Yesterday was the Wolves and Apples event in Leicester, a one-day series of workshops and talks run by Leicestershire-based Mantle Arts concentrating on children’s writing – picture books, middle-grade, YA.
The event was targeted at “emerging writers”, which is a great term – I hate calling people “aspiring writers” because if you write, you’re a writer, as far as I’m concerned; also, emerging is a term that can apply to writers like me, with a couple of books out there with small publishers, but still not quite in the mainstream of the industry (no agent, no ongoing contracts, little-to-no bookshop shelf space).
Added to that was the fact that it was literally less than ten minutes from my house, and I couldn’t resist!
Session 1 – Writers and Agents
I chose this session over Celia Rees’ workshop on voice because even after several years of trying and dozens upon dozens of submissions, I still know very little about the mysterious world of literary agents. (To be honest, I don’t know much about voice either, but I had to make a choice!) Ben Illis and one of his clients, Liz Flanagan (author of Eden Summer) provided a case study of how Liz went from querying to publication, and all the trials and tribulations in between. One important theme was patience – it can take a very, very long time to get anywhere, and there may be several dead ends along the way. Even after landing Ben as her agent, it was only when Liz’s third book went on submission to publishers that she got a deal – despite tons of really positive feedback in the meantime. I can’t imagine how difficult that must have been – but the lesson is to keep going.
Session 2 – Self Publishing
Again, a difficult choice of session! In the other room, Chris Priestley was talking about scary stories; but I’ve got a collection of short stories that I’m thinking of self-publishing in collaboration with an artist friend, so I had to choose Ben Galley’s talk on self-publishing.
Ben endeared himself to me immediately by condemning Author Solutions and their awful, predatory practices. They’ll take thousands and thousands of pounds and give you very little that you can’t do yourself. Steer clear!
But “do it yourself” isn’t quite the right term. Ben is a big advocate of contracting freelance professionals for the specialised tasks like editing and cover design and typesetting. The worst thing you can do with a self-published book is make it look self-published, and these days there really is no excuse.
I had to pop out just before the end of the session, because I had a one-to-one with agent Ben Illis.
I was allotted fifteen minutes with Ben to go over the first chapter of my latest completed novel, my middle-grade sci-fi adventure Far Galactic North, and he had some very useful suggestions – he’s a big advocate of paring down the language, and I’d made the mistake of including a couple of similes in fast-paced sections that slowed the action down, and some extraneous observations that would be better reserved for more reflective moments – not when the main character was fleeing space pirates! Most encouragingly, however, Ben didn’t have too many comments about the prose in general, and said it was “accomplished and, potentially, exciting” and he gave me a few agents’ names to try.
Session 3 – Digital Storytelling
Another difficult choice of session here! In the other room, Liz Flanagan was talking about kickstarting your novel, and that sounded great (and from chatting to other attendees afterwards, it sounds like it really was very useful) but Gabrielle Kent was talking about storytelling in video games.
Now, I used to be a really big gamer. It’s only since I started devoting all of my spare time to writing that gaming has fallen by the wayside, but I’ve always been fascinated by the ability of immersive entertainment to tell stories that other media can’t. I remember many years ago playing Deus Ex (the 2000 original, not Human Revolution or Mankind Divided) and sneaking about on a rooftop, eavesdropping on a conversation, and thinking “I don’t know who to trust.” Not “I don’t know which option to take,” which would be the natural way of thinking about playing a game, but “I don’t know who to trust.”
Gabrielle used The Last of Us as a case study in building richness and depth in a game world through little details. Unfortunately her laptop wasn’t playing ball, and she couldn’t play the scene from the game that she wanted to show us, but here it is:
I haven’t even played The Last of Us (I was an Xbox 360 player, didn’t have a PS3) but I’ve watched my brother play the whole thing, and it really is an amazing bit of storytelling.
And a lot of the lessons from game storytelling are good lessons for storytelling in general. Using incidental detail to provide richness is core to building a believable world.
Then Gabrielle introduced us to Twine, a free tool for creating non-linear stories. With just a few clicks and a little bit of typing, with no coding whatsoever, you can create a branching story with multiple paths, a lot like the text adventures I grew up with (I’m very old, you know). This has the serious potential to become very addictive!
Session 4 – Navigating Children’s Publishing
Kesia Lupo, editor with Chicken House, was on hand to guide us through the work of an editor in the world of children’s publishing. This was the only session that I had no problem making a decision on – in the other room, Elys Dolan was talking about picture books. Now, I like picture books (current favourites: Beegu by Alexis Deacon and Please Mr Panda by Steve Antony) but I have no interest in writing them, so while I’m sure it would have been interesting from an academic point of view, Kesia’s talk was more useful.
She went over the different types of editing (structural, line, copy, proofread) then gave her Top Five Editing Tips:
- Put it away before you edit. (Definitely agree with this one!)
- Think about pace and structure. Are there any sections where nothing happens? Are there good surprises?
- Murder the undeserving. Are there any characters who are superfluous? Are any of them interchangeable, and can they be combined? A common mistake is to include a large cast, where a smaller cast might be easier to follow and more effective.
- Read scenes aloud. Particularly the trickier ones that you’re most unsure about.
- When you’re done, write two lists: the strengths and the weaknesses that you can see in the manuscript. I imagine if the weaknesses are too many then it might be time to do another round of editing!
Final session – What Should I Read?
Finally, all the panelists were brought together to discuss the books they thought people interested in writing for children should read. There was a lot of love for SF Said (and rightly so!) as well as older writers like Joan Aiken, Alan Garner, Susan Cooper, and some less well-known authors like Lian Hearn, whose Across the Nightingale Floor I read and loved back in the early 2000s. There was a lot of nodding and agreement in the room!
The nice folks from Mantle Arts have promised to put the full list of books mentioned up on their website early next week.
A very full, very busy day, packed with loads of great talks. My only complaint is that I wanted to see everything! Choosing between the sessions that ran alongside each other was extremely difficult.
The organisation was extremely good, and everything ran smoothly (even though there was a bit of wrangling with the catering). There were plenty of opportunities to chat to the presenters and the other attendees, too; it’s always nice to speak to like-minded people about a subject you love. And I even spoke to two people who’d already seen Dawn Treacher’s cover art for The Beast on the Broch from Twitter and Facebook!
If they run another event next year, you’re interested in writing for children, and you’re anywhere near Leicester, I strongly advise you to come along.