Category Archives: Writing

What you are

Unless I believe that it would be better – for insurance purposes, say (I have heard that writers are riskier people) – not to be a writer, I now have the temerity to call me a writer. I have done for some time.

Don’t misunderstand me; I don’t go round daily patting me on the back, crowing over how wonderful I am. But the whole idea came back to me when reading the thoughts of Jackie Morris in the comments section of my interview with her Australian colleague Shaun Tan yesterday. (For some inexplicable reason WordPress have removed the comments from the right hand bar on the Bookwitch home page, meaning browsing guests won’t immediately find it.)

Jackie wants to be seen as an artist, not only an illustrator. She is right. She is entitled to want to be seen as one, and I reckon she definitely is an artist. I suppose I don’t feel that to be an illustrator is bad either, but I know what Jackie means. Shaun is a modest man, but he is obviously also an artist.

What you are has little to do with whether you earn money from doing what you want to be. I write every day. Hence I am a writer. I don’t have to be chosen by anyone to say that. Not by a publisher. Not even by readers.

When I was younger I always wanted to be a writer. I also wanted to be bilingual; and guess what! I am. It doesn’t mean a person is 100% perfect at two or more languages. It means that someone uses those languages in their daily life. It probably doesn’t mean you are 50% in both, or 30/70. Most of us are likely to be 150% when both languages are taken together. Perhaps. Good. Adequate.

(For obvious reasons I don’t generally think of myself as a dishwasher-filler. But I’d be entitled to, unless ten minutes a day is too brief for name-calling.)

Peddling that pallet

The palate is smaller than a palette. Well, usually, anyway. Some of us have big mouths, or possibly just favour tiny art equipment. A pallet is bigger than the other two. People make coffee tables out of them.

I make many mistakes, and often, but recently I have had to grind my teeth (close to the palate) when seeing these words used freely to mean any of the three possibles. Do authors have problems with their palettes, or is it the editors?

Some years ago I tried to be helpful, so wrote to one of the large publishing houses to suggest that when they – inevitably – came to reprinting the rather successful book I had just read, they might want to change that palate into a palette. If only to continue teaching young readers what’s correct.

As thanks for my efforts they sent me a copy of another bestselling novel they published. I suppose they took me to be 14…

Of the three words, I never use a palette. Physically, I mean. My palate is in daily use, and I can’t help but quite fancy a weather-beaten pallet – on wheels – on which to rest my mug of tea and current book. But that may well remain a dream.

And dreams are good. We don’t have to have everything. Besides, I strongly suspect pallets are too large for our smaller size house. (Doesn’t prevent me looking hopefully round the beach to see if one has happened to wash up and is waiting to be adopted by me.)

Then there is the peddling. Of bikes. I actually don’t believe I have come across any fictional bikes being pedalled. So on the basis that if common use of something continues for long enough, it becomes the norm, I guess that peddled bikes will soon be the ones ridden, and not those sold.

Apologies for being a grumpy old so-and-so. I’m a profligate complainer, I am.

(I contemplated borrowing an image of a palette for illustration purposes here. I found a worrying number of pallets…)

(And I have proof read this post more than most, and found umpteen mistakes. Did I catch all of them?)

Newbies no more

I was thinking when compiling my best of 2014 list the other day, how fast authors ‘grow up.’ In February 2007 when I started this Bookwitchery business around half of the people on that list were not published authors.

Michelle Magorian has been at it for a long time now, although she is not the little old lady she was expected to be even back in the 1980s. Carl Hiaasen has written for a while, too. Eoin Colfer, sort of. And as I said, many had not been published.

It’s rather nice how fast you can grow fond of someone’s writing, and how quickly you find you have read half a dozen books by some ‘newbie.’ Yeah, it’d be easier if they were published more slowly, both for me and for them.

Being approached by a facebook friend/acquaintance who is about to see their first novel being born is worrying stuff. Impossible to say no, and I wouldn’t want to. But what to say if it turns out they are no good?

As this year’s list proves, there isn’t too much cause for concern. Lack of time is bad, but I rarely come across anyone who has written a dreadful book.

Thinking ahead, I wonder who I will be admiring in 2021? Someone with their first book coming next year, maybe, who I have yet to hear about.

Bookwitch bites #129

You saw this already, didn’t you? The world needs more books. The world needs more Madisons, too. And Little Free Libraries.

So much enthusiasm from one articulate little girl!

Good news this week for Kathryn Evans; who has been writing a book ‘ for some time.’ She has a publishing deal with Usborne, for her debut YA novel More of Me (although we have to wait until 2016 before we can read it), which sounds truly different. I seem to know some people who have read the manuscript, and I trust them when they say it’s good.

And, in time for today’s Lucia celebrations, here are my ginger biscuit pigs, which finally have seen the light of day, or at least experienced the heat of the oven. Before I eat them…

The 2014 ginger biscuits

Rachel Hamilton – runner up

When I noticed a photo of three people in the Emirates Lit Fest email, I decided to take a closer look, on the off-chance that I’d know one of them. And I did! The two men I have no idea who they are, but the lady on the right was Rachel ‘Exploding Loos’ Hamilton. It seemed she had been at the festival, and that she’d been runner up in their writing competition. I didn’t know that! I thought Rachel ‘just’ wrote amusing books about exploding portaloos.

Which is not a bad thing. We need books like that, and she does it so well. But anyway, I immediately emailed her to demand a blog post explaining her past, her runner up status and anything else interesting. Because if it’s one thing I’ve learned, it is that exploding loos authors can be pretty entertaining on almost any subject:

Rachel Hamilton

“I’m Rachel Hamilton, author of The Case of the Exploding Loo a title I’m beginning to regret now people have started to refer to me as the Exploding Toilet Lady!

There I was, minding my exploding toilets, when Bookwitch got in touch to say she’d spotted my name on the author list for the 2015 Emirates Airline Festival of Literature. (A spectacular list, full of kids’ book superstars like Michael Morpurgo, David Walliams, Julia Donaldson, and . . um . . . me!?!). She asked me to write about my journey from struggling scribbler, via literature festivals and exploding toilets, to the wonderful world of published author-hood. How could I refuse a witch? She can do terrible things with that wand.

So here are the steps that helped me create my own Happily Ever After.

I got my family on side early

It’s rubbish to live with an absent-minded author – my daughter tells the story of the day she opened her school lunch box and found a sandwich and a packet of biros. So I try to make up for my frequent lapses into rubbishness by involving my family in the bits of my book journey I think they’ll enjoy. When I did my book tour I asked my drama-loving daughter to come up with a comedy routine to introduce me at each event. My computer-obsessed son helped me organise my website and blog tour. And my husband has been entertaining himself making facebook ads for my book (although he may be fired from my campaign after adding a ‘shop now’ button to the last one and accidentally linking it to the Amazon page for Veet hair removing cream!?). I grab every opportunity to tell my family how much I appreciate their support and dedicated my book to them:

Rachel Hamilton acknowledgement

I kept on writing even when I wasn’t quite sure why.

Rachel Hamilton - footprint 2

I love strange words from other languages. One of my favourites is ‘Sitzfleisch’ (literal translation, seated meat) which means the power to persevere in a sedentary activity – for example, putting your bottom on a seat and keeping it there until you’ve finished your book. I’m proud of my ‘Sitzfleisch’! I’ve heard people liken being a wannabe author to being Wile E Coyote – with obstacles being flung in your path or dropped on you from a great height – but the authors who succeed are the ones who laugh in the face of killer boulders and jagged rocky ravines, and keep on chasing that bird.dream.

I found my ‘voice’

I wasted a lot of my early writing years trying to create books for adults. But, over time it has become clear that my brain never fully matured to adulthood, so writing that kind of book always felt like hard work. It was only when I started making up silly stories for kids that my imagination and my writing really started to take off. Writing become more fun than fun, and people wanted to read what I’d written.

I found brilliant people to play at ‘book writing’ with.

Writing is often described as a solitary profession. Not for me. I drag everyone I know into the creation of my books! I kidnapped my sister Kate and my cousin Chris and forced them to rampage through the Science Museum with me for The Case of the Exploding Brains, setting off alarms as we acted out ways the bad guys might have been able to steal the museum’s moon rock. I lured all my cleverest friends and relatives into helping me solve the science problems that popped up in early drafts of both books. And I regular harass my forensic detective, policeman, explosive expert and prison officer friends to help me with fact checking.

But the most helpful ‘playmates’ of all are my kids and their friends, who act as slightly crazy guinea pigs for early versions of my books. When they laugh, I know that chapter’s a keeper. And when they start poking each other instead of listening, I know that scene has to go. I am also shameless about picking the brains of brilliant fellow children’s authors. The wonderful Tony Bradman was my hero and mentor while writing The Case of the Exploding Loo. The hilarious Tatum Flynn (author of the hellishly funny, D’Evil Diaries) was my brilliant critique partner for The Case of the Exploding Brains. And the marvellous Joe Craig very kindly allowed me to gatecrash one of his school visits to see how the professionals do it.

Rachel Hamilton book covers

I got lucky

Obviously, I think my book is brilliant 😉. But there are thousands of other brilliant books sitting in cupboards or on laptops out there, so I’m very grateful for the chances I’ve been given. I was lucky enough to enter the right competition at the right time – the 2013 Emirates Festival of Literature First Fiction Competition. I didn’t even win, but as I always say (and I do mean ALWAYS, it drives my daughter mad) being runner up didn’t hurt One Direction. My entry caught the eye of the competition judge, Luigi Bonomi, who became my literary agent a couple of weeks later and within a month, he had negotiated a two book deal with Simon & Schuster! Which is why I keep telling everyone (cue: more groans and eye-rolls from my daughter), ‘I couldn’t have written myself a better happy ending.'”

There you are! I like immature people with Sitzfleisch. (And Rachel is right about the wand.)

The Lure of Elizabeth Laird

It might have been a dreich November night, but my route through Edinburgh from Waverley to Blackwell’s took me through the Christmas Market in Princes Street Gardens to the Scottish National Gallery (no I was not lost) and up the hill past the charming St Bookwitch Street and St Bookwitch Cathedral, and slightly down again (such a waste of the uphill!) to my event with Elizabeth Laird. To be perfectly honest, I’d forgotten what it was to be about, but that doesn’t matter when it’s Liz. It will be good. And it was.

The event was for adults, which was lucky, because last night Elizabeth used rather more adult language, if you know what I mean. You also needed to know your Bible well, so I was on slightly shaky ground.

Elizabeth Laird

I was early (no surprise there) so was able to hog a corner of the sofa, and when I remembered I’d forgotten to eat my sandwich on the way, I asked for and was granted permission to eat. There were mainly women in the audience. Perhaps that’s as it should be, since Elizabeth reckoned it was the women in Ethiopia who had the best stories to tell.

She said that she was going to ‘drone on about Ethiopia’ and we should interrupt if necessary. Her book The Lure of the Honeybird, began when Elizabeth returned to Ethiopia in 1996, after thirty years away. There was an encounter with an ‘ant motorway,’ and a farmer telling her a marvellous story about ants.

Elizabeth Laird

Elizabeth promptly forgot how the story went, but she came up with an idea, and she talked to the British Council and demanded a Landrover and an interpreter so she could travel and learn new stories and write two books. This was deemed to be such a good idea that a demand for 24 books was made, and Elizabeth found herself travelling round the mud and the bureaucracy with a driver and an interpreter.

Many of the stories people told her had a lot in common with the Bible. She reckons they didn’t come from that famous book, though, but believes that the Bible most likely borrowed its stories from ancient Ethiopia. The same thing goes for Aesop, who by all accounts cleaned up the story about the hare and the tortoise. And there was a funny story about the beautiful girl who gets married, and the three ridiculous men in her life…

Because the thing is, Elizabeth told us these stories. She didn’t just talk about how she went about finding them, but showed us her photos, described the people she met, and which of them had an interesting story to share. And she can definitely tell a story!

Elizabeth Laird

Was it worth risking the lives of her driver, her interpreter and herself for these stories? Yes, she believes it was. Now. Walking through tall grass with pythons and lions on either side wasn’t quite such fun at the time. Nor was driving along a road where only the day before people had been kidnapped and killed.

When she met a group of naked women, far away from anywhere else, she found it difficult to get them to understand what she wanted to hear, so as an example she told them about Little Red Riding Hood (the unexpurgated version) and they all agreed about the unsuitability of walking alone in the woods, and of talking to the wrong man.

Elizabeth Laird

Elizabeth told us many stories from Ethiopia last night. If you want more you can read The Lure of the Honeybird, or you could try these websites, recently set up by Elizabeth: ethiopianfolktales.com and ethiopianenglishreaders.com. Both have been financed with the help of one of her students from the 1960s, whom she just happened to meet in London one day. He’s now a fund giver, which is nice, since so many of Elizabeth’s other students are dead, having turned revolutionaries while attending university, instead of becoming teachers as they were meant to.

You’ll wish you’d been there. Elizabeth Laird is a fantastic storyteller. And she may well have been scared when out collecting the stories, but it’s only the brave who do this kind of thing, and who don’t mind admitting to being frightened. She’s also a beautiful woman, and I have yet again failed to take photos that do her justice. You will have to take my word for it.

Knowing how

When a friend nudged me and said it was my turn now, it irritated me. She had gone back to school and studied and gained qualifications when her children were about ten or twelve. She was so happy, and I was happy for her, too. But I really didn’t feel like going back to school. This kept irritating me for some time, until I worked out why. I mean, I know I’m lazy, but I also felt I didn’t have the time. Nevertheless, it’s a good thing to do.

It wasn’t until I started thinking about what I’d study, if I did it, that the penny dropped. We were different, my friend and I. And the reason I didn’t actually have to do what she had done, was that I already had a university degree. I know, you can always do more. But she had done nothing before she married and had children, which is why her new education was such a big deal for her. Her assumption was that I was the same.

My reaction proves that you can soon feel inadequate, however. The other weekend I noticed that the Guardian had a couple of courses on offer, that sort of spoke to me. There was a one day course, Secrets of successful blogging, £99. And a two day affair, Blogging for absolute beginners at a staggering £449.

And, I immediately felt I ought to better myself, somehow. I know that I won’t try either course, for cost reasons, and because they are in London. But I’m finding it harder to actually convince myself that I don’t need them.

Which is stupid, since whatever I am, beginner is not it. I just wonder what they teach and why it will take all of two days. And if you are willing to spend nearly half a K on this kind of thing, you either have too much money, or you believe blogging will pay you back. It would be an investment.

That leads me directly to the £99 course. What are the secrets of successful blogging? Are they so secret I’ve never encountered them? And what exactly do they mean by successful blogging? Is it what I do? I sit down and write something and I get it onto WordPress and out into the world it goes.

Do they mean number of readers? If so, at what number are you successful? Does successful merely mean you write well? Or are we back to the expectation that you can make money out of it? Is that successful?

I just don’t know, and with some effort I could be made to feel inadequate enough to tell myself I would benefit from some tuition.