Posted in Author, children's wrier, Kidlit, poem, Poetry, Writing, writing for children

Coming Soon!

When I started approaching agents and publishers last year I was prepared for the inevitable rejection emails. Everything I’d read about this process suggested it could (and most likely would) be a long journey to publication, if I ever got there at all.

So why not self publish?

When I decided to be a teacher I didn’t just rock up to a classroom and get on with it. I spent a year training and completed a PGCE, had my lessons observed and commented on, learnt what I was good at and what I needed to work on. I had a tutor and a mentor and by the end of the year I knew I was going to be good at my job.

How do I achieve the same validation within the world of writing? To me the answer seemed simple, find an expert in the industry and get them to love my books. I am not against self publishing at all and I have read lots of SP books which I’ve loved. But for me, I needed the reassurance that a professional in the industry agrees that my writing is worthy of being put into a book.

I still do need that external input. So for now my picture books and chapter books remain firmly unpublished and waiting for that magic agent or spectacular rewrite when I come back to them again later. But poetry, it turns out, is a different sort of ballgame.

So many agents and publishers have NO POETRY on their submissions guidelines. Why? Kids love poems! But this is a business game after all and a little poetry book by an unknown poet is not necessarily going to equal big sales numbers. When it comes to poetry there seems to be a much bigger no entry sign than any other type of text.

Three things have happened in the last few months.

Firstly, a friend in the music industry told me that when people approach him with songs the first thing he wants to know is who is this person and how committed are they? Is it one song or do they have more? The bottom line – why should he take the risk? Finally, he asked me if I had considered self publishing my poetry to show I’m committed to my own writing?

No. No, I hadn’t.

The second thing that happened was that I contacted a published poet. Someone relatively new in the industry, someone whose poems I’d read and enjoyed, someone who was where I wanted to be – visiting schools with his published poetry books and sharing them with children.

Do you have an agent? How did you get published? Please tell me your secrets!

He explained that his journey started as a self published poet. Once he’d spent a few years doing the school circuits and selling his books he approached a publisher and said, hey – look at me! I’m great at this. And he could prove it. He was selling books and that was a language the publisher was willing to take a chance on.

The third thing that happened is that it was National Poetry Day and I felt really sad. I felt sad that for another year I was looking at my poems in a file on my computer and wishing rather than doing. The theme of NPD this year was choice.

OK, Universe. You have my attention.

Because we do have a choice. A choice authors in the past didn’t have and perhaps that choice is also a chance, a chance to prove that you’re passionate and committed and most importantly, excited to share your writing with an audience.

And on that note, I hope to have some very exciting news to share with you soon…

Posted in Author, author life, children's wrier, Kidlit, poem, Poetry, Writing, writing for children

My Nose

My nose doesn’t work. It never has. Around the age of seven (it took that long!) I realised that I had absolutely no idea what people were talking about when they mentioned ‘smells’. What were these strange things that I’d nodded along with and claimed to understand?

It turned out I had anosmia (no sense of smell). People who have experienced a bad cold might have lost their sense of smell for a few days but I have never had it. I get asked if it makes me feel sad – it doesn’t. I’ve never had it, so in turn I know not what I am missing.

I hear the best smells are freshly cut grass after rain and bread baking…

I’ll leave the worst smells to your imagination.

This poem was inspired by a talk on senses at the science museum we visited at the weekend.

My Nose Knows

My nose knows
So many different things
It knows when the 
Seasons change
And when Great Gran’s about to ring.

My nose knows who 
Will win the race
At Sport’s day
Before the teacher says Go.
It knows how it feels
To run so very slow.

My nose knows when laughter
Isn’t real or kind.
It gets all hot, a tiny fire
Burns through nostrils
To my mind.

My nose knows when
Someone feels so sad
That they want to sleep all day
Cocoon themselves in blankets
Hide away.

There’s only one thing
My nose knows not.
The one thing it’s supposed to.
The smell of bread and rain and grass.
The smell of dog poo on shoes
And flowery soap.
The smell of chocolate eggs and 
Mummy’s perfume
When she holds me tight.

These things my nose will never know.

Posted in Author, author life, children's wrier, Kidlit, poem, Poetry, Writing, writing for children

Worrying

My last blog post was in May. May! Many months ago now. Shame-faced I returned to the WordPress log in screen and after several failed attempts had to accept that I no longer remembered my password to my own website. It’s been that long.

There are lots of reasons (excuses) for this tumble weed silence but perhaps the most prominent is worry. Some of it mine and some of it belonging to others. Our son started school this September. A joyful and exciting experience which was foreshadowed by sleepless nights and a wealth of worry as his four year old brain processed this step.

Of course, sleepless nights for children often mean sleepless nights for parents too and after a summer of sleeplessness the idea of being creative dwindled.

Or if not the idea (as the ideas kept coming to my sleep deprived brain) then certainly the ability to process and channel that idea into a creative output. Mostly I just ate toast.

And perhaps I let my own worries creep in too. I’ve been writing with the intention of being published for two years now – what if I’m just not good enough? What if I’m so worried about trying to get published I’m not making the time to sit down with new ideas? What if this whole pursuit is actually a bit embarrassing and I should just slink away now and pretend it was never something I wanted that much after all.

We talked to our son a lot this summer. We are a house which likes to talk. He knew he was nervous about school – he could tell us that it was the unknown that was the scariest part. I hear you buddy, I really do. Not knowing what will happen is scary. It’s scary sending your writing off into the world of experts and not knowing what (if anything) might come back.

With his best friend holding his hand our little one went into his new classroom for the first time a few weeks ago and bounced out three hours later with exclamations of “the best day ever”.

8 weeks of sleepless nights just melted away with a reminder that the worry is often the hardest bit. With that in mind, here’s a poem I’ve been working on. It’s time to put down the marmite toast and get working again.

Never Worry a Worry

Never worry a worry,
Or let a worry worry you.
For if a worry worries
then a worry can come true.

It’ll hide around a corner,
Sneak behind you on a walk,
It’ll creep and lurk and whisper,
’till ideas start to talk.

‘Oh dear, oh no, oh never!’
Will consume your every thought,
‘I really can’t. I won’t. I don’t,’
Will be just the very sort –

of things your brain will dwell on,
And stop you living life.
For a worried worry worries,
causing every kind of strife.

So if you feel a worry,
Bubbling away,
Don’t let your worry worry,
Embrace it for a day.

A worry’s just a thought,
That got lost along it’s lane.
So hug it, love it, talk to it,
And listen just the same.

For a worried worry worries
Because it’s all alone.
But a worry that is shared
Can change it’s worried tone.

If you have a worry,
Don’t keep it locked away.
Show your worry you will help it,
To stand and face the day.

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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.

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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?

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Website Why?

After reading several articles which declared that all writers should have a website – whether published or not – I decided to take the great plunge into the vast ocean where dot.com dreams come true.

So I followed the WordPress step by step guide and, with an ease which surprised my technophobic brain, made a website and launched my ship.

Except now that I’m out here my cruise ship feels worryingly like some bits of old 2×4 tied together with fraying rope, floating around with no clear direction. So why exactly did I make this website? A sudden burst of imposter syndrome struck as I logged onto it for the hundredth time to read the content I had already committed to memory.

So I messaged two friends. The first a self-taught photographer who reminded me that if you are good at what you do then you are good at what you do, and that half the battle is believing that you are good enough.

Still, those self doubts creep in and fester like woodworm, burying themselves into an already rickety vessel. What if I’ve made a website to promote myself as a writer but I’m not actually a good writer?

Rejection letters from publishers and literary agents line the back of my mind and whisper ‘character building’ and ‘give up’ in equal measure. And now I have a website but to what end?

The second friend I messaged worked in publishing, commissioning books and promoting authors before taking a career break when she became a mother. Her take on a website? Not as important as my research suggested. So why have one?

I expect it would have been helpful to work out why I wanted a website before I started sailing but as usual I have jumped in before checking the water. So here I am, floating along and wondering why. Here are my conclusions:

The Destination – to be a published writer. I don’t believe having a website will do that. I believe writing a good book will lead there and, as my friends reminded me, self belief and a little bit of luck.

The Journey – I know I work best when I feel accountable to someone or something. Right now I feel more determined to write more, write well and justify to myself that having an author’s website was worthwhile.

So this website is my sail, my oars and my helm. It’s going to keep me focused on the destination and enjoying the journey. I don’t think I will magically arrive at Destination Published by getting on the boat but I know that being on the boat is better than standing on the shore.

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Are we born poets?

When children start talking they generally begin with sounds, then words, then phrases. Slowly building up to the mighty sentence. Often when they start, the words they attempt are mere representations of themselves and I am sure that parents, aunts, uncles, older siblings and grandparents amongst us can remember funny or unusual attempts at language that smaller people around them have made. 

Were it not for gestures and a particular pair of socks it would have taken us much longer to decipher that the word ‘Zu-Zu-Zaw’ in our two year old’s newly forming repertoire was in fact the embryonic stages of what would later grow and become, ‘Dinosaur’. 

As teachers, my husband and I are great champions of learning and the power of communication. Indeed we both delighted when our son was able to say the word Dinosaur and share with us what he wanted us to know. 

Yet Zu-Zu-Zaw sounds like a much more interesting prospect for a story or a poem. Where is the Zu-Zu-Zaw now? Banished and replaced with a dictionary approved and widely recognised noun.

I recently read an article about four year old Nadim Shamma-Sourgen whose poetry is being published next year after it was posted on Twitter and caught a net full of hearts and minds. He writes as a child should and can write – with innocence and yet astounding depth of feeling and knowledge, which children acquire so quickly whilst learning about the world around them. 

All children are poets because they do not know of, or care for, literary restraints and linguistic taboos. They are free from the knowledge of a correctly constructed and punctuated sentence. These things are, of course, important in written communication. There is an argument that we must have the ground work in place, the foundations of structured language, which enable us to then start breaking it down, moving it around and playing with its form and tone to create a poem. 

Yet children learning to speak seem to skip this vital step and speak firstly in poetry. 

The other day our three year old declared he couldn’t get ready for bed. When asked why he announced, “Because I haven’t got a yawn.” Something an adult would never say. What would we say in its place? ‘I’m not tired?’ – It hardly sings as a response does it? Because poetry should sing, it should dance across the page and flow and ebb like music. 

Whether they are possessed with natural talent as singers or not, very little stops children from blasting out a song they like or making up songs to tunelessly repeat. Often the first experience children have of written texts is stories in verse, nursery rhymes or nonsense poems. Is it any surprise then, that with a diet of delights such as Dr Seuss, the confidence of professional singers and the lack of structure in their language, that children are the natural poets of our world?

The greatest children’s poets and writers have the ability to capture the essence of childhood and the voice of a child. They are silly and playful and creative with language and allow themselves to boldly declare they are singers and artists. They throw caution to the proverbial grammatically correct sentence and they let their words dance across the page. Most excitingly, they are not afraid to use words which no-one else knows yet. 

Let the Zu-Zu-Zaw be extinct no-more – it’s time to hear her roar.