Dear Diary

I know I’m not the only writer out there that has a notebook beside their bed. I use mine to write down the character ideas and plot points that float around in my grey matter desperate to be noticed, which normally coincides with when I’m just about to close my eyes and wait for sleep to arrive.

Yet, sometimes a notebook isn’t quite enough? What about everything else that’s going on? To-do lists, bills to pay, is the car MOT due soon or is that next month, where do I find X, Y or Z without breaking the bank, are the kids OK, would they tell me if they weren’t? – all these things and more need to be written down, it’s as if my mind needs to discuss everything with me before it’s ready to let me rest at the end of the day.

I started writing a diary when I was about to go into first year at high school. At least I think it was then, I haven’t found any well-thumbed notebooks from before that time and I am a bit of a hoarder.

I’m not sure why I started at that point, maybe it’s because I was nearly 12 and heading to the ‘Big School’ or maybe it was more because I had a vague idea what lay in store for me and I needed an outlet for my worries. My sisters had obviously told me all about high school, their tales about some of the teachers and consequences of not doing homework etc had been stretched into fantasy just to scare me but I knew that some of what they said was true. Though at that point, I was more interested in the 80s band A-ha and whether Morten Harket could possibly find love with a Scottish soon-to-be teenager who had a Pierrot Clown duvet cover that had never occurred to me to realise I was now too old for.

Fast forward mumble years and I still use a diary. Not every night to be fair, I mainly keep it for the good/bad things that have happened on any particular day. It’s filled with hopes for my family and what lies ahead for my stories amid the ever-increasingly crazy world we live in.

The worries never seem to go away, they just change form and morph into other meaningful things at each point in my life but at least they feel somehow ‘managed’ a bit better now that they’re shared on the page. The importance of each one paling into insignificance as I furiously scribble my woes most nights. Sometimes the pages are spattered with amazing things that have happened and sometimes they’re filled with sad or anxious thoughts that never seem to leave me be. Niggling at my happiness, convincing me that they need a voice too.

These musings may never be read again but the act of writing them down snapshots a moment in my life that I may well have forgotten the next again day.

It’s good to know the memories are still there, should I ever choose to go back in time.

The Mystery of History

I found my old school report cards. There was a lot of ‘she must try harder’ and ‘if she spent more time studying than looking out the window she might get on a bit better’. Reader, it’s fair to say my procrastination skills are still just as bad but I like to think I’m definitely trying harder.

I remember being taught about the Highland Clearances, Bonnie Prince Charlie and all the other historic school curriculum topics our teachers repeated on their pupils year after year. I was bored. Through no fault of the teachers or the books provided, it just didn’t interest me.

The only topic I was interested in was English. The day the TV trolley was wheeled in was one of the highlights of my secondary education. Pressing play, the teacher smiled as the opening credits to the film based on the classic SE Hinton novel ‘The Outsiders’ were displayed on the screen, quickly followed by an audible gasp from the whole class. We had just finished the book that term and I’d received my highest ever mark for an essay on it. Thank you Ponyboy and all.

Fast forward mumble mumble years and my love of everything historic has increased ten-fold.

From Barbara Henderson’s wonderful novel about 12 year-old Janet, her village under threat during the Highland Clearances in Fir for Luck, to Alex Nye’s novel based on the letters from Mary Queen of Scots to her Lady-in-Wating in For My Sins, I have been devouring them all. I just wish all the books that are available now were available back then. Perhaps I would’ve listened more, been a bit more attentive and studied History beyond the obligatory 2nd year allocation in my timetable.

As a book reviewer for My Book Corner, I am very lucky to receive many advanced copies of books that are due to be released in the coming months. May has been no exception, from the fabulous YA novel Sonny & Me by Ross Sayers, taking me back to my misspent youth, to a plethora of picture books for those starting out in their reading journey.

The doorbell rings and I am greeted with a smile from Royal Mail’s finest. I grin back, take the parcel and close the door. This is the one I’ve been waiting for. Published by the phenomenal Cranachan Books, ‘Girl in the Cage’, (written by the legend and author of more than 365 titles) Jane Yolen along with Robert J Harris, has finally arrived.

For those unaware, Robert The Bruce had a daughter. She was kept in a cage by her captures. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some reading to do…

P.s you can read it too but not until 20th June! #launchday

Chicken Legs & Shortlists

There’s something quite magical about seeing a book you love appearing on shortlists within the literary world. When The House With Chicken Legs appeared on the shortlist for the CILIP Carnegie Medal, I was absolutely delighted for Sophie Anderson.

The House With Chicken Legs

I have always had an interest in folklore and fairy tales, so I asked Sophie if she would like to share some of her thoughts on the research and writing process for her amazing debut and beyond…

·  The House with Chicken Legs has stormed into our hearts, have you always wanted to write your take on this particular Russian tale? What research did you do on the houses themselves? 

My grandmother used to tell me Baba Yaga stories when I was young, so I’ve carried her tales in my heart and head for a long time, and often wondered about Baba Yaga’s character. I didn’t realise all that wondering would lead to me writing a reimagining, but when I started, it did feel like I had been preparing for it for a long time!

Research-wise, I read (and re-read) all the Baba Yaga tales I could find, non-fiction texts about her and Russian folklore, and I loved looking at artists’ visions of her and her house over the years.

·  Once a writer gets an agent or is published, their world can change forever. Doubts can creep in about their work and ‘Imposter Syndrome’ can take over debilitating many as they try to write their next novel. What can writers do to look after themselves, in particular, their mental health, as they navigate through the highs and lows of success?

The writing life is full of highs and lows. I think you just have to keep reminding yourself of that, and brace yourself for the ride. Sometimes you will feel low, and think your work is terrible, but other times you will be proud of your work and what you’ve achieved and feel on top of the world!

Throughout it all, I remember that I write because I love to write. And nothing else really matters.

·  With The Girl Who Speaks Bear coming out later this year, have you changed your writing and editing habits since your debut process? Did you have as much time to write your second novel compared to your debut?

I definitely felt the added pressure of deadlines and expectations! But once I lost myself in the world I’d created it wasn’t too different. I suspect (for me anyway!) every book will involve a slightly different process, but at its heart it’s all about falling in love with your story and working to make it the best it can be.

·  Are you a part of a writing or critique group? Do you use readers for your drafts or is your editor there to light the way?

My early drafts feel very fragile, and I wouldn’t like to have them critiqued in case they fell apart, or I was nudged in the wrong direction! I’m only ready for feedback once I’ve done a few drafts on my own. Then I use my agent, Gemma Cooper. She is an amazing editor, and always gives very thorough, very honest, feedback. I do a re-write after considering her feedback, and then it goes to my editor.

·  Procrastinator or planner?

Bit of both, but mostly I just dive in without too much thought!

·  Congratulations on the CILIP Carnegie Medal shortlist! Is this a dream come true for you? Having grown up reading many books that have gained the magnificent accolade, do you have a favourite winner from past years?

The House with Chicken Legs being shortlisted for the Carnegie is beyond anything I dared hope or dream! Last year’s winner, Where The World Ends by Geraldine McCaughrean is such a stunning, original book. It evoked incredible imagery in my mind and strong emotions in my soul. I still think about it often. Other favourite winners include Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner, The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, Skellig by David Almond, andNorthern Lights by Philip Pullman.

·  If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be? And if you could only take four books with you, what would they be?

I love where I live now, in the beautiful Lake District, although I do miss the seaside sometimes (I grew up in Swansea). Four books? Today I’d choose Collected Narrative and Lyrical Poetry of Alexander Pushkin, translated by Walter Arndt; an omnibus edition of everything Tove Jansson ever wrote, and another of Maya Angelou’s work; and Angela Carter’s Book of Fairy Tales. Tomorrow I might choose a different four!

Thank you for chatting with me, Sophie!

Sophie Anderson grew up with stories in her blood, from her mother, who is a writer, to her Prussian grandmother, whose own storytelling inspired The House with Chicken Legs.

photo courtesy of Sophie Anderson

Born in Swansea but now living in the Lake District with her family, Sophie loves walking, canoeing and daydreaming. Her dream is to create stories that help children to explore the world and fall in love with its beautiful diversity. Twitter: @sophieinspace

Can You Hear It?

When I begin to write a new story, regardless of what age range I am aiming for, there’s a voice I hear as I jot down the words.

Sometimes the voice is loud and clear and other times it whispers before disappearing from my mind until I work my way through each chapter. When the voice stays with me for long periods of time I know I’ve finally found what I’m looking for. My main character has arrived. They have found their place within the lines on my page and they are asserting their authority with dialect and humour and everything else they need to get their point across.

Once I’ve finished my first draft I leave it alone for a few weeks. I like to think it’s getting a holiday from my brain and all the ‘what ifs’ I throw its way as I wade through the first inkling of a plot.

Once rested and dusted off, my story and I haven’t seen each other for a while. It’s like an old friend. We just pick up where we left off and hope that we don’t fall out or go in a huff with each other when I change things about or delete an unnecessary character.

My latest story has a character who is 11. So I do what all fledgling writers do, I tap my heels three times and wish I was that age all over again (I don’t really as that’s the calm before the teenage hormone storm and no-one wants to go back there, do they!) I only wish I was 11 again so that the conversations I need my characters to have, are genuine and authentic.

I can only pass it on to those of that age once it’s ready to share and see what they say. I compare that part of the process to waiting in the queue on parents night, a short revelation of what’s good and what ‘needs to be worked on’ from those in know.

I want the quiet but firm voices that make a reader hold their breath as they read through a tension-filled scene or the robust, theatrical voices that sing as they bounce about the page turns. Dramatic, inviting and unforgettable. That’s what I’m aiming for anyway. Only time will tell if I’ve achieved that or not.

Voices need to be heard but only if they are the right ones for my story. The right tone and sentiment to bring my characters to life – snotty noses and all.

Four Words

I have an agent!

Four words I never thought I would ever say but there you have it. I pitched my story, I chatted without being sick (believe me, when a gatekeeper asks you a question you might feel a bit woozy with nerves) and all the hard work and crossed fingers for luck made my dream come true.

I am delighted to confirm that I have signed on the dotted line with the fabulous children’s agent Alice Sutherland-Hawes, from The Madeleine Milburn Literary, TV and Film Agency.

I pinch myself every day.

I am now editing my story knowing I have her guidance and knowledge to help me over the bumps in the road.

I did it, Gran Gran. I just wish you were here to celebrate with me.