Thursday 30 May 2013

“I’ve no idea how to do this!” Do writers get the ‘yips’?


Moira Butterfield

Is it just me who sometimes gets a mild case of ‘writer’s yips’? I don’t want to inflict it on other people, but I honestly hope I’m not the only one.

To explain – I've just made up that term 'writer's yips', but it seems appropriate. The ‘yips’ is the name given to a weird condition suffered by experienced and successful sportspeople who suddenly find that their body is taken over by their mind and they cannot perform the simple basic skills they would normally do well. It was coined for a golfer in the 1920s, who, having won the US Open, went on to take a record 23 shots on one hole in his next competition. He found himself completely unable to hole a putt. Similar yips have happened to famous and not-so-famous golfers, cricketers, snooker players and darts kings. Even World Champion darts supremo Eric Bristow has admitted that, for a short time, he couldn’t let go of any dart he tried to throw! It seems that the condition is most likely to affect players taking part in sports where they have plenty of time to think before an action, giving room for a psychological wobbly.

So what does this have to do with writing? As I said, at the time of writing I seem to have come down with a (hopefully mild) case of writing yips. I have a couple of picture book stories in progress. I have publishers who are interested in seeing them. I’ve written picture books before and edited them, too. So why am I getting the feeling that I have no idea how to write? Instead I’m metaphorically running around, getting nowhere, doing my best impression of Clive Dunn in Dad’s Army: 

“Don’t panic! Don’t panic!”

I also write non-fiction, and it's normal for me to get a brief moment at the beginning of a project when I think: “Why did I say I could do this? I have no idea how to do this!” But the feeling never lasts, and I always plunge in, experience taking over.

It’s different with the picture books. I think it’s partly to do with my growing confusion about what a picture book should be. Should it rhyme or not rhyme? No, say publishers, because they want quick sales abroad. Yes, say the British public, stocking up on the rhyming stories of Julia Donaldson. Should the text follow a conventional story pattern? What if it doesn’t? What if it’s rubbish?

“Don’t panic, Mr Mainwaring! Don’t panic!”

Pressure soon swirls around every word. No wonder my brain has frozen, and no wonder I ‘can’t throw the dart’.

Perhaps I can get some inspiration from current sporting hero Sir Bradley Wiggins, cyclist extraordinaire and winner of last year’s Tour De France. As I wrote this blog, he was on an impossibly-steep Italian mountainside competing in the Giro D’Italia, a punishing three-week road race he’d been targeting for a win. But Sir Brad suddenly seemed to develop an aversion to riding downhill fast in rain. It’s possible he began to feel nervous because he fell off early in the race and cut open his elbows, but this is his job and he’s done it before at the highest level, so knocks and bruises comes with the territory and nerves don't. He was obviously angry with himself for developing a confidence issue. He chucked his bike angrily in a hedge, and he got a bit shouty with the press. Hmm. perhaps I should chuck my keyboard out of the window and get grumpy with someone...

Now I don’t want to make out that I’m the Bradley Wiggins of picture books here! Far from it. But perhaps I may be able to take inspiration from him (though not with the keyboard-chucking). I suspect that what he’ll do to overcome his nerves is to train harder – knuckle down to the nitty-gritty basics of his art. He’ll talk to his sports psychologist, too, I guess, to get his negative feelings under control.

So…I must get away from that list of pressures I’ve created in my own mind, get away from all the picture book theories and the ‘should I do it this way or do it that way’ paralysis.

I think I need to metaphorically get back on the bike and just pedal.

Go on! Get on it and pedal!

Saturday 25 May 2013

Twenty Years a Writer! by Malachy Doyle

I do things for ten years, and then I get bored.

I was a wee fella for ten years...

And then I decided it'd be a whole lot more fun to be a teenager, and let my hair go all shaggy, and buy a Lambretta...

But ten years of zits and raging hormones is quite enough for any human being, so at the age of twenty, I decided to do all those grown-up things, like getting wed and working in advertising...

I'm not bored of being married yet, but ten years in advertising is quite enough for any sane individual, so at the age of thirty I chucked it all in for the 'good life' in Wales, raising children, runner beans and pigs.  Oh, and working as a care assistant in a residential school for young people with special needs.

(That's our own children in the photo, by the way, all dressed up for Saint David's Day.)

But, much as I admire people who can do such work for ever, it has a habit of grinding you down.
So after ten years, in 1993 - 20 years ago today, roughly - I found myself enrolling on a creative writing evening class in Ysgol Bro Ddyfi, Machynlleth, run by a very nice young lady called Zoe.

I was forty by then, three times bored.  Among other things, Zoe got us writing about our childhood memories.  I did a little piece about my mother's button box.  It had been my job to fetch it down from the high shelf above the stove when my Dad wanted to play poker.  I didn't care how badly I lost, as long as I could keep that little pink rabbit - half a century later, I've still got it.

And there was something about sinking into those memories.  Something about dwelling in the headspace of that young Malachy, aged 4 and 5 and 6 and 7... About looking at the world through his eyes.  Something about writing...

This is what I want to do, I thought.  This is what I HAVE to do.

So I did.  I did it for ten years, and forty books.  And guess what?  I didn't get bored.

So I broke the habit of a lifetime.  I did it for another ten years.  Another sixty books.  And guess what?  


Monday 20 May 2013

The Seven Ages of Picture Books by Lucy Marcovitch

My daughter is almost seven, and takes any and every opportunity to read. She will happily get through a book a day, and we make weekly library visits to replenish her supply. Current favourites are anything by Holly Webb, the pervasive Rainbow Fairies, Mr Gum, and the first ‘Little House’ books. She’s flown in wishing chairs and climbed up faraway trees and she and I are working our way through the Narnia series. Her reading is fluent and sophisticated; she’s done with picture books.

Or so I assumed. Yet when I read to my children, my daughter invariably chooses a picture book, and listens enraptured. She never says, “too babyish” or “picture books are boring”. She listens to the story and investigates the illustrations with as much fascination as her non-reading younger brother.  Watching her the other evening, I thought about this enduring appeal of picture books to older, literate children, and their presence in my adult life. It’s almost as if there are seven ages of picture books.

First age
My daughter’s first ‘reading’ experience was My Bunny Book. It’s a cloth book in bright colours, containing different sound and touch effects – crinkly bunny ears, boingy bunny leaps, strokable bunny fur. It epitomises the first age of picture books – tactile, dribble- and rip-proof, designed for chewing, grabbing, scrunching and bashing. This age is all about wonder, discovery and curiosity, laying the vital foundations for a book-reading life.

Second age
The second age is the golden age of picture books. Now it’s all about real pleasure and appreciation – sharing books, understanding and discovering the absolute joy that stories can give. It’s the age of “Again!” “Read it!” and “More!” when 12 pages of short sentences or even single words become embedded within a parents’ consciousness, and libraries come into their own. It’s when you don’t just read, but talk about stories, characters and illustrations together, and children delight in discovering that there are other children (human or animal) that are like them.

Third age
My son is learning to read, and loves spotting words he can read when I’m reading to him. In this third age of picture book reading a new world opens up, where a child can take control of their reading, and become more independent in their enjoyment of stories. It also adds another layer of interaction between adult and child – when I read to my son now, we share the experience in a more active way, and he can start to make the telling his own by using a different voice to mine.

This third age is also about stories taking on deeper meanings and enabling children to deal with life challenges and concepts. Of course such issues can be approached using picture books when they’re younger, but it seems that during this third age picture books offer a safe, non-threatening way to explore concepts and feelings that children can’t articulate. Recently, I read my children The Big Bag of Worries by Virginia Ironside, and I have rarely seen my daughter sit so completely still. I could almost feel the intensity of her interest in it, and it made me realise that perhaps there were anxieties that she felt unable to share which were being addressed by the book.

Fourth age
Now comes the pleasure of picking up a favourite picture book and actually being able to read it to yourself, rather than waiting for someone else to do it for you. The book is there to discover or re-discover for yourself, completely on your own. A child in this fourth age of picture-book reading has moved into that wonderful and everlasting realm of Reading My Book.

Fifth age
This is where my daughter is now, a fluent, voracious reader, working her way through the middle-grade bookshelf. And yet she returns again and again to picture books, perhaps to re-create that security and comfort she felt as a baby or toddler being held close by her parents, when she didn’t have the responsibilities or requirements of school or friendships to manage and negotiate. She enjoys me telling her that Dear Zoo was one of her favourites, or that she loved the Blue Kangaroo books, in the same way as she loves looking at her baby photos.

Sixth and seventh ages
These are the adult ages. The sixth is all about nostalgia – I have shelves full of books that I owned as a child, the oldest being One Morning in Maine, which was given to me in 1973 on my third birthday. Many I have read to my own children, all three of us feeling the specialness of ‘mummy’s books when she was a little girl’. I have my own childhood memories and feelings bound up in them – I often find that memories are triggered by illustrations in a favourite picture book – a children’s author’s equivalent of Proust’s madeleines, perhaps. Which leads me on to the seventh age – the reading of picture books to one’s own children, re-experiencing old ones, and discovering new ones.

I have written picture books, blogged about them, and read them to my children every day of their lives so far. And yet I have underestimated their power. Picture books lay the foundations of our future and become a constant in our lives, as enduring as the seven ages of life itself.

Our Guest Blogger, Lucy Marcovitch, is an education writer, author and blogger. She has two picture books published by Tamarind Press, and her interesting blog can be found here.

Wednesday 15 May 2013

Keeping It In The Family - Lynne Garner

Recently my niece called me and asked if I'd be willing to be a sounding board for her final major project (a picture book) at University. Although students were permitted to illustrate a well-known story, she'd decided to write and illustrate her own picture book. Being the helpful aunt, I agreed.

Our first step was for me to read her manuscript. It's a really sweet story and well written. However I made a few suggestions for tweaking. Well what did she expect? She had sent her manuscript to a creative writing teacher.

Her main character Tumo the baby elephant 

We set aside an afternoon for her to come over. She arrived with several A3 sketchbooks full of ideas. We soon realised we had some hard decisions to make. What to keep? What to tweak? What to kill?

It was decided the best course of action was to  pick the ideas we both liked and stitch these together. Basically she started with page one and worked a page at a time. 

When spreads 11 and 12 were reached that magic light bulb moment happened. She'd come up with such a lovely image for spread 11 that it cried out to become the final spread. So with a tweak in the wording, version one was complete with its new ending. 

Some of my nieces quick sketches

I've yet to see the completed story but I'm sure it will be worth the wait. I really enjoyed the process and hope perhaps once she's graduated we'll get the opportunity to work together. My words supported by her wonderful pictures, a real family affair.

Lynne Garner

Editors: If you're looking for a new writer/illustrator please contact me direct at and I'll put you in contact with my niece. It would be lovely to have another writer in the family!      

I teach two distance learning courses via Women On Writing which start 6th July - How To Write A Picture Book and Five Picture Books In Five Weeks.   

Friday 10 May 2013

Yay! Shark Teeth! The pleasures of a picture book hobby, by Jane Clarke

For as long as I can remember, I've collected fossils.

When we lived in the south of the Netherlands, the easiest fossils to find were the fossil sharks’ teeth that washed up on the seashore near Cadzand, Zeeland. Soon I had a collection of large-ish ones to put on the shelf behind the downstairs loo:

I found out a lot of cool facts about fossil sharks and sharks in general -  for example, in a lifetime, a shark can  get through more than 10,000 teeth. When I was thinking of a picture book story that required two inseparable friends, a great white shark and a remora were the first things that popped into my head. I was thrilled when my story was paired with Charles Fuge's wonderful illustrations.

After I moved back to England, two more sharky stories came along:

On my birthday, I was given a huge fossil tooth  - no loo shelf for this one, it sits in pride of place on my desk.

It was fabulous to discover that, in Florida, you can pick up fossil sharks' teeth on a warm sunny beach! Here’s a handful of small ones I found at Manasota Key, near Venice, Florida. They're great giveaways whenever I sign a Gilbert book.

I've become a regular visitor to Florida, and I'm always discovering fake sharks and jaws you can stick your head in!

You can leap out of your canoe and pan for fossil sharks teeth on the bed of the Peace River, 

and follow that with key lime pie floating on streaks of raspberry blood and topped with a gummy shark at Sharky’s on the Pier, Venice FL! 

Do picture book related hobbies get any better than this?

Jane's website
Jane's Facebook author page

Saturday 4 May 2013

Writing can wait. On the death of my mum and her influence on me, creative and otherwise by Juliet Clare Bell

My mum, taken by my sister, Stella Bell.

Shortly after posting my last blog (and two days after we’d been chatting about it), my mum, Margaret Bell/Storr died very suddenly and completely unexpectedly. She was well and happy, but she’d broken her ankle five weeks before, and, unbeknownst to us all, she’d developed a blood clot which went very quickly to her lungs. She’d spent part of the morning with my dad and brother and part writing more of her work in progress, a middle grade novel about a girl in the Second World War –a version of which she’d emailed to me less than 24 hours before she died. She had been on a creative roll.

She’d always been creative. She drew, painted and wrote –stories for her students, to fit their level of English but also their level of interest and understanding; beautiful, often rhyming, notes to us when we were children; stories for her grandchildren, and for the past five years or so, she had been a fellow member of the SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators). She was also writing short stories for adults and lots of poetry, both of which had had recent success.

As someone who relied on her sharp mind for writing, painting, reading and conversing, getting dementia (like her own mother) was her greatest fear. It is a real comfort that this never happened. As for breaking her ankle? Well, she couldn’t do the thing she hated –housework, but she could absolutely do the things she loved, whilst being looked after by family and friends: write, read, paint and spend time with people she loved. She sounded happier in the last five weeks than I can remember –ever.

It’s not a huge surprise I’ve ended up writing. My parents’ sharing of their love of stories started before birth for me. The Juliet in my name is straight from Shakespeare. After watching Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet whilst heavily pregnant with me, they decided that if I were a girl, they’d call me Juliet rather than Clare as they had previously chosen. The fact that I came out looking more like a long, scrawny orang-utan than the beautiful Olivia Hussey led to the current confusion with my name (always called Clare but with a different first name...hmmmn ...

More a Clare than a Juliet?

and only my brilliantly bonkers Shakespearean-loving parents could have made the decision to name my eldest brother Andrew Michael Bell even though they were always going to use Michael because ‘if his initials had been MAB [rather than AMB], people would have teased him’ (because of the tiny midwife fairy, Queen Mab, spoken of by Mercutio, also in Romeo and Juliet...?!). Stories were central to their lives and ours.

They read and sang to us every night, were genuinely enthusiastic about our own writings and could quote reams of poetry and Shakespeare willy nilly. (As a teenager this could be excruciatingly embarrassing -my biggest teenage rebellion was to hate classical music and choose not to do English A Level. There wasn’t much else to rebel against. Either side of being a teenager, it was great.)

My mum never shied away from telling us sad stories. I particularly remember Orpheus and Eurydice, which I agonised over as a child, and also the story of Lot’s wife being turned into a pillar of salt, which I turned into a slightly odd, superstitious game on my way to school. And the songs they sung to us at night! ‘I heard the curlew crying far, but I never heard my baby-o...,’ or ‘Ah my Geordie will be hanged in the golden chains, 'tis not the chains of many...’ (and many other Joan Baez songs). The songs and the stories and the storytelling were beautiful. The language of sad is often extremely beautiful. And they instilled a love of language in us. For the Christmas before I turned six, they gave me The Green Children, written by Kevin Crossley-Holland and illustrated by Margaret Gordon, a really old East Anglian story.

It’s sad. Very sad:
“One dark day, when the ground was like iron underfoot and the shifting skies were grey, the green boy threw up his hands and died.”
But they didn’t just give me the book. My mum sewed me Green Boy and Green Girl, which I still have now. And the dolls’ faces reflect the sad story. I cuddled them pretty much every night throughout my childhood as if I could somehow change the story and save Green Boy–which I did, for the doll at least. Green Girl and Green Boy are still alive and well thirty six years later (even if Green Boy’s tunic has recently been removed by a small child...).

(You won’t see the pearl tears that she also sewed on to their faces, because I unpicked them when my own children were old enough to start asking questions about it...)

And of course it wasn’t just sad stories and songs–there were also a lot of funny and silly ones –and run-of-the-mill every day ones. But it’s the sad and the funny/silly ones that I’ve remembered the best over time.

So I grew up with stories and poems (and music and pictures) all around me. Some of my siblings were more taken by the music and the pictures, and I guess I’ve gravitated more towards the stories and writing. And I keep finding her inscriptions in the various books that I’ve naturally turned to for comfort in the last few weeks –including poetry, which we both loved. She may have died, but she’s certainly still around. And we’ll each find her in slightly different things and places...

But there’s something much bigger that my mum and dad gave me, the most important thing that any parent can give a child: unconditional love.

My mum and dad and me

Unconditional love from parents remains with you no matter where you go and what you do and its strength is immense. In my mid-twenties, I was attacked on my way home one night, and I was lucky to come out of it alive, and largely physically ok. Even when it was terrible, I still knew that I would get through it and that things would be great again –and that was from an unshakeable knowledge that I am completely loved by my parents. And it’s the same now –even when things feel almost unbearably sad as they sometimes do (or I’m just gutted that I can’t tell her something- like, that there’s a picture book of Pride and Prejudice out-with photos of knitted characters –which she’d have loved...

or that I’ve just received a Korean version of The Kite Princess in the post even though I didn’t know it had been translated...

or that the forthcoming Taiwanese version of Don’t Panic Annika! that she periodically asked me about actually came out almost a year ago but the copies never arrived from Taiwan... or most of all, that my five-year-old, the youngest of all her grandchildren, has lost her first tooth, -I know that things will be great again and I will always have the most precious thing that my mum ever/always gave me: love. My mum doesn’t have to be here in person for this to affect everything that I do and the way I experience things. That bit doesn’t die. And it’ll pass down through the generations –through her six children and fifteen grandchildren, as we sing our own children to sleep with the songs she sang (the happier ones at least!), read to them, love them...

Our mum will help us get over her own death...

If you haven’t read Debi Gliori’s wonderful picture book, No Matter What, then you’re in for a treat when you do.

It’s about exactly that: the unconditional love of a parent for his or her child –even after death (you need to read the UK version rather than the US version which has all references to death removed). My mum really liked it, as did many of her children and grandchildren, and it felt completely appropriate to put a copy of the book in the grave with her. Our new copy has been read countless times by my children and me since she died. It’s a beautiful, comforting read. And the love that pours out of every word and brushstroke of that book is a lesson for all picture book authors and illustrators. It feels like she's captured the words of the Joan Baez song, East Virginia, (or The Aching Pains song to my family) which my parents loved, where Joan Baez sings:
"Just the thought of you, my darling,
sends aching pains all through my breast"
This is how my mum and dad described the feeling of overwhelming love for your children when you creep into the bedroom at night and watch them sleeping. It's so true.

I’ve not written or edited a single word of a story since March 12th. I have no appetite for it at all. It seems to belong to another time entirely. But I know that I’ll probably feel like it again at some stage. In the same way that I couldn’t read more than a couple of sentences for a whole year after I was attacked (I simply couldn’t remember the start of the sentence, let alone, the paragraph), and then I went back and finished the PhD I was writing, I am likely to find head space to write stories at some stage. Even writing this blog post has made it seem closer.

And when I do, I know there’ll be a little bit of my mum in it...

I want to end with Nat King Cole’s Nature Boy, with my favourite phrase in a song:

“The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love, and be loved in return...”

I’ll be up in Orkney when this post comes up –with my dad and in the place my mum loved so much. We’ll sort out some paper work, work on setting up a project in my mum’s name, talk, cry, laugh, walk around some of her favourite places, and most of all, love –and be loved. The writing? As Abie showed in her recent blog post, that can wait.

Us, freezing, but happy, on an Orkney beach in August (2004)

There’s a small PS. Since writing this blogpost (a couple of days in advance because I'm off to Orkney), I’ve actually written something for a story. Not much, and completely related to the events of the last two months, but the outline of a story, and some phrases –in one of my mum’s notebooks, alongside some of her own writing and notes from a conversation we had about doing writing workshops with children. There'll certainly be some aching pains in the writing of it, but I think it will be comforting, too -whether it stays as something just for me, or not. Cheers, Mum. x

My mum's recently started notebook, which I'm now using as my own.

Juliet Clare Bell