Being a Parent and a Children’s Writer: Pros and Cons

Pro: You get to try your stories out on your kids, for honest feedback.
Con: The honest feedback part. VERY honest.

Pro: To write for kids, it helps to know what matters to them. Parenting teaches you what things are important to children (breakfast… second breakfast… lunch… second lunch…), and gives you a Masters degree in their needs.
Con: Kid’s needs are endless. Literally. They never end. And that means very little time in the day for writing. I average one hour an evening, on a good day, and only when they’re in bed. Unfortunately my mind works ten times slower in the evening. I do try to fit writing into the daytime, but ten stolen minutes is about as good as it gets.

Pro: Writing loo humour for children can be great fun. I remember how the word poo made me explode with laughter when I was a kid. I thought you could never over-do loo humour back then. Now I know you can, thankfully.
Con: Dealing with real children and actual loo emergencies and poo explosions is just not funny in real life. And it always happens when I’m in a train of great thought, words flying out my fingers. It is so hard to get the words back in my fingers once that train has choo-chooed out of here.

Pro: Having kids means having heaps of kids books. This means getting to know the market, and learning to see language through the child’s eyes. It also means lots trips to the library and being able to take kids books out for yourself on their cards. Kid’s library cards have less fines.
Con: Having to deal with screechy rowdy toddlers in the library, and NEVER getting to browse the adult books section. Sometimes I forget that books do actually exist for people my own age. I try not to get eye contact with our librarian, as I know he sends me mind bullets. My 2 year old is, let’s just say, loud.

Pro: Kids create extraordinary situations. Like the time my 2 year old secretly took her potty out of her buggy at the counter in Tesco. As I paid for my purchases, she proudly exclaimed “Look Mummy! I used the potty!” She wasn’t lying. There are some things you would never think could happen, until your child does it. Extraordinary situations, and being pushed out of your comfort zone inspires stories and sparks imagination.
Con: Do I need to explain the con in the above situation?

Pro: Kids teach you to be more flexible. You just can’t predict what will happen next with kids. You learn to be creative about when you can write, and just grab your opportunities and feel grateful for them. So when you do get ten stolen minutes to write with Peppa Pig on in the background, you feel like you’ve climbed Mount Everest.
Con: Looking forward to writing all day long, and then at bedtime one of them gets suddenly unwell and there goes your hour of writing. It is not always easy to be flexible, and even a contortionist parent can’t get out of dealing with sick kids and vomit. A lot.

Pro: Watching your stories switch on the sunshine in their little eyes, knowing that your words made that happen. And even if no-one else ever reads those stories, you know you moved something in your child, and they know you did it too.
Con: Sometimes I find myself let down if my daughter doesn’t immediately love my story. But then I simply think of myself as a child, and let my own little self feel the magic instead. After-all, the most important person to write for is not your kids, or your readers, but yourself.

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The Draw of Picture Books

The more I read picture books, the more I question why some work and others don’t. When talking about novels, people almost universally agree on what it is that keeps the reader reading; the voice, the characters, the pace, the story etc. Sometimes you’re hooked from the first line, sometimes it takes time to warm up but you keep reading because you’ve heard it’s a great book, or you love the author’s other work.

But picture books are short, they need to capture their audience in an instant. There can be no opportunity to lose them. They need to leave their mark to make sure the young audience will ask for the same book again and again. But with such short word counts, is it still the characters, the voice, and the pace that makes the reader keep reading? There is not always time for character development. The word count controls the pace, to an extent. So is it all up to the voice? Or perhaps it is a very careful balancing act to get the story across. Not forgetting the illustrations, which are often what attract us to the book in the first place.

I have heard many parents say that their child loved a particular book, and they couldn’t see why. What seems like a mundane story to an adult can be a comfort to a child. What seems like an amazing story to an adult, can lose a child’s interest on the second page, with those dreaded words “This is boring.” I have often been surprised by buying award-winning picture books, only to find my daughter wandering off half way through and coming back to me with an alternative book that gets shoved in front of the award winner. This I find intriguing. Is it always an adult who judges these books, or are they handed out to children to see their response?

I recently borrowed “The Monster Machine” by Nicola Robinson (author and illustrator) from the library. I picked it out because we were due a book about making monsters less scary, and the illustrations were fun. But to my three year old, this was no ordinary book. We read it five times that day, and then almost every day for the 2 week loan allowed by the library. I cannot tell you why she loved it so much. Something about it just gave her that special feeling that made her want more and more of it.

That, I think, is the key to a good picture book. Not just the story, or the pictures, but the feeling you get when you read it. More importantly, the feeling the child gets when they are read it. Childhood is the beginning of feelings, with new feelings arriving almost on a daily basis, with each new experience. A book than can make a child understand, re-live or experience a new feeling is, to me, a success (especially if that feeling is warm and fuzzy).

I read an interview with Julia Donaldson, who said she didn’t write to teach children what she thought adults wanted them to know, but she writes to give children a good story. Story is fundamental to picture books. Without a story that stands out, the child won’t want to hear it, and the parent won’t want to read it a hundred times. But I do believe in teaching through stories. When I first read Polly Dunbar‘s “Flyaway Katie”, I thought it was sweet. My daughter, 2 at the time, loved it, so I had to read it again and again. I no longer think it is just sweet, I now think it is marvellous. It took me awhile to realise all that is going on in that short book of so few words and pictures. Not only does the book teach colours, but also emotions, creativity, positive thinking, imagination, and sounds. All with the added bonus of fantastic illustrations. Now my youngest daughter, just turned 2, has discovered this book, and I can honestly say that I am delighted to be re-reading it all over again.

To capture such feelings in so few words is not easy. I first wrote a picture book thinking it would be simple, sure anyone can do that. 300 words? No problem. But it is not as easy as it looks. I have decided that is actually easier to write a 50,000 word novel than a 300 word picture book that leaves the reader with a warm feeling every time they read it. So I take off my hat to Polly Dunbar, and Julia Donaldson, and Martin Waddell and all those other picture book authors, who can create a world, a magnet, and a feeling in an instant.

My first Reader’s Report

Why did I get a Reader’s Report?

I have some very loyal readers, friends and family, who are happy to read my novels. They give me the words of encouragement that every writer needs. But when I went back and re-read my first novel, I was horrified by how bad it was. And my loyal readers had not told me how bad it was. I am eternally grateful to them, because if I had realised how bad it was, I may never have tried again. I needed their support, and their words of kindness. But since then, I have started taking writing more seriously. What started as a hobby, a wonderful form of escapism, soon became an obsession. The desire to join the community of established authors hit me.

I have reached the stage of sending my work to agents. But my eyes don’t always see the flaws in my own novels. I know that I need to get my novel as close to flawless as I can, before I start submitting. So I decided to bite the bullet and pay for a Reader’s Report.

What is a Reader’s Report?

I did not know what to expect from a Reader’s Report. I sent my novel to the Inkwell group and crossed my fingers, hoping this wasn’t a waste of money. I wasn’t disappointed.

My novel was critiqued by E.R Murray. Like me, she writes for children and young adults (YA). This particular novel was for young adults. The friends and family who read my novels were all adults, and not even adults who read YA. So getting a YA writer to critique my novel was the obvious next step. E.R Murray knows what YA books are out there, knows what works and what doesn’t, and has already been through the editing process. And very importantly, she was once in my shoes, so had the empathy to thread softly on my words.

I imagine that every Reader’s Report is structured differently, even when carried out by the same reader.

Mine was structured something like this:

  1. Summary of Areas that need work: Show don’t tell, Character’s motivations, Plot weaknesses, Character inconsistencies.
  2. Sub-plot: Things that needed more development, suggestions as to making the sub-plots flow smoothly.
  3. Pace: How to cut out repetition and keep consistency.
  4. Characters: What works, what doesn’t. In a general sense. Who needs to be developed, in particular the relationships between characters. Believability.
  5. Themes
  6. Writing Style

It then turned to chapter by chapter notes, summing up what needed work. Things I hadn’t seen myself, and even things I had seen but had chosen to ignore.

I was startled that I hadn’t thought of writing a short summary of each chapter before. Summarising each chapter into short paragraphs is a great way to spot repetition, notice that you didn’t mention a vital part of sub-plot for a lot longer than you realised. It shows you in a glance when characters meet each other, where you could merge scenes, when you can add new and important scenarios, without throwing off the whole sequence of events. The reader’s report did not summarise each chapter, but gave me an over all observation of the chapters.

How the Report affected me

My hand was shaking as I clicked the email to open the reader’s report. A part of me thought I was going to find an email saying “Throw it away, start again, come back to us when you’ve something decent to read. Just keep writing.” Instead I found page after page of observations. Every line I read I thought “That’s true.” “How did I miss that?” “She got the wrong meaning from that, I need to re-phrase…”

A smile replaced the shakes, as I saw that this novel was already getting better, just by changing my point of view about it. By seeing it from another perspective, by understanding what another writer saw in my words. Admittedly, the smile dropped with the penny, when it dawned me that all these observations meant a huge amount of editing. I do not like re-writing. I was already on draft 5, and sick of it. This meant another draft, probably two. I smugly thought the novel was nearly ready to send to an agent. This Reader’s Report told me I had a long way to go yet. It saved me from sending out my work too early, which just might make all the difference.

Be Ready to Edit

I am glad I waited until this novel to get a Report. This novel is the one I believe in, and can defend. There is no point getting a Reader’s Report if you’re not going to use the information and actually make changes. Editing takes time, especially as you will question everything the report suggests. You won’t agree with every single thing in the report, but you need to be open minded, to take the reader’s opinion on board and defend the bits you don’t want to change. Why bother paying for a service if you’re not willing to listen? So wait until you have something worthy of sending to an agent. Then get a reader’s report, when you believe in it enough to spend the following month or two editing.

Would I do it again?

I can’t recommend getting a Reader’s Report enough. I don’t even see it as a luxury, but a necessity. You only get one shot with each agent (admittedly you could probably re-try in about 2 years, but that’s a long time). Don’t send it out too early in a flurry of excitement; wait until your manuscript is as perfect as you can make it.

Nothing spots flaws better than someone else’s eyes, someone with no personal link to your novel, someone not afraid you’ll kick them out of your life if they point out the faults in your beloved words. Someone professional.

Honestly, I don’t think I’ll ever send another manuscript for submission without a Reader’s Report. In fact, I am considering hiring E.R Murray as my own personal writing guru. Though I doubt she’d accept, since I could only pay her with tea. Though who knows, maybe this novel will be the one to get me published, in which case I can add apple pie to her pay cheque.

The Writing Path is Paved with Patience

When my husband and I were honeymooning on a cruise ship, we got cajoled into taking part in a quiz show for married couples. The wives went off stage while the men were asked questions about the women. When we came back on stage we had to guess what answers the men had given. One question was “What do you wish your wife had more of?” Of course some of the men said bigger breasts, longer legs; to the women’s horror. When it was my turn to guess, I racked my brain. I knew my husband was much too polite to suggest a body part. Then it dawned me. Patience. The audience gasped, as I guessed correctly.

Thankfully, I since took up writing. If you don’t have patience before you become a writer, you either need to learn it fast or find a new hobby. Writing requires more patience than I could ever have imagined, and I have slowly been developing this virtue.

The first time I sat down at my computer, determined to write every single day until the first draft of my first novel was finished, I was filled with excitement. The possibilities loomed ahead of me. I was about 20,000 words in when I realised that this wasn’t going to be as easy as it seemed, that it would take much more time than I expected. There were many days that I had to force myself to write, telling myself over and over again to be patient, that the end was in sight. But how I can I be patient, I thought, if I don’t actually have any patience? There was only one answer: I had to find my patience.

When I finally reached the end of that first novel I was on a high, exhilarated. All that time and dedication had paid off. I put the manuscript away for 6 weeks, since everything I read on writing told me to. After 6 weeks I read the first draft, horrified that it was nowhere near as good as I remembered. But I knew it had potential. I knew if I gave up then, after writing 75,000 words, I would never try again. So I forced myself to re-draft and edit. I know some people love editing. Not me. I don’t mind the first two re-drafts, when you start putting the plot into shape, inserting coincidences and noticing themes. But when it gets down to the nitty gritty of making sure each word is the right word, I find it gruelling, and at times boring. I have to summon every bit of patience I can find.

Thankfully I don’t write for money, so I have time on my side in my plight to get published. If I was depending on becoming a paid novelist, I would probably have no hair left because I’d have pulled it all out in frustration. If I thought writing a novel required patience, I had no idea what comes next. Submission after submission to magazines, trying to get something published to stick some credentials to my writing name. Time, waiting, patience. All the effort I put into making a submission and sometimes I get no response, sometimes I get a response three months later, sometimes a neutral rejection, sometimes a positive rejection. And I’m only talking about short stories and poetry here.

I am yet to send out my novel (the third one: it took three books until I found my voice. Patience..) to the world, my baby. I am almost scared to send it out because I don’t want the rejections. A rejection to a short story makes me feel “What a pity”, but a series of rejections to the novel I really believe in will be much harder to bear. The good thing that comes out of this fear is that I refuse to send out my novel until I know I can’t make it any better, so that with any rejection I get, at least I know I gave it my best shot. And so I wait patiently for feedback, for sufficient time to pass so my eyes will be able to spot my mistakes, until I know that I am ready, and so is my novel.

Thankfully patience is a learned skill. I wasn’t lucky enough to have been born with it. But I’m getting there. The patience I learned from writing has spread through my whole life. And I bet that if my husband was asked now what he wished I had more of, he would not pick patience. Now, five years and two children later, we would both pick time.

 

Baking your stories: Thoughts on Writing

Have you ever tried to create a cake recipe from scratch? I don’t mean if you were lucky enough to grow up in a house with Darina Allen. I mean those of you who grew up in a house where the only buns were lined up in a neat plastic tray from the local shop, and the only flour that came into the house went into the bin un-opened, two years out of date. Then, imagine you get this sudden urge to bake; to invent the perfect cake. It becomes an obsession, occupying your daily thoughts. Just like writing is to an aspiring author… i.e. me.

To begin with, you need to read recipes that already exist. Learn the rules, and follow the amounts carefully. You need to master how to bake those recipes.

When you’ve read and read and read, you hit a point where you feel that you now understand how it works. You understand why you need to mix the eggs in slowly so the mixture doesn’t curdle, and why you have to grease the tin before you pour in your batter so it doesn’t stick. Surely you’re now ready to invent your own recipe. Right?

You begin one optimistic day, with a new apron, and a sparkling spatula. You take a little bit of this recipe, a little bit of that recipe, and mix it all together. You wait eagerly, watching the oven, and bing! It’s ready. At first it looks okay, and you leave it cool down. But when you come back in ten minutes, you realise it’s still raw in the middle. Back into the oven. This time the outside is burnt and the inside is hard. What went wrong? You tell yourself you just need more practice.

You try again, with a new recipe, something more manageable. Again you wait patiently, watching the oven. This time it even smells good. It comes out of the oven and looks reasonable. It even tastes reasonable. Definitely not the worst cake you’ve ever tasted. And so you share it with your family. They each take a bite and politely refuse the rest. Except your child; they tell you it’s the worst thing they’ve ever tasted and spit it out again.

So you go back to reading. You read and practice, not understanding why you’re not as good as all these other bakers, who make it seem so easy.

After much time and patience, you eventually make a masterpiece. Everyone in your family likes it. But when you put it on-line, it being too good to waste on just you, you don’t get much feedback. Why don’t they love it? Why haven’t you won the best cake of the year prize? Why are PR agents not knocking on your door?

And so you keep trying. Month after month, slowly getting better, steadily producing nicer cakes. Each one more delicious than the last. You fall in love with the baking and creating, experimenting and tasting. Out of the blue, you make the perfect cake. Even your kid, who is by now a stroppy teenager, eats an entire slice. And asks for more. People start sharing your recipe, and soon it goes viral. Other people are finally appreciating your creation.

I believe it’s the same with writing. You have to love the writing process enough to do it without needing the world to love your words. Then, when you’ve mastered the craft, someone will find you, if you really want them to. I’m still waiting, but my day will come, and by then I’ll be a better writer than I am today, and will have read more than I have now. Each book I read teaches me more than the words I write. It is an act of patience, love and enjoying the delicious journey.

Two ways to do everything: Thoughts on Writing

Last year I wrote a blog-post about writing my first novel. Since then I have completed one young adult novel, one children’s novel and the first draft of another young adult (Y.A) novel. What I have learnt from writing more than one novel, is that there are two ways of doing everything.

I once thought that to write a novel you should just plough ahead and never re-read anything you’ve written while still on the first draft. But if I lived by my own rule, then I wouldn’t have gotten very far, or would have suffered hugely in the second draft, having to tediously edit out major flaws.

In both my Y.A novels, I hit a stumbling block between 30,000 and 40,000 words. Not a word block, because words kept coming. It was more of an uncertainty about where to take the characters next. I had forgotten how the story started, forgotten plot hints I’d put in. In one instance of this, I read back over the novel so far, and I realised one character wasn’t working and scrapped her before I wasted precious time on her. In another, I fell back in love with the story after it had started to tire me, wondering if it was going anywhere. This refreshed my motivation and allowed me see how the story should naturally progress.

I started an online course on writing for children and it insisted that you plan the whole story from beginning to end. This is something I’ve read many times, but planning and my style of writing don’t go together. This came as a surprise to me, because I plan pretty much everything else in my life to a tee. Perhaps that’s why I enjoy writing without a plan; it sets me free from the norms of my life. I did try to plan novels, but when the characters started naturally drawing the plot away from my plan, I got flummoxed. Not having a plan allows me to create as I go, surprising myself and getting to know the characters the way the reader does.

I definitely believe that to write well, you need to read. But I don’t think you should read everything. I got caught with this one. I took the advice to keep reading, even bad writing so you know what not to include in your novel. But this is dangerous, and I found myself stuck reading a book that irritated me. And while it did have the positive effect of high-lighting how not to write, I did spot, in horror, that some of the other author’s way of writing was weaselling it’s way into my own work. Since then, I’ve become very picky about what I read when I’m writing a novel. I try and only read books by authors much better than me, and hope that they’ll rub off on me. I keep the other books for the times I’m in between novels.

To plan or not to plan, to read and edit as you go or just keep writing, to know your ending before you start or to surprise yourself with the ending….

There are two ways to write everything (or three, or four..). What works in one novel may not work in another. What works for one writer won’t always work for a second. The only way to learn what works for you is to begin writing, and see what works for you.

A Strand of Wind : A Poem

A Strand of Wind

 

If I could see a strand of wind,

I’d watch where it would land.

I’d creep up slowly and then pounce

And clasp it in my hand.

 

I’d carefully sneak it home that day

And bind it around my finger.

A wedding band for only me,

A private place to linger.

 

Every night I’d take the strand

And tell it all my stories.

My secrets, gossip and my dreams

My woes and all my glories.

 

Then on the nights I’d lay awake,

Unable to close my eyes.

I’d pick each thought out of my mind

And flick away the cries.

 

I’d unwrap that little strand of wind

And tie each thought so tight.

Then twist it back around my finger

Holding me all night.

 

When the strand would get too heavy

And no longer could I wear it.

I’d throw that strand into the air,

And then the wind would bear it.

 

That little strand would float away,

My secrets hidden deep.

My mind would feel so light and free

No obstacles to sleep.

 

If someday I found I missed it,

Returned to my wakeful bed.

I’d reach up into night sky

And catch a star instead.

 

Writing my First Novel: The Editing Process

While editing my first novel I realised that there were many tips I wish I’d known before I’d started writing in the first place. Hopefully I won’t make the same mistakes in my next first draft. And in case it would help anyone else I’m writing down some of these tips:

1) Think carefully every time you write ‘In fact’ , “Um” or ‘Suddenly’  and ask yourself do you really need to write them?

2) I noticed I was regularly switching from active writing to passive writing. Passive writing did not work for me. If I had noticed myself doing this in the first draft I would have saved myself a lot of work later. As it happens I wasn’t even aware of the difference between these before I started editing.

3) Editing and re-writing are dull and boring but also essential and liberating. Liberating because knowing I would edit at a later date meant I could allow myself write really badly just to keep the ball rolling and the words flowing. I chopped about 15% of my original novel on editing and rewrote whole scenes. I even chopped a whole character out of the book. Yes, grueling work, but worth it if it meant I never succumbed to writers block.

4) I fully believed I was going to hit the notorious 40,000 word block. And the minute I hit 40,000 words I decided, right so, now I must be at my block. Actually, I wasn’t. I gave myself a good talking to and just got on with it.

5) For awhile my story lagged as I tried to fill in the gaps of some uneventful weeks in the plot. On editing, I realised these gave nothing to the story and only served to bore the reader. Therefore I skipped ahead leaving some weeks unexplained because nothing was going to happen in them anyway. At the time I thought it would be detrimental to the story and I decided I would come back to them later. But when I revisited I saw that there was no harm done whatsoever.

6) It is not easy to chop characters you love, or delete concepts or scenes that you are proud of. There were some scenes that although they made me laugh out loud, I later saw that they played no part in the story as a whole. Therefore, they served only to take away from the flow of the story. Copy them and turn them into an idea for a short story at a later date if they are that good. But don’t keep them in the novel if they take away from it, or even if they just add nothing.

7) On editing I spotted things I had never considered in the first draft: Timeline errors, a lack of location references, concepts being introduced too late, characters with similar names that makes reading confusing….. Taking a note of when ideas are introduced, a list of any names used, when things happen etc. can help enormously. Unfortunately I didn’t realise this until my third draft when the discrepancies were blatant. The same goes for deleting: Make a note of anything that needs to be re-inserted elsewhere when you delete a scene. Otherwise you may have a memory of writing something that is needed for the story, but you may not remember deleting it.

8) Write and then wait. For 6 weeks I didn’t even look at my completed first draft. In those 6 weeks I wrote a second novel, a shorter 12,000 word children’s novel. So by the time I came back to edit the first novel it was out of my system (almost) and I could see all the mistakes and plot holes clearly.

9) After rewriting and then rewriting a few more times, I found the words blurred on the screen and I could no longer see the mistakes. I printed a paper copy and waited a week, giving myself a much needed break. Reading the paper version I noticed a lot more errors. I felt like I was back at the beginning of the editing process. Mind-numbing but worth it.

10) Just before you think you’re finished, read it out loud. Obvious, and commonly recommended, but what a difference that made. Not necessarily for plot, but for spelling, grammar, sentence structure, spotting repeated words, weak description and unrealistic dialogue.

The whole thing take ages so be patient. Luckily I write for pleasure and have no intention of giving up the day job so I took my time. Every now and then the editing process became overwhelming so I took a break from editing and wrote a short story for a day or two. Editing does not feel like creative work, so taking a small break to write something new helped my mind feel creative again. Writing the first draft took approx 3+1/2 months. Then a 6 week break. Then the editing process including at least 6 drafts took me a further 2+1/2 months. I was in shock to be honest. Now I know that writing the first draft is the easy part. The editing is the real challenge.