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.

Defender final

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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On Writing: Characters in Children’s Fiction with Kim Slater

Writing with a voice that feels authentic and distinctive is one is one of the key elements of a great book. It’s something that all writers strive to hone and need to nail in order to hook the reader.

It’s a long process and that process becomes more complicated when you are writing for a younger reader and, perhaps, even harder when your protagonist is also a younger character.

On the publication day of her new novel The Boy Who Lied, multi-award-winning YA author Kim Slater gives advice On Writing younger characters for a younger audience. Kim has been nominated for the prestigious CILIP Carnegie Medal three times and has won and been nominated for numerous other awards for her outstanding novels Smart, A Seven-Letter Word and 928 Miles From Home . As someone who clearly knows what she’s talking about, we asked her how she manages to create such authentic and convincing young characters and voices.

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How do you write a teenager that feels authentic?

I use the same method as I do to get inside any character’s head; I imagine I am that person. I think about challenges they may face and how it might feel. And after all, most authors are at an advantage when it comes to writing for children and young adults . . . we have all been there! So, for me, it is taking some time to think back, to put myself in that younger mindset once more and think how certain issues or events might feel.

So in my latest book, ‘928 Miles From Home,’ there is a character called Sergei who comes to live in the UK from Poland with his mum. I invested some thinking time and put myself in Sergei’s shoes; he didn’t care about making a better life in another country . . . a detail that was important to his mum. Sergei was more concerned and upset about leaving his best friend, his pets, his grandfather.

I think these things would be uppermost in any young person’s mind and I think the reader would agree that these considerations would be authentic to young people leaving their home.

 

Are there any touchstones you use to make your characters come alive first for you and then your reader?

I’d say thinking time is my first rule of writing a new story. I always begin by setting aside some space to become the character and I begin by thinking in first-person, even if ultimately I know I’ll be writing them in third-person POV. I begin by free-thinking and then graduate to free-writing where I just write about anything at all but from my main character’s POV.

That really finds their voice for me and once I have the voice, everything else – like back story – soon follows. I like to get to know my characters well and, even if I don’t use all the information I ‘know’ about them, I feel it gives a depth and authenticity to the writing which the reader can somehow sense.

 

Do your characters appear three dimensional with a story in your head immediately, or do you have the character then work on their story, or vice versa?

The character voice always comes first for me and the main character is usually strong from the outset, although I wouldn’t claim they are immediately three-dimensional. That takes extra thinking time, ‘simmering’ as I call it, prior to starting to write. Once I feel I have a handle on the character, the next stage, for me, is to think about some of the things that might happen to them.

In my second book, ‘A Seven-Letter Word,’ Finlay, the main character, has a debilitating stutter. When I felt I had a good sense of his character, I began to think about some situations he might find himself in.

The only way you can hide a very bad stammer is to not speak, so I asked myself, what would be the worst place you might have to go? And the answer came; school. Because it’s a very difficult not to speak at all. So I have lots of scenes in school with challenges that Finlay is forced to face on a daily basis; stuff that most young readers can identify with.

 

Your protagonists are all around 14 years old – what is significant about this time of life?

I think it’s quite a profound time in a young person’s life. It’s an age when they begin to form their own opinions and maybe question others’ opinions too. Maybe they start to think about what they’d like to do in the future for the first time when choosing subjects to study at school.

Without doubt, around this age can also be a frustrating time; difficult relationships at home and school and feeling more grown up but still getting treated like a little kid. For an author . . . very interesting material!

There is also the consideration that younger readers tend to like to ‘read up’ a couple of years. I’d say my books are probably most popular with 11-12 year olds, so having a 14 year old protagonist fits just about right.

 

Is it important for the reader to like the main character in a children’s book?

For YA, I think that ultimately, the answer is yes. I tend to naturally write flawed characters who often have facets of their personality that are not so likeable – on the plus side, I feel this makes them rounded and more realistic.

I want the reader to understand the protagonist, empathise with them; even if they don’t necessarily condone or agree with some of their behaviour.

But one should remember that young readers tend to place themselves in the shoes of the main character. So, for this genre, there must be a lot to like in the protagonist, I think.

 

The Boy Who Lied is published by Macmillan Children’s Books today. Follow Kim on Twitter: @Kimslater01

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Debut author interview with Imran Mahmood

Imran Mahmood’s debut You Don’t Know Me was met with critical acclaim on its hardback publication last year. The “genre-bending crime novel” (Ruth Ware) has since been chosen for the BBC Radio 2 Book Club, was named one of The Telegraph’s crime books of the year, and was a 2018 World Book Night title.

As You Don’t Know Me is out today in paperback, we’ve asked Imran to share with us some of his experiences as a debut author…

What made you first want to become a writer?

I always loved hearing stories, watching them, reading and telling them. In my day job as a criminal barrister I am in the business of telling stories. These are true stories, but it has always been important to tell them in a way that is as engaging as possible. It was short step from that kind of storytelling to this kind. Ultimately, I wanted to tell people about the things that fell into my experiential ground because I have found them interesting and I hoped other people would too. I am always interested to hear about experiences which are different from mine, whatever they are. I think that by far the most important aspect of writing is the process of exchanging ideas and stories rather than selling them.

You Don’t Know Me is a unique courtroom drama where the Defendant himself tells the story of his life growing up in London’s gangland. Where did you get your inspiration from, and how were you able to research this? 

I was writing a closing speech in a criminal case and suddenly wondered what it would be like if the defendant had to do his own speech. I’ve spent 25 years listening to people and representing people involved in or accused of being involved in gang-related crimes, so it was something I already knew a lot about. My work gives me such a breadth of experience in terms of the people I meet. I can learn about the lives of people in a different world from mine, and I see from a position of privilege how their lives can go wrong or become redeemed.

What has been the best thing about being an author?

Speaking to people. I love meeting new people and hearing from readers whether they liked my book or not. That is the best bit. And I have been really lucky. I have met some amazing and talented people – not just readers, but other authors, editors, agents, publicists, editors, SIMON MAYO!! and Mishal Husain (to drop two of my very favourite names!).

It’s brought lots of new experiences too. I went on live radio (Radio 4, Radio 2, Radio 5 Live), I was interviewed by national newspapers, I went onto the set of a TV show and watched it being made, I met the incredible Adam Deacon as he recorded my audio book. All amazing experiences that I could never have dreamed of achieving in any other way.

 And what’s been the hardest bit?

There is nothing hard about it really, if you enjoy writing. But while writing a complete novel is without a doubt rewarding and fulfilling and all of that, ultimately the thing is a slog. It is hard work and needs commitment and application. The first 30,000 words are the easiest. Most people can do that. The hardest thing is being able to carry on and finish.

So how do you get things done?

I lie awake at night (my only quiet time) and write a chapter in my head (kind of). Then the next day I write it down! I write on the train, in chambers, in court when I am waiting. I don’t have the luxury of a routine so I have to take my chances when I get them.

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

This is advice that I find it difficult to follow myself: it’s to write something every day. And to think. Pen to paper is the easy bit, the real work is done before the pen is even lifted.

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On Writing: Family Dynamics with Annie Murray

The dynamics of a family always make for a good story. You probably think your own family is not very interesting and that you’re just like any other. But it’s the small idiosyncrasies of each family member and the relationships between them that never cease to pique people’s interest – and makes for excellent reading.

In this On Writing post, the Sunday Times bestselling author Annie Murray talks about writing family dynamics. As a prolific and successful author of over 20 sagas, she knows how to write a great drama and tells us why it’s always interesting to keep it in the family.

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How do you do justice to the complexities of family dynamics in fiction?

 That’s quite a question. While it’s true that very often people feel typecast in their family – she’s the clever one, or the one who’s always in a mess and so on – this is fatal in fiction if that’s as far as it goes. It’s important to be able to identify characters and not get them muddle because they are too similar, so of course they need defining characteristics. But I think the main thing is to introduce characters in a way so that you can recognize them readily, but to add layers, contradictions, cross-currents – above all in the main characters. If a character is always an ‘angel’ and sickly sweet, never thinks or does anything anyone could disapprove of or dislike, they are unbelievable and in the end, how can anyone else identify with someone like that?

I often write books in which there are large families. If the book covers a long period, there may be a child born near the beginning who, until they have grown up a bit, I have no idea what their personality is or their role in the novel, but a role for them arrives later – like watching a ‘real’ person develop. And in being born into that particular family, they have found a place in something that is like a constellation. Family members occupy a space that makes a unique pattern for that particular family. That pattern is held in place by the ebb and flow of the way personalities interact and how people forge their identity differently from each other. All this gives energy to the family as a distinct shape, which may shift over time – people leave or take on a different role – but the characters need to be held distinct in it. I’m not sure if that makes sense!

 

 Novels often depict families – how do you take a fresh angle?

I think any family is a fresh angle of itself because the dynamics of each are unique. When I’m planning a novel I don’t look for ‘issues’– I like to write books about life in the round which necessarily includes quite a variety of events and moods and often covers quite a long period of time. What makes any family interesting is its very particular character, which, as Tolstoy pointed out, makes it ‘unhappy in its own way.’

 

 Do you have a clear idea in your head who each character will be and what their role in the family/novel will be?

No – hardly ever. I find it’s a matter of focus and time. Once you start thinking about a novel, characters seem to present themselves as the figures you are going to spend time with. Something comes through, a kind of energy that says, I’m the one this time. They are not in any way fully formed – that has to be worked on, and thought out consciously as well as intuited. Sometimes I have to do a Q & A with a character, often asking them really basic questions. It always helps to know where they have come from and something of their birth family’s dynamics – even if that is not in the story itself.

I have tried many times to plot and plan everything because it seems like a way of alleviating anxiety in writing the novel, but it only ever works up to a certain point. I find that the only way to know characters is to write them. It’s very like getting to know a person you have newly met. As the number of encounters you have grows, as you talk more and see that person forced up against challenges, you get a feeling of what motivates them. You work out what it is they want, what their underlying emotional complexities are. The more major the character is in the novel, the more time you spend with them. Once I’ve reached the end of the first draft I usually feel, aha, I’m really beginning to see who you are now. But it takes re-writes to get that better in place. A bit like turning the colour up in a black and white photograph.

 

 Do you use story circles or any other kind of story-boarding device to help you fine tune your ideas?

 I really don’t. Obviously I make notes but it’s more about doing the writing and thinking in between, asking yourself, ‘who is this person?’ What are the things that have marked them, what drives them, what do they fear and long for?

 

 Why do you think that stories about ‘the family’ continue to be popular and interesting?

 ‘Home is where we start from’ as Donald Winnicott said. That’s one of the things that make orphans so fascinating and touching – because home in that way is missing for them. But in general, it’s an experience everyone has in common – in an endless variety of ways. And the more we learn about the impact of early years experiences on infants, the more true it becomes that family is absolutely the cauldron of who we become. I sometimes think the ‘saga’ genre should be called the ‘Family Album’ genre as there’s going to be something in these stories that nearly everyone can relate to.

 

What other authors, in your opinion, have nailed family drama and why?

There are so many. One that springs to mind in terms of what I’ve been saying, is in a book most people have read; the way Jane Austen differentiates the characters of the Bennett daughters in Pride and Prejudice and shows the family dynamics at work through them. It’s even harder when all siblings are the same gender (Barbara Kingsolver does something amazing with this in The Poisonwood Bible with all the main voices being female.) Writers of regional/family sagas also have to do a lot of it as we often write about large families!

 Annie’s new novel Sister’s of Gold, the first of a trilogy set in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter, is out now, get it here. Follow Annie on Twitter: @AMurrayWriter

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On Writing: Historical Setting with Margaret Dickinson

The latest blog in our On Writing series looks at Historical Setting with bestselling author Margaret Dickinson. Today marks the publication of The Poppy Girls, the 25th novel from the Queen of Saga. 25 novels? Most writers struggle to finish one! Huge congratulations to Margaret and thank you for taking the time to share your incredible author wisdom with us.

The Poppy Girls

When I found Darley Anderson in 1991, it was he who suggested that I should try to write a regional saga and he gave me three very useful pieces of advice, which I still do my best to follow with every book I write.

  • A strong woman as the central character, whom the reader can visualise from the first page
  • The story should ‘breathe’ the place you’re writing about; your readers must feel that they’re walking down the same streets that your characters are walking down.
  • A satisfactory ending so that the reader closes the last page and says, ‘yes, that’s a good ending to that story.’

And that’s all there is to it, really…  Well, not quite!

Regional sagas are traditionally set during the first half of the twentieth century, though I did once go back to the 1850s with Pauper’s Gold so that the background of the pauper apprentice system in the cotton mills was historically correct.  Sagas, too, are usually spread over several years, so consequently the author is always running into one war or another!  However, that can be a very useful way of getting rid of an unwanted character!  And also, there is ready-made conflict in a war situation.  For example in The Clippie Girls, set in Sheffield, I already had the tension of the Second World War; the rationing, the bombing, the blackout, women doing men’s work and the constant fear for the soldiers fighting overseas.  But I wanted more conflict so I invented a household of women; the grandmother, who owns the house and never lets anyone forget it, her widowed daughter and three granddaughters, all with very different personalities.  Once the time, the setting and the characters are all in place, then the story begins to flow.

There is no right or wrong way to write a novel, but this way works for me.  Before I write anything down, even notes, I have my central character and probably one or two more around her.  Then I know when the story takes place, where it’s set and the background; i.e. farming, fishing, tulip-growing, lace-making and so on.  I know how it is going to start and I already know how it will end and I also have a vague idea what will happen through the story, though this may change as the plot develops.  At this stage I don’t do detailed research.  I may make a preliminary visit to places and talk to a few people to make sure that when I do want to do in-depth research I know where to find it.  I also collect numerous books on the subject in readiness.

Then I write the story, going straight through a first draft to the end without pausing to edit or to refine.  This works for me to keep the pace going, though I do make ‘notes to self’ throughout reminding me where more details need to be filled in during the research stage.  (By the way, editors always talk about ‘pace’!)  At the end of a very rough draft that is fit for no one but me to see, I then go back to the beginning and work steadily through the script, doing detailed research and filling in the blanks.  At this stage I will visit museums and speak to experts as well as reading non-fiction books on the subject and researching on the Internet.  Newspapers of the time are a great resource, giving not only the news of the time but also an insight into people’s lives from advertisements as well as articles.

Another read-through of the script will concentrate on the characterisation asking myself questions such as, are all my characters fully rounded so that the reader will believe in them as real people?  Have I got enough emotion into the story?  Is the plot line credible?  Everything that happens must have sound reasoning behind it; editors do not like plots that hang on coincidence or chance!

I believe it is important to get the facts right, especially if you are writing about a real occupation.  For example, if you are writing about a mining community, they have always been very special people and not to represent their lives accurately could be insulting to them.  Even though it is fiction and all my characters bear no resemblance to real people, I like to think I am paying tribute to the kind of people I am writing about.  And, of course, it’s vital to get historical facts right.  Your readers are intelligent, well-educated people, who will soon spot a glaring error and lose faith in your accuracy and therefore probably in your novel too.

As regards the amount of research needed, this will vary with each book and it’s quite a difficult decision to know how much to include.  You want to give a realistic and accurate background and yet not overload the reader with facts that detract from the plotline.  I have heard readers say that if they come to a page of description, they skip reading it!  What I try to do is weave in descriptions and facts amongst conversation and action.  That way, the reader will absorb it without really being aware they are doing so.

But the most important thing to get right is to create a ‘page-turner’ that will keep your readers wanting to know more about your characters and what happens to them until the very last page!

Margaret’s new novel The Poppy Girls is published by Pan Macmillan today, get it here.

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