Friday 29 November 2013

Writing Tips #1: Finding Your Story

People often ask me for writing advice. So I'm doing a series of posts here, where I'll be giving my own tips, and collecting some favourites that have inspired me.

I'm beginning with my all-time favourite piece of writing advice. I like it so much, I have it pinned up on the wall of my study.  It was written by JD Salinger, in his novella Seymour: an Introduction.
"If only you'd remember before ever you sit down to write that you've been a reader long before you were ever a writer. You simply fix that fact in your mind, then sit very still and ask yourself, as a reader, what piece of writing in all the world would you most want to read if you had your heart's choice? The next step is terrible, but so simple I can hardly believe it as I write it. You just sit down shamelessly and write the thing yourself."

Monday 25 November 2013

School Visits: Christ Church Primary, Crowland Primary & Beckford Primary

I'd like to say a big thank you to everyone I've met on school visits in the last couple of weeks!  Firstly, all the Year 4s & 5s at Christ Church Primary.

It was great visit, very enjoyable indeed!  It was amazing for me to meet people who were already reading Phoenix, and really interesting to hear about all the other things you've been reading and writing.  If you have any more questions or things you'd like to say about my books or about the visit, this is the place to do it!

I'd also like to say thank you to all the Year 6s at Crowland Primary, who gave me a great welcome on Friday!  I've had a couple of lovely comments already from Crowland students on this site:
Dear SF Said thank you for coming to Crowland primary school.For answering all are questions and reading a little of your new book Phoenix. 
Dear SF Said I really enjoyed your visit our school Crowland Primary School. I hope you can try to have a look at the question sheet I gave you. i didn't tell you my name but I am Tran. From Parrot class. I hope you had a great time to. I hope you can visit again. have a Great evening
Thank you both very much!  And Tran, thank you for your questions.  There are quite a lot of them, so I can't answer them all, but I will answer this one:
Do you have any advice for writing a great story or book?
Yes, I have lots of advice!  Actually, people ask me this question quite often, so I'm going to start doing a series of blog posts about it.  I think I'll call the series "About Writing", and hopefully I'll make the first post this week – so please come back next weekend and have a look and see!

Finally, I'd like to say a big thank you to all the Year 4s at Beckford Primary who I met today!  It was great to hear all your questions and thoughts about Varjak Paw and Phoenix.  And, given the fantastic painting in the entrance to your school (see above), you may be interested to know that the new book I'm writing at the moment is called TYGER!

Sunday 17 November 2013

Authors For The Philippines

Here's an amazing initiative to raise money for the Red Cross’s Typhoon Haiyan Appeal, to get aid to the people most affected by the typhoon in the Philippines.  A bunch of authors have donated items to an online charity auction.  Anyone can bid for them, from now until Wednesday 20th November.  If you win an auction, you'll receive the item, and all the money will go to the Typhoon Appeal!

I've donated the following items:

Signed first edition hardbacks of Varjak Paw & The Outlaw Varjak Paw - very rare these days! Unlike the paperbacks, the dream sequences are in colour (amber in the first book, blue in the second!) 

Signed first edition hardback of Phoenix - will be rare one day soon!  

Note: All these books will be double-signed: once by me, once by the brilliant Dave McKean.  We've hardly ever double-signed books before, so these will be super-rare!

Many other authors & illustrators have donated fantastic items: Malorie Blackman, Philip Pullman, etc etc... Please please please, go to the site, have a look, and make a bid  – it couldn't be for a better cause!

Thursday 14 November 2013

Video Review, plus Questions & Answers!

Here's a fantastic video review of Phoenix, by the brilliant book blogger Leena Norms – justkissmyfrog on YouTube.  I love the way she talks about children's books, with real passion and intelligence, and I love what she says about Phoenix, comparing it to Patrick Ness's A Monster Calls, among other things!  She's great on Dave McKean's artwork too; it's really worth watching, check it out:

Leena also interviewed me, and asked some very interesting questions, about both Phoenix and Varjak Paw – covering subjects like world-building, martial arts, character creation and collaboration with Dave McKean. Read the full interview here!

Photo © Leena Norms
Meanwhile, I received a lovely message on this site from a reader in France.  He writes:
Dear SF Said,
Hello, my name is Victor, i live in France... and I have some questions to ask you if you don’t mind. I know that you may not have time to reply my message, but it’ll be the best if you reply, I will be soooooo excited!
Hi Victor! Many thanks for your message, and your questions. I don't think I can answer all of them, as there were lots & lots, but I'll answer a few!
When is Varjak Paw 3 coming out? What will it be about? Will there be a Varjak Paw collection (Varjak Paw 1,2,3,4,5,6,7.......)?
There will definitely be a third Varjak Paw book, but I don't think there'll be more. You see, in the first book, he's a kitten.  In the second, he's an adult cat. In the third book, I think he'll be an old cat, like the Elder Paw or Jalal. But to write a book about an old character, I need to be old myself, to know what it feels like. I'm getting there, but I'm not quite ready yet! In the meantime, if you enjoyed Varjak Paw, I hope you'll read Phoenix – I think it's the best book I've written so far!
How do you write a book? How long does it take to write a book like varjak paw?
I work every day – I go to the library, and I sit there and write until I've done my work. I do that every day (except weekends & holidays!) I write in drafts, and with each draft, I try to make the story better, with the aim of getting to the point where I can't find any way to make it any better. That takes a long time. Varjak Paw took five years; The Outlaw Varjak Paw took three; and Phoenix took seven! I wish I was quicker, but that's how long it took me to make those stories as good as I could. 
What methods do you use for writing such so interesting books?- I even think your books are better than Roald Dahl, Jacqueline Wilson and Michael Morpurgo’s books!! The books you wrote are the best books I’ve ever read!!
Thank you, that's an amazing compliment, though I can't agree about the other authors, because they're among my own all-time favourites! I think the best thing a writer can do is to read a lot. Every writer is really just a reader who's decided to write the books they want to read, the ones that don't exist yet. I have many favourite authors; some others are Ursula Le Guin, Peter Dickinson, Philip Pullman... I could go on... So my advice to anyone who wants to write would be to read as much as you can; be prepared to do lots of work; and never give up!

Thursday 7 November 2013

School Visit: Hillhouse Primary

I'd like to say a big thank you to the brilliant Zoe Heffer and all the Year 4s and 3s I met at Hillhouse Primary yesterday for giving me such a great welcome!

It was wonderful to meet you all, and to see the fantastic work you've been doing on Varjak Paw and The Outlaw Varjak Paw!  I had some lovely comments on my site even before the visit, and some more lovely comments since:
HI SF SAID i am mollieanne it was really fun when u came into my school today thankyou very much for signing my book today i really want to read your new book phoenix it sounds really interesting and yes i will keep the way alive and again thankyou from mollie
Hello Mr SF Said. Thank you for visiting Hillhouse primary school today. I hope you had a nice time talking about your writing and signing our books. You are my favourite writer and I enjoyed reading about Varjak Paw. I hope you write more Varjak Paw books. Thank you from Jasmine
Mollie and Jasmine, thank you so much!  Messages like that really mean a huge amount to me...  I hope you enjoy reading Phoenix too – let me know if you do!  And if anyone else would like to leave a comment about the visit or my books, this is the place to do it!

Tuesday 5 November 2013

Libraries & Librarians, Carnegies & Greenaways...

I'm a little stunned today, because I just found out that Phoenix has been nominated for both the CILIP Carnegie Medal for outstanding children's books, and the Kate Greenaway Medal for illustration.

This is huge to me.  The Carnegie and Greenaway Medals are some of the biggest awards a book can be nominated for – but more importantly, they're nominated by librarians, and librarians are among the most important people in my world.  Because I write in libraries.  I love libraries.  Phoenix would literally not exist without them.

You see, I'm not disciplined enough to work at home.  I waste whole days looking at the internet, having baths, etc.  But in a library, I don't mess around; I get down to work.  It's quiet, and everyone else is working, so I feel it's only right that I should too.

I can't claim that libraries  shaped my childhood.  My family was a migrant one; we came to Britain when I was two years old, and older members of my family never lost the sense that some things out there were "for the British, not for us".  Among these were the NHS and public libraries; so sadly, we never used them.

Andrew Carnegie

Instead, I discovered libraries as an adult who was finding it impossible to work at home, and losing my way as a result.  Libraries saved me.  They gave me a quiet space to work in, with a nice big desk and lots of handy research material – and crucially, opening hours.  Because once you decide that you work in a library, you can't put your work off until midnight; the library isn't open at midnight.  You've got to get it done during the day.  That really helps keep you sane and disciplined when you're writing something that takes years.

I don't even talk to anyone when I go to the library.  I just show up, do my work, and go home.  I'm just another public library user, and I love that. 

Kate Greenaway

The most familiar faces for me are the librarians.  They're unsung heroes, in our culture – even more so in recent years, with all the cuts – but I see what they do, day in, day out.  They are brilliant.  Absolutely brilliant.  They're the ones who create this amazing space where reading is valued, where books are the most important things in the world.  Can you imagine what that means to someone whose whole life is focused on writing books?  Librarians are total stars, as far as I'm concerned, and without them my work would never get done.

So this is a massive thank you to all the libraries I've written in, to all the librarians who created that space – and to whoever noticed Phoenix, and nominated it for these awards.  It means more to me than you can possibly imagine. 

Friday 1 November 2013

Phoenix news, reviews & interviews...

There's been more coverage of my new book Phoenix, so it's time for another update of reviews & interviews... Click the links to read the full pieces!

Louise Ellis-Barrett of Armadillo children's book magazine interviewed Dave McKean and myself at the London ComicCon back in July. The full interview appears in the autumn 2013 issue, where she writes:
"Phoenix is a delicately balanced book, a work of love, a delicate, complex and yet balanced world, a blend of story and illustration... It was worth the 7 years of work!"

Meanwhile Phoenix received five stars in the children's book magazine Books For Keeps, and a wonderful review from Ferelith Hordon, which means a lot to me, as she is one of Britain's most distinguished children's librarians. She writes:
"It is exciting to see the partnership between S. F. Said and Dave McKean back and the combination is as dynamic as before. The plot is full of action... Sentences are short, description is kept to the minimum and is delivered with confidence while there is plenty of dialogue, ensuring the story moves along briskly. All of this will make it attractive to young readers who will find it easy to identify with the characters... Throughout, the text is intertwined - invaded even - by McKean's trademark black and white illustrations. Except here these are more than illustrations, picking up as they do elements of the narrative, driving it on, creating visual excitement and tension through images that have form and at the same time the formless energy of the universe." 

There was an excellent post by Jake Hayes of the beautiful book blog tygertale - particularly exciting for me as the working title of my next book is TYGER! He writes:
"This is a sprawling, big hearted space opera written with the ambition of Star Wars, imbued with the emotion of E.T., shot through with the grit of Alien and the downbeat mood of Moon... It's a thing of beauty, a masterclass of how text and image can work together for a slightly older audience."

There've also been three reviews in recent days from young readers, which I have to say, I value more than anything. Two of these appeared on the Guardian Children's Books site. First BookTrain125 wrote:
"Phoenix is an amazing book. It really grabbed my attention. If adventure is what you want, this is the book for you! It's gripping and I could not put it down. It was absolutely irresistible."
Then Wizard wrote:
"I thought that Phoenix was an absolutely fabulous book... Normally I am not too keen on science-fiction books but this book was an exception. When I started reading, I just couldn't stop! Phoenix is one of the best books I have ever read!!!!!!"

And finally, 11 year old book blogger Louis of Home For Bookworms gave Phoenix a 10/10 review:
"I really liked this book because Lucky is a great super hero for kids, someone who puts others first. People who like SCI FI and adventure novels and are Varjak Paw fans will enjoy this too."
 Please share these links if you like them – it would really help to spread the word about Phoenix!