Book of Animal Stories Launch Party Highlights

What a lovely evening and it was great to put names to faces.

I meet the illustrator of The Elephant Carnival, Briony May Smith, my editor Daisy at Walker Books, thank you for your encouragement and offer to look at more or my stories. I met Justine Roberts, the CEO of Mumsnet, Denise Johnstone-Burt from Walker books and Anthony Browne, the head judge.

And not forgetting all the other authors and illustrators, who after a few glasses of wine started signing each others books and calling each other the Panda Lady,the Bat Lady and (me) the Elephant Lady! Every author and illustrator I spoke to said this was their first publication. So fingers crossed this is just the beginning for everyone.

And thank you to the CBC gang for meeting me before hand at The Society Club (bookshop with a bar!) to help ease my nerves.

Here are the pics from the evening.

With Briony (the illustrator)

With Briony (the illustrator)

With Justine CEO of Mumsnet

With Justine CEO of Mumsnet

With Denise from Walker Books

With Denise from Walker Books

Curtis Brown Creative Gang (Writing for Children Students 2013)

Curtis Brown Creative Gang
(Writing for Children Students 2013)

Briony's amazingly detailed and colourful carnival of elephants.

Briony’s amazingly detailed and colourful carnival of elephants.


The hero's of the Elephant Carnival, Nandi and Bobo the Elephant.

The hero’s of the Elephant Carnival, Nandi and Bobo the Elephant.

Publication News – The Elephant Carnival in The Mumsnet Books of Animal Stories

Last February my story the Elephant Carnival was chosen along with nine other animal stories to feature in this year’s Mumsnet/Walker Books, Book of Animal Stories. And here it is – the front cover. It’s available in bookshops from the 1st October!

Idea Popping

A blog entry inspired by The Big Idea Competition

Most ideas pop into my head when I am zoned out, lost somewhere in a daydream. There’s a lot of inspiration up for grabs in the middle distance, I can tell you, so glaze over and see what pops into your head.

I have discovered the following triggers are excellent for inducing creative daydreaming.

  •  Watching repeats of husband’s favourite TV programmes. Top Gear and Grand Designs are particularly recommended for zzzzz.
  • Consuming several glasses of wine. Though can cause forgetfulness or overestimation of personal brilliance.
  • Sitting in a traffic jam with windscreen wipers on, raining or not.
  • Listening to husband snoring. I keep a UV pen handy in the bedside drawer and write on sheets if I forget my notepad.
  • Sugar highs. Who ate all the sweets, Mummy? Ummm.
  • Personal favourite. Lying on the trampoline watching the clouds float by. Though, risk of falling asleep and forgetting to pick the children up from school is a problem.

Recent Inspiration Credits:

Fact really is stranger than fiction. Thank you David Attenborough for the Pink Fairy Armadillo and the Blob Fish.

Thank you cool science magazine for a digital artists impression of the planned Mars Space Station and thank you Jack (son and heir) for a fab space plane drawing, which could definitely fly us all there.

Yes Jack, I have your picture. It’s on my desk.
No, you can’t have it back yet; your space plane is about to enter an asteroid belt.
Mars-flyer? Hmm, you’re right, that does sound better. Thanks Jack.

More seriously…

About reading…
Recent children’s fiction is of such a high standard it blows me away. I can’t remember the last time I shed a tear or snorted with laughter over an adult book, sadly. Children’s writers new and old are the best at evoking emotion in their readers and keeping reader attention from the very first line. I see the affect such writing has on my nine-year-old daughter. She devours the delights of Harry Potter and The Famous Five like chocolate and then asks for more. I dutifully conjure up the books. My price is her exacting and helpful review of the pros and cons of each book.

It’s interesting to watch her reading preferences mirror mine, we both love quest and adventure stories about far away lands, and stories about animals. Narnia, 101 Dalmatians and The Call of the Wild were some of my childhood favourites.

My son is another breed entirely. Aliens and spaceships float his boat, he giggles at quirky tales with subversive or gross humour. The pace must zip along at lightning speed.

About writing…
My problem is I have too many ideas. I have a collection of picture book texts and texts for short illustrated stories. They are under 1,000 words. I can finish them fairly quickly and move on to the next idea that pops into my head. One is excitingly on its way to publication.
But I also have ideas with deeper roots and a spread of characters. A story that has something more to say, that could be a middle grade novel or a series for emerging readers, a story that would take many weeks to write. I have to learn to kick the doubts out of the writing room door.

My entry for The Big Idea is one of them.

My Writing Process Blog Tour

My turn to write for the Writing Process Blog Tour, which is bouncing around the web at the moment. Writing this is akin to therapy. I recommend it!

What am I writing?

My novel is a YA murder mystery. I have written just over 60,000 words of the first draft. It has the working title of Genesis. The climax, where I must pull all the threads of the plot together so the reader finally finds out whodunit, is my current challenge as well as sorting out a few structural errors and wayward antagonists (there are four. Eek! Is my heroine in trouble or what?)

How does my work differ from others in its genre?

Hmm, I’ve not read anything like this for older YA. Mix Gone Girl with Sophie Mackenzie’s, Girl Missing, and throw in genetics, suicide and drugs and a love story and you’re getting there.

Why do I write what I do?

I dream the plots, literally, or elements of them and then I build on the idea. They grow like a tree. Sometimes I park them if I hit a wall. But the ones that keep growing and become a theme, with characters that start talking to themselves (in my head!), I start writing down. My biggest problem is having too many ideas. I don’t have enough time to write everything I want to and I have to be careful not to overload my plots.

Story ideas for children aged 2-8 years, teens and YA, come easily. I enjoy the imagination of young children. You can bend all the rules. Aliens, monsters, tigers, you name it, can all come and play anywhere anyhow. What fun!

I love teenagers and young people’s dialogue. They reinvent language for their own purposes. They challenge everything for better or worse. Maybe that’s it. I write these genres because they break the rules. But I also think stories for children and young adults contain a lot of hope and that’s the emotion I want to leave readers with at the end of my stories.

How does my writing process work?

I’ve worked hard on the structure of this novel. The murder mystery plot demands that the author knows exactly what’s going down in each scene and how it all ties up.

I have a spreadsheet. In the cells across the top I have all the scenes titles (I don’t put them into chapters until later). Running down the page I have headings: characters, setting, current situation, problem, reaction (physical and emotional), action/decision, central scene question, underlying theme build, drama/tension/suspense, imagery (scene detail, symbols, 5 senses)

I fill out this spreadsheet partly before and partly after I have written a scene, because lets be honest, spreadsheets are not very inspiring! A blank piece of paper, lots of sticky notes and coloured pens are my favourite tools for brainstorming a scene or act. The spreadsheet is just a tool for recording what I have done and preventing confusion. After brainstorming I write straight onto the screen and just let it come. If I get stuck I go back to brainstorming or consult my research file, or I take a break and let the problem stew for a bit. My best writing comes after about an hour of writing, and then I hate to be disturbed as I have my head in the scene and it’s really hard to get back in the zone. I get fatigued after two and half hours and need a pit stop (food!). I’ve stopped word counting on a daily basis because it’s not about how many words there are, it’s about how good the scene is. I have taken over the dining room and spread my novel and picture book ideas all over the table in a happy mess.

Family and guests will just have to eat in the kitchen for the foreseeable future.

Dialogue tags and body language – stuck using the same old phrases?

My pet phrases are:

‘His eyes narrowed,’

‘He raised his eyebrows,’

‘He frowned/glared/scowled/glanced/glowered.’

Yep, I have a real thing about eyes and dark menacing brows, to the extent I ignore the rest of the face and body. How about, ‘creased his nose,’ ‘slight curve of a smile’ ‘heart thudded,’ ‘lips twitched,’ ‘face, mask tight,’ ‘fiddled nervously.’

Here is Stephanie Meyer’s, J.K Rowling’s and Suzanne Collins’ pet phrases.

Care to share yours?

Beat the winter writing blues

Okay it’s January. New Year. New writing resolutions. The weather is so bad you might as well be sat behind your desk trying to hit that work count. But after only a few days of diligence, your mind wanders, your enthusiasm wanes and your stomach wants sweet comforting.

You are not alone. Eight out of ten Brits suffer to some degree from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Those of us stuck working indoors are particularly susceptible. Lack of daylight can seriously affect our circadian rhythm (our body clock). These rhythms regulate many important bodily functions such as: appetite, energy levels, sleep and mood. Melatonin is the main culprit. “Light stops the production of this sleep hormone, this is why we wake up naturally in the morning. But if melatonin levels in the body remain high due to lack of light, lethargy and symptoms of depression can occur.”

Let in the light
It would be lovely to escape to the beach on an extended winter sun holiday and write lying on a deck chair, but for those of us who can’t afford it a SAD light box is the answer. Normal room lighting emits around 500 lux. Light boxes emit an intensity of 10,000 lux. Treatment takes 30-60 minutes a day, repeated daily. See Also make the most of bright days and get out and about, particularly in the morning.

Stop stuffing yourself on carbs
I have sympathy. I swear chocolate is injected with happiness. When we’re feeling blue and lacking in energy we crave carbs because they are a great quick fix pick me up. But resist! Or the pressure canister on your operator chair with give out and you’ll sink even lower down in the dumps.
A lack of iron, calcium, magnesium, vitamin C, D and B (the energy) vitamins, can all affect mood. St Johns Wort, Ginkgo Biloba and 5-HTP are all herbal supplements reputed to treat depression. Ask a specialist health food retailer or GP for advice.

Keep moving
Dr Andrew McCulloch from the Mental Health Foundation, says: “There’s convincing evidence that thirty minutes of vigorous exercise three times a week is effective against depression. Outdoor exercise will have a double benefit, because you’ll gain some daylight.” Activity is believed to change the level of the mood-regulating chemical serotonin in the brain. Sorry typing, swiveling on your chair or trotting to the snack cupboard doesn’t count as ‘vigorous.’

Keep socialising
Writer friends unite. Depression can result in irritability and not wanting to see people, but becoming cut off from people only exacerbates low mood. Writing is a solo profession for the most part. If you are a stay at home writer, make sure you have a social outing planned weekly. Time away from your writing gives you perspective and recharges your creative batteries.

So if you’re down in the dumps and stuck in a writerly rut, don’t hibernate, get up, get out, take care of your self, and most of all keep writing.

What does your private e-library say about you?

At the beginning of a writing course I recently attended, everyone was invited to take one item out of their handbag (we were all women) that demonstrated something interesting about their character.

After rummaging for a minute through my messy handbag, crammed with receipts, many pens (most ‘borrowed,’ not working) and random scrapes of paper (scribbled ideas, none particularly legible,) I took out my ipad.

Ha. I thought. My e-library – just the thing to talk about in a writing group.

Bad idea.

Here are some of the titles on there:

Violence by Rory Miller

The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson

Surviving their depression by Anne Sheffield

Barbra Vine Murder Mysteries

Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

Junk by Melvin Burgess

A-level Guide to Psychology

The Empty Room -Surviving the loss of a Brother or Sister by Elizabeth De Vita- Raeburn

Yep – I’m in danger of appearing like the characters I am writing.  I feel it very necessary at this point to emphasis I am writing a murder mystery for young adults, in which the protagonist has lost her sister and has a depressive mother.

Thankfully most writers will understand that this is all in the course of research.

But sshhh! We wouldn’t chose the genres we do, if we weren’t just a little bit fascinated by the subject matter, would we?

What does your private e-library say about you?

Seriously bad writing advice

Some of the random advice I’ve had from publishing professional during the last five years.

Don’t write in first person, it’s really hard to sustain for the length of a novel. The authors of Jane Eyre and Twilight seem to have managed.

Don’t write in present tense it jars, the perspective is too limited. Umm, Hunger Games Trilogy, Chao Walking Trilogy. I think they have been a success?

Don’t write flashbacks or bother with too much backstory, a story should always move forwards. Yes, but there is such as thing as context.

Don’t write for that genre it’s too saturated, no one’s buying. No one agent or publisher can speak for the market. Someone will come up with a fresh approach in that genre sooner or later. And there are second tier publishers mopping up the good manuscripts the big guns don’t want.

Linear story structure is old hat. Mix up your scenes, the timeline or POV to make it more interesting. I’m fairly sure the majority of new novels have a linear story structure. 

“The greatest pleasure in life is doing what people say you cannot do.” Walter Bagehot

In the Victorian age they talked sense. Thank you Walter!

Litreactor Critique

I’ve just posted the opening chapters of my novel on Litreactor, an online writing community for a critique. My novel, is called Genesis, a murder mystery set at a university near London, targeted at the girlie YA market.

All submissions get rated on concept, structure, characters and dialogue. There’s a five star marking system and people from all over the English speaking world, who are a member, can read it and make comments.

I’ve read the two opening chapters so many times I can no longer see the wood for the trees. I’ve written about 25,000 words in all and I’m stuck, confidence ebbing, there’s so much still to write and it might just be all tosh! I’m hoping my fellow Litreactors will offer up a little encouragement and some direction. This is a risk of course. They might hate it!

I’ll keep you posted.

Litreactor is $10 a month, you are given one free submission when you join and then you have to earn submission points by critiquing other peoples writing. There is such a huge range of style and talent, it’s fascinating and makes me think about my own craft as I critique. There are also loads of craft essays from famous writers to help improve my writing.