An Irreverent Guide for Patrons of Reading

Originally published on http://www.patronofreading.co.uk/


Don’t worry! This guide will not be serious. This guide is neither full of practical tips nor some amazing ideas. It’s just another writer, avoiding the work-in-progress, hoping to rescue thousands of children from forced learning of subjunctive clauses and modal verbs.

Patron of Reading is a bonkers idea from the three musketeers – Tim Redgrave, Jon Biddle and Helena Pielichaty. And more crazy people like authors, illustrators, school teachers, head-teachers and librarians joined up and made this bonkers idea more brilliant. Who would have thought reading for pleasure was a thing? DoE haven’t heard of it, it seems! But we don’t worry much about them when we have wonderful characters and amazing facts in so many books.

To me, being a Patron of Reading is an adventure. By adventure I mean, I have no idea what I’ve got myself into and I figure out as I go, guided by the children and the teachers who have invited me in.

So how does this adventure start? Like all adventures, it starts with a tall man with a big heart and almost no hair. He checks you out with his twitter thermometer and measures your ability to read for pleasure. You write children’s books? Then don’t worry – most probably you’re already afflicted with this condition.

Then you get listed on the Patron of Reading website. Think Match.com except for matching hibernating authors with super-humans like librarians and teachers. Like in any dating profile, just reveal enough of your reading for pleasure tendencies and the general neighbourhood where this affliction affects you – and I mean more than your own room – like a city where people live and schools are run. (At least for now; if you don’t vote, who knows, all parents might have to home-school compulsorily).

See what I did there!

Then the tall man with a big heart tweets out your patron profile to a legion of followers who re-tweet it as if these are cute cat pictures until an eager school spots you and goes Aha! We’ve would like that one please – yes that author with the yellow shirt, long hair, standing next to a stack of books and a pile of laundry. Is that you? Then you’ve been matched.

Once you’re matched, the above-mentioned tall man will approach you with details of your suitor. Where is the school? Who will be in touch with you? Who is this teacher who on top of everything they do, has agreed to be the Patron of Reading coordinator.

Like in any self-respecting matching situation, you get to talk (and by talk I mean, by email or phone or Skype or telepathy, whatever suits) with the potential school you will be patronising.

 

Here is the thing – this is where you reveal your reading habits – poetry? Ghost stories? Adventures set in abandoned islands? Don’t be shy. You’d be surprised when you listen to their choices.

This is where you find out what does your potential suitor want? What kind of school is it? What motivates the children? Why did they choose you? What could you bring to the table (other than a chair of course)?

You have questions? You are too shy to ask your potential suitor? Shoot it across to the matchmaker. He has weathered every what, why and when.

One too many?

Well – what do you think? Have you agreed the terms and conditions of patronising? Do you have a date setup? Ooh! That’s exciting, isn’t it?

Hold fire! Don’t relax yet. Plan the first visit as you would plan any school visit – except you’re not going to be running creative writing workshops. You’re going to find ways to promote reading for pleasure. The keyword as you might have noticed is PLEASURE!

Like in any first date, take it slow. Don’t overwhelm the school with your enthusiasm. I’ve been there! Both in life and in schools. Figure out what they need from you and in what levels of enthusiasm. You might have time between two book projects and want to run a competition for the children. (Or you just want to procrastinate). Teachers as you might have guessed from teachtwitter, are an overworked bunch. They might not have time to jump into every rabbit-hole the patron wants to. So KEEP CALM and READ FOR PLEASURE.

Then agree frequency of visits. Ask them how they would like to stay in touch when you’ve returned to your cave after inspiring them with the love of reading. Maybe they would want to, maybe they won’t. Maybe the things you initiated on the first visit doesn’t fully pan out. Don’t fret. You get to go back, build relationships and try new things.

That’s it – there is no secret handshake (well, I’m not telling you, if there’s one), there is no heavy manual in all European languages (Brexit means Brexit, didn’t you know?)

And there are no set rules about how you patronise reading. Standing up, sitting down, upside down, reading poetry, non-fiction, stories, picture books, newspapers and cereal boxes – it’s all up for grabs.

Willing to take the plunge? Reach out to the tall man with a big heart (also called @jonnybid) and leave the rest to the universe.


Chitra Soundar is a Patron of Reading at West Earlham Junior School in Norwich, where she brings stories from different countries into the classrooms. She gets on their radio show, teaches them voice modulation and tells them stories from brilliant books. And when she’s not patronising, this is what she’s up to. Find out more here. Have questions, shoot her a tweet at @csoundar.

 

An Introduction to Writing for beginners

I recently did a session with a group of year 7 students and I shared some of my thoughts about getting into writing.

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Also while I was in India this time, many asked me about writing and how to get started. I thought the content I created for the Year 7 group would be great for anyone who wants to begin to write.

So here is a slideshow on some key thoughts on writing, as I see it.

If you find this useful, do share it with others.

 

Have you read these Inspiring Books?

I’m a self-taught writer. I didn’t study literature at school. I grew up on abridged versions available in cheap paperbacks in India and didn’t study the classics that British kids are exposed to over the last three decades.

I learnt my craft by reading about writing and by writing, by submitting a lot of failed attempts and by reading a lot of what I wanted to write. I took lessons from other writers, attended workshops (Meg Rosoff calls me serial workshop attendee) and went to writing retreats.

I read a lot about writing and the art of the story. Not just about the craft – but about editors, their experiences. I read author biographies and auto-biographies – not to figure out the magic – but to learn the magic. I have a shelf full of craft and advice books on writing, not to mention a collection of some more in my kindle.

I recommend books I love, books I learnt from and books that inspired me to fellow writers and friends who want to learn to write the first time. I tweet about books I love. I try and make contact with the writers who inspired me (serial stalker of other writers?). And I thought it’s now time I document all my recommendations in one place.

Where do I start?

My first love of writing was writing picture books. After many failed attempts, I met Anastasia Suen online and did an online course with her. I don’t remember what I wrote in her class. But I’m sure a lot of it stuck in my head.

picturewriting

Then I went out and bought her book “Picture Writing.” It covers other topics like chapter books and YA. But this was the book that formally taught me to write picture books.

With a lot of advice from Writers’ Digest – I went and bought “Crafting Stories for Children” by Nancy Lamb. Another book that helped me with

craftingstoriesforchildren

foundations. Reading that book again recently, I realized I might have skimmed through the chapter books and YA part – but many aspects of writing stayed with me. It was like little gaps of the sky filled with bits of clouds of wisdom.

 

At the same time, I read two books that gave me the courage to write.

birdbybirdBird by Bird by Anne Lamott and Stephen King’s

On Writing: The Memoir of the Craft.

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These two are classics that no new writer can start without and I’m sure all of you have already read it.

 

 

More recently, I read Writing Picture Books by Ann Whitford-Paul. A bible I should say, for those who want to write picture books.

writingpicturebooksA focused book covering all aspects of writing picture books.

A few years ago after a bout of break-ups and a very heartbroken phase, I stopped writing for months. I didn’t know how to get back to writing. I didn’t want to write. Then I came across a recommendation – Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. I bought that book in a US bookstore and read it cover to cover.

This book writingdownthebonesbrought me back to writing. Slowly – one prompt at a time, one exercise at a time, I rediscovered the joy of writing.

I followed that one up with “Wild Mind” and “Old Friend from Far Away” by Natalie again and I was hooked. In fact I signed up to spend a week in a Buddhist monastery listening to her talk about writing, all the way in Santa Fe, New Mexico. And this time, in spite of yet another wrangle with my ex, the trip was productive and my writing was going strong.

Natalie I should say, talks the way she writes. Actually it’s the other way, isn’t it? She writes the way she talks. She runs silent retreats in France and Boston every year, where all you do is walk, meditate and write. Not for me, though. She also recommended non-stop writing through the night. She said, the subconscious takes over when you’re drooping over your notebook and you’d find surprising things appear in your notebook. Haven’t been brave enough to attempt that yet.

When I’m talking about rediscovering writing, I should talk about Susan G.Woolridge’s books – Poem Crazy and Fool’s Gold. poemcrazyThese books taught me to love poetry when I despaired that I don’t have formal training. She taught me to trust my instinct and love for poetry and inspired me to create a Muse Box. I have a cardboard box full of stuff I collected in parks that I wrote about.

This list of recommendations will not be complete without some of my recent kindle acquisitions.

Invisible Ink by Brian McDonald is a master class in storytelling. invisibleinkIt was written for storytellers – wherever they might be – in studios writing screenplays or writers working on their manuscripts. He brings story and myth to the craft without ever lecturing you on structure and form. thegoldenthemeHis other book The Golden Theme is a must-learn concept for writers. You can’t miss adding these two books to your shelves.

Brian himself recommended me to read BILL IDELSON’S WRITING CLASS: A SCRIPTWRITING CURRICULUM. And I did. What a wonderful way to break down writing a story – maybe in screenwriting form – but the emphasis is not on the form of screenplay or novel or picture book. It’s all about the story.

I still have a long list of books to recommend about specific craft aspects and of course the list of inspiring biographies and books by editors. That’s for another day.

Until then, be inspired, create and have fun!

Blurb Therapy for your Books

“Dexter already knows everything there is to know about kindergarten. His big sister Jessie, went there too, and she’s told him all about it. So Dexter is not scared. Not even a little bit. Nope. Not at all. But his stuffed dog, Rufus, is scared. Actually he’s terrified.”

This blurb on the jacket of the hardcover “Kindergarten Rocks!” sets the scene, the tone and the characters of the story. It introduces the reader to what the book is all about and defines the essence of what comes between the sheets.

Who is the first reader of your story? Even before the darling spouse, the resourceful critique group and the wicked editor – you are the first reader of your book. Then you deserve a blurb as much as the book lovers in this universe – right from a grandma who picks it up as a gift to the alert school librarian who puts it through a rigorous test.

What is a blurb?

Blurb refers to the powerful paragraph written by an editor about the book she sends out to face the cynical world. Blurbs draw a reader in as much as the cover does. Blurbs give a glimpse of the treat in store and keep the reader just a bit guessing on the happenings.

Blurbs tease, baring just enough to dare the reader to peek and holding back so that the reader would take the book home. Blurbs don’t give the story away; they enhance the excitement, promising a jolly good read.

Try this exercise. Pick any book that you have read already. Put on the editor’s cap. Write a blurb to sell the book.

What are the characteristics of a good blurb?

Short and succinct: No one wants to read a critical analysis of the book on the jacket flap. Nor do they want to read an uninformative one-liner. The blurb should be short enough to fit into a jacket flap and meaty enough to help readers judge the book.

Everyone heads out the door, even little Bitty, who follows her big brothers and sisters to school. In class, Bitty stays busy with math, reading and snack time. But when Mama comes for her, the youngest student finds that she is most happy to return home.
School by Emily Arnold McCully

Essence: The blurb should bring out the essence and theme of the story in the blurb. What is the story about? New school jitters or a new step-parent or schoolyard bullies? What is the book all about?

Everyone knows the jumble of feelings that go through a child’s head as the first day of school approaches – especially if it’s the first day at a new school.

Will they like me? Will I make new friends? What if I don’t like it? These are questions Sarah Jane Hartwell asks herself as she tries to build up enough courage to embrace her new school.
Blurb from First Day Jitters by Julie Dannenberg.

 

Hook: Blurbs should hook the reader in and lead him into a maze of characters, themes and exciting scenarios. It should grab the reader’s attention and force them to feel passionate about the story within the covers.

 

Stanley Yelnats is under a curse. A curse that began with his no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing great-great-grandfather and has since followed generations of Yelnats. Now Stanley is unjustly sent to a boys’ detention centre, Camp Green Lake, where the boys build character by spending all day, every day, digging holes exactly five feet wide and five feet deep. There is no lake at Camp Green Lake. But there are an awful lot of holes.

Yup you guessed it – the first para of the blurb of Sachar’s Holes.

Lead: Just as much the blurb reveals, it should also be mysterious. Never give out the ending. Make sure to raise questions in the minds of the reader. We want the reader to find out what happened to the character that has been portrayed in the blurb.

It doesn’t take long for Stanley to realize there’s more than character improvement going on at Camp Green Lake. The boys are digging holes because the warden is looking for something. But what could be buried under a dried-up lake? Stanley tries todig up the truth in this inventive and darkly humorous tale of crime and punishment – and redemption.

The second para of the blurb of Holes.

Positive reflection: The last couple of lines or the second paragraph of a blurb should reflect on the writer and influence of her personal experience in the story, the language and the target audience.

Take one disarmingly engaging protagonist and put her in the company of a tenderly rendered canine and you’ve got yourself a recipe for the best kind of down-home literary treat. Kate DiCamillo’s voice in Because of Winn Dixie should carry from the steamy sultry pockets of Florida clear across the miles to enchant young readers everywhere.
Karen Hesse on Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo

Told with deceptive simplicity, this is the provocative story of a boy who experiences something incredible and undertakes something impossible. In the telling it questions every value we have taken for granted and reexamines our most deeply held beliefs.

Blurb for The Giver by Lois Lowry

 Another exercise to blurb your brain

Put on the reviewer’s cap. Write one paragraph about the same book discussing its merits and demerits and end with a recommendation. All within 200 words.

So what’s in it for a writer?  If blurbs are written by editors, why is the writer bothered? Isn’t it the job of the editor and her marketing team, to sell the book?

As hooks in cover letters

When Becky catches a cold and has to stay home from kindergarten, Grandmas Rosalie and Sophie come over to take care of her. Becky’s grandmas love her very much, but they can’t agree on anything! Grandma Rosalie treats Becky’s cold with hot tea, but Grandma Sophie is sure orange juice is best. Grandma Sophie sings a soothing song, but Grandma Rosalie wants to tell Becky a story. Using wise lessons learned from her kindergarten teacher—including “TAKE TURNS, PLEASE!” and “REMEMBER TO SHARE!”—Becky helps her grandmas to get along and understand that there’s always enough love to go around.

That’s the blurb from Pamela Mayer’s The Grandma Cure. But doesn’t it sound like the opening of a covering letter? Doesn’t it sound like sales pitch at a conference? Isn’t it just the right description of the book in a paragraph?

Blurbs are useful tools to pitch your book or sell your story. It helps the editor to understand the theme of the book and also the main issues tackled inside. But it doesn’t give the story away, encouraging the editor to read the submission attached to the cover letter.

Try this at home! Pick a manuscript that has been coming back like a boomerang. Write a 100-word blurb selling it to the editor of a suitable magazine.

Blurbs can also be useful when you don’t have enough to put as past sales in the cover letter. You summarise the submission for the editors, helping them to figure out if the topic is right for them or not. Just like in a bookshop, you browse the blurbs on different books and pick the one right for you, an editor can read through the different blurbs to find out which one is right for her publishing house.

As a synopsis tool

Imagine what it would say on the jacket flap of the hardcover edition of your book. Imagine how book reviews will present your book. Write down the essence of your book in two paragraphs. If you cannot condense the theme of your book into a jacket flap, it is going to be tough selling the book to an agent or an editor and then eventually to a reader.

Crunching the Blurb One-line Summary

Open one of your favorite books – go the copyrights page. Do you see a one-line summary? How does that help? Librarians often order books not by looking at covers and jacket flaps – mostly by reading the summary in their online catalogs. It can help you understand what’s important in your story and what’s not. It helps you focus your energies on the main part of the story and prevents you from adding flab to the manuscript.

One last word

When you attempt blurbs or one-line summaries on your manuscript, very often you will face a situation where you don’t know what to say. That doesn’t always mean you are not good at writing blurbs. It might mean the theme of your book is elusive. The passions and the core of the book have not been dealt with enough clarity.

Share here if you  have favourite blurbs and if you are struggling to write one for your books.

Make the Most Out of Conferences

Playing catch-up is okay when you are five. But if you are a serious writer and spent a lot of money traveling to a conference or attending a workshop, you should be prepared to take advantage of the events and not play catch-up with the speakers.

Most conferences invite experienced writers and editors for the events. These speakers specialise in a particular genre or are experts in a specific area. Their keynote speeches and lectures would focus on pre-arranged topics.

If you go unprepared for these conferences, you will realize that many of the terminologies are new to you and also that the speakers do not have the time to clarify doubts on fundamental topics.

Some of you might think – “Hey, that’s why I go to a conference. I want my fundamental questions answered.” Why waste the money and take the effort to go to a conference when you can find all the fundamental details in most books and websites. From conferences and workshops, you should strive to learn what the books, magazines and websites cannot teach you.

Let’s assume that you have already done the research and decided on the appropriate conference. You have paid the money and also made travel plans.

What’s the next step? You need to prepare.

Read about the speakers.

If they are writers or editors, read at least two of their books. Based on your reading, choose your workshops. You cannot decide which writer will best suit your work unless you read their work. Reading a speaker’s books also gives you the most promising opening lines in informal conversations. Knowing the work of the editor or the writer will be useful when you are preparing questions for the speaker.

Some speakers might not be good orators. But their writing might be exceptionally brilliant. You will not appreciate their workshops if you have not read their books before.

Plan your schedule.

 

Whether the conference is happening in your city or elsewhere, don’t plan other social activities during the conference days. If you have family and friends (who are not writers) in the city you are visiting, plan activities before or after the conference days, so that you can spend the conference time working on your conference notes, manuscripts and the like.

If you are traveling to another city or country for the conference, keep a day or two for tourism; don’t squeeze it into your conference days. You don’t want to have a hangover or tired feet and doze off during lectures.

Read up the basics.

If you have done your homework and learnt the basics from books and websites, you will be able to ask questions that have emerged in your mind and are not answered by these books. Also you will avoid wasting the time of speakers (not to mention other attendees) and also have more time to ask questions that are better answered by your speaker.

Learn the Business Basics

Find out what query letters are, what are submissions and how do you submit your work to a publisher or a magazine. You can also find out about market guides, industry practices and about the all-prevailing SASE (US), SAE (UK)

Learn the Market

If you want to write mysteries, read as many mystery books you can. Find out which publisher is interested in mystery titles. You can do that by checking the names of publishers in the books you read. Also you can check the market guides to find out who is publishing what.

By doing this, you gain an overview on the publishers and you can ask specific questions about these publishers during your lectures Q&A session or workshops. If you didn’t even know who is publishing the kind of stories you write (or want to write), you cannot get insider info in conferences.

Prepare for Publicity

Also, if you are already published, please carry a copy of all the books you have written and copies of published magazine articles. This will prove very useful when sharing your work with other attendees and speakers.

The difficult part is done. Now let’s look at what you should do during the conference.

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a)           Arrive early (at least 15-20 minutes). Talk to other participants and speakers who have arrived early. If you are talking to another participant or a speaker, discuss their books, the process of writing and selling it and also about their publishers.

b)           While attending lectures and workshops, take notes. Don’t rely on your memory.

c)           Distribute your business cards and collect cards from others during breaks and chitchats.

d)           Seek out speakers during the break and introduce yourself. Start conversations citing their books. Make general fun conversations too. Let them understand that you are not interested in them just as a speaker but also as a fellow-writer. But don’t hound them while they are at lunch or in the toilet. That’s just not professional.

Finally the frenzy is over. The conference is over or at least the first day is over. Is your work over? Not at all.

a)      At the end of every day, type up (if you are carrying your laptop) or write down your notes, your learning and your reflections. Memories fade and learning will be lost. Such notes are useful for future workshops and also for discussing the conference with your writers group or family.

b)      After the end of a day’s event, hang around; speak to organizers or other writers. If there is a group dinner or outing arranged, don’t make excuses and watch cable TV in your hotel room. Go out and enjoy being with other writers. How often do you get to spend time with people who understand terms like SASE, rejections, revisions, not suitable for our present needs etc.

c)      After the entire event is over, give yourself a day or two of rest. Then start the follow-ups. List the names of editors who were interested in your work. Check out publishing houses that others recommended. Send Thank-You emails to writers and speakers you interacted with.

d)      If you have the email addresses of writers and editors, maintain contact. You’ve to balance this with NOT stalking. Keep them updated about your progress, any new articles published, if they expressed interest in your work.  Foster the relationship you created in the conference.

Conferences are expensive. Unless each participant prepares ahead it is not easy to get substantial benefits. Make your money work harder at conferences and you will learn more than what they taught.

Here are some conferences you can attend

SCBWI’s annual conferences in New York City and L.A – visit www.scbwi.org

Highlights for Children run retreats and other focussed workshops. Find out more at www.highlightsfoundation.org

Society of Authors in the UK run annual conferences too. And especially the CWIG gathering for children’s writers. Find out more at http://www.societyofauthors.org/

Winchester University runs annual conferences for writers. Find out at http://www.writersconference.co.uk/