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Mary Hargreaves’ top podcast recommendations for aspiring authors

Writing – it’s a solitary business. ItMary Hargreaves’s often difficult to stay connected with the wider industry and fellow writers when you’re cooped up with just your keyboard for company. But as author Mary Hargreaves has discovered, one of the best ways of feeling part of the writing community is through the power of podcasts.

Mary, whose debut novel, This Is Not a Love Story, publishes next summer with Trapeze, works full-time alongside her writing and is a big advocate of podcasts being an easy way to keep her passion for writing and reading alive whilst on her commute to work. Here she shares her favourites…

As an author, whatever stage you’re at in your writing career, you will probably fall into one of three camps:

  • Full-time, living-the-dream, oh-my-god-people-are-paying-me-to-just-write
  • Part-time author, part-time money-maker in something bookish/writer-y e.g. journalist or publishing professional.
  • Part-time author, part-time side hustle in something so far removed from the world of books that you almost feel like Spiderman, living a double life and frantically changing your clothes in the staff loos so nobody catches you with the wrong hat on.

Whichever camp you fall into, I think it’s safe to say that you probably love books. The sheer dedication and perseverance it takes to put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard) over and over again until a novel pops out indicates that if you didn’t, you’d have probably chucked the towel in a long time ago.

Personally, I fall into camp three. My day job is wonderful, but it’s about as creative as a boiled egg. With my writing time consigned to the evenings and weekends, it’s sometimes difficult to keep the fire alive as I’m trundling along the rain-soaked streets on a double-decker bus every morning, my head spinning with thoughts of meetings and overdue signatures and my daily ham sandwich vs. superfood salad lunch debate.

Unfortunately, I barf at the thought of reading in a moving vehicle, so I had to find another way to stay connected to the world of words. I am not an audiobook person (they’re great, just not for me) but eventually, with the help of Twitter, I discovered podcasts.

My commute was instantly transformed from a stressful wasted hour to a timeless, thrilling adventure into the minds and lives of incredible authors and their tales of struggle and success, joy and heartbreak and – most importantly of all – favourite reads. I felt connected, like my writing was more than just me and a microwave lasagne at a makeshift desk every evening. Because no matter what camp of author-dom you fall into, you’re doing all the hard stuff yourself, and it can be pretty lonely at times.

Here are four of my absolute favourite bookish podcasts.

You’re Booked – Daisy Buchanan

Daisy Buchanan is a journalist and author, and every week she visits a fellow author’s house and rifles through their bookcase, quizzing her subjects on their reading habits. The author tells us about books that changed them, shaped them and stayed with them, and it’s a goldmine of new discoveries to add to your TBR pile. So far, Daisy has snooped around in the literary collections of Sophie Kinsella, Lucy Vine and Holly Bourne, and her list just keeps growing. It’s also helpful that Daisy has the most gorgeous, soothing voice – perfect for my commute home towards my bed and that next exciting read.

The High Low – Pandora Sykes and Dolly Alderton

Pandora and Dolly are journalists by background, who began their podcast in 2017 (spoiler – it exploded). They discuss, as their tagline goes, ‘current affairs and pop culture’, and they also do ‘author specials’, where they interview writers such as Yomi Adegoke and Elizabeth Uviebinené, Fatima Bhutto and David Nicholls. Both Pandora and Dolly are almost unbelievably good at articulating the things we’re all thinking, and I walk away from every episode feeling like my brain has gained 6lbs.

How To Fail With Elizabeth Day

If you think you’re alone in feeling like an imposter, think again. Elizabeth is also a journalist, with an incredible knack for interviewing all kinds of people and extracting the most interesting information from them. Each interviewee (many of whom are writers) recounts three ‘failures’ they have encountered in either their personal or professional life, and heads-up: it can get pretty personal. In an industry where failure is a rite of passage, it’s so reassuring to hear that the likes of Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Sebastian Faulks and David Baddiel aren’t so perfect either.

The Honest Authors’ Show – Gillian McAllister and Holly Seddon

We’re done with the journalists now; Gilly and Holly are authors (cue cheers from the back of the room). Once every three weeks or so, they either chat to each other about their books, lives and writing strife, or interview an author or publishing professional to gain precious insights from their side of the camp. As the title suggests, they’re honest, and I particularly love that they place focus on debut authors such as Imran Mahmood, Will Dean and Lia Louis. It’s (literally) like listening into a conversation between a couple of great friends.

And that’s a wrap. I’m sure there are many more undiscovered nuggets of podcast gold out there, just waiting for my ears to receive them. If you know of any, please do let me know via twitter: @MKHarg

Podcasts have been transformative for me, and have aided in immersing me in a world that I felt so distantly attached to. No matter what kind of author you are, whether you’re querying or a number-one bestseller, I think we could all benefit from an hour-long one-sided chat with our colleagues every once in a while.

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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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On Writing: Scaring Kids with Helen Grant

Halloween may be behind us, but that’s not to say that the scary fun is over.

I (Kristina) was one of those children who just loved being scared. It started with a book called The Finger Eater by Dick King-Smith. A book that had such an impact on my brother that he shoved blankets and clothes down the side of his bed so the Finger Eater wouldn’t gobble up his pinkies in the night. Then I moved on to some Robin Jarvis, Goosebumps, and later Cliff McNish’s Doomspell series and the classic (and fantastic!) Point Horror series – highlights include Twins and The Babysitter, thanks R.L. Stine.

Now, for a good spooking, I read Stephen King and Shirley Jackson, but it’s the childhood scares that stay with me the longest. They’re the stories I can recall most vividly. We’ve had a number of conversations about Point Horror in the office and EVERYONE interrupts each other with, “Do you remember the one…” It’s something special.

Today we have an author who knows a thing or two about scaring kids, Helen Grant. Her outstanding YA novel The Vanishing of Katharina Linden left me utterly chilled – read it if you haven’t yet. We asked Helen all about how she gets her inspiration and what she thinks makes a great scary novel.

vanishing-act-of-katharina-linden US

What are the three key building blocks when writing a scary novel?

One of the most important things is to remember that a scary novel is meant to be SCARY, not so gory that it’s horrifying. For me, the pleasure of reading a scary book is that spine tingling feeling.

Secondly, I think creating relatable characters is really important. If the reader doesn’t empathise with the hero or heroine, they won’t feel the same sense of tension about what happens to them.

It’s also key to have a really strong plot with lots of thrilling scenes. In a short ghost story, you can build up to one single terrifying event. In a full length novel, you have to maintain that tension for a lot longer, so you have to include lots of scary moments as you go along.

 

Where do you draw inspiration from?

I love to visit scary and atmospheric places, and many of them end up featuring in my books and short stories. Places I have visited in the past include ruined castles and churches, catacombs, a deserted railway tunnel and the Brussels sewers!

I also love folklore and legends, and some of these have definitely inspired my work. My first book, The Vanishing of Katharina Linden, includes local German folktales retold in my own words.

Glenfarg railway tunnels

How do you avoid clichés and write with real menace and tension?

That’s one of the biggest challenges, I think. If you are reworking folk tales or creating a plot about some horrible secret buried in the past, obviously you are going to be covering old ground to some extent. There are also certain expectations of a creepy story. My teenage daughter says she reads ghost stories especially for the clichés!!

I think there are several things the writer can do. It’s useful to read the same kind of thing you are trying to write. I love thrillers and ghost stories so I read loads of them. This means that you become familiar with what has already been done many times. A ghost haunting a deserted house is pretty old; if you can think of a really unusual reason for the haunting, it becomes a lot more intriguing.

I think the other thing is that the details of the story should really bring the characters and setting to life. If you can share the character’s terror and absorb all the striking details of a scene, it makes it so much more vivid.

 

What is the scariest book/story you have read?

Hmmm, that’s a very tough question. When I was a child, I think the book that scared me more than any other was – oddly – a Victorian anthology called The Silver Fairy Book. It always astonishes me, the things people thought were suitable for kids in the past! There are various grotesque stories in it, but the one that stands out is The Palace of Vanity, translated from the French. It’s about a place where everyone’s wishes come true, but in horrible ways. For example there is a woman who wishes for a “wasp waist” and becomes so thin that she cannot stand up any more for fear of snapping. It’s horrible! Brrrr.

As an adult, I found Cormac McCarthy’s book The Road, about a father trying to protect his son in a post-apocalyptic landscape, so unbearably tense that I have only ever read it once. It’s still on my bookshelf, but I can’t bear to open it again.

If I want a pleasurable scare, though, I read the ghost stories of M.R.James. Some of those give me the creeps so badly that my eyes water!

 

Is there a big difference between writing to scare children and adults? Obviously less gory but what else?

I think there are lines I wouldn’t cross when writing for young people.

As well as my young adult novels, I write short ghost stories for adults, and in some of those, the ending can be quite grim. Well, okay, in practically all of them, the ending is very grim…

In my young adult novels, people do die, and horrible things do happen, but I can’t imagine writing one in which every good character died at the end and the villain got away scot free. I like a sense of justice to prevail at the end. I also like to show my hero or heroine actively battling to bring about that justice – taking control. In some of my adult stories, there is a sense that the protagonist is being carried along by events, or that their own failings (greed, naivety, selfishness) lead to their downfall. My young adult protagonists are more sympathetic characters than that, and they also try to take control of the situation. Lin, the heroine of The Glass Demon, is pretty much the only proper adult in her family, even though she’s only seventeen.

Follow Helen Grant on Twitter: @helengrantsays