Last week I was fortunate enough to attend two events run by Bookfeast, an organisation that seeks to encourage a love of reading, writing and talking about books. The events were aimed at primary school children and held at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, in a huge but stifling lecture theatre (it was our week of summer, after all).
I’ll split the posts into two otherwise they’ll become too long. This first one is about Ali Sparkes – a well respected and loved author of children’s adventure stories.
Picture courtesy of United Agents (not from the event itself!)
A born performer
When Ms Sparkes took the floor, it was obvious that she had a natural affinity with young people and with presenting. In fact, her dream as a youngster was to be an actress and she spent some time in pursuit of this before turning to print journalism and then radio broadcasting. This interesting career path has had obvious benefits: Ms Sparkes brings her multimedia experience to life in her presentation – she had the kids hooked during the 40 minutes or so that she talked.
Not a born reader
There is an expectation that all authors must have been born bookworms but this was not the case with Ms Sparkes, who revealed that, actually, she wasn’t good at reading or writing. However, a chance discovery of an Enid Blyton Famous Five book at the back of the toybox started her love of reading – it was the first story that she had read, cover to cover. After this, she devoured most books that came across her path, including the classics. Conversant with what constitutes a good read, she started writing her own story – Webster’s Week Out – in a ruled exercise book – and wrote a series of four adventures.
The publishing path
Ms Sparkes’ publishing path is familiar to any aspiring writer. Having rediscovered her passion for spinning a yarn, she started sending stories off to publishers and scripts to various agencies in the hope of success. Her scripts did find a home in BBC Radio 4. Someone in Bristol heard her creations and asked her to come up with some ideas for BBC kids’ comedy. Her offering was a story about vampire bats and it was shortlisted down to a final three. Then she heard the word all us writers dread… ‘Unfortunately…‘ Yep, that’s right. It wasn’t ‘quite right’ for them.
Plop goes the weasel
At this time she was raising a couple of boys and going through that ‘noisy boardbook’ phase. The one that parents dread but other adults seem to bizarrely think will go down well. The annoyance at the various bells and whistles on these books led her to design a prototype boardbook of her own called The Boy Who Said Plop. The idea was that a child could record themself saying ‘plop’ and then play it back when required. We all had a go and were treated with a replay of a screaming sound of more than a hundred children shouting something that might have been ‘plop’ but was distorted beyond belief! Three publishers showed interest, three invited her for meetings and three uttered the word ‘Unfortunately…’
However one of the publishers said they liked her writing and asked her to come up with some other ideas. She did but the answer was still the same. (Do I need to write it again?)
After years of rejections she turned to an agent, who helped her to start getting her stuff out there. One day OUP called about a story and she sat back, waiting for the usual polite rejection. What came instead was an offer for a five-part Shapeshifter series.
After the story of her route to success, Ms Sparkes took questions. I’ve slightly paraphrased her answers – hope this is OK!
Is it fun being an author?
Mostly, yes. I like meeting people, getting ideas, getting published, etc.
Which of your books is your favourite?
This is like asking a mother who their favourite child is! They are all special, but I guess the first one was even more so.
Why didn’t you just give up?
My experience as an actor helped me deal with rejections more positively. I knew I shouldn’t take it personally and that what I was sending in just wasn’t right for that publisher, not that there was anything necessarily wrong with what I was doing.
What is the hardest thing about writing a book?
It’s great when you become successful but it can be hard too. I spend a lot of my time travelling to do events but I still have deadlines to meet so I have to write even when I am feeling unwell. And sometimes I will have two different series on the go at the same time!
Where do you normally write?
I write in a part of my bedroom when I am at home but because I travel a lot I have learned to write wherever I need to if I have to.
What is your favourite book by someone else?
The Whispering Mountain by Joan Aiken. I also liked Mortal Engine by Philip Reeves.
You can find out more about Ali Sparkes and her books on her website: http://www.alisparkes.com/