An audience with Jacqueline Wilson

Recently I attended an audience with children’s writer, Jacqueline Wilson at the beautiful Tyne Theatre and Opera house in Newcastle. The audience comprised almost entirely of 8-15 year old girls and their adult companions. I was probably the only unaccompanied adult. So why was I there?
I’d heard Jacqueline Wilson speak five or six years ago whilst studying for my MA in Writing for Children at the University of Central Lancashire and had been impressed by the ease at which she spoke about her writing and career, but particularly by the fact that, despite being one of the best known children’s book authors in the UK, having published over a hundred books for children, she remains approachable and down-to-earth. The overriding memory of the first talk I attended was her confession that every time she writes a new book, she worries whether it will be good enough for her readers. I was unpublished at the time and I found her honesty refreshing and reassuring.
On this occasion, Jacqueline seemed equally at ease with her audience. Without referring to any notes, she sat and talked about her career as a writer and her books for an hour before answering questions from the audience. I’m sure Jaqueline’s been asked some of those questions thousands of times before, but you would never have known by her responses. Each question was met with a nod, a pause for consideration and as full an answer as she could considering the time restraints.
So what did I take away from the experience this time? Firstly, that Jacqueline Wilson takes her role as an author seriously. While I firmly believe that although writers, like all creative artists, may be blessed with unique talent, talent alone is never enough for success. Her status as an author is the result of years of dedication, discipline and determination.
Jacqueline always knew she wanted to be a writer. She spoke of how as a child, when she told people of her ambition they would patronise her with a smile and say, “That’s nice.” She read voraciously and carried on writing throughout her school years; encouragement from a teacher at secondary level easing some of the hurt and disappointment caused by a setback experienced in primary. When she spoke of her primary teacher’s failure to recognise her talent, I was reminded of what I now regard as my first painful rejection. Mine was in early secondary. I’d written a story about a dog which died. I don’t remember details, but, in retrospect, I suspect it was probably an outpouring of grief at the death of my uncle’s dog, a miniature collie called Shaun which I loved as if he were mine. I was proud of my story and was devastated when I saw the low mark and read the teacher’s comment expressing her surprise at my ‘emotional guff.’ Fortunately my next English teacher encouraged my love of all things literary, rewarding my efforts with the role of editor of the school magazine in my final year.

But back to Jacqueline Wilson. Seeing an ad for an upcoming teenage magazine which requested teenagers to send romantic stories, Jacqueline took the calculated risk of sending a story which was not romantic, but was accepted. At the age of seventeen, she moved from London to Scotland and did whatever the magazine editors asked of her, penning ‘readers’ letters, and even horoscopes despite, as she readily admitted, having no relevant experience or knowledge. What she did have was unwavering determination and enterprise. This magazine was Jackie, which I and practically every teenage girl in 70’s Britain adored.
What stayed with me this time, however, was Jacqueline’s connection with her readers. I’ve no doubt every young girl in that theatre hall today went away feeling special. Those who managed to ask her a question would have felt particularly thrilled, whereas those who had hoped to, but weren’t chosen, no doubt felt a tinge of disappointment, but Jacqueline Wilson, had, by sharing her story with enthusiasm, humour and humility, connected with each and every one of them through a shared love of reading and, in some cases, writing.
When one girl asked if she’d considered writing about the effects of social media on teenagers, she replied that the thought had passed her mind, but as a technophobe, her knowledge and understanding was limited. She then made the audience laugh by admitting this is the reason her novels for younger readers are contemporary, whilst those for teenagers are set in Victorian times when there was no social media.
Jacqueline is compelled to write. People, she says, suggested that instead of writing two novels a year, she should take it easy and write just one. This proved an impossibility, as did her attempt to take a fortnight’s break from writing. After a week, she admitted, she gave in and just had to write. I like Jacqueline Wilson. I like her books. I like her work ethic and I like her personality. But above all I like her enthusiasm for reading and writing. We have a shared passion and that’s why I was there.

Two seasons in one day

I’m writing this blog in what was once the croquet lawn of the fabulous Jacobean residence, Crook Hall, situated high on a hill overlooking the river Wear. It’s an idyllic spring afternoon, the garden is awash with narcissi and to my left buds of rhododendron are just beginning to open into fists of streaky pink blooms. I’m working on my children’s novel , a faerie-themed fantasy, of which I have just completed the first chapter of the fourth and final section. But I’m finding it difficult, sat here with the thrill of birdsong in my ears and the warmth mid-afternoon sun on my neck, to conjure up the bitter cold of a forest in winter. I’ve revisited my section notes, but although this has helped remind me of the climax and conclusion I’m working towards, it hasn’t given me the inspiration I’d hoped to move the plot into the next chapter and scene.

I’m not worried. This is a corner I’ve turned many times before. When I return home and before I open my file to write again, I’ll use some of the many resources I have at hand – books about nature and the seasons, a DVD with inspirational images of forests throughout the seasons and more resources both paper-based and digital.

My mother and I have just bought annual passes so this is the first of what I hope will become a series of many visits to Crook Hall. The Hall and gardens has much to offer as a writing venue: from the shelter of the ancient hall itself (in which I wrote a chapter or two of my first novel, Red God Black God), to a patchwork of delightful gardens, each with their own individual personalities, there is ample opportunity to find a place to write, read or just wander in search of the writing muse.

Mam and I had a coffee on arrival in the new café, before taking a gentle stroll up into the Cathedral Garden, where we wrote with a backdrop of the beautiful cathedral. We lunched in the Hall itself before settling to write once again in the Georgian wall garden. I hope to complete the first draft of my novel by summer, and who knows, perhaps my planned visits to Crook Hall will result in another children’s novel, this time inspired by the great hall itself? It certainly oozes with possibilities.

Being shortlisted shows that ‘self-published’ doesn’t always mean ‘lesser quality’ – DOROTHY MASSEY Interview

INTERVIEW: DOROTHY MASSEY was shortlisted for our Children’s Novel Award for Red God/Black Godher self-published novel about a teenage Maasai girl who takes a stand against her village’s traditions. Dorothy is a Literacy and Creative Writing tutor and has an MA in Writing for Children from the University of Central Lancashire.


Your novel began life in a notebook stuffed inside your bag on a trip to Kenya. Did a specific person or moment provide the story’s spark?

I think the idea germinated before I even got to Kenya, actually. I’d visited Zambia the previous year, and went to Kenya hoping to find inspiration for a novel which I would begin to write as my dissertation project. On visiting schools in both Zambia and Kenya, I was struck by the value placed on education, and when the opportunity arose to visit Kimana Secondary school, I went armed with a list of questions to ask the students. Many of their answers surprised me, especially when several of the boys stated corruption as being top of the list of things they didn’t like. Although I wasn’t aware of it at the time, one girl’s disclosure that she hoped to become a doctor and perhaps discover a cure for AIDs played a significant part in forming the premise of my story. Several other experiences during the visit became encapsulated into the novel and I plan to write about some of these inspirations in my blog.

Tell us about Red God/Black God

Red God/Black God is a contemporary real life drama set in the heart of a Maasai Community in Kenya. The novel explores family relationships and the transition into early teens through the eyes of a young Maasai girl, Neema, whose tribe is undergoing a parallel transition – attempting to uphold traditional values against the encroachment of modern-day advancement. The warring red and black gods of Neema’s favourite legend represent her own individual struggle to make sense of what’s going on around her and gain a much-desired education.

Who is your target reader?

I wrote the book with a target audience of upper primary, lower secondary in mind, although it’s creating a lot of interest among adults too, who are buying it not only to gift to younger people, but to read themselves. It’s difficult to place Red God/Black God into an age range. My aim as an author was to be inclusive – when people choose to read my book, I’m delighted whatever age they are. The issues facing the main character, Neema, may differ from those experienced by teens in the west, but the themes of family, community and coming of age are universal. It’s a book for anyone who likes contemporary realistic fiction, particularly those who enjoy learning about different cultures. One reviewer wrote of the novel, “it’s not just a story, it’s an education.” Whilst my focus was on telling the story, I do like to think that readers are left having learned something new, or come away with a fresh perspective.

You’ve taught English, Literacy and Creative Writing for many years to students of all ages. Do you have a favourite lesson / class / age to teach?

I love working with people of all ages, but if I’m completely honest, I particularly enjoy the late primary/early secondary year groups, which is also the age group I prefer writing for.

I’m passionate about literature, so whether it’s discussing novels, plays and poems with a student, helping them produce and improve their own writing, introducing a student to a new writer, poem or book, I love it all.

One of the many aspects of your novel our reading panel loved was the vivid depiction of the setting. What do you think is the secret of writing successful settings?

One tip is to try and encompass all five senses in your description so that the reader gets a multi-sensory experience. They should not only be able to see the scene, but hear, smell, feel and possibly even taste it.

Also, although it’s been said so many times it’s almost a cliché; read as often and as widely as you can. All craftsmen and creatives learn from the masters and writing is no exception.

There are many imaginative ways to immerse yourself in the setting, without actually being there physically. When writing about Africa, I used notes taken during the visit, but also read fiction and non-fiction books, blogs and articles. I looked at photographs, watched videos and television programmes set in Africa too.

At present, I have a bookshelf dedicated to forest life which may provide material for the background and setting of my new novel, Forest of Imaginings. My main character, Tarnock, must spend a year in the forest, to prove his worth of becoming elven king. So I have reference books on trees, flowers and wildlife, as well as books on forest folklore and other forest-themed children’s books. I have a notebook filled with ideas, information and photographs from visits to Hamsterley Forest, which is  local to me, and a visual representation of the changing seasons on DVD. I refer to these resources during and before writing sessions, for inspiration and information.

Your short stories have won several prizes. What do you love most about the form? Short stories are often more accessible to the reader, particular emergent readers and those who find reading a challenge.  As a writer, the short story format forces you to tighten your prose and your plot line.

Some of the children who took part in our Young Judging panel for the prize have been inspired to write their own short stories for competitions. Any tips for young writers on how to make their story shine out in the entry pile?

My advice would be to make every word count. Write a story which delights, amuses or moves you. If you love it, the judges are more likely to love it too. Then make sure you don’t exceed the limit. If your story is too long, and even if it isn’t, ask yourself if every word and sentence is the best you can produce.

How was waiting to see how far Red God/Black God progressed during our Children’s Novel Award?

Both exciting and nerve-racking. I didn’t sleep well the nights before the shortlist and longlist announcements. I was so thrilled to be longlisted and even more so to see my name on the shortlist.

We’ve read that your favourite children’s book is Skellig by David Almond. What do you love about his writing?

51mHUR96EuL._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_I bought a copy of Skellig at an author visit to Bishop Auckland Writer’s Group shortly after it was first published and it remained my favourite children’s book for many years. Having recently read  David’s A Song for Ella Grey, however, I’d now find it impossible to choose between the two of them. Almond’s writing has so many qualities I admire; unique voices, memorable characters, fabulous depiction of settings and relationships. David Almond is a writer who is not afraid to explore the vulnerability of humanity in his novels and does so in prose which has a beautiful lyrical quality.

Has your shortlisting had any impact on book sales or traffic to your website?

Yes, the day after I discovered I’d been shortlisted, I opened the Christmas fair at my local church and experienced my first book signing. It was a very exciting and memorable weekend and I sold more copies than I’d expected. Being shortlisted has encouraged me to step up my marketing strategies considerably. I’ve redesigned my website to include a blog, Writing Out, and am soon to launch a second edition of Red God/Black God, which celebrates my success by way of a tagline on the front and Sallyanne Sweeney’s comments on the back.Recently, I discovered that I’d sold my first copy of Red God/Black God in the States. It’s fabulous to see it gaining exposure outside the UK. Copies have also reached Kenya. Kennedy Nganga, the artist who designed the cover image and who runs a mission to educate girls in Kenya, now has several, and I’ve recently been able to send some to the Maasai Community via Maa Child, a charitable trust who also provide educational opportunities for  local girls.

You’ve published Red God / Black God independently on Amazon. How did you find the process?

It was challenging! The worst part was formatting. Although I used a template, this was a laborious and frustrating process as every slight edit would throw the alignment out and I’d have to adjust page after page to get it right. I did everything myself; editing, proofing, cover design. At times I must admit, I regretted this decision, but the sense of achievement on publication was amazing. I learned a lot during the process and have learned even more since. This time round I’m hiring someone else to do the formatting and help with cover design.

What are the pros and cons of being an indie author?

The biggest pro is having control over the complete process. The cons are having to do everything yourself or pay to have someone do those things for you. Marketing in particular is a bit of an eye-opener and there are so many options. There are many experts eager to ‘help’ – numerous marketing tools and platforms to consider, but many charge considerable fees. I took advantage of as much as I could for free and monitored the results of each marketing campaign, at first on a weekly basis, then monthly. Now I will pay for a service, but only if it’s reasonably priced and has proven results.

There is still a prejudice towards self-publishing and people tend to assume that traditionally published books are better quality. For that reason, having my novel recognised by the award panel gave me much needed recognition and a sense of validation. Self-publication can lead to books which are published before they are ready. However, it is possible to find professionally published books which are substandard or poorly edited too.

Did you consider the traditional publishing route and / or seeking literary agent representation? Is it something you’d be interested in the future or are you happy as you are?

My ideal scenario was to get agent representation. At first I was set on the traditional publishing route and hoped to find an agent to represent me, leaving me free to edit and write. I did submit to a handful of agents, whilst simultaneously submitting directly to a couple of publishers and entering a couple of competitions, but the process was long-winded and frustrating.

The decision to self-publish came as a result of a couple of coincidences. I was at a local writing retreat when one of the other participants asked about self-publishing. Two local novelists, Wendy Robertson and Avril Joy, talked about their experiences of publishing with CreateSpace. Wendy had many years of experience in traditional publishing, but had recently reissued her novels through the self-publication route. CreateSpace’s publish on demand option eradicated my greatest worry about self-publication which was paying upfront for a sizeable print-run, with the risk of being left with a pile of unsold books.

I would like agent representation and/or to be taken on by a mainstream publisher, but I’m happy with the self-publishing process and pleased I decided to go down that route.

What are you writing now?

I’m writing a fantasy novel called The Forest of Imaginings, which is about two thirds complete.  Marketing and relaunching Red God / Black God has taken priority lately, but I’m hoping to at least have the first draft of The Forest of Imaginings completed this year. I also write poems and books on the website Some of these are joint ventures with my pupils, one of whom introduced me to the site.

You’ve written a Guide to Creative Writing Workshops. Tell us about your favourite chapter / topic?

I hadn’t thought about that before, but two workshops immediately come to mind. The first is on character development and the second on setting. The character development workshop involves reading diverse examples from Charles Dickens, Nick Hornby and Isa Dewar before completing a range of fun character-developing exercises. I’ve adapted these exercises in practice to a range of situations which work with adults and children in group and one-to-one sessions.

The other workshop comprises of reading and discussing descriptions of a fantasy and real-life settings. The main task encourages students to imagine the setting as if looking through the lens of a camera, panning out, then zooming in.

This was the first time we’ve had a shortlist dominated by writers with MA’s. What was the best part of your MA?

The MA was a life-changing experience in many ways. My two trips to Africa were both amazing and completely unexpected bonuses. I enjoyed the variety of modules which covered many aspects of children’s fiction, including history, publishing and psychology and met experts in the writing and publishing industry – people who were as passionate about writing and reading children’s literature as myself.  But the best part was that although the MA officially ended when I graduated, the benefits didn’t end then. I’m still making use of what I learned and the confidence, tools, guidance and sense of accomplishment have all stayed with me. Above all, I have an amazing support network of people I met during my study.

Lastly, our 2016 Children’s Novel Award opens to entries from 29th April 2016. Any words for writers thinking of submitting their novel?

Go for it!

Welcome to Write Out – Dorothy Massey’s author blog

Welcome to my new author website and blog.  I’m typing this first blog  in my most favoured writing place – the armchair by the window in my front room. I do have an office upstairs,  but use it to store books and files, prepare lessons and do admin. I feel disconnected from the world up there, and whilst many writers may prefer the solitude, I find the less academic, informal rooms of my house more comfortable and comforting spaces to write. Perhaps that’s why I also like to write (and read) in bed propped up by pillows against my oak headboard. This is where I often make notes, plan and journal.

But one of the beauties of writing is that it can be done any time, any place, anywhere. I like to take my writing, and my readers, out.  My novel Red God/Black God began life in a notebook, stuffed in a denim bag on a visit to Kenya, but a lot of the research was carried out on a computer at home and the University of Central Lancashire where I was studying for an MA in Writing for Children. The main character of the novel I’m writing at the moment was inspired many years ago by a task in a creative writing group I used to attend in a local Town Hall, whereas the setting owes much to the beautiful Hamsterley Forest,  just a short drive away from my home.

Notes made in Hamsterley Forest
Original text written in the writer's group workshop
Original text written in the writer’s group workshop

I love writing, whether at home, or in a noisy café, the top of a lighthouse, the courtyard of stately home or under a tree by a lake (yes, I’ve been there and done them all!).  My aim for this blog is to write out and share where, when and how I write. Please write out and share your experiences too.