Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Christmas Eve...

Shopping for our tree in the sunshine...

Lighted up...


And a tree covered in tiny toys in Eight-year-old's room...

Happy Christmas xxx

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

My Blog is Three Years Old Today!

And this was my first ever post, written on the 16th December 2011...

"It's the last day of school today and the whole family will be home for Christmas - so I won't get the opportunity for much writing until the new year. I don't want to forget how to do it, so my plan is to write bits and pieces on this blog until the holidays are over. Then I'll start work on an exciting new novel and perhaps attempt one or two short stories - and use this blog to record my progress."

Probably one of my shortest ever posts, but it says what I wanted to say. I was feeling a lot of quietly simmering determination and I needed to record it somewhere. I think.

Anyway, it worked. Three years later, I am a writer (although it still feels like I'm pretending when I type that). My book will be out in June (according to the Chicken House website) and you can buy it for £7.99.

Here it is, on the same Chicken House bookcase as Melvin Burgess and Kevin Brooks (among lots of talented others). Which means I really ought to hurry up and finish writing the end!

So...yeah. Blogging! Try it - it works really well!

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Editing instead of everything else...

I kept putting off November's blog post...and now it isn't November any more, so there can never be a November post. I haven't missed a whole month before and I enjoy blogging, so I'm a bit glum about my November post not existing.
I can't even claim that November whizzed by in a whirl of gaiety. It didn't. I've been here at my laptop, tapping my way through each day. I thought of things I wanted to blog about - made up whole posts in my head - but then let them drift away unwritten each day because my editing seemed more important.

I haven't been given a deadline for my edits. No one's shouting at me or holding a big stick over my head. It's far worse than that. They made me like them - my publishers, I mean. I really want to do a good job on the edits for everyone at Chicken House. Cheesy as it sounds, I want my book to be good enough to be a Chicken House book. And finished! That's probably quite important too.

I've agreed to go to a Book Brunch in January and talk about my book in front of a roomful of bloggers and bookish types. I've even agreed to read some of it out loud. So I'm guessing that the bulk of my edits really ought to be done by then. And they're pretty sizeable edits!
*Breathes and thinks calming thoughts*

Since I've set myself an editing target, I feel guilty whenever I'm not editing. It reminds me of Bridget Jones's realisation that she's come to see the ideal intake of calories each day And she's stunned when someone points out that humans need to eat a certain number of calories each day to stay alive. Similarly, I've come to feel guilty about not-editing while I'm doing anything else - whether it's cleaning or ironing or helping my children with their homework. Sleeping will probably be the next thing to go.

Since I needed to get on with my edits, I've had to learn to say 'no' - which I hate. Of course, it gives me something to feel guilty about while I am-editing, so the guilt is pretty much ever-present.
Friends are a good thing and I'm glad I have them, but I had a sudden spate of invites to lunch or coffee or drinks and I found myself getting tearful at the thought that I might have to choose between having friends and having a book deal.
No, I can't have lunch with someone I haven't seen for ages and who is claiming to be 'lonely'. Even if it is nearly Christmas! 
No, I can't go out for lunch with my parents - even if it is my dad's birthday. Every day is someone's birthday...
No, I can't accompany my son's class on a school trip to the Roman villa. And no, I can't pop into the school to make props for the play, listen to the slow readers or bake cakes for the Christmas Fair. No, no, no!

All this gave me about a week's breathing space before it came to nothing. My husband developed crippling sciatica and my eight-year-old was struck with a sick-bug. There's no saying no, no no to family...because they're too busy writhing on the floor or vomiting.

Other things I've learned about editing

The thinking-about-each-edit takes more time than the actual writing. Hours...whole much time with not a lot to show for it.

The exact moment I press 'send' on a chunk of edits to my editor is the exact same moment that a whole flood of newer - much better - ways of having edited whatever I've just sent, will come swooping into my head. Damn, damn, damn - this can't be just me, can it?
It's difficult to send a book in chunks at all. Having worked entirely alone on a book for years, it's hard to suddenly split the work with someone. All my instincts want me to complete the edits in full and then send them to my editor for marking as if she's a teacher who I'm trying to impress.

It's easier to write for an editor rather than for myself or with a vague YA demographic in mind. All my best words come when I'm thinking - 'Ooh - this'll make Rachel laugh!' or 'Aha, this is clever - Rachel won't be expecting this to happen!'

It's really exciting to read praise of my particular editor in the acknowledgements of books by real authors. 'Wonderful...patient...calm...humorous...' I've quoted all these at Rachel Leyshon - who really has been wonderfully calm and patient about my continuing excitement with it.

A few things that would've made it into my November know, had there been one...

I had a lovely lunch with Barry Cunningham and Rachel Hickman, the deputy Managing Director of Chicken House at the Charlotte Street Hotel. They were both far too easy to talk too and I pestered them with a ton of questions about everything I'd ever wanted to know. When Barry talks about books, I can forget he's Barry Cunningham and communicate like a normal person. When he offers me the broccoli however, I find myself thinking 'Holy shit - it's Barry Cunningham!' and sending broccoli florets rolling all around the table. Of course he pretended not to notice my clumsiness because he's very charming, but he must've been thinking 'JK Rowling never knocked this much stuff over whenever I went to lunch with her.'

A friend offered to lend me Rooftoppers, since she'd read my blog and thought I'd like it. I did like it! I liked it a lot - my eleven year old is now reading it - in preference to the iPad - which feels like a Christmas miracle!  I really must  keep up with this blog if it makes me come across as a Rooftoppers-kind-of-person. Because Rooftoppers has a girl with hair like a lightning bolt, and a man with a voice like moonlight. I love the sort of writing that sounds a bit like poetry. Although whenever I've had a go at it myself, my editor has marked it with 'I do not understand this bit...'. I suppose the answer is to learn how to be consistently poetic rather only coming up with one or two inspired poetic flashes.

I got to meet E Lockhart, who's written one of my favourite books ever. She was utterly charming and full of wise and thoughtful writing advice. She claimed to have written fifteen or sixteen drafts of We Were Liars - and said the fairytale sections were only written in an attempt to write her way out of a struggle with writer's block.

I got my hands stamped  and my book signed
with all my favourite quotes from We Were

E Lockhart had 'DON'T' and 'PANIC' written on her own hands.

My favourite quotes from the informal talk she gave us were that -  "Children deserve good literature. They also deserve high quality and complicated literature." And -
 "I am really opposed to shaming people's reading choices. Can we just get over that?"

And last but not least...I received a lovely card and signature for my copy of The Yeovil Literary Prize anthology - featuring a story by my talented blog-friend Suzanne Furniss. It's the best thing in the world when you get to clap and cheer the successes of people who've supported and encouraged you right from the beginning. No one deserves it more than she does...well done, Suzanne!

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Lovely cover choices...

Yesterday, my publishers posted some early cover designs on Twitter and asked what people thought of them. I'd nipped downstairs to the kitchen for a minute (more on that later) and when I came up again, my phone was going crazy with tweets. It's hard to carry on with my editing when this kind of thing happens - I kept checking Twitter and Facebook every few minutes for the rest of the day. And the minutes in between were spent grinning foolishly and gazing at my new covers.

Twitter voted for the cover with the camper van at the top-left. I think it's based on an idea one of my friends suggested which I then told my editor about. So - obviously - it's one of my favourites. But I also love the grubbiness and tactile look of the cover at the top-right. I like the blue - I like the sinister silhouette of the castle - I like the fact that it reminds me of the cover of the Goldfinch.

I double-checked by posting the covers on Facebook and - again - almost everyone I know voted for the camper van. People do love a VW!
I'm not sure how much of this my publishers will take into account, but I'm pretty sure I'm about to be given a lovely cover either way *happy face*

Besides my lovely covers, I have a new favourite thing...

Look - I brought roller-skates! I brought roller-skates for all!
Red retro roller-boots for me - the ones that were denied to me in the Eighties (At last! At last!)
And modern black and white versions (model name - Shadow!) for the boys.

Serious face because I'm coming in to land
and I STILL haven't figured out how to stop!

I've already blogged about my love of ice-skating - and my failed attempts to pass this love on to my children. Failed attempts which have in no way deterred me from trying the same thing all over again but with wheels

There's a smooth basketball arena in the park next to our house, which is great for practice. There are also a couple of roller discos near to us, and on our second visit to the Roller Revolution, Eight-year-old suddenly got it! He let go of my hand and shoved himself out into the melee, arms going round like windmills and didn't come back again. 

Look, Ma - no hands!
When it was over, his face had that same crazed look upon it that I could feel on my own, and he said, "We have to come next week! Every week!"
Eleven-year-old is refusing to be outshone - although his face is still wearing the look of someone going into battle or walking across hot coals whenever he pushes himself out among the skaters. He likes it, though. Because his brother and I make him - hee hee!

At the Mega Roller Disco - you get the chance to roll around in the DARK! Because who wouldn't want that??

Eleven-year-old and I are the ones with disco lasers shining across our arses in the picture above. Eight-year-old is probably going too fast to be captured on camera.

I'm supposed to be editing. My edits are fairly terrifying at the moment - and yet I keep on leaving the laptop and sneaking downstairs to the kitchen to have a quick practise on my skates. I desperately want to learn how to go backwards. Your feet have to make slinky snake-type movements when you go backwards - it's probably a bit like dancing for those of us who can't dance.

So...if anyone wants me, I shall be somewhere in the early 80s...

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Talking books...

It was pouring with rain last Saturday and I wasn't really in the mood to get out of my warm bed and walk into town in the miserable weather. I was glad I did, though. I went to hear Malorie Blackman talking to Michael Rosen about writing for teenagers. And they were both incredibly - effortlessly - entertaining! 

That's the Inkpot. It's a big tent, but there wasn't a single empty seat. Thankfully, it was also warm and dry without being stuffy - and I couldn't even hear the downpour once I was inside. I recognised a few Cheltonians in the audience - mostly mums with their teenage daughters - and I instantly resented my own children for being boys. Because boys are not interested in books - only Minecraft.

Malorie Blackman spoke in praise of libraries. She talked of writerly determination. She hoped for more diversity in books - and YA in particular. She said, "To be honest, I write for children and teenagers because they're so much more intelligent than adults!"
In spite of the way she was recently misquoted by Sky journalists and in spite of the ensuing racist abuse from Twitter trolls, Malorie Blackman really seems to like people. I think it's one of the things that makes her such an entertaining person to go and see if you get the chance. Even better to go if you're a writer, since you'll get the sense that Malorie Blackman also really loves writing.
Michael Rosen is endlessly likeable too. Every time Malorie said something that made me want to ask her a question, Michael Rosen jumped in and asked it for me. They're both just so good at this kind of thing!

When she was asked about the hardest part of her writing career, Malorie said the greatest struggle had been to get published at all. By her 67th or 68th rejection letter, she came close to thinking about giving up. In the end she decided to keep going until the 1000th rejection...and would then definitely have to think about it even more seriously. How's that for determination?
Malorie also admitted to so much self-doubt that she dutifully re-reads each of her finished books all the way through - just once - to look for typos etc, and then never reads them again because her inner-critic is so relentlessly critical. In contrast, Michael Rosen described himself as 'a spoiled brat' whose 'Jewish mother' had been so uncritical of him that he never had any doubts about anything he did - 'even when it was awful'. He then apologised for this not being a translatable technique since it requires you to have been brought up by a Jewish mother from 0-35 years.

This Saturday, I went to see two Chicken House authors - Lucy Ivison and Tom Ellen talking about their YA book, Lobsters. Although it's a romance, it's also hilarious and excrutiatingly realistic. They were on stage with fellow YA author, James Dawson (This Book is Gay, Say her Name etc.) and the discussion ended up being about teenagers - when and how they discovered their sexuality, found themselves partners and lost their virginity. Both James and Lucy have worked in schools - as PSHE teachers - and quickly confirmed there was still a tortuous amount of pressure on teenagers when it came to sex (and sexual bullying). After a while, I found myself listening less as a reader and writer, and more as a parent of boys who are nearing their teens. Scary stuff. 
It was funny too, of course, but somehow less playful than Malorie Blackman's event. Because all three authors knew teenagers so well, I don't think they could bring themselves to be flippant about the struggles they faced with sexuality and life in general. So although we were warned beforehand that the discussion would be frank - possibly even filthy - it ended up being quite touchingly respectful.

This event was in The Studio, which is a much smaller tent than The Inkpot, so another difference between this discussion and the first one I went to, was that there were fewer people in the audience and we were all much closer to the authors on the stage. As a result, people joined in more. The passage from Lobsters that was read by Lucy and Tom contained the words 'knobhead' and 'minge'  - and both authors admitted they had no idea how the teenage jargon of the UK would be received by an American audience. Tom suggested 'douchebag' could be used for 'knobhead', but couldn't come up with a substitute for 'minge'. Whereupon, a woman in the audience called out, 'Keep it! Make them learn it!' and everyone giggled. Lucy Ivison liked the idea of 'standing up for her minge' and including a glossary in the back of the book.
The atmosphere was so friendly, I even asked a question myself - which I wouldn't have been brave enough to do in the bigger event. (And - no, it wasn't about minges.)

It was a thoroughly Chicken Housey day, as it happened. Before the Lobsters event, I took the whole family to see James Dashner's Maze Runner at the cinema - and sat through both, feeling proud and excited to be in the same coop as so many talented writers.

As soon as we stepped into the cinema, Eleven-year-old was greeted by two boys he had been at primary school with. Only they didn't mention schools or any of the other big changes they've been going through lately - because the first boy was too eager to make it clear that he'd already read the Maze Runner book and knew everything that was about to happen in the film. Second boy was keen to make it clear that he was about to borrow the book - and would soon know everything too. A very small part of me hoped that Eleven-year-old would respond with something like, 'Yeah, well my mum has the same publisher as James Dashner, so I win!' But he didn't, because he's eleven and he couldn't care less.
It was great to hear so much enthusiasm for a book from eleven year old boys. I'm sure they're one of the hardest groups for writers to reach, as it takes really good story to lure them away from bloody Minecraft.

The Maze Runner was exciting all the way through - very character driven too. Husband and oldest son really enjoyed it. They both agreed that it was a much better film (and story) than the Hunger Games - and probably made for a fraction of the cost. Eight-year-old whimpered with terror for much of the way through, but refused to leave his seat when I offered to take him out for ice-cream. So I suppose he must've been enjoying the film too, in his own (exceptionally wussy) way.

Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed that the first boy who greeted my son, retook his seat and waited for the lights to go down before slipping an enormous woolly hat onto the back of his head. Aw! Eleven year old boys who are just beginning to discover style - and are having a tentative go at it themselves - are adorable!

Now have I mentioned Minecraft yet?

It's the one LitFest event that both my boys were happy to attend, so of course it sold out before the tickets had been on sale for an hour. But Matt and Phil from FyreUK were persuaded to put on an extra Minecraft session this morning, so we went along to hear it. 
And it was weird. All the most successful children's authors have been using props, costumes, wacky voices, silly faces - anything to hold the children's attention for more than three minutes. But not Matt and Phil. They droned on in interchangeable monotones, made no eye-contact with the audience, and were (to me) largely incomprehensible. But my boys sat there and listened, nodding occasionally as if to say, 'Yes, I would've used redstone for that build too.' or 'Yes, I find those mods very buggy as well.' It was like a different language. An entire tentful of  4-12 year olds just sat there and listened. They even asked their own, unintelligible questions at the end. Matt and Phil gave long and detailed answers. I got the impression that Matt and Phil could've gone on talking about Minecraft for another twenty-four hours. And most of the children would've sat there listening and nodding. Personally, I was more than ready to swap that Minecraft tent for the Cafe Rouge and a Croque Monsieur!

'Wanna go outside and get some fresh air today, Matt?'
'Fresh air? What on earth's that, Phil?'
'No idea, Matt, but I overheard a non-gamer mention it once...' 

So...what else have I been reading? Well, Lobsters, of course. Which made me laugh and then compare my own teenage characters with Lucy and Tom's to make sure they were as realistically drawn. I think they are...mine are just more unpleasant, that's all!

I've also started Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein and I'm already shocked at how harrowing a YA book can be. A young woman is being tortured by the Nazis and I have an uncomfortable feeling that I haven't read the worst of it yet. It's too good for me to have a hope of putting it down, though. It's especially impressive because it's written by an American, but feels entirely English. I haven't read anything quite this clever in ages!

I'm still reading the Famous Five series to the boys, although we're underwhelmed with book number six - 'Five On Kirrin Island Again'. Very early on, Alf the fisher-boy from the previous stories is renamed 'James', and the boys didn't like it. They made me say 'Alf' every time I read 'James', which of course means he's mostly known as 'Ja-alf' now. Shortly after this, the Famous Five went into the little dark room (with the two slits of windows) in one of the ruined towers of the castle on Kirrin Island. The room was intact in spite of the fact that its ceiling collapsed in book number three. I know Enid Blyton was prolific, but surely she had editors and proof-readers to help her. Perhaps they thought that children wouldn't care. They do, though - vociferously!
When I was reading it yesterday, Uncle Quentin asked George if she would leave Timmy on the island with him and then go home. George didn't want to, since she prefers her dog to her father (not unreasonably) and Aunt Fanny made an impassioned speech from the dog's point-of-view. My husband came into the room to get changed while I was trying to read this bit. Although his back was turned to me and the boys, I could see his shoulders starting to shake and there was a bulge in his cheek from a massive grin. I carried on, but it got harder and harder to keep a straight face...

'Now George, be unselfish. If it were left to Tim to decide, you know perfectly well that he would stay here - and stay without you. He would say to himself, "I'm needed here - my eyes are needed to spy out enemies, my ears to hear a quiet footfall - and maybe my teeth to protect my master. I shall be parted from George for a few days - but she, like me, is big enough to put up with that!" That's what Timmy would say, George, if it were left to him.'
As soon as Aunt Fanny has finished this speech, Timmy gets up, walks over to George's father and lays down beside him. He does not follow George... 'No - he meant to stay by her father now, even though he would much rather be with his mistress. He was sorry that George was unhappy - but sometimes it was better to do a hard thing and be unhappy about it, than try to be happy without doing it.
Oh God! This is a DOG! The world's noblest, most philosophical dog. By the time I'd finished, we were all in hysterics.

Even the cover would've benefited from having the eye of an editor cast over it. George, who is an expert sailor and general outdoorsy- type, is looking at Kirrin Island through the wrong end of a telescope. On the plus side, however, Julian's eyelashes are divine.  

'Gracious, Ju! Kirrin Island looks tiny today.'
'Sorry, George, I'm too busy looking fabulous to care.'

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

"Life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall."

F Scott Fitzgerald said that. Although I think he probably meant autumn. This is an unusually literary opening to my autumnal post, isn't it? You're not to get your hopes up, though, I'll never be able to sustain it.

I do love autumn. It's all about long scarves and frothy coffee. Frosty mornings and sunny afternoons. Hay fields and blackberries and puddings with custard. Fires and fairy lights and curling up with books set in faraway places. A new term at school for the boys - with a million good intentions. And in my case, I usually have something new to submit to agents or editors.
Not this time. This September has been...fraught.
Eleven-year-old has started secondary school. It takes him almost an hour to walk there and he hasn't found his way around yet because it's so huge. He doesn't know his classmates or his teachers and his homework has been dominating the weekends. I have dealt with it all by worrying incessantly because...well, what could be more useful than that?
At first, I kept waking up from a recurring dream in which Eleven-year-old wandered around endless maze-like corridors, sobbing because he was lost. Actually, he did get lost a lot, but he didn't sob, he simply asked someone the way. I did not see that coming, not in any of my nightmares!

Some days, he has forgotten his phone. Or he has remembered his phone but forgotten to call me on it. On those days, I've paced around for an hour with tightly gritted teeth, imagining him being captured and sold into slavery. Then, when he breezes in through the door and apologises, I've forced myself to shrug and say 'I'd forgotten you were supposed to ring me, to be honest!'
Because there's nothing I hate more than the Mother Gothel school of parenting.

Some days, he's been let down by the friends who've arranged to walk with him. But he's made it to school anyway. Some days, the teachers have been shouty or sarcastic (Bonjour, Monsieur Johnston). But he's shrugged and carried on. This morning, it rained and he was anxious because he had no idea where the cloakrooms are or what he would do with his coat at the other end of his journey. I suppose he got to school, sorted it out somehow and forgot all about it. Whereas I'll have a low-level coat-based anxiety for the rest of the day *ugh*
Anyway, it's been going - actually, it's been going well. I just haven't been able to let myself relax yet.
But I realised that if I didn't release my shoulder muscles s-l-i-g-h-t-l-y and carry on as normal, I would miss my September blog post altogether. So yesterday, I set out with my camera, in the hope of snapping some autumnal scenes, like this...

And that's it.
Because I'd forgotten that the LitFest is coming to town. Every-damn-where I went there was a sea of builders, lorries and stuff to make tents out of. So that's what you're getting pictures of...

Can I go through the Montpellier Gardens?

Nope, that's not happening.

Is there going to be a carpet of autumn leaves over here?

No, it's all going to or something...

Well, I'll just carry on down to the Imperial Gardens then because... that, is it?

On the plus side, I have tickets to see Malorie Blackman, James Dawson, Lucy Ivison and Tom Ellen.

On the pfft! side, Grayson Perry and Lucy Powrie were sold out within an hour of their tickets going on sale. (Lucy apologised to me on Twitter because she's utterly charming! But Grayson Perry remains unforgiven.)

I'm still reading plenty of YA too. I've just finished We Were Liars - which was brilliantly written and made tears run down my face at the end. And I'm already halfway through American Gods which is equally dark, and of course, quite weird - because Neil Gaiman.

And for the boys...well, they're dealing with enough grown-up stuff at the moment, so I've been reading them Famous Five stories in the evenings. Hols on Kirrin Island...underground passages and treasure maps...old-style picnics...daring rescues by Timmy...and crazy Uncle Quentin. Julian can even be quite funny whenever he's not being appallingly sexist. Luckily my own boys have plenty of female friends who would never stand for any of Julian's 'go-and-wash-the-dishes-bullshit' so they just laugh at both bits, without me having to explain what's so very wrong with the life poor Anne has to lead...