Thursday, October 20, 2011

A Student at Bath Festival of Children’s Literature

The city of Bath is known for several things: The Roman Baths, Jane Austen, and its universities. And while students make up the majority of the population, it’s the city’s cultural heritage, and its festivals, that attract people. This year, this blogger was lucky enough to secure some tickets for the Bath Festival of Children’s Literature, a truly wonderful event which promoted some really stellar books. Now, since yours truly is a student on a budget, I was only able to go to three events, which I will recap here for your pleasure. So, without further ado:

Event #1: Philip Reeve and Moira Young

Before this event, I had never read either author. I’d gotten Fever Crumb from the library in preparation, but I never truly knew who Philip Reeve and Moira Young were until I heard them talking. And I was even more surprised to learn that Moira Young, whose debut novel “Blood Red Road” came out in June, lived in Bath! So as you might imagine, I was sadly unprepared for the event, which in retrospect was my favorite of the three I attended.

The talk had a distinctly dystopian theme, highlighted by the opening: “End of the World as We Know It”. It started off with both authors reading excerpts from their books. Philip Reeve was presenting Scrivener’s Moon, the third of his Mortal Engines prequels, a story set just as the first mobile city was made, a story that promised a lot of heart-pounding action, intrigue, and whimsy (Samovar Caps! Who knew?) Moira Young read from Blood Red Road, and what struck me immediately was the force of the language (or was it the author’s narration?) – it was very distinct, transporting me straight to Silverlake, and introducing me to Saba without even the slightest effort. I can already tell I’m going to love these books.

The Q&A part of the talk was equally wonderful, featuring such fabulous questions such as:

What would you hope to disappear (in the future)?

The X Factor. (Moira Young)

The current producer of Dr. Who? Yes. (Philip Reeve)

There was also that moment, when asked about the main influences of their books, Young said “The Wizard of Oz” and this immediately brought up the question of the minions of the Wicked Witch of the West. The audience seemed to like the proposed title for the sequel: “Saba and the Flying Monkeys”.

Of course, you can’t have a literary talk without the question of world building and what makes a good story. Both authors seemed to like the idea of making up their own worlds and research (in relation to the Samovar Caps, Reeve said, quite correctly, that people do sillier things for religion… or fashion). They also seemed to agree that a good book needs a good story, characters you care about, high stakes and big consequences after failure.

One of the more interesting questions, asked by a member of the audience, was about the influence of opera in Young’s writing. The answer was surprising: It wasn’t exactly opera, as it was the music and rhythm. The writing needed beats and phrases. It was a very good point, because, in stories, like in music, it’s necessary that there is a pattern to the plot (Readers, some homework: Think of a book where the pacing was so off you had to put it away.)

All in all, it was a fabulous event. The authors were very keen on answering the questions from the audience (and may I please say Thank you, God, for all these children interested in books. Brings tears to my eyes, I swear it!) and it all created a friendly, welcoming atmosphere for the event to unfold. I only wish I could have stayed to get a book signed, but… time slows for no-one, even the most fabulous of us. Maybe next year.

Event #2: Writing for Children and Teenagers Workshop

…which really should have been called “The MA in Writing for Young People at Bath Spa University is Awesome!” workshop. Featuring Marcus Sedgwick, Gill Lewis, Karen Saunders and Sam Gayton, who read to us from their latest books, the event seemed like it was less about the advice for aspiring authors and more like a way to get an audience for the presenting of the “Most Promising Writer for Young People” award. Although that could have been attributed to the timeframe of the event – between the book readings and the award presentation, there was just not enough time for some real Q&A about writing.

The questions that were raised and discussed, though, were very much to the point. Gill Lewis brought up a good point when discussing her novel “Skyhawk”, in that while you may have a good idea, you still need someone to edit it and make it presentable for publishing. Sam Gayton was also very spot-on when he said that sometimes you need to write 100,000 bad words to get 1,000 good ones. They also touched on the topic of the writing process, that basically an idea needs time to develop before it’s even put on paper, and that a book can change with time.

However, very little was said on the actual writing for children. Nobody raised the question about writing diversity, the politics of white writers writing non-white characters, or selling a novel with a gay protagonist. The closest the talk got to the topic of writing for a specific age group was a question on whether the authors used any children to gather feedback (the answer was no, by the way. Marcus Sedgwick, in particular, said that it would be presumptuous to say that he knew a 14 year old who was just like his protagonist. Which I think was a pretty good point.)

So yeah, it wasn’t as good as it should have been. For the other two events, I bought tickets in blind faith, since I hadn’t read the authors, and it is a bit sad that the event I was actually looking forward to turned out to be the one disappointing me. It did, however, get me excited to read ‘Midwinterblood’, which is many stories centered around a painting Sedgwick saw in Sweden. All I have to say is: Vampire Vikings.

Event #3: Angel with L.A. Weatherly

The story of how Angel was written is a very interesting one, spanning back to ten years and featuring characters that have waited a long time to be written. Weatherly talked about a story she wrote that just wasn’t going right, and how in order to make it better, she had to cut out a lot, even things she liked very much. Thirty books later, it was finally time to give a story to those characters, a story that turned into Angel.

What I love most about book events is hearing authors talk about their books, to see how passionate they are on the subject and how invested they are in their characters. It’s always a treat to see people who actually, literally love their jobs, and L.A. Weatherly was no exception. You could tell these were special characters to her.

One particularly interesting highlight of the talk was when an audience member asked about the next big thing. Dystopia, apparently, became the bad world of publishing this year, and it seems like they were stacking up on “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” type novels, but Weatherly advised to write stories that you want to write, instead of following a trend, because publishers probably have lots of novels lined up. Which, by the way, was an excellent point – what most people don’t realize about writing is that between putting that final dot on your manuscript and seeing your book in stores, there is a time period of one and a half-two years, and in that time, the trend would have easily exhausted itself.

Other features of the talk (because they were many, I’m just going to mention them), were angels, guns, favorite books, Twilight and the drive behind becoming an author. All in all, it was a wonderful event, especially because Weatherly made it so that the audience felt at home.

So that was my festival experience this fall. Coming up (hopefully soon): My review of Angel by L.A. Weatherly. In the meantime, Lantern followers of the UK, answer me this question: Are you tired of being discriminated against in book giveaways? How would you feel about one here?

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