Tulip Taylor – one year on. The highs and lows of being an author before and after Covid-19

In June 2019, a life-long ambition, stemming from early childhood, came true when Firefly Press published ‘Tulip Taylor’. Yes, I’d had another novel out in the US and France. Yes, I’d self-published an early version of ‘Rebel with a Cupcake’ in the UK to some extent. But I still craved having a novel out in my home country. And then it happened…and it was the beginning of six months of lots of brilliant things. 2019 was in short a pretty good year for me.

              Some of the good things were trivial but lovely – a shiny author banner with my name on and the glorious illustration by Niki Pilkington/cover by Anne Glen for me to use at book and school events. Others were more significant. I launched Tulip surrounded by my lovely SCBWI friends at an event in Manchester. Being part of SCBWI has been a vital part of my journey as it’s through the courses, conferences but most of all through the monthly critiquing that I learned what I needed to know to write and craft Tulip. This was followed up by a number of school visits which seemed to go down very well – young people really responded to the challenges posed by having a parent as Tulip does who wants to make money out of her and her siblings online. They also laughed at the jokes so that was a bonus!

              After than I was invited to do a panel event and a workshop at @YALC in London. I’ve already blogged about that but in short it was one of the glorious days where you feel like a writer. Much of writing is doing what I’m doing now – sitting in the study I share with two other members of my family, staring out of the window, just getting words down on a blank screen. So, the days when you get out and about to celebrate your work and to be seen not as a mum or teacher are really rather special. The three seconds when my signing queue was longer than Holly Bourne’s was a thing of beauty.

              After the summer break, I did a panel event as part of Manchester Children’s Book Festival and a number of library and school events. I’ve been massively appreciative of all the teachers and librarians who’ve taken time out to support Tulip and myself. Life was its normal juggling act of trying to carve out time to write along side teaching, tutoring and overseeing the lives of two teenage daughters.

              In early 2020, just before the biggest plot twist I’ve ever experienced, I delivered a writing weekend for @WriteMentor in Sheffield. Despite having planned for days and for every eventuality, I was still nervous but it turned out to be a lovely experience. One of the attendees was a former pupil of mine, all grown up and now an English teacher who wanted to be a writer. It was a strange but gratifying to see the various strands of my life – teaching and writing (both based on a passion for the written word) came together in such a serendipitous way.

              Then Covid-19 happened. I have very little to complain about compared to others who have struggled and lost so much. All that has happened to me is that my world has got a lot smaller. But it turns out that I like my little world of family, walks, writing, online teaching and socialising and in this I am truly lucky. Relaunching ‘Rebel with a Cupcake’ in lockdown was not the circumstances that myself or my publishers would have chosen but bloggers and fellow writers have been wonderfully supportive and messages from readers tell me that it is finding itself an audience out there.

              Before lockdown happened I’d already been asked to be a judge for the Sadie Massey Review competition for the Portico Library and I’d also committed to be mentor for @WriteMentor’s summer writing programme. Both these experiences have hugely enriched my lockdown life. For the Sadie Massey prize, myself and my fellow judge Mo had to decide on which of the nearly 500 reviews were worthy winners and runners up in each age category. Seeing children’s passion for books was a beautiful thing and it took some time to decide up winners. I’d only intended to sign up for one mentee with @WriteMentor but again 2020 decided that there was yet another unexpected twist on the cards, I decided to offer to mentor two writers, the very talented Georgia Roworth and Sophie Tovey. Reading through their work and offering some thoughts and feedback has been a genuine highlight of the early summer so far. I am very excited to see what these talented women go on to achieve.

              And that’s me pretty much up to date. Except for one thing. Like so many, I’m finding writing during lockdown hard. At first I did Camp Nano and just wrote for fun for three weeks. It was gloriously messy and liberating. But sometimes, if you want to be taken seriously as a writer you need to treat writing just as seriously. Which means putting your bum in the seat every day and aiming to write something that’s good enough to share with others. Since then, I’ve been working on another book which requires rich worldbuilding and seriously plotting so not something you can just pound out. I’ve found aiming to write 500 words a day hugely beneficial. I can be guilty of wildly overestimating how much I can write at the best of times. Currently, the horrendous daily news and the lack of time and space to myself have severely impacted on my ability to put words together in any kind of meaningful way.

              But over the last six weeks, something miraculous has happened. My 500 words a day have slowly started to build into something which in the next two weeks might conclude in being a very, very rough first draft. Some days I even manage 1500 words. There is definitely some rubbish in there but there is also some gold: some scenes which after a bit of a polish will shine, some characters who are slowly finding their voices and a plot which appears to make sense (at least to me anyway). And yes, sometimes my scenes are making me laugh which is the first step on the way to making others laugh.

              I am not about to make any predictions about what the next twelve months will hold. When I was launching ‘Tulip Taylor’ I could never have foreseen the devastation of Covid or that we’d been in month 4 of a social shut down. So, I can’t control future events, whether any of my writing will be published. But I can control whether I turn up in my study, get my bum in the seat, my hands on the keyboard and keep on writing. Because every day I write I feel so much better than the days I don’t. It might be an addiction but currently it’s an addiction that brings me more pleasure than otherwise so if you’re looking for me, I’ll be in the study. Writing.

‘Tulip Taylor’ and ‘Rebel with a Cupcake’ are available from any bookshop of your choice or direct from the Firefly website.

Books as windows, mirrors, doors, escape hatches, rockets and so much more

Today is #EmpathyDay and I’d planned to write a blog about the importance of empathy. But once I sat down to write it, it has turned into something else. Yes, books are an important way for children and adults to have ‘windows’ into other worlds and ‘mirrors’ in which to see themselves. But empathy needs to turn into change for it to be truly meaningful.

Books were a profoundly important part of my life growing up in 1970s and 80s Leeds. It was a strange time. The Yorkshire Ripper was still at large: grown-ups were terrifed and children acted out the murders every lunchtime. Nuclear war seemed to loom over us all and as did the treat of actual bombs. Little surprise then, that I found a refuge in books. I didn’t want a mirror of my own life, thank you very much. Even a window into another world wasn’t enough: I wanted not just the portal at the back of the wardrobe into another world but an experience that would propel me like a rocket out of the world in which I found myself and into another. Again, looking back it is not surprising that I lost myself in the world of fantasy. Despite its dangers, it was much more comforting than the menacing world I was growing up. In books, you were sure of a happy ending.

So off I would trot for my weekly or twice weekly trip to Chapel Allerton library, (long before Chapel Allerton became the Notting Hill of the North !), with my precious nine cards, golden tickets to other people and other worlds. I think I started at three loans at a time but the lovely librarians kept giving me more. I like to think that they recognised me as one of their own. And I continued to escape my world as much as possible.

Leeds then as now was a diverse city. My friendship group at middle school and high school was very mixed. I remember Parmeet showing me a book with great excitement. It was the first time she’d seen a girl on the cover who looked like her. Once she’d devoured it, I read it too. It was about a family who’d had to leave Uganda due to the actions of Idi Amin and set up home in the UK. Told from the point of view of a teenage girl, it showed how her family fought to make a new home for themselves after being forced from their own home, facing racism and prejudice in the UK. My friend needed a mirror in which to see herself. I needed a window into her life. We were good friends but we talked about boys and school, not the big issues. I’d heard of Uganda on the news and knew the name Idi Amin but I learned more from reading this book than I did from anything in school. It was a long time ago and I’m afraid I can’t remember the title or the author. But I do remember the cover, I remember so much about the characters and the details of their lives and I remember how it made my friend feel. Currently, the work of publishers such as Knights of and others (often the independent ones) dedicated to ensuring that there are many mirrors for so many children is as important as ever.

It goes without saying that books are an important way to develop empathy as children and adults. I’m not going to repeat what so many others will say or list the books that made me see the world in a different way because hopefully every book does that in some way. There are so many dazzling, current books being recommended that I don’t think I have much to add. Here’s to books as windows, doors, mirrors, escape hatches, havens, security blankets, treasure chests, (to quote Simon Armitage) to anchors and to kites, books that make us feel safe and books that make us want to fly.

But courtesy of Dom Conlon and Piers Torday, I saw this article by Namwali Serpell and it gave me pause for thought. https://www.nybooks.com/daily/2019/03/02/the-banality-of-empathy/

I’ve only quickly read what is clearly a nuanced and complex piece, but what I took from it that if empathy is purely passive, then it becomes meaningless. Unless my empathy leads to me actively changing my thoughts, my actions, my politics, who I vote for, how I conduct myself, then empathy becomes shallow.

From what I’ve seen from young people in recent days, they want to change the world . I hope they do. The challenge to all of us it to ensure that our empathy contributes to real and systematic change of the world. Escaping it through the form of books was an option as a child. As an adult, I need to do more.

Mentoring opportunity with WriteMentor

Last year I leapt at the chance to deliver a weekend of workshops for the WriteMentor organisation. What particularly appealed to me was the aim of making opportunities in writing for children and young people accessible across the UK. As a lifelong Northerner, I get frustrated when most events are based in London. I understand the logistics which lie behind it but it does mean that many events are not accessible for those for whom travel to the capital is too expensive, time consuming or difficult. So I’m fully behind WriteMentor’s aim to deliver workshops across the UK and mine was in Sheffield last month. I loved every minute of it!

And now another opportunity has arisen – to be a mentor for a writer to offer feedback on their manuscript and to help them shape their work. Again, when I read about this, I knew I wanted to get involved. Through my MA, my involvement with SCBWI and years of reading and learning my craft, I hope I can offer guidance to someone, just as I’ve benefitted from the generosity of others to me along the way. Getting ahead in publishing can be a challenge and I wish this opportunity had been around for me a few years back.

So all the details of how to apply can be found by looking at @WriteMentor on Twitter or via the website https://write-mentor.com. What kind of writer am I looking to mentor? I’m fairly open to what I’m looking for – though I think my area of expertise is YA or upper MG. I love, love, love reading fantasy/reworking of fairy tales and what I’m always looking for is great character, dialogue and plot (yes worldbuilding is important but it’s the others that really make a work stand out for me) or I’d love to read a contemporary story with a unique voice. After that, I’d say I love historical writing. But if you feel I’d be a good fit for you, send away…

Currently I’m offering two passes on your work but the precise nature of how we’ll work together can be agreed at a later date.

Good luck to all applicants!

How NOT to be an overnight success or How to play the long game in publishing…without even realising it

A social media site I use brought up a photo from five years ago this week. It was an image of my MA dissertation on the day that I handed it in September 2014. The novel, then called ‘The Lives and Loves of Jesobel Jones’, had in fact been started three years earlier. It began as a writing exercise in the early weeks of my MA course in 2011. The central character, then called Alyssa, began to speak to me and wouldn’t shut up. I embarked on Nanowrimo just to find out what she had to say and for the first time in my life, I managed to finish a project after a fashion.

Very little of that first draft remains in the finished novel – I think the party chapters are the only parts that survived the slashing, burning, re-writing and editing that took place over the next two years. Alyssa became Jesobel and in time, one of my tutors suggested it was time to send it out into the world and on the basis of it, I was offered representation by the Anne Clark Literary Agency.

What followed was not uncommon in publishing. Despite lots of attention and some near misses, Jesobel didn’t sell in the Uk. I moved onto other projects and assumed that it had had its chance. But then two years later, something rather special happened at the Bologna book fair. First there were two offers of publication in France which lead to a very small bidding war. Cue much celebration and jumping around. Secondly, then an offer of publication in the US and Canada! Double and then triple the squealing and general jollification. Jesobel – now named ‘Rebel with a Cupcake’ was going international! It was now six years since I’d first started to write a 250 word exercise I’d called ‘Rebel with a Crostini’…

In 2018, I received another exciting email. This time, the publisher Firefly wanted to put out my next novel, ‘Tulip Taylor’. Again, a cork popped and the bubbles were poured. I’d loved having ‘Rebel’ published abroad but I did really want a UK deal…and here it was. Tulip has been out just over two months and it’s been a blast – reading great reviews,  going to YALC, doing my first school visits, being asked to do an event at a library, seeing my book in shops and most importantly, receiving feedback from face to face readers.

And then more good news – Firefly decided to publish ‘Rebel with a Cupcake’ – effectively as my back catalogue. It has a beautiful new cover from Niki Pilkington to match the cover for ‘Tulip Taylor’ and I can’t wait to get my hands on a copy to add to the many manifestations of ‘Rebel with a Cupcake’.

What can be learned from this? If I wanted to shape a narrative to fit the facts, the message might appear to be ‘never give up’ – just keep on going and good things will happen. Yes, perhaps, but I do wonder if that’s sometimes not the most helpful of messages. I don’t write every day. Sometimes I need a break from writing. It’s hard to write if rejections get you down or just seem too personal. ‘Never give up’ suggests that if it doesn’t happen then it’s your fault in some way for not working or trying hard enough – for just not wanting it badly. I don’t think that’s a fair or indeed a safe message.

What I’ve learned is to keep writing because I love it. When it’s just me, my imagination and a laptop, it makes me very happy. Feedback from my SCBWI group keeps me on track, on my toes and energised. If you keep writing because you love it, then perhaps at some point, someone else in publishing will love your work too. And if that doesn’t happen, you’ll have created something you’re proud of. Either way, the long game will pay off.

Tulip (and Anna) go to YALC!

A month or two ago I was having a typically busy day. I’d been in school since 7.30, had marked, prepared, taught three lessons and was desperate for some food. Just as I headed to my lunch, my phone buzzed. It was Meg, the amazing publicist who works for Firefly. ‘Would you like to go to YALC and can you come up with a pitch for a workshop?’. (For those of you who don’t know what YACL is, it is the YA version of Comic con – set up by Malorie Blackman to celebrate YA books and YA writers.)The answer was ‘of course’ and ‘I’d love to but my brain is busy’. But during the time it took me to eat my marinated chicken and quinoa (this teacher does not skimp on quality at lunch time), I thought, ‘I know. How to write a feminist romantic comedy.’ I sent this a few minutes later to Meg.

A few weeks later, the follow up email came – ‘yes, you are going to YALC and yes, you are doing a workshop. Oh, and by the way you’re on a panel too.’ There may have been a small amount of whooping at this point. I’ve followed YALC on Twitter for a few years now. It’s always looked brilliant but also seemed to involve being hot, queuing and a fair bit of waiting around. As I struggle with the last three, I’ve never quite got around to booking it but every year I’ve always felt I was missing out on the book buzz. But now, I was finally going.

To say I was busy on the run-up to YALC would be an understatement. My first UK novel was out, I was still teaching, tutoring, marking exam scripts and trying to be a mother who at least pays attention to her children occasionally. So, any preparation I did was very last minute. But I painted my nails blue (to match Tulip’s on the cover), I wrote my workshop, I picked out the lightest outfit I could (it was 39 degrees the day before), borrowed a huge water bottle off my husband and bought a handheld fan. I was ready for anything. Except possibly an unexpected Artic blast…

On the 7.20 from Manchester Piccadilly, the nerves had kicked in. I’d woken up at 4 which wasn’t all bad as I had a lovely cup of tea up sunrise in the garden with the birds. But once on the train, I couldn’t help reflecting on what the very socially awkward thirteen-year-old Anna would have made of this – the one who could only speak to about five people in the world. Over the years, I’ve learned how to manage social situations to some degree and to whom teaching is now a habit, but still going into unknown territories with unknown people still makes me very, very anxious. But there was no going back, the train arrived, me and my banner had to make the journey across London to YALC.

Finally, I arrived, hardly having time to take in the amazing costumes at Comic con. I saw one Robin from the scoop troupe of Stranger Things 3 which pleased me no end. As soon as I arrived at YALC, it became very obvious what a special event it is and how lovely people who want to celebrate books are. Everyone I met just seemed so enthusiastic and supportive. It’s like walking into a bookish hug.

I found the Green Room (cold and with free crisps – in a word, heaven). I found Kate Mallinder, teammate at Firefly and who was chairing our panel. I had a few minutes to drink some water and then I headed off for my workshop. I wasn’t sure what to expect, if anyone would turn up, what the format would be like.

But I had an audience who were interested and appreciative. I talked through the problems of rom-coms, we shared what we loved and hated, I explained how to turn some of the toxic or problematic parts of rom-coms round and in the q and a at the end, I learned a few things that I think will inform what I’m writing at the moment. I was intensely nervous at the beginning, but by the end I was enjoying myself!

In the down time between then and the panel, I had a quick walk around and again was so impressed by what was on offer. There were freebies, advance copies, opportunities to win early copies of all the most hotly anticipated novels, paperbacks were £5 and hardbacks £10. I now understood why so many people had suitcases – if you’re a seriously book buyer, you need something on wheels to take your stash home.

Time for the panel – Kate had now rounded up me, Clare Rhys and Daniel Freedman, ready for our talk. Again, it was an appreciative audience. All my nerves had gone now so I was just enjoying myself. It was great to hear about the others’ books – all were very different but it was fascinating to hear about the covers and the inspiration behind what we wrote. The one key message that come out for me was that if you want to succeed at writing, it helps to be stubborn – to keep on going even if things don’t go your way.

We were due to sign next but I thought I’d visit the ladies even though there was a bit of a queue. Then possibly the most surreal moment of the day so far happened. Penny Thomas, my publisher, came to drag me out of said queue as I had a line of people wanting their books signed and I really ought to come! Walking up to see my name on a YACL banner and people waiting with copies of Tulip Taylor was a very special moment. (My queue was next to Holly Bourne’s. This could have been terrible but it wasn’t. She was finishing and I was starting so our queues were the same length. For a bit!)

Signing was lovely. I signed lots of books. I met people I know from Twitter but not in real life. It was hot so the hand fan came in very useful. I fanned my ‘fans’. One person fanned me whilst I was signing her book. I did start to get hysterically giggly at this moment. Waterstones wanted some copies signed. And then came back for some more. People I have never met turned up with US copies of ‘Rebel with a Cupcake’ so I was signing my two books. This was also a first for me.

What made the day also very special was that only recently Firefly had decided to publish ‘Rebel with a Cupcake’ in the UK and I signed the contract there and then. It really was a special end to a special day.

The final part of YACL was more personal – my friend Kim who I did my MA with (during which I wrote Rebel with a Cupcake) arrived and we had a lovely hour or so chatting, wandering round the stalls and generally catching up. For that part of the day, I was just there as a fan, and I picked up some books I’ve wanted for ages but kept putting off. I too ended up with an extra tote full of books. Maybe next year I’ll have a suitcase.

By the time I was on the train home, I was really feeling that 4am start. But it was all worth it. I’d love to go again if invited but if not, I’ll probably go as a fan. The offers, the talks, the price of the books alone, the lovely people all make it a very special experience. As for workshops, panels, having a signing queue and my name next to one of the best-selling YA authors – I think thirteen-year-old me would be very happy if she knew that was waiting for her, in her future. As long as she was patient and stubborn.

Scraps of time: How to be busy and find time to write

Every now and again, I have conversations with non-writers that make me bite my tongue and put on my best fake smile reserved for people who like to think they know about publishing because they’ve watched ‘Bridget Jones’ Diary’. “You write? How lovely to have a hobby like that. I’d write a novel if only I had the time.”


Let me tell you a bit about my life. Yes, I write, Yes, my second novel is out in eleven days time. Yes, I procrastinate. Yes, I think I’m a bit lazy if I’m being honest. But the truth is apart from writing, I have three other paying jobs (teaching, tutoring and twice a year GCSE exam marking – next week, all four parts of my life will collide), I run a home and bring up two children. Should I mention I did a part-time MA while working full time? Yes, I do look pretty tired most of the time but YES I do find time to write because I’m a writer. That’s what I do.

Before I go any further, none of this is intended to suggest that anyone is any kind of failure if they’re struggling to write at the moment. There are lots of very good reasons not to write. You’re burned out from juggling life and writing. Your writing makes you sad. You don’t have a project that you love. Work has been rejected and it’s been hard to take. It’s just not what you want to be doing with your time at this precise moment. Other people in your life need you and so something has to give. Your mental or physical health is a barrier to being creative. All these and so many others are totally good reasons to give yourself a break from writing.

But if you do want to write, most people can find some scraps of time to do some writing even if it’s only a short amount.

  1. If you work, some people write in their lunch-hour. (As a teacher and I’m sure this is true for other professions, the phrase ‘lunch hour’ induces a hollow laugh in me. If only…) Sometimes I don’t come straight home if I can and go to a café for 30 mins to an hour if I can stretch it – get a flat white – whip out the laptop – and crank out a few hundred words).
  2. Some people get up an hour early. Some write in the evening when the house is quiet. Neither are easy options but evenings work better for me. At one point, I set an alarm for 9pm. I trained myself to stop what I was doing, go into the study and write for 30/45 mins. The writing wasn’t always good but I learned long ago that I need to forget about quality and just write. You can always polish bad words. You can’t polish an empty page.
  3. Commuting time can be productive. Some people write bits of chapters on evernote on their phones as they bus/train/tram to work. My drive is between 25/40 minutes either way and I use the time to plan out scenes in my head so that when 9pm comes I’ve got something to write. I might rehearse dialogue out loud, so if you see me on the M56 talking to myself as I drive at 60 mph home, then yes – that is perfectly normal, thank you very much.
  4. Find the times in your house when it’s quiet. Currently my children lie on a bit on the weekend (a change from the two year period when my younger daughter got up at 5am. Every. Single. Day.) so weekend mornings are currently a good time to write for me.
  5. Protect writing time. Commit to a certain time slot, tell people who are likely to need to you that that’s what you’re doing and don’t take no for an answer. One daughter once pushed a note under the study door that said, ‘You don’t love me anymore’. She has survived the experience. Cats might be harder to train than children.
  6. Time is precious. Are there any things that you can get out of? I’ve got very good at saying ‘no’. I try not to do things just because they’re expected of me, only if I want to.
  7. Have a note book on you at all time. If you have a moment, write something.
  8. Little bits of time can count more than a big stretch. I love to go away on writing weekends. But I never write loads. A whole day writing? It’s rather overwhelming for me. I write in fast bursts and then need a break between. If you gave me a whole day to write in, I’d write my usual amount and spend the afternoon asleep. Heaven…

Sometimes my four jobs get a bit much for me. But there are two big positives.

Firstly, if you can carve out time when you’re busy, you become incredibly efficient. I can’t spend a whole day faffing because I haven’t got the luxury. Things get done. All those scraps of writing, all those hundred words here and there, become a chapter, which become a book.

Secondly and most importantly, everything is research. All the experiences I have, all the people I met, all become part of the web of my life that I draw from when I write. And in all honesty while I would like more time to write in, I need my life to be like this so I have things to write about.

To conclude, everyone needs a break from writing sometimes. I’ve never been convinced by advice to write every day. If it works for you, that’s great, but it can become just another expectation in a busy life. But as and when you decide to commit to a project, find that time, carve it out, say no and write because it makes you happy. If you want to write, you deserve to have the time to do so.

My road to publication (twice) and why it’s a bit like white-water rafting…

Many years ago, I was lucky enough to be on holiday in Costa Rica and we decided to go white-water rafting. It was a brilliant but long day, with an early start and a late finish. There was some training, a false start, sometimes we had to row frantically, sometimes I fell in, sometimes we were paddling hard against the flow getting nowhere, sometimes we were in a current out of control, sometimes we were drifting along pleasantly taking in the view, sometimes we were stuck going nowhere. It was exciting, incredibly frustrating, occasionally anxiety inducing but ultimately all worth while.

That’s how I feel about my long road to publication.

I’d always wanted to be a writer from a young age. I spent much of my childhood lost in books and I was drawn to the idea that I could too do this. It seemed like something close to magic, a process of alchemy – the thoughts in my head could become marks on paper that other people could read. But I didn’t know how to do it. There were no writers in the family or in my parents’ friends. No-one from my school had ever been a successful writer. How did girls from northern comprehensives break into the magical, distant world of books?

So, I kept writing through my teens and into my twenties and thirties. But I never finished anything. A voice in the back of my head kept stopping me after I got to around twenty thousand words. I’d stop. Leave it. And then start something new a while later. It took me a long time to work out what was going on. What was really stopping me was fear of failure. If I tried and failed then I would prove conclusively that I was a failure. If I didn’t try, then I could tell myself I might be successful one day if only I gave it a go. But there’s only so long I could tell myself that. Then I had children. I didn’t want to tell them that I’d had a dream but was too scared to chase it. So that’s when I decided things needed to change.

I still didn’t know another single person who wrote or wanted to write or had any ambition to write. One day I started to research creative writing in Manchester and before I really know what had happened, I’d signed up to do an MA in Writing for Children at MMU. This was one of the two very good decisions that I made. Submitting my work knowing that someone was going to be reading it and judging it was terrifying. But I did it and after a nervous few weeks, I was accepted. When the course started, it soon became clear I had met my people. My fellow cohort were funny, wise, full of love for books and writing, enthusiastic about each other’s work and endless encouraging. An early writing exercise sparked a character that wouldn’t go away so I wrote a NaNoWriMo novel to explore her story.

Two years and four drafts later, I started submitting ‘Rebel with a Cupcake’ to agents. To date, my writing experience had not been that stressful. I enjoyed my writing and I loved spending time on making it as good as I could. But sending it out to agents was a whole new world of stress. I had some straight nos which made me sad. I had some requests for full manuscripts that filled me full of excitement. I felt I was a step closer to where I wanted to be yet still as far away as ever. After about three months, Anne Clark offered me representation and when I got the email, I could barely contain my excitement!

I thought I was there. But I was just a bit further on the way. My MA finished and then I made my second brilliant decision. I joined SCBWI and started going to the Manchester meetings. I was so lucky to find yet more talented, generous writers who all wanted to get each other to write their very best. I revised ‘Rebel’ a few more times before it went on submission. But it wasn’t its time in the UK. Looking back, I have mixed feelings about this. On one hand, I was disappointed that it didn’t sell in the Uk but then perhaps also wasn’t surprised. The question remained – do girls from northern comprehensives become writers? Reading though the feedback from the publishers, even though they were (nice) rejections, I did get a thrill. Editors from all these famous publishing houses had read my book and mostly liked it. Okay they didn’t love it but they were saying nice things. I wasn’t perhaps as crushed as you might expect.

And then something magical happened. Anne took Rebel to Bologna and three offers were made for it. There was even a bidding war for me in France! Finally, I got my answer to my question of thirty years. Girls from anywhere can get their books published. They just need to work hard, be resilient, have people behind them who believe in them and finally, have that bit of luck that makes all the difference in the end. Rebel was on her way to Canada and France!

So what next? I was a published author and it felt great. I wrote another book, a fantasy this time, but again it didn’t find a home in the UK market despite coming tantalisingly close. The consistent feedback was ‘Brilliant opening, shame about the second half.’ So, I learned from this. I worked on plotting. I had an idea for another contemporary book with the comic touch of ‘Rebel’ and two years later, ‘Tulip Taylor’ was ready to go on submission.

I have to say this was the most intense submission so far. I really wanted to be published in the Uk now. Reviews for Rebel were great, it was a book I was really proud of but somehow I just had my heart set on a UK deal. And then one glorious July day, just before I went on holiday, I got the email. The fabulous Firefly press, which I’d heard of, loved their list, knew people who wrote for them and who I was desperate to work with, said yes! That, the two foreign deals, and my initial offer of representation are days that stand out for me of total, unadulterated happiness.

And so here I am, two weeks off UK publication. Those were my highs. There have been low points where I’ve wondered whether it was going to happen and then whether I could sell a second book. But I’ve kept to my mantra. Just keep writing when you want to. Take a break if you need. Keep reading. Take a break from reading if you feel like. Read YA, read for adults, read picture books, read poetry.

 Just enjoy yourself. Enjoy your writing. And see where it all takes you. fffffffffffff

Whose life is it anyway – ‘sharenting’ and lives lives online

Whose life is it anyway? Sharenting and a life lived online

I first wrote a version of a novel that eventually became ‘Tulip Taylor’ about five years ago. But it didn’t quite work – the central character wasn’t strong enough, her wants and needs weren’t clear or convincing and while parts of it worked, overall it just a bit of a mess. I put it to one side to work on a totally different novel and came back to it at least a year later.

Many people feel that they feel that they spend too much time on social media. I’m one of them. But if I didn’t spend time scrolling through Twitter I wouldn’t have come across the two stories that helped me find the heart of what became ‘Tulip Taylor’. The first was about a teenager who had a huge following on Instagram, only to delete her account because she’d come to hate how superficial it was and what a false impression it gave. The second was a mum influencer who started a parenting blog, saw this develop into a full time job where she used her children to promote brands and then realised that she had to change direction once she saw how her children just didn’t want to engage with the activities she was being paid to promote.

Articles about ‘sharenting’ (where a parent shares images of their child online) popped up recently when Gwyneth Paltrow shared a photo of one of her children on social media without her teenage daughter’s consent. It might seem a small thing but when someone has such a long social media reach as Ms Paltrow, then perhaps it’s not unreasonable that a teenager or even a child might want some say in how their image is shared. When one of my children was a baby, I dressed her up as a Christmas pudding. I thought it was the cutest thing ever. But she might not thank me if she’s going for a job in the future if I ever posted this online. Yet so many parents share images of their children without too much thought of how this might play out for them in their later lives.

Even more intriguing/concerning is the growth of the child influencer. Some children have become online celebrities through their parents’ use of social media – unboxing presents, going on filmed days out, being part of pranks. Some families can make an apparent fortune presenting the perfectly curated lives of perfectly cute children. But what happens when those children aren’t so cute or don’t want to take part anymore. And who gets the money made out of the performance of those children? I don’t have any answers, rather I try to explore some of this through the lives of Tulip, her mother and her siblings. Tulip wants to control the direction of her own life and yet first her mother, and then the TV show she gets involved in (ironically to escape her mother’s plans for global domination), try to manipulate how the world sees her.

Finally, so many of us now live part of our lives online. Young people have never known life before the internet. They see how vloggers/influencers make money. They get involved in the soap opera that is the conflict between these names (see the recent spat between Tati and James Charles – shame on you if you need to google their names). They know that some people who start out with a laptop and internet connection end up with apparent fame, fortune and invitations to the Met Gala, where they rub shoulders with the fashionable and glamorous. It’s a heady mix. On a much more mundane level, those of us who do use social media are having our personal data mined, sold and used for political influence which isn’t always apparent. The online world is truly a brave new world, the implications of which we are only just beginning to understand.

So what is the answer? Unplug and delete? Possibly but it seems unlikely that all of us are willing to do so. There are many positives as well as negatives to engaging online. The current and very welcome wave of environmental awareness, driven by young people, could only happen in this connected era. As to the future, I’ll look to my own children, and the children I teach, to see how they navigate it. As in many things, I have much to learn from them.

What I’ve learned about writing and ‘success’

It’s three years since my first novel, ‘Rebel with a Cupcake’, was published and my new book, ‘Tulip Taylor’ is out in three weeks. So what have I learned about writing in this time….

  1. Writing is not something you do alone

Well, it is. The rather well-worn seat of my chair in the study is evidence of that. But before you can even think about putting your work out into the world, you need feedback. You need to find your book people. I have been so fortunate in this respect, firstly with my cohort on my Creative Writing MA and secondly with the north west SCBWI group based in Manchester. Not everyone has a wonderful experience of being part of a critique group but when it works, it’s unbeatable. You get feedback on what works for other readers and what doesn’t. Sometimes you need to make an adjustment; sometimes you don’t. But you have a sounding board for your ideas and when your words on the page make other people happy or sad, you know you’re on the right path.

So, find your book people and when you do, don’t let them go…

  • You might be able to craft a perfect sentence but can you plot?

I am a pantser by nature. In case that means nothing to you, I’m addicted to the magic of not knowing what’s going to happen in a story and just finding out as I go along. The problem with being a pantser is that until recently, I got a fair amount of feedback such as ‘Great start, shame about the second half.’ When more than a few people say it, you have to take it seriously (see point 1). So, I have learned my craft by going to plotting workshops. For me a SCBWI session with Alexandra Sokoloff was a turning point. Encouraging us to watch movies in a similar genre and see how they plotted the mid points and climax was incredibly helpful. I watched ‘Legally Blonde’ and suddenly my second half made a lot more sense…

  • You can plot but can you write a perfect sentence?

A lot of writing advice is all about the plot. But you can read all the plotting books in the world and at the end of it, all you’ve achieved is an understanding of a well-constructed  plot. But that doesn’t mean you can write. Or create the all important and ever illusive voice of your character. Nothing beats reading. More reading. And then a bit more reading after that.

  • You can’t change your true writing nature…

This is something I’ve realised recently. I am a pantser. Nothing can change that. I have learned the importance of plot but I can’t plan without writing it first. This is a pain because it means it takes me a long time to get anywhere. I can have the roughest of rough outlines but until I’ve written that incredibly bad first draft, I don’t have themes, the heart of my character’s emotional journey and certainly not the voice. This might explain the three-year gap between my first and second book being published! But at least, now I know.

  • Write what makes your heart sing

There’s a lot of talk about YA being a crowded or slow market at the moment (it is). So, is it a good professional move to move to the middle grade market where there seems to be more interest? Well, it certainly seems to make sense. Except that lots of other writers are doing the same thing, the market may well shift back again in a year or two and most importantly, do you want to write what you love or what you think will sell? Writing can be such a tough game, it seems strange to me to spend your time writing something which isn’t your first passion.

  • What is success?

This is the hardest thing to get my head round. If you’d have told ten-year-old me, that I’d have two books published in three different countries, I’d have been ecstatic. Or I would have been if I could spell it. And I am very, very proud of my achievement. But I think ten-year-old me would be surprised to learn that I have three other paying jobs apart from writing and that not many of my writing friends make their living solely from selling books. In my head, I’m still not that successful because my job as a teacher is my main source of income. However, given point 5, I’ve learned to see this as a positive. As I’m not dependent on writing for my living, I can write what I love.

Aiming for publication is a very tough business. It’s a combination of talent, hard-work and luck and only one of those things is something I can influence. Having a novel on submission with agents was one of the most intense experiences I’ve had. Having novels on submission with publishers then took that to a different level. It’s all beyond my control (which I hate) and it’s all so incredibly personal. What I’ve learned in the last few years is this. I’m a lot happier if my ideas of success are things I can realistically achieve. So currently targets for success have been…

  1. aim to improve my craft,
  2. read more novels/watch films/shows in my genre (yay!)
  3. finish that project that’s been living in my head all these years,
  4. then re-work it so that it shines and lives up to what I’ve always wanted to create.

Currently I’m very successfully working on point 2. All of this makes me feel much happier and in control than having ‘Publish book 3 next year’. I’d like that to happen of course. But I think it’s much more likely to happen if I follow my success criteria first.

To conclude – I wish you happy writing, reading, TV watching, researching. Find your book people and write what makes your heart sing. 0

Me, Jane and ‘Pride and Prejudice’

My lovely publishers at Firefly Press have described ‘Tulip Taylor’ as ‘I’m a Celebrity meet Pride and Prejudice’ and one early reader called it as ‘Huge fun and so refreshing. A Pride and Prejudice for our times’ (thank you, Olivia Levez!). Obviously any comparison between my novel and one of the greatest novels written in the English language is somewhat of a stretch but the dynamic of the relationship between Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy was one I wanted to pay homage to. So as publication draws near, I thought I’d write a few selected feelings about a novel that I’ve read over twenty times.

I first became aware of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ as a child after listening to my mother talk about the BBC version broadcast in 1980. But it didn’t appeal to me. I was immersed in re-reading ‘The Lord of the Rings’, imagining that I was Eowyn, riding into battle to fight to the death if need be. I’d just read ‘Jane Eyre’ with a narrator who called to me. I too was a unbeautiful, bright, northern girl who didn’t feel that she fitted in with her surroundings and hungered for a bigger world. Those characters spoke to me. Nothing I’d heard about Pride and Prejudice did. It was just a love story, wasn’t it? But then my friend died and I ended up reading Pride and Prejudice.

Frances Muir was in my O level Spanish class. She went on an exchange trip to Spain, she crossed the road looking the wrong way, was knocked down and killed. She was fourteen. At her funeral, her mother read out a review that Frances had written of Pride and Prejudice. Frances’ wit and bright mind shone through her words even after her death. As a tribute to her, I decided to read it.

But fourteen year old me didn’t get it. Elizabeth Bennet was beautiful, socially skilled, witty, bright and with fine dark eyes. Pretty much everything I felt I was not. 1980s Leeds was a strange place, still dealing with the aftermath of the Yorkshire Ripper murders so Regency England and Elizabeth’s happy ending seemed more alien to me than Tolkien’s Middle Earth. I admired Pride and Prejudice but I didn’t connect with it.

Six years later, I read it as part of my degree course. This time, I was gripped. Partly by the emotional dynamic of the central relationship, partly by the pitch perfect skewering of the pompous and the hypocritical, but what mostly struck me was how this intelligent young woman was trapped in a society where she was constantly expected to defer to those more stupid that she was, how woman and female beauty was a currency to be traded to the highest bidder. I had seriously underestimated this novel by seeing it solely as a love story.

A few years later, I became a teacher and consistently choose to teach Pride and Prejudice. Other teachers told me that it was too long, too old, too boring. I ignored them and taught it anyway.  Over the years, I’ve read it with and taught it to a minimum of 500 students. I can’t say they’ve all loved it. What I do know is that students generally follow this path. Many turn up looking sad. ‘It’s very long,’ they moan. Then we read the first chapter and they compare notes about embarrassing parents. Then we read the chapter where Darcy calls Elizabeth ‘tolerable but not handsome enough to tempt me’. We discuss why Darcy might not want to dance at such a public event. By the time, he’s telling Caroline Bingley about his admiration for Elizabeth’s fine eyes, they are hooked. There are so many of elements of the novel that they come to love and appreciate but at the heart, what sells the novel to them is the dynamic of two people who have to change, who overcome many obstacles to be worthy of each other and most definitely earn their happy ending.

So when I was planning ‘Tulip Taylor’, a very twenty first century novel about a teenager negotiating how to live a life on her own terms in a world of social media and reality TV, I still wanted to ground it in the history of this novel, the one that wrote the rules. Why not learn from the mistress of the first and best romantic comedy of all time? Thank you Jane, for Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion and Sense and Sensibility (I remain to be convinced with Emma).

Thank you for taking your own writing seriously at a time when women were not encouraged to write and thank you for creating a story that still inspires so many, so many generations later. �MO