Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Interview with Thistleblower Editor - Maureen Lynas

As a member of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI-BI)

I was invited to contribute some author interviews to the Scottish SCBWI newsletter, Thistleblower.

In preparation for this new role I interviewed the Thistleblower's new editor and fellow SCBWI member, Maureen Lynas.

Hi Maureen, please tell us a bit about yourself.

I’ll start with the traditional approach. I live by the sea and I’m very happily married with two grown ups, one man and one woman who have fled the nest. We did have a number of pets but they are all dead now, however, as they were all gerbils, hamsters or rabbit’s this isn’t as traumatic as it sounds.

I’m a very lucky person. I’m writing full time having given up teaching and I get to spend my days thinking ‘What if’ and talking about writing with my husband. I’m unpublished (as a fiction author) but I am determined to make it and joining SCBWI is one step towards that goal. I’ve learned so much already and met some great people.

What made you think ‘I want to write for children?’ Is it a genre you enjoy reading?

Writing for children lets me do anything! Extreme face-pulling, magic bras, cows falling in love with flowers. I think that’s why I love it so much. The only limit is my imagination - and my ability to get the age range right, develop strong characters, think of a good plot, and keep the faith.

And yes, I love reading children’s books. Some of my favourites are Goodnight Mr Tom; Not Now, Bernard; The Knife of Never Letting Go, anything by Dahl and I’m a huge Potter fan.

As an active SCBWI member, what projects are you currently working on?

I always have a few projects on the go so that I can rest them and then come back to them with a fresh eye. The Bloodcurdling Bug-eyed Jawbreaker is on another draft after a very useful critique from Cornerstones, which highlighted some stuff I knew deep down but had chosen to ignore in the hope no one would notice!
I Wanna Dog (a romcom between a boy and two dogs) is waiting patiently to be finished as is Abracadabra (starring the magic bra mentioned above).
Then there’s the picture books; Buttercup’s Flower and I am a Mole and I Live in a … I’ve written those with my daughter Katherine and we’ve just sent them off to Little Tiger Press, so wish us luck, please.

Oh and of course, I have just volunteered to be SCWBI Scotland’s newsletter editor. I spent two days at the June event sitting on my hands to prevent myself volunteering for anything and then when it was finished we went to the pub and I got talking to Karen, the designer, and she said editing was easy and then …

Have you won or been short-listed in any writing competitions?

I’m hoping! I’ve entered Bloodcurdling Bug-eyed Jawbreaker into Undiscovered Voices. I did have it on the Authonomy site for a while (HarperCollins critique site) and it reached number two on the children’s list but the whole thing was too time consuming and you just won a HC review so I put my hand in my pocket and paid Cornerstones for one instead. I’ve entered Abracadabra in the SCBWI comp for new writers too.

Congratulations to Maureen. The Bloodcurdling Bug-eyed Jawbreaker was recently announced as having received an Honorary mention in the SCBWI Undiscovered Voices Anthology competition.

Do you have a favourite genre or age group you prefer to write for?

No, and I’m hoping this isn’t going to be a problem. I know publishers like to promote you as a writer of … but I have so many ideas for future books that cover the entire range from young adult to board books. It’s hard to know what to focus so I think I will just have to go with the flow on that one. (I’ve just read Jane Yolen’s article and she’s written for everything so I think I’ll copy her lead.)

How long have you been pursuing your writing ambitions and what have you done along the way to improve your writing?

Ah. Erm. A while. Actually, ten years. BUT I wasn’t any good ten years ago. I started with picture books because I was a reception teacher and thought I knew the genre inside out. Ah, how the mighty are fallen. I got some brilliant rejections! However, at the time I didn’t know they were brilliant. I didn’t know about the standard rejection slip (I only discovered this when I started writing for older children). So, even though I had some long, helpful, rejection letters and a two pager from a reader at Random House (and a phone call) I put the stories in a drawer and forgot about them. Apart from the one that Andersen Press kept for two years, that went into the drawer later.

I’ve just counted up – twenty nine books and sixty two rejections! Mostly the early picture books sent as multiple submissions. I made the classic mistake of not redrafting those early books. I always moved on to the next one. I don’t do that now, I am much more focussed on plot and structure before I begin writing.

I decided to have a go at books for older children and got involved with Cornerstones who pointed out that I was a funny writer BUT I needed to learn my craft. (Best writing moment so far – went on a Cornerstones course and as people read my story, they laughed out loud! Yay!) And so we bought bookshelves to house the huge number of ‘how to’ books that I devoured.

The books that have made the biggest difference in my writing are;
Plot and Structure, by Scot Bell and
The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler.
I would also recommend books on screen writing and screenwriting courses – the focus is on plot and structure, which is where I needed help. If you are writing picture books, you can’t beat Writing with Pictures by Uri Shulevitz.

Oh, and review other peoples work, you then spot their mistakes in your own work. I’ve used youwriteon and authonomy and I have a fantastic friend who I met on a Cornerstones course (fellow SCBWI member) who pulls my work to pieces for me. She is worth her weight in gold.

My favourite writing book is a recent one, How Not to Write a Novel, by Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman. I love it because as I read it I realised I didn’t do any (many) of the things in the book! It was like passing a writing test - they should give out certificates.

Which authors/stories did you enjoy reading as a child/teenager? How do you think they compare to the children’s/YA novels available today?

I don’t remember books featuring heavily in my childhood but stories did. Historical adventure stories on the television; Robin Hood, William Tell, Ivanhoe, Richard the Lionheart. And at school we had a magazine called Look and Learn which had a Greek myth on the back of every issue and I used to hide in the corner every Friday afternoon and soak up the fantasy.

My obsession with children’s books began when I became a teacher; it grew as I read to my own children and has never waned. There are such a lot of good books coming out now, and I go for the ones that have a good dose of fantasy, a good plot that will take me away, and say something about what it is to be a human being. I also like books with a strong sense of family, whether the family is there or not. So many of them compare favourably but Harry Potter and His Dark Materials stand out from the crowd for me.

What do you think children of today want to read?

Something good! Something they can’t put down. Something to read under the covers. Scott Fitzgerald said people read for company (have searched for the actual quote and can’t find it) but I think children actually make friends with the characters in their favourite books – this is why characters like Charlie and Lola are so popular. And why Harry Potter was a world wide phenomenon, children engaged with the three characters and just had to know what was going to happen to them. Same for Twilight. After all you don’t read seven books in a series if you don’t love the characters! So that is my focus at the moment – how to make my audience love my characters.

You successfully self-published a series called ACTION WORDS, which teaches high frequency words. The scheme consists of teachers’ manuals, workbooks, and posters and is used extensively in schools around the country.
Could you tell us what inspired you to write this series?

As a primary school teacher my focus had always been on literacy and it used to puzzle me why some children found it so easy to read and others didn’t. Then I had a boy in reception called Anthony, and I spent a huge amount of time trying to teach him to recognise words and letters but he just couldn’t do it. He spent the next year with someone else and I got him again as a year 2. He still could not remember them. Then I introduced a scheme called Letterland, which gave a visual clue to the letter in the form of a character – Annie Apple looked like an apple – and the light bulb went on in Anthony’s head! Eureka! He could do it and he was so thrilled to be able to read like everyone else. After that I was always on the look out for a way to switch on more bulbs. Then I used a scheme called Jolly Phonics, which used an action to demonstrate each letter and I wondered if you could apply a similar technique to the high frequency words. So I did – and it worked.

Could you explain how the scheme works and how it benefits children?

Basically, we take in information through our senses; visual, auditory and kinaesthetic (bodily) and store it in our short-term and long-term memories. The usual method of teaching a word uses the first two – you are shown the word, you listen to the word, and then speak the word. Which is great for the two thirds of the children in the average class who have good visual and auditory skills: but not so great, if you are weak in those areas. By adding in a meaningful action to each word, you access the physical memory. This is the most powerful and long lasting memory - we never forget how to do things like ride a bike, swim, knit etc even though we haven’t done them for a long time. Any child can benefit from this scheme as it speeds up the learning process but what I like to imagine is all those light bulbs being switched on all over the country. And I love getting the ‘thank you’s’ from teachers and parents.

Perhaps you could also mention something about the self-publishing process? Give a few words of advice for anyone thinking of going down this route?

I could have approached publishers but decided to self-publish just to see what would happen. Because Action Words was a spiral bound manual it was easy to get a local printer to produce copies as and when required. I started locally with my own authority and involved six schools in the product testing process, and involved my class in the development of suitable actions then I did my first presentation. The weather was atrocious and only two literacy co-ordinators turned up! And one was a good friend. But that was the worst one.
I targeted Special Needs teachers who go into a range of schools and work with struggling children (there’s a good picture) and they became my advert. Schools saw the improvement in those children and ordered for the rest. Soon Action Words was in over 70% of schools in the North East. One consultant even bought it outright for every school in her authority – we’ve since become great friends.

The worst thing about self-publishing was the time spent running the company – developing stationary, doing the tax, all that stuff. It got in the way of being creative, making new products and becoming a world famous children’s author (still working on that!) So my husband Geoff took over. He completely revamped the system and produced the wonderful products we have today.
You can see them on www.actionwords.co.uk

So that’s it, you know all about the Thistleblower's new editor.
Thank you to Tracy for the interview and if you are not already following Tracy’s blog please give it a go. She has interviewed people who are actually, properly, famous!


For any aspiring children's writer, I thoroughly recommend joining SCBWI, a worldwide organisation of like-minded writers and illustrators. It provides support and opportunities to network and exchange knowledge about the diverse fields of children's and young adult literature, magazines, film, television, and multimedia.

1 comment:

Brian Lux said...

I can empathise with the lady, as I have been writing far longer, but the wait is worthwhile IF you get published. 'Court of Foxes' is giving me fun and reward (not financial). However, having self-published an illustrated book which has done well, a word of caution. Even though I have been taken on by a publisher, I still have to arrange book signings, and pay all my own expenses. The moral?....keep your daytime job.

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