The Rejection Jar


Some might say that writing, and submitting your writing to agents, publishers and competitions, is just setting yourself up for rejection – and so it is. But, sadly, it’s the only way to get something published traditionally unless you’re a celebrity, so, if that’s what you’re aiming for, you have to go through it.

I recently had a look at how many rejections I’ve had so far. For my first children’s book I had 34 outright rejections. For my fifth children’s book (I didn’t submit books two to four to agents), I had 21 outright rejections, and 3 rejections that were near misses for that same book (two agents that were a bit interested, but not quite enough, and a competition where I was a runner up). I’ve recently re-written this fifth book and so now I’ll start submitting it again.

When I first started submitting to agents I didn’t delete the rejection emails that I got back, but I didn’t do anything else with them either. When I started submitting my fifth book, I started printing off the rejection emails and keeping them in a folder. Now I’ve rewritten it and I’m starting on a new round of submissions, I thought I’d like to do something different – and that’s when I came across @LisenbyAnnie on Twitter. Annie, a fellow writer, had tweeted that she has a submissions tracking jar, and every time she gets a rejection she puts a bead into it. If she gets a full manuscript request she puts in a special silver bead, and she’s planning to make all the beads into a necklace when she gets an agent. When I saw her tweet, it struck me as a fantastic idea!

It was the work of a moment to decide to copy her, and a quick trip into town to search the local charity shops for strings of pretty beads that I could use.

As soon as I got home, I found a nice jar. The dog immediately put his head up – was this a jar of something he might be interested in, he wanted to know? Hotdog sausages, perhaps, or maybe pasta sauce?

No, it wasn’t – it was empty.

Ignoring his demands for snacks, I put 34 amethyst beads into the jar to represent the 34 rejections I received for my first book. Then I added 21 crystal beads to represent the rejections I’ve had so far, for the fifth book. Then 3 pink beads went in, to represent my near misses on the fifth book. Then I put it on my dressing table, and sat back to await more. So far, I’ve added one more crystal bead, but I’m sure that it won’t be the last one. I have a special, flowery bead that can go in, if the day ever comes along when I get an acceptance, and – if that day does ever dawn – I’ll celebrate by buying the dog his very own jar – full to the brim with hotdog sausages!

IMG_0056My jar


Annie’s tweet

With many thanks to Annie Lisenby, for giving me permission to include her name and idea, and a picture of her fabulous and inspiring tweet.

You can follow Annie at @LisenbyAnnie on twitter.

Recovering from a Writers’ Conference


So – I’ve just come home from my first Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrator’s conference, and I really enjoyed it! There were some great talks and workshops, some lovely food, books to buy and lots of friends – old and new – to chat to.

But – as you may remember, I was pretty nervous about two particular aspects of the conference. Firstly, the meeting with an agent (at which I’d be able to get some feedback on my writing), and secondly, the Fancy Dress (or should we say, ‘Flipping Daunting’) party.

The first of these two things that I tackled was the meeting with the agent, which took place on Saturday afternoon. As soon as I sat down at her table, I immediately noticed the long list of notes that she had in front of her. I tried to surreptitiously read them up-side-down, but it wasn’t easy, so I had to wait for her to tell me about them, one by one. There were quite a few things about my work-in-progress that she felt could be improved, and as she dropped her pearls of wisdom into my waiting ear, I scribbled furiously, determined not to miss anything important.

When I came out of the meeting, I sat down in a quiet corner to read through the notes I’d written, feeling slightly disappointed. She certainly hadn’t told me that my work-in-progress was the best thing that she’d ever read, and she definitely hadn’t begged me to let her represent me. But, once I’d had a little bit of time to think about it and had talked it through with a friend, I felt pleased that I’d got some very clear and solid advice that I could use to make my writing better. It was all good stuff for a writer who was determined to improve, so – with the agent meeting out of the way, I got straight on to the next thing on my ‘List Of Things To Worry About’; the Flipping Daunting party.

After a lot of thinking, I’d decided to go as Professor Trelawney (from Harry Potter). The big event took place that evening in the town’s main library, and, as my friend and I walked in, all my worries started to drop away. There were some people in normal clothes, there were some people in really wacky outfits, and there were loads – like me – who had a relatively low-key outfit that fitted loosely in with the theme, without calling the attention of everyone else in the room over to us. I even found someone who had come as Professor McGonagall, so there was a fellow Hogwartian there for me to chat to, as well.

The nibbles were nice and so was the wine, the speeches were great and the cake – made to celebrate the members of the Society who had had a book published during the last twelve months – was simply amazing, with tiny versions of all of their books, iced onto it.

There were more talks and workshops to go to on the Sunday morning and afternoon and it wasn’t until Sunday evening that I got home; the dog giving me his ‘where do you think you’ve been?’ look, as I came in the door. I was pretty exhausted, and after I’d given him (and the rest of my family), a big hug, I put away my notebook (bristling with new ideas), to look at the next day.

So – did I learn a lot? Yes I did, and on top of all the writing tips I picked up, here are three non-writing-related facts that I learnt, over the weekend –

  1. Fancy dress parties aren’t as Flipping Daunting as they might at first seem.
  2. Winchester graveyard is pretty creepy at ten o’clock at night, especially right after Halloween.
  3. If someone drops a Carnegie medal on the floor, it probably won’t break.

And would I go again? Definitely!


The amazing cake!

Preparing for a Writer’s Conference


For about two and a half years now, I’ve been a member of The Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI – or ‘scoobie’, as it often gets called for short), and in that time, this organisation has brought my writing on in leaps and bounds in many different ways.

I’ve been to –

writing workshops run by industry professionals,

‘Meet the author’ events at local libraries,

author panels and talks,

informal meet-ups with fellow children’s writers,

Christmas drinks parties,

The famous SCBWI annual agent party,

and book launches to celebrate the success of fellow children’s writers.

SCBWI is also where I met my fabulous critique group partners, who always know exactly which bits of my manuscripts need more work – and how to tell me!

But this will be the first year that I’ll be attending the SCBWI conference, and I’m both excited and nervous about it. There are several reasons to be excited, including the fact that there’ll be loads of like-minded children’s writers there, including several friends, and lots of talks and workshops to give me tips and ideas, and help me to improve my writing. But – there are two main reasons to be nervous.

The first reason is that I’ll get the chance to sit down with an agent and get their feedback on a ten page sample of my writing. Of course, this is a really great opportunity to get some professional advice, but – what if they absolutely hate it – and, if so, will they be at least a little bit kind with what they say? Hmm, I can only hope so!

The second reason to be nervous is the fact that there is a party in the evening, which is Fancy Dress (or Flipping Daunting, as I prefer to think of it). The dog has never minded when I dress him up in hats, coats, jumpers, etc., and I think he would be completely unfazed by the prospect of a Flipping Daunting party; but it’s been many years since I last went to one of these, and getting an outfit together has been nothing if not stressful. But – I think I’ve finally got something sorted out. What is it, I hear you ask? Ha! You’ll just have to wait a little while to find out…

Over-used Verbs


I wondered recently whether there are some words that I use far too much, in my writing. To find out, I went through one of my current works in progress to see how many times I’d used some common words. As you can see, the dog was a bit shocked at the results!

A quick search through my word document showed me that I’d used the word ‘looked’, 240 times. Two hundred and forty times! That’s a huge amount for a manuscript for a relatively short children’s book – and probably about two hundred times too many.

What I soon came to realise, was that many of the words I’d used too often seemed to be verbs, and when I looked (ha! There I am using it again!), more closely, I found that in almost every case they were weak verbs – verbs that didn’t help to give the reader a picture of what was happening. If I wanted to say ‘she looked’, but in a stronger, more descriptive way, I could have said ‘she gazed’, ‘she stared’, ‘she peeked’ or ‘she glanced’, all of which would have given a completely different (and much stronger), picture in the reader’s mind of the expression on the character’s face and how they were feeling or reacting.

There were quite a few other examples, as well.

I’d used ‘she smiled’, 91 times. To make it stronger and more descriptive, I could have said, ‘she grinned’, ‘she beamed’, ‘she sneered’ or ‘she smirked’, depending on the circumstances and the character’s feelings that I wanted to get across to the reader.

I’d used ‘she sat’, 43 times. I could have said, ‘she perched’, ‘she flopped’, ‘she sank’ or ‘she settled’, any of which would have been more descriptive of exactly how she sat.

I’d used ‘she walked’, 24 times. Not too bad there then, you might be thinking, but it’s still a weak verb, and I could have made the writing much stronger by saying, ‘she limped’, ‘she skipped’, ‘she staggered’, ‘she sauntered’, ‘she strolled’ or ‘she marched’, instead.

I’d used ‘she laughed’ a mere 12 times – not bad at all, maybe – but how much better it would have been, if I’d written ‘she chuckled’, ‘she chortled’, ‘she giggled’ or ‘she jeered’, to make it more descriptive of what was happening.

I’ve done a bit of work since then to change a lot of my weak verbs, and, hopefully, it’s now much better. But the only verb that I still like to keep simple is ‘said’. I’m often tempted to substitute other, fancier words for ‘said’, such as ‘uttered’, ‘mentioned’, ‘replied’, ‘remarked’, ‘stated’, ‘commented’, ‘expressed’ or ‘asserted’. But why? None of those verbs would help to clarify the situation or the character’s feelings, or how they said it, and I think that the word ‘said’ does what it needs to without complicating things, or distracting the reader from the important stuff – what’s happening in the story.

But of course that’s only what I think – or, of course I could say, what I ‘believe’, ‘suppose’, ‘imagine’, ‘consider’ ‘assume’, ‘suggest’…

Away with the birds


I’ve always liked feeding and watching the birds in the garden. I know almost nothing about different types of bird (I can just about tell the difference between a robin and a starling), but I find it very entertaining, and – importantly for a writer – it’s a great way of procrastinating when I should be sat in front of the lap top.

When we lived in our old house a few years ago, we had a male blackbird that lived in our garden. We called him George. George was easy to identify as he had one wing that stuck out at a funny angle – presumably it had been broken at some point and hadn’t quite healed right, but it didn’t seem to stop him flying, or getting on with life in general. We looked forward to seeing him pottering about, rooting around under the bushes or flying from one tree to the next, one wing neatly folded and the other sticking straight out. But, apart from his crooked wing, there was something else that was interesting about George; like my dog, he was one of life’s great hedonists.

A sunny day would always find George sat either on top of the fence, or in the middle of the garden bench, his feathers fluffed out, his wings outstretched, his head back and his eyes closed as he soaked up the rays. If I had to walk past him on my way down the path to get some shopping out of the car, he wouldn’t move. He’d merely glower down his beak at me for a moment in an irritated fashion, and then close his eyes again and go back to his sun-soaked reverie.

A year or so after we first noticed him, something exciting happened – George was spotted on the lawn, kissing a girl blackbird. We immediately named her Georgina, and, not surprisingly, a few weeks later some blackbird chicks duly arrived. Sometimes we’d see them hopping about on the lawn, carefully supervised by Georgina, but occasionally it was George’s turn to look after them. But the minute the sun came out, George would leave them cheeping on the grass, and fly up to perch on the fence, falling straight into his ‘sunny day’ routine – fluffing his feathers, sticking out his wings, stretching his face up towards the sun, and… relax! It was a good thing that our back garden was relatively free of cats and that the dog was too busy pursuing his own hedonistic lifestyle (ie. sleeping for as many hours in the day as possible), or I dread to think what might have happened to the chicks when it was George’s turn to look after them.

When we moved house I excitedly hung a bird feeder up in the back garden within easy viewing distance of the kitchen window. Sure enough, it wasn’t long before birds began to arrive, all keen for a beakful of suet and seeds. Interestingly, two blackbirds were again spotted amongst the throngs of (possibly) robins and (maybe) sparrows and their young. But these two blackbirds were both male and their territories appeared to meet right in the very centre of the back garden. Morning after springtime morning, my writerly procrastination would kick in, as the two blackbirds faced off against each other at the border between their territories, each presumably hoping to extend their empire in a feathered land-grab. But once the summer got going properly this stopped – presumably by this time Tiny Tim and Baron von Blackback (as we had named them), had got families to look after and no longer had leisure time for petty boundary disputes.

In addition to this, I had fledgling (could be) robins and (who knows) sparrows to look at, all bustling about on the patio, as their tired parents flew up time after time to the bird feeder, before returning to earth to stuff beakfuls of suet into their offsprings’ waiting mouths.

As the summer comes to a close the bird-related activity in the garden is dropping off – and, as the dog has got off the sofa to point out to me – it’s a good thing too, if I’m going to give him his dinner or get any writing done this side of Christmas!



Discovering the ‘Jennings’ books


When I was about seven years old, my Dad and I started going to jumble sales on Saturday mornings, where we’d plough through a tangle of sharp elbows and expertly-wielded handbags to reach the tables laden with second-hand stuff of all kinds – much of it junk, but some of it treasure. It was at these jumble sales that I first discovered the ‘Jennings’ books – a series of children’s books, written by Anthony Buckeridge and set in the fictional ‘Linbury Court’ boarding school in Sussex, near the south coast of England. The first book in the series, ‘Jennings Goes to School’, was originally published by Collins in 1950, but, I’m glad to say, is still going strong and was most recently published by House of Stratus, in 2009.

Until I was an adult (with access to the wonderful worlds of Amazon and eBay), I didn’t buy any new editions of these books, but still managed to amass quite a lot of them, both from my early participation in the scrums at jumble sales and, later, from charity shops. There are twenty four novels in the series, that I know of, but it’s only in the last few years that I’ve bought copies of the final few that I’d never read as a child.

When I was little these books were some of my absolute favourites, and they taught me huge amounts about humour. There was a lot of slap-stick as well as fun relating to the scrapes that the boys got themselves into, but also heaps of humour based around the language and speaking style used by the main characters (the eleven year old Jennings, his best friend Darbishire and their class-mates), which taught me a lot about the value of giving characters distinctive voices. As Jennings learnt on his first day at Linbury Court School, something described as ‘wizard’ was good and ‘ozard’ was bad. Something could even be described as ‘ozard squared’ if it was particularly bad – useful for describing unpleasant school dinners, and outbursts from teachers. The best expletive for the boys’ use in most situations was ‘fossilised fishhooks!’ (this was Darbishire’s particular favourite).

The school masters, Mr Carter (the easy-going, approachable one), and ‘Old Wilkie’ (Mr Wilkins, who was likely to explode with anger when faced with the bizarre behaviour of his pupils), greatly enhanced the humour by letting the reader see what it was like for people who, most of the time, couldn’t make any more sense of what Jennings and his friends were talking about, than the dog can (my furry friend tends to stare at me with a look of intense concentration mixed with confusion on his face, whenever I read him a ‘Jennings’ story).

A few months ago while browsing on Facebook, I came across a page called ‘Jennings and Darbishire’ – a page that is dedicated to Jennings fans who have carried their enthusiasm for Anthony Buckeridge’s children’s books over into their adulthood. Looking through the activities of this group alerted me to the fact that not only do they hold an annual meeting, for discussion about all things ‘Jennings’ related, but it was possible to buy ‘Linbury Court’ school badges. How exciting – maybe even, wizard squared! I immediately sent off for a badge, and as soon as it arrived I pinned it on to my jacket. Now, whenever I go out with it displayed on my front, I always wonder whether a fellow ‘Jennings’ fan will notice it and make a comment. No one has as yet – but I’m sure that one day it will happen!


A trip to the seaside


Recently, towards the end of the summer holidays, a day dawned that was bright and sunny but not too hot, and – unusually – didn’t already feature a long list of ‘things that must be done today’, like most other days in the school holidays seem to. Strangely, we didn’t need to go to the shoe shop, the stationary shop, the lunch box shop, the water bottle shop, the school bag shop – or even the supermarket. All the members of the family were at home, and I was leaving the writing alone until September so…

Hmm… maybe we should have a day trip to the beach!

It was the work of a moment to get the dog ready for a road-trip, and within seconds his folding water bowl, bottle of water, short lead, long lead, harness, snacks and extra snacks were all in the car. Getting the two youngest human members of the family ready wasn’t quite so easy, and it was another hour before everyone was ready to go, but then – we were off!

We went to a beach that we’d never visited before, about an hour and a half’s drive from home. All the way there, the dog dozed in his crate in the back of the car, but as soon as we’d parked up and opened the doors, his nose went into overdrive and he was snorting with interest. ‘What was this?’ he was clearly saying to himself. ‘Do I smell seaweed, salt, seagulls and the occasional portion of fish and chips?’

He was pretty keen to feel the sand between his claws, and so, as soon as his lead was clipped on, he dragged us beach-wards. It was lovely seeing him splashing happily in the shallows and digging his nose into the sand – although maybe not quite so lovely watching him spread sand all over the beach mats or eating something dubious-looking that he’d managed to dig up.

A few hours later as we drove back home, my thoughts started to turn towards September and what I’d be doing when school restarted. I was pretty sure that I was half way through the first draft of a new book, but – after five weeks of doing nothing on it at all – I was barely able to remember what it was about. Still, I was looking forward to getting back to it and restarting my morning routine of taking the dog out for his walk, setting up the laptop, making a coffee, and then picking up the writing where I’d left off at three o’clock the day before. The new term might not bring any more trips to the beach, but who knew what excitement the characters in my book had got to look forward to, and I was looking forward to finding out …!

Babies for Barbara


You may remember that last summer I bought a banana plant called Barbara, and watching her grow kept me entertained over the summer holidays while I was having a break from writing (see ). Well, you’ll be glad to hear that Barbara has been doing very well again this summer, and, after a winter of being thoroughly covered up in bubble wrap, the warm weather has helped her to spring back to life with a vengeance. She’s now taller than I am and – big news – has had babies!

Apparently, the little baby banana plants that spring up in the pot beside her, are officially called ‘pups’. The dog finds this confusing, as, despite being called pups, they aren’t fluffy and they don’t seem very interested in playing with him. I’ve reassured him that this is perfectly normal for banana pups, and he’s gone back to carefully studying the actual bananas in the kitchen, in the hope that one day Barbara will grow a whole bunch, just for him.

I’ve taken the two strongest pups out of Barbara’s pot, and they now have ‘grown-up’ pots of their own, in which they seem to be enjoying life. The smallest one has been named ‘Baby Bob’, and the biggest one is ‘Barbie’. Do three banana plants count as a ‘plantation’? Maybe not, but it’s certainly a good start, and I’ve noticed in the last few weeks that even more pups are starting to appear next to Barbara in her pot, so we’re well on our way!

Recently, Barbara and her family have been joined on the patio by some new friends – Valerie the grape-vine, who also seems to be living her best life, and is sprouting out bunches of grapes (even though the lady in the garden centre told me that we shouldn’t expect any for the first few years), and two citrus trees – one orange and one lemon.

What’ll be next? The dog can’t wait to find out, although he’s been hinting that a dog biscuit tree would make a very pleasing and tasty addition to the patio…!


Are you ready for your close-up?


The things about writing – and dogs – is that, sometimes, you have to get really close-up to them to see the details.

With writing, sometimes it’s the details that make all the difference between a well-rounded character and a flatter character. For example, do you know what your main character’s favourite meal is, what book they’re reading at the moment and what their favourite sport is (assuming that they even like sport at all)?

The same applies to settings. A few months ago, with the help of a writer friend I did a lot of world-building on my work-in-progress. I made maps of the fictional town in which my character lived, as well as writing the history of the area, and descriptions of all the important buildings and minor characters that inhabited it. By the time I’d finished, I felt as though I knew this non-existent town as well as I know my own. It was good fun too, as I had to invent names for the town itself, the streets, park, nearby stately homes, etc., as well as the surrounding villages. I then wrote lists of the likes and dislikes of my main character, descriptions of her friends and family members, and lists of their character traits. Although much of this detail didn’t need to go into the actual manuscript itself, I found that it really helped to have it in my head, while I was writing. That way, I dropped some of it in, while describing where my character was, or what she was doing, without even having to think about it. In my experience, this made the setting and the characters seem much more ‘real’, and solid – and hopefully an agent, publisher, reader, etc., would have the same experience.

So have a think about the details of your main character and the world where he or she lives, even if you think that much of it won’t need to end up in your manuscript. I would definitely recommend drawing a map (and even some pictures of some of the locations, if you happen to be good at art), to make it more real in your head. The more you can ‘zoom in’ on it, the more real it will be as you write the story, and – hopefully – the more real it will be for the reader, when it reaches them!

From Bumbag to Mum bag – packing light for both handbags and manuscripts


When I was younger and I went travelling to exotic locations, free of childcare responsibilities, it was easy to fit everything I needed for the day into a bumbag – I’d carry some money, a key, a camera, some suncream, and maybe a small, pocket-sized guide book or map.

Now that I’m a mum, I’ve waved goodbye to those days (for now, at least), and have got used to dragging around everything that I and two children could possibly need when we’re away from the house. This means either taking a really big and extremely heavy bag with me – or – buying everything in travel-sized versions and packing it small. Either option has been tried.

If you have children, or know someone who does, you will probably be familiar with the ‘Changing Bag’. This is usually stuffed full of nappies, wipes, nappy bags, cartons of milk, sterilised bottles, changes of clothes (for both you and your baby, if they happen to be sick a lot), bottles of water, sunshades, blankets, skin cream, changing mats, woolly hats, gloves, sun hats, rain covers, board books, cuddly toys, library books and Tupperware pots full of snacks. This is on top of all the things that you need for yourself, such as purse, phone, car keys, etc. Clearly, this bag is the size of a small house, and, although they are designed to be slotted neatly over the handles of a pushchair, they are usually so heavy when full that, unless your baby is a particularly solid child, the whole thing will tip over when you attempt to attach your fully loaded changing bag to the pushchair or pram. This means that, inevitably, you end up trying to carry it on your shoulder and having to stop for little breaks every few minutes.

Now my children are older, I no longer need to carry a changing bag about with me, which I’m very relieved about. But I still carry about a large (and heavy) hand bag, loaded up with plasters, sun hats, suncream, gloves, note books, pens, colouring pencils, etc. As a result, I’ve discovered the wonder of –

‘Things That Fold Up Small’.

Recently, I discovered that you can buy folding sun hats, which have now gone into my bag, along with my folding shopping bag, folding headphones, folding charger socket, folding umbrella and folding hairbrush. For the benefit of the dog, I even have a folding dog bowl, which he enjoys using so much that, sometimes, I unfold it for him at home, just for a treat.

Trying to get as much as possible into a small space when it comes to ‘mum bags’, is very much like writing, where you are often trying to write within a word count, while including as much detail, description, character building and plot, as possible. Again, these can often be ‘folded up small’, by replacing a few pages of unnecessary dialogue with a small paragraph of description, or taking out a whole chapter that doesn’t really add much to the plot, to keep the whole thing slimmer and pacier. It’s not easy to do though – there’s always a terrible, nagging doubt that, if you take out a page or a chapter, it will turn out to have been the very page or chapter that a publisher or agent would have really loved – if only they had seen it – which would have turned your rejection into a ‘yes’!

But still – sometimes you just have to cut it down and ‘fold it up’ a bit, for the benefit of the whole manuscript. At the end of the day, if the manuscript is shorter but has lost only those bits that don’t add anything to the action of the story, that’s got to be a good thing. Just ask the dog – as far as he’s concerned, sometimes folding bowls are better than non-folding ones – as long as the contents are still exciting!