Writers’ Road Trip – Talliston House

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This summer, some writer friends and I had the chance to go and have a look around Talliston House in Essex, which is owned by a fellow writer. When I was told the name of the house, I imagined a sprawling stately home set in acres of parkland, probably with a large lake, a sweeping drive and several servants to bow us in through the grand entrance. I googled it to find out more, and was surprised to learn that it is, in fact, a three bedroomed, semi-detached ex-council house – but further googling taught me that this was no ordinary ex-council house… The owner, John Trevellian, had spent the last twenty five years transforming his home into a wonderland, where all the rooms are furnished and decorated as if from different periods of history and different locations around the world. It sounded really intriguing!

On the morning of the visit I said goodbye to the dog, who settled down for a nice sleep, and set off nice and early, collecting my fellow travellers en route and arriving in plenty of time. As we walked up the path to the front door, shading our eyes against the late-summer sunshine, there was little hint of what lay inside – although I did notice some intriguing brass bees set into the paving stones under my feet. The door creaked open and we walked in, and, wow – what a difference – this was certainly no ordinary house!

From the clock-filled, marble-tiled front hall, we went into the living room – or what at some point, must have been the living room. Now it was the hall of a Dark Age, Welsh watch tower, panelled from floor to ceiling in dark wood and filled with rich fabrics, paintings and hangings. A huge, granite mask of the god, Pan, hung over the fireplace. It seemed incredible to think that this room could be no bigger than my own living room at home – where in another world the dog was, no doubt, still sleeping the sleep of the just. By some unknown sorcery, Talliston’s living room seemed three or four times bigger, at least!

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Walking through the door at the end of the room, I had to stop and blink a few times. It seemed difficult for me to get my head around the change, as I walked from a room in a dark, mediaeval tower, into the bright and airy kitchen of a Louisiana 1950’s home. It seemed almost too much for my brain to take in. Rhythm and blues music played quietly in the background as I looked around at the baskets hanging from the cream-coloured walls, the floral china and the gingham-print fabrics.

Peeping into the bathroom of a Norwegian boat-house as I passed by, I went out of the back door, and into the garden; the courtyard garden of an Irish cottage, filled with wonderful plants, dramatic planters and the biggest and most fruit-encrusted grapevine I’d ever seen in the UK. From there we stepped across to what had possibly once been the site of a garage, but was now a Canadian lakeside lodge; clearly out in the wilderness and rough-hewn, but filled with worn yet solid chairs and all the comforts you could need – and of course a woodstove; essential in that harsh climate.

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After walking down the side of the house, past a standard vine (also covered in fruit – I didn’t even know they came in a standard variety!), we went back inside to an exquisite Japanese vivarium. This was no ordinary room, either, being set in the future and designed to be used as a way-point – a passageway – to a near-space laboratory.

Back to the hall next, and then up the stairs and into the black-panelled bedchamber of a Scottish tower house, haunted by the ghost of a child who had died there, in the scarlet-curtained bed…

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Walking into the other large bedroom, I was plunged once more from dark to light. Now I was in a bright guestroom inside the Moorish Alhambra Palace, in Spain. With pale wood, mosquito nets and white-painted walls, this was a room from which you felt you could stare out over the distant, sun-drenched mountains.

The boxroom was a cooler place, set in Twentieth century New York, and clearly the office of a private investigator – someone who investigated not only worldly mysteries, but those with a more occult twist as well.

Some of my friends ventured up the steep ladder from the landing to see the final room; a Cambodian, bamboo spirit house – but the sight of the ladder put me off, and thinking more down-to-earth thoughts about broken ankles and trips to A and E, I went back downstairs to collect a cup of tea from 1950’s Louisiana, which I took outside to drink in the Irish garden.

On the way home, I thought about what an experience it had been, to see this house! For me, one of the most striking things was the sense of shock, on being plunged without warning, from one time and place to another. When I got home, I told the dog it felt a bit like going straight from a steaming hot bath to a cold shower. He cocked an eyebrow at me and backed away apprehensively – he hates being immersed in water of any temperature. But he did seem interested in the little brass bee I’d bought while I was there. Hmm – I need to find somewhere for it in the garden, and then I can have my own, mini version of Talliston, right on my own patio. I’m sure the dog won’t mind – not as long as he can still get into his own favourite sunny spot, anyway!

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Party Time!

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Last Friday afternoon, I said goodbye to the dog and travelled down to London feeling slightly nervous – I was setting off for an event held every year by the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) – the annual agent party. It was the second year I’d been, so I already knew a little bit about what to expect; the first half would be an opportunity to hear lots of different literary agents discussing what they’d like to see in a submission from a children’s writer, and the second half – the scary bit – would be a chance for me, and all the other writers attending, to pitch our new books to the agents. Who knew – if we were lucky, some of them might be impressed and ask us to submit our new manuscripts to them when they were ready!

This year’s party was at a new venue – the lovely, chandelier-encrusted Bush Hall in West London’s Shepherd’s Bush. Soon after I arrived and sat down, the evening’s host, Sarah Grant, introduced the first panel members; Amber Caraveo (Skylark Literary), Alice Williams (Alice Williams Literary), Nancy Miles (Miles Stott Agency) and Gemma Cooper (The Bent Agency). Sarah kicked things off by asking the agents what information they would like to see included in a submission package. Gemma said that she wanted to be told which other books the submission was similar to (‘X meets Y’), and also liked to see ‘a character that jumped out of the page’. Nancy was looking for a succinct elevator pitch, and ‘a strong voice that says something in an original way’. Alice thought a professional approach was crucial, and for picture book writers, two or three texts. Amber said that she wanted to know a bit about the writer, while also pointing out that really – it’s all about the writing! For illustrators, a spread of pdfs was important, giving a good range of ideas.

Sarah also wanted to know if the agents had a wish list – or indeed a hate list! Amber was pretty clear that she didn’t want to see any animal stories. However, all was not lost for the animal story writers amongst us, as Alice said that she loved pony books. Nancy wanted to see books in any genre that were fun to read, and Gemma said that her dream book would be something similar to ‘Wimpy Kid’.

Next, Sarah introduced the second panel of agents – Lydia Silver (Darley Anderson), Lauren Gardner (Bell Lomax Moreton), Becky Bagnell (Lindsay Literary Agency), Therese Cohen (Hardman and Swainson Literary Agency) and Max Edwards (MMB Creative). When asked what they liked best in a pitch, the second panel thought that ‘X meets Y’ was useful, but Sylvia also thought that knowing what made a particular story ‘a bit different’ was important. Becky said that the key to successful pitching, was practice, Max wanted to see what the overall theme and motivation in the story was, and Lauren advised us to ‘keep three things in your minds, that you want me to take away’.

Sarah then asked what the agents looked at first, when they read submissions. For Lauren, the cover letter was the first thing to look at, while Becky went straight to the manuscript. Max said that we should keep it professional and be sure to get the spelling and punctuation right, as he would be looking for ‘reasons to reject’, and would stop reading if we hadn’t followed the guidelines. Becky, however, gave some hope to the mistake-prone amongst us, saying, ‘I don’t care if you get it wrong, so long as the writing is good’!

When asked what they looked for in a client, Therese thought that it was important that she could ‘get on with, and be honest with’ a client, and Becky was hoping for ‘someone who was open to editing’.

As Sarah kept the questions coming, we learnt that it’s important to think ahead to the next book, and that agents work with international colleagues to sell foreign rights. The agents also thought that there were a lot of benefits to taking a client who had previously self-published, as this helps understanding of marketing and promotion.

When the second panel had finished, we all stood up while the chairs were cleared away and then we gathered around the agents’ tables, queuing up for the opportunity to pitch our books. I got some good feedback from several agents, and, from more than one, heard the wonderful words, ‘yes, send it to me’!

Travelling home later that evening, I kept coming back to what the agents had said at the end of their panel discussion; ‘keep writing’, ‘keep reading’, and, most importantly – ‘have fun’! Certainly the dog knows all about that – he’s always first in the queue for any party!

Barbara the Banana Plant

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Last summer I knew that, as usual, I wouldn’t be able to get any writing done during the school holidays, and so I had a go at growing strawberries – although not very successfully, as some people might remember (see https://catherinerosevear.wordpress.com/2017/09/28/the-great-snail-race/). But even though we didn’t manage to grow any fruit, the dog and I found the whole experiment very interesting, and it certainly kept us entertained until the schools went back and we could return to our usual term-time routine – writing (me) and sleeping (him).

At the beginning of this summer, I wondered about having another go at the whole strawberry growing thing, but then decided to try something different – as we were having such a hot summer, this year it would be bananas! Now, I know that bananas are a tropical plant, but I’d also heard that in some areas of the UK they can be grown successfully, so I thought I’d give it a go. I suggested the idea to the dog and he was wildly in favour – sharing my daily breakfast banana is one of the highlights of his morning.

I started googling – apparently there are some varieties of banana that you can only grow in the UK if you keep them indoors over the winter. The dog thought that this was a wonderful idea, and suggested that with that variety he’d be able to pick his own fruit whenever he felt like it, saving me the bother of having to wait on him. To his disappointment, I shook my head. That didn’t suit me at all; I wanted a plant that would know its place (the garden!) and keep to it. I carried on googling.

After more searching I finally came across a banana plant that could survive most of the frosts that we might get in the southern half of the UK, and could be grown either in a flower bed or in a patio pot. Yes – this was surely the plant for me!

I placed my order and waited, keen to see what it would be like – and whether it would survive the delivery service. A few days later there was a ring at the bell. With the dog barking merrily in the background, I opened the door and there it was – a huge cardboard box. I’d already been to the garden centre and bought a large patio pot and some compost, and it was the work of a moment to get the plant out of its box, upend the bag of compost into the pot, plonk in the plant, and carry the whole thing outside onto the patio.

Instantly the garden looked more tropical – much more in keeping with the searing temperatures we were experiencing at the time. The dog came outside to see what was going on and I showed him my new plant. He wasn’t impressed – there didn’t appear to be any bananas growing on it. He gave me a quizzical look, and I explained to him that the label said we would have to wait for four years to get any fruit. He snorted and with a shake of his head, stomped off, back to his place by the electric fan. Whatever could I be thinking – buying a plant that wouldn’t grow any fruit for four years? Why, he’d be nearly at dog retirement age by then! I ignored him and stayed outside, fussing over my plant.

When my husband came home, I explained that I thought the new plant should have a name – he suggested Barbara, and so Barbara she became. Each day I’d go outside and water her, chat to her and generally look after her. One day I was fussing over her as usual, when I noticed a new sprout coming out. ‘Oh, well done, Barbara – that’s a lovely new leaf!’ I said at the top of my voice, full of enthusiasm and pride. Too late, I looked over my shoulder and realised that one of my neighbours was fixing his shed roof from the top of a step-ladder – well within earshot. I was a bit more careful after that to check who was nearby when I went outside for a chat with my leafy friend.

Most evenings we’d sit on the patio – at first beside her luxuriant foliage, but soon beneath it – because if there was one thing that Barbara knew how to do, it was grow! Every couple of days, a new leaf – at first curled into a tight cone, but soon opening out – would appear from the centre of Barbara’s stem, each leaf bigger than the last. During the really hot weather, she could grow over six inches in a day, and she soon had to be re-potted. I started to get a bit worried – how big would she get?! But then, as the hot weather eased off, so did she and her speed of growth slowed down. Now a new leaf only showed itself every four or five days, and it took them longer to unfurl – Barbara was starting to shut down for the winter.

I wasn’t worried; I knew from reading the label that she’d die right back to almost nothing over the winter, and then, hopefully, sprout right back up again next spring. As the wind started to blow the autumn leaves around outside, I set up the laptop and brushed off a summer’s worth of dust. The dog watched me thoughtfully and then climbed onto his chair, closed his eyes and sighed happily. Bananas or not, he was content to get back into his routine – and as long as I didn’t forget to share my supermarket-bought banana with him in the mornings, he didn’t care where it was grown!

National Dog Day – what about a day for writers?!

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Last month there was yet another day of celebration for the dog – on 27th August it was National Dog Day, and just like on Christmas Day, Little Christmas Day (see blog post https://catherinerosevear.wordpress.com/2018/07/06/another-little-christmas/ ) and his birthday, there were presents, treats and cards galore – this time, all especially for him.

He absolutely loves opening presents. He was delighted to discover that we’d got him a new blanket, which he immediately lay down on. There were also home-made dog biscuits, and a game of ‘pass the parcel’ in which – surprisingly – the music always stopped when the parcel was in front of him. I think it’s safe to say that he really enjoyed himself, as, in fact, did the rest of us, but it got me thinking about all these special days we have, for this and that.

I found a list on Wikipedia of all the various special days that are celebrated around the world, and it was fascinating reading. There’s a huge list of them, including, of course, all the famous ones like Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. In reading down the list, I found it difficult to choose my favourite – I suggested to the dog that maybe it would have to be either World Chocolate Day, or possibly, Ice Cream for Breakfast Day! He immediately objected strongly to this, and suggested that if I was looking for something other than National Dog Day to celebrate, then it should be National Puppy Day. I had to explain to him that as far as Wikipedia could tell me, this was only celebrated in the USA. He huffed petulantly, and pointed out that I hadn’t even mentioned Take Your Dog to Work Day. I realised that on 24th June, when this day is apparently celebrated, I hadn’t even known about it. Quickly passing him a dog treat to ease my guilt, I decided to move on to looking into which days are related to writers and writing.

Wikipedia informed me that in various countries around the western world, there are several days that are linked to writing or literature. These are –

  • National Science Fiction Day (2nd January) – celebrated in the USA.
  • Family Literacy Day (27th January) – a day celebrating literacy in Canada.
  • Dr Seuss Day (2nd March).
  • World Writers’ Day (3rd March) – established in 1986, and founded in London by the International PEN club, to promote support among writers, internationally, and to bring together respected international writers for discussion.
  • World Poetry Day (21st March) – established by the UN.
  • Tolkien Reading Day (25th March).
  • International Children’s Book Day (2nd April).
  • World Book and Copyright Day (23rd April).
  • National Writing Day (27th June) – an annual day to inspire writing, across the UK.
  • Author’s Day (1st November) – established in Illinois, USA, in 1928 to celebrate American Authors.
  • International African Writers’ Day (7th November).
  • Day of the Imprisoned Writer (15th November) – an international day established in 1981, to recognise writers who stand up for freedom of expression.

All these days connected with writing and literature looked great, but what struck me was that none of them were just about generally celebrating writers, in the way that Mother’s Day and Father’s Day just generally celebrate mothers and fathers. And this in a world where the vast majority of writers (both self-published and traditionally published), earn very little money from their writing, with only the rare, famous few making a good living from it. In fact, the vast majority of unpublished and self-published writers slave away with no financial reward at all.

Surely, I suggested to the dog, it was time for a National (or even International) Writers’ Day, when all book-lovers would show their appreciation to any writers they happened to know, feting them with cards, flowers and gifts? He yawned – for some reason he seemed to be getting a bit tired of listening to me – and, settling down on his new blanket for a well-earned snooze, he pointed out that there were only six months to go until World Sleep Day came around again on 17th March, and maybe we should start celebrating that now, instead.

Oh well – it was only a suggestion!

 

With many thanks to Wikipedia and their wonderful (and very informative), ‘List of minor secular observances’.

Writers’ Rejection Letters!

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Recently the dog hurt his foot – poor chap. It didn’t look too serious but we popped him into the car and drove him to the vets, where he nervously crept into the surgery and sat down, wide eyed, by the reception desk. He sniffed the air – hmm, that smell was suspicious, and reminded him for some unknown reason of sharp needles. He sought shelter underneath a chair, licking his foot apprehensively while we waited.

Soon enough it was our turn to be called in to the vet’s lair. Fortunately she was confident that his foot would soon heal and be all back to normal, but after issuing us with a tube of cream and an eye-watering bill, she decreed that for five days he must wear the ‘cone of shame’ around his neck, to stop him from licking and chewing at his foot.

We drove home, and once there, the cone was put on. I thought it made him look even cuter than usual, but the dog was far from convinced. Whatever could that mad doctor be thinking – making him look so ridiculous? And at a time when he already had a sore foot to contend with, as well! But the cone was on, and on it stayed for the prescribed duration.

Not only did the cone make it impossible for the dog to chew his foot, which was, after all, the plan, but it also clearly embarrassed him. Oh, the shame of being seen in public with something so ludicrous tied round his neck. It was almost as though we wanted all the other dogs to laugh at him!

Seeing him suffer emotionally was hard, but it was all worth it in the end. Just as the vet had said, at the end of five days the foot had healed and the cone could come off – and very pleased to see the back of it, he was too! But it made me think about what makes us feel ashamed, embarrassed or down-hearted, especially as a writer.

I’ve been writing for children for a few years now, and alongside self-publishing my children’s chapter books, I’ve also submitted manuscripts to a multitude of agents, hoping to persuade one of them to take on one of my books, and fight my corner with the big guys – the mainstream traditional publishers. So far I’ve had words of encouragement, requests to see more and suggestions for improvements, but have I had an agent offer me representation? No, I have not!

When I speak to my writer friends, I’m very aware that many of them already have agents and that I don’t. I know that there are a lot of us in the same boat – many more, in fact, than there are in the ‘agented’ boat. Come to think of it, it would probably take a supersized luxury cruise liner to accommodate all of us ‘unagented’ children’s writers, whereas it’s quite possible that the ‘agented’ amongst us, might well find some empty seats on a vessel the size of a Thames River Cruiser. Nevertheless, ‘do you have an agent?’ is a common question to be asked at writers’ events, and I always feel slightly embarrassed when I answer, ‘No, not yet’, feeling my eyes drawn down to the ground – a bit like the dog when he’s out for a walk in his cone, and another dog comes into view. But should I feel like that?

Recently I read Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’ (A brilliant book, by the way, filled with great tips for writers!), and I particularly liked the bit where he talked about his early years of writing. He says, ‘By the time I was fourteen the nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. I replaced the nail with a spike and went on writing.’ He didn’t throw the rejections into the bin, embarrassed by them, and so, I decided that I wouldn’t either. Since then I’ve been keeping my rejections, printing out the emails and keeping them all together in a file. You never know – maybe when I’m famous people will clamour to see them, amazed at the ineptitude (or just sheer bad luck), of the agents who’d rejected me (I wish!). I’m also shifting my viewpoint, and trying to see the rejections as completely necessary steps on the way; letters to learn from, rather than knock-backs. After all, I’m yet to hear of an author who has never been rejected. And I hope that, if the dog ever needs a cone again in the future, he will try to see it the same way – holding his head up proudly as he marches on, his eye on the prize (or in his case, the bag of treats!).

 

Another Little Christmas

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Most people probably haven’t experienced having the post delivered on Christmas Day, but when I answered the front door last Saturday, there indeed stood the postman, a parcel in his hand. He looked at the paper hat on my head – mine was a blue one. ‘Ooh – not Christmas, is it?’ he asked, chirpily, before heading back down the path with a chuckle. He was gone before I could give him the answer that, yes indeed, it was Christmas – at least in my house.

Some people might remember that last summer, sick and tired of having to wait a whole year for Christmas to roll round again, I’d decided to have a ‘Little Christmas’ – an extra Christmas Day in the middle of summer, with all the fun bits left in – the Christmas dinner, a tree, a small present each, family films, crackers and, yes, paper hats – but without any of the pressure and stress that come with ‘Big Christmas’ each December. (https://catherinerosevear.wordpress.com/2017/06/22/little-christmas/) We’d enjoyed it so much that we thought we’d do it again this year.

The day before, I ventured up the loft-ladder (always a scary experience, as you know!), and brought down the ‘small’ Christmas tree, put it up and put the wrapped presents under it. I checked the cooking time on the bird waiting in the fridge, and got out the Christmas pudding and the crackers from the back of the kitchen cupboard (I’d thought ahead and bought two lots in December). All I had left to do was to adjust the star on the top of the tree, and we were all set.

Once again, it was a lovely day – everyone (including the dog, who was very enthusiastic about the whole thing, as you can imagine), liked their present, the dinner was cooked just right, and sitting down to watch a film together in the afternoon was very relaxing. Some people might think that we’re crackers (excuse the pun!) for doing it – particularly when it involves having the oven on for nearly three hours, on what turned out to be the hottest day of the year – but I can’t recommend having a stress-free ‘Little Christmas’ enough. So if you’re tempted, go ahead, enjoy yourself, and… Happy Little Christmas to you!

The Meaning of ‘Arpeggio’

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The dog has a pretty good vocabulary, considering that he is, after all, a dog. For a long time I thought he understood only simple, single words such as ‘sit’, ‘down’ and ‘no’. Then, a few months ago, I saw him trying to get into the kitchen. The door in front of him was shut, but I knew that around the other side of the kitchen there was an open door. Without thinking, I said, ‘Go round – the other one’s open.’ He looked at me with complete comprehension, nodded and then turned, trotted purposefully away and disappeared into the kitchen through the open door at the other end. I sat, open-mouthed, listening to the familiar sound of him jumping up at the kitchen worktops. Was it a coincidence? Was there one word in the sentence that he’d latched on to – or had he understood the whole thing? Since then I’ve seen him respond in a similar way to other sentences, so I’m pretty sure that he understands a lot more than he should. Mind you – he is exposed to a lot of complex language. I never talk down to him as if he is just – a dog. I chat to him, the same as I would to anyone else.

Children also need to be exposed to a lot of language to extend their vocabularies. There’s been a lot of talk about this recently amongst the children’s writers’ community, and mainly because of the acceptance speech that Geraldine McCaughrean made, when she received this year’s CILIP Carnegie Medal for children’s literature. In her speech, she spoke at length about what she perceived as the ‘dumbing down’ of children’s books, by publishers. She said that, in her opinion, without exposure to complex language children would have ‘brains far less receptive to the acquisition of vocabulary’. I think that she is completely right. As she said, ‘we master words by meeting them’.

My first memory of wanting to read by myself, is that of sitting up in bed holding a Paddington book. I think it may have been ‘Paddington Abroad’, as that was always (and still is), my favourite Paddington chapter book. I couldn’t wait until I was capable of reading the words myself, rather than having to wait until a grown-up had some time free to read it to me.

The reason I was so keen to read the Paddington books, was the type of language used – I loved it! In writing the books, Michael Bond hadn’t ‘written down’ to children, but rather, had used the language that I imagine he would have used in any situation, whether children were there or not. Words such as ‘itinerary’, ‘consult’, ‘particular’, ‘commissionaire’, ‘immigration’ and ‘circumstances’, were strewn happily across the pages, and I hoovered them all up, asking an adult to tell me what they meant when I needed to – but mostly working it out for myself by looking at the rest of the sentence and the context. It felt as though Michael Bond was writing the books as if I, and the other children who were reading them, were his intellectual equals. He trusted us to work it out for ourselves, as and when we needed to. Rather than changing the words to others that might have meant nearly the same thing, such as ‘ask’ instead of ‘consult’, or ‘doorman’ instead of ‘commissionaire’, he spoke to us on his own level, and in the process, gave the Paddington books their unique feel and a lot of humour, and gave us, the readers, a huge amount of new vocabulary. I even learnt my first French words from ‘Paddington Abroad’; they were ‘escargot’ and ‘gravillons’ and I’ve never forgotten them.

I was very pleased to see in the most recent, and sadly to be the last, Paddington picture book (a book aimed at children aged two and up), the use of the word ‘arpeggio’ – a word that I’m still not one hundred percent certain of the meaning of, despite my daughter’s violin lessons! But I can’t help wondering; if the author had been anyone other than Michael Bond, would the publisher have let him get away with including it?

But maybe what works for me – or the dog – isn’t right for everyone. Certainly there are children who need, or just prefer, a simpler structure; children who either want or need to be able to access the story easily, and without long words that they may find off-putting. To me, it seems very important to have both types of book available – some with, and some without, complex language and words that are likely to be unfamiliar. And why not – there’s plenty of room in the world for children with different needs and preferences, with varied senses of humour and dissimilar styles of learning – and hopefully plenty of room for a wide range of books… not to mention lots of different types of dogs, too.

…and if you can tell me the definition of ‘arpeggio’, please do!

The Water Cooler

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Writing can be a lonely task. Sometimes I look at our dog and wonder if he occasionally finds his work lonely, as well. He is an only dog – he does get to meet lots of dogs when he goes out for walks, of course, but it’s not the same as having other dogs around all the time. Most of his ‘dog work’ – helping me to edit my writing, clearing up any crumbs on the floor, and making sure that all the food is stored safely in one place (his stomach), takes place without the aid of any furry friends to help him. With this in mind, a few weeks ago we took him to a Tibetan Terrier festival in Leicestershire, to give him a chance to meet loads of other dogs – all at once, and all roughly the same size as him. He had a wonderful time with all the other Tibetan Terriers who came along – playing, sniffing, and presumably working out which of the other dogs were his cousins, aunts and uncles. It was great fun to see so many of them having fun together in one place, but then we went back home and he returned to life as an ‘only dog’.

Writers often find themselves in a very similar situation. The majority of writers are ‘only writers’ – most households can’t afford to keep more than one at a time. Writers, after all, are expensive to feed, and notorious for polishing off the coffee supplies at lightning speed. With a dog, you can usually find a high cupboard where expensive food and beverages can be placed out of reach, but it’s not often so with writers.

It’s true that most writers love spending time alone – and we probably need to like doing that at least a little bit, in order to get any writing done at all. But there comes a time, at least once a day, when you stare at the laptop and think, ‘Is this right? I need someone else’s opinion’. If I was still working in an office, I’d just poke my head through my colleague’s door, or maybe wander along to the kitchen or the water cooler, to see who was taking a break and might be prepared to listen to whatever I’m stuck on. But when you’re the only person in the house it’s not that easy, and this was something that I struggled with when I first started writing – where to find colleagues who I could consult for advice, and who would understand what I was trying to do?

Then I discovered SCBWI (The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators). I can’t remember how I first came across it, but when I did, I joined straight away. It’s an amazing organisation, operating across the globe, but with regional chapters as well. Through their workshops, Facebook groups and critique groups, I was immediately put in touch with hundreds of other writers – some with years of experience as published authors behind them, and some, like me, just starting out, and many of them have become friends. All of a sudden I had a water cooler to go to, whenever I needed to, and it’s completely changed the speed at which I learn as a writer. There are just so many people to learn from!

So if you’re a writer, and you haven’t already joined a writer’s group, club or society, consider doing it – you might find yourself wondering how you ever managed to lift a pen, or switch on a laptop without it!

 

Looking to the Future

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Sometimes, when I’m having a bit of a ‘down-day’ on the writing front, I think about the possibility that I may never get a children’s book traditionally published. When this happens the dog always jumps in (literally, usually!), and with a few kind licks, assures me that I’ll get there in the end. Then he settles down next to me, rests his chin on his paws, and gives me a look of reassuring confidence. However, despite his earnest assurances, it remains a possibility that traditional publishing may permanently elude me.

In my experience, writers all have wobbles – days when that we’re writing seems rubbish; when we might have had one too many rejections come bouncing into our inboxes, or maybe a less-than-perfect review. On these days, it seems that traditional publication will never happen. We’re all aware that for some of us this will be true, but it’s impossible to say whether that unfortunate group will include us or not.

When a day like this comes along, I try to think about why I’m really writing in the first place – is my main aim to be traditionally published? Well, it would be wonderful, but surprisingly, no, it isn’t the main reason I write! Do I want children to read the books I’ve written and self-published, enjoy them and find themselves drawn into another world as they read? Well, yes, I do! And what about the books I’ve written but not self-published, and not yet found a traditional publisher for? Well, I think it would be nice to think that in the future – maybe a few generations into the future, even – my descendants might dig them out of a dusty, old box in the loft, read them and enjoy them.

I can imagine the scene – my great-great-grandchildren, sat around in their futuristic living room, holographic screens hovering magically before their eyes. Suddenly another great-great-grandson shimmers into the room, silver future-suit all agleam, and makes an announcement. ‘Hey, guys, look at this!’

The rest of them raise their eyebrows quizzically, and then look with distaste at the dusty bundle being held aloft. ‘Ew! What’s that? It looks all dirty!’

‘No, this is really interesting – I’ve found some stories written by great-great-grandma Rosevear, up in the loft. Look, they’re printed on paper and everything!’

They lean forwards. ‘Paper? You mean what they used even before ebooks came along? Not a hollo-book?’

He brandishes the bundle and dust showers onto the floor, before being rapidly sucked up by an eager housework-bot. ‘Yes. People could print stuff off onto paper whenever they wanted, in those days. Paper wasn’t rare like it is today… I think in those days there were still trees growing in some areas, even – waiting to be made into paper.’

They nod sagely. ‘Oh, yes! Of course that was before World President Trump cut them all down to build the Space Fence… So, what are these stories about?’

He passes the pages round, and they all marvel at the feel of the sheets between their fingers, before squinting their eyes up to read them. ‘Hey,’ someone says in a moody tone. ‘The back-light isn’t working on this page!’ He bends lower in an effort to read it.

After a few minutes one of them puts their paper carefully down on the floating coffee table, next to the cup recylcator. ‘I like this stuff – her stories are quite good!’

‘Yes,’ chimes in someone else. ‘I wonder why she didn’t let a publisher make it into a paper book – you know those fiddly ones they had with lots of bits of paper stuck together?’

‘Oh, yes’, says another. ‘She really should have thought of doing that. I guess she didn’t want to. But maybe, if she could write stories like this in the olden days, we can do it now! Someone pass me my hollopad and thought-transcriber – I’m going to make a start right now!’

A buzz of excitement goes round the room as they all consider the possibility of writing their own stories…

Hmm… If I can give a good reading experience to some children right now, with my self-published books, that’s great – but if I can also leave a legacy of stories for future generations of my family to enjoy, then that will be even better!

Gold dust – learning from other writers

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Since I started writing children’s books, I’ve been casting around for some good advice about how to write more effectively, and some of it has come from unexpected places. Often it’s the dog who gives me the best advice, as you might have picked up from previous posts. In fact, without his input, I don’t think I would have been able to write anything at all; even though at the moment he is gazing out of the window, lost in thought and doubtless planning his own novel.

Recently however, some of the most useful tips I’ve picked up have come from writers that I hadn’t read for many years, and a short time ago I read two really helpful books, which I have reviewed below.

The first one is ‘A Slip of the Keyboard’ by Terry Pratchett (Doubleday, 2014), the famous English fantasy author, who sadly died last year. I’d read some of his Discworld novels a few years ago, but I found ‘A Slip of the Keyboard’, very different; to start with, it isn’t a novel, but a collection of essays giving his views on everything including writing, animals, and death. Amongst it all, I found some wonderful tips for writers, including his views on what you should read in order to improve your writing, what fantasy is, and how difficult it is to write humour well.

The second author I came across with a wealth of brilliant tips for writers was Stephen King. I’d read some Stephen King books as a teenager, and had found them entertaining, but I hadn’t read one for years. Then another writer recommended that I read ‘On Writing’ by Stephen King (Scribner, 2000), so I gave it a go. It was a fascinating book which is roughly divided into three sections. The first section is really autobiography, and includes Stephen King’s childhood, how he started writing, and how he dealt with those inevitable, initial rejections before hitting the big time. The second section is his advice to writers, which is very extensive, but includes his views on different forms of dialogue attribution, and the use of ‘show not tell’. The third section of the book talks about a terrible accident that he was involved in, how he dealt with it, and finally recovered from it, and, ultimately, how he then returned to writing.

If you find particular writers inspiring, or have picked up brilliant writing tips from other books, let me know! And good luck to the dog, with his novel – or whatever else he’s planning – as he sits there lost in thought. I hope he’ll decide to go for it – just so long as it doesn’t involve tearing anything up!