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Thursday, 28 February 2013

The Gift of Happiness

Last weekend there was a report in the paper about money buying you happiness. A poll by Gallup has found that those who spend money on others are happier than when treating themselves. Even factors such as income and social support did not alter the feelgood factor. I'm sure that I'm not the best present buyer in the world but I do enjoy the process. I love the thinking about the right thing or browsing around and seeing something which you think will be perfect for a friend or relative. I love the wrapping too. All that beautiful paper to choose from and those rosettes and ribbons. It's such fun and it does make me feel good.

Some people are really good at gifts. My aunt was one of those people. She always bought just the right thing and it didn't have to be for a birthday or at Christmas. When I was sent away to boarding school at the age of 11 she bought me a 5 year diary. I still have that diary. Here it is.

It had a lock and a key so that I could be sure my thoughts were private. I don't open it any more. There is sadness trapped between those tear-stained pages but I keep it because it reminds me that I survived one of the most difficult periods of my life.  Being able to write about how I was feeling, my bewilderment, despair, the loss of my freedom was, I believe, hugely helpful in helping me through. By spelling my emotions out on the page I could, in a very small way, hang on to who I was. I still write a diary but it is a lot happier now!

During the time I was away at school one of our dogs was knocked over by a lorry which swerved off the road and on to the grass verge where he was sitting. Despite the vet's efforts Caesar had to be put down. The following weekend my Aunt and Uncle made the long journey to visit me at school. They took me out for lunch and while we were sitting at the table my beloved aunt gave me a little box, beautifully wrapped and tied with ribbon. And this is what was in it.

I shall never ever part with this Beswick spaniel. It could have been modelled on Caesar and is one of my most precious possessions.

The thing about gifts is they don't have to cost much. A bunch of flowers is lovely and I have
a dear friend who is always buying people flowers, lovely big bunches for the smallest of favours such as feeding her cat for a day or two.

These freesias were an unexpected Valentine's Day gift from my husband - he can still surprise me after all these years!

But some of the best gifts of all are those which don't cost anything; a smile, a compliment, a hug, a word of encouragement, sharing a recipe, lending a favourite book, taking a cutting from a plant, chatting with an elderly person in the supermarket queue and of course the giving of our time. These are are all precious gifts which can make such a difference to someone's day. To give a reflexology treatment is a real privilige and to be able to share that connection through a client's feet is a gift for me and I hope for them too. As a writer there is nothing better than a letter from a child saying they have enjoyed your book - that is a gift shared.

So this week I shall try to adhere to the words of the Jimmy Durante song 'Make Someone Happy and You'll Be Happy Too'.

Thank-you for reading and I hope you have a happy week.

Saturday, 23 February 2013

Do I need an agent?

A couple of weeks ago I went to a blogging meeting in London where I met Vivienne Dacosta who blogs as Serendipity Reviews. When Vivienne found out I was unagented she asked me to give her a quote for a blog which she posted a couple of days ago. This is what I said:-

 "Sometimes I think that I would like an agent and sometimes I think that I am better off on my own.I like to know where my work has been sent to and how long it has been there. I like the freedom to write what I want to write and not to feel the pressure of having to write something for an agent. On the other hand if I had an agent who was getting me commissions that would be lovely too."

There is no doubt that there can be huge benefits in having an agent, someone on your side to do all of the negotiating with publishers, sort out foreign rights, t.v. and film deals etc. etc. But if you are one of those people who has tried to get an agent and failed do not despair. You are not alone and just because you don't have an agent it doesn't meant that your dream of being published cannot be realised.

My first book, Ghost Riders, was sent as an unsolicited manuscript. As was my first work of young fiction, Witch Wendy Cats and Hats.

 After Ghost Riders was accepted I dipped my toe into the agent waters and was given short shrift by one agent in particular. I must have mentioned that I'd sent something to Random House because she told me in no uncertain terms not to bother with them and that I'd never get anything accepted by that particular publishing house. Now I have plenty of faults, as my family will confirm, and one of them is stubbornness. But in this case it proved to be a blessing because that comment was like a red rag to a bull. I'll show you I thought. And I did. My novel for children, Oven Chips For Tea, was sent to Random House and accepted.

I've approached a couple of other agents over the years and been turned down and yes there may have been opportunities missed by not having an agent. But it hasn't stopped me sending my work to publishers and it hasn't stopped me getting my work accepted. So far I have had five books accepted which were sent in as unsolicited manuscripts and several others which came pretty close.

You do have to be persistent. If you get something back from a publisher, don't let the disappointment stop you in you tracks, take not of any comments, maybe, if you think they've got a point, tweak your manuscript and send it back out so someone else can have a look at it.

Look how many times some of these fantastic books and authors were reputedly turned down:-

Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell - 38 times
Watership Down by Richard Adams - 26 times
The Princess Diaries by Meg Cabot - 17 times
Catch 22 by Joseph Heller - 22 times

John Grisham - 15 publishers and 30 agents
Chicken Soup for the Soul by Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen
140 times!
I could go on and on but I won't! The point is that if you believe in what you are doing, if you know in your heart that you have a good story then KEEP GOING.
Do not allow yourself to get demoralised. A couple of years ago I wrote an adult book and approached several agents. One asked me to a meeting in London. I was so excited! Having struggled there on the day of an underground strike and walked the last mile and a half to her offices in rather unsuitable shoes which gave me massive blisters, she hadn't even read the first three chapters I had sent in and her assistant, who I had been dealing with, had stayed at home for the day because of the problems on the underground. The agent was nice and chatty but despite her promises at the time I never heard a word from her again. Another agent rang me at twenty past nine in the morning to 'discuss' my book. She then proceeded to tell me everything she thought was wrong with it and say why she didn't want to represent me. Bizarre in the extreme and it actually made me very cross because if I'd been new to writing she could have completely shattered my confidence. But fortunately I knew that this was the same book which several other agents had seen the first three chapters and asked to see the rest of the manuscript so surely it couldn't be that bad!

So here are a few tips when sending out an unsolicited manuscript:-
1. Make sure that your manuscript is in pristine condition.

2. You do need to do your homework. Check with the Writer's and Author's Yearbook or The Writer's Handbook that the publishers accept unsolicited manuscripts. Then double-check on their website because sometimes their terms change.  
3. Please do follow the submission instructions. I always think of these as a sort of test to get past the first hurdle. I'm not saying that editors won't look at your work if you don't follow their guidelines but they are there for a reason so why put their backs up.
4. I usually try to get a name of someone to send my precious work to. If I can't ask another writer friend then I ring up the publishers. Scary yes but actually they tend to be very nice people and you never know you may end up speaking to the editor who will read your work when it is sent in. So, be brave with this one.  

I know of successful authors who have made a conscious decision to go down the unagented route and enjoy the direct contact they have with editors.  

I'd like to end with a quote from Barbara Kingsolver who wrote The Poisonwood Bible:-

This manuscript of yours that has just come back from another editor
is a precious package.
Don't consider it rejected.
Consider that you've addressed it 'To the editor who can appreciate my work'
and it has simply come back stamped
'Not at this address'.
 Thank-you for reading and if you are a writer who is reading this, I send you the best of luck for your submissions. Because that's something else we all need, those of us with agents and those of us without - a little bit of luck can go a long way and the more you send out your work, the higher your chances of finding it.

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Doing the things that you love

It seems appropriate that I finished my second book for Templar on Valentine's Day. For whilst I adore writing there are other things I love to do too and, over the last few months, whilst my head has been partly in another world and my time has been largely devoted to the book I feel that everything else in my life has been a little rushed. Don't get me wrong I'm not complaining! I know how lucky I am to have a two book contract and I also know how lucky I am that Templar have not put me under any pressure, despite the fact that I have gone well past my deadline. But next week, for the first time in months, I can take a bit of a break from writing and devote some proper time to some of my other loves.

So these are a few of the things I intend to do:

I'm going to read without feeling guilty. I've just started Karen Saunders book Me, Suzy P and it is such fun, the perfect book for a relaxing week. Great cover too! If you were in your early teens could you resist picking this up? I couldn't.

I'm going to go for a lovely, long walk. Hopefully the sun will shine but even if it doesn't I'll enjoy the energy in the air and the chance to notice the changing colours, the buds forming on the trees and plants beginning to flower. Despite the snow and the cold I have a beautiful, brave little primula by my pond.
The birds are really sensing that Spring is on the way too. They are singing so loudly as I write this and already this morning I have seen bullfinches, blue tits, goldfinches, a chaffinch, a long tailed tit, blackbirds, dunnocks, a robin and of course our resident pigeons. As National Nest Box Week started on February 14th in the U.K. I bought my husband a nesting box as a small Valentine's Day token. Hopefully this week we will find the perfect place in the garden to put it.

Something else I'm really looking forward to is spending time in our greenhouse. We have wanted a greenhouse for ages and ages and finally just after Christmas we ordered one. It arrived about ten days ago and that afternoon I gazed at it from the warmth of my kitchen through a blizzard of snow! It is an Alton and it is a thing of great beauty to me. Not only does it look good but it's made of red cedar so it smells absolutely wonderful.
It reminds me of my father as he loved his Alton greenhouse and taught me to love gardening and plants too. I'm planning to put a nice comfy chair in there so I can occasionally take a break from sowing seeds and sit down with a nice cup of tea and a book.
Talking of tea I fancy making a cake to share with friends and family, a recipe I haven't tried before would be good. I think it will probably be the divine Mary Berry's Cornish Sticky Cake.

The recipe is available at Mail online if you would like to try it too.

For a bit of culture it would be perfect to visit the Richard III exhibition at Leicester's Guildhall.
I have tried once already but the queues were too long so maybe next week I'll be lucky. Having lived in Leicester off and on for all of my life this has been a hugely exciting time and the story isn't over yet. There are still more forensic tests to be undertaken which will reveal even more information, as well as the design and placing of the tomb in Leicester Cathedral to be decided upon and the internment itself. Flushed with the success of finding Richard there is also talk of looking for Cardinal Wolsey, Henry VIII's Lord Chancellor, who is reputedly buried in Abbey Park which is on the outskirts of Leicester.

So suddenly Leicester is in the news and apparently the Richard III story was on the front page of the New York Times. Amazing!

And you know what? I probably won't be able to resist doing a little writing too! Maybe I'll tinker around with a couple of picture book texts, maybe I'll send something out to publishers or maybe I'll return to my romantic adult novel which is begging to be edited. I shall just listen to my instincts and follow my mood.

Finally, here is a picture of the man himself, St. Valentine, the patron saint of engaged couples, bee keepers, epilepsy, fainting, greetings, happy marriages, plague, travellers, young people, lovers and of course most importantly of all LOVE.

As always thank-you for reading. I hope you all have a lovely week and manage to do some of the things that you love.

Saturday, 9 February 2013

Book Bloggers

Last Saturday I had a lovely day. I was invited by my publishers, Templar, to meet some book bloggers in London. I caught the 9.25 train from Leicester station and it was buzzing with people on their way to the England/Scotland rugby match at Twickenham. At the offices for Hot Key Books, where the event was being held,  Katie my editor, Jayne, Annie and the Hot Key/Templar team were already there, as were most of the bloggers. And what a great bunch of people they are. It goes without saying that they read so many books. I am in awe of them and to be honest slightly jealous!
I don't seem to have the time these days to read as many books as I would like to and I'm definitely slower at reading than I used to be. I used to whizz through books and still be able to remember them in detail. Maybe it's my age or the fact that life is so busy or maybe both.

There were also some other authors there too who I hadn't met before, the lovely Karen Saunders, Alison Rattle, Claire McFall ,Julie Mayhew and Matt Whyman. Here I am with Alison, Claire, Julie and Matt. Not sure where Karen had got to at this point!

 I also came away with some books which are now by my bed waiting to be read. It's one of my favourite things, having a pile of books ready to dip into, but if I'm ever wondering which children's/YA book to read next or trying to find just the right book to buy as a present I shall visit one of these blogs and see what the incredibly knowledgeable people I met on Saturday are recommending. And if you'd like to check them out too, here they are:-

And here we all are, bloggers, editors and authors together.

Finally, Katie, Jayne, Karen and I went for a cup of tea at one of London's brilliant cycle cafes at 49 Old Street. It's called Look Mum No Hands and I loved it. Tea, bicycles and talk about books all in one place - absolutely brilliant! And when I got home, the Dearly Beloved had lit the fire, recorded the rugby for me and been shopping to get something nice for supper. What a star he is! It was the perfect end to the day. I really hope that you've had some good days this week too.

Sunday, 3 February 2013

Character Building

A couple of weeks ago I read an article by Anthony Seldon who is the headmaster of Wellington College. He talks about the development of character in an academic environment and how, with the influence of a celebrity culture and an obsession with exam results, we have lost sight of something very valuable - the development of those attributes which are essential to a good character and a successful, confident, happy human being. Research conducted by the University of Birmingham shows that a child's good character is more likely to influence their chances of success than their IQ rating.

Loyalty is one of the character traits mentioned on Anthony Seldon's list and this has always been an important factor in my books, both young fiction and in the novels to be published by Templar. It is not a conscious thing but when I look back at my plots I see that loyalty, or lack of it, plays a very strong part in their development.

The other traits Anthony Seldon mentions are as follows:-


He also adds:-
Good Manners
He talks of employers needing people who think creatively and who make a contribution.
As writers, thinking creatively comes naturally to us and it's rewarding to think that, in a small way, we are making a contribution through our writing. 
I believe that I have a responsibility to my readers, who are young and only just beginning to find out who they are, who they want to be. When I write it is important to me that my readers have strong characters whom they can identify with, good role models and that they can see those characters overcoming their difficulties and growing from their experiences.

At Wellington College the pupils must abide by five values, chosen by themselves. These are courage, integrity, kindness, responsibility and respect. They are taught self-control and endurance, how to overcome their limitations and obey instructions. These are all valuable life skills. As a writer, endurance and resilience are essential, courage to carry on in the face of rejections is sometimes hard to find and self-control can disappear in an instant as you spot that big brown envelope lying on the doormat. (This often occurs on a Saturday for me and is not the ideal way to start the weekend).  Integrity too can easily be compromised when an agent or publisher doesn't have the same vision for a book that you do. Obeying instructions is always the first test when approaching an agent or publisher and they do often require slightly different things, one chapter, two chapters, synopsis like a blurb, on no account send a synopsis like a blurb. You know what I mean!

As for responsibility - we have a responsibility not just to our readers but also to ourselves as writers. We are creative beings. That is not always an easy path to tread. It has many ups and downs and it is important to show ourselves kindness and respect whilst we battle with plots which won't reveal themselves and subsidiary characters who annoyingly take on a stronger form than our hero/heroine. We need to be aware of our limitations - for instance I don't think I would have the patience to write a historical novel - but also vow never to say never. As writers we are constantly changing and evolving. Who knows what the future brings? And that is exciting.

It's easy to forget, as we sit at our laptops or wield our pens, that what we write can have far-reaching effects, that by building our own characters carefully within our books we may, in a very small way, help our readers to develop theirs.

According to the Chaos Theory the flutter of a butterly's wings can eventually cause a typhoon on the other side of the world. Edward Lorenz, the father of the Chaos Theory showed us that we can't predict the weather more than two or three weeks hence. We can't predict our futures either, or those of our children, but as writers we are reaching people who we will never meet. Simply by picking up our books they are demonstrating a faith in our ability to tell a story, to impart a message. I find that absolutely amazing. So thank-you Anthony Seldon for reminding me of how much I don't want to let my readers down. I intend to print off this list of values and refer to it every time I write a new story. Hopefully it will make me a better writer and a better person too!