Thursday, 23 March 2017

Twelve Steps to Punctuation by Steve Gladwin

We feel ashamed about many things. Some of these are easy to share and others not so, but sharing the more difficult things can bring a form of healing and even a catharsis. This is what always seems to happen at the end of certain books where an act or statement at the right time will in turn set right many of the bad things which have gone before.

Then there are those things which aren't quite as easy to share. I have been an abba blogger now for over eighteen months and so I feel now is the time to share my guilty and perhaps not so closely guarded secret.Maybe some of you have guessed and are already shaking your head or brandishing a metaphorical red pen as you read my monthly thoughts. No it’s not the fact that I waffle, although I can well imagine that were there a twelve step programme for wafflers, I might be one of the first through the door, (you certainly would – ed!)

Let's instead conjure up the darkened room or cellar where myself and my fellow sufferers are sitting in a semi-circle while our doughty facilitator allows us each our turn to speak. Almost before I'm ready, it's my turn. I stand up awkwardly because this is my first time and I can’t yet believe that the suffering and embarrassment of my fellows can be in any way be equal to mine. I clear my throat and hear a tiny squeak of a voice confess that -

‘My name is Steve and I’m a bad punctuator!’
‘Welcome Steve’, says a roomful of fellow bad punctuators, and I feel a little better. Then I tell everyone else why I am here tonight.

The young writer contemplates a life of punctuation failure!

The Pupil’s Tale

‘It was a long time before I knew I had a problem with punctuation. I went to a pretty good school but it was never really emphasised and certainly no-one picked up much on things like the use of commas, or the correct use of ‘and’or‘but’ and certainly not the - to me at least – wholly pointless colon and semi-colon. Maybe it was because I was thought to be a good storyteller right from the infant days of picture story, to junior school composition and right on through secondary school into higher education. So praise concentrated on all that rather than criticism of my more obvious technical deficiencies. Or maybe - as seems more likely, I either remained completely oblivious of my writing’s failings or else ignored them, (either of these approaches the oblivious or the stubborn – would be equally like me!)

When I wrote my first proper story, ‘The Chronicles of Action’ in my new red notebook, my parents and sister chose to enjoy it rather than offer criticism.. When I wrote my first play, ‘Is the Sultan Guilty?’ (he wasn’t!) for the Hereford School House Drama Competition, punctuation wasn’t the issue either. Maybe spelling was, but I would steadily improve at both that and grammar and besides it was plot the judges were looking for.

The Tutor and Marker’s Tale

'As I began to write more and more stories and less and less plays, the dreaded punctuation became an issue. Ironically, part of my Further Education work at two of the three colleges I’ve taught at was as an English teacher for GCSE retake students. In the two full years I taught there, over 70% of the students passed. Their work involved studying the Welsh poets Meic Jenkins, and RS Thomas, as well as Arthur Miller’s ‘A View from the Bridge’ and at least one creative composition and written comprehension. What can I say! Despite my not being able to teach correct punctuation or grammar, (because I may not have recognised it as such in 2005,) a huge percentage of them passed. In summer 2006 I even served as an examiner for Paper One for WJEC and there were no clanging alarm bells for that, only a question mark about my generosity marks wise  What I remember instead is marking 450 papers and going slowly mad while despairing of the quality of any than about fifty of them, (mostly the same school). One poor soul had simply written on the right hand page, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t do this.’ This simple confession broke my heart just a little. Overall however I was glad to have been able to give two years of my best to help no more than thirty five students of varying ages through a hurdle they had already refused..

My editor in disguise to protect her anonymity!
The Editor’s Tale

None of this would have mattered normally for we all go through life with crosses to bear and most are a great deal worse. In the meantime I just carried on writing, saving the occasional embarrassing moment. One of these came when I sent in the first part of a serial fantasy story for a site called keepitcoming.  The editor liked my story but was a little miffed at some of the technical stuff. Didn’t I know that the inverted commas go after the full stop or comma? No maam, I honestly didn’t, and will try to make sure it doesn’t happen again. I did try after that. but you wouldn’t believe how hard it was, and I still get it wrong now and then. People never talk about how this sort of thing feels and do you know, we really should.

What changed everything was when I sent a hopeful MS of my first real attempt at a children’s book to Pont Books here in Wales, and got a positive but qualified response. This led to a deal of re-writing where only once did my wonderful editor let rip with her frustration at a small part of my technical deficiencies, (in this case the inverted commas weren’t misplaced, there were just too many of them).

I look back now - as I’m sure many writers do - at the standard of what I sent her. My submissions are still not wonderfully set out and I think my dyspraxia has as much to do with that as anything, but I try and comfort myself by thinking an editor or agent must have had a great deal worse. 
Anyway the happy ending to this part of my story is that the book she spent so much hair tearing time over, ‘The Seven’ was eventually published in 2013 and was then short listed for the Tir Na N-og prize.. She had used all of her considerable technical skills and experience to draw the sow's ear technical elements out of my baby and turn the story into enough of a silk purse to impress a panel of judges. I will always be grateful to her for that.

The Raven calls and complains about the punctuation!

The Raven’s Tale

Sometime in October, my need for punctuation twelve-step therapy caught up with me and just when I thought I was doing well. Our wonderful book ‘The Raven’s Call’ – a new way of using stories and the old cycle of the year to help deal with loss and change – went out into an unsuspecting and cruel world and as it turned out, as Richard Duke of Gloucester might put it, ‘scarce half made up.’ Due to a sequence of accidents, the proof-reading hadn't been done and all my deficiencies were suddenly out there for all to see, thus obscuring the effort I’d taken on the stories and their so important message. The first comment we got back was that although it looked beautiful, there were errors throughout.

Luckily few copies had gone out and the people we sold them to or gave to contributors, came to see the book for its qualities and not its deficiencies. We even started to joke about it being ‘the quirky original’ Now, as we await the re-launch of the book I try not to feel so embarrassed, but it’s not always easy. It doesn’t of course help that I am dyspraxic, because of course part of that can be about missing the things which are right in front of you. I am not, needless to say, a driver!

Eats, Shoots and Complains.

At the end of Bill Bryson’s hilarious 'The Road to Little Dribbling',  his latest UK travelogue cum diatribe, he writes down a list of all of his pet hates. It’s clearly a wonderful exercise and we should all try it and maybe have.
I have a substantial list of such things but high on the list would be any books which hanker after perfection in things like punctuation or grammar. It might be highly amusing for some people to notice where their local grocer or publican has misplaced his apostrophe, but for all they know the whole business might for him be one continuous hell and he’s just had a stab at it and hopes to hell he’s right. Too many of these pedant’s guides to perfection ignore the very real truth that most people and yes even professional children’s writers, don’t possess enough skills to know where one thing should go and another be missed off. Instead people do well to do as well as they do in a lot of cases and I should know!

But now the time has come for change and an end to our lifelong shame. So come forth my fellow sufferers from your caves and underground concealment. Come forth and be guided into all your future success and a light now longer dulled by feelings of guilt or inadequacy.

That then is my story. Thank you for listening.'

PS This blog is doubtless littered, like my others, with punctuation errors and the occasional bit of bad grammar. Count them by all means but please don’t tell me or I might go home and take my ball back.

PPS The group asked me to leave by the way!

Steve Gladwin - 'Grove of Seven' and 'The Year in Mind'
Writer, Performer and Teacher
Author of 'The Seven' and 'The Raven's Call'

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Being Your Own Small Business, by Dan Metcalf

As the end of the tax year looms closer, and my stack of receipts from Costa Coffee and Staples mount up, I'm reminded that I am not just a person. Not just a writer, even, but a business.

Scary word, no? I never took Business Studies at school, never quite grasped the idea of self employment and creating stuff for profit, so when I started publishing books I was shocked to find this whole new world of bookkeeping, promotion, discipline and money. I was part of the Young Enterprise scheme at school (somehow) where myself and a group of friends formed a company to produce hand-painted rocks, but that hardly compares to the reality of setting up on your own.

I was aided in this venture into the unknown when I was made redundant by my employer, a local council. Once I had declared myself unemployed, I pushed hard to get on to a scheme called the New Enterprise Allowance. This gave a small payment each week to attempt to live on (impossible, but I did have redundancy money and a wife in employment as well) but the most important thing was access to business training and mentors. This meant I was able to go to workshops on writing business plans, social media management, self assessment taxes, grant applications, marketing, starting out in business and much more. The access to a mentor was brilliant. Mine was an experience businessman and knew every trick in the book; funding, selling, self-promotion and the art of the deal (sorry to drop a Trump-ism in there...).

If you need support setting up or just general help with your career as a self-employed writer, don't suffer in silence. There are loads of free advice sessions available to you:

  • Ask your local council. When I first new that redundancy was on the cards, I asked my local council and got a meeting with a Business Development Officer, who went through my options. Most councils will have some similar service as it is in the government's interest to promote and help new businesses – it's them you'll pay your taxes to when you're a millionaire, after all.
  • Check your local library. Many library authorities have a Business and Enterprise Hub now, which can hold meet-ups for free advice. It's worth having a look to see if your library authority subscribes to an online resource which is butchly named COBRA (COmplete Business Reference Advisor). Here they have fact sheets on every sort of career and business you can imagine, listing the research, qualifications and experience that would be helpful to start up. Some libraries can provide market research too from MintUK which can show lists of similar businesses and their turnovers, taken from the Companies House database. (Oh, and they have books too)
  • Every area should have a local business advice organisation. These are the people who monitor the New Enterprise Allowance and can support start-ups. Ask your local Job Centre for advice on how to contact them.
  • The government website here in the UK is invaluable. has loads of articles on how to set yourself up in business, all written in non-scary plain English. There is lots on there, so try as a starting point.
  • You may need funding; start up loans are available at reasonable rates but you'll need to get your business plan approved first. Check for details.
  • Lastly, ask friends for advice – even if they are a plumber or builder, they'll have a good grasp on self-employment and they will tell you it is not that scary. If you don't know anyone, join groups on Linked In and find meet-ups in your area. Don't be afraid to ask – every business person had to start out sometime.
Feel free to add your own authoritative business support links in the comments if you have any. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have some bookkeeping to do...

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

We don't have to do it all! by Anne Booth

I have just read Joan's post from yesterday and recognise that procrastinating phenomenon! I think that fear of not, after all, being able to cut it when we do eventually stop procrastinating and write something, does strike at the heart of every writer, and continues even after being published. We are suddenly  aware of our weaknesses and forget our strengths.  We read the advice of dynamic individuals about how they made it and see they are marketing and promotional wizards as well as amazingly interesting people and we feel we can't possibly do or be everything that is needed.

Here is me procrastinating big time, hiding under my jumper. Please don't look at the Kit Kat wrapper.

But very recently I suddenly had a very lovely breakthrough - I've realised this getting published lark is really not ALL up to me and it is OK to be me with my weaknesses and strengths. I knew this before, but this is a re-realisation and I think I am starting to believe this, not just say it, and it is a big relief.

When you are a child handing in essays or stories it is essential that it is 'all your own work' and I think, as writers, this is vital and something which is very important to us. We want to be original, to stand out from the crowd. We don't want to plagiarise or be plagiarised. 'I've got here on my own merits, I've done this on my own, I have a unique voice', we say, and we are rightly proud.

But the thing is - and I am increasingly finding this a relief - once we are published we are not on our own any more, and it isn't just a question of  'all  our own work' -  it is also the hard work of others which will make our careers.

So for me, first and foremost there is my agent, Anne Clark. So far thanks to  Anne, I have book deals with Catnip, Nosy Crow, Oxford University Press and Lion.  I hope that I will work with more publishers too, and if I do, that will be thanks to Anne. I don’t know anything about publishing and approaching people and making deals and knowing the market.

This is me back in 2014 at the launch of 'Girl with a White Dog'.

Publishers take my texts and make them into desirable objects - books. Anne works with me to make sure that the texts we submit are as good as I can possibly make them, but then, thanks to commissioning editors and desk editors and copy editors they are worked on even more, and thanks to designers they are presented in the best possible way.

I am teamed up with amazing illustrators like  Rosalind Beardshaw, Sam Usher, Amy Proud, Sophy Williams, Ruth Hearson. Serena Rocca illustrated the cover of 'Girl with a White Dog', which was designed by Pip Johnson, and then Pip Johnson illustrated and designed the cover of 'Dog Ears'. Sophy Williams' illustrations on the cover of the Lucy books are so important to attract readers.

Marketing people have input on titles and even the colour of the background of the covers! Glitter is added, or not, as the case may be. Booksellers are consulted before the final decisions are made.

Then my books are printed (sometimes at great speed - as with 'Refuge'), and then they have to be promoted and sold, and although I obviously do my best to promote them, I really rely on the talents and hard work of marketing promotions and sales people in Bounce marketing, or OUP, or Nosy Crow, or Lion to get my books out there, and also turned into audio books, as 'Girl with a White Dog' and' Dog Ears' have been.

Then there is the person who deals with foreign rights sales in Anne’s agency, Margot Edwards - thanks to her my MG books are in 6 languages apart from English. Thanks to the foreign rights people at OUP, Nosy Crow and Lion, my picture books are sold in America and my first two Lucy books are translated and on sale in the Czech Republic. I could never have organised that in a million years!

Lastly, but certainly not least, are the book sellers and librarians - for my book to really exist in its fullest way it has to be read - so these people are vital. And then I suppose, the final person who makes the book is...the reader.

So, I feel more and more comfortable seeing myself as part of a team,  and it really helps to lessen the fear. I want to have a unique voice and have integrity and authenticity but I am really glad to remember that my writing is not the only thing which will make the book succeed or not. My job is to write as well as I can and do my best to promote my books - but I must remember that, thanks to Anne my agent and my publishers, I don't have to be (luckily!) an all- dancing, all- singing genius, beauty, promotional wizard or a celebrity, because other people in the publishing and book-selling world have amazing  talents and experience and different roles which are, and will be, vital for my books.  I know that we writers can feel a bit depressed by celebrity children's authors, but I think we have to hold our nerve. That isn't the whole story by any means. 

I found this video of a speech by Neil Gaiman to be inspiring and helpful when I think about the job of a writer.  The bit about imposter syndrome is particularly good.

P.S. You may have read in The Bookseller that the very respected publisher  Lion has just had to lay off two thirds of its wonderful staff and is operating for the time being with a drastically reduced budget. Unfortunately, just after all this has happened, my first picture book with them, ‘I want a Friend’ by Anne Booth and Amy Proud, is being published this month, so this is a case where an author DOES have to feverishly multi-task and beg the support of family and friends and fellow writers and illustrators to spread the word. SO - here am I, after all I have said, with an author-sized marketing hat on - ‘here is  the must- buy this month from the impossibly beautiful and talented celebrity team, Amy Proud and Anne Booth. Please spread the word about this INCREDIBLE book OUT THIS MONTH  via Twitter and Facebook and any other celebrity functions, radio call-ins or TV chats shows you may be involved in…. '

You may recognise this picture from my last blog post and from the background of my twitter feed - I am doing my best because I love this book and the illustrations Amy has done!!

Monday, 20 March 2017

The Disadvantage of Success - Joan Lennon

I often put off reading articles that I come across on-line, especially if (being honest here) they're longer than a few paragraphs and are short on pictures.  I file them away, with all good intentions, but more often than not, I don't actually get back to them at all.  But then I saw an article from The Atlantic by Megan McArdle called Why Writers are the Worst Procrastinators - the psychological origins of waiting (... and waiting, and waiting) to write.

So I decided to buck my trend and read the thing on the spot.  Why are writers so good at this procrastination lark?  This is what McArdle has to say:

Over the years, I developed a theory about why writers are such procrastinators: We were too good in English class. This sounds crazy, but hear me out.

Most writers were the kids who easily, almost automatically, got A's in English class. (There are exceptions, but they often also seem to be exceptions to the general writerly habit of putting off writing as long as possible.) At an early age, when grammar [i.e. primary] school teachers were struggling to inculcate the lesson that effort was the main key to success in school, these future scribblers gave the obvious lie to this assertion. Where others read haltingly, they were plowing two grades ahead in the reading workbooks. These are the kids who turned in a completed YA novel for their fifth-grade project. It isn’t that they never failed, but at a very early age, they didn’t have to fail much; their natural talents kept them at the head of the class.

This teaches a very bad, very false lesson: that success in work mostly depends on natural talent...

If you’ve spent most of your life cruising ahead on natural ability, doing what came easily and quickly, every word you write [as an adult] becomes a test of just how much ability you have... 

It's a thought.  I was one of those kids.  It took me a (very) long time to get down to writing full-time.  And I'm very good at procrastinating and of fearing that I won't be able to write the next book.

At the same time, I know I'm a better writer than I was 10 years ago, and I know that that's because of 10 years' worth of hard work.

So what do you think?  Were you one of the ones McArdle describes?  Has early facility been a disadvantage and/or procrastination instigator?  Or did you struggle back in primary school and still embrace delaying tactics of every variety and shade?  I'll be interested to hear your thoughts.

And, because I do like a post with a picture, here's one of my favourite images of the struggling writer ...

Leonid Pasternak's The Passion of Creation (wiki commons)

We've all been there.

Joan Lennon's website.
Joan Lennon's blog.

Saturday, 18 March 2017

An incident with Instagram by Lu Hersey

Social media can be a helpful marketing tool, if you choose to use it that way. A means of drawing attention to new books coming out, reviews and events. It’s also a way to communicate with other writers, family and friends. But very occasionally it can backfire in a spectacular way, as I found out recently with Instagram...

Fab cake made for me by YAfictionados (cakes feature a lot on Instagram)

Unless you choose to have a private account, Instagram is a public platform – a bit like twitter, but with more pictures. Great for improving mediocre photos with its selective cropping and filter options, and for the most part, fun. It’s become an increasingly popular site for authors and book bloggers, and a social media site currently popular with nearly all teenagers.

YA event at Foyles, Bristol - writers always Instagram events...

Some writers and illustrators have a ton of followers and a zillion ‘likes’ for everything they post (look at Chris Riddell’s amazing Instagram feed and you’ll see what I mean)…although if you take a look at teen profiles like Zoella’s, the rest of us have a lot of catching up to do!
Like all social media, Instagram is another way of keeping up with what your writer friends are doing – and on a bad day, making you feel really inadequate looking at other people’s amazing book tours, fantastic book covers, new book deals, and countless foreign editions (even though you’re delighted for them!)

Social media can sometimes make you feel like this...

Anyway, as Instagram is mostly a public platform, like most children’s writers, some of my followers are kids and teenagers. The audience I write for, in fact. And therefore I’m fairly selective about the images I post.
So when my Instagram account got hacked by a spammer, my new profile pic of a much younger model with surgically enhanced breasts (and wearing very few clothes) was a bit of a worry.


It took me some time to actually find my account again. The spammer had blocked me from accessing my own photos, and it’s quite complicated getting Instagram ‘help’ to do anything remotely helpful. I had to send them a photo of myself holding a card with my email address on to prove I was a real person. It took them several days to grudgingly agree that yes, maybe I had been hacked, and let me have my account back with a slightly different name. Now I’m luwrites instead of LuWrites, because Instagram ‘help’ said someone already owned LuWrites. Duh. But I couldn’t be bothered to argue.

Having got my account back, I found my big breasted spammer had kindly started following 5000 random people on my behalf. Some of them had very dubious names like Cmidic and Luvmicok and had messaged to request nude pics...

After hastily blocking all of them (and changing my profile photo, obvs), I had to unfollow the other 5000, which took AGES. Instagram only allows you to unfollow about 100 people in one session before they freeze your account for a while – apparently to ‘protect our community’. Yeah, right. The same ‘community’ where a spammer can follow 5000 people in one go. Pffft.

Surprisingly, in the end, some good came out of it all. I ended up feeling almost sorry about unfollowing some of the 5000 people I’d never met. Quite a few of them had followed me back – though I’m surprised they didn’t wonder why I’d followed them in the first place, especially with THAT profile pic.

By the time I’d slowly waded through, I found it kind of comforting that apart from the porn spammers, the vast majority of the accounts I had to unfollow were people from across the globe, simply recording very similar things in their lives. High days and holidays, families, falling in love, cars – along with some truly spectacular cakes, and a very wide range of pets. (One guy actually appeared to own a pair of tigers and a grizzly bear!)

I ended up with a warm, fuzzy feeling of a global community and shared humanity, something hard to remember in these days of political tensions and rifts between countries.
I still follow a few of the people who followed me back. Mainly young teens I feel might be upset if I unfollowed them, and I wasn’t quite sure if they were following me before or not. After all, at its best, Instagram can be a great public space and a good way to link to others.
But if you’re a children’s writer with an Instagram account, or about to open one, I’d strongly advise making your password impregnable…it could save you a lot of time and effort.

Lu Hersey
Deep Water out now, published by Usborne
@LuWrites on twitter
luwrites on Instagram
Lu Writes on Wordpress