Sunday, 26 March 2017

Spring Cleaning - Eloise Williams

Spring has sprung, finally, and with it a time for new ventures.

I’ve done the usual things like emptying my wardrobe for a fresh start – then putting everything back again. Going through drawers full of bits and bobs which have no use – then putting them all back again. Rearranging the furniture for a new look to the house – then putting it all back again.

I guess I’m either messy or I like things the way they are.

My final effort at starting afresh this Spring is in decorating my writing shed.

Or, as we call it in its current state, the shed.


 

When I first moved here we decided that this teeny, tiny, wooden structure would be my writing shed. The hub of literature. A place for me to pen amazing wonders.  I would be Sylvia Plath in there. Mary Shelley, Dorothy Parker, the Bronte sisters rolled into one. I filled it with useful writing things, then shut the door and worked on the kitchen table. It’s warmer and close to the food.
 

But I am now starting on the shed with renewed energy because my Middle Grade book ‘Gaslight’ is just out (EEK!) and I need to move onto my next novel and get down to some serious writing.  

What better way to procrastinate than by decorating?!

Hurrah!
 

I’ve bought vintage wallpaper. Think songbirds and owls. And will now go about our lovely seaside town purchasing all sorts of writerly writing thingies. I might have to put a limit on my spending as I can get carried away with stationary expenditure.
 

I’m getting carpet, and a heater, and lights. You know it’s the bigtime when you get lights in a shed!

I have the launch for ‘Gaslight’ coming and lots of festivals and events, so they’ll come first, obviously (and you are welcome to come to any or all of them!) but then I am going to go all Lawrence Llewelyn-Bowen for a good long while.

And when I’ve finished my Spring decorating (probably by about mid-Summer) I’m going to sit in my writing shed, looking at my shiny new book in my shiny new lights, and write more than ever before.

A new start for Spring. A new start for me.  


 


Saturday, 25 March 2017

Being Disorganised by Tamsyn Murray

OK, a confession: I missed my blogging slot here last month. In fact, I didn't miss it at all, which was part of the problem: I didn't even notice that I hadn't written anything. And here I am this month, later than I should be. I think it's time to face the truth  - I am a disorganised mess.

At the wonderful Folly Farm Winter Warmer weekend last November, Kelly McKain led a session about working too hard that really resonated with me. She reminded us that we should make time to play, in amongst all our hard graft, because it's partly through play that we refill our creativity. I've become a bit better at that this year - this week, I spent an evening in Montmartre, 1899, taking part in Secret Cinema's Moulin Rouge - but I am still working hard. And the knock-on effect of that is that I'm starting to drop some of the plates I'm spinning. I am getting more and more disorganised. One of these days, I will not be somewhere I am supposed to be and then I will feel terrible.

I'm not totally sure what the answer is. I could pay someone to manage my diary for me, and give me a list of things I need to do, but I think I might struggle to relinquish what little control I have left. Weirdly, I think I was better organised when I still had a day job and only wrote a few days a week. Those few days at the day job were usually when I managed my writing diary and answered emails - now, I often see emails as an irritation and put off answering them as long as possible. And I dither and procrastinate a lot more too. Is it simply because my brain thinks I have more time to write, so I can afford to spend three hours looking at dancing kittens?

So, I guess what I want to know is, what are your top tips for being better organised? How do you keep all your plates spinning and make time to play too? Is there any hope for me?

Yours,

Disorganised of Hertfordshire

Friday, 24 March 2017

My Writer's Body by Tracy Alexander

As I typed the title my attention swept over my body, like a CT scanner, giving it a quick once-over. It’s not good. We’ll start at the bottom.

I sit with my feet crossed over at the ankle, tucked underneath my chair. This is not a helpful position. Your feet, I understand, should be flat on the floor. Grounded. Supporting all that lies above. My only contact with the earth is the big toe of my left foot, pointed, ballerina-style. Ready to fight or fly. The dog is lying in front of said big toe. Everyone knows you can’t disturb a sleeping puppy. So the little voice telling me it would be beneficial to shift about occasionally is muted.

This does not help my knees. These joints are very comfortable locked in position. No pain. No sense that they are there at all, in fact. Until some basic human need demands that I stand up. I untie my feet and find a space between paws to press down and therefore lever up. But my knees have a very special glue, only for special people. The glue bonds tight in the time it takes to realise you’ve been sitting without moving for too long. I unstick myself, slowly.

Source: Washington Post
And now we come to the back, starting low down. I cannot seem to straighten up. The little dip above the curve of my bottom is not a dip. It’s an angry person in a car park who can’t find a space and when they do some rotter in a nicer car swerves in without a care. I speak to the little dip, calming it down. It decides to relax enough for me to notice its friend, the mid-back. I know the mid-back quite well. No point reasoning with it. I lie down on the carpet embellished with forage the puppy brought back from his walk. Breathe deeply as though I’ve had my head under a duvet. That’s better.

As I regain the vertical I allow a glance in the mirror above the fireplace. My right shoulder is jauntily two inches above my left. A fine look. Rakish. I pull my shoulder blade down my back. Unfortunately my shoulder appears to be attached to my neck, surely bad design . . . The guy ropes keeping my head in place tauten – it’s unattractive. I resume the rakish look.

Shall I try a shoulder roll?
That was a mistake. My chest does not want to be made to stretch, it wants to hunch. It is happy hunching. It is already wondering when we are going back to the study to assume the frozen zig-zag that is its favourite position.

I make tea, ignoring the twinge in my elbow when I lift the kettle. Must have been all the tennis I played in my youth . . .

Human need answered, I am in situ again. Slumping nicely. I notice that my chin is jutting forwards, shortening the back of my neck. I tip my chin down to allow swan-like length, but can’t see the screen. I consider lowering the screen, or raising my chair. But won’t my desk be wrong then . . . Definitely a job for another day.

As I begin to type, all sense of my body is forgotten.

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. Gov.uk 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 https://www.gov.uk/browse/business/setting-up 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 https://www.startuploans.co.uk/ 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.

https://youtu.be/ikAb-NYkseI



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.