No right to be published.

Where we meet - photo by CrunchCandy

Today ( Thursday the 21st July) was one of the periodic meetings of the SCBWI Chichester twig. We were a mixed bunch: Penny already published, Kathy agented, me with a shiny new Post Graduate Diploma and Neil right at the beginning of his journey. One thing we have in common: we want people to read our work – otherwise we are sending words into the void.

The purpose of our little group, as I see it, is fairly straightforward: mutual support. There is a great sense of energy, which I find particularly stimulating, and plenty of encouragement.

Let’s look at that last word: encouragement. It’s not a blanket ‘there, there, dear, everything you write is lovely and it’ll soon be published’. It means inspiring with valour, the brave spirit in your heart. Going by some of the posts I’ve read about the state of publishing,  we all need valour. We need valour to put our work out there, we need valour to revise it for the umptieth time, we need valour to deal with the rejections which are an inevitable part of our chosen path.

This is where the wider pool of SCBWI -BI and our other writer-support networks come in. We need the on-line stimulus; the face-to -face honesty of critique meets; the CPD of conferences, workshops and retreats. It’s good to know there are others on our side, others who have made it in one way or another, others who can help.

But all this only works if we can give and take in the right spirit. If we are open to analytical and purposeful criticism, if we take care how we handle our colleagues’ feelings, then we will grow as a group. And that nurturing, which may include some pretty tough love at times, will help us all along the road. It will not guarantee a print run. That’s down to us and fate.

I’ll finish with a quotation from Thomas Edison (thank you R. J. Ellory)

‘Many of life’s failures are people who did not realise how close they were to success when they gave up.’

Our job is to keep our pals going.

Three for tea

Today was the inaugural meeting of Chi-SCBWI ( Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators – Chichester Branch – or more of a twig). Present were the ever busy and talented Kathryn Evans; published author, Chichester Creative Writing MA graduate and kindly cat carer Penelope Bush; and me. Due to a car disaster, the amazingly prolific Elizabeth Dale was there only in spirit this time.

Our venue was St Martin’s Organic Tearooms. I had never been in this ancient and frankly eccentric building before. Being early, I spent a few happy moments on the rickety staircases and across the amiably sagging floors just looking. It was delightfully quirky: individual and inspiring.

My colleagues arrived. They rather suited the building – distinctive and wonderfully themselves . One published (big in Germany, I believe), one agented and me the one setting out: yet all of us with something in common. We discussed our aims for the group – social, supportive  and a safe place to let off steam. Despite our different lives, we were all aware of the potential isolation of our craft.

OK nowadays we have Twitter and Facebook and all that stuff yet it is all too easy to dwell on things, to imagine, to read subtext in emails that just isn’t there. But face-to-face – lovely.  Genuine warmth and hugs and gentle lifts of the eyebrows that convey so much – and oh-so-endearing moments of uncertainty and mutual support. Not pushing a brand or a self-promotion opportunity. Great – energetic people are energising.

More of the same please- 10 am Thursday 21st July, St Martin’s Tearooms, St Martin’s Street Chichester – love to see more artists and illustrators there.

Books to build upon

First off, let me not claim any form of originality. It all probably started with my fab friend Dave Cousin’s Festive Fifteen  (well worth a look) – which then inspired the lovely Candy Gourlay. She wrote more about the longer term influences on her work – and so did the inspiring Keren David. Another couple of my favourite blogsters took up the baton – Nicky Schmidt and Kathryn Evans ( just because they’re yummy and my friends doesn’t mean I’d link unless they had something worth saying!)

My slant comes from a quotation passed round the  British SCBWI yahoo group – courtesy of the aforementioned Candy Gourlay:

In the movie You’ve Got Mail, the Meg Ryan character sums it up beautifully when she explained what her mum, an independent bookseller vs a discounting chain did:

“It wasn’t that she was just selling books, she was helping people become who they were going to be. When you read a book as a child, it becomes part of your identity in a way that no other reading does.”

So I had a good think about ten books that could make me the writer I aspire to be.

  • ‘The Lord of the Rings’  by JRR Tolkien. This is terribly nerdy, not one you should admit to if you want to be taken seriously. I was allowed to read this ‘under the counter’ by a sympathetic librarian when I had finished all the children’s books in our little local library. Inside the plain dark covers I found such grandeur, such terror and beauty – not to mention a shieldmaiden and maps! This makes me want to write about big things.
  • ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ by CS Lewis  – in fact all the Narnia books. I loved the gloomy heroism of Puddleglum, Lucy’s innocence , the gallantry of Reepicheep and the redemption of  Eustace the dragon. All these inspire me to show loveable, fickle humane characters – I hope.
  • ‘The Water Babies’ Charles Kingsley – unabridged version! I was moved by Tom’s plight as a chimney sweep, delighted by his underwater adventures and terrified by Mrs Be-done-by-as-you-did. I should love to convey the sheer wonder of life that Kingsley does at his best, and to have that certainty of purpose shine through.
  • ‘The Children of Green Knowe’ by L.M. Boston. Oh, how I identified with the lonely Tolly so wanting brothers and sisters and finding that he had friendly ghost family. I have a prized letter from Mrs Boston and I have had the joy of visting Hemingford Grey. Her work is imbued with a great sense of place and its history – I aspire to that too.
  • ‘The Ghosts’ by Antonia Barber ( re issued as ‘The Amazing Mr Blunden’ after the film). I love ghost stories of any stripe -but this had such a sense of regret, of someone wanting to put things right (a little like ‘A Christmas Carol’) that  I loved it. I’d like the sense of compasssion from this.
  • ‘The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tiler’ by Gene Kemp. Spoiler Alert I was utterly thrilled by the undisclosed protagonist turning out to be a girl ( this was the Seventies) – I am still very, very interested in gender ascribed roles. I would still love to write a book where the protagonist might be male or female – and leave it to the reader to decide. Not a chance of getting published though – they wouldn’t know which shelves to put it on – or whether it should be black or pink.
  • ‘His Dark Materials’ by Philip Pullman. Here, more recently, I found another world of big ideas – and Lyra Belaqua, what a heroine! I also have a soft spot for Lila in ‘The Firework Maker’s Daughter’. Unsurprisingly, I want to give my female characters room to express their courage and talents.
  • ‘A Hat full of Sky’ by Terry Pratchett. Tiffany Aching had to make an entrance, didn’t she? All the books with the witches in are brilliant, and Susan Sto Helit , and… and… Bother it – bung in all of Discworld. The man’s a genius and won’t be properly recognised by the-literary-powers-that-be because he has committed the ultimate crime of … being popular. People read him and laugh and so he can’t possibly be any good, can he? Well, if I could have a smidgeon of Sir Terry’s observation and good sense to sprinkle on my work, I’d be very pleased.
  • ‘Moonfleet’ by J. Meade Faulkner. An oldie but a goodie – this was read to our class way back in the Seventies and had us absolutely gripped with smuggling, diamonds, secret codes  and splintering coffins. I love derring-do – and I would love to grab my readers by the imagination like that did. Of course, it’s melodramatic and overblown and often sentimental – but then again, so am I.
  • ‘Kit’s Wilderness’  or anything else by David Almond. I’ve only read his work relatively recently – and I have been enthralled by his voice. It has such a sense of place, of his local character, without being off-putting. I was so heartened to read a regional voice that wasn’t clichéd – and got published. I have to be true to my roots too.

What would you like to suffuse from the books you love into the books you write?


This week’s whingeing


So why did what should have been a brilliant day for any normal person leave me in tears?

Lovely weather and a barbecue on the beach with a tripod cooking apparatus by Heath Robinson out of Bewitched! Delightful people: Anita Loughrey, Kathryn Evans and Candy Gourlay and then Hanna the Hungarian, plus a batch of assorted great kids. Even a bit of a splosh in the rather refreshing sea. Couldn’t fault it. So how come I felt so low?

The usual suspects: my innate sense of inadequacy and general patheticness. ( Told you you’d want to slap me.)

These are real people persons – oozing genuine warmth and affection for their children. Something of a contrast to my parenting skills. Gorgeous high-achieving but unspoiled offspring. I try to brazen it out about my lot – not an  ‘A’ level among them and me a teacher. Ho ho ho. No one is amused.

 I’m also shaken by their general talent and interestingness:

  • Candy – superb photographer, website designer and published author

  • Kathryn – brilliant blogger, belly dancing  beauty and funny farmer -with an agent

  •  Anita – witty, pretty and much published – I’ve even used her resources, for goodness’ sake…

Me. Mmmm. I have life on a plate and I still can’t get my act together.

I feel at sea with people  – I don’t get out very often. I try to tell a tale in ordinary conversation  but it falls away. People talk about something else because I’m boring. Or I miss the moment and an anecdote that might have been relevant becomes pointless. I try to be assertive: I just sound rude and pushy. What chance have I got at self-promotion in a hostile or indifferent marketplace when I can’t manage to get myself across in such a supportive environment?

Let me be quite clear I am not fishing for compliments, dear friends who read this. (Though, if you insist…) I’m just attempting to be honest in the faint hopes it might help

  1. me
  2. others who feel the same
  3. normal people to  understand us oddballs

‘The proper study of mankind is man’, Alexander Pope wrote. Well,  I think I might just have  a CSE in it.  Not brilliant when character is all important to a fiction writer. I expect I must be somewhere on the Asperger’s continuum – and so must Eeeyore and Puddleglum.

Reproduction of an original picture of Puddleglum by Illustrator Pauline Baynes

“Speaking as an outsider, what do you make of the human race?” as  our Dawn, my best friend, put it.

Brand New

or How to Get Noticed.

“…a prepossessing personality in an author is a great asset… “How to Get An Agent” by Philippa Milnes-Smith in  2010 A& C Black.

OK seems a good idea. I’d better get one. Let’s start off with interesting interests.

  1. Take up Belly Dancing like the  lovely Kathryn Evans. I suspect in my case the video would make people think of school blancmange and the little ditty beginning ‘Jelly on the plate…”
  2. Develop a musical talent – pace Jon Mayhew and his mandolin. I’m not sure three notes on the descant recorder’s really going to hack it on YouTube.
  3. Get clever with a puppet. Oh to work with the wonderful Woofy like Sue Eves. My poor old teddy has a squished nose where I used to stand on him to get at the book shelves. I don’t think he’s up to it.

Righto – how about developing a distinctive appearance?

  1. Grow a splendiferous beard like the lovely Mr Philip Ardagh. I do have the precedent of a fine hirsute lady relative but I lack the gravitas to pull it off, I fear.
  2. Sport magnificent and intriguing tattoos such as embellish Saviour Pirotta. Perhaps not. I never even liked peeling off the backing on the transfers as a child  – and it took me till I was 21 to get my ears pierced. Once.
  3. Become an all-round style icon like Sarah McIntyre of the Funky Glasses. Touch tricky for an unconstructed hippy, although I am quite good at dressing up. That’s if you count making a small tot cry when dressed up as a witch or having my picture labelled as a hobbit in the local paper when I thought I was Arwen Evenstar.

What about me? Perhaps I need to have a remarkable background.

  1.  Start at an interesting point in your life. Catherine Webb was only14 when first published ( I’m not sure that the ‘A Wet Windy Day in Wakefield’ featured in the Wakefield Express at 11 counts) and Mary Wesley started at 71.  I am 49 – ‘neither nowt nor summat ‘- as they say where I come from.
  2. Come from an intriguing culture. Candy Gourlay, that  fascinating Filipina, uses hers wonderfully in’ Tall Story’. Miriam Halahmy (what a cool name) has an Iraqi husband and all manner of family to call upon. Me – Wakefield in the Rhubarb Triangle of Yorkshire. Not the same, is it?

Oh dear. Perhaps I could hide behind other enticements?

  1. Bring out marketing goodies – let me see – a plush cuddly Giant Moray Eel? A wind-up Dave the Disastrous Diver: guaranteed to ruin any bathtime? Model of the Sinai Emperor – watch as it breaks up and sinks! Just not going to go with a Happy Meal.
  2. Feature really cool concepts. Oh dear,  I can’t nick off with  Sarwat Chadda’s kick-ass heroines and Templars or Nick Cross’s zombies. They wouldn’t all fit on my dive boat. Certainly not together.
  3. Promote Important Messages. Somehow “Don’t steal Ancient Egyptian artefacts, it will all end in tears” hasn’t got the moral integrityand pithyness of say The Lorax. Maybe ‘Be nice to fishes’. I could wear a badge. A very big badge.

I give up. I’ll just have to take a leaf out of all these brilliant people’s books  – and just write really, really well. And be myself.