It was a dark and stormy night…

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There I was, sat on the living room floor at three o’clock in the morning, wrapped in a blanket and reading a story to the shivering and quaking dog who sat huddled beside me. Outside, and safely barricaded out by the thick curtains, the lightening flashed and the thunder roared. It was, indeed, a dark and stormy night.

Our dog hates thunder just as much as he hates fireworks. When he was a puppy, I read somewhere that dogs pick up a fear of such things from the reactions of the people around them, so I was always very careful to completely ignore any such loud noises, hoping that, that way, he wouldn’t learn to be afraid. That worked about as well as my plan to train him to load and unload the washing machine. But does he react immediately when he hears a roll of thunder or the crack of a firework? Oh, no. He needs thinking time first, to process the sound he’s heard and decide what to do about it.

There he is, tucked up in his bed and sleeping soundly, when the first crash of thunder smites his ears – he opens one eye. What was that? The second crash – he lifts his chin from his blanket. Right, this scary noise has now happened more than once. It could happen again, and if so, will it come into his bedroom (or the kitchen, as some people sometimes call it), and try to fight him? The third crash – he sits up. This is getting serious. What to do? The fourth crash – he jumps to his feet. This noisy invisible enemy isn’t giving up easily – what if it comes in and tries to eat his dog food? It’s time to shout for reinforcements. It’s usually about two minutes after the first clap of thunder, when he makes his announcement that he does not intend to fight the monster alone.

So there I was, sat on the floor, reading to the dog when I should have been asleep in bed. As I listened to the thunder, it occurred to me that the phrase, ‘a dark and stormy night’, which is now famously thought of as a bad novel opening, is actually pretty great. How many people don’t sit up and take notice when someone starts a story with this line? I did a bit of googling, and learnt from a website called phrases.org.uk, that it was first used by a Victorian writer by the name of Sir Edward George Earle Bulwer-Lytton, who wrote in a very melodramatic style. This phrase has since turned into a bit of a laughing stock, but you know what? I like it, and I like Sir Edward for writing it. It plunges you straight into the heart of the story. When I read it, straight away I’m wondering whether the hero/heroine is all safe and cosy inside a gothic mansion, listening to the storm through the rattling window panes while wearing a fleecy dressing gown and drinking a mug of cocoa. But I have a nagging doubt that they might not be – they could be scared and alone in the middle of a desolate moorland, in imminent danger of being either struck by lightning or blown into a storm-swollen river and washed away, never to be seen again… I’m just going to have to read on, to find out.

I started to wonder if any other writers had since used this phrase to start their novels. According to Wikipedia it has been used again since, not only as a novel opening, but also as a writing contest and even as the title of a board game. Is it hackneyed? Maybe. Do I like it anyway? Yes. Although, thinking about it, it’s probably not the best thing to read aloud, when I’m trying to take the dog’s mind off the storm that’s raging outside…

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Have some patience!

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The other day someone asked me a question that stuck in my mind – they asked, ‘how long did it take you to write your book?’ I found it really difficult to answer, as it all really depends on what you mean by ‘write your book’, and it made me realise that writing a book does need quite a lot of patience.

I’m not always the most patient person, but the dog is even less so, although he does have a ten minute rule. I’ll explain. Sometimes, as a treat, we go to the pub for a meal and take the dog with us. He is always terribly excited about this, as the pub is his very most favourite place in the whole world (when he first went there, someone gave him a roast potato, and he has never forgotten it). We go in, the dog pulling frantically on the lead to get in faster, chose a table, sit down and order some food. The dog licks his lips. ‘Right’, he says to himself, as he nods and smiles at the regulars, ‘they’ll need to cook that now.’ He sets his invisible stopwatch and settles down to wait… As soon as ten minutes have passed, he leaps to his feet, looks at the door to the pub kitchen and lets loose a volley of barks. ‘Oi!’, he shouts at the top of his voice. ‘You’ve had long enough – where’s my food!’ We try to drag the dog back under the table while smiling in an embarrassed way at the waitress, and crossing our fingers that the food will come soon. It’s the same anywhere that serves food – or at least, anywhere that is thick-skinned enough to let the dog in.

But I’ve come to realise that you do need to be patient for longer than ten minutes to write a children’s book, and for me, at least, it’s been a long process.

I think it started about eighteen years ago, when I first decided that I’d like to write a children’s book that was set in a nursing home, and which would be about a mysterious, magical lady who would become friends with the child who was the book’s main character. I remember having a go at writing the first chapter at this stage, but it was awful, and I don’t think I ever made it past the end of page one. Then, about eighteen months ago, I decided that there was no excuse for not giving it another go.

Actually sitting down to write the first draft of the book, which was well over a year ago now, took me about three weeks. After that, I spent another three weeks going through it, re-drafting it, changing it about, taking bits out, adding bits in and polishing it all up. Then I went back and spent another two weeks editing it for spelling and grammar. At this point I looked at the amount of words that spell-check was still underlining for me, and realised that using a professional editor might be a good idea. It took me a week or so to find one, and then about six weeks went by while they worked on the manuscript, before I got their edited version back.

After this, I decided that I should have a front cover illustration. I looked into all the options and finally chose an illustrator. I then needed to send him some segments from the book, so that he knew what the picture should be about, and then again, I needed to wait a few weeks, while he worked on the picture.

I then started the process of looking into publication. This took a while as there are so many options, but when I’d finally chosen to go with Matador, I went through the whole manuscript again, just to be on the safe side. Then it all needed to be proof-set. After this stage, it was time for proof-reading. As well as having it proof-read professionally, I also went through it yet again, as this was my final chance to spot any mistakes.

Finally – it was ready to go to the printers!

So, how long did it take me to write my book? I’m not sure, but it might be somewhere between three weeks and eighteen years. Now, I need to go and give the dog his tea – I promised him I’d get it ready eight minutes ago, so I’ve only got two minutes left!

‘i’ before ‘e’

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One of my hobbies is collecting old books; the older the better, and I have a few eighteenth and nineteenth century books, with a couple of seventeenth century books amongst them. One thing I’ve noticed about old books is that there’s very little regard paid to spelling, and the older the book, the truer this seems to be.

I’ve read, via the wonders of Wikipedia, that that in the sixteenth century Shakespeare spelt his own name in several different ways throughout his life, and that, over the years since then, other people have spelt it in even more different ways, until the spelling of his name finally became more fixed in the last hundred years or so. The same seems to apply to most words in written English.

What I like about old books and manuscripts, apart from the fact that it feels like you are touching and reading an actual piece of history, is that as far as spelling went, the writers just didn’t care. They happily spelt words in different ways, even on the same page. It was of no concern to them, or to their readers come to that, how the words were spelt, as long as everyone could tell what word it was supposed to be and get the general meaning of the sentence.

I find this carefree lack of concern about spelling really refreshing, and most likely this is because I was so shockingly bad at spelling at school. I’d wait apprehensively at my desk as the marked spelling tests and essays were handed out, covered in red ink, and often with the terrifying comment, ‘See me’, emblazoned across the top corner. Did it really matter if I’d got my ‘i’s and ‘e’s the wrong way round? Was putting only one ‘t’ instead of two, such a terrible crime? Was there ever a time when the word I was aiming for wasn’t obvious to the teacher? Probably not.

The dog can’t spell, and does it bother him? Not at all! Whether it says ‘dog fude’ or ‘dog fud’, or even ‘dog food’, on the packets in the kitchen cupboard, doesn’t bother him at all. He’s happy, so long as we can read it well enough to understand what the contents are when we’re shopping. And he’ll stay happy, so long as the contents of the packets get put into his bowl at breakfast time and tea time (he definitely can tell the time, by the way, and in fact, takes time-keeping very seriously, but that’s another story, for a different day).

So I have a lot of liking for those long-gone authors who were so happy-go-lucky about what letters should go where, even when it came to their own names. Well done them for not caring about it, and what a shame for those of us in these modern times, who have to get it right. Still, it could be worse – at least these days we have spell-check to do some of the work for us!