there was just the one place left at Lumb Bank.

Arvon, Lumb Bank

Of course, I didn’t do writing for children. Mine was a sort of non-fiction, general course, which suited me just fine. I see that in this year’s programme they have something for people wanting to get started on blogs and other online writing.

In 2007 I think they offered one, possibly two, weeks for hopeful children’s writers. This year I was impressed to see they do four, and that’s before I discovered it’s actually six weeks. Three of writing for children, two for young adults and one for young people. That’s a lot. It must be due to popular demand, and why wouldn’t people want to come and spend a week in the company of real children’s authors tutoring a group of likeminded budding writers?

I heard about Arvon when Caroline Lawrence reported on having just taught at one of their centres. And I believe she had previously done one of their courses herself. That seems to be the way it is. Lots of current authors have been, and many are now taking up tutoring as the next step.

Just look at who you could rub shoulders with in a kitchen in some beautiful countryside setting; Julia Golding and Marcus Sedgwick, with Mary Hoffman as the midweek special. Or there’s Malachy Doyle and Polly Dunbar, with guest star Anthony Browne. It’s not everywhere you get to hobnob with Children’s Laureates, ex- or otherwise. The two MBs, Malorie Blackman and Melvin Burgess, with Aussie special Simmone Howell. Now that one would be really interesting!

You could have Joan Lennon and Paul Magrs, with yet another Laureate, Julia Donaldson. Martyn Bedford with Celia Rees, and Bali Rai doing the star turn. And finally Gillian Cross and Steve Voake, with guest dramatist Christopher William Hill.

If laureates are your thing, there is always the hope of a week with Carol Ann Duffy, but then you really have to be good. At poetry, I mean. That one is decided on the quality of your poems. Which is not going to be me.

Plus any other kind of writing. All with people who know their stuff. It isn’t cheap, but there are schemes for financial assistance. No internet, and you have to cook your own dinner in groups, so better hope for budding writers who can peel potatoes.

Ms M at Lumb Bank

(We had our own laureate connection – on wall, above – during my week. That’s as well as the house having belonged to a former Poet Laureate.)

Coffee Candy

They couldn’t believe I’d not been to Carluccio’s before. Truth be told I’d not quite cottoned on to the fact that there is an affordable variety, and that one doesn’t have to take out a new mortgage to dine in Neal Street, which is my normal haunt. (Shoe shops, you know.) So that was nice. Candy Gourlay is a regular, it seems, who doesn’t need to read the menu in order to order. And as mentioned the other day, we had the same food, she and I. Main course sounded good when Candy suggested it, and it was.

And then Mum Clare said we just had to have pudding, so we obeyed. That’s where the coffee ice cream comes in. It’s Candy’s favourite, and I hardly ever come across it, so jumped at the chance. Luckily I hate coffee, so didn’t attempt what Candy did, which was to have a cup of coffee at the same time as the ice cream. Our Italian waitress took some time to grasp the idea, and then she proved that she hadn’t grasped at all. Something (the coffee?) arrived in a jug next to the ice cream. The waitress was not amused at being told this was wrong. Once she grasped, you understand.

So I would not recommend doing this.

It’s weird meeting someone who’s your friend on Facebook. We’ve been aware of each other for close to two years, during which Candy has not only blogged and Facebooked avidly, but designed websites, and just happened to have redesigned her own site the day before. As you do when you have nothing better to occupy yourself with on a Sunday afternoon. Very computer savvy, in other words.

In between these things Candy wrote Tall Story, her first novel which is published by David Fickling in June. I found out how and why she wrote it, and how on earth she managed to get herself a good agent and how the book ended up with David.

Last summer Candy attended an Arvon writing week, tortured by Melvin Burgess and Malorie Blackman, which apparently was great. I should think so! Though she had already written most of Tall Story by then, so the two MBs can’t claim to have done any ghost writing.

Speaking of such literary giants, we soon moved on to general gossip about famous authors and anything else we could think of. I suspect that the secret behind getting your book published is to have the right cleaner. One who thinks nothing will come of all that frantic typing in north London. You’ll just have to ‘show her.’

Hope all my other Facebook friends I have yet to meet are as nice.