Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Oxford Literary Festival 2012: Days 1 and 2

To my delight, the Oxford Literary Festival has begun and will be running through to the end of next weekend.  So far, I have attended three events and had three books signed.  Not bad at all.

The bookish fun began Saturday morning, at a panel discussion about Dickens and children's literature featuring Philip Pullman, J. D. Sharpe, and Christopher Edge and chaired by Mario Dickens Lloyd, an editor and great-great granddaughter of the great man himself.

I was heartened to find out that all three authors had come to Dickens through various adaptations as children and teens and started reading the books themselves as adults, which is much the same way I came to Dickens.  I was afraid they would all be terribly precocious and have read David Copperfield as young children (I think I've heard Claire Tomalin say she did this). 

Perhaps the best part of this talk was having Philip Pullman sign our lovely Everyman's edition of His Dark Materials.  Also, he confirmed that Will's portal at the beginning of The Subtle Knife is very close to where we live.  I will do my best, however, not to slip into alternate universes.

Then, in the evening, there was a panel called Life, Death, and Other Grown-Up Subjects, with YA authors Patrick Ness, Moira Young, Tim Bowler, and Sally Nicholls.  There was much discussion of the necessity of a certain degree of darkness or extremity in constructing stories with high stakes and that won't come off as "humbug" to teens.  Tim Bowler pointed out that even tragedy with the everyone-dead-on-the-stage ending has its place in our literature; after all, if we didn't have Shakespeare's tragedies, we would be missing quite a lot.  There was also interesting discussion around the benefits of writerly doubt and terrible, lovely difficulty of writing novels.  Teri Terry over at Notes from the Slushpile has blogged about the panel in much more detail.

After this, it was off to the pub for an evening of chatting books, writing, and publishing with some lovely Oxford-area Society for Children's Book Writers and Illustrators members (I became a member about a month ago - a great decision!).

Then on Sunday morning, I attended a three-hour workshop called Bookcamp: How to get a Children's Book Published, with Julia Churchill from the Greenhouse Literary Agency and Leah Thaxton, publishing director at Egmont UK.  Julia and Leah gave similar talks at a recent SCWBI Professional Series meeting in London, which has been blogged about in much more detail by JE Towey and and Caroline Hooton.

However, some general observations.  First of all, it's really lovely to know that agents and publishers, apart from anything else, are really just looking for great books they can fall in love with.  Of course, then the challenge is to write a really great book.  Yikes.

Julia explained that for writers, there's really not much point in paying attention to publishing trends, because the timescales involved in selling and then publishing a book are so long.  By the time your book comes out, say, 2 years after signing with an agent, the field will have changed a great deal anyway.  Leah described the ideal editor for one's book, as well as a publisher's ideal author (in part, a writer who is willing to work hard to improve the manuscript!).  Also, apparently people within the industry are getting worn out by vampire novels, unless they have a humorous spin to them (perhaps like Eat, Slay, Love).

Because the Bologna Book Fair was just last week, I asked if there were any interesting trends that had come up there.  Leah said what she is looking for in particular is joyful, life affirming stories and humour, especially for a younger audience.  Julia said the only trend she discerned was the publishers were looking for contemporary romances with a twist.  Very interesting, even just from the standpoint of a reader who loves children's books.

I came away from the morning with a head packed full of information and a keen desire to get back to editing my MS.

P.S.  That last event was held at Queen's College, which is beautiful!  I must go back soon with Tim and play tourist.


  1. I was at the Philip Pullman event but sadly wasn't able to attend the evening one. I also attended the Children's Bookcamp a couple of years ago - Julia and Leah make a great team and were so positive and friendly it created a wonderful atmosphere. Good luck with your editing!

  2. Thanks, Lorna!

    And I agree, Julia and Leah made the whole publishing process seem less mystifying and more human.