Envying the Extraordinary

Raven.jpgI have just finished The Raven King, the last in The Raven Cycle, by Maggie Stiefvater.

Oh. My. Lord.

Mind. Blown.

I loved the first book in the series, The Raven Boys, when I read it way back when (three years ago, apparently), and was bereft at how it just ended dead (well, bloomin furious is probably closer).

Then I read Dream Thieves and darn me if it didn’t happen again, although the beautiful organic prose made it almost okay. So, when Blue Lily, Lily Blue came out, I was still a little resentful, and not quite ready to re-read the first two and catch up.

I’m glad I waited because it meant I could consume all four books inside a month.

I’m trying to describe how I feel, without giving anything away: it’s a series that has to be appreciated without anything resembling a spoiler. The reveal, the experiencing alongside the characters, is the heart and soul of it.

To borrow a shadow of Maggie Stiefvater’s masterful imagery, I feel like I have hiked up an impossible mountain, thinking the view couldn’t get any better, certain I’ll be disappointed. And then the top is a panoramic view of a magical world. And then – and then – there’s a crystal ice-clear lake, and I jump in, and I’m shocked and shaking and tingling and alive all at once.

That.

I want to hold the book, the characters, the story, the journey, hold it to my face, like I do the guinea pigs, and sink into the warmth and comfort and escapism of it.

And yet.

I also want to write like that. And I know I can’t. And it’s okay.

Sort of.

It’s like at school, when I didn’t do A Level Art, because I was never going to get an A, and I wanted to go to Cambridge University (or other people thought I should want to, I can’t really remember) and because the other kids were just so amazing at all sorts of artistry I couldn’t even dream of, and I was never going to produce something like that out of my mundane and stubborn imagination.

So I did History and Maths and English Literature, and quietly slowly smothered my creativity and turned myself into an academic and then a number-cruncher.

*Shudder*

I can’t let my awe-ful (in the full-of-awe sense) admiration, hunger and desire for these books, this writing, this powerful imagery and incredible world-building, I can’t let it stop me being the writer I am. Just because I can’t get an A, doesn’t mean I shouldn’t continue to create.

But oh my. To write like that. To be able to give ten years to a set of books – ten years! To persist and dream and create and build and then – let go! How hard must it have been to finish? Just finishing reading them was hard enough. The only thing I admire more than the talent and vision is the sheer dedication and determination. I get bored writing a book after ten weeks.

Anyway, I’m still rather swept up in the Raven Cycle , the hyperbolic, dreamy, electrically charged world. So, sorry for the slightly dreamy hyperbolic post.

I’m not quite ready to come back to earth.

Normal service will resume when I tear myself away from the mountain top. Just a little bit longer.

The Finish Line or the Starting Post?

Ready for posting

Ready for posting

It’s the last day of this four-week term and somehow, through illness and doubt, computer disaster and credit card fraud (you have no idea how many passwords you have until you decide to change them all), I have a completed entry to send to Good Housekeeping.

It was touch and go. I’ve been distracted by excellent novels (I read Divergent and Insurgent, by Veronica Roth, in two or three long sittings this weekend) and trying to declutter the house. I’ve been distracted by failing to repaint the playroom, and by wishing I’d asked the decorator to put our wallpaper poster a foot to the left.

I’ve been collating things for a domestic violence charity (research for the novel has been a cold dose of reality) and emptying the loft for the builders. Well, hubbie’s been doing that – I’ve been trying not to intervene and protect stuff from being thrown away.

And somehow, I dragged out a 70,000 word first draft. Definitely a first draft, especially as I was aiming for 80,000, and reading Divergent has shown me how much emotion is missing from my work. But the competition only calls for 5,000 words and a synopsis, so a first draft is fine.

Should have gone right to the window...

Should have gone right to the window…

But sending submissions – the 1,000 word synopsis that brutally reduces all that work into a few hard facts – the last proofread, and then just one more – the 100-word bio (do I talk about me or my books?!) – All this is like the years studying for an exam, the weeks revising, and then the two hours you are judged on. It is too much and never enough.

The biggest question is, when I send my submission off, will it be an end or a beginning? I hover between optimism and pessimism: someone has to win, but it really isn’t likely to be me. And I won’t know either way for months.

And until then, there’s the wait.

But it’s the Easter holidays, it’s Spring, the new bathroom is coming. I still have Allegiant to read.

Today is definitely a beginning.

Wishing I Were Holly Webb and Busy Making Books

The Amazing Holly Webb

The Amazing Holly Webb

It’s Day 19 of the holidays and I’m still hanging on – just!

I’ve used up all my childcare days – the last one asleep on the sofa – but I have a plan for the final stretch. Next week we have day trips every day!

In the mean time I’m busy writing, when I’m not reading every marvelous book written by the amazing Holly Webb (and weeping slightly into my coffee).

I have to remind myself that she has written 100 books over eleven years, because my works pale in comparison. And it’s certainly true that her earlier books were not the masterpieces that her latest are.

Compare some of the early animal stories novels (think The Rescued Puppy) and they’re closer to what I am writing now than the gripping stories and characters of the Emily Feather books, or the Maisie Hitchins ones, or the Lily series. (As an aside I’m waiting for the library to open so I can get book 3! And the Rose series, which I probably should have read first.)

But it does worry me that she used to work as an editor for Scholastic Children’s Books. She had an ‘in’ (even if she did leave her first book on someone’s desk with a note attached, because she was embarrassed.)

My Favourite Cover Ever!

My Favourite Cover Ever!

I’m trying to find the in. I guess that’s the hardest part of being a writer, particularly for children’s books. I can self-publish my adult novels, and at least get some feedback. But I don’t see the point in self-publishing children’s books. You need an awesome illustrator (which I can’t afford) and a way in to book shops. My daughter does read on her kindle, but I think the books need to be in schools and libraries to be a success.

In the mean time I am having fun publishing my books on Smashwords, just so I can send copies to people. I do love designing covers! And there is a motivation seeing a book in a publishable format. There’s a danger too, though. A feeling that a book is finished as soon as it’s been turned into a .mobi file!

My strategy is to write as many children’s books as I can, so if I do find an agent I can say, ‘ta da! Look, multiple four-book series, all ready to go.’ Of course, if they hate my style, that’s a whole heap of editing! But I always say you can’t edit an empty page.

The books I’ve been writing this holiday are about boats and ponies. I really like my characters, Will and Jessica. Will (Willow Irvine) is a tom boy who lives on a narrow boat, but longs for a normal life. I’ve sent a copy to someone I know who actually lives on a canal boat, so I’m nervously waiting to hear if it’s any good! *Chews fingers*.

I adore my Will on the Water cover – I did the canal boat myself pretty much from scratch, and actually forked out for a decent font, rather than sticking with the basic ones on offer in Adobe. A £10 investment in the three images for this and the Moon Pony book cover felt like money well spent.

My First Pony Novel

My First Pony Novel

Jessica, the protagonist in my Moon Pony stories, is a nine-year-old girl who doesn’t like ponies.

I saw a cover on a pre-made cover site of a pony in the sea and my daughter loved it. So I decided to write a pony story. But I don’t know that much about horses and I’m certain you get caught out pretty quickly by those who do! Having a character who hates horses gave me an out.

The cover is not quite right – I couldn’t afford the pre-made one, so I did my own as usual. But ‘cutting out’ a pony frolicking in snow pushed my adobe skills to their limit. In the end I used one of the kids’ doodle programs to add stars!

So, anyway, that’s what I’m up to right now. I’m working on Will on the Water book 2 and Moon Pony book 2 (titles pending!). As usual, I’d love Beta Readers, so if any of them take your fancy, message me and I’ll send you a copy – with the usual caveat that these are early drafts!

And if you’re looking for a great but easy read this holiday, something you can focus on while the kids are driving you crazy, check out Holly Webb.

I’m off now – the library is open!

Everyone Can Love Reading

LoveReading4Kids.co.uk

LoveReading4Kids.co.uk

I wanted to take a minute to share a great website with you if you have children. It’s called LoveReading4Kids.

I first came across it when I was helping a fellow parent who wanted to encourage her child to read. I suggested she look for Reluctant Reader books and she admitted she’d never heard of it as a category.

Reluctant Readers can be children who lack confidence, who aren’t interested in reading, or whose reading age is below their interest age. The fact that there are specialist publishers who focus on these areas (especially the latter aspect) is brilliant.

As it says on the LoveReading4Kids website, “When a reader is hooked on a story, his or her reading ability is proven to improve. He reads more fluently – because he wants to read on!”

The site goes on to say, “That’s why books for reluctant readers have to have fabulous stories. We’ve thought long and hard about the selection and we feel every one of the books selected provides a powerful and unputdownable story, even for the most reluctant reader.”

Their website is categorised into reading age and interest age, so it’s easier to find the right kind of book.

There is also a section on the site for readers with Dyslexia. The website explains,

“The term dyslexia literally means ‘difficulty with words’. In reality, it covers a whole spectrum of problems, not just with reading, writing and spelling, but also with comprehension, memory and organisational skills. With some 10% of people in the UK with dyslexia, here at lovereading we feel the time has come to provide some guidance on dyslexia-friendly books for children and teenagers alongside the leading publisher Barrington Stoke of dyslexia-friendly books and the charity Dyslexia Action.”

Dyslexia-friendly books concentrate on having the same layout and format, with cream pages and well-spaced, unjustified, paragraphs to make reading easier. It’s something I think all early readers would benefit from as I often notice my daughter losing her place easily on a close-written cluttered page.

Dyslexia-friendly book

Dyslexia-friendly book

As an aside, I read Mum Never Did Learn to Knock, by Cathy Hopkins last night in the library. It’s a short dyslexia-friendly book that is beautifully written, funny and perfect for anyone struggling with the loss of a loved-one.

I subscribe to the LoveReading4Kids newsletter, partly to keep on top of the market now I’m writing for children, and partly to find books my own children might be interested in. My daughter is a great but reluctant reader, which is partly why I started writing for children. I haven’t yet found the story she just couldn’t put down.

We have a great local library (a must for any parent!) but it’s small and the book selection is limited. It’s also not easy to tell at a glance what age a book is good for, as it’s divided into picture books, children’s fiction, and young adult. I’m learning there’s a huge difference between books for 8 year olds and books for ten year olds!

There are other great categories on the LoveReading4Kids website – books for boys, books for parents, must-read books, and If they like… They’ll love… Having given up on Amazon’s categories for children, which are hopeless, it’s great to have a whole website dedicated to books for children. It is a UK site, but I’m sure most books are worldwide published these days!

I should just point out, too, that I have nothing to do with the website, I merely think it’s a great resource for parents. And who knows, one day I might make it on there myself! Here’s hoping! 🙂

Children’s Picture Books You Will Love Reading Out Loud

My kids love reading

My kids love reading

I love reading to my children, it’s one of the few interactions that I’m willing to engage in. I’ll tolerate puzzles and board games, get reasonably engaged with playdoh, craft, football, tennis or trampolining. I’ll actively avoid hide and seek or ‘play with me, mummy’ and I dread the words, ‘can you make up a game, please…’

But reading, how could I not love that?

Except there is definitely a hierarchy of books. I’m not good with voices so, whilst my son loves books like, Squash and a Squeeze, I find it terribly repetitive. I can do voices in Peppa Pig books because I mimic the TV show, but there is such a thing as too much Peppa. At bedtime I can’t read anything on a dark blue background because I can’t see the words, which rules out many pirate and Mike the Knight books, and I hate TV-based books without a story (yes, you, Mr Bloom’s Nursery and Baby Jake).

I also have a pet hate for badly rhymed books, where words are forced against their natural rhythm (I used to know the technical term for that, but it’s buried under fifty-seven readings of Dear Zoo.)

So, when I come across a book that’s an absolute delight to read out loud, I rejoice. I also tend to make sure it’s near the top of the pile. Books that have clever integral rhyming (if that’s the right term – again I can’t quite remember: when the rhymes are also within the lines, not just at the end), books with poetic alliteration or just brilliant tactile words like squelch or tingly.

These are my top ten great-to-read-out-loud books, in no particular order. I’m sure there are more – we have over three hundred books for under fives in our house, not to mention the hundreds that come home from school, preschool and the library every week. But these stand out.

Lovely pace

Lovely pace

Billy and the Bargleboggle by Lindsay Camp, Peter Utton
(About the new baby) “Billy couldn’t understand why everyone was so excited about it. He thought it was a funny colour and its skin didn’t seem to fit properly. And Dad said it wasn’t big enough to ride on Billy’s skateboard.”

Farmer Duck, by Martin Waddell, Helen Oxenbury
“They lifted his bed and he started to shout, and they banged and they bounced the old farmer about and about and about, right out of the bed… and he fled with the cow and the sheep and the hens mooing and baaing and clucking around him.”

Captain Flinn and the Pirate Dinosaurs, by Giles Andreae, Russell Ayto
“I’m going to cut you up into little pirate sausages. Then I’m going to put you on the barbecue and EAT YOU UP with much too much tomato ketchup!”

Fantastic cadence

Fantastic cadence

The Bears in the Bed and the Great Big Storm, by Paul Bright, Jane Chapman
“How the thunder crashed! It boomed and crackled so the house shuddered and the windows rattled. It grumbled and rumbled and echoed and faded, only to boom and crash again.”

Snail and the Whale, by Julia Donaldson, Axel Scheffler
“And she gazed at the sky, the sea, the land, The waves and the caves and the golden sand, She gazed and gazed, amazed by it all, And she said to the whale, ‘I feel so small’.”

The Bear with Sticky Paws, by Clara Vulliamy
“There’s a girl called Pearl and she’s being very grumpy, stamping her little feet and slamming the door.”

Could be my dad

Could be my dad

Grandad, Rachel Elliot, Katie Pamment
“Grandad’s old bike rattles when it goes down the hill to the beach. Our teeth rattle too! ‘My poor old bones!’ Says Grandad.” (This book reminds me so much of my own dad.)

Smelly Bill, by Daniel Postgate
“Bill the dog loved smelly things, Like muddy ponds and rubbish bins. Disgusting stuff he’d stick his snout in, Sniff and snort and roll about in.”

Poetic and hypnotic

Poetic and hypnotic

William and The Night Train, Mij Kelly, Alison Jay
“In the carriages people sit nodding in rows. They slumber and doze. They’re not wearing pyjamas; they’re still in their clothes! ‘Everyone sleeps on the night-train,’ explains the writer. But William’s too busy squishing his nose. He’s too busy standing on tippity toes. He’s too wide awake. All he knows is that he can’t wait for the train to go. ‘When will we get to Tomorrow?'”

Arthur’s Tractor, by Pippa Goodhart, Colin Paine
“That must be the sprocket spring sprigget needing a twist and an oil.”

(Lovely article about Arthur’s Tractor by the author here.)

"No! No! No!"

“No! No! No!”

"Bathie-wathie time for you!"

“Bathie-wathie time for you!”

"Too much ketchup!"

“Too much ketchup!”

"I feel so small"

“I feel so small”

"Before the darn thing brangles free"

“Before the darn thing brangles free”

"How goes the work?"

“How goes the work?”

The Ocean at The End of The Lane and Childhood

Beautiful cover

Beautiful cover

This weekend I read one of the pot luck books I picked up from the library – The Ocean At the End of The Lane by Neil Gaiman. I like choosing books I don’t know, just because I recognise the title or author or just because I like the front cover (and the library is much cheaper than all the books I’ve bought in book shops using the same method and have then never read!)

This ticked the last two points – I have heard of Neil Gaiman (I follow him on Twitter even) and I was intrigued by the cover. I first came across Neil Gaiman when a friend bought me one of his Sandman graphic novels as a teenager. Then I loved (although was creeped out by) his Doctor Who episode The Doctor’s Wife.

The Ocean at the End of The Lane is the first novel of his I have read. It creeped me out, too. Just one bit in the middle which I made the mistake of starting to read at bedtime. I had to switch to a Georgette Heyer and skip three pages in the morning.

It’s an interesting book, simply but compellingly written. It recounts an event from the childhood of the forty-something protagonist, which he recalls after revisiting his childhood house and a farm at the end of the lane. The telling of childhood was fascinating; viewing the world through the eyes of a seven-year-old. It also made me think a great deal about the difference between being seven thirty-odd years ago and being seven now. I kept thinking Oh he wouldn’t have been left to roam free like that, surely? And then I realise that I was, as far as I can remember. Certainly some time before I was eight (when I moved north – my childhood is bisected by that move) I roamed the fields, climbed trees, visited friends’ houses on our estate, all without taking much notice of where my parents were.

I like this cover too

I like this cover too

My memories of childhood are almost non-existant, apart from one or two key events. The book recreates that fluidity of childhood and memory with great authenticity. It also made me wonder what my children will remember. It’s so different now: their lives are recorded through photographs, video, school reports with images, social media, parents’ blogs. So many aides to memory. There are probably fewer than fifty photos of me between the ages of 0 and 16 in total. I can take that many of my chidren in a day.

Is it a good thing? Maybe we should be able to rewrite our childhoods, change our recollections at will. Like the protagonist in the novel, maybe our childhood memories are not entirely accurate, and maybe that’s necessary. Maybe we don’t want to be reminded of every tiny detail. Our lives are really only stories we write in our mind, with heroes and villains. The truth, as revealed by endless photographs, is bound to feel much more ordinary.

Mind you, all our photos are stored digitally. There’s a strong chance they’ll degrade over time and the children will only be able to retrieve fifty images in thirty-odd years time. And perhaps that will be just as well.

Reading is Working, Honest

A Doorstop of a Book

A Doorstop of a Book

I had a bit of a hiccup this morning; the first biggy since starting on the tablets a week ago. I had hoped the tablets would help reduce my insomnia, but they seem to have made it worse instead. I’m waking at 2am and 5am every night, unable to close my eyes. In retaliation I’m back to napping as soon as the kids are asleep which only exacerbates the issue.

I woke up fretful and panicked, with palpitations and a strong desire not to have to face the school run. I made it through the chattering and the tears and the “Mummy I’m going to miss you” but by the time I got home I was shattered and most definitely unfit for work.

Add to lack of sleep the presence of hubbie at home on a rare day off and writing just wasn’t going to happen. I find it extremely hard to write with someone else in the house, almost as if I feel guilty that I’m not doing something more productive with my time, like laundry or housework. It stems from childhood and it drives hubbie potty, not least because a lazy day on my part without guilt makes it much easier for him to do the same (not that writing is a lazy day).

Anyway, for a whole host of reasons I decided it was a day for reading. I’m ploughing my way through a doorstop of a fantasy book I found in my old bedroom at my mother’s house – The Curse of the Mistwraith by Janny Wurts. If I’ve read it before I blocked the painful experience from my memory. I’m not sure why it’s gripped me now because it’s a fiendishly difficult read. As opaque in language as The Raven Boys, but lacking Maggie’s poetry and passion, it’s dense and unfathomable but clearly with enough story to maintain my interest. I’ve given up on much easier reads.

The book sprung to mind when I read Rinelle Grey’s recent post on world building in Sci Fi and Fantasy (Is Simple Ever Better? My answer is yes!). The world building in this book is elusive and complicated, but promises unicorns and dragons so appeals to the fairy princess in my soul. And as I curled up in bed reading I suddenly found myself opening my laptop and tapping out 500 difficult words to get me to the next place in Class Act. Clearly just the act of reading can free up words in a muddled mind, connect those pesky twenty-six characters into something with vague meaning.

So, there you go, reading is working if you’re a writer. I have proof. I never need feel guilty again. (Though of course I will. Who wouldn’t feel guilty reading and calling it working for a living?) Next time though I might just choose something easier to read. Like War and Peace.