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Monday, March 31, 2008

New YA fiction series begins!


When I began my first job as a teacher-librarian, in the 1980s, there were a lot of teen romances around, mostly American, some British. They were a sort of junior Mills and Boon. The girls loved them, of course, though to be honest, most of them weren’t very good. They were churned out like the junior horror novels of today and had one basic plot, with minor variations. High school Cinderella, after having to compete with the beautiful school witch, finally gets the school Prince Charming, or else the school Prince Charming turns out to be shallow and vain and Cinderella discovers she’s happier with the nice boy who has been her shoulder to cry on throughout the novel. The heroines were always, always middle class and white, of course.

In Australia around this time, a new teen romance series appeared, Dolly Fiction, which was actually written by some of the country’s top YA and children’s writers, though they wrote under pseudonyms. Consequently, the series was better-written than most of the other books of this genre. Alas, it didn’t last long. Possibly, the kids preferred their cotton candy literature. or maybe the writers had other things to do.

Now, though, we have a new series along the same lines, Girlfriend Fiction. I should add that if these don’t work out as teen romances, they will succeed as perfectly good YA novels. The romance elements are light and don’t overwhelm the stories. This may disappoint girls who have bought or borrowed them because of the hearts on the cover, but at least the books won’t fizzle out in favour of cotton candy romance. The well-known writers writing them are using their own names this time.

The first two have just come out and more are promised, one of them by Kate Constable, best known for her fantasy novels.

My Life and Other Catastrophes is written in the form of a diary - you know, the usual “my English teacher says we have to write a journal, so...” beginning. This diary is being typed up on computer, though, which plays an important role later in the novel. Kids like novels written in the form of diaries or letters, anyway - the “chapters” are nice and short.

Sixteen-year-old Erin’s life is a mess. Dad has left the family for reasons she can only guess (wrongly, as it turns out - very wrongly!). Mum has a new boyfriend Erin dislikes intensely - and worse, he’s a teacher at her school. Her little brother is making suspiciously large amounts of money, far more than you’d expect from a fourteen-year-old nerd. Erin is playing Mina Harker in the school’s musical version of Dracula, but her Jonathan is not her idea of “hot” and the potential boyfriend material playing Dracula, Brendan, seems more interested in her greenie friend Rami (who is currently not talking to her anyway).

Is Kid Brother (or Sucky Little Brother as she calls him) selling drugs? Is “Creepazoid”, Mum’s boyfriend, about to start a drug dealers’ turf war? What’s wrong with Brendan’s mother? Will the school witch, “Mandozer” actually win Australian Idol, as she’s been bragging?

All will be revealed in the course of this very funny story, which includes a laugh-out-loud local newspaper review of the school show that completely fails to notice there was a real police raid in the middle of it. And, yes, Erin gets the guy and is reconciled with Rami. This should be no secret.

The Indigo Girls is more serious in style. The story is told, in alternate chapters, by Zara and Tilly, two very different girls. Every year their families meet at Indigo, a bayside town with a camping ground. Summer is the only time the girls meet and they have very different lives in the meantime. Usually, they’re part of a threesome., but this year Mieke is going to be a few days late and Tilly and Zara wonder if the two of them will get along without her to keep the balance. Tilly is a nerd who’s going straight to university. Zara seems to have all the friends, but dreams of taking a trip around Australia alone after school.

Zara has become the victim of cell phone stalking. Since she broke up with her boyfriend under particularly nasty circumstances, she has been receiving obscene and threatening anonymous text messages. Because it is her policy never to share secrets - they break up friendships, she believes - she has kept it bottled up, not even telling her brother, Ivan. Zara is beautiful and popular, but has no real friends. Her parents aren’t talking to each other, for reasons we never find out, and her father isn’t talking to her, for reasons we do find out, but which aren’t her fault. She just can’t tell him, because it’s a secret.

Because of this, she wistfully admires Tilly’s close-knit family and Tilly herself for her strength and honesty, while Tilly admires Zara’s beauty and seeming confidence. She also fancies Ivan, briefly, though there is another boy in the story with whom she ends up.

Zara takes comfort in sneaking out to surf by night. It is a time when she can rejoice in the waves and having to do it by feel. Tilly asks to join her and the accident that follows makes both of them think about their lives.

Eventually, Zara discovers who is really sending her those text messages - not her ex, as assumed - and has another think about what friendship really is.

What about that cute - and intellectual - waiter at the golf club, Sawyer? Does he like Tilly for herself or just because she’s dressed like Zara at the time?

It’s a story that teen girls will enjoy, as long as they think of it as a story about friendship more than romance. It’s just a pity that Zara’s family is still "toxic’" at the end, though she does reconcile with Ivan, before being made welcome by Tilly’s family.

Oh, well, can’t have everything. Both books are suitable for girls in mid to late high school.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Books and Writing: SCBWI conference, Sydney (1)

Books and Writing: SCBWI conference, Sydney (1)

This is a link to Sherryl Clark's con report, a lot tighter-written than mine! Both types are good, so I thought I'd put in this link.

Sydney SCBWI Conference, February 23-24, 2008

This was the second conference in Australia of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. Like last time, it was held at the Hughenden Hotel in Woollahra, a very expensive suburb of Sydney.

Last time, while I enjoyed the conference, it was rather illustrator-heavy, which was great for the illustrators, but I'm a writer. This time, the balance was a lot better, and those of us who scribble instead of paint, draw and do elaborate stuff on computer were introduced to the wonderful process of producing a picture story book, with the partnership between writer and artist.

And the difference in rooms! If you have read my report in my other blog, at, you'll know I had a bizarre experience in my room. I am used to sharing a dorm and a bathroom at youth hostels and at least I would have this room to myself. A shared bathroom was fine, especially as it was just across the hall.

I got there to find that my heavily discounted room was directly opposite the laundry, which did its washing late at night. The room's bed was a bunk whose lower level had a low roof (ouch!). There was a bent plug on the reading lamp, a non-working TV remote control, plenty of tea and coffee but no kettle (I got one on request - the staff were very kind and helpful - but then discovered there was only one power point and I had to unplug the TV and put the kettle on the floor to boil!). While at the conference this time, I walked past that room and the door was open on what looked like an office. Very wise! ☺

This time I booked well in advance and explained my problem from last time. I got a room which was unbelievably luxurious! The bed was big enough for four people to loll in (oddly enough, I got four towels…). My friend Edwina Harvey, who is a very good children's writer but wasn't coming this time, suggested a six-pack of Legolases when I told her about it on the phone. I tested the width by lying across the bed and found that my feet didn't go over the edge. Mm…

I chose the side of the bed which had a clock on it, because breakfast was served early at the Hughenden and I didn't want to miss it. No problem about bed lamps. There was not only a bed lamp, but also one on a stalk. And ceiling fans, which were much appreciated in the heat.

The TV was one of those huge flat-screen things. Pity there was not much on late at night, though I did lie in bed and watch the end of "My Big Fat Greek Wedding." The bathroom was large and elegant, unlike the squashy things in modern hotels. And there were a couple of comfy chairs to curl up in if you didn't want to lie on the bed.

I decided to see if I could rustle up a room party at some stage, but when I suggested it to Meredith Costain, she said firmly, "No, Sue, this is NOT a con!" Oh, well. I might do it next time anyway, because it's fairer to the staff than hanging around in the dining area late at night, when they want to switch off and go home or to bed. And it needn't be the riotous affair it can be at a science fiction con. It can be just a few folk sitting, chatting over coffee, BYO cup. Goodness knows, the room parties I've hosted have been peaceful enough.

After I'd settled in, I wandered downstairs to see if there was anyone I knew, or anyone I could chat with anyway. There was a small group drinking wine and chatting in the dining area, which is open to the small foyer. They kindly invited me to join them, though I didn't know most of them. One of them was a US guest of honour, Ellen Hopkins, who writes YA novels in verse. That interested me because I can read verse novels to my literacy class. It's very hard to find material suitable for young men and women in their late teens who read at a low level. Verse novels are perfect, because they are simply worded and you can stop at the end of each poem. My students last year loved Steven Herrick's The Simple Gift. As it happened, she had read his work and had a lot of respect for him. I ended up buying two of her books.

Brian Caswell wandered past, though he wasn't staying for the conference. He was with Leonie Tyle, formerly of UQP, now working for Random House, who was going to be at the conference. He's working on another book in the science fiction series he began in the 1980s. I'll look forward to reading it, though, I have to say, nobody has borrowed them from my library for quite a while. I will have to promote them to the good readers.

I went back to my luxury room and stretched out happily on my king-sized bed to sleep. Next morning I woke up around 6.13 a.m. and couldn't get back to sleep. Still nothing much to watch on the giant TV, but I turned it on anyway and watched cartoons from bed while sipping tea. What's the fun in staying in a hotel if you can't do that?

Breakfast was a very nice buffet. My usual breakfast, at home, is fresh fruit and toast and a pot of tea – herbal during the week, regular or green tea on weekends, but while I couldn't resist a little of their fruit, I mostly piled my plate with scrambled eggs, grilled tomato and a hash brown, because I wouldn't have that at home. I drank brewed coffee, for the same reason.

The conference opened at 9.00 a.m. – definitely not a fannish event! A science fiction convention is run on the assumption that the members will have been partying till late at night and are sleeping in. Which is not to say that they don’t have early panels. I have done some myself, one on a Sunday morning, when you really wouldn't expect anyone to turn up, but that was a Harry Potter panel and it was the day after the release of the latest book in the series. We got a full hall.

The first day of the SCBWI conference was packed. There was one session after another and it was all so useful you really didn't want to miss any of it. It was broken up a little by morning and afternoon tea and lunch.

In the goody bags were a lot of leaflets for this and that book, a pen (but no stationery – I ended up writing my notes on the backs of leaflets and then finding a small supermarket where I could buy a notepad) and Dianne Bates's useful book about self-editing. Later in the conference, Dianne explained how, despite giving the book away, she actually managed to get money out of it, tax-wise, in a win-win situation.

Julie Romeis from Chronicle Books in the US gave a very interesting talk about trends in the US market and offered to look at stuff sent by conference attendees if we addressed it to her attention, with "SCBWI Conference, Sydney" on the envelope. She urged us to set trends rather than follow them, because this year's flavour-of-the-month might be gone by next year.

During morning tea, there was a launch of Meredith Costain's new book, Rosie And The Bunyip, which I bought for Amelia, my niece, who is about the right age to read it. I have given it to Amelia, who got stuck into it right away. Meredith made some of us go up and do bunyip noises. I didn't win, but what-the-heck, it was fun.

The next session was about agents. Rick Raftos admitted that it's hard to get one in Australia, mostly because there are too few for all the writers who want one. He suggested getting recommended by a Big Name Writer or a publisher. Sigh! Been there, done that, bought the T-shirt. I did manage to get a newish agent in WA for a while, but she went out of business to concentrate on her own writing, and never found me any markets anyway. I tried so many agents, all of whose books were full, even one who actually bothered to write to me, saying, "I've read your books, I know you're a good writer, I just don’t have any space." Another agent who is a big name around the country was at least willing to consider me, but I had a lot of trouble finding her – she was nowhere to be found on the Web and a certain big-name writer who had promised to introduce me never replied when I followed up with an e-mail to him, or several e-mails. Needless to say I have never bought any more of his books.

I finally managed to find someone who could pass on my inquiry, but suggested I get a reference from a big name writer. I got one from Natalie Prior and one from Lucy Sussex, who was a commissioning editor for Hodder at one stage and had wanted them to buy a novel of mine, but hadn't been able to get me through. I managed to contact the agent, who at least agreed to look at the MS, but said no. I tried Cherry Weiner, an Aussie-born agent living in the US, who said anything she offered to publishers had to be LONG and part of a trilogy.

Finally, I decided that I'd just have to do my own work. I've sold enough books that publishers will at least look at anything I send, whatever their policy on manuscript submissions. It just means I have to spend time searching for markets and working out my own contracts and payments if I'm lucky enough to sell, instead of having someone to take care of it. All the same, I see red whenever some writer sits up on the dais gushing, "Oh, I couldn't possibly manage without my agent!"

Dianne Bates spoke very well about the business of writing, sort of like a briefer version of Bjo Trimble's talk on the subject at a con I attended years ago. What Dianne doesn't know about selling isn't worth knowing. To my surprise, I found that she knew what I do and asked me about the It's True! Series (dead, alas!).

After lunch, there were two wonderful panels on picture books. I don't write picture books, which require a skill I haven't mastered, so I put aside my notebook and enjoyed.

I did take notes on the YA fiction panel. Leonie Tyle, who has moved to Random House, is now only taking literary fiction. Alas, I don't write literary fiction, which is a shame, because Leonie is very good about reading her slush and only rejected one title I submitted to UQP because they didn't publish that kind of fiction. She actually rang me to talk about it. I had hoped that now I might have a chance, but I just don't write that kind of fiction. Pity.

I went out for a half –hour walk and returned to the launch of Felicity Pulman's new book, a Janna mystery. I've only read one of those, myself, but we had some fans in my school library and I have bought a copy for the library.

Saturday night was the conference dinner. I shared a table with Meredith and some others I didn't know. It was a pleasant evening and we sat outside, under cover. As there was no chance of a room party, I went up to the room about ten p.m. and rang Edwina, who was going to pick me up on Sunday and have something to eat before I went to the airport. We had a long natter.

Sunday brought some more fascinating panels, in one of which publishers talked about their discoveries and what they were looking for. I made a note of some potential markets which I have followed up with inquiries and intend to do properly during the holidays.

There was a panel on education publishing in which it was suggested that if you’re versatile you can have a good market there. This has certainly been true for Meredith and has been generally true in the past, though it's not as easy now. Meredith showed off something called Space Race, which would be great for reading to a literacy class, except that my students would consider it babyish. Of course, it's not aimed at them and I asked my question as a teacher and librarian, not as a writer: what was happening for students like mine, who are sixteen or seventeen and reading at Grade 2 level? It is terribly frustrating to be unable to find materials that really get the concept of "high interest/low reading level". Meredith said that mostly, education publishing is aimed at no higher than Year 8. She suggested that I make an appointment with an education publisher to talk about my needs in this area. I just might do that, and see if I can get a book or two out of it myself.

I had to leave early so I could have a little time with Edwina before heading for the airport. Really, I only missed one panel, which was the "two minute pitch." Fun, no doubt, but I could live without it. Edwina arrived shortly after 3.00 p.m. and we got a bus to Central Train Station, where we had a fast-food meal before I took the train to the airport.

All in all, it was an enjoyable and productive weekend and I will certainly go if there's another one.