Saturday, 30 December 2017

Looking back and here's to 2018!

My parents the day they got engaged
Today I am feeling contemplative. Not in a maudlin way, just thinking about the past and what is to come. Let's be honest it is what you do when the year is about to come to an end and a brand new one is about to start, isn't it? I have another confession, I really don't like New Year. It is always full of those promises that everything is going to be different after the clang of 12 bells and then it never is. But also my dearest, darling Daddy died on the 30th December, 21 years ago, so it does tend to taint it a bit. However, I said this wasn't going to be maudlin and it isn't. I just really wish both my parents were around. I desperately want to talk to them and tell them what is happening. I want them to meet the amazing little people that have joined our enormous family and also see the incredible people that their grandchildren have grown up to be.

Selfishly I want to show them what I have done as well. It is only recently I have realised how forward thinking and open minded my parents were. Bit of context first - I was an accident, they told my mother I was the menopause - Surprise! They got me. Luckily they seemed quite pleased. Consequently, my brother and sisters are quite a bit older than me. This meant I had the most amazing childhood. Surrounded by fantastic role models and inspirationally strong women. And a brother who showed me the importance of great cars and speed, also how you should follow your heart and trust your gut. Now, this is what I mean about my parents being forward thinking and open-minded. It was only recently when I attended an inaugural lecture given by Prof Stephanie Spencer and while talking to others at the time that I realised that the path my sisters took in the late 60s and early 70s was not the normal path. My eldest sister went off to Sussex University to study Chemistry in the late 60s - she later did an about turn and became an amazing primary school teacher and then head teacher. Number two sister (yes we were known by numbers at times - that is what happens when you have five children) became a nurse and a damn good one at that.  While number three took a degree in photography, walked around in bedspreads and bare feet - this my mother did struggle with when she accompanied her around Waitrose! She took some beautiful photographs and still does. (She also got arrested for putting giant jellies by parking metres but that is another story). In our house, it was never questioned that you went off to study if that's what you wanted to do regardless of your sex. This I had no idea was not the norm - I have begun to realise I led a very sheltered life.

We were always surrounded by books and I spent my life lost in them. I had a very vivid imagination and liked nothing better to escape into these worlds. I might have had a good home life. School was a different matter. While at secondary school I was bullied so books were the places where I could be who I wanted to be. Also, it could be quite lonely at home as we quite frequently moved so I never formed any long-term friendships and with my siblings being so much older meant they left home when I was very young. I was an aunt by the time I was 11. Books filled those gaps. They provided the friends I needed and gave me so many hopes and dreams. I just hope the books I write can do the same thing for some child somewhere.

When I was young I dreamt of being either a doctor or a writer. Well I have a PhD in creative writing and I have my first novel coming out next year so I think I have possibly achieved my dream on both counts. That is the reason I really want my parents to be around I want to tell them about Flight. Just before Christmas, I was sent the potential covers by Firefly Press, who are publishing it. I had previously been warned to be prepared that quite often debut authors don't love their first cover because it never captures your story apparently. So I had been psyching myself up not to like them and to be prepared to suck it up. I very nearly cried when they came through though - the only reason I didn't was that I was sitting in my office and anyone could have walked in! I opened the email and looked at the attached PDF and there staring back at me were a collection of the most beautiful covers I had ever seen. I loved every single one of them and they all captured the essence of my story. The other thing was I was looking at a cover of a book with MY name on it. My dream really was coming true and this was another step towards it.


2017 had already been pretty amazing Firefly Press had offered to publish FLIGHT and Bridge Publishing had published a short story of mine, entitled 'Home' in an anthology called Citizens of Nowhere .  I had had a pretty wonderful time teaching and presented a paper at NAWE in November which had gone down particularly well that I am now rewriting into an article. I had had a chance to see my wonderful friend James Nicol and Emma Carroll talk about their brilliant books at the Salisbury Literary festival.

As always working with Imogen Cooper at Golden Egg Academy continues to be an inspirational experience. I couldn't have been more thrilled than when two of my Eggs were longlisted for the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators Undiscovered Voices. I was so excited for them both. So well deserved. As for Imogen, on a personal note, she continues to be my rock and such a great friend, without her I never would be working with the brilliant Firefly and gorgeous Penny, Janet and Meg.

This brings me neatly on to 2018 and looking forward. It is looking like it is going to be an incredible year. In June my gorgeous eldest son is getting married to the amazing April then in July Flight will come out. I get a shiver down my spine every time I write that. I have the pleasure of being a debut buddy in 2018 with the brilliant Vashti Hardy, whose brilliant book, Brightstorm, comes out in March. I can't wait to read it. The cover is so beautiful. Scholastic has done a fantastic job. Can't wait for the launch as well because she is having a joint one with James Nicol who also has a new book out then too, called A Witch Alone, so keep an eye out for that too!

There are lots of amazing books coming out next year from MG Leonard, Jennifer Killick, Eloise Williams, Emma Carroll, Abi Elphinstone, Lisa Thompson and Rowena House (Sorry for the emphasis on women writers there). Come on men let me know about your books too. I know there are loads more but these are the ones that came off the top of my head so I apologise to anyone I have missed off.

I am lucky I am surrounded by a great family but also some incredible friends who have stood by me throughout all the good and the rocky times in 2017. I know they will be there throughout 2018 to share in the joy because I couldn't have done it without them. Thank you to all my friends and family for being you and for believing in me. And thank you, Mummy and Daddy, for giving us wings and telling us we could be whoever we wanted to be.

Happy New Year everyone xxx

I have picked Abba's Happy New Year because my mother loved them - BTW 'Wine time anyone?'



Saturday, 25 November 2017

This is what we do - enable, inspire, care.

Feeling inspired
I have had one of those weeks that reminds me why I do what I do but also reminded me of the importance of these moments to any writer or creative person.

It started last Saturday when I did an Open Day at the University of Winchester. I had a room full of aspiring students, eager to study Creative Writing. I watched their faces as I spoke, their smiles got wider and wider. They were buzzing by the end. Some of their parents, however, looked a little glum as they came in. They are usually the ones who cannot see the point of CW degree. I watched though as they also started to smile, their shoulders dropped and they began to relax as they realised what their darling child might be able to do with their degree. Mission achieved.

Then during the week, I was listening to my third-year students talking about their creative pieces in my metafiction module. They literally blew my mind as they came up with all these incredible projects. They really did think 'outside the box'. I watched their faces as well at the end of the session as I spoke to them enmasse about their projects, they were glowing. It is so satisfying to be able to facilitate this sort of creativity.

On Thursday I met up with the wonderful Imogen Cooper and many of the other editors from the Golden Egg Academy. We spent a joyous few hours discussing writing, editing, the industry and books we love. I left totally inspired and reminded once again how joyous it is to work with so many amazing and knowledgeable people. I always learn so much just by listening and talking to them. Earlier in the week, I had spoken to one of my Eggs that I am mentoring and I am seeing another one later today for an editorial surgery. Talking about their work and sharing ideas is so satisfying. Seeing that light bulb moment as they suddenly have an idea of what they might be able to do next or they really get what you are saying. It is a moment that always sends a thrill down my spine.

All this has an impact on my own creativity and writing. I know I am lucky in the jobs I do, I am surrounded by creative and inspirational people. As writers we need this and I am aware that not everyone is as fortunate as me. This is where it is important for writers to become part of communities. I know at The Golden Egg Academy we have a fantastic writers' community that is incredibly supportive. Another great source of support and community is the Society of Children's Book Writers & Illustrators. It is in fact their conference this weekend. Watch on Facebook and on Twitter - follow #scbwicon17 to find out what they are up to. Critique groups are fabulous for support too - I have been part of a SCBWI one for many years. Having people around you - either virtually or IRL - that you can talk about your writing, books you are reading and your moments of inspiration is priceless.

Having support like this feeds a writer's creativity. It enables them to be inspried and allows them to ride through the rough times because everyone closes rank around anyone who is having a tough time, giving virtual or real hugs. It's someone for them to lean on while filling them with words of encouragement. There was some of that this week too. A few friends were having hard times for various reasons, up against tough deadlines or getting difficult rejections. I tried to be there for them because I knew that is exactly what they would have done for me and because I wanted to protect them and make sure they were ok. And because this is what we do. We enable, we inspire and we care.

The song seemed a little obvious this time. Paul McCartney & Ringo Starr singing 'With a little help from my friends':

Sunday, 15 October 2017

Creating well rounded antagonists

Photo Credit: Sue Eves
This post came about in a roundabout way and it was all Meg Rosoff's fault. She asked a question relating to the Harvey Weinstein business and then brought up an interview with the CIA operative that I also remember and it started those cogs whirring.

It made me think about writing, in particular, about antagonists. There is nothing worse than a weak, unbelievable and flat antagonist. It just ruins a story. They need to be fully rounded and as characters. You, as the writer, need to understand them and their motivation, just as much as your main character. The interview that Meg referred to was the interview with former CIA Officer, Amaryllis Fox, where she highlights that all the 'bad guys' do in fact think from their perspective they are the good guys. They don't think they are doing anything wrong.This is something you need to think about when you are writing your antagonists. You need to walk a few miles in your antagonist's shoes to see how they view the world so you are aware why they make the decisions they are.

Another great example of this, which Philip Ardargh also highlighted in the same Meg Rosoff thread, is this comedy sketch by Mitchell and Webb. It is done for a laugh but it makes quite a serious point.



I am not suggesting that you make your antagonists likeable but it is about making them believable. It is allowing the reader to understand why they do what they do. The chances are we will have all come across characters like them. We will have met that bully at some point in our lives. We will have met a Malfoy at school. I was certainly bullied at school and knew people just like him plus several of the people I came across in my life rung true with the characters in Sophia Bennett's books. That is what is so great about books, so often you can relate the stories to your life. They can help you to understand what is going on with your life and also realise that you are not on your own. There are others out there going through the same thing.

This is why it is so important to get those antagonists right. When you are creating your antagonist's bio you need to think beyond what they look like. You need to think what drives them? What do they believe? What has happened to make them feel like this? What are their political views? Are they being controlled? If so, why and how? Are they being bullied themselves? What is happening at home? Could that explain their behaviour? Are they hurting? Look beyond the two dimensional. Write a letter from your antagonist to you as the writer introducing him/her/them/itself so you can get right under their skin. A lot of this may never get into the story but it will add depth to your writing because you won't need to think about them when writing. You will know exactly how they will react in any given situation. Make sure you understand your antagonist and their purpose in your story. Most importantly though enjoy creating them.

I have picked this song today because I am really angry about a certain American President's behaviour and comments relating to LGBT communities. How dare he incite hatred. Thank you, Greenday for saying what I think of him.




Sunday, 24 September 2017

Creativity - where do your ideas come from?

Where do your ideas come from Ness?
Where do your ideas come from? As writers, this is a question we are so often asked and, I am sure if you had a group of writers together they would all come up with many different answers. We all have our own ways to feed our creativity ensuring that those ideas keep flowing.

For example, Flight came about because I am passionate about the Second World War as both my parents were part of it and I was brought up listening to their stories. Plus I asked a question, I wanted to know what happened to the Spanish Riding School during the Second World War. I asked Google and some wonderful snippets of information came up including details of Operation Cowboy. The seed of a story began to grow and grow. It soon formed into the story that is now Flight.

I believe this is from National Geographic
For me, a lot of ideas come from questions like that, or from pictures such as the image on the left, which was the one that inspired my PhD novel, Ham and Jam. Ideas might also come from past events in my life or memories. While a previous novel Disjointed was based on something I was interested in at that time - cannabis psychosis. Working on that inspired my PhD.

All of these things are reliant on one thing and that is being curious. A writer must want to know about the world they live in. As Csikszentmihalyi suggests 'sustaining high levels of curiosity is the starting point of creativity.' Being curious therefore leads to increased creativity enabling you to write more.

I have a notebook where I write down all my ideas as they come to me so that when I have finished a manuscript I can look at this book to see what I am going to work on next. This is because ideas don't wait for you to finish a book. They can come along at the most inconvenient moments so it is important to have somewhere to store them.

I like to feed my curiosity and creativity by doing different things and occasionally challenging myself. Listening to music, going to the theatre and art exhibitions. Watching people, reading newspapers and watching the news - you'd be surprised how that can trigger ideas. Going for walks where you just allow the brain to just wander as you do. Often when I do this, ideas float to the surface. This is all about looking after you as a writer and nurturing yourself and your creativity. Giving those ideas the freedom to grow. This is an important part of pre-writing. Make sure you remember to include some activities that are going to feed your creativity.

PS the puppy above is the latest member to join our family and belongs to my son and his partner. Welcome Beaumont (named after my mother's dog who was a huge part of my children's lives as they grew up). There is such a story there too...

I love this song so much and it seemed a perfect opportunity to share it: Limerance's Shine On 

Saturday, 2 September 2017

A new reality

Am I grown up now?
Over the summer I have submitted two books for publication. One, an academic book on writing young adult fiction, and the other, a middle-grade historical adventure novel, FLIGHT, to Firefly, which hopefully will be published next summer. Suddenly I have found my world has shifted slightly on its axis. Does this mean I am an author? Have I become a grown up now?

I am thinking about different things. Firstly I had to fill in a hugely detailed media form for Firefly which was very useful and certainly made me think. In part, it was completing this form that started this current journey. The one where you become a twenty-first-century author. Gone are the days where an author used to write a book, present it to the publisher and disappear while they wrote the next one. Oh, no thanks to Robert E Kahn and Vin Cerf who invented the Internet and Tim Berners-Lee who invented the World Wide Web, which we all think of as the Internet. Then, of course, there was the first recognizable social media site which was in 1997 and was called Six Degrees. All of which have had an impact on the modern day author and how they behave.

On the day it was announced that Firefirely had acquired FLIGHT I spent the whole day dealing with social media. It was amazing. The brilliant author Jennifer Killick had warned me but I had no idea it would as frantic as it was. The support across Facebook and Twitter was truly incredible. I then did the simple things like ensuring in my social media profiles that it says that FLIGHT is being published next summer. I have been busy on Twitter making contact with other people, book bloggers, teachers, librarians, booksellers, anyone who might be interested in FLIGHT in the future. I have tried to ensure that I have been giving them something so they don't feel like I am using them.

I have created a Facebook author page. I am careful what I post on here and ensure it relates either to writing or to FLIGHT. You have to watch how much time you spend on social media though, it can suck time.

I am beginning to plan my website. Following advice from James Nicol, Jennifer Killick and Vashti Hardy I started off by looking at other people's to see what they had done. Working out what I liked and what I didn't. I made notes on all the sites I visited. I am not going to start my site until I know what my cover is likely to be so I can use some of the colours from it. I have been thinking about school resources that I can include. Talking to teachers so that I make sure the resources are the most useful they can be.

In the meantime, I have been talking to Vashti again about author photographs. She very kindly shared a Pinterest board she had created and shared some very valuable advice. As I was very worried about it all because the photo that went out with the press release was a bit of a rush job taken by my son in law - thank you, Greg for doing it. Vashti and I have had several long conversations about this. I have decided to have some professional photographs taken because then I will have a bank of photos I can use for the media, for the back of my book maybe and for the website. I know it is an expense but I am doing this because I hate having my photo taken and the photographer I have chosen is a friend of my son that I have known for years, I love his photos, therefore I know I will trust him and will then be relaxed. Watch this space for the results.

And then there will be the book launch...no I can't think about that at the moment. See it all becomes suddenly very real. I know these are all very wonderful things to be worrying about and I know I should be grateful, I have dreamt about being at this stage for a very long time but it is very scary! And I am not even thinking about the academic book ;-)

And now for all those phenomenal women I know listen to Laura  Mvula's 'Phenomenal Women'



Friday, 11 August 2017

Book Covers. #kidsfavbookart

A piece of my own art
Last Monday the wonderful author/illustrator got Twitter all a buzz with #favkidsbookart. If you have time do go back and search the hashtag. It was joyous. Everyone was sharing pictures of their favourite illustrators from children's book, both from the past and contemporary books. All day Twitter was full of colour.

I am lucky I have small grandchildren so I still have an opportunity to get lost in picture books. Not that I need an excuse.  There are some fabulous books out there such as Oi Dog, Oi Frog and Oi Cat by Kes & Claire Gray. Jill Murphy's books, of course, such as Five Minutes Peace.  Then you can't forget Shirley Hughes' books which were a large part of my children's childhood. More contemporary is Steve Antony, who at a reading very kindly drew a Mr Panda for my grandson. A delightful and generous man.
Shirley Hughes
Steve Antony
 This made me think about covers. I love book covers. They inspire me and draw me into a book. I will also confess they can put me off a book. I know the old adage 'don't judge a book by its cover'...but sometimes I do. For example the Lolita style cover of Penguin's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory that caused a bit of an uproar a couple of years ago. One of my all time favourite books but I would never buy that version. Book covers are tantalising. They shout 'look at me, come and see what's inside,' and should be treated with respect.

I suppose I first remember being really introduced to illustrations by my eldest sister who loved Arthur Rackham's work. I am so grateful to her for the books she gave me with his illustrations. They were always so delicate. They were an inspiration, but then so was she, always fostering my love of books and reading.

When I had my first meeting with Penny and Janet of Firefly, it suddenly sunk in that they were serious about my novel Flight when they started talking to me about the cover. I sat there with this little voice running through my head saying 'I am sitting here with two people asking me whether I had thought about the cover of MY book! OMG! Is this for real?'

You are always told you will have little input on your cover, certainly in the early days, so this took me by surprise. They have been very generous and have asked for my thoughts, which I have given. I will be very excited to see what they come up with. I am sure it will be something brilliant as I love the covers they have produced recently such as Eloise Williams Gaslight, Jennifer Killick's Alex Sparrow and the Really Big Stink and, in particular, the recently announced Hope by Rhian Ivory, so delicate and beautiful colours. Watch this space to see what appears.

As you can see from my piece of art above. I am no artist, but I love art. Artists/illustrators have my total admiration and they should be given a lot more respect, everyone should shout about their work including their work on covers, not just in picture books. I love owning beautiful pictures and photographs too. I can quite easily get lost in them. Making up a story about it. What is happening behind it, around it. Who are the people? Why are they there? What are they doing?

Keep enjoying your book covers, keep reading picture books, love art. Art is for all.

Enjoy this too. Ed Sheeran singing Photograph.






Saturday, 22 July 2017

#MyBookBuzz

If you have been watching Twitter over the last few days you may have noticed the hashtag
#MyBookBuzz flying around. It has been wonderful and caught a lot of people's imagination. It came from the Book Trust who have a fabulous reading scheme called Book Buzz aimed mainly at Year 7s (the closing date to participate was the today the 21st July). #MyBookBuzz caught people's imagination because they were tagging books that had inspired them to be readers or to become writers when they were young. It was wonderful to see the eclectic mix of books that were appearing on Twitter. It was also really hard. Having only 140 characters to list the books that influenced/inspired you was impossible particularly as everytime you saw someone else's tweet you thought 'Oh yes and that one..two...three.' I am blaming Abigail Tanner for this blog post. She encouraged me to write it when I said I couldn't fit them all in. 

As a child, I was a vociferous reader. At times being known to read a book a day. They were my escape. Despite coming from a very large family - I was the youngest of five - there were some quite large age gaps so I had the privilege of having a large family but also spent quite a while as almost an only child. I was very lucky with my sisters and brother doing amazing things though it did mean I spent quite a lot of time on my own. We were forever moving so I never formed any close friendships bar one with whom I am still friends. The books were my friends. Don't get me wrong my childhood was idyllic. I can remember my parents and my sisters reading to me when I was very small. When I was older my eldest sister, who also happened to be one of my godparents, would buy wonderful books for me. I still have the book of poetry she bought me tucked away. Unfortunately, I can't find an image of the book.

The other thing I can remember vividly is being read to at school. Some wonderful stories such as Clive King's Stig of the Dump, Ian Serraillier's The Silver Sword, Nina Bawden's Carrie's War and
Anne Holm's I am David. We would be sat on the carpet at the end of school absolutely enthralled by the stories, hanging on every word. I have just noticed a pattern in the stories I remember the most there and my own story about to be published by Firefly. There is a distinct World War Two theme going on but then both my parents had both lived through it and, my mother, in particular, would regale me with stories of her time as a WRN.

At home, my stories tended to have more of a familiar theme: horses. I was passionate about them. I kept being told that at the next house we would have a paddock and I could have my own. It never materialised lol. This is where I would really live my dreams through my books. I would read Elyne Mitchell's The Silver Brumby series, Mary O'Hara My Friend Flicka and all the stories by the Pullein-Thompson sisters. I would relive the stories in the garden with our poor dog, Henry, who was my pretend horse. He was made to jump various courses I created. Bless him he was very willing and tolerant. I would also devour Edith Nesbit and The Railway Children, Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, and of course, Noel Streatfield with Ballet Shoes. I still dip into it every now and then. 

As I got older I moved on to Daphne Du Maurier. I can also remember vividly reading her book Rule Britannia and taking it into school as my current book. This was before secondary school. Oh so precocious! I then have a confession. I think I at some point I moved onto Jilly Cooper...well she did have horses in it ;-). I adored Gerald Durrell's My Family and Other Animals which I had to study for O'Level (yes I am that old!). It lived with me for a long time.  I was also into D H Lawrence. In the Sixth Form we tormented a poor newly qualified, delicious looking English teacher when we were studying Lawrence's Three Novellas, discussing any potential innuendo in minute detail while we watched him blush. 17-year-olds can be cruel looking back.

Books are a joy. Thinking about this post has brought back so many happy memories. They always say music and smell can take you back to a certain moment in time but I think a book can too. Books can be places of safety to hide in, places to find consolation, to find moments of joy and hope. They are places where you can work out who you are, and just as importantly, who you are not. You can ask questions without being laughed at, seeking and finding the answers time and again without mockery. Books are hugs in a page. They are magical.

How about a little bit of Laura Mvula and 'That's Alright!'