Little Christmas

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In my last blog I talked about my recent experience of trying to write while having builders in the house. One of the things I’d found myself thinking about, while the rubble was crashing around me, was how nice it had been at Christmas; the house had been all tidy and cosy and the tree looked so pretty. I couldn’t wait until next Christmas, by which time I hoped the house would be all tidy and cosy again. Then it occurred to me that it was barely spring and Christmas was, sadly, a very long time away.

I looked down at the dog and thought about what a shame it was that he had so long to wait for his next Christmas – he loved all celebrations and at Christmas he firmly believed that all the presents under the tree were for him. He was thrilled when he was given a present to open, but then immediately outraged that other people were daring to open some of the (presumably his!) other presents. But it was easy to placate him with a screwed-up piece of wrapping paper, which, if he was lucky, would have a dog treat hidden inside it.

As I picked bits of plaster out of my hair, it occurred to me that it would be great if Christmas, or at least the non-religious aspects of it, such as the presents, the tree and the Christmas dinner, really did come more than once a year. But then I thought – why shouldn’t it? We could have another Christmas; a ‘Little Christmas’, if you will, once the builders had finished and the house was back to normal – probably the end of June would be the best time for it!

I explained the concept to the dog, who immediately agreed that it was a great idea, as long as presents were involved. I set to work, ordering crackers from EBay, putting in a shopping order for the Christmas dinner ingredients, and buying everyone in the house a small, ‘ten pounds or less’, present.

‘Little Christmas’ is now getting closer, and I can’t wait, and neither can the dog. You never know, if the weather is nice we might even be able to have Christmas dinner in the garden, Australian style!

In my next post, I’ll be thinking about the trials of marketing my book, as well as letting you know how ‘Little Christmas’ went. But in the meantime – a very happy Little Christmas!

A little less noise, please!

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We’ve recently had some building work done in our house, and apart from the huge sense of relief now I’ve finally got the house back to myself again, I’m finding myself constantly checking for marks on the newly painted walls. Now everything is looking nice, I’m also more vigilant about keeping the dog off forbidden furniture.

It tends to go a bit like this –

Dog – ‘I’m going to sit on this sofa.’

Me – ‘No, that’s the good sofa – go on the chair, you’re allowed on that.’

Dog – ‘I prefer the sofa – I can stretch out there. That’s where I’m going.’

Me – ‘No, get off – you’ll damage the fabric!’

Dog – ‘Fair enough, I’ll go on the coffee table instead – there’s no fabric there.’

Me – ‘No – what are you thinking?! That’s for cups, not dogs!’

Dog – ‘Okay, I’ll go on the chair now, and then I’ll move to either the sofa or the coffee table when you’re out of the room.’

Me – ‘Fine!’

But having builders in the house for months on end, certainly taught me how to concentrate. When I first started trying to write a children’s book, I thought I had to have everything just so, before I could start.

I needed –

a lovely clear kitchen table with nothing apart from a new note-book, a pencil and a laptop on it,

a cup of coffee behind me (not on the table; I might spill it on the keyboard!),

the window open to let in some fresh air, but only if there were no car engines or lawnmowers roaring nearby,

and, most important of all, no other noise or people in the house at all – except for the dog of course, and only then if he had promised to sleep quietly and not snore.

After the builders had been working for a week or two, and the entire downstairs of the house had been taken over by piles of wood, rubble, dust, and radios permanently tuned into Smooth FM, my ideas about what made a good working environment changed. It seemed that I didn’t actually need such a quiet and tidy house after all. I could still write, while perched on a child’s stool in a corner of my bedroom, the kettle plugged in dangerously close to my left foot and the dog’s lead tied to my ankle, to prevent him leaving the house through the permanently-open front door. I didn’t lose the thread of what I was writing, even when I had to stop work every half an hour or so, to answer queries about where the towel-rail should go, or whether I needed to order either a new front door or some more teabags.

Now I’ve got the quiet and tidy house back again, the dog and I can resume our argument about what furniture he can sit on. I’m grateful to the builders for making the house look nice – but even more pleased that I’ve learnt that I can work in any environment – and with any noise level – even if I do have to stop work every few minutes, to get the dog off either the sofa or the coffee table!

Next time I’ll talk about how I’m planning to celebrate having the house back to normal!

Once Upon a Time…

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What children’s books have influenced you the most? I was thinking about this the other day, when I was reading a story to the dog (yes, he is terribly indulged!). I was reading ‘The Magic Porridge Pot’, from the 1970’s Ladybird ‘Well-loved Tales’ series. When I was a toddler it was one of my favourite books, my kids also loved it when they were younger, and it’s nice to see that now (I like to think!) the dog enjoys it equally. Whether it’s the idea of limitless supplies of porridge that appeals to him, or whether he just likes listening to the rhythm of the spoken words as he falls asleep, who can say?

It made me think about which books I would put on my list of favourite children’s books, so here they are –

‘The Magic Porridge Pot’ by Vera Southgate (first published by Ladybird Books Ltd, 1971) – This is a great story for toddlers (and dogs!), all about a pot that supplies a never-ending supply of porridge. It features lots of repetitive phrases and, in the original version at least, some lovely pictures.

‘Paddington Abroad’ by Michael Bond (first published by Collins, 1961) – always my favourite of all the Paddington books as, unusually for the Paddington novels, it has a continuous story (about the Brown family’s holiday to France), running throughout. As a result of this hysterically funny book, the first French word I knew the meaning of was ‘escargot’. If you’ve read the book, you’ll know that the chapter featuring ‘escargot’, is one of the best bits. I can remember sitting up in bed looking at the cover when I was about five years old, and thinking that I couldn’t wait until I could read, so that I wouldn’t have to wait for an adult to read the rest of it to me.

‘Five Children and It’ by E. Nesbit (first published by Unwin, 1902) – When I was about seven, I went to the school fete and noticed this book on the tombola stall. It looked interesting and I was determined to win it. When the stall-holder told me that I had a winning ticket, I reached out happily to pick up the book, but was firmly told that I had won a bar of soap instead, and should be pleased that I had won anything at all. I was very disappointed, but within a year or so I’d managed to somehow get hold of a copy, which became one of my most-read books for the next few years. I loved the idea of normal, down-to-earth children who somehow got involved in magic, and this was in the back of my mind when I had a go at writing my own children’s book.

‘The Magician’s Nephew’ by C. S. Lewis (first published by Bodley Head, 1955) – another book featuring normal children who get involved in magic, but this time a whole, magical world. Although this is officially the first book in the ‘Narnia’ series, I think that it is a shame that it often gets overlooked or even completely forgotten, in favour of the second book, ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’. In my opinion, ‘The Magician’s Nephew’ is the best one in the series.

‘Jennings goes to School’ by Anthony Buckeridge (first published by Collins, 1950) – this is the first in a series of twenty-three books, all about an eleven year old boy called Jennings and his best friend Darbishire, who go to boarding school. The whole series is hilarious, and I read these books over and over again as a child, buying most of my copies from jumble sales and second-hand shops. Since I’ve become a grown-up, I’ve been able to extend my collection via the wonder of Ebay (although I still don’t have them all), and I still think they are brilliant, side-splitting books.

‘The Sword in the Stone’ by T. H. White (first published by Collins, 1938) – the first long-ish book I bought and read as a child, mainly as a result of stubbornness. I was in a bookshop with my mum, and, glancing round the shelves, I picked this book up. The bookseller looked at me with raised eyebrows. ‘You don’t want to buy that one,’ he said, in a smug, knowledgeable way. ‘It’s far too old for you.’ There was nothing he could have said, that would have made me more determined to buy and read that book. It’s an excellent story, all about the fictional childhood of the legendary King Arthur (known as ‘Wart’ in the story), and as well as excitement and adventure, has some great funny bits as well.

If you’ve got a favourite children’s book that isn’t on my list, let me know.

Typing away for this long about my favourite books has inspired me to go and dig through the bookshelves to see what else I’ve got. Next time, I’ll write something about my favourite fiction for grown-ups. In the mean-time I need to go and read the dog his bedtime story…

Are you laughing yet?

 

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My dog has a very well developed sense of humour. He thinks it is hilarious to put a ball down at my feet, nudge it towards me and then step back carelessly, as though the last thing in the world that he would want to do, is to pick up that ball ever again. Then, just as I reach down to pick it up, he leaps forwards and gleefully snatches it away from my fingers at the last minute. He shakes his head in delight and goes prancing away, the ball in his mouth, snorting and sneezing to himself at his amazing ability to trick me. A few seconds later he’ll come back and lay the ball at my feet again. He looks at me innocently. ‘Go on,’ he says, eyes wide, ‘it’s yours… just pick it up!’ He knows I can’t resist, and the joke starts all over again. Mind you, he can dish it out, but he can’t take it back – if I try the same trick on him, he looks at me with hurt surprise, before wandering away sadly, shaking his head at his misfortune at living with such a cruel owner.

Like the dog, I like a bit of humour. I’ve always loved funny books, both as a child and as an adult, so when I started writing my children’s book, I really wanted it to have some funny bits in it – it didn’t necessarily need to be laugh-out-loud funny all the way through, as most of it is mystery/drama/magic, but in my opinion and experience, all the best children’s books have at least some humour in them, and at least one character who is funny (either intentionally or unintentionally), most of the time. In my first book, Hannah’s dad is the character who brings in most of the humour – often at his own expense.

When I told the dog that I was planning to start a second book in the series, he thought it was a good idea, but he was very firm with me on one point – the second book needed to include at least one dog. I bowed to his (as always, excellent), opinion, and so near the beginning of the second book, Hannah got a puppy. Although Hannah’s dad continued to have a humorous role in book two, the puppy helped out a lot with adding in plenty of extra funny bits, and at the dog’s insistence, I made sure that Hannah’s puppy, although a girl, was the same breed and had the same markings, as my dog.

When I’d finished the first draft, I read it out-loud to the dog and he seemed very pleased; laughing away, in his sneezy doggy-way, as I read the section about the puppy’s arrival. The dog and I smiled at each other – I’d entertained him and helped to keep his (already well-developed), sense of humour alive – my job, for that day at least, was done!

A writer’s dilemma – creativity versus admin

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When I first started writing a children’s book last year, it was great – having the chance to be creative, building my characters and settings, and writing the first draft of an adventure was wonderful. It was just the inventive, imaginative task that I thought it would be. However, once the first draft was written, the admin side of writing began to raise its ugly head.

Writing query letters to agents, investigating self-publishing options, re-writing and editing, working through copy-edited manuscripts, style copies and proof copies seemed so uninspiring – not my idea of being a creative children’s writer at all. I knew the manuscript was getting better all the time, but the process seemed pretty tedious.

Then my Marketing Controller at the publishers suggested that I start a blog. I had never (knowingly), read a blog, much less written one, but I did a bit of research, and noticed that lots of writers and aspiring authors wrote blogs – sometimes about their writing and sometimes about whatever came into their heads at the time.

After discussing the pros and cons of it all with the dog, I signed up for a WordPress site and then left it alone for a while – I was reluctant to put my fingers to the keyboard and write my first blog in case either I, or worse still, other people, thought it was rubbish. What to do?

I took the dog on longer walks than usual, to give myself a chance to think – did I really want to write a blog? Wouldn’t this take valuable time away from the ‘real’ writing process of kicking my manuscript into shape for publication?

After a couple of weeks I took a deep breath and started writing my first post, the dog sitting beside me to provide moral support, and nudging me occasionally with his paw to make sure he got the occasional mention. What a revelation it was! Far from being just another item on my long ‘to-do’ list, writing the blog became an oasis of creative calm, a lovely break in an otherwise admin-swamped world. Finally, I could write something new, and I could do it on a regular basis.

Now I understand much better why writers who are trying to get their books published, write blogs. It’s not just about publicising books (although that is good!), or about sharing experiences with others (which is great too!), but also about keeping the imagination and the creative side of writing alive, during the otherwise long, and slightly boring editing process.

So, what do you think of my blog, so far? Any comments will be gratefully received and responded to – as long as it doesn’t involve too much admin!

All hard work and no biscuits

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I’d written a children’s book, attempted and failed to get an agent or traditional publisher, and had finally decided to go for the self-publishing option. What to do next?

I naively thought it might be a case of simply sending the manuscript off to my chosen publisher, Matador, and then sitting back with a cup of coffee and some biscuits, with the dog at my feet. I assumed that after we had relaxed for a while, a parcel would come in the post, full of beautifully produced books.

It seemed we still had much to learn. First of all, the publisher strongly advised that I have the manuscript copy-edited to check for mistakes, grammatical errors, etc. They could do this for me, or they could recommend a list of independent companies to do it; I selected Cornerstones, one of the independent ones, and sent my manuscript off. I soon had an email back to let me know that they’d have it back to me in about a month. In the mean-time, the publisher advised me that I would also need a front-cover illustration. I googled around until I came across an illustrator called Ian R. Ward, whose work I liked, and I got in touch with him. I sent him some excerpts from the book so he could get an idea of the characters, and he was soon working on some initial sketches.

I thought at this point that biscuit-time might have arrived, but the copy-edited manuscript came back sooner than I’d expected. Now I needed to sit down and go through it word by word, looking at each change that the copy-editor had suggested, and deciding whether I wanted to accept each one or not. I did that and sent it off to the publisher. Was it biscuit-time at last? With the dog’s tail wagging, we headed towards the tin.

But before we could get the lid off, an email arrived from the illustrator, to say that the cover illustration was finished. I explain to the dog that we need to hold off on the biscuits until I’d had a look at it. The illustration was great, and completely captured the feel of the book. Fantastic! Off to the publishers with that as well!

Surely now, the dog pleaded, we could put the kettle on and get the biscuits out? But wait – another email arrived from the publisher to say that I needed to look at a style proof, to see what I thought about the font, font size and general page layout they’d suggested for the main text.

Right, done that as well. The dog and I sat down, and even had the biscuits half way to our mouths before another email pinged into my in-box. The dog raised his eye-brows and gave me his best and most exasperated ‘Harrumph’. Whatever now? It was a suggested front-cover design from the publisher’s graphic designer, incorporating my illustrator’s cover illustration. What did I think about the lay-out, font, etc., for that?

The dog put his head down and wandered dejectedly off towards his bed. He could only assume that the biscuits would be stale before we got to them. Who would have thought that self-publishing was such hard work? I kept quiet, not wanting to lower his spirits further by telling him that it wasn’t over yet…

Keeping on trying – alternative routes to publication

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I had written a children’s chapter book, edited it and had sent it out to every literary agent I could find. With the dog smiling confidently at me from his position near the fridge, I sat back and waited to see which agents would respond positively – I was in for a lot of disappointment.

Over the course of several weeks, a few agents emailed me back to say that my book wasn’t right for them, and many more didn’t respond at all. At the end of a few weeks, I had to accept that I wasn’t going to be getting an agent any time soon. I tried to see each rejection as just part of the learning process on the path towards publication, but it wasn’t easy. Somehow, even the dog’s wagging tail and trusting eyes were starting to lose their ability to boost my confidence.

Clearly the only people with an easy route to publication were either writers who had already successfully published at least one book, or celebrities, who presumably came with an existing fan-base to guarantee sales. I was neither a celebrity, nor in a position to guarantee that my children’s book would break all known book-sales records. Seemingly agents and publishers were not keen these days to take risks. What did other people do in these circumstances? I could just stick my book on a shelf and forget about it, but I’d developed a strong sense of loyalty to my book’s characters, and I felt I’d be letting them down if I didn’t look for other publishing options.

What about self-publishing? Again, I turned to the internet and the Children’s Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook. It seemed that there were lots of self-publishing companies out there. I looked up reviews of a few of them, and found that some would offer to, supposedly, publish un-agented writers in a traditional way, but then later ask for money to complete the publication process. These were the so-called ‘vanity’ publishers, who it seemed could easily take advantage of inexperienced writers, and fleece them for money while producing a poor quality book. I definitely didn’t want that to happen to me. The dog looked questioningly at me. I told him firmly that I would keep well away from those types of publishers, and he licked my hand in agreement.

Then there was the option of putting my book on Kindle, via Kindle Direct Publishing. I looked into this and then realised that for a children’s book this might not be ideal – as far as I could see, most children still bought traditional printed books. Also, this involved some degree of technical know-how, and although my IT knowledge had come on in leaps and bounds, I was reluctant to risk producing something low-quality through lack of expertise.

Again, the Children’s Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook came to the rescue. They recommended Matador, a self-publishing imprint of Troubador, based in Leicestershire. I had a look at a few more reviews and discovered that other people had found this self-publisher helpful and, importantly, not pushy. It also looked as though they produced high-quality, self-published books. I asked the dog whether he thought I should give them a try. He stared into space as he considered the question before nodding solemnly at me, and then lifting one paw in the gesture he uses to say ‘please’. I saw this as a good sign, and put together an email to send to Matador, including my manuscript. This time I received a positive response, with a list of options to consider – did I want to produce a large print-run of books and have professional marketing and distribution, or did I want to keep it all much more low-key, go for ‘print-on-demand’, and do my own marketing and distribution? What a lot to think about!

There were so many decisions I needed to make, but one thing was clear – I had finally started on my journey to becoming a published author – the dog and I couldn’t have been more delighted!

The learning curve – the long, steep road to getting published

 

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I’d started on my journey as a writer! I’d put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard), and written the first draft of a children’s chapter book. When the first draft was finished, I sat at the dining-room table, with the dog curled up loyally at my feet, and edited it to within an inch of its life – and then I wondered what to do next.

At the start of the process I had assumed that finishing one book would be all I would do, but while working on the book I had got to know and like the characters and I wanted to see what else might happen to them. I had some ideas in my head for more stories, and so I carried on writing whenever the kids were at school. Over the course of a few months I wrote a further three books, all featuring the same characters. Each time a book seemed finished, I’d read it aloud to make sure it ‘flowed’ properly, which the dog evidently enjoyed, judging by the way he gazed at me adoringly while I read. Now I had four books – but how should I get the first one out there, and under the noses of the general public?

I had a little browse on the internet for advice as to how to get published, and bought a copy of the Children’s Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook. This was really helpful, with sections on everything I needed to know. The first advice I picked up from it, was that that I needed to develop a thick skin and get used to rejection. The second, was that in order to get my books traditionally published I needed to first have an agent.

That didn’t sound too difficult – I would choose one from the long list of agents that was very helpfully included in the Yearbook. I made my choice and read the submission guidelines carefully. Within a few days, I had emailed this lucky agent the first three chapters of my first book, along with a carefully crafted cover-letter. It said on their website that, if interested, they would respond within six weeks, so I waited impatiently, checking my emails regularly. I couldn’t wait for them to get back to me – I was pretty sure that they would be delighted to have the chance to represent me and my book, so I was surprised and very disappointed when I suddenly realised that six weeks had gone, and I had had no response.

Oh well, not to worry – I needed to develop a thick skin, after all. The dog reassured me that it was their loss, not mine, and I recovered from my disappointment and had another look at the list of agents. Within a few days I had sent an email with the required first three chapters and cover letter, this time to my second choice agent. This one said that they would respond within two weeks, so I didn’t have too long to wait, but I decided to hedge my bets, and sent a submission out to another agent, my third choice, at the same time.

This time I had a response from both agents, but unfortunately not the one I was hoping for. It seemed that in both cases my book wasn’t ‘right for their list’, but they were very kind and said that they hoped that I would persevere and find a home for my book elsewhere.

This was terrible – how thick did my skin need to get, for goodness sake! Maybe my book wasn’t any good, after all. After wallowing in self-pity for a while, I went back to the Children’s Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook and looked at the list again. There were just so many agents on it. I identified all those that I would be prepared to allow to represent me, even including some that weren’t based in fancy offices in London or the south of the country, and over the course of a few weeks I blasted them all with submissions – then I sat back and waited, my confidence boosted by the rapt expression on the dog’s face as he stared earnestly at me. This was enough to assure me that I would get my first book published in the end, even if it wasn’t going to be in the traditional way I expected…

Disappointing the dog.

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A year ago, I decided to have a go at writing a children’s book. This was something that I had always wanted to do ever since I was small but I had never had time to try, with work, children, and everything else keeping me too busy. It seemed that I would never get a chance to have any free time, but when my husband and I moved to a different part of the country a year and a bit ago, I had to give up my job. We decided that I’d have a bit of time off before looking for another job – I’d spend some time concentrating on settling the children into their new school, and sort out any building work needed on the new house. I thought it was a nice idea, and the dog was excited too – there would be plenty of time for extra walks, and we could widen our search for the perfect dog biscuit. But, taking a gap between jobs seemed like the ideal chance to give writing a go – after all, I had time on my hands while the children were at school, so if I didn’t make an effort at this point, when would I?

I’d had an idea for a children’s chapter book floating around in my head for a few years, but I hadn’t pinned down the details. I knew that it would involve a child meeting a mysterious, retired person, who would turn out to have some secret that involved magic.  As a friendship developed between them, the child would be let into the secret, and the two of them would have some magical adventures.

It all sounded fabulous and I was excited to get started. I chose a day in my diary and in large letters wrote ‘writing day’ across it. Nothing else would happen while the kids were at school that day, apart from writing! I took a trip to a local stationary shop, and bought notebooks, pencils, memory sticks, and anything else I could think of that a ‘writer’ would need to keep handy. I finished the trip by buying a nice smart folder to keep it all in – I was all set to start. I just needed to take the next step – actually try to write. I was going to have to sit down with a pencil in my hand and face the possibility that I might not be able to string a story, or even a sentence, together.

I felt strangely nervous when I went to bed the night before my first ‘writing day’. What if I couldn’t think what to write? What if I couldn’t develop the characters into likeable people? What if I couldn’t finish the first paragraph? I didn’t sleep very well that night, but when I opened my eyes the next morning, amazingly, the first sentence was already waiting in my head.

I leapt out of bed, wrote it down, rushed the kids to school and then settled down at the dining-room table with a note book and pencil in my hand, and the laptop in front of me. The dog sat expectantly next to me, licking his lips – surely I was about to make myself a coffee and get him some dog biscuits out of the cupboard, as I always did straight after the morning school run? He was disappointed. I worked hard all that day, and the next day. By the end of the week, I had a chapter plan drawn up and I knew the names of the main characters. Three weeks later, I’d finished the first draft.

I printed it off and let my children read it. On the whole they were encouraging – they liked the story and the characters, and they wanted to know what happened next. But they also pointed out a few mistakes and suggested some changes, my daughter wielding her red pen particularly enthusiastically. I was surprised and slightly offended at this – surely what I had written was great, wasn’t it? Did I need to re-write or edit it? That sounded like hard work.

I started the process of re-writing and editing, and the dog got used to me sitting down at the table every morning. He still raised a quizzical eyebrow if I went into the kitchen, but otherwise settled down for some long, boring stretches of time at home. Little did he know that there would be plenty more of that ahead…