Preparing for a Writer’s Conference

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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…

Away with the birds

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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!

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Discovering the ‘Jennings’ books

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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!

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A trip to the seaside

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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

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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 https://catherinerosevear.wordpress.com/2018/09/28/barbara-the-banana-plant/amp/ ). 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…!

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Are you ready for your close-up?

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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

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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!

 

The Procrastination Barrier

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When you have a job (even if you do that job from home), and you have tasks to get through for your boss, it’s reasonably easy to stay focused. If you don’t, you’re likely to get into trouble, and, in the worse-case scenario you might not get paid and you could even lose your job. So you’re pretty motivated to get through the work, right?

But what happens when you’ve assigned yourself the (unpaid) task of trying to write a book, and there’s no one standing behind you telling you to get on with it? Surely, you’ve chosen to do this of your own free will, and as a consequence, you’re incredibly motivated – right…? WRONG!

For me, once I’ve made a start, and maybe been tapping away at the keyboard for half an hour or so, I’m fine, and I could quite happily keep on writing until midnight. But, it can be a completely different kettle of fish first thing in the morning, when the lap-top is still closed – BEFORE I get started…

9am – ‘OK, I’m going to really crack on, this morning! I’ll just have a quick coffee and read the news, and then straight on to the writing!’

9.30am – ‘Well, that the news read very thoroughly. I’ll just do a couple of quick jobs around the house – maybe run the hoover round, put some washing on, a spot of dusting… and then it’ll be, “lap-top, here I come!”’

10.30am – ‘I wonder if the dog needs to go out in the garden. He’s giving me ‘that look’, and wagging his tail hopefully. I think he might do. Maybe I’ll just do that first.’

11am – ‘Well, that was a nice game of “fetch”! I wonder if it’d be a good idea to have a really early lunch, before I get started – just to get it out of the way…’

11.30am – ‘That was a nice lunch! Gosh, I’m feeling quite sleepy. I’d better not close my eyes, though.’

12.00pm – ‘Was that the washing machine beeping? It would be rude to ignore it and not go and get all the stuff out of it, especially when it’s drawn my attention to the situation so politely.’

12.30pm – ‘Oh, I seem to have used up all the milk. I’ll just nip out for some more.’

1pm – ‘Ooh, I’d forgotten that the dog needs to go for a walk. There he is, doing his hopeful wag again, and just look at the cute look on his face. Ahh! I don’t want him to be disappointed… I’ll just take him out for a few minutes – it won’t take long.’

1.30pm – ‘I’d better boil the kettle and make myself another coffee, so that I don’t have to stop to do that later. That’s definitely the best thing to do right now.’

2pm – ‘While I’m drinking my coffee, I’ll check my Twitter feed, and I really should check to see if any of my writer friends have posted any good writing tips on Facebook. That won’t take long.’

2.30pm – ‘Right, I’m putting the lap-top on!’

3pm – ‘What do you mean, “it’s school time”? I’ve only written half a page! How can that have happened? Surely I’ve just put in a full day of writing…?!’

Reading for dogs

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In some areas of the country (and, presumably, in some other countries as well), dogs are invited into schools to help children learn to read, as well as helping with various other aspects of their education. Apparently this can really help the children (particularly those who may be struggling), to concentrate and improve in many different areas.

When I heard about this, I googled it and came across a website called www.dogshelpingkids.co.uk This is a UK-based charity that helps trained dogs to work with children in schools, for both educational and therapeutic purposes. Their website says that their aim is to have a ‘Dogs Helping Kids’ dog in every school in the country, with the aim of teaching empathy, trust, respect and non-violence, amongst other things.

Apparently, their dogs undergo a three year training programme and pass eight assessments (each one more difficult that the last), before receiving their certificate. Even once qualified, the dogs still have to undergo an annual assessment, to make sure that their skills are still up-to-scratch.

So – what do these dogs do when they go into a school? According to the website, they offer invaluable support to children, especially those with special needs, as they go through their school careers. The dogs’ roles are varied, but include –

‘Classroom Canines’ – who just ‘chill out’ in the classroom while the children have their lessons, and provide a calming influence (this role sounds ideally suited to my dog, who specialises in ‘chilling out’, as you will see from the above picture),

‘Reward Canines’ – whose presence acts as a reward, whereby children who have behaved well can be rewarded by being allowed to spend time with the school dog at break times,

‘Therapy Canines’ – who work one-to-one with children who may have been bullied, abused, or otherwise have gone through difficult times,

‘Listening Canines’ – who listen to children read. This is the part that I was particularly interested in, and I learnt that the way that dogs listen without being judgemental can provide a lot of confidence to new readers.

Dogs do undoubtedly enjoy a good story. In my house the dog frequently enjoys a story, read to him by one or other of us, and (although some may say that he is a tad spoilt), we all enjoy reading to him as much as he enjoys listening. Just watching him roll onto his back (the pose he goes into when he is at his most relaxed), as someone reads aloud to him, in his or her best ‘sing-song’ voice, seems to be as calming for the person doing the reading as it is for the dog!

And what stories does he enjoy best? Well, as I discussed in a previous blog post back in 2017 (see https://catherinerosevear.wordpress.com/2017/05/12/once-upon-a-time/) he particularly likes ‘The Magic Porridge Pot’, from the Ladybird series, but he also enjoys pretty much anything. And a good thing too, really, as his main ‘9 to 5’ job in my house, is to listen (with as much positive feedback as a Tibetan Terrier can muster), to me, reading my own work-in-progress!

 

Please see the www.dogshelpingkids.co.uk website for more information about this fantastic charity!

Knife juggling and other skills for authors

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A couple of weeks ago I went to an event at my children’s school, at which an author, Julian Sedgwick, had been invited in to give a talk to the children and to give out some literacy prizes. As I did some school visits with my own self-published books, I tagged along with my daughter, keen to pick up some tips. Sadly, the dog wasn’t included in the invite, but after giving me ‘the look’, he agreed to stay at home and catch up on some sleep – which is probably what he would have done if I’d stayed at home with him, anyway!

I must say, listening to Julian Sedgwick was an inspiring experience, although I’m not sure that I’d be able to replicate everything he did, on my own school visits.

Q. Can I stand up at the front and tell everyone about my books?

A. Yes, I can do that.

Q. Can I tell some stories about my own school days?

A. I probably can do that, so long as I get plenty of time to remember them, first!

Q. Can I read out some short passages from my newest book, to the assembled throng?

A. Yes, I can definitely do that.

Q. Can I give out prizes?

A. Yes, I’ve done that before and I can do it again.

Q. Can I sit at a table and sign books?

A. Yes, I think I’ve got that covered.

Q. Can I juggle apples?

A. No, but given huge amounts of time, commitment, and a lot of apples, it’s just about within the realms of possibility that I could add that to my repertoire.

Q. Can I juggle knives?

A. What…?!

Yes – that’s right, folks – knife juggling was included in Julian’s event. He told us that as a child he’d always had a fancy for working in a circus, and so, as an author, he’d not only included a circus in one of his books, but had also mastered some of the necessary skills – knife juggling (and apparently also fire breathing), being among them. It was clear that in the opinions of the children present, this skill lifted his talk far above the ordinary, and, I suspect, also helped them to listen more carefully to what he had to say about the importance of reading and writing, that accompanied the juggling.

I was very impressed by his talk (and the juggling, of course), and at the end of the evening we bought a signed copy of his latest book, which we’ve since discovered is really good.

And here’s a plea, folks – if you go to any author events, please take some money along with you and consider buying a signed book at the end of the event. The author will really appreciate it!

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With many thanks to the author Julian Sedgwick for a great talk and some impressive juggling, and for permission to reproduce the above two images. You can find out more about Julian and his books on Twitter at @julianaurelius, and on Facebook at Julian Sedgwick Author.