Please click here to read my review of ‘Nicobobinus’ which was written to celebrate Red Ladder Theatre’s 2015 production based on the book by Terry Jones. This post was published on the Leeds Big Bookend Literature Festival Website 25/02/2015.
Perhaps you’re an aspiring children’s writer, or maybe you have kids of your own and think there should be more readings and literary events in your area. Whatever the reason, you want to put on a kids lit fest. But there are a few pitfalls to avoid…
1) Aaargh! I don’t know what I’m doing!
Be organised. Very organised. Before you do anything else, draw up a schedule of tasks. It might be helpful to start with the date of your festival and work backwards. What deadlines do you have? Once you’ve got your schedule, try to stick to it.
2) Anyone got a time machine?
Be realistic. You can only do so much. It might be your dream to run a week long children’s programme, but if there’s only you to organise it and you’re only free one evening a week to do the work, then it’s not going to happen! Why not start small and build up your programme year on year?
3) Where are the children?
If you want to engage children and young people, get schools and libraries in your local area onside. If you can arrange some school visits, that will give your festival a big boost. If you can’t, a mailout of your printed programme of events would certainly help.
Libraries are a good place to promote your festival, so try to have a presence there in the weeks leading up to your events, either physically or via a plethora of leaflets.
4) What do you mean you’re in a field?
Make sure everyone knows where your events are. Authors will appreciate a map of the venue, and so will any parents / carers trying to get their children to it. Include maps and directions in your programme, and put up plenty of signage around your venue to point the way for anyone who’s unfamiliar with the area.
5) Is this venue 26?
Having one central location for your festival may be the best bet, as keeping everything in the same building allows parents to easily move from one event to another. You may want to use one room for on-going activities like dressing up or face painting, which children and parents can take part in between the main events.
6) I’m not very good with blood…
If you’ve got under 18s attending your events, you’ll need to think about child protection. Your stewards will require some basic training, and there should be a children protection representative and a first aider on site at all times. Think about photography too – some parents/carers may need to keep their children out of photographs.
7) It’s all over – what now?
Without the generosity of volunteers and the brilliance of authors, there would be no literature festivals, so don’t forget to say thank you to everyone involved. That way, they might agree to work with you again next year!
In the run up to the 2014 Leeds Big Bookend literature festival, I was on the team of volunteers who organised the events. I worked closely with the lovely Fiona Gell and Dan Ingram-Brown to put together a programme of activities specifically for children and young adults. The events we organised – which ran across the 7th and 8th of June – went pretty well, even if we say so ourselves. There was, of course, room for improvement in how we’d done things, but I learnt a huge amount from the experience, which I thought it might be helpful to share.
These are a few of the fabulous authors I worked with:
Children’s poet David Harmer reads from ‘It Came From Outer Space!’
Emma Barnes tells an entertaining tale about ‘Wild Thing’.
Martyn Bedford fills us in on ‘Flip’, the first of his two young adult novels.
This post was also published on the Leeds Big Bookend literature festival website here.
What I’m really asking is, to what extent does the world of work help or hinder the average writer?
For most of us, it’s impossible to escape from doing some sort of paid job which may be slightly or totally unrelated to our writing. I currently work full-time but would very much like to reduce my hours, not only so I can get more writing done, but also to allow me to do more of the writing-related stuff that I just can’t fit in at the moment. Reading, going to author events, blogging… I squeeze these things in where I can, but then I end up dumping too much stuff into my evenings and weekends. This means I get over-tired and ill and then my friends raise their eyebrows at me in that ‘shouldn’t you just go home’ sort of way.
But maybe every writer has to find their own balance between time spent writing and time spent elsewhere. We’ve all heard about authors who get up at revolting o’clock so that they can write for three hours before they go to work. That’s not for me. The sleep deprivation would lead me to kill someone in a matter of days.
On the other hand, I’m not brave enough to give work up entirely. I don’t think I could abandon the safety net of regular pay. Perhaps that makes me a bit of a wimp or maybe I’m just sticking with the easy option because I’ve become used to being vaguely financially comfortable. I know people who have carved out their own income through writing, but going freelance still seems like a frightening prospect to me.
And anyway, work is more than just money. Work gives my writing brain time to figure things out; it lets my subconscious compost all the random bits of rubbish that I’ve shoved into it, and turn them into something useful. Work is part of the life that I live in order to have something to write about and it’s full of the people whose voices find their way into my stories. Work is full of little sparks; conversations, ideas, characters, that I wouldn’t experience if I was sitting at home on my own with the laptop.
And yes, maybe if I didn’t work I’d find other things that would bring me that same processing time and that same life and those same sparks. But right now, I need my job for those things. I’d just like to spend a little less time there…
Sometimes I worry that I’m just not clever or serious enough to be a writer.
When I began my MA in creative writing I felt like this quite often, especially when listening to the other students. Some of them had just completed undergraduate literature degrees, a lot of them had read more widely than me, and a few of them spouted literary terms that had me putting on my ‘eh?’ face. Objective correlative, you say? Okay, what’s that then?
Thankfully I’ve never been shy about asking questions and I’m quite happy to admit my ignorance. This means that after a year and a half of feeling slightly intimidated by some of my classmates (I tend to be in awe of people who are confidently intelligent and knowledgeable, having never really been like that myself) I’ve picked up a few things. I’ve also stopped worrying that I’m going to be ‘found out’ and kicked off the course for failing to read Anna Karenina.
However, I don’t think I’m ever going to be a literary heavyweight. It doesn’t seem to be in my nature to write that way, and I’ve failed to read some of the more literary books that everyone else gets excited about. Does this mean I belong in the lightweight category? You might say yes if I told you that a recent plot tangle I got myself into was solved by a mechanical toad that talked like Stephen Fry. To be fair, I want to write for ldrenldren and young adults. Now, there is plenty of room in children’s literature for serious stuff, some of which I fully intend to engage with. But when I tell other writers that I want to write for kids, their eyes sometimes glaze over or they give me that ‘oh you’re just a children’s writer’ look.
What I’ve realised though, is that I don’t think I mind. Because writing stuff that’s aimed at kids and young people makes me very happy. I may never write anything mind-bogglingly brilliant, never be lauded as a literary genius, but hopefully I’m going to have a lot of fun.
And I might just squeeze in the time to read Anna Karenina.
10 books I haven’t read:
1) Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
2) One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
3) Catch 22 by Joseph Heller (I did start this one but gave up)
4) The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger
5) To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
6) The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald
7) Ulysses by James Joyce
8) Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie
9) Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
10) Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
A short interview from the Word + (copyright Leeds City College 10th October 2013).
Aside from work you are studying an MA. What course is this?
I’m currently studying for an MA in Creative Writing at Sheffield Hallam University and go to classes there on a Wednesday evening. The course will take me a few years to complete as I have to write a book as part of it. I’m a bit worried about that but fingers crossed I’ll get there.
How do you find fitting it around a full-time job?
Fitting my course around a full-time job is tricky but not impossible. I have to be good at time management and very organised. I also need to take time out to rest when I need it, so I sometimes have very lazy weekends. The most difficult thing is switching between my work brain and my writing brain but I seem to be managing this okay at the moment, hopefully my boss would agree with that!
Have you always been interested in creative writing? What made you decide to do the MA?
I’ve always been interested in creative writing, since being very young, but for a lot of years I felt like writing was just a hobby. Last year I decided I wanted to take my writing more seriously and have a go at writing a book so I applied to the MA and they agreed to take me on. I wanted to do a masters degree because I felt this would be the best way to improve my writing and also to meet other writers and start building a network of brilliant creative people to hang out with.
Have you been published yet?
I’ve recently had a short story selected for publication as part of the Napkin Project, which I’m really excited about. I had to write a flash fiction, which is a short story of fewer than 1000 words, although this competition wanted stories of 300 words or less. The theme was Halloween and my piece is called Neighbourhood Witch. It’s about pets, zombies and trifle.
All the winning flash fictions are being printed onto napkins and circulated in Indie coffee shops in Leeds, Toronto and Brisbane.
You also write a blog. Is this something you set yourself the challenge to do and if so, why?
I set up a blog because I know how important it is to have an internet presence if you’re a writer, even a writer in training. To get the blog started I decided to set myself a 35 day flash fiction challenge, which meant that I had to write a new short story every day and post it up on the blog before midnight. I got lots of feedback through doing this, which was really helpful and encouraged me to keep going. The flash fiction challenge definitely helped me to improve my writing and I was really pleased that I managed to complete it, although it did take my brain about a week to recover afterwards. Now I’m trying to add new posts on a regular basis.
A blog is also a useful tool for finding out about other writers. It’s really inspiring reading other people’s blog posts and their stories.
Is there a genre of literature that you prefer (either to read or to write) and do you have an all-time favourite writer?
I try to read as widely as I can and love all sorts of different genres, from fantasy to crime to historical fiction. One of my favourite authors is probably Neil Gaiman. I’ve just bought his most recent book but as I have a very long reading list for my MA, I might not be able to start this for a while. I like his writing because it is fantastical and yet he writes so skilfully that you never question what happens in his stories. And his characters are wonderful. He’s clearly a very clever and talented man.
I also read a lot of children’s and young adult (YA) fiction because this is what I would like to write myself. I would be very happy if I could write something anywhere near as good ad Hunger Games – this is one of my favourite YA books.
It’s only recently that I started getting books signed by the authors I love, my reluctance to do so previously being partly due to not having the answer to one all-important question: how would I avoid acting like a complete tit?
This question troubles me still, but I’ve been experimenting so I think I’m a little closer to the answer. I’ve tried being smiley and enthusiastic at author events, which was pretty much my natural reaction anyway to seeing in the flesh the writers of books that I think are incredible. This approach was okay, but it did occasionally give me a slightly stalker-ish edge, and I’m certain that one particular teen author was pressing the panic button sellotaped to the underside of her table, slightly intimidated by my manic grinning. Ah well.
I’ve also tried playing it cool, just saying hello politely and sliding the book over, then waiting for the author to speak. I thought this would be a good ploy, giving the writer a bit of a break from all the chatter that they must be exposed to during the course of a signing. And it seemed to work. The author started up a conversation and I was able to reply with words in some sort of sentence-like structure that actually appeared to make sense. But then I realised the queue was building up behind me and began to sidle off, which I fear may have come across as me trying to escape…
I disappeared, clutching my signed book, just as the author was saying how nice it was to meet me. And then I realised that I had failed to tell him how fantastic his books were. Or indicate in any way, other than by bothering to queue up, that I cared about having my book signed at all. I fretted about that for three days afterwards.
So, what wisdom have I gleaned from all my book signing experiences? The following.
When it comes to meeting someone you greatly admire, there is a sort of sliding scale of behaviour from indifference to insanity and what you have to do is try to pitch yourself somewhere in the middle. For example, grinning is fine, limpet-like bear hugs are not. Looking nervous is fine, whimpering probably not so good. Speaking is fine but not compulsory. (Bless Patrick Ness for the following conversation: Patrick: Hi, how are you? Girl does not reply. Patrick: Is this book for you? Girl does not reply. Patrick: You’re not going to speak to me at all? Girl shakes her head. Patrick signs the book. Girl leaves.) Asking an author if they’ve ever been told how fantastic they are seems to be fine, but crying while doing so is taking things a bit far. Presents are good. Your underwear is not.
Now that we’ve got that cleared up, I’m starting to wonder what it’s like being on the other side of the table. I wonder what the authors think of their slightly sweaty / beaming / silent fans. And I wonder if they are just as worried about acting like an idiot…