On 21st October award-winning author Frances Hardinge gave a talk to the members of the Golden Egg Academy at the British Library in London. She also read from her new book, A Skinful of Shadows.
Storm Brian almost stopped me from getting to the Golden Egg Academy (GEA) talk with Frances Hardinge. He howled and battered the house throughout the night. We woke to yellow weather warnings and cancelled trains.
At 6am I decided I wouldn’t go. It would be reckless. At 8.30am Brian didn’t seem as angry and other members of the GEA were tweeting to say they were on their way to London.
There was nothing on the news suggesting you shouldn’t travel. And my two shiny copies of the Lie Tree, illustrated by Chris Riddell, were staring at me from the table begging to be signed.
By 9.20am I was at the station. Replacement bus services were on standby in case trees fell on the line but luckily they hadn’t. Two delayed and very slow trains got me to Waterloo station for 1.45pm, the time everyone would have finished socialising to take their seats for the talk.
I belted across London on tube and then foot being blown about by the wind. I made it to the British Library for 2.10pm, where Frances Hardinge was in full flow. I hesitated outside the room for a second wondering if I could really interrupt. Through the glass panel of the door I saw Mother Goose aka Imogen who gave me a warm smile. Before I could chicken out I pushed open the door and billowed in taking a seat at the back of the packed room.
And I’m so glad I did. Listening to Frances Hardinge’s wisdom and anecdotes was worth taking on Brian. She has a wealth of experience. Her life as a full time writer began in 2005 with the publication of her first children’s book, Fly by Night.
Here are some of the things Frances Hardinge had to share about being an author and writing kids’ books:
Life as an author comes with anxieties, challenges and not a lot of guidance. People want to know the magic spell, you get requests to do events for nothing and send out free books. It’s hard to know what to say yes to and which to refuse. Most authors are introverts and once you’re published you’ll be expected to undertake public speaking engagements. Luckily this is a skill that can be learned.
At the start of her career it was suggested Frances stop wearing her famous black hat. She tried but she couldn't part with it. Now it's part of her 'brand.' She tried to be normal but gave up. All her books are weird in different ways. They’re hard to classify as middle grade or young adult. She doesn’t dumb down, her writing can be dark and include many plot twists. Her books sprawl across genre divides. She is often described as ‘niche.’ Luckily eccentricity has paid off.
Children's authors are often asked, ‘When are you going to write a real book?’ There’s this idea we're riding with stabilisers. These are misconceptions. Younger readers are tougher and more resilient than adults think. Don't patronise them. Writing for 11-14 year olds is liberating. Frances leaves out swearing, violence and sex but wouldn't want to put them in anyway.
No author’s day is the same. Frances’s life is full of surreal contrasts. One day you can be writing alone, then next day standing on stage in front of 2,000 children. She once met Margaret Atwood while they were both wearing octopus costumes.
On days she’s writing she aims to write 9am-5pm and misses. Does a lot of writing at home in a study which is a tip - full of books.
After her talk Frances Hardinge took questions from the audience made up of published and aspiring writers who wanted to know the following:
Frances said she doesn't usually have a full formed idea but lots of different ideas. Part of her brain is like a deranged magpie collecting shiny things. She was taken with Romania’s historical sites. History felt like a living force there. Frances is a planner rather than a pantser. She had to plan even more for Fly by Night because the chapters are named after the letters of the alphabet.
· Stubbornness is the key. Luck plays a part. Keep rolling the dice.
· Planning your book helps as you can fall out of love with it part way through.
· Second guessing yourself when you’re writing can be paralysing.
· Writing the first chapter can be so hard. Frances tells
herself it's a placeholder so she
can get past it.
Frances creates word documents for her research and brainstorming - characters, fragments of world, everything is broken how to fix it and timelines. She also uses post it notes for timelines and moves them around on the kitchen table.
(The Brandford Boase is awarded for an outstanding debut novel. The award acknowledges the contribution of the editor. Frances Hardinge won in 2006 with Fly by Night.)
Fly by Night had three editors. Editing became frenzied and rapid towards the end.
Editing feels like work because it is. There's a point where you have to let it go and start the next thing. Every book has been improved by editorial feedback. It pulls the book into a better shape.
Frances has three responses to editorial feedback:
2. Yes but that's going to hurt
3. No you're wrong
She never responds immediately. For the feedback she feels is ‘No’ It might be that she needs to change something else instead to make it clearer.
Frances doesn't often listen to music unless there's a track she associates with a character, then she puts it on repeat. She occasionally works in the library or tea shops but they’re exceptions, when she needs a change of scene. Frances also turns off the internet when she needs to concentrate.
Frances types straight to computer but carries a [very spangly] notebook for ideas.
Early stage is research and planning but they also happen throughout. They help make things a bit more solid. A lot of her research isn't reading. Frances uses details from places she's visited. She scrambled around in volcanoes so that she could describe them better.
It's very hard. Frances is an introvert but pretends not to be. The largest event she’s done was with 2,000 kids. She gets stage fright every time so writes out her speech. It has sections to weave in or leave out. She tries not to look at it and needs quiet beforehand.
Travelling to events can be draining and the nerves can make it hard to get in the right frame of mind for actual writing.
· Authors are expected to do more self promotion than 12 years ago.
· There are more supportive online communities for writers now.
· There are fluctuations in risk taking.
· There are lots more routes to reach readers.
· The rise of fan fiction. Frances thinks more authors will come from here.
Frances described herself as omnivorous. She reads children's fiction, young adult and adult speculative.
Something by Terry Pratchett to keep spirits up, maybe Small Gods.
'Sometimes writing is like running a tap. You have to turn it on and let it run cold until it turns warm.' I'm going to remind myself of this when I read back over my work and think its a load of rubbish - and keep going.
Thank you to Frances Hardinge and the social team at the Golden Egg Academy for arranging such a spectacular day.
Happy writing everyone.
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