Conventions, Fangirling, and Secrets of the Green Room

This year I was thrilled (and when I say thrilled, I mean bricking it) to be on panels at YALC (the Young Adult Literature Convention in London) and DeptCon4 (the biggest YA convention in Ireland, organised by Easons’ Department 51).

I have a notoriously bad sense of direction, but I made it to DeptCon without getting lost!

Things I’ve learned from Lit Conventions:

  • Waiting to go on is worse than being on.
  • Your editor will be completely sympathetic about your nerves. She’s probably a shy, bookish type herself.
  • Every writer has a publicist/press officer following them around and looking after them at events, like a dæmon in His Dark Materials. It’s so cool. I had one too, but she was there to look after way more important Walker writers than me.
  • The Green Room is where the authors wait to go on stage. It’s full of snacks but you will be too nervous to eat them.
  • Don’t even think about going to a YA event if you don’t know what Hogwarts House you’re in. Just do the test. (Hufflepuff rules! In an unobtrusive way.)

YALC was a three-day whirlwind of frenetic teenage energy in an overheated hall on the floor above ComicCon. Several of the stars at ComicCon came up to wander through our floor, causing quite a stir (I saw Kahl Drogo from Game of Thrones!) Apparently last year Benedict Cumberbatch came up several times. I’d definitely have fangirled him.

Flying Tips beside Julie Mayhew’s amazing The Electrical Venus!

So I got to go to London for 3 days, and hang out with my editors, who are just so lovely I get a little bit emotional about it. I was so well looked after.

The Walker booth

My lovely editors. Emily has actually been on a trapeze. I am so jealous.

I took some time off on Saturday to visit Kew Gardens because I am a huge garden geek and I’d never been there before. I decided I’d just go for a couple of hours. In fact, I arrived just as they opened, and they had to throw me out at closing time. It’s huge! The best bit was there was a guy doing a trapeze act in the roof of the temperate glasshouse! Serendipitous or what? No safety net, no protective gear, my heart was in my mouth.

Magical

 

My YALC panel was on Sunday and included Hayley Barker, Christina Henry and Julie Mayhew, who have all written amazing circus-related books that were a joy to read. I felt very honoured to be on their panel. I was a little nervous but Hayley was a fantastic panel moderator and made the whole thing a breeze. I’d told my editor that if I froze on stage she was to jump up, point in the opposite direction, and shout, ‘Look! Benedict Cumberbatch!’ but fortunately the need did not arise. There was a rumour we were going to have to lead a singalong of This is Me from The Greatest Showman but all four of us decided that our talents lie in other areas and no one needed to hear us sing. Phew.

Books from my panel. I highly recommend all of them.

Julie, me, Christina and Hayley, all feeling relieved we don’t have to sing.

My YALC haul. And I was on a plane home!

DeptCon4 was a two-day event, a bit like YALC, with panels and signings. This year had 10 panels (plus a DnD sesh) featuring about 35 writers.

My panel included the wonderful Simon James Green and Sebastien de Castell, and was chaired by Katherine Webber (there was much fangirling).

You could tell I was the newbie writer because:

  • I went to all of the panels (except the DnD because it was either eat or faint at that point)
  • I took notes
  • I brought all my books and asked people to sign them in the green room
  • I was shamelessly fangirling all over the place

If you think I’m exaggerating about the fangirling, here’s a brief resume of my long history of embarrassing myself in front of writers I admire:

  • Marilynne Robinson had to tell me to stop asking questions so someone else could ask one.
  • George Saunders had to introduce himself to me because I couldn’t speak.
  • Roddy Doyle agreed to read my book (possibly to get rid of me).
  • Susin Nielsen probably thinks I’m a crazy stalker after I ran up to her on the street in the dark yelling, ‘Oh wow, you’re Susin Nielsen!’ Which she probably already knew.

Fangirling Susin Nielsen, my FAV YA writer! She was so lovely.

I am very shy, and I deal with this by either gushing at jetlagged writers in a hyper manner or running away to eat crisps in the hotel instead of hanging out in the green room with the cool people. But I did make it to the pub this time and managed to chat to a few of my heroes.

And it turns out, the things writers say on their panels are only nearly as interesting as the things they say in the pub afterwards. I was so inspired I scribbled down notes (when I got back to the hotel, I’m not a complete loser. And I didn’t have a pen).

So I’m going to give you a list of the helpful things they said. I’m not going to ascribe names, (because I didn’t ask anyone if I could quote them and also I wouldn’t be quoting word for word, these are just my summaries) but they came from the likes of Susin Nielsen, Deidre Sullivan, Tina Callaghan, Sebastien de Castell, Juno Dawson, Simon James Green, Brian Conaghan, Louise O’Neill, Tom Pollock and Patrick Ness. Some of them came from conversations in the pub, and some were things people said in panels.

  • The book I’m publishing next was started 6 years ago. Never throw anything out.
  • Be kind to yourself, ignore the mean voice in your head.
  • You must have a conflict engine in each act. Something that generates conflict after conflict.
  • Don’t give up today because tomorrow could be the day it happens.
  • I’ve never written two books in the same way.
  • Sometimes you have to abandon things but never throw them out, you can come back to them later.
  • It gets harder with every book.
  • I hate prizes, even when I win. It’s best to ignore everything that’s written about you.
  • Your book should have things in it that you didn’t know were there, that come out as if by magic when you’re done, because the whole is more than the sum of its parts. But if you plan it all to death and try to fit it to a formula, you won’t get those bits. You’ll probably delete them before you’re done because they don’t fit the plan.
  • Writing a sequel can be a good way to avoid second book syndrome because you don’t have to fall in love with new characters. But then your third book will be your second book.
  • Get feedback on your work before you send it out. Learn to ask for help.
  • Be resilient. Do something else that’s creative when you’re stuck, don’t force it.
  • You write your first book not knowing how to write a book. Then you think, ‘I’m a proper writer now, I should start learning about writing,’ so you read up on craft and story theory and you try to make book two fit a formula and it doesn’t work.
  • Don’t let them cast 31 year olds to play the 16 year olds in the film of your book.
  • It’s not fair that American books dominate the market.
  • The work is the antidote for everything.
  • Anyone can start a book. Writers finish them. If you’re obsessively going back over the first three chapters, stop. Finish the book.
  • Talent is almost irrelevant. It’s more important to enjoy it enough to do the work to make it good.
  • Perfectionism is the enemy of creativity.
  • If you believe the good stuff that’s said about you, you have to believe the bad, so it’s best to ignore it all.
  • Write a story, not a sermon. The things you care about will come out in the story. If they don’t, you’re writing the wrong story.
  • I had 217 rejections in 10 years before my first book was published.
  • If your shoe has a hole in it, and it’s raining, wear the hotel shower cap over your sock.

 

 

Rubber Duck Writing

Several months and 30,000 words into my WIP, I have changed the plot and minor characters so often I’m losing track of which version I’m on and who’s who and why’s he doing that and what’s she so annoyed about? It’s like watching complicated Scandinavian Noir with your granny.

And because I don’t talk about what I’m writing with anyone, all this confusion is going on in the cramped space between my ears. The inside of my head feels like an overwhelmingly large Word Doc with no scroll bar.

The reasons I don’t talk to anyone about what I’m writing include any and all of the following:

  1. They’ll say, ‘I absolutely love it, I can’t wait until it’s finished! When will it be finished! Is it finished yet?’
  2. They’ll say, ‘That sounds really… interesting!’
  3. I get so confused trying to tell them what it’s about before I even know myself what it’s about that I don’t do it justice and it’s just really really embarrassing and I have to publicly burn the manuscript so no one thinks I’m wasting my time on this rubbish.
  4. I tell it so brilliantly we all cry at the ending and they agree it’s the best story ever, and has solved many of their life’s problems and will stay with them forever and I go home and sell my laptop because the story’s been told now and I’m bored of it.
  5. I hate wasting a potential beta-reader on a rambling brainstorm, when I could get them to read the finished draft and give me a valuable first impression.
  6. Superstition. For every muse, there is a small evil demon waiting to jinx you.

Which is all very well, but when you’re crawling the walls of your own brain, you need some sort of outlet. I explained this dilemma to my computer programmer husband, who told me about Rubber Duck Programming.

– ‘You can program rubber ducks?! Doesn’t the bath water affect the computer chips?’

– ‘I can’t tell if you’re kidding.’

– ‘Of course, I’m kidding! I’m so kidding! Honestly.’

Apparently programmers keep a rubber duck on their desks (nestled among the diet coke cans) and when something goes wrong with a program they get the duck out and explain the problem to it. Just putting it into words helps them think things through without the pressure/necessity of talking to an actual human being, and they’ll often come up with a solution in the course of the conversation. (I don’t know if you’re supposed to do the duck voice or if he’s just a silent partner.)

Presumably you don’t have to actually be in the bath, but it probably helps

This is basic common sense really. If you can’t figure out the solution to something, it’s quite possible that you just don’t really understand the problem. Being forced to put the problem into words can be illuminating. This is exactly why people do team work.

Thing is…

Writers do NOT do team work. And while we think we’re working logically through our problems all the time, in our own heads, in fact we’re probably skimming over the bits we can’t put into words and going on feelings a lot rather than articulating it. We have no one to point out the fact that we’re making no sense whatsoever.

Anyway, it was worth a shot. I don’t own a rubber duck so I made an origami crane and used that.

I call him Frasier

Yes, I felt completely ridiculous at first. I’m not the sort of person who talks out loud to themselves, ever. I try to avoid talking out loud to other people too. But after a while I stopped noticing I was doing it. And when I came back to my room after lunch I found myself going, ‘And another thing…’

It was great because there was no pressure to make sense, and poor Frasier did not once look at me with less than complete confidence that I would get there.

In conclusion, Frasier crane was probably the most sympathetic listener I’ve ever had, and he actually did help me figure out the role of one of my characters. So I’m recommending this trick and I would definitely try it again.

Not in a coffee shop or anything.

Launched!

If the publication of Flying Tips left me feeling sad because I was going to miss the characters, the launch party was the complete opposite. I can honestly say I’ve never been to a more upbeat event in my life! Probably the experience was different for me than for anyone else in the room (to me it was mad blur) but in the words of the people who were there it was ‘Joyous’, ‘Super Fun and cool’ ‘just gorgeous’, ‘fantastic’, ‘wonderful’, ‘the most colourful book launch EVER’ and the Crescent Arts Centre have publicly decreed: ‘From now on, book launches in the Crescent have to come with a ukulele band!’ (It was on Twitter, that’s legally binding).

Here are some of the highlights:

My sister is possibly the most useful person I know. And the complete opposite of me. She came round my house on Sunday afternoon armed with more makeup than I’ve ever seen in my life, laughed at all of mine (because it fits in one tiny makeup bag), and then proceeded to re-enact that scene from Miss Congeniality where they transform Sandra Bullock from a take-out ordering slob into a beauty queen. Seriously, there were eyelash tweezers and something called ‘primer’. She looked a little bit horrified when she asked for my hairbrush and I said I wasn’t sure I owned one.

We had a themed ‘Circus Concessions’ table with free red noses, popcorn, circus ribbons, pinwheels, sweets, shortbread (made by my mum), wine, juice and a CIRCUS CAKE!!! (made by my mum and sister as a surprise that I didn’t know about until they arrived!) The circus stuff was mostly my sister’s idea too. I was going for low-key; she was having none of it.

Soon everyone was arriving and I was basically hugging people and then running away to hug more people. I wish I’d had more time to talk to everyone, especially people I hadn’t seen in a while (there were people I hadn’t seen since HIGH SCHOOL! and I was so touched that they came).

We had an old suitcase full of circus toys for the kids (and big kids) to play with.

Because there is no situation in life that can’t be turned into an opportunity to promote joining the circus.

Apparently I vastly underestimated the awesomeness of the people in my life, and  the room quickly ran out of seats, space and wine glasses!

We started the proceedings by having someone techie put up a projection of the book cover on the wall.

My husband said this was his favourite bit of the night because when the cover went up the whole audience spontaneously cheered! I’ve been thanking people for their support for days, and all that support felt very real at the launch. People told me they were in nerves for me all day because they knew I’d be nervous. And they’re almost as pleased as I am to see this book published, because they’ve been rooting for me all along.

One of the most talented writers in Belfast , Jan Carson, introduced me like I was on This is Your Life with details that made me sound way more awesome than I actually am.

She had Show and Tell props that included a knitted hot water bottle, a ukulele, a bottle of Shloer and candles in the shape of cactuses. In a weird way, this does kind of sum up my life.

I made a speech thanking a long list of people and read a little bit from my book.

I am a nervous public speaker and this was my largest audience ever but it actually went well! I liked having a podium to hide behind. Maybe that makes all the difference.

Then I played a few songs with a group of 30+ ukulele enthusiasts while the audience sang along.

I think this was the highlight of the night for everyone! The thing is, you could play that Anne Hathaway song from Les Mis on a ukulele and it would sound chirpy. There’s just no way to be sad with a tiny 4-stringed guitar in the room. The wonderful Belfast Ukulele Jam are amazing, I love these guys so much! I play with them on Tuesday nights at the Sunflower Bar and they offered to play at the launch just to support me. They’re the nicest, maddest, sunniest people in Belfast and you couldn’t ask for better friends.

The Ukulele Jam played on while people drank more wine and I signed books  and my 4 year old nephew danced like a lunatic at the front of the room to every song.

I had a serious case of signature-anxiety because I’m left handed and am well known for my appalling handwriting but this went OK. My fav moment was when a kid from the Belfast Circus School came up to get one signed and I was totally star-struck! These people are my heroes.

And that was it – book officially launched!

Truly surprising moments are rare in life but this was one. I’ve spent the last couple of months feeling awkward about asking people to take a Sunday night out of their lives to make a fuss and a flap over my book. It’s not like I go to celebratory events every time they do a great proposal in a meeting or make a big sale in work. I honestly felt weird about making a big deal of it, like who would really be interested? (TBH I felt the same about asking people to come to my wedding – it could be this is just me)

But, much like my wedding, I spent the whole night just feeling overwhelmed by the love in the room. I was amazed by how many people turned up and how happy they were for me. You only do a first book launch once and I’m so pleased with the memories I’ll be taking away from mine. I was truly touched and I came home feeling very grateful and very blessed and very very happy.

Wow, this got mushy.

So basically what I’m saying is, if you’re going to have a book launch, you can throw as much wine and circus prop-ery at it as you like, but all you really need is the people you love there (and a ukulele band, obvs).

 

Some red noses in action:

 

  

        

Some thoughts on Publication Day

It’s my Book Birthday!

When I was a kid I had three big dreams:

  • To be a writer
  • To own a VW Campervan
  • To marry the weird, funny boy in my primary school class

Done, done and done.

So my thoughts today are mainly gratitude. I feel very very lucky, not only that this book has happened but that it has happened in conjunction with such lovely people. I feel very lucky to have such a brilliant agent, publisher and editors, not to mention all the writer friends who have supported me in getting here and put up with my whinging about problems that are really very nice problems to have.

My lovely editor sent me this in the post today!

A trapeze clown! He does tricks! Cutest thing ever.

The bit where my advance copies arrived in the post!

Taa-Dah!

So it’s a real thing in the real world at last, instead of just existing in my head! That’s both very wonderful and very weird.

I’m looking forward to the launch party next week, but after that I guess Finch and Birdie will be on their own in the big wide world and I’ll have to get on with writing the next one and falling in love with my new characters, which is a bit like when you go to a new school and have to make completely new friends but you kinda don’t want to because you miss your old ones. It’s hard, but it can also end up being wonderful.

So I hope you enjoy Flying Tips! I had so much fun writing it and today I’m both happy and sad that it’s finished.

 

Flying Tips – The Launch Party!

 

My inner 6-year-old always knew this day would come (the rest of me had her doubts) and here it is! Please consider this your invitation to a wee celebration of the launch of my first ever novel! It’s been an adventure and a dream come true for me, and I’d love to round it all off with a bit of a shindig!

We’ll be launching Flying Tips for Flightless Birds in The Crescent Arts Centre on Sunday 11th March at 7.30pm.

We’ll have an introduction from the fabulous Jan Carson, a short reading from me, wine, snacks and maybe even a singalong with the hardest working band in Belfast – The Belfast Ukulele Jam! (Bring your ukes and join in!)

No Alibis are kindly providing the books. There’s no pressure to buy one at all, but if you were going to, please do support an independent bookshop and get them from David at the launch.

This is an open event, so please spread the word, and it’s child-friendly, so don’t worry about babysitters, just bring your little clowns along (circus costumes positively encouraged!).

 

Flying Tips for Clueless Birds

After 30 years of being too shy to tell anyone that I write, turns out I’m a bit useless at responding to questions about it. Generally I feel like I’m, at best, confusing whoever I’m talking to and, at worst, flailing around like someone who was quite obviously lying when she said, ‘yeah, I’m a writer.’

Actually, ask me about writing and I’ll talk until you literally beg me to stop (won’t take long). But people don’t ask about writing – why would they ask about something that essentially involves staring at a screen, being rejected a lot and occasionally crying into a lukewarm cup of tea? You might as well work in a call centre.

They ask about publishing. And I’m afraid, in the case of the debut novelist, that’s like asking someone how to fly a plane because they were once in a Heathrow Airport coffee shop.

I’ve been a long-time subscriber to a writing magazine called Mslexia, which features articles about writing and articles about publishing. And I have to admit that until recently, I completely skipped over anything to do with publishing. It seemed pretty dull, stressful, and not something I’d ever have to worry about.

Stuff happened, and now here I am, reading emails from my editor and having to google every other word (ARCs? Proofs? Roughs? Line edits? Interiors? Wha?) So I’m learning as I go, and since people seem interested enough to ask about it, I thought I’d write a blog post along the lines of ‘Things you vaguely wanted to know about publishing but were afraid to ask…’

First off, when I was a guest at Sharon Dempsey’s fantastic Young Scribbler’s group at the Crescent Arts Centre recently, one of the kids asked “What’s the most surprising thing about being published?” (Excellent question).

I said it was the sheer number of people involved. A while back, my adorably clueless parents asked when my book would be out.

Me: Next March
Mum: Next March! What’s taking so long?
Dad: Have you typed it all into the computer?

Not even kidding. But actually a lot of people probably assume it’s just a case of you sending off a word doc and the publisher warming up the photocopier. To be honest, I never knew how complicated it is either. But here’s what happens:

  • Write book.
  • Send to literary agents and get rejected a billion times. Repeat until you secure agent.
  • Agent suggests some changes to manuscript (MS), which you make and send back.
  • Agent sends book to publishers for Round 2 of rejection. Apparently a whole team of editors has to like the book before they’ll accept it.
  • One of the publishers makes an offer (Yay!) and you run for a pen to sign the contract.
  • Agent says, ‘Whoa, not so fast,’ and there’s a bit of back and forth on legal terms you don’t understand.
  • Contract is signed and publication date set for 1-2 years away. They finally go for 2 because they want to hit the ‘Summer Romance market’. (No one who’s met you believes you are a summer romance writer. Angry crime noir surely?).

This is not my novel

  • In the meantime, editor sends you ‘cover roughs’ by a very talented cover designer and asks your opinion. You try to give an analytical and considered response while basically doing this…

Cos it’s so pretty!

  • Marketing people send you a big questionnaire to find out if your life is interesting enough to get in a newspaper or something. It’s not.
  • You set up social media accounts and a website because that’s what you’re supposed to do, you read it in a magazine.
  • Editor sends you the ‘Big Edit’. This is her notes on how the novel can be improved. It may mean enormous structural changes and will feature a tiny stab in the heart on every single page of your baby. This is especially hard because she’s right about EVERYTHING. You send MS back with your changes.
  • Line Editor sends you the line edit, featuring more minor changes. You send MS back with your changes.
  • Copy Editor sends you the copy edit, featuring downright pedantry over commas and typos and other things us artsy types shouldn’t be expected to concern ourselves with. You send MS back with your changes.

  • 6 months before publication, publisher produces ARCs (advance review copies) or ‘Proofs’ of the book and sends these out to book bloggers, reviewers and other writers, hoping someone will read it and provide a cool review quote.

It’s an actual real thing!

  • You start reading at literary events to get some practice in because you have a suspicion you’ll be rubbish at this and you have a horror of letting all these publishing boffins down after all the work they’ve put in.
  • You meet Roddy Doyle and beg him to read your book.

My goodness, Roddy Doyle is a nice man

  • Editor sends you ‘interiors’. This is a print out of the actual pages of the book. You send back with your changes.

I took a photo. It seemed momentous

  • The publisher’s PR person invites you to a training day on book promotion.

On my way to the Big City

…where I found my book in impressive company

  • Editor sends email with some more small changes to consider.  You send back with your changes. Repeat several times.
  • Get Final Final Final cover and interiors through and make small changes while hyperventilating because this is your last chance to make it brilliant before they say ‘Pens down, please.’
  • Realise book is out in less than 2 months and you haven’t planned a launch party.

And that’s where we’re up to. Except that, alongside all of this, you’re trying to write book 2!

I am no longer surprised it’s taken 2 years from contract to publication and why there are so many people involved. In fact, I’m impressed they’ve done it all so fast.