Golden nuggets and reading wings …

As a child, I read and read and read – behind the sofa, on the stairs, in my bed, in the garden, in the bath … I was never far away from a book. My mum often delights in saying, ‘You’ve always loved stories. You were reading fluently in both languages before starting school.’ There were books piled precariously on a bookcase in my bedroom, a cupboard at the bottom of the stairs filled with books that would spill out when the door was opened and a visit to the library was a never-missed weekly event.

It’s strange, but I can remember the first time I bought a book with my own birthday money – Eric Hill’s ‘Where’s Spot?’ I must only have been three or four, but I can remember being in the book shop holding my very own book bought with my very own money and feeling so delightfully happy. I treasured that book for years.

As a mum myself, I’ve read to my boys since they were babies. There are books in their bedrooms and there are shelves of books in the office. We browse around the local Waterstones whenever we go to town, we visit the library and books are always given as Christmas presents.

I’ve shared their excitement when they read their first words independently. My eldest raced through books sent home from school, marvelling at the way he could read by himself. My 4 year-old is now following. It’s such a joy to see their delight at making sense of the words on the page.

So why, oh why, for the past couple of years, my eldest (now 8 years old) has lost his love of reading? I battle night after night to get him to read the books sent from school. What on earth did I do wrong? We’ve chatted about it and the simple answer he gives is, ‘I don’t like reading. The books are too long and take forever to read.’

And that is what has happened. He’s learnt to read and can read well. But faced with a lengthy novel, he won’t even get started. He still enjoys listening to me reading stories to him and I’ll often find him on the laptop writing his own stories.

I’ve fretted and puzzled and worried and despaired over his reluctance to read, and have come to the sad conclusion that I haven’t done anything wrong. Since becoming an independent reader, he hasn’t yet found that one book that has grabbed him, pulled him in and left him wanting more.

There are so many amazing middle-grade books out there that I would love for him to read, but he’s just not ready to tackle them right now. For him, he’s not thinking about the story hidden within the pages, he’s simply taking one look at the book and groaning because it’s going to take him ages to read. So the book gets left and he picks up his football magazine (which is great, of course, as he’s still reading).

In terms of fiction, he’s at that inbetween stage – beyond early readers but not ready to tackle a full length novel. He still loves and wants a story that’s full of adventure and thrills, but one that he can manage in a short length of time and doesn’t look over-challenging just in terms of its length.

And that is why, for me, books for young middle-grade (7-9 years) are so important. I have often been told that books for this age-group don’t hold the same kudos as older middle-grade. They are not eligible for many of the prestigious awards out there. They’re just kind of in the middle.

That saddens me. As a Primary School teacher, I’ve seen children, like my own son, lose all interest in reading when they reach this age. And sadly, many of them are boys. I get told daily in my job, ‘Reading’s boring, I hate reading.’ Yet these same pupils are the ones who listen to me reading a story and ask, ‘When can we have the next chapter?’

I strongly believe that young middle-grade stories are the books that can grab the independent reader and develop that love of and excitement for stories so that they transgress naturally to longer length middle-grade. They are the stepping stone to ensuring a child becomes a reader for life.

When I wrote my first book, I didn’t have a target age-group in mind. I wrote the story that was bubbling away in my head, the story that excited me and made me pine to be at the laptop. As it happens, it is a story that will be marketed as young middle-grade. And I am thrilled about this. My publishers, Firefly Press, have developed a series of books for this age-group – their Dragonfly books. They have so many wonderful titles in the series already by amazing authors (Wendy Meddour, Dan Anthony, Shoo Rayner, Malachy Doyle, Eloise Williams, Sarah Todd Taylor and Laura Sheldon). Firefly Press state that ‘Dragonfly books are scary, exciting, funny and fantastical adventures.’ And that’s exactly what they are – perfect for the young independent reader who wants a digestible read.

You can find out more about these fabulous books here – http://www.fireflypress.co.uk/dragonfly

Of course, slotting books into specific age-groups doesn’t and shouldn’t confine them to that particular group. I was thrilled when an early draft of my book was read and I was told that the reader’s 11 year-old daughter loved it. And of course there are children who have a love of reading right from the onset. I love seeing the pupil in class who sits reading at every opportunity and struggles to put the book away when it’s time to work. These are readers who can read a full length middle-grade novel from a young age and that’s fantastic. These readers also pick up slightly shorter books, picture books, any book because they love stories.

But for every one of these readers, there are a couple of reluctant readers. The ones who don’t struggle to read, but simply lose heart at the sight of a long book, yet find ‘simple’ stories ‘boring’. The ones who have turned away from reading and who, unless they’re caught, will lose out on all those amazing books that are there for them. They will lose out on one of life’s greatest pleasures.

I am determined not to let this happen to my son. It is my mission to find him the book that will pull him right in and never release him. I will hunt in bookshops and browse in the library until I find that golden nugget. I feel certain that it will be an ‘early middle-grade’ book that will give him his reading wings so that he can soar towards the amazing middle-grade books that are waiting patiently for him.

Happy writing,

Hwyl am y tro x

 

 

 

 

 

From a spark to a story … a writer’s journey

When a story begins to bubble and brew, whether it’s a children’s book, a short story or a piece of flash fiction, I find myself drifting off as vivid images flash in my mind, sparks igniting. I’ll pause mid-sentence in conversation as an idea flutters and I try to grab it before it disappears, then apologise to whoever I’m talking to as I lose track of the thread of our chat. I might be washing up or sorting piles of washing and suddenly realise that minutes have lapsed as I’ve stared vacantly into space. I can’t schedule these flurries of inspiration, they strike when I’m least expecting.

When I started writing, I read a lot of discussions about whether it’s best to be a ‘plotter’ or a ‘pantser’. I guess I fall somewhere in the middle.

A story will come to me first in the shape of a character. Sometimes it’s a name, sometimes it’s an image. The first short story I wrote as an adult, Waiting for Light, is loosely based on my own childhood – images, feelings and snippets of conversation that were lurking in the recesses of my brain from years ago. I didn’t plot a story, it was just there, pieced together from fragments of memories, waiting to be told.

My debut children’s book came to me as the name of my main character, Grace-Ella. I had no idea who she was, other than she was 9 years old and lived at Number 32, Ty Mynydd Close. Once she made her appearance, her story grew and I began to write. I wasn’t completely directionless, but I did let the story flow by itself and take shape. This did mean a lot of sitting at the laptop and waiting to see what would come next. Thankfully, the waiting wasn’t too painful as I fell in love with Grace-Ella and the story flew fairly freely. When I’d sit at the laptop, I’d feel the excitement grow as I wrote. I didn’t think about what I would do with the story once it was finished, I just enjoyed writing it.

My current WIP also began life as the main character. I had a sketchy idea of the story and I knew how it was going to end, but I had no real notion of how that ending would be reached. I let my characters tell their own story. When they encounter a problem, I’m there right next to them. I don’t know how they’ll react to or overcome the problem until we’re there, in the moment. I can’t plan it for them until I’m feeling it with them, at that precise moment in time.

When I have tried to make notes and chapter outlines and story arcs and plotting post-its, I’ve found myself stumbling about, like I’m trying to get out of a murky mist. My characters don’t do what I planned for them to do and the story goes off on a completely different tangent,  which makes me incredibly nervous and panicky and I start shouting, ‘No, that’s not what’s meant to happen. Look, post-it 37 says you do this.’

I used to worry that unless I was plotting, I wasn’t being a serious writer, but it just doesn’t work for me. And it’s been such a relief to read about other authors who also skip the plotting stage and dive right in. Perhaps it’s because in my everyday life I need order and routine, schedules and lists, to function. When things don’t go to plan, I get incredibly stressed out. So maybe that’s why, when I write, I don’t worry too much about what might happen. I don’t sit facing neat rows of colour co-coordinated post-its as I do with my teaching work. I allow myself to relax and let the words flow. I let my characters take me on their journey. That’s why I love writing. That’s what pulls me out of bed at 5am on a cold, dark winter morning. I want to know what happens next in my story. And if I want to know what happens next, hopefully someone else will too.

When a character comes knocking with a story to be told, I sit and wait patiently for the tale to unfold.

How about you? Are you a plotter or do you dive right in? I’d love to know.

Happy writing,

Hwyl am y tro x

Why I Write

When I first told those close to me that I was writing a book, I had some funny looks and a lot of ‘Why? It’s not like you could ever be J K Rowling.’

Ahhh! Why? Why is that comparison always made? Why do people think that any writer would be so deluded to think that they could ever step up to J K’s success?

Anyway, I ignored said comments and wrote my first book.

‘When did you find the time to do that?’ they asked.

‘Oh, I got up at 5 every morning to write for a couple of hours before work,’ I’d say.

‘Are you mad?’ was the general reply.

They couldn’t understand how on earth, or more importantly, why on earth, I would do that. Why would I set my alarm for 4.30am just to write? I mean, I was never going to make money from it, was I?

To me, it’s simple. Those two hours when the house is sleeping and I sit cupping a mug of coffee at the laptop are bliss. My mind is focussed and the words flow freely.

‘You must be so tired,’ they say to me.

Bloody exhausted to be honest! I teach and I have three boys to raise. Even without writing I’d be worn out. But since realising a few years ago that writing was missing from my life, my fingers twitch to be on the laptop. I have to write something every day. Writing is a part of me and I need to do it, almost as much as I need to eat. Sounds daft I know, unless you’re a writer and you’ll understand. If I don’t write, I get fidgety and anxious. I start to panic. My brain starts bouncing around in a fizzing frenzy. I have to write to clear my head, to switch off from real life.

‘You could spend years writing and never get published,’ they said to me.

Yes, and I could spend years not writing and never get published. Yes, writing is hard work. Frustratingly and tear-inducing so at times. Some days it fills me with self-doubt and leaves me sobbing with my head in my hands. But it also excites me. When the words flow, my heart races, my fingers dance over the keyboard (well, more of a slow waltz as I’m not the fastest typist).

A good writing day leaves me filled with a happy calm. When success comes – whether it’s being placed in a writing competition, or someone commenting that they’ve enjoyed reading my blog or actually getting ‘that’ e-mail, I float around for days, an inane smile etched permanently on my face. I’m doing something I love and someone else thinks it’s pretty ok too – nothing compares to that feeling.

My dream, like every other writer, is to be able to write full-time. To have time to write all the stories that bubble and brew in my head. They say writing is lonely work, but other than when I’m with my boys, being alone with my words is when I’m at my happiest. Maybe that’s just me. I like being by myself. And how could I ever feel lonely when I have my imagination with me? And not forgetting twitter! I have ‘met’ so many amazing like-minded people through the twitter writing community.

So for those who asked why, this is the answer. This is why I write. I don’t mind being perpetually tired with dark circles under my eyes. I’ll put up with those horrible moments when I’m crippled with self-doubt. Because writing makes me happy. Writing gives me my equilibrium. When I’m at my laptop I forget about the stresses of every day life. I drift off to another world, another place and time. Because writing is me.

Happy writing,

Hwyl am y tro x

On the road to publication – what have I learnt?

It’s NaNoWriMo and I take my hat off to all the writers who are participating in this writing frenzy. I couldn’t do it. The thought terrifies me. Once I pile on the pressure, my writing just doesn’t happen. I’m not one of these who can write anything just to get the words down – I wish I was. So whilst I sit in awe of those who have stepped up to the challenge, I’ve been thinking about my own writing and how my views have changed since I re-discovered writing three years ago.

  1. I need a writing qualification to be a ‘proper’ writer – this is what I thought when I decided that I wanted to write ‘seriously’. I started researching courses and my heart sank a little more with each one I found. I just couldn’t afford them. So I decided I’d just have to write anyway. And just by writing, I have learnt so much about my own writing style, because as everyone says, work at your craft and you’ll get better. The more you write, the better you’ll get at it.
  2. I have to follow trends – I spent hours browsing my local Waterstones to see what was current. I read books in the genre I wanted to write. Yet nothing was really happening with my own writing. I was just flitting dispassionately from one idea to another. And that’s when I said to myself, this is stupid. These are other people’s stories, told in their own special way. If I want to be a writer, I need to tell my own story. So I stopped thinking about which genre or age-range I’d write for and just waited for my own story to grow. Within days, the name ‘Grace-Ella’ had leapt at me and so my story began. I didn’t think about where it was going to fit, I just had a story that I wanted to write. When I met my editor for the first time, she said, ‘It is so clear from your writing that you’ve loved writing it. That’s how a story should be written.’ Wise words. I mean, if I don’t enjoy writing a story, I’m certain that no one will enjoy reading it. So yes, I do think that you need to keep an eye on the market, but ultimately, write the story that you want to write. Write the story that gets you excited. Write the story that you love.
  3. I have to write every day – this used to make me panic. I had a job and children, how was I ever going to be able to fit writing in? And like I said at the start, I’m not a writer who can just get the words down. If they don’t feel right, I just can’t write them. This I found really difficult to begin with. I had to write every day but if inspiration wasn’t there, I’d sit staring miserably at a blank screen. Then I finally found a way through this. I wrote something completely different. I would leave my WIP and write a short story or a piece of flash fiction. It works for me. It clears headspace for the words to start flowing again and I can get back to my WIP with renewed vigour.
  4. I have to let others see my work – this terrified me. I didn’t want to show my work to anyone close to me. I looked into critique services and once again, saw that I couldn’t afford them. So, I could have continued to write and keep everything locked away for my eyes only, or I could send my work ‘out there’. The first step I took was entering a short story in a competition. I entered Writers’ Forum’s monthly contest and paid a small fee to have it critiqued (£3). It was the boost I needed and gave me the confidence to enter a few more competitions. I believe that doing this really does help prepare you for submitting to agents/publishers – it certainly did for me. I then discovered a critique service offered to unpublished writers in Wales, by Literature Wales. The feedback I received for my debut book was invaluable and I strongly recommend this service. Now that I’m a ‘published’ writer, I can no longer use this service, but I am now being mentored through the WoMentoring Project – http://womentoringproject.co.uk/ – another fantastic opportunity for writers who can’t afford the crippling high fees of critique services. My current WIP is now in the hands of my mentor.
  5. I’ll never get published – the more I read about publishing and author rejections, the more downhearted I became. It was virtually impossible to get published. But then I thought, well I love writing, so I’ve got nothing to lose. I wrote my first children’s book and buoyed up by competition wins with my short stories and fully prepared for rejection, I sent it off to Firefly Press. And whilst I waited for the polite rejection e-mail I let myself feel proud that I’d written a book. A book that I had enjoyed every second of writing. And if it never went any further than the screen of my laptop, I had still achieved something that I never thought I would. Well, as those of you who know me already, the polite rejection e-mail never came. What pinged into my inbox was the start of my dream come true. Firefly Press loved my story.

And that’s what I’ve learnt on my writing journey so far. I didn’t need a writing qualification, I wrote the story that I wanted to write without getting hung up about which age-group it was for or whether there was a place for it in the current market. I simply wrote a story I loved. I swallowed my fear of rejection and sent it off. And the ending of the story? I got my first publishing deal. If I can do it, so can you.

Happy writing,

Hwyl am y tro x