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!

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.

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?

The Hardest Part About Becoming An Author Is Patience

My children's book

My children’s book

I chose the title for this blog post carefully. Author not writer. Becoming not being. I already consider myself a writer. What I want to be, though, is a published author. Not self-published, great as that is. I want to be able to answer the question ‘can I find your books in the library?’ with a resounding YES.

Maybe that’s silly. It should probably be enough that I’ve self published four novels, they’ve each sold a few copies (some over a hundred, which some say is the benchmark for a new author). They’ve all had good (and bad) reviews.

But it isn’t enough. I want validation. I want an agent to say, ‘you’re just what I’m looking for.’ I want to have a poster in the library and give talks to schools about my journey as a writer. I want my family to be proud. I want my daughter to know I did something other than raise babies for a decade. Not because raising babies isn’t a worthwhile job, but because I want her to know there’s a choice.

I want to write the books my daughter wants to read but can’t find in the library. I want to write books for my son that aren’t about animals and fairies, because – quite frankly – there’s a massive hole in our library where books for early-reader boys should be.

I want all that, and I want it NOW.

I tell my children that you get nothing without practice and patience. When my son is frustrated at learning to read or my daughter can’t draw as well as the YouTube video she’s watching, my response is always “you just need to practice.”

But we’re all hypocrites right? I’ve written one children’s book and I’m already looking for agents accepting submissions. Even though I know it isn’t going to pass muster.

Actually, it’s the second children’s book I’ve written. The other one has been (almost) wiped from my memory after I (arrogantly? Naively?) sent an early draft to an editor and was hurt and surprised when she told me (nicely) that it was awful.

Children’s books are hard to write. I knew that before I began the writing course I’m doing. I know it even more now. (Plus it’s really hard to find beta readers – any ideas?)

I also recognise that, more than any other genre, it’s all about the market. It’s a business. Books have to sell. Which is possibly why there is a gap in the boys’ market, although I’d say that was a catch 22. You can’t buy what isn’t available.

So I’m writing this as a public declaration of my intention to be patient. I will write at least a dozen children’s books before I approach an agent. I will practice my craft, I will continue to read a book a day. And I will try not to be hurt when my target audience (my daughter) thinks Mummy’s book is rubbish and she could write it better.

After all, practice makes perfect, right? Or at least better…

P.S. If you’re in the UK, Happy Mothering Sunday and I hope, like me, you’re in bed with your ipad writing blogs because Daddy has told the children Mother’s Day doesn’t start until 8am