Hi Anne-Marie and welcome to tall tales & short stories. Would you like to tell us a bit about yourself?
I am a primary school teacher who specialises in drama and I also run my own children’s drama company. I’ve always worked with children and I’m lucky that my work, for the most part, has been very creative and satisfying. I only started writing about five years ago but I have always been passionate about children reading and writing and loving books. I am married and I have two boys (who luckily both LOVE reading) but I have to say that all members of my family get a slightly glazed look in their eyes whenever I mention the B word (which is quite often!)
Phoebe Finds Her Voice
Things are not going well for Phoebe Franks (Shyest Person in the Whole, Entire Universe). Her mum and dad can’t stop arguing. Her best friend in the world has found a new best friend. And her arch enemy, Polly Carter, is doing her level best to make Phoebe’s life a total misery. But when Phoebe plucks up the courage to join Starmakers, a new out-of-school drama club run by her class teacher, Phoebe wonders if her luck might be about to change.
Practically too shy to speak at the first session, Phoebe is sure she’ll never be brave enough to join in with everyone else, let alone sing and dance. But as the group works towards its first production, The Dream Factory, Phoebe’s confidence starts to grow. Will she ever be able to sing her solo? Will she find a way to stop Polly Carter being such a bully? And most importantly of all, will she manage to get her parents talking again in time to see her perform on the biggest night of her life?
Phoebe Finds Her Voice is aimed at 7-11 year olds and is the first book in the Star Maker’s series.
* What inspired you to write Phoebe Finds Her Voice?
I was on holiday away from my computer and itching to get on with an earlier writing project I’d started. Because I didn’t have that manuscript with me - or any way of accessing it - I decided to start something new. I can remember the exact day I wrote the first page of Phoebe and it’s funny because even though the book has changed so many times and in so many ways since then - that original page remained more or less unchanged (although it ended up much later on in the first chapter)
As far as inspiration – it was years of putting on musical productions with a special group of children who came to feel like a big extended family. All the high drama of putting on a show, as well as the dramas they were experiencing in their own personal lives. I haven’t taken any one child’s story and put it in the book – it’s more the rich tapestry of all their universal hopes, dreams, worries and frustrations.
* You work as a primary school teacher specialising in drama and you run your own children’s theatre company, Full Circle. How much does this influence your writing?
It definitely influences my writing in terms of the content and ideas but the voice is something that I imagine came from years before I became a teacher or a writer. When I was much younger I lived alone in Israel for quite a number years and my parents used to say that the letters I sent home to them were so alive it was like having me in the room with them while they were reading. I’m pretty sure that this angst-ridden, pre-teen, first person voice is the voice that has emerged in my writing.
* Ultimately, Phoebe Finds Her Voice, is uplifting and positive but it also deals with some serious issues. How important do you think it is for children to read books that deal with difficult situations, such as single parent families, or broken homes? Do you think it helps the younger reader know that they’re not alone, perhaps even empowers them in living their own lives?
I do believe that children (and adults) love to read about other people going through problems that they either go through themselves or perhaps worry about even if they haven’t gone through them personally. Reading about difficult situations between the covers of a book can be reassuring and comforting to someone who is experiencing similar problems.
I returned to a school the other day to pick up some books I’d left there and a 10 year old girl came up to me and said in this tiny voice: “I am Phoebe.” We got chatting and she said she was very shy and she wished other people knew how well she could sing - just like Phoebe. She also said she was going to try and pluck up the courage to join a drama group.
* Even as an adult reader, I empathised completely with how the separation of her parents affected Phoebe and how it culminated in an almost crippling shyness – something I experienced myself at that age. Do you hope that both parents and children could gain something from reading about this kind of situation? Did a real-life experience of this situation help inspire the book?
There was a child who I taught when I was first a teacher who was so shy she couldn’t even say her name when I called the register, she would just raise her hand with her head down. I noticed one time in assembly when we were singing that she had a beautiful voice and so at the first parents evening I suggested to her mum that she try to get her to come to my drama club. Eventually after a lot of persuading she came along and although it took over a year before she’d sing in front of the others she is now 21 and has just finished a degree in performing arts. We are still very close and she definitely inspired Phoebe but I had similar situations myself. When I emigrated to Israel for example, I became chronically shy and really lost my voice in a way. So many children do ‘lose their voices’ for a whole number of reasons and it’s so important they find a way to be heard.
* When writing Phoebe Finds Her Voice, did you use memories of how you were at that age or did you get feedback from girls of Phoebe’s age to get the feel of the ‘voice’ just right? Do you use your own children or any others as a ‘sounding board’ for your books?
It’s possible that the voice is authentic because I work with children all the time but like I said earlier I think I just sort of have that voice inside me. Maybe it’s because those years were so intense - both in an exciting and traumatic way. As far as my own children go, my eldest son has read everything I’ve written as I’ve gone along and he gives me amazing feedback (not always complimentary) but I do trust his judgment.
* Phoebe Finds Her Voice is your debut novel. Was it your first attempt at writing a novel or did you have other manuscripts hiding away?
I started off writing some comedy sketches for my theatre company - which mostly involved boys dressed up as girls. I then embarked on a long and complex novel about the first two years I lived in Israel. It was for a slightly older audience than Phoebe and I very naively sort of wrote it and sent it off convinced it would be fought over at some huge auction and then published to critical acclaim!!! In the event one publisher was interested in it and while they held on to it for quite a long time it was eventually turned down. It was a great learning experience but when I think about it now I cringe!
* How long did it take you from initial inspiration to finally achieving the publication deal?
It took three years from when I wrote the first word to when I signed the contract with Usborne.
* Phoebe Finds Her Voice was shortlisted for the inaugural Times/Chicken House Fiction Competition. Did receiving this recognition help you in finding an agent and publication deal? Would you recommend aspiring writers to enter competitions such as this?
It helped hugely. As soon as I was shortlisted I wrote to lots of agents and they all wanted to see Phoebe. I was offered representation from two but decided to sign with Sarah Davies of The Greenhouse Literary Agency because I loved everything about the way she worked with authors and I knew I could learn so much from her.
I would definitely recommend competitions. When you enter a competition you know that someone is actually going to read at least the first page/chapter of your work. When you send your manuscript off unsolicited you can’t be sure that someone will actually read it before it’s rejected!
The Times/Chicken House Children's Fiction Competition 2011: terms and conditions
* Did achieving your first book deal change the way you approach your writing?
Well I had to get much faster!!! I spent three years working on Phoebe but had four months to write Polly and the same for Sam (books two and three in the series) I quite enjoyed the speed actually… it was motivating to know someone was actually waiting for the manuscript.
* Do you plan your stories in advance, or do they happen on the page?
I do make a plan but then find all sorts of things emerge as I go along. Sometimes I’m so immersed in my writing that I read back what I’ve written the next day and I have no memory of writing it or having the ideas. It’s like I get into a zone and my subconscious takes over (either that or I’m just getting old!!!)
* Rewrites and Revisions: How much did you have to do throughout the writing of Phoebe Finds Her Voice?
I went through lots and lots…it even changed titles at one point. I re-wrote it so many times and it was tough - but I knew with each revision it was getting better.
* How long have you been pursuing your writing ambitions and what have you done along the way to improve your writing?
I’ve been writing I suppose for about 5 years now. The main way I’ve tried to improve is to take on board all the advice I’ve received from Cornerstones first of all, and then Sarah – most recently from the editors at Usborne. It’s easy to be precious about your work but if I’d been reluctant to make changes I wouldn’t be in the position I am today.
* I remember your name from the Youwriteon website. For anyone who’s thinking of trying an online crit group such as Youwriteon, how helpful do you think they are for feedback and honing your work? Would you recommend their use?
I think it was helpful up to a point but I think I also possibly used the site as a distraction activity when I could’ve been writing! It’s so addictive to read more and more manuscripts so that you get more and more people to read yours. The problem is you can get a lot of conflicting advice. I do believe though that anywhere you can showcase your work has got to be a good thing.
* Before getting an agent and achieving publication did you have to deal with rejection along the way? How did it feel to finally secure the agent and publishing deal?
My manuscript was rejected so many times I’ve lost count. Sometimes it didn’t really bother me but sometimes – especially when the whole manuscript had been called in and I’d got my hopes up – I’d be devastated. You have to be so determined and so driven to actually keep going. It’s a kind of madness in a way.
The most exciting moment for me was when Barry Cunningham called me at home to say my book had been shortlisted in the Times/ChickenHouse competition. It was like a dream come true – I was literally shaking all over. The second I put the phone down I rang my mum and just screamed like some sort of half-crazed lunatic.
* What made you think ‘I want to write for children?’ Is it a genre you enjoy reading?
I never considered writing for adults… I’ve always had this passion for children’s books and children reading and writing. Even before I started writing myself my main interest in my teaching career was to try to inspire children to love books. There’s nothing more magical than being lost in a book - and I think all children deserve to experience that magic.
* Which authors/stories did you enjoy reading as a child/teenager? How do you think they compare to the children’s novels available today? What do you think children of today want to read?
My favourite books were the Mallory Towers books by Enid Blyton but to be honest I read anything I could get my hands on. I was never really into fantasy – I love real-life stories so I suppose that’s reflected in the books I’m writing today.
I don’t think reading is fundamentally different today. My boys have both loved the Enid Blyton books… they love anything that has good characters and a good story… something that makes them laugh or makes them sad. Anything they can really get their teeth into. I think those qualities in a good book are timeless.
* Phoebe Finds Her Voice is the first book in The Starmakers series. How many books are you hoping to write and what can you tell us about them?
I have written two more books so far in the Star Makers series.
The second book is about Polly. She is very unhappy at home after her mum goes off to live in Spain for a year and she is forced to live with her dad and the dad’s new girlfriend and baby. She finds herself drawn into a social networking site and is led down quite a dangerous path.
The third story is about Sam, I’ve only written the first draft so probably shouldn’t say too much about it yet.
* Words of wisdom and advice to any aspiring writer?
Don’t think it’s easy. Be determined. Don’t give up.
Take lots of advice and be prepared to make lots of changes. There’s nothing more exciting than seeing your book in print and a child desperate to read it. Fantastic!
* Any other comments/observations/general mind-blowing information you‘d like to add?
My hands are dropping off and I’ve got to pack up my entire house now to move!
* AGENT'S COMMENTS: Sarah Davies of The Greenhouse Literary Agency
It’s not easy to write in a natural, light, contemporary kind of way for the commercial, girl-oriented market – though many writers think it IS easy! So when Anne-Marie came into my inbox, I was immediately interested. Though the manuscript was rough in some ways, she definitely had the voice, and the ability to be entertaining, even funny, but also give the reader a twist of something deeper and more moving. And that’s the tough bit – getting how humour and sadness can (and generally do) coexist within the same life, the same sentence.
Anne-Marie reminded me broadly of Cathy Cassidy, and yet still managed to do something fresh and her own with the genre. When I read most writers’ efforts in this area I end up cringing; all too try-hard and faux cool. Anne-Marie felt like the real deal, albeit with work still to do in terms of shaping. But it’s always the potential that grabs me. And that’s why I signed Anne-Marie as my client!
Phoebe Finds Her Voice ~ a tall tales & short stories review
Phoebe Finds Her Voice is a wonderful book full of quirky, endearing characters and Anne-Marie Conway has created a funny, sensitive, and thoughtful character in 12-year-old Phoebe whose first-person narrative is told with genuine wit and warmth.
An ultimately uplifting, feelgood story based around a drama club, the story also tackles some serious issues with a lighthearted yet insightful touch. Phoebe's struggles with her acute shyness brought on by her parents' split, the awkwardness of changing friendships, the spiteful bully - all problems many children can identify with.
Phoebe Finds Her Voice makes for a fun, accessible read with real heart and Dream Factory sparkle!