About Me

Monday, 29 February 2016

Why Writers Make Excellent Survivors

So this year at my school, I'm organising World Book Day.

I've run World Book Day before, but this one is special. Because it also happens to be the launch date of my debut novel.This means assemblies on growth mindset to plan, and costumes to decide (will Jack Merridew from Lord of the Flies be OK, and should it be pre or post pig blood?) and tweets to retweet, and blog posts to write, all the time whilst bringing my WIP character to a climax, structurally speaking.

Current costume-in-progress

My YA book is a castaway story called The Island. Planning my assemblies got me thinking about what survivors and authors have in common.

  1. Creative thinking

Here’s the thing.
Google ‘tampon’ and ‘survival’ and you will find many pictures of men in woods, gazing solemnly at Lil-lets on logs. From water filters to bandages, fire tinder to blow-darts, it seems that tampons are much revered as a crucial part of any serious survival kit.
It seems that survival is all about creative thinking. You’ve just got to think outside the (tampon) box.

Tampon tinder, survivalist-style

Part of my research for The Island involved finding out about the Tom Hanks film, Cast Away. The story goes that the writers, in pooling ideas for the film, brainstormed as many random objects as they could, giving these to survival experts to tell them how they could be used in a survival situation. These were then cast up for Hanks' character to find, in Fed Ex parcels.
Just like a castaway knows instantly that her pair of tights is going to make an excellent slingshot as well as keeping the mozzies at bay, any writer worth her sea-salt can make random connections and constantly surprise. Having a co-star that’s a volleyball? He’ll be called Wilson, right? Genius.

      2. Perseverance

If that fire doesn’t light the first time, if that flint isn’t making a spark, the only thing to do is to keep on trying. Each failure is a baby step closer to making fire, just like each new word is another word closer to getting that agent deal. 

      3. Having a growth mindset

Marooned on a desert island, it's crucial to learn from feedback. Why isn’t that fish or fire catching? Examining each failed attempt gives a survivor information on what she could do differently next time. Ditto for writing. There's nothing like joining a critique group and being brave enough to submit your two thousand words for objective scrutiny, to develop your writing skills.

       4. Optimism

Yes, you've learnt from feedback, but there’s no point in looking back and having regrets. Why on earth did I step on that plane? isn’t going to help you open that coconut. It’s never going to happen,  isn’t particularly helpful. And brooding about the size of the slush pile isn’t going to help you write that next book either.

        5. Ability to cope with enforced isolation

Writers have their Room of One’s Own, castaways get their island. One of the major challenges of the castaway, far more than the physical endurance,  is enforced isolation: being forced to live inside her head and be alone with her thoughts for weeks on end. Which is kind of what writers do for a living. 
Inside my writer's hideaway, my caravan

        6. Ability to hook

It doesn't matter if it's a fish or a reader, being able to reel them in is yet another thing that writers and survivors have in common.

         7. Multi-tasking 

Keeping that fire going, whilst fixing the roof on your shelter, whilst boiling the next batch of water - it's all in the day's work for a castaway. As for writers? 
Blog post, tick. Link to growth mindset, tick.

Oh wait, I think I have my assembly…

My debut YA castaway adventure, The Island, is out on 3rd March. 
You can buy it here.

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

How I Used Method Writing for The Island

Method acting: a technique of acting in which an actor aspires to complete emotional identification with a part.
Method writing: a technique of writing in which a writer attempts to do the same.

Blame Tom Hanks.

That’s all I’m saying.

I was preparing for a long stint writing my first draft of The Island. I’d got everything prepared: informed the family I would be going away for a Very Long Time, along with Dog; packed up the car with dog biscuits and leads and laptop and charger and notebooks; filled up with petrol; remembered which friend I’d last lent the caravan to and retrieved the keys.

Then I had a Bright Idea. It was an idea which would see me never looking coconut water in the face for a very long time.

Let me rewind.

I’d got the idea for writing a YA castaway book, one with a girl survivor. Fran, my castaway, wants to be alone. Betrayed by everyone she knows, she considers herself a rock, an island. And then, one day, enroute to an island bootcamp as punishment for a crime she has tried to block out, she gets exactly what she wishes for.

So I’d re-watched Tom Hanks in the excellent film, Castaway; watched all of Ed Stafford’s clips in Naked and Marooned on the Discovery Channel; read Adrift, a harrowing true-life tale of a man lost at sea for seventy-six days, and reread Castaway, about Lucy Irvine’s year on a real desert island with a bloke who would be later played by Oliver Reed in an eighties film version with lots of nudity.
Ed Stafford, before and after his castaway experience

I had lit many beach fires; read travel blogs; trekked for howler monkeys in a Belizean jungle; fished for snapper in Caribbean waters; slept in a cabanna on a tropical beach. I’d even forced myself to get in a plane after spending days researching plane crashes in minute detail, and examining photographs of plane wreckage at sea. Bad timing, but necessary.

I was ready to write.

It was as I hovered outside Tesco, ready to stock up for my writerly stay, when I had my Big Idea.

Why not do as The Hanks does?
Why not go one step further, and…method write?

After all, method acting was what Tom Hanks did to prepare for his film role as Chuck Noland. He didn’t shave or cut his hair for weeks and lost 55lbs to look and feel like a real castaway.

He took a year to prepare for his role. I had six weeks.

Well, not cutting my hair or shaving was easy enough. Who cares about hairy legs when you’re stuck in a caravan anyway? And easy to ignore that long, strange mutant hair that seemed to have sprouted on my chin by simply not looking in the mirror. Kind of a relief to not bother, and also sort of liberating.
It doesn't look much, but this is my Room of One's Own, my writer's hideaway

So this is what I did. I decided to live only off the contents of what I found in my caravan cupboard, left over from renting out to friends, and friends of friends.

I bought only:
  • A bag of oranges (didn’t want to get scurvy, even in the name of Art and Writing)
  • Five cartons of coconut water (for authenticity – see Tom Hanks again)
  • Lots of tins of sardines
With some trepidation, I turned the key (thankfully it was the right one) and threw open my caravan curtains, opened windows to air, and then…I opened the cupboard doors. 

Inside, I found:

Tomato cuppa soup, lots (whoever stayed here last must have been quite a fan)
Porridge, thankfully (my brother’s an ardent porridge fan and connoisseur)
More tinned sardines 
Chamomile tea
Rice crackers, with a strange deep orange cheesy coating

One of my cupboard 'finds'

OK, so not a great haul. But it would serve its purpose. I, like any true survivor, would learn how it is to forage, and make-do. Sighing, I tipped the contents of a tin of sardines for Dog, shook out my first rice cracker, and began to write…

At first, method-writing was an interesting challenge. There was nothing like the thrill of finding half a packet of crumbling sultanas deep in the recesses of the cupboard on Day 3. Now I could add flavour to my porridge-made-with-water!

As the week went on, I realised that I was really, really bored. And hungry. But I took long walks with Dog every couple of hours, along the beach at low tide, scrambling up over sea-slimed rocks and exploring caves which, in days of old, were used by wreckers and smugglers.
The beach at night, before walking back for our suppertime treat of cheesy rice crackers

We swam, and we lit fires, and we watched the sun slide into the sea like melted butter. And never have I been more lonely. Which was great for my method-writing experiment.

Fran, my island castaway, spends days on the beach, hungry and lonely, with only a dog for company. So did I.

Campfires on the beach, as the sun dies

It was easy, then, to get into Fran’s voice. For a week I was her. And, even though I did eventually end up going to the local store for coffee and bread and fruit and salad and cheese and wine, I stayed on at the caravan, and immersed myself in the sea and the cliffs and the beach. Listened as the sea breathed in and out.

And it was worth it.

Because when I finally came home, desperate to talk to human beings, not only did I feel cleansed after my coconut water and sardine diet, on my pen-drive nestled the first draft of a new novel, this time the one that was going to make me finally be able to call myself an author.

Thank you, Tom Hanks.


My debut YA castaway novel is out on 3rd March, published by Rock the Boat, Oneworld.
You can pre-order it here:

Thursday, 4 February 2016

Dogs (and Cats and Raccoons) and their Writers

Neil Gaiman and one of his beloved cats

Life has been manic and hectic and frantic, so I haven't had the time to blog or tweet or work on Book Two, what with Ofsted hovering menacingly near our school, but still not actually arriving yet. And then there are school visits of a different kind to organise for when The Island is officially published (can't believe it's only one month away...) and my big book launch event to arrange, and assemblies to give at my school, and indie bookshops to talk to and competitions to plan and...

And breathe.

So in a rare lull, I am going to immerse myself in all things Dog (And Cat and Raccoon) in the final post about the special relationship pets have with their writers. Here, then, in no particular order:

Neil Gaiman often used to write about his cats, Coconut, Pod and Princess. He was very close to his dog, Cabal, who he rescued by the side of the road.

'We were a sort of an Odd Couple, both of us fascinated and delighted by the other one. Both of us protective.'

But not all writers stick with cats or dogs as their inspiration. Over to Sox the Raccoon and his writer, Melissa Bowen, aka BB Taylor:

Sox the raccoon and Melissa Bowen

Sox came to Melissa at about 3 days old as his mom was struggling to feed him. He is one of 5 raccoons that live with Melissa and spends a lot of time educating people about raccoons and visiting special people such as children in hospices. Sox is the star of one of Melissa's books: Sox and Pals. She writes under the name BB Taylor.

Sox and Pals

Kurt Vonnegurt and Pumpkin, ahhhh...

'I cannot distinguish between the love I have for people and the love I have for dogs.'
Next up...

The Dog that Owns Rowena House

Rowena House's adored mutt

Although Rowena's darling dog has never appeared in a story of hers, he might one day. 'He's not what you'd call a literary hound, and spends most mornings lounging on my bed, whining about me being at my desk again. But he leaps off instantly if I get up, barking like mad to tell me it's time for a walk. Most days we go to the cliffs or beach for an hour's serious playtime.'
And what does he think of Rowena writing books? 'If I can't eat it, chase it, or bark at it, what on doggie earth is the point of a book?'

You can follow Rowena  @houserowena. She is the author of Angelique's Geese in War Girls (Andersen 2014) and currently finishing a structural edit of The Butterfly's Wing, a coming-of-age story set in France during WW1.

Steinbeck's little Charley...

'I need a dog pretty badly. I dreamed of dogs last night. They sat in a circle and looked at me and I wanted all of them.'

Next up is the indefatigable Roly, writing companion to SCBWI member Kellie Jackson:

'This is Roly. He's 77 in dog years. My constant companion and mud-rolling champion. Smells like clothes left in the washing machine overnight. Eats anything and everything. Terrible breath. Fire hog. Likes barking at the postman and specialises in scaring delivery people but allows baddies into the back garden to steal bird feeders. Nervous of pet rabbits and dog groomers. Once ate a whole Stilton. Main goal in life: to catch a squirrel.'
From this point on, Roly took over the interview somewhat:

'Kellie, my dog-mother, spends a lot of time upstairs in her study talking to herself and tapping away at that awful computer. I wait at the bottom of the stairs WILLING her to take me for a walk, or failing that, feed me a biscuit. Biscuits are referred to in our house as a ‘B’ - she thinks I don't know this. She uses the ‘B’ word to get me to do things I don’t want to do, like shift from my spot beside the fire, but I’m on to her. I happen to love the smell of my own fur singeing even if she doesn’t.
Kellie’s been trying to write a novel since before I was born. The poor thing. I feel a bit sorry for her. I hope to Dog Heaven she succeeds or no one in this house will ever get any rest. That includes our postman. She’s written a couple of short stories which have been on the radio apparently. I only remember this because Kellie forgot to shut the front door after the postie delivered a contract last spring. Kellie didn’t notice I’d pinned him against the garden gate because she was too busy doing an embarrassing dance on two legs. Who dances on two legs? It’s unnatural, right?
Speaking of unnatural, Kellie spent most of November doing something bizarre called NaNoWriMo. ‘Knocking out a crappy first draft’ she said. IS SHE MAD? November, that glorious month, with the park haunch high in fallen leaves and deep muddy puddles, not to mention all those fluffy-tailed squirrels to chase…Still, she’s all I’ve got. All my dog-brothers have grown up and my dog-sister is busy doing A-levels. At least Kellie takes me out for a walk everyday. I don’t mind that she rabbits on endlessly about her ‘WIP’, whatever that is. I try not to let on but I have no idea what she’s talking about most of the time. It’s quite possible she’s unhinged. But as long as she keeps the biscuits coming I’m hers for life.
Btw you can tweet my writer @KellieAJackson.'
Santa Paws

Elizabeth Barrett Browning was deeply attached to her cocker spaniel, Flush. In a letter to her friend, she wrote:

'You understand — don’t you? — that Flush is my constant companion, my friend, my amusement, lying with his head on one page of my folios while I read the other.'

Klaxon! And now to our SCBWI Gallery of Pet Plotters....

SCBWI member Helen Lapping's Becky. Woof!

Nicola Keller's much missed ginger girl, constant companion and foot warmer...

...and Ottaline, Nicola's new line manager, enjoying some relaxing music.

Smile for the camera! Jane Howard's Archie

Watson Jones, posing nicely for his writer, Eloise Williams

Jeannie Waudby's writing buddy and plot advisor, Dougal

Karen Minto's loon

Another of Karen Minto's loons
Sally Poynton's writing companions, enjoying a moment of snuggliciousness

Marie Basting's Polly, who steals and throws things to ensure her writer takes regular screen breaks

As everyone knows, cats are the ones that ultimately rule in any writing household. So the last word, or picture, must go to Julia Underwood's Fudge...

Julia's secretary cat, a Tonkinese named Fudge

Saturday, 2 January 2016

Dogs and their Writers - Part 2

Welcome to Part 2 of my Dogs and their Writers post, featuring Diesel and his debut author Kathryn Evans, Mitzi and her writer, Amanda George, and Stanley Chester’s author Camilla Chester.

 First, a picture of Basil, who inspired Dog in my debut book The Island

I wrote my book over a teacher holiday one summer, and hid away from all internet and mobile reception in my caravan in West Wales. My only companion was my Jack Russell dog, so little by little I suppose it was only natural that he crept his way into my book as well as onto the bed. My teenage castaway Fran has Dog as her only companion on a desert island in the middle of the Indian Ocean...
If you look closely, he has even found his way onto the spine of my book!

Now to this week's dogs and their writers:

Diesel, and his writer, Kathryn Evans...

Diesel and Kathy among the strawberries

1.       Have you ever featured your pet dog in a book? Which and how? Not as a dog but his personality has definitely been hijacked – loyal, loving and a bit dim.
2.       Is your dog an essential part of your daily writing routine? In so many ways! How? He is always by my side when I’m writing. My office is also where I work for the farm so when people come in unannounced, and I’m acting out a scene from a book, I just pretend I’m talking to the dog! It’s a bit strange if I happen to be crying at the time. Also, when I have plot problems, we go for a walk to unstick them.  Never fails – though sometimes we have to go for very long walks… 
      Where does your dog like to be when you’re writing? In his stinky bed, by my feet. Unless one of the cats beat him to it and then I have to move the cat or Diesel makes his sad face.
3.       How does your dog help/inspire you in your life as a writer? I think it’s just having a companion, someone to talk to who just listens! You don’t need answers to work things out, you just need to go through the process of discussing them. Dogs are perfect for that. My cats just look at me as if I’m stupid then through all my papers on the floor. Diesel looks at me as if I’m brilliant, the best thing in the world.  It helps when you are convinced you can’t write for toffee!
4.       What does your dog think of your current WIP? How would s/he describe it?  There’s a cat in my bed. Is it walk time? Is it dinner time? Is it walk time? There’s a cat in my bed. Sorry, to be honest, he isn’t the brightest…

     I am sure that Diesel would like everyone to know that his writer has her debut book coming out in February, and that his writer is very brilliant indeed! I was lucky enough to critique the opening, and can't wait to read it.

Follow Kathy @mrsbung

Mitzi and her SCBWI writer, Amanda George

1.       Have you ever featured your pet dog in a book? Which and how?
One of my WIPs is based on Mitzi and she is going to donate the payments from that book straight to the Dogs Trust when a publisher takes it on… needs to be edited first though!
2.       Is your dog an essential part of your daily writing routine? How? Where does your dog like to be when you’re writing?
Mitzi is a vital part of my creativity!  She’s never far away whenever I’m writing and she just needs to look at me with her soft, brown eyes that somehow wakes my muse up!

This is me giving Amanda my 'you cannot be serious' look
3.       How does your dog help/inspire you in your life as a writer?
I can bounce ideas off her without her putting me down or telling me that I’m writing crud until it’s editing time when she sits on my right foot and yawns if it’s boring
4.       What does your dog think of your current WIP? 
Amanda writes terrible stuff during her first drafts so I just stay in my bed and dream of the editing times when she really takes my comments to heart and usually makes the changes I say about.  She sometimes reads her first drafts to me but I don’t take much notice until it’s finished and editing it… I can’t wait for her to edit my book!

Mitzi and her writer, Amanda

Stanley, and his writer, Camilla Chester

1.      Have you ever featured your pet dog in a book? Which and how?
My dog Stanley Chester is not featured as himself but I sneak in his name. He wheedles his way into every aspect of my life!
In my first book, which I am due to publish in the spring (JarredDreams) the creepy town where the book is set is named Stanbridge and one of the dreams is his (Stanley Chester’s dippity do dog circus with matching hats for all)

2.       Is your dog an essential part of your daily writing routine? How? Where does your dog like to be when you’re writing?
If I am on my own in the house then I always write at the table with Stanley next to me in his basket. Occasionally he will come and put his head on my knee. So gorgeous.
I walk dogs for a living so all my dogs help really as I use the time to think things through and might make voice notes into my phone as thoughts come to me.
3.       How does your dog help/inspire you in your life as a writer?
He believes in me and I love him. He is patient, non judgemental and loves it when I read my work out loud.

“Being the wise king was ok, but the crown didn’t taste as good as gravy bones.”

4.       What does your dog think of your current WIP? How would s/he describe it? 
Well, that Mummy HB is always click clacking away into the shiny thing. She’s telling stories. This one is about a boy called Lucas Larks who likes cooking (he can come and cook for me anytime – although he only makes veggie stuff which is not as good as sausages). Anyway, he goes to a big house and then tries to get out of it again. It all sounds a bit pointless if you ask me, but then all HBs are mad, so carry on.

You can read Stan’s blog here: http://thestanleydiaries.blogspot.co.uk


Sunday, 13 December 2015

Dogs and their Writers: Molly and Stephen King; Chester and Nick Mackie; Mickey and Jo Franklin

Stephen King has one. So does Neil Gaiman, and so did Kurt Vonnegurt and Elizabeth Barrett Browning and John Steinbeck.
 I know I couldn’t do without mine.  He’s there now, jumping onto the bed as I write.
Basil. Rescue Jack Russell. A little bit bite-y. Breath warm as sewers. But my constant writing companion when writing The Island.
As he realises it’s one of Mummy’s writing days, and snuggles under the duvet with a contented little huff, it makes me wonder about the bond dogs have with their writers.
Basil, aka Dog
He's even inveigled his way into my book, and plays a starring role as Dog, a castaway canine companion to survivor Fran.
But how many other dogs influence their writers in this way?

Molly and her writer, Stephen King

Molly the corgi appears in several of her writer's novels, and luckily for her corgis do not seem to suffer the horrible fate of King's most famous canine creation, Cujo.
"It might be that the biggest division in the world isn't men and women but folks who like cats and folks who like dogs."
Chester and Nick Mackie

Chester asleep
Have you ever featured your pet dog in a book? Which and how?
Chester is my 7 yr old border terrier. He is a constant companion as I predominantly work from home. I titled my recent children's picture book 'Chester and the Eggie Boo'. The train's dog conductor is styled on Chester.

1  Is your dog an essential part of your daily writing routine? How? Where does your dog like to be when you’re writing?
I walk Chester twice a day - often when I need inspiration, to clear my head, or simply to let off steam. Some of my better ideas have come during a long walk.
Chester will either sit upstairs in the attic (my studio) with me or at the bottom of the stairs - whichever is warmer at the time!

  How does your dog help/inspire you in your life as a writer?
He makes me go for walks - which I probably wouldn't do as much of if I didn't have him. He is also a calming & entertaining influence.
I'm fortunate to live near the coast and we both enjoy some lovely beach walks. (Weston super Mare, Somerset, UK)

What Nick gets up to when he's not walking Chester...

So what does Chester think of your current WIP?
Well, I'll let him tell you himself...
I'm slightly miffed as my walking companion has been very busy lately illustrating a new book. This means I'm not getting as many long adventures as I would like. It's boring watching him tap away all day at the computer when all I want to do is go out and have a run on the sand. 

Chester with his writer, Nick
For some reason Nick likes tweeting better than barking, so find him @nickmackiebook

Mickey and Jo Franklin

At last Mum is off the computer. Time to write my next blog post.

    Have you ever featured your pet dog in a book? Which and how?

I’m working on it! It’s taken me a while to get the right story and the right voice. 

    Is your dog an essential part of your daily writing routine? How? Where does your dog like to be when you’re writing?
We go out for our morning walk before I start work. Either to Peckham Rye Park or to Nunhead Cemetery. I use this time to get my thoughts together and I have started doing a workout app while we are out. But Mickey likes to go off on his own and as soon as he gets a whiff of fox scent he turns his ears off and won’t come back. I have been known to be wandering the cemetery for 2 hours looking for him which is very bad for my writing day. When the weather is better I can sit and make notes on my phone until he decides to come back to me.
We take a shorter walk towards the end of the day which is useful if I have a problem to work out. Mickey has a chair in my study or he sits on the sofa watching GardenHD out the window.

A bit of tasty inspiration
   How does your dog help/inspire you in your life as a writer?

He is good company and forces me to go outside even in bad weather. It’s also lovely to have a big hug when I’m feeling fed up with my paltry word count or the latest rejection. Dog walking is very sociable. Most days the only people I speak to outside of my family are fellow dog walkers.

Jo Franklin writes for 8-10 year olds. Her first book Help I’m an Alien is published by Troika Books 
And Mickey, what do you think of your writer's current WIP?
It’s about time you started writing a story about a dog, but why did you have made your dog character so naughty? I thought you were going to write about me. 

Btw did you know I have my own blog page and twitter?
And here's my writer's one: www.jofranklinauthor.co.uk