Lying Dormant

Nothing Blooms All Year

Nothing Blooms All Year

There’s a phrase I’ve seen on Facebook recently (although a quick Google search has failed to produce an origin, so call it ‘anon’) that says, “Nothing in Nature Blooms All Year Round.”

It’s been echoing in my head for the past few weeks because, hey, January.

I don’t do January well.

All the hubbub and frantic organisation (and, let’s be honest, shopping and gift wrapping – my two favourite pastimes) of November and December are replaced by the guilt of January.

There is shopping in January too, as it’s my daughter’s birthday, but that is overlaid with the guilt of how much I spent at Christmas. Add to that exhaustion after the holidays, erratic sleep patterns from having a lark daughter and an owl husband and son, and I’m quite frankly a wreck.

I’ve written before  (more than once!) about the January blues. I beat myself up that I can’t start writing the minute the children return to school. I become low.

This year has been no different. Except I’ve been playing Minecraft instead of mooching on Facebook. Same screen, different brain-dead.

And then that phrase: Nothing blooms all year round. It’s like a ray of winter sunshine in my head. Perhaps it’s okay that I sleep during the day, or hit the sack at 8pm (or both), hardly seeing my husband at all. Perhaps it’s okay that my mind is like sludge, and I crawled through 7,000 words of a new novel, (that’s 70%, as it’s a Chapter Book) and then realised the plot had a hole to end all gaping plot disasters.

Perhaps it’s okay just to think of myself as dormant, awaiting the spring sunshine to bring me back to life. The fact that I’ve written virtually the same post for the last two years shows it isn’t me being rubbish. Not really.

It’s just January.

My Mini NaNoWriMo

Latest incarnation of Alfie

Latest incarnation of Alfie

I wasn’t going to do NaNoWriMo this year. I am desperately trying to get an entry together for the Chicken House/Times Children’s Fiction competition, so I’m all about the red pen, not the free-flowing first draft.

Except.

I gave the latest version of my Alfie Stanton manuscript to my husband, waiting for applause, or at least constructive feedback and got … Nothing.

The story is doomed. I started it two years ago, with a character called George. Resurrected it for Chicken House last year, but had the first chapter trashed by a children’s editor so shelved it and entered Dragon Wraiths instead. In fact, after being told by the editor that maybe I wasn’t cut out to be an author if I wouldn’t break my manuscript down to the smallest part, I nearly quit writing for good.

I don’t do ‘edit to death’. I find my work tends to get worse rather than better if I overthink it and let ‘analyst’ brain take the wheel. But anybody who’s anybody in the writing world will tell you to edit, edit, then edit some more. Even last year’s Chicken House winner gave that as her main piece of advice.

So this time I thought it was time to grow up and do it properly. I broke my manuscript down, looked at characters and themes, description, language, conflict. But mostly I got in a huge muddle and came to hate the story and everyone in it. The harder I tried, the flatter and duller my writing became.

It wasn’t a great surprise, then, when husband’s silence screamed, “this is shit!” although I thought it was just the first draft of anything that was meant to be that.

And do you know what, I think he’s probably right. By trying to be literary and funny and to incorporate all of Barry Cunningham’s advice, I broke my story.

What would once have killed me made me stronger. Seven days ago, I came up with a brand new character – Esmerelda Smudge. Six days ago I started writing, and two days ago I sent a 20,000-word lightly-edited brand new story to my (new) editor. 20k words in just over 4 days. That knocks the spots off NaNo.

Rough Cover

Rough Cover

Is it good enough to enter in the Chicken House competition? I’m not sure. I still think Alfie, for all his flaws, is more what they’re looking for, which is probably why I can’t quite get him right. My style has always been more mainstream than award-winning. But Esmerelda has a great story. I gave the first 14k words to hubbie to read, and he polished them off in an hour. Not that he’s the best judge, but at least he’s honest.

Maybe, instead of trying to follow all the advice, to force myself into a mold and mode of working that doesn’t fit, I should continue on my own deluded way. After all I wrote Two Hundred Steps Home that way and it’s proved popular. Dickens wrote in serial form – he can’t have analysed his story arc to death on every book.

And I do put in the work. When I’m drafting, my brain buzzes and sleep is scarce. I carry the story arc, character profiles, the motivation, the continuity and conflict and comedy, all around in my head and pour it into each chapter. But it’s written fast, with no time for fear. And, for me, it works.

Most of all, it produces books that I would choose to read. That at least is one piece of writing advice that I can follow!

 

KS1 English vs Being an Author

VCOP Pyramid

VCOP Pyramid

We had our children’s learning conversations last night (parents’ evening for us oldies!). I’m proud as anything of my two babies but, being a worrier, I don’t just smile and move on.

Oh no.

This morning I ordered half a dozen workbooks on handwriting, grammar, comprehension, and spelling. They’re not for me, although they probably should be.

It turns out the new curriculum has new targets for grammar, punctuation and spelling and Year 2 (my daughter’s year) are having to play catch up.

I won’t get on my high horse about changes to the curriculum. I’ll save that for people more eloquent than me. And in principle I like that my daughter is learning grammar and punctuation. I wasn’t taught it once I moved schools (age 8) and have struggled ever since. When I started writing novels seven years ago, the first thing I had to do was learn how to use commas and what an adverb was.

My daughter comes home and tells me about adverbs. She ‘VCOPs’ her own writing (underlines the vocabulary, connectives, openers and punctuation – see picture). It is a level of sophistication in writing that I don’t see in some bestsellers.

But here’s the thing. My daughter is being taught to use adverbs (mostly words ending in ly) and alternatives to said (think shouted, whispered, argued, complained). These are two elements of my writing that I have fought against for the last five years.

Any book on self-editing tells you to kill the adverbs and just use ‘said’. The emphasis is on vivid verbs and simple dialogue with use of body posture and behaviour to show emotion.

Of course we’re talking about writing for six year olds that will understand ‘walked slowly’ rather than ‘ambled’. I love that they are teaching dynamic writing and my daughter loves it. But, as an author it hurts!

So I’ll read the books, I’ll learn the KS1 curriculum, and I’ll keep my views on adverbs (mostly) to myself! 🙂 Who knows, if I print out the VCOP pyramid I might make my own writing stronger.

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!

Summer Holidays Week 1

Planning the Hell out of this Holiday!

Planning the Hell out of this Holiday!

It’s Day Six of the Summer Holidays and we’re all still here.

I have a plan and I’m sticking to it. It helps that I had Friday alone to write – that’s part of this year’s survival plan.

I can’t give up writing for the summer, much as I want to be that kind of parent: Last year I didn’t write properly again until January.

This is how the holidays are panning out so far:

Homemade Messenger Bag and Purse

Homemade Messenger Bag and Purse

Day 1:

Son at nursery, so daughter requested that we spend a day doing sewing on the machine.

We went to the knitting shop and bought three fat quarters (who knew material was soooo expensive!) and found an easy pattern online.

I have to do these activities early on in the holidays when my patience bucket is at its fullest.

Even so, I made the green purse by myself while my daughter did cartwheels. But she did help with the bag, including pressing it and gluing on the jewels.

Monopoly abandoned when crying started

Monopoly abandoned when crying started

Day 2:

Day started with Monopoly, followed by a trip to the Opticians (where daughter screamed the place down. Sigh), then to the sweetie shop and to a local garden centre to hear a friend play in the local festival.

A delicious lunch of pizza and ice cream followed, and I was feeling like a really good parent. Until we got home to pick up the swimming things and son and I fell out big style. I wouldn’t let him sit in the car without a t-shirt because I didn’t want the seat belt to cut him. He sulked and then asked if I was ready to apologise for being rude (or words to that effect).

Result: I exploded!

Ten minutes of screaming and ranting about ungrateful children etc etc. Sigh. We went swimming two hours later, but only so I could wear them out.

Day 3: Raining, but a good day because both children went to nursery!

Even though my daughter is too old now, the staff love her. My son’s keyworker was as excited as my daughter, and she invited her two daughters in to play too! A great day for all.

I wrote 8,000 words and still got the house ready for visiting rellies.

Day 4: Visiting rellies arrived overnight. I managed to stay awake until midnight to greet them. I also put a loaf on to cook at 7 a.m. and presented a breakfast suitable for Italians at 9 a.m. Then karate at 11 a.m. No idea what we did in the afternoon, slept probably. I still seem to be doing a lot of that this year!

Day 5: Invited my parents to lunch, so went for a run at 9 a.m. rather than cleaning the house. Bored of trying to keep the pigsty tidy already. Walked the dog and took kids to the supermarket to burn off some energy. It’s still raining. Cooked curry (dropped a whole jug of curry sauce all over the floor and DIDN’T CRY, despite taking my meds late on Friday. I did growl at the kids for spilling ink all over the table, but I’m only human.) and crumble and watched the kids pretend to be in a band. Slept from 4-6 p.m. Detecting a theme here…

Dog in her happy place

Dog in her happy place

Day 6: Pyjama Day planned, so I could do more writing. The dog got the hang of relaxing, and I slept curled up with her for an hour, but the children don’t really understand how it works.

Kept shooing them away, and we lasted until lunchtime, although the children ended up with me while I worked, so not sure how much I got done.

Quite proud of my latest story though – Moon Pony – and now just need to find someone to read it!

Pyjama Pancake Picnic in the Playroom

Pyjama Pancake Picnic in the Playroom

Lunch ended up being a pancake picnic in the playroom because I’ve given up trying to feed them healthy food already.

The fridge is empty and so is the fruitbowl. I’ve thrown away twice as much as they’ve eaten. I miss school meals when I didn’t have to know whether they ate or not.

We’re now heading off to the park because it’s finally stopped raining and I need to get us out the house. My son is running around in his waterproofs (which happen to be pink because he’s wearing his sister’s) yelling, “Super Pink! Super Pink!”

Only 38 more days to go. Not that I’m counting.

Radio Silence

Never-empty Ironing Basket

Never-empty Ironing Basket

I’m sorry for my crapness at keeping up with the blog. I was going to blame the hot weather, or the never-empty ironing basket, or Wimbledon, or my latest computer game obsession (Forge of Empires), or the great books I’ve read recently (Holly Webb is awesome), or the new blog, or the fact I’ve started running again. But the truth is I just don’t have much to say.

I know, it’s a shocker, right?

I seem to be at peace with myself and life, even with it being only six days to the start of the summer holidays. I’m eating well, sleeping okay (when it isn’t hot and humid!) and writing when I can.

There are things I’ve thought about sharing on here – great blog posts on parenting or recipes I’ve discovered or the new KDP Amazon pages-read reports – but I can’t help but feel I’ve said it all before.

And the stuff that gets me really riled these days is all political and I swore I wouldn’t get into politics on my blog. It’s for things mostly writing or parenting related, although I know I stray off topic from time to time!

Hopefully I’ll come up with something to share. Maybe bits of the novels I’m writing at the moment. I’ve started a new series – called Will on the Water – about a girl raised on a narrow boat. If anyone has any direct experience to share, that would really help my research!

I might also do Art in August again, too, just so the blog doesn’t wither and die in the long vacation! At least there will be less ironing to do when the children aren’t at school!

So please don’t give up on me yet. I’ll try harder I promise!

Even My Fictional Kids Don’t Behave

Seren Kitty books one and two

Seren Kitty books one and two

I finished my fourth Seren Kitty book last week (originally called Cat Girl Sophie). They’re only early drafts. Even though the first three are on Smashwords – that’s mostly for ease of being able to get copies to Beta Readers.

Four is a nice number and I’m ready to let them sit for a few weeks, or more, so I can get the proper distance for editing. Or can afford to hire an editor.

I’m still a bit vague about how to write a compelling children’s book, even though I can definitely tell the great from the meh ones I borrow from the library.

So this morning it was time to sit down and start afresh. I have one manuscript half-started, for an 8-12 yo novel, but I don’t feel like going back to it yet. I also have the outlines of two dozen picture book/early reader stories, but that’s not right either.

Recently I’ve been consuming some fantastic 8+ stories, by authors like Lucy Coats and Holly Web, and that’s where my mind is at.

Cue brainstorm time.

Books three and four

Books three and four

Seren Kitty was found in a brainstorm, and I find it’s a great way to discover characters. (I don’t invent them, as such, more flick through ideas and concepts until someone waves at me).

My stories always start with characters and much of writing is getting to know and understand that character. I’m not a planner, even if I’ve got better at sketching plot outlines before I get too stuck in.

I read once that, if your characters do something unexpected, it’s because you didn’t flesh out their backstory and personality fully. Oh dear. My characters are always misbehaving.

I don’t worry. Writing for me is more like online dating. You know quite a lot about the person you’re about to meet – you’ve read their profile and exchanged messages – but it’s only by spending time with them that you truly understand them. I met my online-dating husband nearly eleven years ago and I’m still discovering new things.

But, as with online dating, it starts with a spark. It starts with wanting to know more about a person. It starts with someone standing out from the crowd.

My latest character has a spark. More a roaring inferno, really, because she’s already causing trouble.

Most of the books I’ve read in recent months, aimed at the 7-10 market, are written in the third person, with varying degrees of internal monologue.

But that’s not good enough for Will (Willow), she wants to tell her own story. When she started chatting in my head, as I walked the dog, she wasn’t talking to another character, she was talking to me.

Now I don’t know what to do. I don’t like writing (or reading) first-person novels. Aside from Dragon Wraiths (written in the first-person present tense, by another bolshy character) I haven’t done it before. And Leah, in Dragon Wraiths, is a stroppy teen. Will is meant to be an adventurous nine-ish year old.

I like my own children being independent, strong-minded, feisty. Just not when I’m raising them. Similarly, I like characters that are alive in my mind, but not when they take over. Sigh. Time to go back to the drawing board.

Listening for Echoes

The Martin Kids

The Martin Kids

When I get stuck with my writing – when I’m not sure how a scene plays out or what happens next – I walk the dog. And while I’m walking, I listen for echoes of my characters’ voices.

It feels like hunting for butterflies with a gossamer net. A scene, a visual, a story line, for me, nearly always starts with a fragment of dialogue.From the words, the tone, the attitude I hear, when the words appear in my mind, I can tell the mood and action of the character.

At the moment I’m finishing the first draft of my third Seren Kitty novel. I knew how the story was going to end (I do planning now, get me!) but sometimes that is more a burden than a blessing.

When I reach the climax my writing falls into, “And then Seren did this, then this happened, then this went wrong, then she fixed it like this…’ It’s all too fast and frantic.

So today I stopped, just as the rain stopped hammering on the plastic roof (My poor daughter has been on an outdoor school trip today through torrential rain. She’s going to be soaked!) I’ve come out to walk the dog (who isn’t happy because the vet has said she’s not allowed off-lead while her foot heals, after a bad sprain.)

Almost immediately after I left the house in sparkling afternoon sunshine and puddles, I could hear Seren’s voice. She was calling her mum from the phone she just borrowed from the baddies. She’s explaining what’s just happened. Her voice is clear in my head. She’s scared, but she’s come through a lot already and she’s a plucky girl. And, besides, the rain has stopped falling on her too (which is even more important when you’re sometimes a cat).

Seren has spoken and I have heard the echo. Now I need to go home and make it real. After I’ve taken a towel to the school pick up, that is.

Feeling Crap and a Cry for Help

My novel for 9yos

My novel for 9yos

My radio silence during and after a school break seems to be getting longer and longer. I think as parenting becomes increasingly complicated, and my children’s language and questions become more and more sophisticated, my brain is squeezed dry when they’re home for twenty days straight!

I did write one blog post during the Easter holidays, but I couldn’t find enough silence to finish it.

Then, once the children were back at school and nursery, there were doctors, dentists and vets to see, housework to catch up on. A mountain of ironing. But mostly there was apathy, illness and subsequent writer’s block.

Every time I even thought about writing, a massive headache crushed my brain and I slept instead.

I have, however, read LOADS! The blog post I’ve half written is all about the great children’s authors I’ve discovered. It turns out fiction for nine year olds is also perfect for harassed mummies with little free time and a microscopic attention span.

The only downside is it increases my nervousness about writing children’s fiction. While there are admittedly some mediocre books for under tens, there are also some amazing ones. It’s going to be a difficult market to crack. Especially as I can’t find anyone I trust to give me an honest opinion on my progress so far.

So that’s where you come in. I’ve cobbled together an ebook of my first complete novel for c.9yo children, currently called Cat Girl Sophie (working title!). It’s only second draft, it certainly shouldn’t be live in the web world. But I’ve made it five bucks, so hopefully no one will buy it!

But if it happened that anyone reading this blog also regularly reads (or writes!) children’s fiction, or has a child that does, and would be prepared to give some honest and constructive feedback, well that would be marvellous. Or perhaps not, if the feedback is ‘give up now.’

You’re a nice bunch, though, and I know you’ll take into consideration this is only a draft. If you are interested, visit Smashwords and use the code SD75M for a free copy. Thank you! 🙂

Advice vs Example: How Best to Write Dialogue

The Tricky World of Children's Fiction

The Tricky World of Children’s Fiction

Ever since I started taking my writing craft seriously, I have read a lot of advice on how to write dialogue. Specifically on dialogue tags.

Whether I’m reading writing advice books, studying creative writing, or perusing blogs on what to do and what not to do, the advice is all the same.

1. Don’t be afraid to use ‘said’.

People don’t see ‘said’. More importantly, don’t suffer from Dialogue Tag Thesaurus Syndrome.

E.g.

“Where are we?” Marina whispered.
“I don’t know,” Jacob answered.
“It looks like a cave,” Marina replied.
“It’s too dark to tell,” Jacob murmured.

This is good advice. There’s nothing worse than the obvious ‘trying too hard to avoid said‘ you see in some writing. Although I think there is a place for using some of these words sparingly to help add to the description and texture of the dialogue. Especially where word count is tight, like in children’s fiction.

2. Where possible, avoid using dialogue tags at all. Instead work in some action to help move the dialogue on and make it flow better.

E.g.

“It’s so beautiful.” Marina bent down and looked at the flower.
Jacob glared. “It’s girly.”
“No it’s not!” Marina gave him a furious look.
“Well, I think it is.” Jacob shrugged and turned away.

This is fine in moderation, but used too much I think it slows the dialogue down and makes it hard to read.

3. If you only have two characters speaking, you only need to identify them every few lines.

E.g.

“Come on, let’s go, Jacob.” Marina ran through the woods.
“Okay, I’m coming. Slow down!”
“Can’t catch me!”
Jacob heard Marina giggling and followed the sound. “Oh yes I can.”

I use this a lot in adult fiction, but I would use it sparingly when writing for young children. They read slowly and get lost and it’s easy to forget who is talking, unless it’s obvious from the voice of the character.

Plenty of examples of 'she beamed'

Plenty of examples of ignoring advice no.4

4. Don’t use dialogue tags that have nothing to do with talking. You cannot grin, laugh, giggle, sneer, sigh, groan, moan and talk at the same time. You can whisper, yell, shout, murmur, cry out, but only in moderation.

E.g.

“I bet you can’t climb that tree,” Jacob sneered.
“Oh yes I can,” Marina chuckled. “Watch me.”
“You’ll hurt yourself,” Jacob cautioned. “Girls can’t climb.”
“Don’t be silly,” Marina sighed. “You’ve seen me do it a hundred times.”

Now this is the advice I have the biggest problem with. I hear it everywhere, particularly in the writing course I’m doing at the moment. I’ve trained myself to always put the action separate. “Oh yes I can,” she said, grinning. or to use a full stop. “Oh yes I can.” She grinned at him. But since starting to write children’s fiction, I’ve discovered two things.

a) Using she said, grinning uses too many words. It makes the dialogue slow and static

b) No one else cares about this rule. Seriously. I’m reading a children’s book a day and every single one happily uses, She grinned, she giggled, she chuckled, she frowned. They even use, she hissed, when the dialogue doesn’t contain a sibilant word. (Advice says you can’t hiss ‘Granny’ because it doesn’t contain an s.)

So, here’s the rub. As a new writer, do I follow the writing advice or the examples? I have trained myself so well I actually cringe when reading ‘she sniggered’ as a dialogue tag, especially when reading out loud to my children. But they don’t care. To them it’s normal. It makes the writing flow, it adds texture, and – best of all – they understand it.

Anyone who thinks that writing for children is easy is wrong, wrong, wrong. 🙂

Have you come across this? Do you have a problem with ‘she grinned’? Do you always follow writing advice?