Thursday, July 25, 2013

A Slap to the Heart

Last night, I received a slap in the face. Or rather, a slap to the heart.  I was reading through some recent blog posts by writer friends and I came across the line below from Austin writer, Nikki Loftin.  She was writing about Poison, a debut YA novel by Bridget Zinn, which was published in March of this year by Disney Hyperion.

"On those days when I feel like surfing the Internet or eating my weight in M&Ms 
instead of writing, seeing Bridget’s book reminds me that we don’t know 
how much time we have to fulfill our dreams." Nikki Loftin
Sadly, Bridget Zinn did not live to see her book in print.  She died of cancer in 2011, aged just thirty-three.   

Poison was originally due for release in 2012, the same year in which Nikki made her own debut with The Sinister Sweetness of Splendid Academy, but publication was delayed for obvious reasons until spring of this year.  When Nikki was approached by Bridget’s cousin to take part in an event at The Book People in Austin to promote Poison on Bridget’s behalf, she jumped at the chance.  And then, of course, she blogged about it here – a very moving piece and I think a fitting tribute to a fellow writer.

Bridget Zinn
The slap in the face for me came not only from Nikki’s words - “we don’t know how much time we have to fulfill our dreams” – but also from reading through one of Bridget’s own blog posts - here - about her own path to publication, written shortly before she died when she was clearly in a lot of pain.  Even faced with rejections of her first novel, she had continued to write, to study, to attend conferences and study days.  Then she started her second novel and finished it, and still continued to look firmly towards a future in which she would be a published novelist. At almost the exact time of her cancer diagnosis she heard that her second novel, Poison, had been picked up for publication.  Bridget continued to work on the revisions even after she began treatment, something that requires extraordinary strength of will and courage.

Reading through Bridget and Nikki’s posts, I realized that I have rather thrown away this summer so far.  I have too easily given in to the excuses of having too much to do with the children or the house or visitors, and I have given up whatever writing discipline I had developed during school time.  Other than a few blog posts and one non-fiction article, I have written almost nothing.  Also, because I have been waiting for news from a literary agent who requested my full manuscript a couple of months ago, I had convinced myself that I couldn’t possibly concentrate on the revisions that my second novel so badly needs or on continuing beyond Chapter 4 with my third.  If I take nothing else from Bridget’s spirit and Nikki’s words, it is that I can’t sit around and wait for someone to hand me publication on a plate.  How can I know what lies just around the corner for me which might throw an even bigger challenge than time management in my path?

So tomorrow, I am going to Barnes & Noble and I will buy Poison, not only for me and my kids, but also as gifts for friends back in the UK.  I am also going to suggest it as a novel this coming year for our mother/daughter book club, and I am going to tell everyone I talk to about it too.  Bridget deserves her success, she worked long and hard for it. 

And then, I am going to get my laptop out, find a relatively quiet spot somewhere away from children and the laundry and I will get on with the revisions to that second novel, and then with Chapters 5, 6, 7… of the third!

Thank you, Bridget, you have inspired me.

To read reviews of Poison or to by a copy of the book, visit:
For more information on Nikki Loftin and The Sinister Sweetness of Splendid Academy, visit: 

Friday, July 12, 2013

Holding history in my hand

Have you ever felt like stealing a library book?  Just never returning it and saying it was lost?  I never have - until now!

A few months ago, I was researching an article in anticipation of the centenary of the start of the First World War next year in 2014.  I was focusing particularly on the red poppy as a symbol of remembrance in all the countries who were involved in that dreadful conflict.  The reason we all wear red poppies to mark Armistice Day on November 11th each year is because an American lady called Miss Moina Michael read a poem written 
in the trenches by a Canadian Army doctor called John McCrae about the red poppies which grew in the devastation of the battlefields of Belgium and northern France.  The poem was called In Flanders Fields and begins: 

"In Flanders fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row"

Miss Michael decided to sell paper poppies to raise money for the families of those soldiers who did not return and this symbolic gesture and means of raising funds grew and spread across to France and the United Kingdom very quickly.  The red poppy is now worn as a symbol of remembrance every November and poppy wreaths are laid on war memorials across the world.

As part of my research, I wanted to read more poems by John McCrae.  I discovered through the amazingly wonderful resource that is the Houston Public Library website that there was a book of his poems held in the Central Library.  I ordered it online, thinking very little more about it, until I went to collect it from my local library. 

It is called In Flanders Fields and Other Poems By Lieut-Col John McCrae MD, with An Essay in Character by Sir Andrew Macphail.  The book contains the 27 poems which make up McCrae's complete works.  Sadly, after serving at the battlefront as both a doctor and manning the artillery guns, McCrae died of pneumonia in a military hospital in January 1918.  Sir Andrew Macphail, a friend of McCrae's from university days wrote an essay to accompany the poems with details of McCrae's life, his writing, his medical and military careers and his sad death and funeral.  McPhail’s essay is dated November 11th, 1918, the day of the Armistice.  It was a fascinating book to have found by chance, but that was only part of its appeal.  Unlike so many books I have borrowed from libraries in the UK and the US, this book does not have a brightly covered fly leaf protected by a thick covering of plastic. 

It has instead a simple faded red cloth cover with the title printed in white lettering on the spine.  The pages inside are yellowed and a little tatty at the edges.  There is a photograph of the handsome, almost-smiling poet in his army uniform opposite the title page and between the two is a protective sheet of tracing paper, now mottled brown.  It has a lovely pencil-sketch of trees and a village which the poet drew on the back of a postcard.  The only sign that this lovely old book came to me via a hi-tech digital pathway is the shiny clean bar-coded sticker on the front so that HPL can keep track of it.

It was, however, as I reached the back of the book that this wonderful piece of history in my hands came to life.  Inside the back cover of the book is stuck a cardboard holder for an old library card, something I recognized from my childhood library days but which my kids had never seen before. At the top of that card, someone had typed (using a typewriter of course) the name of the author and the title of the book and had written the code number with a fountain pen above it.  Each time the book was taken out by a reader, a librarian hand-stamped the date it was due to be returned onto the card and placed it inside the holder.   

When I started to decipher the dates stamped on the card, I was astonished to find that the first reader to borrow the book from the Houston Public Library was due to return it by July 21st 1919, the year the book was published and less than nine months after The Armistice.  Knowing this book was almost one hundred years old and had been read by so many generations was very moving for me.  I was amazed that such a book wasn't kept under closer supervision, perhaps in the reference section of Central Library.  I became so terrified that I might cause it harm, it's been sitting in a zip-lock bag ever since. 

And thus I fell in love with this book, to the point where I am now finding it hard to return it.  Having extended my borrowing period for the full six weeks I was allowed online, I went to see our local librarian in person and hearing my please of 'vital research source', she kindly gave me another six weeks.  But that deadline came and went at the beginning of last month and now my fine is more than $4 (OK, hardly a fortune, but shaming enough) and I still can't bring myself to return this special book.

The page to which I keep returning is the facsimile of an autograph copy of the poem In Flanders Fields.  It was written with pen and ink by McCrae and signed.  His looping cursive script with linking lines tying words together is very much of its age, only just decipherable and a treat to read.

I know I have to return this book to its rightful place, but I can't help thinking I will take it out again, and again, perhaps every November just in time to remind myself why I am wearing a red poppy of remembrance.

Monday, June 24, 2013

My first Edinburgh Book Festival

I am so excited to have the chance this year to go to the Edinburgh Book Festival for the first time.  I grew up in the city and Festival time has played such a major part in my life, so I can't believe I have never had the chance to be part of it.  I was brought up on the Tattoo, I worked at the International Festival (where I met my husband), and I performed on the Fringe Festival, but because I left Edinburgh for London (then Cardiff, then Houston) more than 22 years ago just as the book festival was just becoming established, I missed it.  But this year we are managing to tie in our family holiday to Edinburgh at Festival time for the first time in years, and I am so excited!

The program has just been published HERE.  Now all I need to do is work out what to see, but given that they have 800 authors taking part in 700 events, I'm not sure quite how I'll do that.  Oh dear, so many events, so little time!

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Joan Lowery Nixon Award 2013

I was disappointed to hear today that I didn't win this year's SCBWI Houston Joan Lowery Nixon Award.  But I did get a really lovely email from the illustrious judge and mentor, Kathi Appelt, explaining how hard her decision had been and that she felt my manuscript seemed to be so close to ready for submission to publishers, she wasn't sure how much she could have helped with it.  So a lovely morale boost coming on the back of a disappointment.  Thank you, Kathi, for your sweet words.

And huge congratulations to the winner, Melissa Morphew, whose manuscript titled The Celestial Omnibus Salvage Yard was nominated by Stephanie Hedlund from ABDO Publishing.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

SCBWI Houston 2013

As you might have seen from my previous posts about going to writers' conferences, I am a big fan.  I went to another great one last weekend.  The Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators chapter in Houston holds is annual conference out in Katy, and it was another really fun event.

I had two incredibly positive critiques from lovely Houston author, Joy Preble, and from Sara Sargent who is an editor at Balzer + Bray, an imprint of Harper Collins.  They both gave me a lot to think about on how to take my YA novel forward.  Their suggestions included redefining the ages of the protagonists - at the moment it is sitting right between Middle Grad and Young Adult fiction, making it a difficult sell for publishers.  I was also told to front load the novel with some of the mythology which permeates the rest of the book.  These were certainly the most positive and useful pieces of feedback I've had, and so I have been busy putting their advice into the next revision of the book.  Thank you, Joy and Sara, I'm very grateful!

Other great things about the SCBWI conference in Houston:
  • a fantastic,  funny presentation from picture book writer and illustrator, Peter Brown
  • meeting old and new friends from Austin and Houston
  • hearing in fine detail how to approach literary agents from Josh Adams of Adams Literary
  • winning a weekend at The Writing Barn in Austin in the silent auction - how wonderful it will be for me and three writing friends to go away for a weekend retreat together where we can do nothing but focus on our work.
The other very exciting thing to come out of the weekend was that Sara Sargent nomination my novel for the Joan Lowery Nixon Award which is administered by SCBWI Houston in memory of that wonderful author.  At each Houston conference, each member of the faculty is asked to choose the best of the pieces they critiqued and those form the shortlist.  Since Joan died, Newbery winner, Kathi Appelt, has taken over judging the shortlist and she will pick on of our manuscripts to win.  The prize winner will then be mentored by Kathi over the next year as he/she pulls the manuscript into order read by submisison.

The six nominees this year were: Melissa Morphew, Mike Giles, Jennifer George, McCourt Thomas, Maria Ashworth - and me!  Congratulations to all of them.  I was thrilled to be nominated for the second year in a row, and will be sending my pages off to Kathi as soon as I can draw breath.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

World Book Day... sort of!

I was amused to discover this morning that today is World Book Day… but only in the UK and Ireland.  

Facebook was this morning full of great photos of kids dressed up for school as knights and dragons and Hermione Grainger and Horrid Henry, but all of them were posted by my British friends.  Seemingly, the rest of the world won’t celebrate UNESCO World Book Day until April 23rd (Note to my American friends - thank me now for the advanced warning that your kid(s) will be asking for a costume for school that day - better to hear it now that at bedtime the evening before!).  

Apparently this discrepancy is because April 23rd often falls within the UK’s Easter school holidays, and not because the British are naturally contrary (although I’m not entirely convinced of that).

I’ll admit to feeling nostalgic for my kids’ elementary school days when they had to dress up for things like the Story Book Parade.  Nostalgia is all I am left with since our family's elementary school days are behind us.  But I know of one particular boy (who might be twelve now and might live in my house) who will feel truly robbed because the overnight maturity required of him as a middle-schooler does not allow him to go to school on World Book Day dressed as his literary heroes, James Bond or Jace Lightwood or Peeta Mellark, in the way he did in previous years as Percy Jackson and Spiderman and Harry Potter (see left)

Oh well, he’ll just have to wait for Halloween to come round again.

Whenever your country celebrates World Book Day – today or in April – I hope you will make a special effort to make a book part of your day – by reading a book in silence or aloud, by listening to an audio book, by giving a book as a gift, by writing a book or by illustrating a book. Or, if you really want to, why not dress up as your favorite book character (can you imagine coming across Rhett Butler or Mr Darcy at the deli counter in the grocery store, or Jamie Fraser at the gym?) – and remember, sometimes playing dress-up is not just for kids!

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Table Talk – any excuse for women to get together and talk

Yesterday was this year’s Table Talk luncheon, organized in aid of the University of Houston Friends of Women’s Studies.  Over 500 women (and a couple of brave men) came together to talk over a lovely lunch – what could be more fun than that?  

My great friend, Vilma Allen, invited me to join her table at the luncheon which had been organized by another friend, Susana Monteverde.  Each table had an invited speaker to lead the discussion, and we were lucky enough to have Dr Monica Perales¸ associate professor of history at the University of Houston.  Her book, Smeltertown: Making and Remembering a Southwest Border Community focuses on the way a community could develop around a large and filthy smelting plant near El Paso.   She told us it not only focused on the men who worked at the plant, but also on the women who supported them and the cottage industries these women created within their community to develop the economic prosperity of the town.

Over a delicious lunch, we ten women talked with Monica about how food and family are inevitably intertwined. She asked each of us for a memory of food in a family setting, and the discussion led off from there:  the child who made herself sick in her Italian grandmother’s kitchen by eating half a pan of uncooked and unsupervised gnocchi mix, and the sisters who made orange marmalade at home with their mother on a wintry afternoon and strawberry jam on a summer one;  the girl and her mother who bought fish straight from the boatman on a quayside and vegetables from farmers market and the woman she became who could still smell the ocean in her mind when she recalls that day; and the Jewish mother who secretly made matzo balls for the other housewives in her neighborhood because hers were the best and they wanted to impress their husbands with beautifully light dumplings.  

Monica had done a similar exercise with her students at UofH, and was astonished to hear some of them say that they had no particular food memory from their family - that they had a working mother or were from a family who didn't really cook much.   But Monica rightly pointed out to those students that the food that means so much to our nostalgia in later life does not need to be home-made – the memory of a working mother tearing open a packet of commercial cornbread mix resonates as much with a child as the memory of picking vegetables from the garden to peel and cook.

It was a fascinating event and set off so many triggers in my writing mind, the books are just waiting to be written…

Monday, February 11, 2013

Kicking it up a notch at the SCBWI Austin conference

What a great weekend I’ve had at this year’s Austin conference of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.  The theme this year was Kicking it up a Notch, and it certainly inspired me to do just that.
"You cannot compete with a child's imagination - but you can foster it, support it, extend it and, most importantly, give it space."  EB Lewis
Undoubtedly, the highlight of the weekend was the amazing illustrator, EB Lewis, who opened the proceedings with a fantastic keynote speech about mastering visual language, but also spend two hours or more in the Sunday workshop painting watercolors in front of us as he talked about his art, his storytelling and his approach to both.
 As you can see from the photos, his work is so beautiful and his words were so wise - I was amazed at how much of his illustrator’s wisdom was directly relevant to me as a writer too.  One of EB's pearls which really struck a chord with me was this, "Enjoy playing in your sandbox while you are in it - don't yearn to finish too soon."  

As a new writer desperately hoping to be spotted and published, it does seem sometimes that I can't get my writing done fast enough so I can get published, that I am not really enjoying the process, I'm not any more sitting having fun in my sandbox.
"Kids don't care what you know until they knew that you care."  EB Lewis
 We had a fascinating session on the magic of picture books by the indomitable pair, writer Shutta Crum and illustrator Patrice Barton.  Their new collaboration, Mine!, is a beautifully crafted pre-school picture book that has only nine words in at – all “Mine!”  Oh, and there’s one “Woof!” too!  Their fun presentation to us gave us an amazing insight into how much deep thought goes into writing a “simple” boo, and how clever the illustrator can be in creating a full visual narrative to surround those nine words (and one woof).  This is a truly beautiful book, and I just wish my pre-teens were pre-school again so I could read it to them.

"In picture books, every book has to have a plot, even one with zero words.  And every page must have a level of excitement to make a child want to turn the page."  Shutta Crum

Patrice was awarded a coveted SCBWI Crystal Kite Award for her illustrations during the conference.  And well deserved too.  Congratulations!

I was so inspired by Shutta and Patrice that I place a successful bid in the Silent Auction for a picture book critique with Shutta, so now I am busy dusting off some old pic book ideas from years ago, and my mind is spinning with some new ones too.

As part of the Sunday workshop, I was one of a dozen writers who gave five-minute readings of their work.  What a fascinating mixture of formats – full poetic picture books for pre-schoolers, rhythmic early readers, opening chapters of dramatic young adult and middle-grade novels.  There was even a play, with the finale scene performed as a rap.  In the audience were the editors and agents who had been speaking and critiquing during the conference, and they were kind enough to scribble helpful notes to us all.  I was thrilled to receive such positive feedback to the first five minutes (about 1,000 words) of Aberlady, my YA novel-in-progress set in Scotland during World War Two.

It was also wonderful to meet up with friends I had made last year, particularly Samantha Clarke who also gave a fantastic reading of the opening pages of her YA novel.  I also met some new friends this year, Lisa Matthews, Sue Cleveland and Chad Rackowitz.  Conference organizers, Debbie Gonzalez and Carmen Oliver did a wonderful job yet again - thank you!

The Houston SCBWI Conference is coming in April, and I can’t wait!  Hope to see you there.

"Art all starts with one mark - one stroke, one step, one frame, one word..."  EB Lewis

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

I'm on my way to Austin!

Whenever someone I meet for the first time asks me “So, what do you do?”, my heart sinks a little.  In the olden days, I would have given them my job title and the organization I worked for, explained a little about my main roles and that would have given us something to talk about for a while.  Nowadays, I have two choices:  I can tell them I am a full-time mother, at which point they will either look disappointed and the conversation will quickly close, or they will talk to me about the children and their lives, and their initial interest in me as a person will be forgotten. 

Alternatively, I can tell them that I am a writer (trying not to blush or choke as I say it), knowing that their next question will undoubtedly reveal me as a fraud, “So what have you had published?”  Much as I can stutter out an explanation of magazine articles published years ago in the UK, or a glossy coffee table book (which at least shows up on Amazon if you put in my name), they are still disappointed to find out that I am not a real writer.  But they smile nicely and pat my arm and say “well, I look forward to reading your first novel, whenever it’s published,” and I wish I’d just told them about my children instead.

So can you imagine therefore how wonderful it is to go to an event where no one will doubt you when you say you are a writer?  The leading question is not, “So what do you do?” but “So what do you write?”.  If you say picture books, or young adult, or middle grade, no one looks at you sideways as if doubting the truth of your words.  Simply because you have put yourself into that group of people, sharing their ideas and paths to and beyond publication, then that must make you a writer, or an illustrator.

And if they ask you “So have you been published yet?” it is not because they you to prove your talent before they will believe you, but because they want to hear your story, to compare it to their own, to offer support and encouragement and perhaps to pick up tips from your experience too.

This will be my second year at the Austin conference of the Society of Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), and I can’t wait.  I know that this time, it will not be a room full of strangers, as it was last year.  I will be an old hand, able say hello to people I met last year, and I’ll be on the look out for those newbies who are sitting alone or looking out of place.  That was me last year, and I know I can extend a hand to them and say hello, as people did for me a year ago.  And when I introduce myself to them as a writer, they will not doubt it.

It is a liberating feeling, so know that I am with like-minded people, who have spent as much time writing as I have before they feel strong enough to call themselves a writer.  It is wonderful to absorb so much information and accept wisdom from those further down the writing road than me.  While there are inevitable pangs of envy when I hear of someone else being asked for their manuscript by a critiquing editor, or being signed up by an agent they met during that morning’s discussion groups, it is swiftly overtaken by the delight I feel to know that a new friend of yours has had a success (no, honestly, it is!).  It certainly gives me hope and inspiration that it will only be a matter of time (and lots of effort) before the same will happen to me.

So if you are trying to become a writer, please make the effort to join a writer’s group, the SCBWI or another writing organization, and go along to meetings and conferences.  Don’t be held back by shyness, or a lack of conviction that you can call yourself a writer.  If you go to one of these events, by the end of the weekend, no one will doubt that you are entitled to call yourself A WRITER, least of all you.