Thursday, 31 March 2011

The Ten Traits of a True Writer

Before I was published, my 'real' job was as a teacher. But my absolute passion was writing. I did it all the time, I thought about it all the time. I even ended up leaving my job for it, and scraping a living with a few part-time jobs so I could indulge my passion as much as possible. I was desperate to be published, and determined that it would happen, and in my heart, I knew that writing was the only thing I'd ever really wanted to do.

And yet I still couldn't call myself a writer.

Why? Because I didn't have a book deal. No one had yet come up to me and said 'I will pay you some money and I will turn your stories into things with covers that people can go into a shop to buy.' As soon as they did say this (obviously not using these exact words, as that would just have been silly) I was released. Finally, I could call myself a writer.

But should it really be like this? Should someone else offering us a contract to sign really be what it takes to define ourselves as writers? I don't think it should. And so, after about ten years of working full time as a writer (YAY! A fact I am still grateful for every day) and observing my own and my fellow writers' habits and psyches, I am today declaring a new way to tell if you really are a true writer. If you can tick off most of the points below, then forget the contract, the books, the're a writer!

1. You possess at least one decent pair of pyjamas and are happy to stay in them for half the day. When the postman knocks on the door with a parcel at midday, and you rush down the stairs, hair askew, PJs and slippers still on, you breathlessly announce, 'I haven't just got up. I've been working since 7, honest,' and even though he doesn't believe you, you don't mind. All you're bothered about is that you can sign his modern electronic thingy as quickly as possible and get back to work.

2. You are addicted to tea, and drink anywhere between five and ten cups a day. At the end of the day, when your partner comes home from work and can't find a cup anywhere, you quietly slip into your office and retrieve the seven cups that are scattered around your desk, abandoned because you were so involved in your work you forgot to take them back to the kitchen. (NB Can be substituted for coffee. The important thing is the 'lots of' and the leaving dirty mugs around the place.)

3. You have a thing about notebooks. Big, small, glittery fairies on the cover or deep-smelling black leather - it doesn't matter. What matters is that you have a whole shelf of them in your cupboard, most of which you will probably never use because you don't want to sully their beautiful smooth clean whiteness.

4. You have a borderline obsession with stationery. You cannot pass a Staples without swerving towards the door. And don't even get me started on Paperchase.

5. While we're on the don't like it when people get 'stationery' and 'stationary' mixed up. Or use apostrophe's when they shouldn't. (Yes, I did put that one in there on purpose. It was a joke. Did you spot it instantly? Good sign!) You have probably at some point in your life either asked to see the manager or defaced a restaurant's menu in the name of good grammar.

6. You like going on lots of holidays are willing to give up your free time for essential research. (Why do you think I was so happy when I realised my second book was set in the Bermuda Triangle...?)

7. You have a good internet connection. This is essential, so that as soon as you switch on your computer to get down to work, you can write lots of emails to your friends, upload your latest pics onto your facebook page, check your amazon sales rankings, write a new blog, read all your favourite blogs, and then tweet about how upset you are that you haven't got any work done yet.

8. You have a good memory. Your first book comes out. There are twenty glowing reviews on Amazon. And then...dun dun DUNNNNNNN.... (that was dramatic music, by the way) someone gives it TWO STARS!! You are spitting with rage. You want to reply. (Just type 'Jacqueline Howett' into Google if you are ever tempted to do this.) Eventually you calm down. But the two star review is the one you never forget.

9. You go round giving people advice like 'always carry a notebook with you', but because you fail to take your own sage advice, you have a drawer full of serviettes, menus and receipts, covered in illegible scrawl - or to put it differently 'the breakthrough idea that is going to propel your book to the top of New York Times bestseller list'. And yes, you will also wonder why you always get your best ideas when you're out having a cuppa with your mum.

10. And OK, I'll get serious then. The final point on your list. You have an over-riding passion for stories and characters and words. Your book is with you constantly. You could be out anywhere, doing anything, and someone will say something that you think sounds cool, and you will want to use it in your next book. You'll bore all of your friends as you ask them to help you come up with a title for a book that they haven't even read yet because you haven't let them (and it isn't actually finished). You can experience any situation - good or bad - and know that nothing is wasted if you're a writer. Everything is inspiration. And even in the quieter times, the 'winter' of your story (see previous blog on the Seasons of Writing!) you know that if you couldn't write, you'd only feel half alive.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Join the Book Chain...

OK, so I’ve had this idea. It was inspired by the wonderful World Book Night that took place a couple of weeks ago, where people gave away stacks of books. It was also inspired by a conversation with fellow author Tracy Alexander at a writers’ weekend. My plan is to give away my own books! You get the book, read it, rate it and pass it on. A bit like a chain letter – only much more fun!

I’ve called it a 'book chain'. (See what I did there? Kind of like ‘chain letter’, except it’s a book. Clever, huh?)

So here’s what happens. We start with me giving away a few books. Luckily, my lovely publishers are providing a few proofs of my new book, A Year Without Autumn, so I can do this. Here's the book...

And here's where you can read a bit more about it if you want to see if you think it sounds like your kind of thing...

A Year Without Autumn

So – I give away a copy of my book to, say, you. Your job is to read it, put your name and age in the back. (The age bit is for me to see who’s enjoying my books and who isn’t, so when people ask what age group my book is aimed at, I can answer much more confidently than I have been up to now!)

Then you give it a star rating, 1 – 5.

Then the exciting bit. You GIVE IT TO SOMEONE ELSE!

Now, I know that this bit will be hard, because obviously you’ll have loved the book SO much, you won’t want to part with it. But hopefully you’ll get an even greater sense of satisfaction from knowing that you took part in the early stages of this ground-breaking experiment. So go on, uncurl your fingertips from the edge of the page, and give it away!

But you have to think carefully about who to give it to. Try to think of someone who you think will enjoy it. Explain to them what they have to do (the instructions will also be written in the book) and point out that when they’ve done all this, they’ll have to pass it on and explain it all to the next person too!

Two things to note!

Thing one: If you liked the book so much that you gave it a top star rating, I would be enormously and forever grateful if you would then go to Amazon and put a review on there too.

Thing two: If you are person number ten to read the book, you have a special task. You have to send the book back to me! After you’ve read the book, email me via my website (the email address will be in the book) to find out how to do this.

So, only one thing remains…

Picking the first person to chain-book!

Would you like it to be you? Well, here’s how to do it! First, you have to have a think and a chat with your friends. Are you confident you could get the book around ten people? Are they people who you trust not to break the chain? Do you think they’ll all love my books so much that every single one will rush to Amazon and give it a five star review?

If you answered yes to all of these (particularly the last one!) (Only joking. Kind of.) simply write a comment at the end of this blog, telling me why I should choose you! (Also tell me which country you’re in as this will affect which book you get. I’m hoping I can send this book out in the US too, but if they haven’t got it yet, I might send you Emily Windsnap and the Siren’s Secret instead, as that’s the latest book out in the states.) I’ll give you a week to do this, and then I will pick THREE winners.

Each winner will have to email me ( with an address to send the book to, and we’ll get the ball rolling. Or the book book-chaining. Or something.

Just to make it even more fun, how about we try to keep tabs on what’s happening with each book? Once I’ve sent the books out, as well as all the millions of instructions I’ve given so far, how about each time you pass it on, you post a comment on my facebook page saying which number person you’re up to. (Can you tell I’m making this up as I go along?) You can find my facebook page here:

So, this all sounds like a complicated nightmare like fun, eh?

One last thing! If you're a writer, why not start a book chain with your books too? If you do, come back and let us know how it goes!

Let's see how far we can spread the chain...

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Trusting the Seasons of Writing

I was on my fourth book, and it wasn’t going well.

There were tears. There was anxiety. And I was pretty sure there was about to be a realisation that the entire 40,000 words I’d already written were completely and utterly rubbish.

‘I think I might have writer’s block,’ I said to a friend.
‘I can’t do this writing lark any more,’ I said to another.
‘How much would it cost me to pay back the advance and go and work in a cafĂ© instead?’ I said to my agent.

And then, luckily, magically, wonderfully, my incessant and probably incredibly annoying whingeing fell on the right ears. Those ears belonged to my good friend and fellow children’s author, Jen Alexander.

‘You’re not blocked; it’s just winter,’ she said.

I looked out of the window. The sun was shining and the flowers were in full bloom.

‘Err…’ I began.

‘Not actual winter, of course,’ she said patiently. ‘Just winter for this particular book.’

If you haven’t met Jen, let me explain. One of the wonderful things about her is that she has this extraordinary knack of seeing things from a new and brilliant angle. It’s as if she finds a light that you hadn’t noticed before and shines it on your problem. Once she’s done that, you suddenly see everything differently, and then you realise that the light had in fact been there all along and you never need to go back to the darkness.

So I got a cup of tea, made myself comfy and listened. Here’s what she told me, and I’m sharing it with you because it is one of the most amazing things anyone has ever told me, and it revolutionised my relationship with writing.

Each book, like each year, has its seasons. It starts with winter. This is the time when we huddle up against the cold, not enjoying it very much. We can’t see much colour, nothing’s in bloom, and we find it hard to believe things will ever be different. At this stage, it’s very easy to panic and think that nothing is happening. But this is when we need to trust. It’s there. It’s happening. We just can’t see it. Under the ground, new life is beginning. In the back of the mind, in the dark recesses we haven’t accessed yet, the idea is slowly, slowly starting to form. So this is when we need to metaphorically snuggle up in front of the fire with a bunch of DVD box sets, and stop worrying about what’s going on outside. Nature is working it all out just fine without our conscious awareness.

Next is spring. This is when tiny shoots begin to appear. A little bit of colour here. A snowdrop there. Spring is the time when the occasional idea pops up. It’s also the time when you have to be careful not to be too heavy-handed with them. You’ll have the urge to leap on every idea and delve into each one. But don’t! You’ll trample your seeds down before they’ve had a chance to fully open. Just keep a notebook handy, scribble down the ideas as they come, and then leave them alone while you go about your business admiring the new scents and sights, and not forcing anything to grow too fast.

And then, the summer. Oh boy. It’s all blooming now. Beautiful fresh flowers bursting out all around you. New scents every day. The world is suddenly ALIVE! This is when the story is flowing so fast you can hardly keep up with it. It's when your partner moans that they never see you, and when you emerge from your study at the end of each day glowing and exhausted. Enjoy!

And then it’s over. The summer has ended. Remember the book that you thought was never going to happen, back in cold December? Guess what? You’ve written it! And now it’s autumn. This is the time to let it all go. Take time out. Let the creative pool lie fallow for a bit (and maybe mix a metaphor or two while you’re at it!) You need this time to let everything lie still to restock and refill. Give yourself a break, congratulate yourself for what you’ve done, and remember to get ready to trust that it WILL all happen again…

My eighth book, A Year Without Autumn, is about to come out. Maybe it was thinking about this book, and in particular its title, that made me want to share this theory now.

Or maybe it’s the fact that it completely transformed my feelings about writing, and turned me into the happy, trusting and much more confident writer that I am today.

I don’t know which of these it was, and it doesn’t matter. What matters much more to me is simply the act of sharing it – and the hope that perhaps it might do something similar for someone else out there who is struggling in the depths of winter.

Thank you, Jen. You are as special as the first snowdrop of spring.