I drew a thing that actually resembled a thing

Today I did something I never ever thought I would do.

I drew. This might not be a big deal to some but to me it was liberating. I decided there would be no more stick people or sheep that resembled clouds with chicken pox and I drew a thing that definitely resembled an actual thing. Not since I sat my O’Grade Art *mumble* years ago, have I ever tried to draw anything from scratch.

It just so happens I know some enthusiastic kindred souls who are having the same dilemma so between us all we walked the freezing streets of Edinburgh and captured images on our sleet-spattered sheets of paper. And so began the very first Scrawl Crawl of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators South East Scotland network.

Under the watchful eye of our illustrator co-ordinator Catherine Lindow, we thought carefully about what we write/draw and how to interpret it on the page. We delved into the SCBWI Sorting Hat and pulled out inspirational words that would send us on our creative journey, using the scenery before us we drew from:  the perspective of an animal, smells, circles, triangles, relationship of two people…

We all exchanged looks of ‘how do I do that’ and ‘you want me to draw what?’ but with a five minute deadline looming and then we were to swap our pages with our neighbour, the SCBWI group became silent as concentration levels soared. Brain cells could be heard chattering, encouraging their owners from their warm bed under flesh and bone that everything would be just fine. And the grey matter was right.

We ambled down The News Steps near Waverley Station and caused much confusion among the tourists as to why we were drawing in -2C. It’s Scotland, we’re used to it. As the drizzle turned into sleet we made the decision to head indoors.  The impressive Museum of Scotland was minutes away so we grabbed the opportunity for some warmth and carried on drawing as we sat on the balcony listening to the hustle and bustle of the Saturday crowds as they made their way through its vast corridors.

The light poured in from the glass ceiling above as we attempted to replicate the glass-housed artefacts on our sheets of A4.

In the discussions that followed, we realised that a first draft, whether it’s an illustration or a chapter of words are treated exactly the same.

Words are written down in an attempt to create an illusion of a specific character, place and time. Illustrations are drawn to attempt to create the very same illusion. The Yin and Yang of the creative world.

Regardless of whether you draw or write, the very first pen-to-paper experience is the same. Dummy picture books are an example of what we see, as an illustrator, to enable us to clarify where the pictures are best placed in or around the text. Our characters then come to life as we go through the story spread by spread. Writers of longer fiction do the same thing too, they begin to write their story down, stopping every now and again to make sure they’re on the right path. Just like an artist adds colour or shadowing to their first sketch.

At the end of the process – an illustrator has a picture book and a writer has a first draft. Joining them together is when the magic really happens.

So why not try both, let your muse show you the way. Let the words flow or let the paint brush glide…what’s the worst thing that can happen?

Here’s my drawing of one of the many skulls on display in the Museum of Scotland. It is not a stick person or a blob. It’s a skull. And I drew it all by myself. And then there was coffee. Bliss. 

I can’t wait for the next Scrawl Crawl and where it might take me next.

The Great Big Jar of Destiny

On the 1st January 2016, the Great Big Jar family decided to do something a little different in terms of new year resolutions.

Memories over one year are now written in the hand of the bearer of good news and folded neatly among its paper pals in the Great Big Jar of Destiny.

Reading through them all has just confirmed that in amongst all the nonsense that life has thrown at me this past year, there is a glimpse of something special that only family, true friends and snotty kids can give me.

Hope. That we’re all OK. That we’ll get there.

We half-filled our jar. Perhaps we missed a few goodies along the way or maybe we just felt some of the things didn’t merit a place in it. But what we did keep is all there, written in a pencil/pen scribble, with dates and smiley faces.

A highlight for me was being selected to read my work out at the Story Shop event, held during the Edinburgh International Book Festival. It’s a day I will never forget. The sparkly speigletent will always mean that little bit more to me now and has encouraged me to believe in my writing when sometimes it seems I’m getting nowhere fast.

The best bits from our jar include a lot of 1sts – diving off the 3m board, starting a new school where none of your friends from primary are going, being asked to open a new library, finishing a first ever first draft, kick boxing gradings, being asked to speak at a major conference, swimming comp successes, co-chairing writers network for Scotland, surviving a trek across Scotland in a camper van, a new job… to name but a few. It’s amazing what we’ve achieved without even realising it.

Normally we discuss what goes in the jar but for me, an unexpected entry takes the number one slot.  ‘Having a great time at school’, dated very recently. He made the right choice for him. I can stop worrying so much about it (maybe).

We’ll be filling the jar again with the good things in life rather than focussing on the bad. Another year to discover what’s out there.

What’s for you won’t pass you by.

Festive Lurgy – an ode to parents at Christmas

The festive season is upon us. Our bank balances have seen better days and our kids are eating their own body weight in chocolate because, as parents, we’ve frankly had enough.

It’s not that we don’t love our kids more than life itself, far from it, we couldn’t live without them. But just as we’ve begun to feel all festive, basking in the knowledge that all our pressies are wrapped before midnight on Christmas Eve (first time ever), when… the dreaded lurgy arrives.

And it’s here to stay.

A present for the household brought home from school as if to say ‘it’s nearly the holidays so let’s freshen things up with a few headaches and fevers before your kids come home for the end of term’.

It wasn’t on the Christmas list and yet it has made itself quite comfortable as it jumps manically between the fevered and shivery grown-ups. The adults are in for a dark and stormy road ahead.

A hell-road of ‘it’s my shot to do *insert a loud/annoying game here* now’, ‘can we go to the park/pool/cinema’ and ‘can I have a wispa for breakfast’ kind of road with a splashing of too much console time and a spattering of moaning ‘I’m too cold’ bike rides on the side.

First to fall is dad, the legendary man-flu is actually real this time. It keeps him in bed when all he wanted to do was toast the year gone by with his work colleagues, he had hoped to rejoice in the knowledge he’s off on holiday now for Three Whole Weeks. Alas, no.

Lurgy has other plans for you, my friend. Woosh – one week in bed, two left to get back on your feet. Merry Christmas!

Mum battles on and bustles around, ticking things off their now, down to one to complete, to-do-list with frightening accuracy and speed (a.k.a if I get all this done today, then I can open a bottle of something nice and celebrate being on holiday too/sleep for fifteen years because she’s beginning to feel crap also). She continually pops vitamins and for the love of god, ALL the fruit in the bowl, in the vain hope a rush of the non-fermented grape nutrients might ensure she doesn’t catch it too.

I mean, how rubbish would that be if the extended family came for Christmas dinner and were greeted at the door with surgical gowns and breathing apparatus…

Moving on. Nothing to see here.

As it turns out, the big yin’s day came and went without a hitch. Mum’s runny nose was kept at bay for the duration of the charade-fest and dad was sprightly enough to make a great meal that didn’t disappoint their unaware guests. Everyone headed home to wallow in their selection boxes/jammies etc the next day, watching Groundhog Day and Dirty Dancing. Again.

But The Lurgy had yet more festive delights in store.

Chest infections that sound like a propeller plane taking off, wheezy coughs that put the singing penguin-type thing from Toy Story to shame and an abundance of snot-filled tissues littering the floor around slightly whiffy parents who have given up and crawled to the comfy living room chairs, as they desperately try to avoid the kids getting it too.

Stay out, kids! They nasally say as they invent fantastically absurd excuses why their kids can’t come in to the room. Thankfully their off-spring are unperturbed as they have new toys to play with and a whole heap of interesting and sound barrier-breaking ways to annoy each other now that they are in the same house at the same time. All day. For another two weeks.

The moral of this tale is… just stay at work. Or start preparations in July.

Stay safe out there, folks. May the new year bring you a fantastic immune system and a germ-free start back at school.


Imagination is a scary word

Last weekend I was in the company of the brilliant David Almond – author of Skellig, A Song for Ella Gray, My Name is Mina and many more.2016-11-25-15-16-56

I was one of the faces in a sea of writers and illustrators that listened intently to his every word. I tried to piece together my own thoughts on writing and the processes involved when it comes to plot, chapter breaks and creating character arcs, so I was relived to hear that he is just like me – not a plot in sight. A ‘just go for it and see where it takes you’ kindred spirit, if you will.

Spellbound by his key-note speech at the SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) conference, we frantically wrote everything down so we didn’t forget a single word.

His soothing Northern accent filled the silent room as he shared his notebooks, scribbles and genuine love for literature with us all.

Creativity is not a luxury – it’s always there, he said. He regaled us with stories of his childhood – he would wander down to his local library after he played football with his pals. He would stare at the filled shelves and ponder about what path he would take. What do I want to be when I grow up? I want to be a writer. That’s what he told people.

The pencil case of destiny looms over David Almond!

He would day-dream of his books being on those very same shelves. His dream came true many years later when he went back to the same library. There were shelves with books that had been opened and closed many times, the dog-eared corners a tell-tale sign but the only difference was, now there were books with his name on them too.

Writing for children is not easy. In fact, in his own words, he remembers looking at his first ever published book and thinking “Phew, I’m glad I don’t have to write that again. It looks hard.”

And it does. All those words. All those sentences. They all have to be in the right order, have the right ending to each page to make the reader turn it over, wanting more.

Release The Writer Within

Part two arrived in the form of a workshop-style event.

How do we get that unique idea that no-one else has ever thought of before? What can we add to the dynamics of our characters to make everyone stand up and take notice of them?

“We all have a natural understanding of how to write a story.

Stories go back to the beginning of time – cavemen depicting life as drawings on the cave walls to the present day where kids are trying desperately to understand the meaning of frontal adverbs and the like for their 11+ exams.

The writer is the only person getting in the way of the writing. No-one else. The brain is a bit like our least favourite politician – you can’t do this, you can’t do that it says. But you can. We all can.

You have to dance your story. We are all trying to write something beautiful. Turn away from the voice that tells you to stop writing. Tell it to shut up.

You don’t need to know what your story’s about. Daft and enlightening – that’s what all stories should be. Where do these ideas come from? If you place both hands on either side of your head – that’s the size of your brain and your imagination – it’s where all the magic lives. Look after it well.

You can’t keep up with the times so just write your story – modern technology included or not.

Sometimes you need to call a halt to a story you love. You never know what might be waiting in the wings”.

The trick is to think of an object, or character or place in as abstract a way as possible – the best way to do this is to ask yourself questions. Some ‘what ifs’ and a few ‘why don’t theys’ to get the party started.

Tap into the fun and imaginative side of your brain and give it laldy. Here are some questions we were asked using objects from David Almond’s pencil case, give yourself a minute to answer each one. 2016-11-25-15-19-43It’s amazing what the mind can produce when it’s under pressure.

Here are my attempts at reply from the day itself –

Question 1 – Why did Mrs Askew sit in the puddle last Tuesday?

Because she was too hot and needed to cool down.

Question 2 – What part did the pencil sharpener play in the murder of Joseph MacIntyre?

It sharpened the murder weapon – death by pencil!

Question 3 – What is the Great Worm of Cloot and should we be scared of it?

It’s the longest scarf in the world. It’s big enough for everyone in the village to keep warm in and it’s not scary at all. But it might make you sneeze.

Question 4 – A famous dog called Patch has written and published his first book. What is the title and first sentence?

‘How Not To Be Human’ – Do not be fooled by treats and warm fires.

Question 5 – When Mrs Askew was 7 what was the terrible argument she had with her best friend?

She wanted to dress up as Dorothy to the brownies Halloween party and Agnes wouldn’t go as Toto.

Think outside the box (or pencil case) every once in a while. You’ll be surprised what’s out there.


Villains and Heroes

There’s nothing quite like a domestic flight from one part of Britain to the other that renders you speechless and slightly nauseas in the space of one hour and ten minutes.

What’s showing…

This was the introduction to my favourite weekend of the year – the annual Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators conference. A gathering of creative minds, jostling in-between the Christmas shoppers of Winchester as we head to the University’s grand halls to see and hear literary gods.

The agenda for the conference comes out early on in the year – piggy banks are counted, savings are withdrawn and my golden ticket of awesomeness plonks itself in my in-box as I count down the sleeps.

2016-11-20-17-41-09The theme this year was Cracking Characters. A very useful thought process for those struggling with their main protagonists hiding within their scribbles. Are they real enough? Do they jump of the page and shout out loud at me? What makes them so special? Do they have a USP? I had three full days to think about all of this and more and it was bliss. Notebook in hand, a pencil case full of pens and pencils (because you can never have enough, right?) I set off, itinerary in hand, and delved into my happy place.

Bearing in mind, members travel from all over the UK (and beyond) to attend, I never know who I am going to sit next to at each event. I always come away with new friends – it’s juts the way SCBWI works and I love it for that.

SCBWI partners in crime

This was my first year attending as South East Scotland network co-chair – I am very glad to have Anita Gallo, my partner-in-crime by my side and we have so many plans for the coming year ahead! It’s a privilege to be a volunteer in such a prestigious and welcoming society.

My Friday night crit group Dream Team

The conference starts off with the Friday night critique group. A hustling crowd of writers and illustrators who have been matched together on-line, have one hour and 30 minutes to critique their groups’ six manuscripts. It’s fun, it’s mad, it’s noisy but I LOVE hosting a group for this. My intrepid writers on the night were – Kim Howard, Beth Kemp, Barbara Henderson and Heather Lawson. I’m not going to lie, there are sweets involved. Sugar levels and all that…

Some of the South East Scotland network (and Candy)

Saturday is the day it all really kicks off. To start the day’s proceedings each network meets up at the check-in. Lanyards are adorned, SCBWI pens are purchased and fresh notebooks are prized open, the first clean page pressed down, awaiting further instruction. We had some fantastic key-note speakers this year – David Almond, Sarah Davies, Leigh Hodgkinson… my mind is still boggling from all the information given so freely and with such warmth.

One of the great things about the conference is that you can tailor it to your needs. I’ve been working mainly on my middle grade novels just now so I selected events that would help me craft them better, create more convincing worlds and generally try to make it look like I know what I am doing.

I also opted for a 1-2-1. I didn’t know who I was going to be paired with until I arrived but I had a fantastic, insightful meeting with Commissioning Editor, Ruth Bennett from Stripes Publishing. We both agreed that my WIP, sent to her a few months back, was made for the adult market (80’s nostalgia at its best) and she was intrigued with my pitch on my current WIP that I am working on for NaNoWriMo. A very uplifting and energised meeting. I have so much enthusiasm for both projects, I can’t wait to get back into writing mode once I clear my conference to-do list.

Therese and Justin

The Hook began its SCBWI journey last year. Think Dragon’s Den – pitch your story to four agents but in front of 300 fellow writers! SE Scotland member Justin Davies won it and selected Therese Coen as his agent of choice. Congratulations!

Sarah ‘Queen of Hearts’ Underwood and Sarah ‘Cat In The Hat’ Broadley

The Saturday night party is where legends are found, friendships are formed, prizes are awarded and wine is consumed. Epic.

Nom nom

And the cake! Well, the cake was just brilliant. Every SCBWI member who has had a book published this year has its very own mini edible version.

The Man & Teri Terry

My friend and amazing author, Teri Terry , won the SCBWI Crystal Kite award this year and I couldn’t have been prouder. She is my go-to when the procrastination demons strike and her endless supply of baby panda videos have helped me out of many sticky situations.

Cliff McNish – Creator of Good and Evil

Sunday is sometimes a bit fuzzy due to shenanigans from the night before but this year I was as bright as a great big jar of bright things. Maybe. Cliff McNish, ‘Doomspell’ creator and scribbler of many amazing characters, had it covered though and before long I was sharing a new idea with a room full of strangers as they helped me sort out the heroes from my villains. Sadly it was a cape-free zone.

The stragglers’ last supper

Late Sunday afternoon marks the end of an amazing weekend, there’s always time for one last supper though. I always leave the conference bursting with ideas and glad that I joined SCBWI in 2013. I’m not sure where I would be without it.

The flight home was a breeze. Literally.