Day 25 – Half

When we talked about how my husband is half Danish, our son looked at him and, after a pause, asked – ‘Which half?’ – it was such a brilliant question. This poem was born. When I read it to children they always love to tell me about their own heritage and culture, their links to other countries, whether they were born in a different country or they have a great-great-great aunty who once lived in Australia; they always have brilliant stories to tell. They also love to tell me how they are ‘divided’ up – “I’m half English, quarter Irish, quarter Australian and another quarter American!”, one little person once told me!

Write a poem about YOU – what makes you, you? It could be things you like (or things you don’t!), or perhaps you have an interesting story to tell about where you come from? These poems are great to read and share to learn about each other.

On the topic of other countries, WordPress (who my website is made through) reliably informed me yesterday that people from the countries listed below have popped by to take a look – so I just wanted to say, thank you! I still can’t really believe that copies of my poetry book are in Denmark, America and Hong Kong at the moment being read. It is always amazing to hear from people across the planet that they are enjoying my writing – thank you!

Day 20 – Doodles

Our internet has gone down and I am unable to post the poem I planned to share today – it will, however, be here tomorrow!

Instead, I was looking through the photos on my phone and found this doodle our son did:

He handed them to me earlier saying, “This is a tomato with a beard and this is a ghost who is happy because it is Christmas.”

Children have the best imaginations! How great would a poem about a ghost who loves Christmas be? Let alone a tomato with a beard. His drawings also feature a “happy pyramid” which is littered with poetry possibilities.

Drawings can be a great way into writing, especially for visual learners or those who find it easier to express their ideas with images.

If you’re someone who normally works with words, have a go a doodling some ideas first. They may surprise you!

Try the “tomato approach” – take an inanimate object in your home and bring it to life. Perhaps a shoe listening to headphones or a grumpy chair.

They might not all turn into poems, but I bet they make you smile!

World Book Day

It seems wrong for an aspiring author not to mention the magic that is today – World Book Day – and so I present this honorary blog post where I share my World of Books. 

There is an ancient video somewhere of my mum reading The Family at Red Roofs by Enid Bylton to me at bedtime – I have no memory of the story or it being read to me but I love watching the video because it captures the magic of the shared story experience. An experience which starts the reading journey for most children – listening to stories at bedtime.

I do remember listening to The Enormous Crocodile by Roald Dahl, a story which our four year old son is now enjoying listening to all these years later. I remember listening to story cassette tapes in the car on long journeys – yes, tapes. A concept which will be lost on our children, who listen to stories via the wifi and a magnetic character sensor.

The first chapter books I remember reading were the Animal Ark series by Lucy Daniels – I devoured them all – Puppies in the Pantry, Kittens in the Kitchen, Hedgehogs in the Hall…well, you get the idea! They were the perfect blend of slightly different stories in the exact same format each time – classic early reader stories. Years later I would learn that my beloved Lucy Daniels was not an author, or even a real person, she was a group of writers all trained to deliver the predictable animal tomfoolery I’d loved. My mind was blown. 

My favourite childhood book was Ella Enchanted by Gail Levine, a retelling of the traditional tale Cinderella – but in this version, Ella saves herself by being kind. Female empowerment and kindness in one book – I still read it once a year or so, just because. Closely followed by Louis Sachar’s Holes. 

Much later, in adulthood, I first read some of my favourite Young Adult novels – Junk by Melvin Burgess, Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman, Wonder by RJ Palacio, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime by Mark Haddon…now I’ve started remembering, I feel guilty for having favourites, but there have been so many amazing books I’ve read over the years I would be here all night listing them. 

An interest in theatre and performance saw me consuming works by Ibsen, Shakespeare, Caryl Churchill and poetry by Benjamin Zephaniah, Carol Anne Duffy and John Agard.

My two best friends often give me books as presents – always winners whether children’s books, non-fiction or stories aimed at adults; they know me, so they know what I’ll love or what I should read. They love sharing the books which they’ve loved reading and I love them for that. My husband is very tolerant of me reading books over his shoulder – he begins each new book reminding me that I can always read it after he’s finished but by page 50 he has inevitably started talking about the plot and characters until I am hooked in and spy-read his book disjointedly whilst also reading my own. 

My favourite authors for adults are Susan Hill, Ben Elton and Jussi Adler Olsen – a trio of drama, darkness, horror, thriller and social commentary. I love books which make me think and make me feel – and these authors are my guilty pleasure. They are the books which stay with me long after I’ve finished reading them. I also love books which make me laugh out loud – a recent joy has been the Rosie trilogy of books by Graeme Simsion, the genius who created Don Tillman – one of my favourite fictional characters of all time. 

It seems to me that reading is about sharing – from the earliest memories of being read to, to the excitement of reading and sharing an amazing book with someone else, right into the core of reading itself – an author sharing the world they have created with the reader. I would love to hear about your favourite books and hope you feel inspired to share them.

So Happy World Book Day to you – now, go share a book!

Finding Pace

Last night I was sat poring over another draft of a picture book text I have been working on for over a year now. Yep, you heard right. A picture book text of less than 800 words and here I am a year later, still working on it. It’s one of my favourite story ideas but something has been sticking, niggling away at the back of my mind, keeping me awake at 4am as I try to work out what it is. Then last night, I got it.

We were listening to the music of a friend of ours. His new album arrived on Spotify yesterday (you can listen here) and after dinner, kids in bed, tea poured, we sat down to listen. My first thought was this: I don’t listen to enough classical music. It was truly beautiful and wonderfully calming.

A memory of secondary school music lessons popped into my head (quite impressive as my memory is genuinely pretty awful) – when we would sit listening to music and the teacher would ask us to think about the pace of the music and the impact it had on us as it changed.

As the music I was listening to continued, I tried to apply this technique. How did I feel? Which images did it conjure? How did the pace of the music change those images?

And then my picture book suddenly made sense. I’d been re-writing the words, sometimes in rhyme, sometimes in prose, for a year now. New words, different words, the same words in different orders. But the one thing I had been ignoring was the pace of the story.

It seems so obvious now, re-reading the most recent draft. It’s a good story but the pace doesn’t match the action. It’s a fast paced story, with non-stop action but the language was too flowery, too detailed, too slow. I had to ramp up the pace, create more tension, keep the flow of the story going – and then bring the pace back in as the story concluded.

I needed to write the story like a piece of music – preferably like the Benny Hill theme song, that level of bounce and bumble.

When I asked my husband to re-read the story (draft 1 million and 4…) his first comment afterwards was that I’d cut down the word count. I hadn’t. The word count was exactly the same as the previous version he’d read but he’d read this version with increased energy and speed thanks to the change in pace.

It’s so easy to get caught up in the words we put down – the notes of the story – but I am so grateful for the reminder to write with pace in mind and to craft a story like a piece of music, taking the reader on a journey as you write.

My Mum Always Knows

As a child I was occasionally prone to lying. Little lies, like when I told my year 6 teacher that it wasn’t me who’d thrown their cycling proficiency leaflets in the bin. Full disclosure: it was. Come to think of it I also lied to my University tutor about why I missed my library induction. The actual reason, I didn’t know where the library was, was too embarrassing to admit. Still to this day I think about these lies when I enter a library or ride a bike.

There was, of course, one person who always saw right through me. It’s what mums do. Now I’m a mum this gift has been passed down to me. Watch out kids…! This writing prompt photograph from the Creative Writing Ink competition inspired me to write this poem. – if you fancy a go too!

My Mum Always Knows

My mum always knows
when what I say’s not true.
And when I tell the smallest lie,
She even knows then too.

Like once I said I didn’t eat
the biscuits from the tin.
But she looked into my eyes
and said, “Lying is a sin.”

I felt guilty then and wasn’t sure
what I was meant to say.
Apologise and I’d get caught,
that dreaded biscuit day.

So I said, “No, really mum,
it really wasn’t me.
I knew the rules and never would
have biscuits before tea.” 

She looked at me so sadly,
disappointment filled her eyes.
And as she looked at me like that,
the lie inside me died.

“Ok, Mum. I’m really sorry
In fact it was probably me,
I think I might have stolen
some biscuits before tea.

I really am quite sorry,
I never should have lied.”
But she just walked away,
shook her head, tutted and sighed.

Forwards and Backwards

When I met my half-Danish husband eleven years ago, he introduced me to Danish culture. Denmark isn’t somewhere I’d been before or knew very much about – I was more of an Ikea girl, myself. Fast forward a few years and a huge explosion and celebration of all things Danish happened in the UK and suddenly everyone was talking about Hygge and candles and a seemingly endless list of reasons to bring out more food and drink, and all the other things I’d been hearing about since 2009. If only I’d realised how big Denmark would suddenly be over here, I’d have written the damn book myself. Hindsight, as they say, is a wonderful thing. I didn’t write a book about Hygge and share this secret Danish cosiness with the world, but hats off to those who did.

Besides Hygge, a favourite Danish insight my husband introduced me to is the saying, “frem og tilbage er lige langt”, the sentiment doesn’t translate exactly, but in our house we refer to it as simply this, “Forwards and backwards is the same distance.” Often it crops up on long journeys when we’ve taken a wrong turn and have to retrace our steps. It makes sense literally, if you take a step forwards it is the same distance as if you take a step backwards, but I mostly enjoy the sense of acceptance and calm which it brings. It doesn’t matter which direction you’re going in, rather that you simply are going.

It’s the end of 2020. What a year. Go backwards 365 days and imagine being told what your year would be like. Back then, it was just a great piece of fiction – I’d read it. I’d watched it in countless post-apocalyptic films (another passion my husband introduced me to). I have to say I’ve enjoyed candles and good food much more than apes and space travel, but that’s probably for another discussion. Now skip forwards 365 days. Suddenly making New Year’s resolutions (as a list lover this is a favourite past time of mine) seems daunting…futile… or perhaps we are just worried about tempting fate again? Who started 2020 announcing that “this will be my year” – how on earth do we begin planning for the next one?

Yet plan we do. Something must keep us going and plodding on or we would just end up standing still. So I have duly taken out one of my favourite notebooks and written 2021 at the top. What do I want to achieve in 2021? So much of this year has felt like adapting, responding, damage limitation, survival – for some, these are feelings which might have sparked creativity and passion and energy, for others they have caused anxiety, worry, confusion and the rest of us, perhaps, have muddled along somewhere in the middle.

For me, I had grandiose ideas about becoming a published author in 2020. Back in January I thought a year was generous, a safety net of 365 days but how long do these things really take? Much like the rest of my ideas about 2020, I was wrong.

I have made my own website, approached literary agents and publishers, joined writing forums, shared my writing with other writers, been awarded an honourable mention, got to the semi-finals of a major writing competition and most importantly, I’ve written. Not every day and not always consistently, but I have produced stories and poems and blog posts of which I am proud, which have kept me motivated during the harder parts of 2020 and created hope that one day this is something I will be able to call a career and not just a hobby. Perhaps a year to be published was too ambitious? Perhaps in this particular year, even more so, just because it didn’t happen in 2020 doesn’t mean it will never happen.

We’ve heard so much this year about hope and kindness and generosity and how much good can stem from so much sadness. I think at their core, New Year’s Resolutions are about being hopeful and optimistic which is probably why I have always loved writing them. I’ve never lost the two stone I write down on the list every year but that doesn’t stop me writing it down and starting the year eating healthily and off the booze. Maybe 2021 is the year I have a healthy BMI and a published story and maybe it’s not, but I don’t want to give up trying and hoping and working towards my goals because I’m scared I might not meet them.

After all, if forwards and backwards are the same distance then it doesn’t really matter where you end up, as long as you keep moving.

Honourable Mention

Back sometime near the beginning of 2020 I entered a writing competition. Full disclosure – I didn’t win.

I did, however, get an “Honourable Mention” from the judges which pinged through on an email back in October. I told a few people, not many, and some suggested writing a post about it.

I’ve been avoiding writing said post for a while now and I expect that it’s mostly down to misplaced embarrassment. Who dances around because they got an honourable mention? I wasn’t even a finalist. There was the winner, the people shortlisted and then at the bottom of the pile the HMs. To be honest I felt a bit silly being excited about it.

It doesn’t help that the phrase “honourable mention” is imprinted on my brain as the award Monica and Ross receive in their eighth grade school talent show’s brother-sister dance category, with their famous performance of “The Routine”. If you don’t know what I’m referring to then we are probably on very different life paths. Go watch Season 6, episode 10 of Friends immediately and then get back to me.

They are so proud of their achievement – which of course creates that wonderful humour which stems from dramatic irony. How many brother-sister acts actually entered the eighth grade talent show after all? Yet they are so proud of their HM in what we can only assume was a very limited pool of contestants.

I guess, to my shame, I was worried that my HM announcement might be received in the same way and I really didn’t want to be doing “The Routine” on a blog post and leaving myself vulnerable.

Then I read an article by a lady who has been writing (unpublished) for 20 years. Imagine that. Other writers popped up in the comments; 5 years, 7 years, 10 years until they had a positive reply from an agent or publisher. And here I am in year 1 of actively pursuing my goal of being published. Who am I to laugh at an honourable mention? It’s a start and I am only at the beginning after all.

The main advice the other authors gave about keeping yourself motivated on the (potentially) long road to publication was this – celebrate every small step; shout about every little win; be proud of the HMs and the long lists and the almosts and the not bads and the maybes and actually be proud of this fact – you entered the competition in the first place and you put yourself out there and said hey, this is my writing, World.

Look – there’s even a link. Scroll down and my name is really there – with all the other amazing Honourable Mentions.

Next step, the podium at Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin Eve to show everyone that yes it’s a small step to get an HM but it’s still a step and that’s worth dancing about.

And just for fun, here’s two of our best friends performing ‘The Routine’ like absolute lockdown legends…

The Menu

This poem was inspired by our son’s love of baking, cooking, tasting and creating some truly unique dishes!

The Menu

In my kitchen I can make
Chocolate soup, 
Ice-cube pie,
Spaghetti with banana.

Sandwich milk,
Carrot toast
And dinner for a Llama.

Yoghurt eggs,
Avocado cake,
Cereal with jelly.
Bacon Lemonade
And tea served in a welly.

The specials are
served with broccoli flavoured lollies.

Be sure to bring your appetite,
Your raincoats and your brollies.

The Chapter Book

I have loved writing picture books over the last year – they have proven themselves to be far more complex, exciting and demanding than one might believe of a story, especially one where so much is told through the illustrations and their interaction with the words. 

For now though my picture books are resting – taking a breather and enjoying some space away from my frantic editing and re-writes. I know that for as much as I love my stories we are too close now – like lovers who have spent time in a honeymoon bubble and need some time to step away from one another and remember who they are alone. 

We will reunite once more, perhaps in a few months, with fresh eyes and excitement. Now it’s time to try something new. Creativity does not come from reading and re-reading the same words. It comes from challenging yourself with new ideas, new words and new experiences. From looking at something different and asking questions you haven’t asked yet.

I am currently working on my first chapter book for 7-9 year olds. Just learning this information has taken a disproportionate amount of time in my mind. It transpires that chapter books for children are categorised under two headings – early readers and middle grade. Afterwards you’re moving into Young Adult stories which I’m not grown up enough to write yet. Seems simple enough? Except then you learn that there are different age brackets within early readers and not all agents, publishers or book sellers categorise them in the same way. Mind-Blown. 

If the age range debacle wasn’t enough to get your head around, the gender division within the marketing world of chapter books has left me awake at night with fury. Chapter books – think the Beast Quest series aimed at boys and the Rainbow Magic series aimed at girls. Scary monsters and adventure for boys, fairies and sparkly rainbows for girls. I’m deliberately choosing extreme examples and of course there are a wealth of books which don’t rely on these specific gender extremes but the books are still labelled ‘boy books’ and ‘girl books’ – blue and pink. 

Interestingly, research shows – and this is certainly true of my experience teaching and reading with this age group – that girls will read books aimed at boys but boys are very unlikely to pick up a chapter book marketed for girls. So much so that to find a female lead character in a chapter book aimed at boys is a bit like meeting Santa, whilst cruising through the Bermuda Triangle on the back of a unicorn. 

Would Harry Potter have been as successful as it was if Hermione had been the hero and not the sidekick? Would boys have read that book? Would half of the population have missed out on the awesomeness of Hogwarts because there was a girl in the centre of the front cover?

These are the questions which have kept me awake at night. Looking back at my picture books I realised that Percy, Rufus, The skateboarding Baby, Croc and in fact all of my main characters are male. How did that happen without me realising? Me, who sings of empowering women and the importance of gender equality, how did I miss it? 

Even picture books are gender biased – I’ve read so many picture books with male characters that my brain is on male-character-auto-pilot. Enough is enough. 

I want our daughter (and perhaps even more importantly our son) to grow up reading my books which have amazing, strong, inspiring, awesome characters. I want them to be moved and excited and intrigued. I want them to love my lead characters as much as I do and I want them to see the character first and the gender second. 

Not much of an ask for my first chapter book series then, is it?