My Dundee adventure – part two

(Part one here.)

We drove up to Dundee the day before the ceremony. It’s nearly 400 miles from Leicester to Dundee, but I’ve done the trip dozens of times before – Sandra’s family still live in Dundee, so we go up to visit them every year.

I didn’t get an awful lot of sleep that night. I was so nervous. I’d been working towards this moment for three years, but what if I didn’t win? Literary agent Gemma Cooper’s comments on my book at the Nosy Crow masterclass weighed on my mind. What if she was right? What if Harry was too old to be one of the main characters?

I’d been in touch with Joe Lamb and Lindsay Littleson, the other shortlisted authors, on Twitter in the run-up to the event. Lindsay had been through all this before, when she won the Kelpies prize for her book The Mixed-Up Summer of Lily McLean, but Joe seemed as nervous as I felt.

The day dawned, bright and cold, with the raucous but strangely comforting sound of gulls on the Tay. I suppose living so far inland after spending my childhood by the sea makes me appreciate their unmusical calls more than I might otherwise, but they certainly brought a nervous smile to my face.

We made our way to the Central Library in the Wellgate, where we were made extremely welcome and the order of proceedings was explained. Everyone was so kind and friendly, but it didn’t stop me being extremely nervous.

Pupils from Braeview Academy were running the event. By strange coincidence, this is Sandra’s old school – although it wasn’t called Braeview in those days, but Whitfield High School. I don’t know exactly how much rehearsing they did, but it paid off – the presenters and the book champions did their jobs perfectly, and were extremely professional.

One by one, we got up on stage.

Shortlisted authors

Look at how nervous we were!

One by one, our champions described the plot of our books and why they enjoyed them. My champion did an amazing job, and made my book sound great, but as Joe and Lindsay’s champions described their books, I became more and more convinced that one of them would win. Joe’s coming-of-age, end-of-innocence story sounded the perfect treatment of childhood against the backdrop of the Great War. Lindsay’s timeslip allowed her a modern perspective onto historical events. Why hadn’t I thought of that? I love timeslips!

We each answered a question on our books from the champions, then announced the winners of the book jacket design competition. While older pupils had been actually reading and voting on the books, younger primary school pupils had been designing covers for the books. It was down to Joe, Lindsay and me each to decide on the winner for our respective books. This wasn’t easy, but in the end, the cover that grabbed me the most was Qynn Herd’s.

Qynn's cover design

The composition is really something special. The silhouette of the lighthouse, with the poppy and barbed wire motifs symbolising the connection with the Great War, against the amazing colours of the sky backdrop – I just loved it.

Qynn Herd - The Wreck of the Argyll

Then the fun and games were over. Theresa Breslin, one of the judges, and, more importantly, the Carnegie-winning author of books like Whispers in the Graveyard, took to the stage and introduced each of the shortlisted books.

By this point I was 100% convinced Joe or Lindsay would win. Absolutely, definitely, no doubt in my mind whatsoever. I was steeling myself for disappointment and reminding myself that getting onto the shortlist was the best thing I’d ever achieved with my writing, and it was a great omen for the future.

Then Theresa opened the golden envelope and announced my name.

Great War Dundee winner

The rest of the event is a blur. I remember standing up, accepting the envelope, and saying something, but I’m not really sure what it was. Then there were photographs. Lots of photographs. The lighting in the Steps Theatre is appalling! Those big spotlights just bounced right off my baldy head. Just as well I’ve never been vain about my appearance.

Theresa Breslin and me

After that, lunch at the Rep Theatre. The last time I was there was to see Iain Glen play Macbeth in 1993. Joe, Lindsay, and I had a good chat about writing – I really enjoyed meeting both of them, and I hope we keep in touch.

Now, all that remains is to work with Cargo Publishing to lick my book into shape for publication in September this year. That’s not long now.

Thanks to all at Dundee libraries and schools who were involved; thanks to Cargo Publishing for publishing the winning book; thanks to all the readers, artists, and presenters from Dundee schools who did such a brilliant job; thanks to Joe for not thumping me when I know he’d really have liked to; thanks to Lindsay for reminding me that her book is being published first; thanks to Theresa Breslin, Allan Burnett and Martha Payne for judging the competition; and most of all, thanks to Sandra, for believing I could do it even when I’d given up all hope.

Roll on September. I can’t wait to get my published book in my hands.

My Dundee adventure – part one

I’ve been writing for more years than I care to remember, but it’s really only been the last three years that I’ve applied myself wholeheartedly with the aim of seeing my work published. I’m not sure how many works-in-progress I’ve got cluttering up my hard drive – books I started, then came to a crashing halt at some point and never managed to get going again. It was only in early 2012 that I decided that I had to start actually finishing books if I ever wanted to see them in print.

I bought Scrivener, the world’s greatest novel-writing software, and got to work on The Chimney Rabbit. Like with so many of my previous projects, at one point I stalled – badly – and was stuck with writer’s block for months. Fortunately, the story kept nagging at my mind, and it wouldn’t leave me alone. Eventually, I got back to writing, and from there I ploughed on until I’d completed the first draft. I’d done it! I’d actually completed a full-length book! Next step, publication!

I knew nothing.

Twenty-seven rejections later, I finally realised that maybe, just maybe, my first book wasn’t quite good enough. One agent, Anne Clark, liked it enough to ask for the whole manuscript, but after reading that, she didn’t feel like she could take it any further. One thing she did say was that my book was too long – at 71,000 words, it was probably about twice as long as it needed to be to attract an agent’s attention. But I’d done my homework! There were tons of books for 8-12-year-olds that long! What I didn’t know was that my research didn’t matter – yes, books of that length are published all the time, but making your book longer than the generally-accepted 30,000 to 40,000 just gives it one more unnecessary hurdle to surmount.

By this point I’d completed the sequel. Which was even longer.

But no words are ever wasted. By that point I had nearly 150,000 words under my belt, and two completed novels. I now knew what worked and what didn’t in terms of planning the book and scheduling writing time. I knew that I could actually finish full-length novels – if I stuck at it.

The next book was a lot better, but more importantly, it was a lot shorter. It went through two major revisions, where I changed the setting and title, and in total it had fourteen rejections. But perhaps most encouragingly, it got onto the longlist for the Bloomsbury/National Literacy Trust New Children’s Author Prize 2015.

By this point I’d been scaling back my submissions to agents, and had been concentrating on competitions. The great thing about competitions is that there’s a winner – that may sound silly, but sometimes you can submit to an agent along with a thousand other aspiring authors, but not one of you is taken any further. At least with a competition, there’s going to be someone who gets published.

Great War Dundee

I can’t remember exactly how I found out about the competition – it was probably on Twitter – but the Great War Dundee Children’s Book Prize Competition came to my attention. Unlike many competitions, this had a very specific brief – the book had to be related to Dundee and the First World War. Now, obviously, I didn’t have a book ready-made for that competition, and I wasn’t sure I’d have time – especially when it would require research, as, while I know Dundee reasonably well, I wasn’t around in the First World War…

It was already June, and the closing date was the end of August. But I got an idea and it wouldn’t let go of me. A week of research, a few days planning, a month of writing, and I had my first draft. I got a couple of copies printed, and my partner Sandra read it through, as she does with everything I write. At this point, I had no idea – no idea at all – if it was any good. I’d just been focused on getting the words down. I can’t even say I enjoyed writing it – many evenings, it seemed like an awful lot of hard work. Was it all worth it? Wouldn’t it just have been easier to give up and spend my evenings on the Xbox or watching telly?

The email Sandra sent me included (along with a list of typos) the following:

This is by far the best thing you’ve written.

Well, that was encouraging! I gave my second printed copy to my friend, colleague, and fellow aspiring writer Colin Jones, and he came back with some cracking notes (including little historical fact checks like the lipstick that Nancy’s sister is wearing – yes, lipstick had just been invented, but would a lass from Dundee in 1915 have any?). I pushed on with the second draft, put together the submission package, and sent it off.

The day Fiona Macpherson sent me an email saying that I’d made it onto the shortlist was amazing.

But not quite as amazing as the day, four and a half months later, when I went to Dundee for the prize ceremony.

Still a bit wobbly

Great War Dundee winner

Yesterday, the winner of the Great War Dundee Childen’s Book Prize was announced at a ceremony in the Central Library in Dundee. There were dozens of children from schools across the city present, and the ceremony was presented by five pupils from Braeview Academy – two acting as masters of ceremonies, with one championing each of the three shortlisted books.

The pupils did an amazingly professional job – I loved the way my champion described The Wreck of the Argyll, my book – but as the other champions described Lindsay and Joe’s shortlisted entries Shell Hole and The God of All Small Boys, the more I became convinced that one of their books would win. They just sounded so good!

So when Theresa Breslin opened the golden envelope and announced that my book had won, my brain froze. I couldn’t believe it. I’d completely and utterly convinced myself that Joe or Lindsay would win.

Sandra, my partner, says that I managed to give an acceptance speech, but I’m just going to have to take her word for it. I spent the rest of the day in a bit of a daze, even after I’d got over the initial shock.

So my book is going to be published in September. I’m looking forward to working with Cargo Publishing to lick it into shape, but of course I’m nervous about the process too!

I’ve got more thoughts about this, of course, including how pleased I was with Qynn Herd’s winning cover design for my book (although all the covers, for all three shortlisted books, were amazing) but I’ll leave those for a later post.

In the meantime, I’d just like to thank all involved with the competition, especially Fiona, who’s been wonderful, and wish Joe and Lindsay every success in their writing. Lindsay’s first book is published next month, and I’ve every confidence we’ll see Joe’s work on bookshop shelves sooner rather than later.

It’s the final countdown

One week today, it’ll all be over, one way or another. The results of the Great War Dundee Children’s Book Prize are announced next Wednesday, the 25th of March, and either I’ll have won, or either Joe Lamb or Lindsay Littleson will be getting their book published by Cargo Publishing instead.

Great War Dundee

It’s all getting very close now. Dundee Libraries have started publishing Q&A sessions with me, Joe, and Lindsay on their Facebook page. Joe is posting song-a-day countdown videos on his Twitter account. (So far we’ve had Cloud 9, Eight Days a Week, and Seven Seas of Rhye.) Joe, Lindsay, and I have been judging the book cover competition, where Dundee primary school children have been designing covers for our books – that’s been hard!

In other writing news, I completed my third draft of My Dragon Has No Nose and submitted it for this year’s Kelpies prize. Joe’s also submitted an entry (although Murphy’s Law got the better of him and he sent off the wrong draft – disaster was averted when the nice folks at Floris Books told him he could submit a corrected version). Fortunately for our chances, Lindsay hasn’t entered this year – given that she won last year for The Mixed Up Summer of Lily MacLean (coming out next month) that can only be a good thing for me and Joe!

I’ve also done a bit of tweaking on a short story, and done a fair bit of planning on my next project. It’s going to be a bit tricky to decide what to do next – I’ve got three or four story ideas at various levels of detail in my notes, and also a good idea about how I could tackle a rewrite of my Pictish dragon book.

But all that is going to have to wait until after the results of the Dundee competition. Because if The Wreck of the Argyll doesn’t win, my top priority is going to be to do another draft and then send it out to agents, making sure to write at the very top of my cover letter that the book was one of three books shortlisted for the Great War Dundee Children’s Book Prize. It’s the best thing I’ve ever written, so I’m not going to give up on it, even if it doesn’t win.

Fingers crossed, though.

Origin story

I could read and write before I went to school – my Mum taught me using comics, I seem to recall, and I remember writing my name in big bold capitals – JOHN – before my aunt, who was a teacher, told my mother off for not teaching me to write lower case letters first.

So when I went to school, I had a slight advantage, and was always treated as an advanced reader. I burned through school reading books faster than they could assign them to me, so my teachers used to have to dig out other books for me to read. When I was around seven years old, my teacher gave me a book that contained tales from mythology – Thor and his hammer from Norse mythology, Finn MacCoull from Celtic legend, and Beowulf from the Anglo-Saxons. How I loved those stories! The memory of that book stuck with me for decades, although of course I couldn’t remember what is was called, or who it was by.

It’s been nearly 40 years since I read that book, but even now I have a fascination for myths, legends, fantasy, and history. I studied Classics at university because I was obsessed with Greek and Roman mythology. Of the six books I’ve written, five have been fantasy, and one history. This book is my origin story – this is the bat bursting through young Bruce Wayne’s window; this is my radioactive spider-bite.

So of course it was extremely annoying that I couldn’t remember what the book was called. I tried searching on the Internet, but I didn’t have much to go on – it was a school reading book available in the early 1970s, and it had Beowulf, Finn and Thor in it.

Then I got lucky, and found a mention on a web page of a book that had similar myths – it was called They Were Brave and Bold. It didn’t sound quite right – it seemed very American, from an American publisher, and I recall the stories being very European – but I ordered a second-hand copy from Abebooks, just in case.

It wasn’t the right book. It didn’t have Beowulf, Finn, or Thor. All the stories were from North America. Further research suggested that this was a cut-down paperback version of a previously-published, much larger hardback. But I was pretty sure the book I’d read hadn’t been a big thick book at all.

More trawling through the listings at Abebooks brought another edition to light. Another paperback, but with a different selection of stories – and it was issued by a British publisher. James Nisbet published the Janet and John series of early reading books, so they definitely had a connection with British schools. This was looking promising!

I ordered a copy. It turned up:

Brave and Bold

It’s called Brave and Bold (note the omission of “They Were” from the title) and the authors (although I presume in this case, editors would be the more appropriate term) are listed as Miriam Blanton Huber, Frank Seely Salisbury, and Charlotte Huber (the same editors as the other, American, editions).

I pulled the book carefully from its envelope and checked the tablet of contents:

Brave and Bold TOC

Thor! Finn! Beowulf! There was just one more thing I needed to check. I remembered that the Thor story involved the theft of Thor’s wife’s hair, and its replacement by the dwarfs with a golden wig… was that in there? If that was included, there could be no doubt.

I turned to page 87 and started reading. Yes! There it was:

“[Loki] was determined to steal the golden hair. As noiselessly as he could, and more like a thief than a god, he crept into the palace, cut off the golden locks, and carried them away.”

I read through the rest of the book. The story of Finn disguising himself as his own baby and pretending to squeeze water out of a stone – that had stuck in my mind, too. Beowulf and the dragon – that was so familiar.

Beowulf and the dragon

I’d finally found it.

Strangely, I had no recollection of the Sinbad story, or The White Cat – although my Mum had a beautiful volume of The Arabian Nights with fantastic glossy colour plates in it that I read over and over when I was young, so that may have pushed out the earlier memories of Sinbad. The White Cat is a delightful fairy tale that is apparently related to the Brothers Grimm’s Puddocky and also to The Frog Princess, but perhaps 44-year-old John appreciates it more than 7-year-old John did.

The illustrations – by Florence and Margaret Hoopes – are beautiful. From the frost-giants on the cover to Grendel on the back, through all the full-colour pictures that accompany each story, each picture fits perfectly. The Beowulf story in particular has pictures full of dynamism and energy.

I’m so glad that I’ve found this book at last. Not just for the nostalgia, but for the influence it had on me as a young reader. I must have read hundreds of books in those very early years, but this is the only one that’s stuck with me – and now I have my own copy.

Brave and Bold back

Review: The Battle of the Braes by Margaret MacPherson

The Battle of the Braes

Recently, I was thinking about some of the books that influenced me when I was younger. In particular, I was thinking about The Hill of the Red Fox, by Allan Campbell McLean, which I re-read a while back when I picked up a second-hand copy on my trip to Hay-on-Wye – it’s a book that has had a great effect on my writing, and served as a significant inspiration for The Wreck of the Argyll, my Great War Dundee Children’s Book Prize entry. It brought me to thinking of some of the other books I read when I lived in Portree on the Isle of Skye, and in particular books set on that island.

One of the books suggested to the class by my Primary 7 teacher was The Battle of the Braes, by Margaret MacPherson. It’s the fictionalised story of what is sometimes known as the last battle fought on British soil (although that probably overstates the case!) – the 1882 revolt of the crofters of Braes, just outside Portree, against the unfair practices of the landowners denying them grazing rights. The crofters withheld their rent, forced the Sheriff Officer to burn the eviction notices, then, when fifty policemen were shipped in from Glasgow, fought a pitched battle with sticks and stones before five of their number were arrested and taken to Inverness.

The book tells this story of the viewpoint of young Sam Nicolson, from one of the crofting families whose livelihoods are threatened. He takes an active part in the revolt, gets into a significant amount of trouble, and learns some lessons about the consequences of actions. Not for one moment does he ever doubt that the crofters are in the right, and at the heart of the book is the struggle between Justice and Law. Law is on the side of the landlords; according to the schoolmaster, even God is on the side of the landlords, because God is on the side of the Law; but Sam is convinced that the crofters are in the right.

The questioning of authority, and the mistrust of people who value money over communities, is still a valuable message to this day.

Margaret MacPherson herself lived on Skye (in fact, her granddaughter Lizzie was in my class in Portree) and her grasp of the cadence of Gaelic-affected speech is wonderful. There are few Gaelic words or even much in the way of dialect to get in the way of the story, but the way the dialogue is stitched together makes it absolutely clear that this is a distinct and separate culture she’s writing about.

The interweaving of the historical event with the boyish adventures of Sam works well, too. You never feel like you’re reading a history book – it’s an adventure. It just so happens that it’s an adventure that’s based on real events.

Margaret MacPherson’s books are no longer in print, but it’s worth searching them out. I got a lovely ex-library hardback in excellent condition from Abebooks, and plan on hunting down some more of her books (when I’ve got through some of my enormous tottering to-read pile).

It would be a shame for such great stories to be forgotten.

Nosy Crow Children’s Fiction Masterclass

Registration for the Nosy Crow “How to Write Children’s Fiction” Masterclass was due to start at 9:30. To make sure I wasn’t late, I booked train tickets leaving Leicester at 7am. To make sure I didn’t miss the train, I booked a taxi for 6:20am. To make sure I didn’t miss the taxi, I set my alarm for 5:10am.

Then I woke up at 3am anyway.

It’s safe to say that I was pretty excited about attending the Nosy Crow Children’s Fiction Masterclass. Excited, and a bit nervous – because as part of the course, attendees were offered a critique of a synopsis and three chapters of their work. I’d sent off a chunk of my Dundee First World War book, The Wreck of the Argyll, and it’s always nerve-wracking when someone reads my work.

Nosy Crow

I travelled down with Colin Jones, a fellow aspiring writer who works for the same company as I do, and we arrived at the Nosy Crow offices in Dickensian Lant Street just after 9am, despite making a stop at Hatchard’s bookshop in St. Pancras. They were still setting up, so we wandered off and had a coffee in the fabulous Terry’s Cafe just around the corner, where we ended up in conversation with a pair of elderly well-spoken gentlemen about Wolf Hall (“terribly good actors, but I can’t understand a word Anne Boleyn says”) and Scottish politics (“Henry VIII might have sorted out the Scots in Tudor times, but the SNP are going to hold the balance of power after the next election”) before it was time to head back to the Nosy Crow offices.

There were about 20 attendees for the class, several from London but some from further afield – I chatted to a chap who’d come down from Preston and a woman who’d come from Cumbria. (We were wearing name badges on lanyards, but for some reason they had a habit of being flipped around to show a blank face every time I looked, so apologies for not knowing anyone’s names!) The room was pretty full – I don’t think they could have squeezed any more seats in. Cosy, but not cramped.

It was a packed timetable – eight sessions, plus the critiques over lunch, with two coffee breaks, and drinks afterwards.


Kate Wilson, the Managing Director of Nosy Crow, gave a quick introduction to the day, to Nosy Crow, and to the state of the industry in general. There were graphs. Lots of graphs. Children’s fiction makes up a huge part of the market, out-performing adult fiction in a lot of ways, but most importantly, perhaps, it remains a resolutely paper-based market. While adult fiction is becoming more and more dependent on the ebook market, well over 90% of children’s books are paper. The older the book’s audience, the more important ebooks become, but still, any dreams you might have of putting your middle-grade adventure up on the Kindle store and storming the market are pretty unlikely.

Kirsty Stansfield

Kirsty Stansfield is Nosy Crow’s Fiction Editor, and she gave an editor’s perspective on writing children’s fiction. A constant source of contention is the appropriate length for middle-grade fiction – when I wrote my first two books, I looked at the lengths of books for comparable audiences, and worked out that a length of 70,000 words wouldn’t be unreasonable. How wrong I was! Kirsty said that in her experience, fiction for 8-12 year olds should be between 20,000 and 45,000 words. This is a slightly wider range than I normally see, where most people suggest 30,000 to 40,000 words, so I reckon you’re not going to go wrong sticking to the 30-40K mark.

One thing that caused some discussion was the use of strongly-gendered covers for books. There’s a strong feeling amongst many writers that we should let books be books, and not limit the audience, but from a publishing point of view there are often better returns by slapping some glitter and princesses in pretty frocks on the cover. Sometimes a book that the author might think has broad appeal might actually do better if marketed to girls – one example that Kate came up with later in the day to corroborate this was Christopher Edge’s series. The first book has a very striking cover:

Twelve Minutes to Midnight

but the feedback Nosy Crow got was that the main character was a bit too androgynous. For the second book in the series, the cover looks like this:

Shadows of the Silver Screen


with a much more feminine picture.

But this is all marketing. Writers don’t get a say in the book cover! From a writer’s point of view, what you you need to do is to make it clear what audience you’re targeting. But more importantly than that, you need to convince a very busy editor that your book is worth spending their time on. And that you, as a writer, are a sane human being with whom they can do business.

Paula Harrison

Paula Harrison is the author of the Rescue Princesses series for younger children and the Red Moon Rising series for older children. Her talk covered writing series fiction. She distinguished between series for younger readers, like Rescue Princesses, where each book is self-contained and can be read out of order because in general there’s no story arc (although there might be some elements of continuity), and series for older readers, where there’s a definite story that’s split across multiple volumes. But of course, as a fly in the ointment, even for older readers, they might pick up the books out of order, so they need to make sense on their own – this might involve a recap of the previous volumes.

Paula’s suggestion for series fiction was to write, edit, polish and submit the first book in the series, while preparing an outline for the next few – don’t write multiple volumes, as you might get a call from an editor saying “great idea, but how about if…” and then suddenly you don’t have one book to rewrite, you’ve got six…

Gemma Cooper

Gemma Cooper is an agent with The Bent Agency, and discussed the role of the agent. Gemma sees her job as managing the career of the writer, not just representing individual books. But that takes a lot of time and effort, so there’s limited opportunity for new writers to join the team. In the course of a year, Gemma will receive thousands upon thousands of submissions, and she may end up taking on only two or three new clients.

The odds are not in the writer’s favour.

So to make sure you’re not sabotaging yourself and making your odds even worse, follow the submission guidelines. Definitely don’t read the guidelines, break them, then say in your letter “I didn’t follow the guidelines because…” as there’s no way to finish that sentence without infuriating an agent.

If you can find out what the agent likes, so much the better. Not all agents publish their wishlists; in fact, some agents even make it difficult to find out who their clients are. If you’re going to compare your work to something else, you’re going to have a better chance if you don’t compare it to a blockbuster, but instead to a book that the agent represents, or that you know they like.


The morning flew past. Four sessions in the blink of an eye. I knew there had been a lot of content, though, because my fingers hurt from writing in my notebook.

The lunch break, though, seemed to last for hours. Because I was waiting for my critique session. They posted a list – Kate, Kirsty, and Gemma were all running sessions with the attendees who’d provided their three chapters, and I was on Gemma’s list. Last.

Four or five hours later (or so it seemed), I was ushered into the office to sit with Gemma. She’d gone through my sample chapters and synopsis, and provided some great advice about retaining the close third-person POV and not head-hopping into another characters POV, about breaking up the dialogue with beats, and about making sure that I kept the story rooted in the emotional reactions of the protagonist to the unfolding events: “How does this make her feel?” is Gemma’s favourite comment!

However… The Wreck of the Argyll has two intertwined stories – one with the plucky Dundonian youngsters foiling the spy plot, and the other on board HMS Argyll, where the POV character is a midshipman, not much more than a boy, on his first voyage. Gemma didn’t like the sea-based chapters, saying they were too much like YA fiction because Harry was a couple of years older than Nancy and Jamie (midshipmen were regularly 15-16 years old when they got their first berth). She said I should cut those sections out.

Which would leave me with half a book. 17,000 words.

Which is obviously not viable. Which would mean a complete rewrite. And a new ending (which is one of the bits I’m most pleased with). And… well, it would be a completely different book. I’d pretty much have to start from scratch, and maybe salvage a few bits and pieces from the original.

My confidence has taken quite a knock. After I’ve been up to Dundee for the competition result, if The Wreck of the Argyll doesn’t win (and the competition looks very strong), my intention was to shop the manuscript around agents; but it’s distinctly possible that Gemma’s objection to the Midshipman Harry Melville bits would be representative of other agents’ reactions.

So I’m not sure what to do about that. Much thought will be required.

Helen Peters

Helen Peters is the author of The Secret Hen House Theatre and its newly-published sequel The Farm Beneath the Water. Her session covered what she went through turning her original draft of Secret into a publishable form. It took years and years, draft after draft, polishing and restructuring and rewriting.

In particular, it meant being brutal with chopping out setup. Get right into the action – or as Helen put it, paraphrasing William Goldman, for each scene, get in late, get out early. Don’t build up and tail off. Maintain the tension.

I’m incredibly impressed by her tenacity, and her belief in her story – to keep working on it for so many years, she must have had such faith that it was a story that needed to be told. And it’s all been worth it – The Secret Hen House Theatre is funny, touching, exciting, and moves at a cracking pace. I’d normally never read a book like this – a girl living on a farm sets up a theatre in an old hen house? Where are the battleships? Where’s the magic? Where are the dragons? – but it’s been one of my favourite books this year, and I jumped at the chance to pick up the sequel, hot off the presses, at the Nosy Crow offices.

Ellen Renner

Ellen Renner is the author of the middle-grade fantasy books Castle of Shadows and City of Thieves, and the YA books Tribute and Outcaste. Her books are rich fantasy novels in the vein of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase – I hope she wasn’t offended when I told her I thought Castle of Shadows reminded me of Joan Aiken. I once asked Iain Banks if The Bridge had been influenced by Alasdair Gray’s Lanark – not meant as an accusation, but as a compliment.

Ellen’s talk covered world-building in fantasy, and if there’s one thing I’ll take from her talk, it was the danger of telling your readers all about this great world you’ve invented. World-building isn’t an end in itself. For J.R.R. Tolkien, the world-building really was an end in itself – he was more interested in the philology of Quenya and Sindarin than he was in telling a story. In Tolkien’s case, the story is a vehicle for the world-building, not the other way around.

Ellen contrasted this approach with the great Diana Wynne Jones, whose fantasy worlds were every bit as richly imagined, well thought out, and consistent as Tolkien’s, but who never stopped to give the reader a ten-page lecture on genealogy or etymology.

Philip Ardagh

Before the penultimate session of the day, Kate shuffled all the chairs back a couple of feet so we wouldn’t get a crick in our necks looking up at Philip Ardagh. Six foot eight with a beard like W.G. Grace’s more hirsute brother, he commands attention when he walks into the room – then he proceeds to crack everyone up laughing. He can’t help it. He’s naturally funny – and this comes across in his writing.

Philip’s session was primarily (and I say primarily, because one of the other themes was, arguably, poo) about authorial voice. When the first Eddie Dickens book, Awful End, was about to be published, Philip was told that he could have 44 illustrations, and could he specify which bits he wanted illustrated, please?

Illustration number 1 – Philip Ardagh:

Philip Ardagh

Why? Because in the Eddie Dickens books, the narrator, the authorial voice, is as much a character as Eddie Dickens or Malcolm the Stuffed Stoat.

For a funny, larger-than-life character like Mr Ardagh, this is ideal. His voice comes across in his fiction – he makes you laugh when he’s in the room, and he makes you laugh when you read his books.

But no-one wants to listen to a boring middle-aged Scottish technical author, so I’m going to have to make do with the voices that belong to my characters.

Kate Wilson

The final session of the day was led by Kate, who gave us a presentation on what she saw as the role of the publisher – all the jobs that a publisher does, from number one, most importantly, paying the author, right through to making sure the warehouse roof is kept clean of decomposing pigeons.

Kate is energetic, driven, and committed to honesty and transparency in her business. If you ask her where the money goes, she’ll tell you. (It’s usually on cheese and Minstrels.) You can see why authors want to work with Nosy Crow – it’s a small publisher making a big impact and trying to do things right.

By the end of the day, my head was full to bursting. I had a notebook full of scribblings, my annotated chapters from Gemma, and a couple of new books from the Nosy Crow shelves, graciously signed by Philip and Helen. (Ellen signed a copy of Castle of Shadows for me, too – she doesn’t have any books out with Nosy Crow yet, so I had to bring this one from home.)

Colin and I missed our tube stop at King’s Cross St. Pancras because we were so engrossed in conversation talking about the day, but we made it onto the train. Which then got stuck outside Leicester because of a signal failure. I made it home at about 11pm, about twenty hours after I woke up that morning.

It’s going to take a while to process everything I learned. The whole day really was an incredible experience that I wouldn’t have missed for the world, and I’m grateful to all involved for sharing their expertise.

I don’t know if Nosy Crow will be running any more of these courses (apart from the forthcoming sister masterclass focusing on picture books) but if you ever get the chance to attend one, grab it with both hands.

Just try to get a decent night’s sleep first.

Review: Five Children on the Western Front by Kate Saunders

Five Children on the Western Front

Five Children on the Western Front, by Kate Saunders, is a modern sequel to the Psammead books by E. Nesbit, which began with the classic Five Children and It. It moves time on a few years from the original books; it is now the beginning of the Great War, and the children, some of whom are now more-or-less grown up, find that their lives are dominated by the war.

The Psammead, or sand fairy, the “It” of the title, who in the original book was a grumpy wish-granting imp who lived in a gravel pit, encounters the children again; but things have changed. The children are older; the baby, known as the Lamb, is now a boy, and there’s even a new little sister, Edie. But more importantly, the Psammead is no longer in control of his magic, and can’t indulge the children’s whims. Instead, his magic is guided by something else… something that appears to be guiding him towards repentance for his past. Each bit of magic shows the children something of the war, and casts light on the Psammead’s history.

This is a book with a great deal of humour, mostly arising from the grumpy Psammead and his somewhat shaky grasp of modern life. It’s also a book with rich mythology behind it, with the investigations into the Psammead’s time as a desert god (a vindictive and nasty desert god) many thousands of years before.

It’s also a book that looks at the changing social attitudes of the early years of the 20th century, particularly in the form of the young working class soldier and scholar Ernie.

But most of all, it’s a story about loss, and the horrors of war. Cyril goes from a young, naive Lieutenant looking forward to the adventure of war, glad that he’s got the opportunity to see some action before it’s all over, to a grim-faced veteran writing good-bye letters every time he goes over the top. The book does not shy from the deaths and crippling injuries that the war produced. While there are no graphic descriptions of injuries, there’s enough horror to upset a child. Hell, I’m 44, and there was enough to upset me.

But it’s not something children should be shielded from. I do worry that this is one of those children’s books that’s mostly read by adults who’ve read the original and seen the glowing reviews and prizes that have been heaped – deservedly – on the book. Because that would be a waste. It’s a book that children should read, and maybe cry over, and then talk to a parent or a teacher about.

If there’s one small criticism I have, it’s that book depicts the effects of war as almost entirely physical rather than psychological. People are horribly maimed and yet stay almost relentlessly cheerful. But then, a depiction of shell shock and other psychological horrors in the vein of Pat Barker’s Regeneration would perhaps be a step too far for a children’s book.

Kate Saunders has written a rich, layered, beautiful and terribly sad book. Highly recommended.

New Year Status Report 2015

I did one of these status reports on each of my projects last year, and I think it’s a useful thing for me to evaluate my progress (or lack thereof!) on an annual basis.

The Chimney Rabbit

My first completed book. After being sent to 27 agents and publishers, it received just one request from an agent who was interested enough to read the full manuscript, but has now been shelved indefinitely.

The Chimney Rabbit and the Underground Mice

A direct sequel to The Chimney Rabbit, written in naivety and optimism. Will never see the light of day.

Tales of the Ancient Rabbits

A stand-alone prequel to The Chimney Rabbit. Sent around agents and submitted to one competition, didn’t get anywhere. I didn’t shelf it immediately, because it became:

The Panopticon Papers

A rebranded version of Tales of the Ancient Rabbits, with the action transposed to an alternate history of the real world instead of a fantasy world, and with human characters instead of anthropomorphic animals. Sent around agents, didn’t get anywhere. Submitted to the Bloomsbury/National Literacy Trust competition, and actually made it onto the longlist of 25, but didn’t make it onto the shortlist. I think this one has run its course.

The Dragon on the Tower

A story of northern Scotland in the Dark Ages, featuring a Pictish girl and her dragon friend. I’m not particularly happy with this one, so it’s currently sitting in a virtual drawer until I feel like I’ve got a handle on what I can do to rewrite it. Still needs a better title.

The Wreck of the Argyll

A story of plucky Dundonian youngsters foiling a First World War plot by German spies, set against the real-life wreck of the Royal Navy armoured cruiser HMS Argyll on the reef off Bell Rock Lighthouse in 1915. This was written specifically for the Great War Dundee Children’s Book Prize, and to my delight it was one of three books shortlisted. I’m travelling up to Dundee in March to see if it has won. If it doesn’t win (and the competition looks pretty strong indeed) I’ll be sending this book out to as many publishers and agents as I can as soon as I get back from Dundee.

My Dragon Has No Nose

My work-in-progress novel, currently sitting at about 27,000 words out of an estimated 33-35,000, featuring a singing and dancing music-hall dragon in 1890s Edinburgh. This is a bit of a fun project that I don’t have any real plans for – The Wreck of the Argyll is taking up all of my attention for the next six months at least, I’d say – but I get itchy typing fingers when I’m not writing, so I didn’t have much choice.

Best of 2014 part three: Adult books

This is the third and final part of my round-up of the books I’ve enjoyed most in 2014. See my posts on the best comics and best children’s books for the first two parts.

As with children’s books this year, I’ve read an awful lot of great general fiction. But after a lot of careful consideration, I whittled the list down to the five books that I’ve enjoyed the most. Perhaps not the best books, but “best” and “most enjoyable” aren’t synonyms, are they? The latest Haruki Murakami was excellent, and by any objective standards would probably get a place on this list, but in the context of his oeuvre it fell slightly flat, so it didn’t quite make it.
So finally I came up with my five. Well, six, if you count the two books in the same series I lumped together.

Then my partner gave me The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber for our anniversary. I finished it this morning, and after pondering it all day, I don’t see how I can leave it off the list. But then again, I don’t want to drop No. 5 from my list either, as I really, really enjoyed those books.

So here are my top 6 adult books of 2014. My gaff, my rules.

No. 6 – Where the Devil Can’t Go/Death Can’t Take a Joke, by Anya Lipska

Where the Devil Can't GoDeath Can't Take a Joke

I don’t read an awful lot of crime – the occasional Ian Rankin, I suppose, and the triumvirate of supernatural crime Ben Aaronovitch, Paul Cornell, and James Oswald, if they count – so I’m not entirely sure how I came across Where the Devil Can’t Go by Anya Lipska on the Kindle store, nor what possessed me to buy it. It’s just one of those serendipitous events, I suppose. See, it can still happen in the digital age! This book, along with its sequel Death Can’t Take a Joke, feature Janusz Kiszka, a sort of private investigator and unofficial “fixer” for London’s Polish community, and Natalie Kershaw, a rookie Detective Constable in the Metropolitan Police. They attack the same case from completely different angles, meeting at tangents and bouncing off each other. The crime investigations are well constructed, the characters sharply realised, the dialogue vivid and evocative, and the setting just that little bit different from the metropolitan norm. The comic relief is provided by Kiszka’s friend Oskar, who provides some genuinely laugh-out-loud moments. My only problem is that I wish there was a guide to Polish pronunciation in the back – I often heave a sigh of relief when Kershaw messes up a Polish word and Kiszka corrects her phonetically! Amazon list a third book in the series coming next year, which is great news.

(Edit – I am informed that the print edition of Death Can’t Take a Joke does in fact contain the very guide I was looking for, and Ms Lipska is looking into getting it included in the electronic edition.)

No. 5 – Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl, by David Barnett

Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl

Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl is a pulp adventure set in a steampunk alternate history, where the British Empire covers three-quarters of the globe, airships sail the skies, and Lucian Trigger, Hero of the Empire, has his tales of derring-do immortalised in penny dreadfuls. Inspired by these stories, when Gideon Smith finds out that his father is lost at sea, and supernatural forces seem to be at work, he sets off from Yorkshire to track down help. On his journey he encounters Maria, the mechanical girl of the title, and his adventures only get stranger from then on. It’s a cracking read, reminiscent of the pulp adventures of the past injected with a modern sensibility. Various characters from history and literature crop up from time to time; the Bram Stoker and Elizabeth Bathory subplot is especially entertaining. The second in the series, Gideon Smith and the Brass Dragon, is on my “to-read” list, and the third, Gideon Smith and the Mask of the Ripper, is due out in 2015.

No. 4 – Toad Words, by T. Kingfisher

Toad Words

T. Kingfisher is the pseudonym of Ursula Vernon, a writer and artist probably best known for winning the Hugo for her comic Digger in 2012. Under the Kingfisher brand, she’s put out three self-published books: Nine Goblins, a comic subversion of fantasy, which I read last year and thoroughly enjoyed, Toad Words, a collection of short stories, and The Seventh Bride, a fairy tale re-telling of the Bluebeard story, where a new wife-to-be tries to avoid the fate of her predecessors. All three are excellent, and show her wonderful facility with myth and fairy tale. By their very nature, short story collections can be uneven, but each story in this collection works for its place. The highlight has to be “Boar and Apples”, a new take on the Snow White story that seemingly does the impossible by making this most familiar of stories seem fresh and original.

No. 3 – The Book of Strange New Things, by Michel Faber

The Book of Strange New Things

Michel Faber writes an awful lot of science fiction and fantasy while still managing to be shelved in the general fiction section of the bookshop. I’m not quite sure how he does it, and given that The Book of Strange New Things features space travel, an alien world, and alien creatures, I’m completely at a loss as to why it doesn’t appear in the Science Fiction section. I suppose you could make the argument that the book isn’t about aliens and alien worlds, exactly, but is about Christianity, but that never stopped bookshops from placing Michael Moorcock’s Behold the Man in the sci-fi section, so I think we just have to chalk this up to the irrationalities of the book trade.

Peter Leigh is a Christian pastor who is recruited by a faceless corporation for a mission to an alien world. The inhabitants there have demanded a missionary, and after undergoing a long series of evaluations, Peter fits the bill. He leaves behind his wife, Bea, and tries to adapt to life both in the outpost and in the aliens’ encampment. He finds a group of aliens who are desperate to hear about Christianity, so he sets about making the bible (which the aliens call the “book of strange new things”) intelligible to them. His only method of communicating with his wife is through the Shoot, an ansible-like device that allows only the intergalactic version of email, but the messages he receives give him no comfort as his wife tells him about the slow mundane collapse of civilisation on Earth.

Peter’s faith is treated sympathetically, but you can’t help feel that his religion has betrayed the aliens when the reason for their fascination with the book of strange new things is revealed.
Is it a criticism of religion, that offers wonders then says “ah, but, that’s a metaphor” or offers healing then says “but only if God wills it”, or is it a criticism of literal-minded people who can’t see the functional difference between a universe where God works in mysterious ways and a universe in which God doesn’t exist at all? I don’t know, but it’s a fascinating book that provides plenty of food for thought.

No. 2 – The Slow Regard of Silent Things, by Patrick Rothfuss

The Slow Regard of Silent Things

Patrick Rothfuss is best known for his epic fantasy series The Kingkiller Chronicles, which to date comprises two mammoth tomes The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear. The Slow Regard of Silent Things is set in the same world, and is a novella featuring one of the subsidiary characters from the series. It possibly wouldn’t make an awful lot of sense if you hadn’t read the other two books, but at the same time it’s completely different in tone and in style. It’s a poetic meditation on the troubled and singular Auri, who lives in the abandoned passages beneath the university where much of the other books takes place. The language is lyrical, there is no dialogue, there is no plot other than the machinations within Auri’s own head and her struggles to impose order on the chaos of her inner universe. From the reviews I’ve read, it’s a book that either touches you or doesn’t, with very little in between, although the way in which it touches people seems to vary. For me, it was the way that Auri imposes personality and character on inanimate objects – it was a tendency I had when I was younger, and although it’s faded with age and time, it struck a chord with me. Very much a Marmite book, but if it reaches you, it can have quite an effect.

No 1 – City of Saints and Madmen, by Jeff VanderMeer

City of Saints and Madmen

Where do you start with this book? City of Saints and Madmen is a vast, ornate, baroque, monster of a novel. If novel it is, because it’s formed of disjointed novellas, short stories, histories, appendices, letters, and glossaries that together build up a picture of Ambergris, a city of horrors and wonders, where mushrooms and giant squid have a hold on the imagination and minds of mankind, and there are rather more madmen than saints. The city’s history is hinted at, with recurrent threads tying the whole thing together, so that the whole is very much more than a sum of its parts.

Some of the individual pieces would be fascinating and entertaining pieces of fiction on their own, but its only when taken together, with all of their reinforcing motifs, that the whole picture emerges. Not that you’ll ever know everything about Ambergris, no indeed – there are mysteries that will never be explained – but the city seeps into your imagination. In terms of scope and ambition, I can only compare it to a work like Alasdair Gray’s Lanark, which is probably the highest compliment I can pay a work of imaginative fiction.

I’ve just finished Annihilation, the first volume in Mr VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, and while it’s a very different book in tone and style, Area X is definitely the wilderness counterpart to the city of Ambergris. I’m going to evaluate the trilogy as a whole when I’ve completed all three books – I’m willing to bet that it finds a place on my 2015 top books.

Check back in a year to see if I was right.