28 reasons for following Authors Electric

…Starting with No. 1.  Me.

Before I am justifiably deluged by an electric storm of outrage at such hubris, I should clarify: I am only No 1 in the sense that I’ve joined the wonderfully diverse and fascinating band of writers that is Authors Electric and have been allotted the 1st day of every month. The other 27/28/29/30 days belong to my 27 fellow sparks, with the remainder going to guest writers. I’m honoured to be in this company. The only brief is to write about anything and everything to do with books and writing and already I’ve discovered, through reading other Electric Authors, writers I hadn’t heard of, and enjoyed discussions of all kinds, ranging from playwriting to indie publishing to the Rise of Donald Trump.  Actually, delete ‘enjoyed’ for that last topic.

Here’s my blog for 1 November:

Good Halloween reading

Today I’m posting my First Ever blog for Authors Electric. It comes the day after a somewhat strenuous school visit, in which my aim was to persuade 40 Halloween fixated Years 7 and 8 that stories of pacts with demons, crystal balls, charms, spells and alchemy, all dating back hundreds of years, are at least as exciting as pointy hats, plastic orange pumpkins and wriggly worms. I’m pretty sure I succeeded. Mostly.

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More exciting than a pumpkin

Even more important – and this is why I love school visits – is the chance to enthuse children with the sheer magic of books themselves. Some will be keen readers already. Others, not yet, but give them a glimpse into other worlds and you never know when they may follow it up. My favourite books as a child were either retellings of great myths and legends – T H White’s The Once and Future King, Roger Lancelyn Green’s The Tale of Troy – or stories that recreated a classical world of monsters and magical creatures, such as C S Lewis’s The Narnia Chronicles. These were all terrific stories in their own right: I didn’t need to know anything about Malory or Homer or Ovid to enjoy them. Only much later, encountering those authors at university, the feeling of coming home I experienced filled me with an even stronger appreciation of the writers I’d loved as a child. They really, really knew their stuff. More, they were determined that children should have the chance to know it too.

So when, at the end of my talk (sometimes during, which can be distracting but hats off for enthusiasm), somebody asks, ‘What made you become a writer?’, the answer is easy. I had to. Because while you’ll find hundreds of books by excellent children’s authors based on King Arthur and the Greek and Roman gods and heroes, some of the world’s greatest literary works have been ignored in this respect.

    Dante’s Inferno, for instance. A brilliant, grotesque imagining by the poet of descending through 9 circles of Hell, based on the classical underworld, complete with Cerberus, harpies, furies, Minotaur, rivers of blood and fire – surely it could only be a matter of time before somebody made this into a cracking children’s adventure story? Well, I waited… And my own children grew up a bit and gave me more space to think… And one day I decided enough was enough and sat down to write about a girl called Ante (Antonia) who finds herself plunged on a dark journey to the heart of Hell, guided by a mysterious boy called Gil.  I wrote the kind of book I’d have loved aged 12 and when Ante’s Inferno (Matador, 2012) came out, was delighted to find plenty of 9 – 12 year olds out there who feel the same (enough to vote Ante’s Inferno to win the Peoples Book Prize).

Why did no one do it before? My guess is that people assume that Dante, a 14th century Italian poet studied by theologians and academics, must be too difficult for children. In my experience young people are often underestimated in the kind of ideas they can grasp and enjoy. In my school visits, I sketch in a few details about Dante and the purpose of the Divine Comedy. I invariably find the audience fascinated by the idea of a Hell based on myths of the underworld (some of which they know), arranged into individual circles for different kinds of wrongdoing. Many of them want to read Ante’s Inferno as a result (hurrah!) but more importantly, they’ve been given a taste of the great wealth of literature and legend that’s out there.

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Seven deadly sins – popular with children

Which brings me to the topic occupying my current school visits. Not Greek legend and the Seven Deadly Sins – also very popular with children, incidentally – but Elizabethan magic and devilish bargains.  Perhaps you can guess the inspiration behind my latest book, The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst, in which a 13 year old boy, finding himself in a spot of bother at school, hits on the brilliant idea of summoning supernatural aid.

Unfortunately, entering into a pact with a helpful fellow called Mephistopheles lands Henry in rather more trouble than he’d bargained for….

Follow me and my fellow electric authors here!

The Very Model of a Modern Self-Publishing Conference

Well, I hoped to learn a few things…  but the amount of useful information I took away hugely exceeded all expectations. If you want a model of an intelligently put together, well-run, stimulating conference, with something to offer everyone no matter how new or, er, not-so-new to the writing business, this year’s Self-Publishing Conference at Leicester on Saturday 7 May was it.

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Caroline Sanderson

Keynote speaker Caroline Sanderson, Associate Editor of the Bookseller, set the tone. Self-publishing was no longer the poor relation of traditional publishing; instead, it’s producing books of top literary, design and production values. Of the titles that have caught her eye she showed us 8 self-published ones, in a range of genres, whose striking cover designs match the high quality of their contents, all of which deserved as much recognition as the best of books produced by more traditional methods. Her enthusiasm was echoed by Professor Alison Baverstock of Kingston University in the plenary session later in the day, whose research into the effect self-publishing has had on the book market in the UK has led to some fascinating results.

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Alison Baverstock

In particular, Alison demolished that old, tired slander: ‘self-publishing is publishing without an editor.’ On the contrary, her researches show that authors independently seeking critiques and other editorial services have opened up a whole new area of employment to delighted freelance editors, no longer solely dependent on traditional publishing companies.

Arranged around these two addresses were four individual sessions to choose from and that’s where the difficulty started. How to select from the several talks on different aspects of writing, editing, designing and promoting offered for each session? At least my first choice presented no problem: I’ve long wanted to know about audiobooks and the chance of an hour’s instruction from James Peak, owner of Essential Music, was too good to miss. He did a brilliant job – with a kind of engaging scattiness – of describing the process, including tips on how to save money by reading your book yourself – gulp. I filled four pages of notes.

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Excellent bookshop!

Then came the Historical Fiction session, and – gulpissimo – my first ever experience of speaking at a conference, rather than just making notes and eating cake. Luckily a maximum of 5 minutes was expected from me and the panel audience listened kindly to my dos and don’ts when writing historical fiction for children, agreeing that this was now a sadly neglected genre compared to the great days of Rosemary Sutcliffe, Mary Renault, Roger Lancelyn Green and Henry Treece. Helen Hollick, heading the panel, gave illuminating insights into the historical fiction market for adults, both in the UK and the USA, while Lucienne Boyce’s contribution was a truly awe-inspiring lesson in serious, detailed research, from Real Books In Libraries (away with Wikipedia!) to original magazines, newspapers, site visits and railway timetables.

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With Helen Hollick and Lucienne Boyce on Historical Fiction Panel. Photo: Debbie Young

Two more sessions followed lunch (which included macaroons!* Bliss).
Mike Bodnar’s
amusing talk on Self-promotion for Self-publishers provided a wealth of ideas, some standard, some cheerfully quirky, on how to get your books flying off the shelves (actually, trundling steadily would do for me); while Clive Herbert of Nielsen’s explanation of metadata and ISBNs proved much more interesting than you might guess from those rather scary words, and gave information that every author, however published, should know.

In between sessions it was great to mingle with other attendees, eat cake, make new friends and meet lots of lovely Matador people whose names I knew well but who I’d never spoken face to face with before. All in all, congratulations to Troubador for hosting a super conference and looking after us all so well, not least with the many refreshments provided throughout the day, right up to delicious, restorative canapés at the end (wine too but alas I was driving).

And did I mention there was cake?**macaroons1

*The First Rule of the Enid Blyton school of writing: tell them about the food. 

** See note above.