Thursday, 17 October 2019

Twelve years of Writing – So much more that the pursuit of publication.






The other day I was talking to one of my bestet-writrey friends, who said she’d read somewhere that it takes writers ten years to really hone their writing skills. Then she asks how long I’ve been writing for. This inspired me to find out, so I went back and looked in my archived files on my external hard drive, and unearthed the first piece of writing I ever did. The 351 word extract, which went on to become my first novel. The date the file was created; 28th April 2007.

Which means I‘ve been writing for over twelve years. Just over a quarter of my life. This realisation hit with a much more depressing thought, that I’m STILL NOT PUBLISHED YET! But then it got me thinking about writing has changed my life and the positive impact it has had on not just me but my whole family.

When I started writing we had ONE bookcase with only TWO shelves of books, and I hardly read anything at all, as I was too deterred by the difficulties caused by my dyslexia. Writing is intractability linked with reading, so I became a reader, but don’t ask me how many bookcases I’ve got now as it’d morph into a blog of its own! This new found love of reading has had a huge impact on my children who were only approaching their 3rd and 1st birthdays when I first picked up a pen. As a result of my rekindled love of reading, and stuffing the house full of books, by kids children who were on the schools dyslexia watch list became avid readers with reading ages well above their actual ages.



Another positive influence in the children which helped them foster a love of reading is being exposed to writers and illustrators. By attending author events, meeting their literary icons, and being able to contact them via social media, it’s made the children feel as if they have a personal relationship with the creators of their favourite books, and that they are championing them. This is something that would never have happened prior to me writing as I was totally against social media and only ever set up the accounts for writing.




However I think one of the most positive things my writing has had, is that my children have grown up watching me work every day, striving to get my writing the best it can be and to get published. Over the years they’ve seen the highs; the competitions, long-listings, short-listings, wins, the signing with an agent, and getting a contact with a publisher. But they’ve seen the lows, the rejections, the losing the agent and contact through no fault of my own. But they’ve witnessed me, dusting myself off and getting up and continuing, to improve my writing, doing courses, and continuing to submit. In an age of sticker charts, numerous certificates from school for the smallest achievements, I believe that my kids watching me struggle, getting knocked back and trying gain is good for them, as it shows not everything gets instant gratification.





Writing effects every aspect of my family’s life, from the places we visit on holidays and trips out, to how we build our chicken house (a cross between Baba Yagga’s house and David Melling’s bird house doodles) , to what scarecrows we make for the allotment (The Gruffalo and half the cast of The Wizard of Oz).





However the by far the most unexpected and by-product of writing is the people I’ve met. Children’s writers, illustrators, and professionals; booksellers, agents and editors are some of the loveliest people you are ever likely to meet. In the eleven years since I first picked up a pen, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting many like minded p[people, who all help one another and are generous with their time, empathy and honesty. I really think I’ve found not only my tribe but some of my closest friends.



So pushing the pursuit to publication to one side, I can definite say that writing has been and still is a very positive experience, and I wouldn’t change it for the world.



Tuesday, 9 July 2019

Losing you literary Hero’s



They say that if you were alive when JFK was assassinated that you remember exactly where you were when you found out. For my generation our JFK is probably Princess Diana. Where was I when I found out? In Bed. The night before I was out celebrating my nineteenth birthday and I got woken by the shocked yelling of my Dad. We spent the whole day in front of the television hoping for news. Not just any news, but wishing for the news that it was a mistake and that she had miraculously survived.

But this wasn’t the first death of someone famous that the learning of their passing is engraved onto my mind. A few years before, upon getting to my form room to register for the day of school, I found several of my friends crying. Why? Roald Dahl had died. They were mourning the passing of a hero, and grieving not just at the loss of the author himself but at the fact that he’d write no more books. I didn’t cry. But I was sad, and I re-read all his books in my own little grieving process.



Out of all the deaths of famous people, it’s the passing of the authors of beloved childhood books that has the most profound affect on me. The 2014 passing of Jeremy Lloyd hardly caused a stir in the media, and his obituaries listed his main achievement as once being married to Joanna Lumley. I was devastated that there was no mention of his kid’s books, LP’s and cartoon adaptations of his creation, Captain Beaky and his band. This was the soundtrack to my early childhood, and I even performed one of the poems, Jock the Scottish Circus Flee in a school talent contest.



Jill Barklem, the creator of the exquisite Brambly Hedge died in 2017 it brought on another bout of grief and confusion for me, I couldn’t understand why other people didn’t seem to care or even notice. I discovered Brambly Hedge in my tween years and was obsessed my it’s intricate beauty. 



As a kid who aspired to be a writer illustrator, her books fascinated me, I tried to become her. In one of my anthologies of the series was an interview with Jill and a photograph of her studio – well bureau –which I tried to emulate. I brought myself an old wooden bureau from a junk shop and set it up like the photograph in the hope, that if I copied her working method, then I might gain an iota of her talent. 

 

Forward a couple of years and I’m in bed one morning, scanning through the headlines before starting the day, to find out Judith Kerr has died. Another author whose work so important and inextricably entwined with my childhood. I LOVED ‘The Tiger that Came to Tea.’ 



I got my Mum and younger sister to read it to me over and over. I was fascinated by thought that an adventure could come knocking at my door in the form of a wild creature. I read it for my Brownie reading badge (well actually I cheated, I had it committed to memory – so no reading required!) I even searched the shelves of our local supermarket for large tins of tiger food every week, just in case a big cat should call on us. ***ACTUALLY ONE DID! A LION which escaped from a circus that was in the park opposite my house, and was found in the next door neighbour’s garage! *** 



Since the passing of Judith, there’s been an initiative for a group reading of ‘When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit’ #PinkRabbitReadalong started by the lovely and talented author Lorraine Gregory and the awesome Annaliese Avery  over on twitter.



I’m a bit late for the party (it took a while to find my copy of the book after several house moves) and a bit slow (dyslexia) but I’m participating and finding it a poignant and lovely experience. For the first time since the passing of Roald Dahl, I feel that other people are feeling the pull of the loss of a talented author (illustrator) as much as me, and that we are together commemorating and celebrating the life of an extraordinary woman, brilliant storyteller and talented artist. 



Friday, 21 June 2019

Pan’s Labyrinth – Novel – Review and Musings about Anticipation of Adaptations - Guillermo Del Toro - Cornelia Funke





Many people experience excitement and a certain amount of anxiety when they hear that one of their favourite books is coming to the silver screen. Concern whether the adaptation is sympathetic and close to the source text. Worry that they may get the characters wrong. Anxiety that the image on the screen won’t marry with the image you have carried in your mind since reading the book.

This phenomenon has been played out in Armageddon-esk proportions with the recent release of the TV adaption of Pratchett and Gaiman’s ‘Good Omens.’ After almost thirty years in print, with an army of devoted fan’s the anticipation and anxiety was at a max, with one question very much on everyone’s twitter feeds – would it work? In fact one of my friends tweeted comments ahead of its release on the small screen saying that one character ‘didn’t look right’.

I have to confess, I didn’t quite have the same reservations about Good Omens, as I only read the novel in January AFTER the character publicity photos had already hit the web, so I wasn’t quite as invested as other fans who’ve loved the book for decades.



However, I know exactly how they felt. As this is what I experienced when I heard that a novelised version of one of my all-time favourite films, Pan’s Labyrinth was in the works. The excitement was there, after all I love fairy tales, I love books and I adore the movie. However there were bucket loads of anxiety too. Some of the worries included…

Concerns that with the film such an exquisite visual feast, and with a picture worth a thousand words then surely the novel would become a monster rivalling War and Peace just to stand a chance of evoking the same imaginary in the readers mind that the movie does with its cinematography.

Worries about whether it would emulate the same excitement reading the story as it did watching it the first time? After all you can only experience the same story once for a first time. Will it retain the same poignant messages or will they be lost in translation?

All in all I was worried. The Pan’s Labyrinth film is the ultimate fairy tale movie, the benchmark that others are compared; it is not a far cry from perfection. So how could the novel ever live up to the movie?



My concerns, however, were totally unfounded, and with Guillermo Del Toro the visionary director behind the original movie and master wordsmith Cornelia Funke author of the Inkheart series at the helm the novel is quite simply; beautiful.

It delivers a true adaptation of the film and yet adds layers that make it an even more intricate tapestry if storytelling. In the novel you get to delve into the minds of the key characters, their innermost thoughts and physiques laid bare, making the line between good and evil blur. As for imaginary, I can honestly say I have never before read a book where I’ve stopped reading so many times just to admire and dwell on a sentence or description. Funke’s penmanship is awe inspiring and economic. With minimum words she evokes intricate images and complex emotions, that really does rival the film.

In addition this book is scattered with beautiful illustrations by Andy Williams, which both capture the story in the novel and replicate the imagery of the film. The spacing of the illustrations throughout the book and the monotone style emulates the style of traditional fairy tale anthologies further endorsing its fairy-tale credentials. 



All in all the Pan’s Labyrinth novel is a beautiful and poignant fairy tale which is exquisitely told and produced. So I urge any fan of film, fairy tale enthusiasts, of lover of fantasy to go read the book.







Friday, 7 June 2019

Accepting Achievements and Celebrating the Small Things.


Lately there have been a lot of discussions about looking after yourself as a writer. From Kate Mallinder's SCBWI-BI’s Words and Pictures series on resilience, to The Golden Egg Academy’s Mental Health Month, (accessible to non-egg’s via twitter) it seems like everyone is talking about how keep yourself well… sane.


I like most writers find aspects of the process difficult. The bundles of ‘No’s’ when on submission is hard. But the thing that really knocks me is the nagging notion that I’m not progressing. I am hard on myself and looking at it objectively I know I’m getting ‘progress’ confused with ‘published.’

With the rest of the Short Pitchers at the Golden Egg Big Honk


Progress can be small and therefore can go easily unnoticed.


In my last crit group meeting, one of my writer friends showed me a scrapbook she is compiling, where she prints off all the feedback she gets, sticks it in and highlights all the positive remarks so she can read it when she need a boost. This got me thinking. I have every submission I’ve ever made logged in a spreadsheet, (I can produce statistics or graphs if I desired) and I have virtual copies of feedback, BUT nothing in hard copy. Nothing easy to access. Nothing that is a log of achievements, successes and progress.

Finishing a new WIP in the first time ins forever!


I remembered that I did once celebrate the small successes and see them as progression. I’d celebrate that long listing. Raise a glass of wine to a request for a full manuscript, maybe even mention it on my blog. I’d even be over the moon at feedback, even rejections as it were an endorsement that I was living the dream – that I was pursuing publication. But somewhere along the way I stopped.

My Treasured prize for winning the SCBWI Conference 10 Word Pitch! 



Maybe I was embarrassed that after almost a decade I’m still not in print. Maybe it was because I was paranoid I’d be perceived as being a bit boasty. But mostly it was because I’d forgotten the importance of accepting the small achievements as progress and cause for celebration


Special Mention in the Slushpile Challenge - Thanks to Rachel Mann for liking Snowballs!


So here are a few little things I have to celebrate for this year… so far…



  • I won the 10 word pitch at the SCBWI conference in November.
  • I was one of the runner-up'ers in the Golden Egg Academy Big Honk Sentence Pitch competition in January.
  • I completed my first new manuscript (in a very long time) this year.
  • I started writing out of my comfort zone, breaking out into Middle Grade.
  • I was one of the twenty short listed authors for the David Higham Open Day.
  • I’m on active submission for the first time in a long long time.
  • I got a special mention for my new book, ‘Snowballs from Hell’ in the SCBWI Words and Pictures April Slushpile Challenge judged my Rachel Mann, Agent at Jo Unwin Literary Agency
  • I’ve entered eight writing competitions already this year
  • I’m writing a new Middle Grade novel.



All little things, but put together it instantly makes me feel more confident about my writing.



So please remember. As a writer don’t forget to accept small achievements as progress and don’t be embarrassed to celebrate the small things, because without the small successes they’ll never be big successes.

Starting a new WIP

Friday, 5 April 2019

Brain Food - Unclaimed Babies, Violent Rabbits and a Dead Monkey!





As a follow up to my last post on inspiration and where it comes from, (if you missed it press here) this week I’m musing on some of the strange facts and bizarre trivia that I’ve discovered recently whilst ‘feeding my brain.’

As I said last week I spend some time every day feeding my brain, digesting non-fiction, or watching documentaries, or asking myself hypothesis and seeing if I can answer them, which often leads to inspiration and with a bit of luck, a lot of work and few tears - a manuscript. So I thought I share a few of my more recent discoveries…

Unclaimed Babies…




When it comes to things that make you smile, you can’t get much better than the sweets/candy Jelly Babies. Cute, colourful, chewy sweetness designed to make you happy. But recently I read an article which explains their history, and says that these sweets began life as a failure, they were supposed to be jelly bears but the ears didn’t work, so they were rebranded as Unclaimed Babies. At the time (late ninetieth century) abandon babies were rife, but calling something you eat after foundling infants is a trifle macabre, fascinating but macabre.

Violent Rabbits…




In my WIP, I have a character BOB, who is a cute big eyed, floppy eared bunny – from Hell. Hell Bunnies in my books are one of very few living creatures that can go between the underworld and earth, and therefore are the equivalent of homing pigeons. But they have a dark side and crave raw meat. Whilst researching I found that Hell Bunnies are indeed a staple of medieval literature, and feature heavily in the illustrations of scripture known as drollery and often depicted hunting humans. It is strange because I found this after I had written BOB, but I am pretty sure, I’d read about these before and that it sowed a seed in my brain and gradually grew and therefore Bob was ready when I needed him.

Dead Monkey…




YES I said a dead monkey. I often have cause to drive through Henley on Thames, and I have often driven past an old oak tree which has an aging grave stone beneath it, although never had time to stop and read it, to find out why a grave would be by the side of a busy stretch of road. Then one day whilst ‘feed my Brain’ I decided to watch a random BBC Archive documentary about architecture for animals, which was quintessentially English and therefore quite bonkers, but truly fascinating. At one point the presenter was stood on a stretch of road I recognised, under an oak tree, and she was telling the tale behind the mysterious grave stone. It is to mark the burial place of Jimmy, a rather naughty marmoset monkey who belonged to one of the residents who wore him as a living fur scarf. Jimmy was well known in the town (or probably infamous, as he regularly bit people) and died in august 1937. This slightly strange piece of local history intrigued me, and Jimmy has therefore ended up as a character in my current WIP. Rest assured he is still naughty.

So, as far as random brain food, these are as good examples of rather eccentric, trivial and strange historical facts that make you look at things in a new light, and sometimes making you wonder; what if?



Friday, 22 March 2019

The Inspiration Question

Graffiti in Barcelona 

So when I was brainstorming blog ideas, my 14 year old overheard and suggested I post about inspiration and where it comes from, so here are my musings on Inspiration.

It’s a great question: where does inspiration come from? For me the answer is also a question. My writings (and so far this amounts to four completed novels, one novella, half a dozen part finished manuscripts, a dozen picture book texts and draw full of book ideas and plot outlines) all start with a question.

But what question you may ask? The answer is depends on the project, but they all have one thing in common, that it is an obscure question which springboards into a hypothesis to which the quest for an answer evolves into the story. 



Questions like…
What happens if Fairy Tales are real? 

What would happen if every time you sleep, your soul was transported into someone else’s body at the point of their death? 

How would you catch a kangaroo? 

What would the movie Elf be like, if the baby didn’t crawl into Santa’s sack, but The Grimm Reapers cloak? 

What would Rag n Bone men be like in space? 

What would happen to all the domesticated and incarcerated animals if human kind was to suddenly die out? 

If Heaven and Hell are real, are there more souls in the afterlife that have seen a flushing toilet than have not? 

The questions all come from my brain, but why I create such bizarre questions?

The answer is I feed my brain. Creativity is, in my opinion, a living thing and like all living things it needs to be fed. So I feed it a varied and eccentric diet. Often while I eat my lunch, I will watch a random documentary, it really doesn’t matter what, I just pick something a random from the BBC I Player Archive. This week I’ve watched a program about Tom Thumb, not the English Fairy Tale Charter but the nineteenth century international superstar with diminutive stature, Charles Stratton. An Attenborough led film about Jumbo the elephant and a documentary about architecture of animals. I also spend ten minutes a day reading the news, the more obscure the better, plus I read random and bizarre non-fiction books, harvesting a wealth of useless snippets of trivia. 




When I was kid, I would tell my parents facts like… 

The Romans had central heating. 

The Incas invented bulldozers (in spite of not inventing the wheel) they had a man powered machines for demolition purposes. 

The ancient Egyptians had a crude version of a television that was electrical, they used monkey and baboons as conductors, cue lots of dead primates. 

This lead to much ridicule from my parents, but I was fascinated by these bizarre facts that I found in genuine History text books.

This type of food for the brain set seeds in your creativity and eventually surface as a question, which leads to inspiration and a story. Well, at least for me.

So back to the original question: where does inspiration come from?

Answer: The questions of an inquisitive mind.


Art Installation in Shop window in Barcelona



Friday, 15 March 2019

Power of Stories and the & Responsibilities of Storytellers

Last week was an interesting week for me, it was a roller-coaster ride of acute sadness and unbridled joy.

It kicked off with a funeral of a friend and colleague, who passed away much too young. The funeral was poignant and beautiful, capturing the true essence of an inspiring, remarkable and lovely woman, who spoke to us all from beyond the grave, in her father’s voice as he read out a piece of her writing. The extract was about how, as a very young child, she immersed herself in stories (specifically Roald Dahl’s) using them to give her the strength and fortitude to battle very serious childhood disease, and how they shaped the woman she became. It was a deeply moving piece, not only as it’ll be the last of her words I’ll ever hear, but also because it goes straight to the heart of why stories and books for children are so important. 




Stories and books are more than just some words printed on paper that are bound between the covers. They have power. Power to empower the readers. Power to challenge and change the reader’s perspective. Power to increase intelligence and empathy. They can mould people, and when those people are young children, they can have an impact on how they develop, and therefore on whom they are and will grow to be.



With this, the people wielding the pen, keyboard and editors hats, have responsibility too. A responsibility to write the best books we can. A responsibility to write and publish varied and diverse books, so that every child can find the stories that give them strength. For some it’ll be Dahl, but for others it’ll be books with protagonists from other ethnicities, or disabled heroes and heroines, and so on. A responsibility to publish accessible books, one’s for challenged readers, ones for those who are gifted readers but aren’t quite ready for the Young Adult titles, and all the children in between. We have responsibility to ensure all children can have access to books, by keeping libraries open and retaining school librarians, and maybe publishing some books at smaller prices, like the WDB titles.

  

There have been a lot of discussions about celebrity authors being marketed so heavily and crowding the bookshelves in shops, pushing out other titles, and although I know publishing is also a business, it seems dangerous and irresponsible to restrict children’s choices in books. Books can help young minds in many ways, but not all minds are alike. Give children access and variety, then more children will become readers, and more reader means more book sales, and crucially more children finding their strength and themselves in the stories. 




My week was a roller coaster, it started with a funeral, it ended with a birth; a brand new nephew. Although this nephew is far from the first child to call me Aunt Sally (cue – Worzle Gummidge references), his arrival hammered the point home. Stories and books have power to shape young growing minds. So I, as a writer and occasional reviewer and bookseller, have a responsibility to ensure that there is enough accessible choice of books for those new minds to pick from. I will continue to write (and you know someday, even get published) and I will continue to champion diverse and varied books.


Friday, 8 March 2019

Write Here or Write Away? Where to Write?

Desks over the years, & writing shed with desk made by hubby out of scrap wood

I can write anywhere. I can write nowhere. It all depends on what I’m writing.

I love the notion of a writing shed, a heaven to retreat to and get lost in the world you are creating. For years I was quietly envious of author’s photos of their writing sheds, and dreamed of having one of my own. Then I got one. We moved into a new house which the agents described as ‘having potential’ and ‘scope of improvement’ and the opportunity of ‘putting your own stamp on’ - which I don’t have to tell you means, it a bit of a mess. But it was a mess with a shed. A shed that my husband kitted out with furniture he made from salvaged floorboards that were on their way to the skip. It’s a steampunk style writer’s paradise. It’s perfect. But I can’t write in it! I can edit it in. I can world build in it. But I can’t seem to write a first draft in it. It’s too close to the house and every increasing to-do-list. 

Writing shed, bookcase - made by hubby out of scrap wood


To write a first draft, I tend to need to be out of the house, so I write away. In a café (cliched I know).




I can write in libraries, or in the car waiting for the kids when they’re at the various after school clubs. But once the first draft is finished I can write anywhere. 



I can write here – at home, even writing through building work, through kids practising musical instruments in the same room. I can even write whilst cockroaches hiss at me (no lie, this week I was actually writing about whilst being hissed at my sons pet roaches!) But this is only when things are going well. If I do get a creative block, then I need new stimulus, and it back to writing away – to anywhere with coffee and heating. 

Where i was working this week, with cockroaches, geckos, turtles and a selection of bugs for company


So to write here or write away? For me it really depends on what I’m writing and where about on that wip journey I am.

Sunday, 3 March 2019

Writing is better with Friends


Some things are better together. Coffee and cake. Cheese and wine. Laurel and Hardy. Ball gowns with baseball boots. Writing is definitely better with friends.I love writing, but it can be a lonely endeavour. When I started, it was a dirty little secret with hours sat by myself with my computer or notepad and pen. When I came ‘out’ of the writing closet, I was so excited by my WIP I’d talk about my book at length to anyone too polite to stop me, but no one really shared my enthusiasm. Then I joined a local critique group. 




 The Crit group led to me meeting other writers as passionate about their projects as I was about mine, and took me down the rabbit hole to discover the world of SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book writer and illustrators) and a wider community of writing pals. All of this helping to make my journey less daunting as I rode the highs and lows; celebrating the good times and helping one another through the not so good times.

Celebrating the launch of Nicki's Last Chance Hotel with Nick Cross and Amy Butler Greenfield

However it is easy to inadvertently find yourself back in the closet with the door firmly shut. Over the last few years, for a whole host of reasons (mostly resulting from us relocating) I found myself inching back towards the writing closet. At the same time, I experienced a drop in my confidence and creativity. So when I was writing my news years resolutions for 2018 and accidentally stumbled on my nearly identical resolutions for 2014, I decided I needed an attitude change. So I made the decision to re-prioritise my writing and get back in to the writing community. 

At Candy Gourlay's Launch of 'Is it a Mermaid' - Picture thanks to Candy.


I started the year attending the Big Honk (part of Golden Egg), making new friends and discovering many of my older writer friends were also eggs.

At The Big Honk with Addy Farmer and Philippa Francis


 I continued through the year attending friend’s books launches, and other writer events. And finally, for the first time since leaving my position on the SCBWI Conference committee back in 2014, I attended the SCBWI Winchester conference. 

WIth SCBWI Oxford Pal's Teri Terry and Paula Harrison  - Thanks to Paula for photo.


What I discovered by doing more of the social events and being surrounded by other writers, old friends and new ones, was that my creativity started flowing gain, and my confidence grew. Then at one social in Bath over the summer, sat around talking to half a dozen other writers I discovered that two of the other writers live within two miles of me. This was a break through as we started a new critique group, meeting monthly to critique a few chapter of each other’s WIP, and encouraging each other.

After watching Chitra Soundar's fabulous event at The Henley Literary Festival


After a decade of writing, I signed up to a writing course at the Oxford University Department for Further Learning, headed up by manuscript wrangler extraordinaire Nicky Browne; meeting more budding authors along with meeting in person folks I know from the Internet. 

Meeting face to face friends from the web - with Nina Oaken 


What I have discovered in my year of re-immersing myself in the writing community is that creativity is contagious, beginning surrounded by creative people really does make you more creative and productive, plus making it more FUN. All this cumulated in one great thing, for the first time in a long time I not only tinkered with editing an existing WIP but I wrote something new. I wrote it and FINISHED IT! And, with help from one of my best and closest writer friends, edited it and subbed it.


Making new friends with K L Kettle & Annaliese Avery 


So all in all, my message is this; WRITING IS BETTER WITH FRIENDS - so if you new to writing, go out now, and find you writery buddies! 


With Writery best buddies, Jo Wyton & Nicki Thornton at Nicki' book launch.