Magical Students of Blue Secrets

I’ve just moved into a new flat this week and I’m not sure how long it will take to get an internet connection sorted. I’d hate to leave you high and dry so while I’m either offline or up to my eyeballs in unpacking and too preoccupied to get to the computer, you can have some fun with this novel title generator.

Two of the ten suggestions it came up with for my novel are Magical Students of Blue Secrets and The Dancing Truth. You laugh now but if I don’t think of anything better,  a manuscript with one of those titles is going to land up on some poor agent’s desk one day.  That would probably ensure that my submission went on a fast track to the slushpile.

Kate Atkinson – Edinburgh Book Festival 2009

My first impression as I enter Charlotte Square Gardens, the location of the Edinburgh Book Festival, is how solid the marquees are. It’s hard to believe that this world of bookshops, cafés, and theatres, populated by authors and readers alike, exists only temporarily. In a few weeks time I will walk by the empty square where I once heard some of my favourite authors speak and wonder where that world disappeared to.

The first event that I attend at the Book Festival is a Meet the Author session with Kate Atkinson. A hush descends on the packed theatre when she walks in. She is introduced as a writer of novels with plots “fabulously intertwined in a way that only Kate Atkinson can make work.” This is why I love her books and I hope that today she will give us an insight into how she constructs such cleverly interwoven stories.

The static-like sound of rain pattering on the roof of the marquee provides a soft background percussion as Atkinson reads aloud from her most recent novel, When Will There Be Good News? I am struck by how humorous the narrative is. Atkinson’s intonation and well timed pauses garner the audience’s chuckles. When I read the novel myself, I took it very seriously. It’s surprising how differently two people can interpret the same piece of text: it’s only now when I hear the words spoken aloud in the author’s own voice that I recognise the comedic moments that were there all along. The section that Atkinson reads from contains my favourite description from the novel: “Her left eye was bloodshot as if a red star had exploded in her brain.” I scribbled it down in my notebook when I read it the first time as a reminder of how I should aspire to write.

After the reading, Atkinson discusses the novel with the light-heartedness of one who has let her creation go. It is in the domain of the readers now and she laughs as she confesses to have recently forgotten both the title of the book and the name of one of its protagonists.

When Will There Be Good News? is the third novel to feature ex private detective Jackson Brodie and the darkest of the three. The opening chapter is particularly harrowing and Atkinson explains that this is because it was important to her “to do some kind of justice to the horrible things.” And there are certainly plenty of horrible things plaguing the lives of the four main characters – from deaths to train crashes to book vandalising thugs. Coincidence brings the protagonists together and, in a final series of breathtaking plot twists, they manage to achieve some sort of hope for the future. “I love resolution,” Atkinson says. “I think of my endings as being symphonic.” That so many of the plot twists rely on coincidence has attracted criticism but Atkinson brushes this off saying, “This book is meant to be founded in coincidence. Without coincidence there is no fiction.”

The Jackson Brodie novels have been described as “literary detective” stories, although Atkinson herself shies away from genre classifications. “When I sit down to write, I’m writing a novel by me so I have to block out all thoughts of genre and what other people will think.” She points out that although the Jackson Brodie novels were viewed as a departure from literary fiction into the crime genre, all of her books have something in common: “There’s always a puzzle.”

The “puzzles” in an Atkinson novel are typically complex and she is famous for her intertwined plots. To keep track of the story as she is writing, Atkinson does not rely on charts or diagrams but instead prefers to regularly read through the manuscript-in-progress. “I very rarely get to the end of a book and do a big edit because I’ve been editing nearly every day. I don’t write in a very linear fashion. I think of it as a tapestry or weaving. I start at the beginning and go forward and back, forward and back.”  Atkinson tells us that before she starts writing, “I always have the end and the title and those are the two things that really help. It’s a kind of optimism. If you think about the ending a lot, you believe you can get there.”

When asked about the characters in her novels, Atkinson begins: “People say the characters just spring into your mind, fully formed…” I hope privately that she is about to dispel this myth and tell us of the hard work that goes into creating such wonderfully realistic and flawed characters. Instead she continues, “And it’s true! The trick is making them work together.” At least she doesn’t claim that her characters speak to her and tell her what she should write. I’ve read so many interviews where authors admit to being bossed around by imaginary people that I’ve begun to worry that I won’t be able to write a novel until I start hearing voices in my head. It’s a relief to hear that Atkinson is firmly in control of her creations: “Your characters are your puppets. I enjoy manipulating them and making them do what I want.” Even Jackson Brodie is a “device” for binding together the multi-narrative, multi-character books that he features in, albeit in an ever-decreasing role.

“He’s been demoted with each book and spends most of the third one in a coma, which says something about my attitude to returning characters,” Atkinson laughs. But fans of the Yorkshire hard man will be happy to learn that she is writing a fourth book where Jackson Brodie comes back stronger than before to revisit his past. She speculates that it will be published in 2010.

How To Write A Novel Synopsis

I imagine that most authors wait until their novel is ready to be sent to a publisher or agent before writing the synopsis. Since I need to submit a synopsis with my New Writers Award application, I am writing it now, before the novel itself is finished.

At first it seemed an impossible task. What laws of physics would have to be violated in order to compress 200 pages of prose onto one side of A4? I didn’t have a clue where to begin, so I turned to the internet for clues. Three articles in particular – from essortment, Marg Gilks at Writing World and Fiction Writer’s Connection – shed some light on the problem.

Now practiced at condensing texts, I have compiled a summary of synopsis-writing-advice gleaned from those articles.

  • Style: A present tense narrative summary of the novel. The opening paragraph needs to hook the reader. Each paragraph should lead logically to the next. It should be written in the same style as the novel, e.g. humorous, suspense-filled.
  • Content: What are the themes of your novel? What is the setting? Include all major events that move the story forward and resolve all the important conflicts. Do not leave off the ending hoping to entice an agent or publisher to read the manuscript. They need to see that you know how to conclude your story. Who are the main characters? What are their goals and what stands in their way? What is at stake? You can use snippets of dialect and quotes from the novel to give an idea of the characters’ emotions and motivations.
  • Length: As a general rule, one page of synopsis per twenty-five pages of novel, but check individual agent’s or publisher’s guidelines. Whittle it down to a tight, gripping narrative. Be ruthless: all unnecessary adjectives and adverbs must go.
  • Presentation: If the synopsis is less than one page it can be single spaced. Longer synopses should be double spaced. Don’t put spaces between paragraphs – indent them. The first time a character appears, their name should be in capital letters. Include your name and the book title. Check and double check for spelling and grammar mistakes.

It seems that writing a novel synopsis is not all that different from writing a script treatment. Once I realised that, I was back on familiar ground and was able to hammer out a rough draft. Marg Gilks even suggested including a one-line story summary in the synopsis, which is basically the novel equivalent of a film premise.

Writing the synopsis at this stage has proved to be a very useful exercise, especially in identifying the themes of my novel. It has given me a much clearer idea of what I need to do to tie the four narratives together and I think it will make my rewriting more focused.

Now that synopsis is underway, I’ve reached another challenge: how to encapsulate the whole blinking story in a well chosen title.

Polishing, Plots and Pianos

I’m polishing up the first draft of my novel at the moment. It’s a slow process but I think I’m on track for my 30th September deadline. Once I get some feedback I will start work on the second draft. That will probably involve a lot of rewriting. For one thing, I’ll need to make the four narratives consistent with one another. At the moment I have one in first person, present tense; two in first person, past tense and one in third person, past tense.  I just can’t decide which way to go with that. Nick Hornby’s A Long Way Down is an excellent example of a novel with four first person narrators but I also enjoyed Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories which has several third person narrators. The only thing I’m sure of is that I can’t mix narrative styles. Or can I? Does anyone know of a novel that is narrated in both the first and third person?

Another thing I have to figure out is how to tie the narratives together. I would like the four stories to be intertwined from the beginning but at the moment they are connected only by one big event near the end of the novel. I’ll need to spend some time working out how to involve the four main characters in each other’s lives more.

A final area of concern for me is how to order the four narratives? Iain Pears’ brilliant An Instance of The Fingerpost has four narratives told consecutively, in completion. In Case Histories, the narratives were alternated all the way through.  I may have to try both styles to see what works best for my plot.

Oh, that’s right. The plot. Let’s not talk about that just now. Instead why don’t you read this short section of my novel that I was working on today and I’ll go back to obsessing over point of view.

***

The music room is in darkness, the heavy curtains are closed. I could open them, but instead I turn on the light. The room maintains a sufficiently gloomy ambiance to suit my mood.

There are music stands piled up in a corner and boxes full of tambourines and maracas. I catch my breath when I see the piano. It is magnificent. How had they got it up here? They must have had to raise it through the window. It is like an animal with a smooth mahogany pelt. I run my hand over it. I expected it to be dusty for some reason, but it isn’t. It smells of wood polish. I sit down at the bench and try a few of the keys. It’s in tune.

When I begin to play, I feel as though I am a kite swooping on the wind and the music is the string that runs through my centre. It tugs at me, setting me free into the sky and anchoring me to the earth at the same time.

I stop playing abruptly when I see someone standing in the doorway. It is Russ.

“I didn’t mean to disturb you,” he says. My fingers are still poised above the piano keys.

“Do you want to play?” I ask.

“No, I brought my own instrument.” He holds up a black violin case.

“I’ll leave you to it,” I say, standing up and closing the piano lid. I’m not sure if he recognises me, but as I start to move past him, he reaches out an arm to block the door.

“Stay a minute…Louise, isn’t it?”

I nod.

“How are things going?”

“Very well, everything’s fine,” I say, then wonder why I am lying to him. I suppose I want to believe it myself.

“That’s good,” Russ says. And then, I can’t really describe what happens next. A moment ago I was a kite, somersaulting in the air, but now the wind has dropped and I am cartwheeling towards the ground, the energy I had inside me spiralling outwards. Maybe Russ feels it, coursing out of me in raw, hard waves, because he fixes his eyes on my face and I hear myself say, “It’s hard. The tutorial work, I mean. I thought I would enjoy it more.”

“It’s often a big leap from school to university. It will get easier soon.”

“It’s not just that.” I feel compelled to say more, although Russ has not questioned me further. “It’s the people too. They’re nice but I’m not sure I fit in. I’m …different.”

I wonder if I have said too much. My words hang between us, just the two of us in the dark and silent room. The world outside is completely blotted out by the heavy velvet curtains.

Geneva Writers’ Conference – The Business of Publishing

I’m embroiled in a short story just now, which is taking all my time. It’s for the Guardian Weekend short story competition which closes tomorrow. I only found out about it last week and wasn’t planning on entering it because it normally takes me a month to write a short story, then something happened. It was just an ordinary thing that happens to ordinary people and not important on its own, but I realised that if I put it together with a conversation I heard a few weeks ago and an experience I had last year then it became something significant – it became a story. I didn’t know that one piece was missing from my puzzle until I found it.

So, during my short break from arranging all the pieces and bashing them into place with a sledgehammer (just kidding – I hope I’ve fitted my story together a bit more elegantly than that) I typed up some notes I made at the 2008 Geneva Writers’ Conference Business of Publishing Discussion Panel (I already posted notes from a travel writing workshop at the same conference here) . Sorry not to be offering you sparkly new material but my brain is a bit frazzled from the short story and I think these notes are still very pertinent:

Laura Longrigg, MBA Literary Agents,  on getting an agent:

The letter to the agent is crucial. You have to sell yourself. Be boastful. Mention all your prizes and publications and conferences that you have been to. A media presence is an enormous help.

An agent wants to know that you are in it for the long term. Let them know what’s next, what your future writing plans are. They will want more books of the same style or a series. Include a synopsis and the first 2-3 chapters (about 50 pages) which should be as good as you can possibly make them.

Consider paying a literary consultancy which will provide an in-depth critique of your novel for a fee and may put you in touch with an agent. Most of Laura Longrigg’s authors are taken on through these kind of contacts or via editors.

Bill Newlin, publisher at Avalon Travel, on independent publishers and marketing:

An independent publisher is less likely to get into a chain store and may not have money for marketing. They do work hard to get your book registered with Amazon and on databases. To find the right independent publisher for you go to a bookstore and see who is publishing novels like yours.

Book reviews and advertising do not work in marketing books. The only mass media that sells books is talk shows. Web campaigns also help sell books. It is a good idea to have a web presence because publishers and editors are looking for someone who has already created a market for their work.

David Applefield, founder of Frank,  on publishing and marketing strategy:

You need to manage your expectations. Very few people make money from writing. To get published you may have to reduce the risk for a publisher e.g. get a sponsor to pay for translation or a firm to buy 5000 copies. If you can’t market your book to the whole country, target a specific region. It’s not and/or, it’s and/and. Try everything to get your book published. Have a plan B. Youtube is good way to market a book. Include links to publisher websites.

If you found these notes useful (hopefully you did) and are interested in learning more about marketing a book, take a peek at my interview with Sade Adeniran.

How to Tell the Difference Between a Crime Writer and a Serial Killer

This post is addressed to the portion of my readers who have stumbled across my blog by typing “how to poison someone?” into their search engines. Apparently there are quite a lot of you. Now it may be that,  like me, you are merely a frustrated writer looking for ideas for your crime-novel-in-progress. Great. If you come up with a good one, pass it on, because I’m really stuck.

If you are a  potential serial killer then please accept my sincere apologies for misleading you. There’s nothing to see here, so move along now -  unless you think you could use writing as therapy to release your pent up rage without harming anyone.  Then, by all means, stay a while and browse.

If you are not sure which of the above two categories you fall into, let me direct you to this helpful quiz.

Hope that’s cleared things up.

The Big 1000

I have recently returned to my NaNoWriMo novel after about six months off and have been inspired by Isaac Espriu’s blog to set myself some writing goals. Previously I had been trying to write for six hours a day (hah!) but never managed. I could concentrate for about three hours (with breaks) but stopping for lunch was a killer. I could never get back into the flow again.  There was no incentive to write a lot either, because I knew I would be stuck in front of the computer all day regardless of whether I churned out 50 words or 5000.

Now I’ve set myself a goal of writing 1000 words a day and so far it’s going pretty well. On a good day I can be finished after an hour and on a not-so-good day it takes around three hours. I plan to have the story in place by 30th June and the first draft (with all the holes filled in and superfluous ramblings cut out) finished by 30th September. I set the end of September as my deadline because if I had done the MA in creative writing, I would have had to hand in a completed manuscript by then and I want prove to myself that I did not throw away my only chance of writing a novel by turning down the place on the course.

Unfortunately, I’ve not got a huge amount of self discipline and I haven’t managed to reach the 1000 words every day. My brother is really into hypnotism and mind control and he’s been giving me some tips on how to improve my willpower.  One of them is to create an ‘anchor’. That means that on a day when the writing is going really well, I have to do some kind of action that will act as a trigger to spur me on to write on another day when I feel less motivated. So over the last few days as I’ve been typing away like mad I’ve had to remember to periodically tug my earlobes. If I keep this up, one day I will sit down at my laptop, tug my earlobes and a whole novel will spill out onto the computer screen. That’s how it works, right?

Another tip my brother gave me for  improving willpower is to force myself to do one disagreeable task a day. It’s true that I don’t always love writing, but I don’t want it to be my disagreeable task either.  I suppose I could try washing the dishes every day. I really don’t like doing that. I’ve eaten cereal out of saucepans and pizza off of tinfoil rather than wash up.

Putting aside these exercises in willpower for a moment, the most compelling reason for me to stick to my goal is that on the days when I manage to write 1000 words I feel great and on the days when I don’t,  I feel rubbish. It’s as simple as that.

Interview with Keith Gray

There are no taboos as far as Keith Gray is concerned.

“If I ever write an autobiography it will be called Red Bull Nights,” Keith Gray jokes, explaining that some of his best writing is done during the night. He has just finished giving a lively talk to the third year English pupils at my old high school, entertaining and horrifying them simultaneously with stories of rock climbing accidents and the effects of drinking too much Sunny Delight. Before he heads back home to catch up on that day’s writing quota, he lets me pick his brains on writing for young adults and talks to me about his most recent novel, Ostrich Boys, which was shortlisted for the Costa Children’s Book Award.

Ostrich Boys tells the story of Blake, Sim and Kenny, three teenage boys struggling to come to terms with the death of their best friend Ross. After a dispiriting funeral that does not seem to do justice to Ross’s memory, they steal the urn containing his ashes and set out to travel with it 261 miles to the tiny hamlet of Ross in Scotland. They believe that taking Ross to Ross will be a more fitting tribute to their friend. Pursued by the police and by their parents, the boys have to overcome a series of obstacles that threaten to cut short their journey. On the way, they begin to uncover some uncomfortable truths about themselves and about their relationship with Ross and have to face up to the possibility that their friend may have taken his own life. It’s a difficult theme but Keith handles it with sensitivity and humour.

“I didn’t want it to be an ‘issues book’,” he explains. “When you read Ostrich Boys you can enjoy the adventure and the humour of it; it’s an exciting story, but there’s something heavy underneath.”  The darker issues that the novel touches on – death of a close friend and suicide of a young man – are counterbalanced by many funny moments as the main characters wriggle out of one scrape and land straight in another one. “People have said you shouldn’t have humour in the book, but not once do you laugh about suicide or death.”

Although the feedback on Ostrich Boys has been overwhelmingly positive, Keith has received letters from some parents and teachers who feel that suicide is not a suitable theme for young adults. “Where some people have a problem is that they think a book about suicide should be called Don’t Do It.”

Keith disagrees. “A lot of young people don’t want to be told things black and white.” He should know. His first published novel, Creepers, appeared in 1996 and since then he has been growing in popularity with teenage readers all over the world. He writes horror, thriller and adventure novels which have featured, among other things, terrifying creatures, runaways and guns.

“I don’t think there should be any taboos or any restrictions on what we write for teenagers or young adults,” Keith says firmly. “I don’t write about drug use, because I’m very much from the school of ‘write what you know’ and I don’t have any experience of that, but there are other writers who have been involved with things like drugs and I think, yes, they should write about it. If young people have to deal with these things in real life then, yes, we should write about them in books.” Keith believes that suicide is an issue that affects young people today. “Suicide is the biggest killer of people under 35 in Scotland. I’m amazed more people don’t write about suicide.”

While Keith stresses the importance of writing about issues that matter to young adults, he avoids current issues that might quickly become dated. “If you try to be too topical or contemporary, by the time the book is written and published it is not contemporary anymore. There are certain issues with young people – bullying, friendship and family – that never age.”

Friendship in particular is a recurring theme in Keith’s novels. “I think in today’s world, friends are becoming more important. With the breakup of families, people feel closer to their mates than to their parents. I had some really good friends when I was at school so the ideas that I have seem to involve friends.”

Keith’s story ideas are inspired not only by his own teenage years but also by other people’s books and films. “The initial spark of an idea is ‘How would somebody feel if this happened?’ With Ostrich Boys it was, ‘How would it feel if your best friend died and you were part of the reason?’” Once he has identified the question at the core of the novel, Keith goes on to develop the characters.

“I work from emotion outwards. Before I knew the protagonist of Ostrich Boys was called Blake, that he was overweight and that he was one of the clever kids at school, I knew how he felt about his best friend dying. I built everything around that feeling.”

The protagonists of Keith’s novels are usually male, because he writes with an audience of teenage boys in mind. “There are lots of books written for teenage boys all about being a spy or shooting people or flying to the moon or whatever. There are very few books written for teenage boys that talk about what it feels like to be a teenage boy and that’s the gap I’m trying to fill.”

The way the main characters in Ostrich Boys communicate with each other, constantly taking the mick and winding each other up, is something that teenage boys reading the novel can identify with.  “The dialogue is the thing I am most proud of in Ostrich Boys,” Keith tells me. “Young lads show their affection by calling each other names. All the name calling, bitching and arguments in Ostrich Boys are 90% though love.”

Keith warns against using current slang in teen fiction, pointing out that it quickly falls out of fashion. “You can still write decent dialogue without using it,” he says, then adds with a mischievous grin, “Swear words never age.”

Although Keith does not like to research for his novels, finding that it gets in the way of the story, he does admit that to make his dialogue convincing he is “always switched on” during school visits. “I listen to the way kids talk, watch how they interact and see how they use language. That’s my research.”

School visits are a mutually beneficial experience. In return for the soaking up the speech patterns of young people, Keith inspires them with his love of reading.

“Reading a good book is the greatest pleasure I’ve ever come across. People who read books are cleverer, wittier, more open minded and downright nicer than people who don’t. ” And he certainly knows how to make books sound appealing to today’s gadget guzzling youngsters. “A book is an incredible piece of technology. It’s like a little solid block of virtual reality.”

Keith is also keen to get more young people involved with creative writing. “A lot of school is aimed at passing exams. Sometimes people forget to tell the kids that writing is just an incredible, cathartic, pleasurable experience. I’ve worked with young offenders and I get them to create an imaginary character and to write a story using that character to describe their own lives and themselves. It can be a really liberating thing to do.” No sooner has Keith uttered these words than he claps his hand over his mouth and apologises for sounding pretentious. I assure him that only his infectious enthusiasm for writing is coming across. You can get a dose of this yourself in the five podcasts that make up his Creative Writing Masterclass at the Scottish Book Trust website.

I ask Keith if he can offer any tips for adults who would like to write for a teenage audience. “If you want to write for young adults, you need to read some of the best writers out there for young people at the moment.” Keith reels off a few examples: “Kevin Brooks, Robert Cormier, Siobhan Dowd – she’s fantastic. There are also some really appalling books for teenagers out there, but I won’t name any names. You have to read everything to let you know what’s good and what’s not so good.”

As for the actual writing, Keith’s advice is to “put story first. Young people don’t want morals and they don’t want to be preached at. They do want a damn good story.”

Point of view is crucial. “Don’t write hindsight fiction. Don’t be an adult looking back, be a teenager looking forward. When I write for young adults, I’m standing side by side with the teenager, looking forward.” In Ostrich Boys, the three main characters are looking forward into a future without their best friend in it. It is a crushing loss to come to terms with but they discover that life still has much to offer them.  “Blake, Kenny and Sim are having an adventure and Ross is going to miss out. That’s my message with the book.”

Ostrich Boys is available to buy in bookshops and at Amazon.

Ostrich Boys was shortlisted for the 2009 Carnegie Medal and is on the shortlist for the Booktrust Teenage Prize.

Interview with Sade Adeniran

Sade Adeniran proves that hard work and perseverance will get you there.

“Oh no! I forgot about the interview,” Sade Adeniran laughs when I phone to talk to her about the recent success of her first novel, Imagine This. It is no wonder the interview slipped her mind. She has just completed an intensive promotional campaign for Imagine This and is now preparing for a trip to South Africa to attend the Time of the Writer Festival. I offer to call back later but Sade very kindly agrees to talk to me while she does the ironing.

I met Sade last year at a writing retreat in Spain and was impressed by her proactive approach to marketing Imagine This, which won the 2008 Regional Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and was shortlisted for The Book to Talk About 2009. These achievements are all the more remarkable when you realise that Sade published and promoted the book herself.

Like many writers, Sade went down the self publishing route because her manuscript was being overlooked by the big publishing houses. “I thought that if my novel was attractively packaged in book form, publishers would be more likely to read it.” When she looked into printing options, the bargain hunter in her was delighted to discover that the more copies she printed, the more money she would save.  I ask how many books there were in the first print run. “Eleven hundred,” Sade replies breezily.

It was not until she saw the books stacked up in her flat that Sade realised her work had only just begun. “I was thinking, how am I going to get rid of these?” Her solution was to organise a book launch and create a website through which she could sell the surplus books. “It all just snowballed from there,” Sade says. Her modesty is misleading. It took a lot of hard work and determination to bring Imagine This to the public’s attention.

Her marketing campaign included appearances on local radio and television. “I got on the phone and bombarded people with e-mails and phone calls until they gave in and let me come on to talk about Imagine This.” For many writers, venturing out of their creative cocoons to talk to perfect strangers about their work is a terrifying prospect. This was also an obstacle for Sade, who confesses, “I am not a people person. Before I send every e-mail I’m agonising over it. What will people think? Will they just delete it? I worry about it.” There is no magic formula for overcoming these fears. “I have to talk myself into it,” she says. Two years have passed since Imagine This was first published and I wonder if it ever gets any easier to approach people. Sade replies with an emphatic “No!”

The success of Imagine This can not only be attributed to Sade’s sheer determination to get the book out there. The well written and compelling narrative has captivated readers and sparked a vigorous word of mouth campaign. The novel tells the story of Lola, a nine year old girl who is torn from her home in London and sent to live with relatives in Nigeria. Although the setting of the novel is culturally very specific, Sade believes it has universal appeal because “it’s about somebody’s life experience, so it doesn’t matter if you are a man or a woman, you just have to empathise with a character’s pain.” She points out that the title of the novel invites readers to imagine what life is like for Lola, even if they come from different cultural backgrounds to the protagonist and do not share her experiences. The cover design reinforces this idea.

“The cover painting was by a friend. I saw the painting on their website and it instantly appealed, just as it was.” Later, however, Sade had a dream that the she was looking at the painting in an art gallery. “I was wondering who the boy and the girl were and what they were talking about. The effect of looking at the characters’ lives from a distance played on the title, Imagine This.” In the first print run, the cover of the novel shows the painting on white background “because the walls in an art gallery are usually white.” The cover design in the second print run depicts the painting framed and hanging on a wall. (A second print run proved necessary when orders for the book were still coming in even after the first batch of eleven hundred copies had sold out.)

Despite the large demand for the novel and the positive reaction of readers, Sade still could not get a big publishing house interested in Imagine This. “No one was biting. I began to wonder if the book was any good. I had to decide who to believe: the readers who loved it or the publishers who wouldn’t buy it.” Sade decided to trust her readers and entered Imagine This into several novel competitions. It was not shortlisted for either the Orange or the Costa prizes and Sade was at a particularly low point when she received an e-mail from the organisers of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize with a letter attached. “I didn’t open it for at least two days. I thought it was another rejection.”

When she finally did read the letter, she was amazed to find she had won the Regional (Africa) Commonwealth Prize for Best First Book. Attending the awards ceremony in South Africa gave her a new perspective of her status as a writer. “I was dreading going as a self published author, a pretend writer,” she admits. “I went with this complex.” After meeting the other award winners, however, Sade’s worries were quickly dispelled. “They were very encouraging. They made me feel like a real writer.” It was a revelation too, to discuss her book with the competition judges. “They are academics and they were talking about Imagine This as a literary novel. I hadn’t thought about it that way before. It did my ego a world of good.”

Sade returned to the UK with a fresh wave of confidence that helped her continue to promote her book.  Her perseverance was rewarded when readers voted Imagine This onto the shortlist of ten books competing for the title of The Book to Talk About 2009. During the second phase of voting to determine the winner, Sade sent out blanket e-mails to everyone she knew, encouraging them vote. The result was announced on World Book Day on the 5th of March and, although Imagine This did not make the top spot, just being in the running has been a huge boost. “In the last 3 weeks I have sold more books than in the last year,” Sade tells me.

It is clear that Sade is her own harshest critic when she refers several times to “losing” the Book to Talk About campaign. Nevertheless, she does seem to be approaching a place where she can happy with everything she has accomplished. “It is gradually dawning on me that I have achieved a lot, that I should be proud,” Sade agrees. Although she continues to claim that she has been lucky, she does tell me, “The book is good. I can admit that now. If you don’t have anything in the book, word of mouth will never spread.”

Sade is currently involved in a school outreach programme which has given her the opportunity to discuss Imagine This with a group of year nine students. “Imagine This has no generational boundaries,” Sade explains. “Everyone’s been young.” The positive feedback from the school students has been overwhelming. “I was welling up with tears when one fourteen year old boy came up to me and said ‘I don’t read but I read your book and it really touched me.’ He’d even written a review of it and given it ten out of ten. To me as a writer, that’s better than any prize.”

Imagine This is being put to one side now so that Sade can concentrate on writing her second novel. She hopes that the success of Imagine This, coupled with the fact that she has now snared an agent, will mean that publishers are more willing to read her second book. “That’s half the battle, getting someone to read it.”

Although the marketing of her second book will be in the hands of the publisher, Sade still plans do her own promotional work, such as book readings, on the side. “It’s better for me. It means more royalties. It all depends on what kind of deal you get with your publisher anyway. There might be no budget for marketing my second book.”

Before the interview ends and Sade is allowed to concentrate all her efforts on ironing, I ask if she has any final advice for writers trying to publish their first book. “Self publishing is hard,” Sade says. “Hard, hard, hard. Think twice. I wouldn’t say ‘no, don’t do it,’ just be aware of the pitfalls. You have to be bullish and grow a thick skin. Once you’re on that journey, if you’re as lucky as I have been then it’s wonderful.”

Imagine This is available to buy online at Amazon or through Sade’s website.

Can Writing Be Taught?

The whole “Can writing be taught?” debate has been raging for a long time and I have thought about it a lot. After doing a load of research I have decided that I like the “musical instrument” analogy best. That is to say that, even a great musician, with tonnes of natural talent, will still need tuition and plenty of practice to be able to play his violin/piano/whatever. And someone with no talent whatsoever can take scores of lessons but in the end, they may be able to play the right notes in the right order but it will never sound good.

For example, I took piano lessons for five years. Seriously. Five years. I can read music, if it’s not too complicated ( a semi-quaver I can just about manage), and I can play tunes (Christmas carols and Mary Had a Little Lamb), but that’s all you’re getting out of me. You can tie me to the piano stool and and torture me with that damn metronome but I’m never going to play like (insert name of famous pianist here). My piano teacher even told my parents to stop sending me to lessons because I was such a hopeless case.

But with writing, it’s different. I have the feeling that I can already do it and that if I were to take lessons, it would be so that it would take less drafts to do it well. I don’t want to learn to write, I want to learn to write better. So, with that in mind, I applied to do a Masters in Creative Writing. I did get a place on the course, but after a lot of deliberation, I decided it wasn’t the right choice for me. I have no objection to taking a writing course but a Masters is too much. It’s a lot of money just so you can put an MA after your name.

Before turning down the Masters, I had to think hard about what I want to achieve with my life. I always wanted to write a novel but had the feeling that I would need some support t o do that. Through NaNoWriMo, which is free, I have been able to work my way towards a first draft. There is still a loooooooong way to go but I think I can get there. I also wanted to try scriptwriting. I have signed myself up for a short course in March, much much much cheaper than the Masters, and in the meantime, I have been reading scripts from Daily Script to try and get a feel for how it ‘s done.

So, in a nutshell, can writing be taught? Sort of.