On Writing: Adolescents with Cathy Cassidy

On Writing is back. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be bringing you some more invaluable writing tips from the DA Agency authors and the DA Children’s Book Agency authors. This series will lead us into the beginning of September, known in the publishing industry as the beginning of ‘Frankfurt Book Fair fever’.

To kick off the new series, we’re looking at writing characters who are at one of the most pivotal and life shaping stages of their lives: adolescence. A teenage character is quite often one of the hardest age groups to accurately portray or write convincingly. Nothing is more jarring, or even cringe inducing, than reading a teenage character who is evidently written by an adult (e.g.  if you’re writing dialogue that includes “far out” or “tubular” in 2019 – it’s pretty safe to say it’s not an accurate portrayal of a contemporary teenager).

To help guide us, we have the critically-acclaimed and bestselling children’s book author Cathy Cassidy. Cathy is the author of over 30 novels for children and young people, including the outstanding Chocolate Box Girls series and the Lost & Found series. She has now sold over 3 million books worldwide and has been lauded for writing ‘touching, tender and unforgettable’ characters. Her unique and distinctive voice always feels  truthful to a young person’s experience.

We asked Cathy a few questions to give us an insight into how she brings this authenticity to her writing:

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Where do you draw inspiration from?

Inspiration is everywhere… things I see, hear, remember, imagine! People are a huge source of inspiration – I am a real ‘people-watcher’ – and I’m fascinated by emotions too, so there is never any shortage of ideas! My readers are constantly in touch with me and I meet them regularly at signings and events and book festivals, and sometimes readers have unwittingly inspired a story. By the time I put that spark of inspiration through the whole daydreaming, story-making process, they wouldn’t recognise that the story had any links to them at all!

 

How do you make your characters feel and sound authentic?

The characters are ‘real’ to me, I think that’s the key! The story unfolds in my mind in daydream form, as if it’s a movie, and as the author I get to pull the strings and direct what the characters do. They don’t always listen! I always feel that I know far more about my characters than is ever revealed in the books. I always draw the main characters, which somehow makes them come alive for me. I think if those characters are real and authentic to me, that carries over into what I write. I hope so!

 

What is the biggest challenge? 

Managing my time and staying disciplined… and meeting deadlines! Sometimes it can be hard to get a good balance in life, especially when life throws a few curveballs at you, but once you jump into the story it generally grabs you and pulls you right in, so then it’s just a case of sticking at it. I don’t plan on paper, so I sometimes go off at tangents… but sometimes they are the best bits!

 

What are things to bear in mind when writing for teens or a younger audience?

I think that for me, it’s just the way my stories come out – the ‘voice’ is not a conscious thing, it’s instinctive. I’ve written for that age group for most of my life, even before the novels… short stories for teens, work as a teen mag journalist etc., so the way I write is very much natural and ‘from the heart’. I think kids do pick up on this… if you’re not being authentic or true to yourself, they’ll spot it. I’d say it’s important not to ‘write down’ to children or young people… not to be patronising or twee… and to tackle difficult issues (if you are going to tackle them at all) with honesty, warmth and hope.

 

How do you keep up with relevant issues for teenagers?

I don’t think too much about it to be honest. Many of the themes are timeless, though the details may change with time… for instance, when Honey is stalked in Sweet Honey, it’s cyber stalking and that whole online safety issue and the concern of internet safety is explored. I suppose I stay pretty much up to date on what concerns my readers have because they email and message me constantly to tell me just what worries them! I think if a reader identifies strongly with a book, they then come to trust the author and perhaps confide in them. Either that, or it’s my past experience as a teen mag agony aunt coming out!

 

Be sure to follow @cathycassidyxx on Twitter and pick up a copy of her latest novel Sasha’s Secret (Lost & Found #3)

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Why Dave Rudden is supporting #DACBaccess

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Dave Rudden is the author of The Knights of the Borrowed Dark trilogy, and is our partnering author for YA books in our #DACBaccess month. Here is why Dave is supporting the open month:

When I’m not writing, I run a live roleplay show in school for 10-year kids. It’s glorious and chaotic – the kids all play characters, I and the other performer tell them a story, and they provide suggestions at crucial moments. That’s all stories are really – a selection of crucial moments, and what people decide to do in them. We’ve had kids defeat the story’s villain by proposing to them, unlock magical cages by singing, and teachers are always so impressed that the kids not only accept the crucial moments we throw them, but are well fit to come up with a host of solutions that have sometimes surprised even us. We could just tell the kids a story, but we learn a lot more when we listen and they tell us theirs.

The thing is, kids are immersed in nick-of-time rescues and famous last stands from the moment they’re old enough to be read to. By the age of ten, kids are fluent in adventure. Proficient in peril. They soak up every rule and detail of the stories they hear because it’s at that age that you believe you may need them.

The only time I’ve ever seen a kid nonplussed is when we unveil the artwork for our characters. The leader of our party of heroes is Lady Jayna Falchion, who has armour, a sword that talks, and dark skin. When we clicked through to the slide with Jayna’s picture (drawn by the very talented Dearbháil Clarke) a little black girl at the back of the room exclaimed;

‘She looks like me!’

She didn’t say this with joy, or pride, or interest, but with a blank sort of shock. She simply had no frame of reference for seeing herself as a main character, let alone a leader of a band of heroes. When I hear white, straight people (usually men) complain that the world is being taken over by diversity, that every character now must be a person of colour, or LGBTQ or other than themselves, I don’t think about the numbers –

(though the numbers are damning. Bigotry is as irrational as it is systemic, but research shows that, no matter how loud certain protests are, no such takeover is taking place)

– I think about just how much children learn from story. Stories tell kids what is possible, and what is impossible, and all the odds in between. We are soaked in the visual language of narrative, and when you present heroes as all white and straight and able-bodied, you are lying to your audience.

You are letting them know where they stand, telling them that crucial moments and the options bound into them only belong to others, and not to them. It’s our responsibility as authors and creators – especially those who have directly or indirectly benefited from being on the inside looking out – to not right this wrong, but to make room for the voices that have not yet had a chance to speak, because you can only learn so much from telling your own story again and again and again. There are better stories out to hear.

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Rashmi Sirdeshpande’s Tips for Picture Books

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Rashmi Sirdeshpande is a picture book author, writing both fiction and non-fiction texts, and is our partnering author for picture books for the #DACBaccess month. Here are her thoughts on why the open month is important, and her very best tips for picture book writers and illustrators.

 

A note about the open submissions month 

 

The agency is ALWAYS open to writers and illustrators of ALL backgrounds and they actively seek them out too (I can vouch for that bit!). But this is a shout-from-the-rooftops kind of initiative to make the whole process feel more accessible to underrepresented groups. Sort of a “yes, I mean YOU”. Before I was selected for Penguin Random House’s WriteNow programme, I didn’t think children’s publishing was really open to writers like me. WriteNow was my “yes, I mean YOU” moment. I hope this can be yours! 

 

Rashmi’s top tips for new picture book writers and illustrators 

 

1. READ! Oh my goodness, if you do nothing else, READ, READ, and READ! Pull apart picture books you love to really understand what works. Get a feel for the language, the page turns, how the words and pictures work together. If you’re a writer, you need to leave space for the illustrator to work their magic. Leave out anything that can be expressed visually. By reading lots, you’ll get a sense for how this is done. There are also some brilliant blogs out there with lots of guidance like SCBWI’s Words and Pictures, Notes from the Slushpile, and the Picture Book Den!  

 

2. WRITE/ILLUSTRATE LOTS and if you do, call yourself a WRITER or ILLUSTRATOR (drop the “aspiring”!). It sounds like a tiny thing but it’ll make a big difference to how you see yourself and your work. We all have other commitments so don’t beat yourself up if you have a slow patch but you know what works for you – get that practice in. Writing/illustrating is a learned craft. Don’t let anyone scare you with the idea that you either got it or you ain’t. If you ain’t got it, you can go and get it. The more you do, the better you get. 

 

3. DON’T WORRY ABOUT TRENDS or if someone is doing something similar. If you’re a writer, write the story YOU want to write. If you’re an illustrator, work in the style or styles that speak to you. Publishing takes AGES and by the time your book is on submission or even on the shelves, everything will have changed. Be yourself. Tangent: if you’re looking for an agent, find someone who really gets you, someone who can back your entire career. I’m lucky to have found that here at The Darley Anderson Children’s Book Agency. 

 

4. SEEK OUT HELP. Surround yourself with writers and illustrators you look up to and with people who love and believe in you and your writing. When Imposter’s Syndrome strikes (and it will!), go back to those people. Find mentors who can bring out the best in you. Find other writers on similar journeys – look for them in groups like the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). Join a critique group (online versions work too!) – it’s a great way of getting fresh eyes on your work but ALSO, reviewing and commenting on someone else’s work will fine-tune your own skills. Win, win. Just make sure you work with people on the same page as you. Fit is everything. 

 

5. BE PATIENT. Publishing takes time. Pictures books can take two years to publish even after they’re acquired by a publisher. A lot depends on book fairs and illustrator availability but also what else is on the publisher’s list. So many factors out of your control. The one thing you can control is this: keep working on your craft. It’s not a race and it’s not a competition. Well, OK, it’s business but there really is enough pie for everyone. Keep writing and illustrating, and keep believing in yourself. Somewhere, somehow, when the time is right and the stars are aligned, it WILL happen for you. And when it does, be prepared to keep LOTS of secrets. Publishing is full of them! 

 

Can’t wait to see what you come up with! Good luck! 

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Why Polly Ho-Yen is supporting #DACBaccess

d7ab377c9fb0a45131800085199c77e1Polly Ho-Yen is the award-winning author of Boy in the Tower, Where Monsters Lie and Fly Me Home. She is our partnering author for Middle Grade writers during our #DACBaccess open month. Here’s why Polly is supporting the open month, and her top tips on putting together a submission:

‘There was a winding line of children waiting to have their book signed at the school I visited last week. We’d been doodling ideas for stories. Each student, as they approached me, was gripping on tightly to their piece of paper as though their idea might take flight and disappear if they didn’t. I talk to school groups about the value and the richness of their everyday experience – how no one else in the world is quite like them and so whatever they choose to make will be completely original because they made it. I tell them about my family. I show them a picture of my dad when he’s about four, with a little rounded sticking out pot belly. I tell them about small things that I’ve experienced that become big things when I write them down. We talk about soggy broccoli (possibly too much.)

I love visiting schools because it’s as though you can see a switch has been flicked; I can almost see them thinking, ‘well, if she can do it, then …’ Possibilities swarm the room, with excitement following as its tail.

The next boy stepped in front of me. “I’m like you,” he told me, grinning so widely that his cheeks expanded out. Two inflating balloons. “I’m half Chinese too. Only it’s my mum who’s Chinese. My dad’s English,” he went on. He told me the story of how they met, finishing with, “There’s no one else like me in the school” before launching into his idea for his book, without pausing for breath.

Next month I’ll be reading submissions made to Darley Anderson as part of their open submission month for BAME writers. #DACBaccess is a simple idea – over the month of November BAME authors can submit their work to a dedicated inbox to be read by agents over December and a shortlist will be given detailed feedback from both an agent and an author. I’ll be looking at the middle grade stories. I’m doing this for a very simple reason: we need more diverse writers and we have to do more to find them. Of course, submissions are open to all, all of the time but #DACBaccess has been created to make little more space for BAME writers to send in their submissions.

Like the standard submission, #DACBaccess asks for a covering letter, a synopsis and the first three chapters. It has to be a piece of work that you have finished (and that you feel that you’ve finished – it needs to be as polished and edited as you can possibly make it.) You might be reading this and decide here and now that you’re simply not at this stage in time for this open access month. I would urge you not to give up and wait until you truly feel that you have the whole book finished and that you’re as happy with it as possible, before you submit, open submission month or not. You need to be at the point where when you whisper softly to your book, “Are you the best you can be?” and it solemnly nods its head back at you, before you think about submitting. If you’re at this stage, then approach the covering letter and the synopsis like they are writing exercises. I’ve got to say I hated writing my covering letter because I felt a bit like a fraud and that I definitely was not good enough and I HATE talking about myself and I’m not even sure that my writing is any good in the first place. So if you’re feeling like that’s you, take a deep breath and remember these things when writing your covering letter:

Try to keep it short and succinct. Don’t give the agent a sinking feeling that they have to trawl through reams of writing to try and work out who you are and what your book is – make it nice and easy and clear for them.

– Start with a basic introductory sentence that tells them the title of what you are submitting. (There’s no point reinventing the wheel here.)

– Followed by (roughly) a one or two paragraph summary/introduction to your book which will tell them why it will interest them. This is the tricky bit of the letter – it needs to be direct, clear and communicate the plot, tone and style of what you have written. Think of that one line hook that captures what your book is. For ‘Boy in the Tower’ I wanted to communicate that it was a kind of ‘The Day of the Triffids’ for kids in a modern urban setting that I knew.

In fact, this is exactly what I wrote:

I would like to submit BOY IN THE TOWER for your consideration.

I started writing this book after I couldn’t get a picture out of my head: A lone tower block standing, amidst a lush, jungle-like landscape. I work in a South London Primary School, which is surrounded by tower blocks, estates and a network of busy roads, and so perhaps it was a reaction to the inner city that brought me to BOY IN THE TOWER.

It tells the story of a nine-year-old boy called Ade who is a survivor of the attack and invasion of the Bluchers, a type of plant or fungus which feed upon the buildings of the city, dissolving them down into nothing. Ade finds himself trapped in his tower block as the world around him changes beyond all recognition. I am a fan of post-apocalyptic literature and film and I wanted to create a modern day story for children on this theme, with a nod to Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids.

I can’t say it better than Patrick Ness who in his tips for writing at Booktrust (which are brilliant – maybe don’t read this anymore and check them out: https://www.booktrust.org.uk/books-and-reading/tips-and-advice/writing-tips/writing-tips-from-authors/patrick-nesss-guide-to-writing) to remember that the covering letter “is an advertisement for yourself and for the book, so make it as good as possible. It must serve the same function as your fiction: it must be good enough to make them turn the page.”

I also hate writing synopses and so I’m sorry that we’re asking you to have to write and send that in too but the agent needs to see quickly what happens in your book. They want to get the sense that the plot is strong and will hold up. Be as short and clear as you can, but include all the plot twists and turns – it needs to tell the complete, full story.

Then those first three chapters. That should be the easy part, as you have already written those and read them to yourself a million times and have had anyone you’re living with asking you why you’re talking to yourself because you’ve been reading them aloud when you think no one else is in.

Then press send to access@darleyanderson.com and think about something else for a while. Maybe eat a brownie.

I hope that you will think about submitting and that this is just the start of things for you. I wish you all the luck for the beginning of your book journey and beyond, and hey, I can’t wait to get reading!’

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Why We’re Launching the #DACBaccess

Last week, we announced the launch of our open submissions month for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic writers and illustrators. Running from the 1st – 30th November, our open month is designed to give aspiring writers the chance to get feedback from both agents and our brilliant partnering authors, and we’re excited to get reading.

But why are we running this month? After all, we are always open to submissions from authors from under-represented backgrounds, including BAME authors. Why do we need a separate competition?

Our springboard for this was the CLPE’s Reflecting Realities report, which showed that only 1% of books published in 2017 featured a non-white protagonist. 1%! That’s in contrast to 32% of primary school pupils who come from minority ethnic backgrounds. Clearly, if we want children to read books that reflect their own experiences, we have to do better.

When this study was published, we reached out to see what the barriers were for BAME authors to submit to us. We know that you are out there, writing, illustrating and being incredibly creative, but that wasn’t reflected in our submissions inboxes. And one of the key things that we found is that authors and illustrators from minority ethnic backgrounds didn’t necessarily feel that they were welcome to submit – that this wasn’t a space for them.

We want to change that, and so we hope our open submissions month will give authors the encouragement they need to send their work to us. We’re also partnering up with authors at our agency who have been through this, and understand the challenges involved. We really hope that we’ll find some incredibly exciting new authors from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic backgrounds, and that we’ll be able to sell books that really reflect our classrooms.

In the coming weeks we’ll be introducing our partner authors and giving you some tips on how to submit to us, so follow #DACBaccess to keep up!

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On Writing: Cross-genre novels with G.X. Todd

In today’s On Writing blog, G.X. Todd, the author of the incredible and genre-defying Voices series, talks about the importance of writing what you love and not to a current trend.

Join G.X. Todd tonight for the  event, at 8pm GMT on Twitter, which aims to promote the outstanding female authors in the often underrepresented Science Fiction genre. More details here on her blog.

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Hunted (Voices #2) was published by Headline on 31st May – get it here 

On Writing: Cross-genre stories that defy categorisation

The Voices series falls into a number of genres. The two books so far released (Defender and Hunted) have been described as thriller, science fiction, horror, dystopian, post-apocalyptic, speculative, action and adventure, and probably some more that I’ve missed. I’ve seen them shelved in the Crime & Thriller section and I’ve seen them sharing space on the Fantasy and Sci-fi tables. Did I set out to write books that didn’t easily fall into genre categories? Nope, I didn’t. In fact, it can make things tricky. How will your books be marketed and to whom? Where will bookshops place you? How will the publisher decide on cover designs, etc.?

Well, dear readers and writers, none of those are easy questions to answer. And, really, you won’t have to answer them anyway. It will be your publisher’s job to figure it out. All you need to do is write something that excites you, something that keeps you awake at night thinking about it, something that has been rattling around in your head and insists on being purged in the only way you know how. You, dear writer, need only write what you want to write. Don’t worry about all that other stuff. It’s peripheral and it’s distracting. The truly great stories are the ones that come out of nowhere, that make you feel something, that immerse you so completely that you never want them to end. Who could have predicted that a boy wizard in a magical boarding school would sell millions upon millions of copies world-wide? Who knew that an epic fantasy series, the first of which was published more than two decades ago, would twenty years later become one of the most successful and beloved TV shows ever made? Point is, no one can predict that stuff: not publishers, not bookshops, not even Mystic Meg herself.

There will always be the argument that you should work on something you know might sell. Stack the odds in your favour, as it were. Write that psychological thriller and put Girl or Sister in the title somewhere. Make sure to add a twist, even if it doesn’t fit or it comes out of leftfield and makes no sense. Sure, it could land you an agent – it could even land you that coveted book deal – and congratulations to you if it does! It’s a tough business to break in to and lots of writers fall by the wayside along the way. Making it all the way to publication is a real achievement. But you’ll be swimming in a very busy pond, filled with many, many fish that are all performing similar strokes. And if your dream is to make a career out of writing, you’re probably going to be spending a lot time writing those same kinds of books, over and over and over again.

What this is all building up to is: write what you love. Write the things you want to read. Write the things you don’t think have been written yet. Don’t be scared. Don’t second guess yourself. That can all come later when you’re about to embark on writing book 2 for your brand-spanking-new publisher and you’re holding a beautiful finished copy of your novel in your hands, a novel that no one could have written but you. And if you need permission to go and write that special something that might not easily fit with what all those industriously-swimming fish are doing – which you don’t, by the way – I hereby grant it to you. Go forth and slay.

Head to gxtodd.com and follow @GemTodd on Twitter to find out more about the acclaimed Voices series and #ReadWomenSF

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Interview with G X Todd

20180415_222900When her debut came out last year, G X Todd was hailed a talented and original new voice. Defender, a post-apocalyptic thriller ‘already worthy to take its place alongside The Stand in the canon’ (John Connolly), has had readers eagerly awaiting the next installment in the four-part the Voices series.

Hunted, the second book of the series, is out today in hardback. To celebrate her first day as non-debut author, we’ve asked Gemma to look back on life as a new author…

What made you first want to become a writer?

It really comes from being such a massive reader through my formative years. I found the school library when I was eleven and books pretty much became my life. I spent a lot of time in imaginary worlds, daydreaming and making up little stories of my own. Yeah, I was one of those kids. I grew up to be just fine, though… *shifty eyes*

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One of those little stories is now a four-part series! Where exactly did the idea for the Voices come from? 

Initially, I wanted to write something that explored a person’s ability to cope with loneliness. Would it send them mad to not have anyone to talk to? That’s really where the idea of “the voices” sparked from. Survival instincts have always interested me, too. How far would we go to protect ourselves or those we love? Would we run or fight? Maim or kill? I find humans fascinating when placed in such extreme circumstances.

Now for the stories that didn’t get published… Did you write anything before Defender?

I did! It’s what I like to affectionately call “crap”. Defender was the third full novel I wrote. The first was called The Wilds and it was packed with every single idea I’d ever had and, as such, it was 150,000 words of chaotic, messy word-diarrhoea. The second book was a YA crossover called Innocence Falls and, you know, I still really like that book. I might have to revisit it.

What else can we expect from you in future?

I want to write everything. Is that allowed? Science Fiction, Horror, Fantasy, Thriller, Teen, YA, Romance. Okay, maybe not Romance, but definitely the others. I’d love to have one of those ‘Also by’ pages at the front of a book that lists fifty of my previously published books. That’s The Dream™.

Every writer has their own routine – so how do you actually get it done? 

No writing in the mornings. Seriously, I’m no good before 10am. So I generally start around 11-12pm. If I’m writing a first draft, I write until I have at least 2000 words down, whether it takes me three hours or eight. During the editing or redrafting stage, it’s not often I can work for more than five hours a day. My brain dies if I attempt to do more. I generally try to write six days a week (Saturday is my day off), but I can be flexible if I need to be.

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Do you sit down with a plan, or let the story write itself?

Well, I don’t really plan. I have scenes that I want to get to at some point, and a destination where the characters need to go or people they need to meet (and I often have an ending in mind). But other than those basic bones, I tend to just sit down and let the characters lead me where they want. I find it’s always the characters that speak to me most loudly, rather than, say, plot or story arcs. So I can have a first draft in around four months. Then subsequent drafts are used to backwards plot – where I develop themes, insert better formed ideas, and flesh out characters, etc.

Did your writing change in the process of writing Defender? 

I think I learned a lot about voice (no pun intended), and how to really get into the heads of characters. I didn’t hold back with exploring the darkness inside people, either. I really let my imagination run free with Defender and the Voices series, more so than with anything else I’ve written. It’s been quite the journey so far.

What have you found most difficult as a new, published author?

Having to be extra social. Ha. I’m actually fairly decent at being sociable, but the sheer volume of social events I have to navigate now is x1000 to what I’ve been used to up to this point. Oh, and the edits. For me, the edits are rarely any fun at all.

Finally, what would be your one piece of advice for a new author?

People will tell you that you’re a literary wunderkind and that you’re shooting rainbows out your butt. And you’ll read reviews that say your writing is awful and that your book should never have been published in the first place. Positive or negative, it’s important to keep your feet on the ground and a realistic head on your shoulders.

 

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