How to Write a Ghost Story – Tips by Bestselling Author, Michelle Paver

I’ve recently completed my second and final year on the Hay Festival’s Writers at Work scheme

It’s a professional development course for writers living in Wales or born here, that runs for the whole eleven days of the literary festival and is fully funded by the Arts Council of Wales.

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Meeting Michelle Paver in the Writers at Work tent

This innovative scheme created by Peter Florence of Hay and led by Dr Tiffany Murray, really is as wonderful as it sounds. On Facebook – as real me Wendy White – I’ve posted about the experience and how to apply to Literature Wales for a place. I’ve also promised to share some of the highlights of the programme here on my blog.

It’s extremely hard to pick out the best bits from the programme

So many wonderful authors, poets, songwriters, columnists and people involved in the business of publishing came to speak to us. But I’ve decided to start with tips for writing a ghost story, as generously shared with us by ghost-story-writerextraordinaire, Michelle Paver.

Her books ‘Dark Materials’, ‘Thin Air’ and ‘Wakenhyrst’ are brilliant examples of classic ghost stories.

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Michelle Paver’s latest ghost story, the novel ‘Wakenhyrst’

I can vouch for how creepy Michelle Paver’s writing is (see below) so she was the perfect person to ask about ghost stories, as far as I was concerned, and she didn’t disappoint. Here’s the advice she gave me and the other 19 members of Writers at Work 2019.

She told us that ghost stories are difficult to write and to get right, but there are ways to make writing them easier

First study the form – read as many ghost stories as possible, the good especially, but the bad will help too. (Michelle P hunts second-hand bookshops for old ones, which she loves the most). 

Analyse what you read in general terms –  why does this story work and that one doesn’t?

Then go deep – take apart the stories that work really well. Where does the first mention of something otherworldly / spookiness / an actual ghost occur? At first it might be just a tiny hint.

Where is the next mention? How does the writer build tension? How subtle, or otherwise, are the references to a ghost?

When you’re ready to start writing, Michelle Paver said, the challenge is to create a story that reads really easily.

A ghost story needs a shape and it has to build. It has a ‘progressive nature’ – she feels that more than just a hint of a ghost at the start can be too much.

The ghost needs to slowly get nearer and nearer as the story gets more and more emotionally intense

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‘Thin Air’ – the perfect title for a ghost story set at high altitude

When the first draft is finished, revise it and check the shape

MP said at this stage she’ll sometimes find passages which she thought were creepy at the time of writing but just don’t work with a second reading. (Good to know the master can get it wrong sometimes too!)

Once the first draft is complete, Michelle Paver goes on a research trip –  until this stage, she said, it’s hard to know what and where to research.

This often throws up more ideas that can be slotted in. For example, for ‘Thin Air’ she went mountaineering and discovered the creepy noises a tent makes in the night, and how confusing outside sounds become when you’re under canvas. She fed all this into the story – to great effect, as I can testify having read it.

And here’s a short list of books / stories recommended by Michelle P to help in studying the ghost story form:

Ghost Stories by MR James especially ‘Oh,Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’ (MP’s all-time favourite)

Ghost Stories by Edith Wharton

‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents Ghost Stories for Young People’ on CD, YouTube and Spotify. MP especially recommends ‘Unearthed’

‘Night Visitors: The Rise and Fall of the English Ghost Story’ Julia Briggs

And for writing generally: ‘The Craft of Novel-writing’ Dianne Doubtfire

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Late evening at Hay Festival when the crowds have gone home

And, as I was saying previously, I can vouch for the effectiveness of Michelle Paver’s writing

One night during Writers at Work, I couldn’t get off to sleep so, rather unwisely, I decided to read a few chapters of ‘Thin Air’.

At half past three in the morning, I realised I needed the loo. I merrily set off towards the bathroom down a long, dark corridor in the 16th century farmhouse I’d been billeted to. Half way down the corridor, I had the strongest sensation someone was following me, just as Stephen in the chapter I’d just read had been followed by a mysterious figure on the mountainside in ‘Thin Air’.

I hadn’t been so spooked since I was a child reading ghost stories under the covers with a torch – and believe me, I’ve been spooked plenty of times as an adult. It was a really creepy, shivers-up-your-spine kind of moment.

I won’t be reading Michelle Paver at night in a 16th century farmhouse again

I hope this helps anyone embarking, like me, on writing a ghost story.

Thanks for reading,

Sara x

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Sara’s debut novel ‘Not Thomas’ – a story of neglect, love and hope, shown through the eyes of five-year-old Tomos – is published by Honno Press in paperback and as an e-book, and is available to buy direct from the publisher, from Amazon and from bookshops.

Hay Festival Portrait- Wendy White
Hay Festival Portrait- Wendy White by Paul Musso

 

Building a Novel – Scene by Scene

I have a weird way of writing

I know – oh, how I know – it would be most sensible to start at the beginning of a story and work my way through until I reach the end, but have I ever managed that? I haven’t – although, believe me, I’ve often tried.

My problem is I’m a sucker for scenes, and I always want to write the big ones first. That means my first draft is essentially the whole plot, but told through the main episodes – no linking bits, no descriptions, none of the expected ‘niceties’. Of course, those elements are added in – eventually – but I tend to think of them as extras. And I’m not a ‘descriptive’ kind of writer, which is why I tend to leave descriptions until the story proper is done. It’s one of the challenges of writing that I don’t find enjoyable.

But there are other challenges I really love

One of my favourites is retrospectively adding in hints about where the plot is going. As I’m happily writing the main scenes, I also make a list of ideas to add in further down the line, and later I’ll take great pleasure inserting these passages and watching them gradually tie the scenes together. As I tick them one by one off my long list, I always have a wonderful sense of satisfaction.

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Page one of my ‘To Add In’ list

Julia Green, author and Professor of Writing for Young People at Bath Spa University, came to speak to Hay Writers at Work this year, and I was so pleased when she suggested that it was a good idea to think of fiction in terms of scenes –  events that are happening, rather than have happened – and that each scene should move the story along.

It made me feel that maybe my weird way of working wasn’t quite so weird after all

Whether you take the straight forward route when you write, or if you write randomly like I do, I hope your writing is exactly where you want it to be. Fingers crossed, we’ll all get to the end of the story we want to tell one way or another!

Thanks for reading.

Love,

Sara x

Sara’s debut novel ‘Not Thomas’ – a story of child neglect, love and hope, shown through the eyes of five-year-old Tomos – is published by Honno Press in paperback and as an e-book, and is available to buy direct from the publisher, from Amazon and from bookshops.

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How to REALLY Know a Writer

A few months ago, along with 19 other writers from Wales, I took part in the Hay Festival Writers at Work programme*

All 20 of us – here’s the full list – spent 12 hours a day together, over 11 days, in the ‘tent’ designated for our workshops, in the canteen and, most evenings, in the pub.

We chatted over meals and during coffee breaks. We discussed where we were from and the sort of things we wrote. We shared our nervousness and excitement about being part of Writers at Work and discussed the masterclasses we’d been to and the amazing insights we’d been given into the way internationally renowned authors work.

A few days into the programme I thought I was getting to know my fellow writers pretty well

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Hay Festival Writers at Work 2018

And then we hosted the first of a series of events about Writers at Work. This was a chance to read our own work at Hay to an audience made up of the public – and each other.

It was a complete eye-opener

After the first few people had read their poetry or prose, it began to dawn on me that even after all the time spent socialising over lunches and coffees, only now was I being given the opportunity to really know them – to see their creativity and to understand what actually made them tick. And I realised that you can never truly know a creative person until you experience what they create.

Each writer came into their own as they took to the podium to showcase their work. They were in their element and it was remarkable to witness. There was such a breadth of fantastic writing on show, rich in diversity and totally inspiring. We had several sessions like this, and after each one I felt I knew my fellow writers so very much better.

So how do you really get to know a writer? Get to know their work. It’s the window into their personality, their soul and creativity.

Thanks for reading!

Sara x 

*Hay Writers at Work is a professional development course for writers from Wales. It’s the brain-child of Hay Festival’s Peter Florence, is funded by the Welsh Arts Council and run by Literature Wales. Author and educator Tiffany Murray is the programme co-ordinator.

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Sara’s debut novel ‘Not Thomas’ – a story of child neglect, love and hope, shown through the eyes of five-year-old Tomos – is published by Honno Press in paperback and as an e-book, and is available to buy direct from the publisher, from Amazon and from bookshops.

 

The Nocturnal Writer: When too much imagination is a bad thing…

I’m naturally a nocturnal writer…

That’s not to say I sit at my computer writing every night – that would be too disruptive for my family – no, what I mean is this: I do my best work after midnight, and I often write whole paragraphs in my head at half past three in the morning. Believe me, it’s not the most convenient way to work.

I know I’m not alone in this affliction. When Frances Hardinge, the Costa Prize-winning YA adult author, came to speak to us at Writers at Work as part of Hay Festival this year, she told us she’d be totally nocturnal if only that lifestyle would fit in with society.

A few of us nodded our agreement. Some of us had already had this discussion – how if we didn’t need to be mindful of our families and others keeping office hours, our days and nights could be reversed, and how much more productive we would be, how much more our natural creative selves.

After the talk, Frances signed my copy of her latest novel, ‘A Skinfull of Shadows’ – to real-life me, Wendy.

She asked me about being a natural nocturnal like her – she’d obviously noticed my nodding. I briefly mentioned how, as a child, I had swapped night for day for almost a whole year, and how blissful it had been.

I didn’t have time to tell her the complete story: that I was absent from junior school for months with an infection after an operation to remove my tonsils, and that when I was sent off to bed at night I’d write and read until dawn and then sleep until lunchtime. It suited me brilliantly.

I’d had trouble sleeping from a very young age, so I was delighted with my new routine. I was getting far more sleep than I normally did and, despite the infection, I was starting to feel better than I ever had before. But, of course, my parents were terribly worried by my new and weird sleeping habit. When my mum mentioned it to the doctor, he told her not to worry – my health was clearly improving and he predicted my sleeping pattern would too, once I was back at school.

It didn’t

The light would go out at 9 o’clock and I’d lie awake for hours, writing stories in my head. I say ‘writing’ rather than ‘making up stories’ because that’s what I did – I wrote passages in my mind, word for word, with actual punctuation and paragraph breaks. And after a night of busily ‘writing’, I still, of course, had to get up for school in the morning.

After a few months, my parents were worried by how tired I looked and I was taken back to the doctor. When I admitted what I did when I couldn’t sleep, the doctor diagnosed ‘too much imagination’. He didn’t have a cure for that.

And I’m still not cured

All my life I’ve written huge amounts in my head when I should be sleeping. I wrote paragraph after paragraph of ‘Not Thomas’ that way. I used to worry I’d forget it all, and sometimes I’d get up to scribble down passages in the half-light of dawn. But recently I’ve become more relaxed about the process. If it’s good enough to type up the next day, it’ll stay in my head. If not, I’ll have forgotten it by morning. It was encouraging to hear Roddy Doyle, another speaker at Hay Writers at Work, tell us he took the same approach.

We nocturnal writers may be a peculiar lot, but I’m certain of one thing – nocturnal or not, as a writer you can never have too much imagination.

Thanks for reading!

Sara x

P.S. Do you write best at night? And do you wish, like me, you could live your life nocturnally? Let me know what you think.

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Sara’s debut novel ‘Not Thomas’ – a story of child neglect, love and hope, shown through the eyes of five-year-old Tomos – is published by Honno Press in paperback and as an e-book, and is available to buy direct from the publisher, from Amazon and from bookshops.

My Experience of Hay Writers @ Work 2018

 It’s been a week now since I returned home from Hay Writers at Work, a professional development scheme for writers from Wales funded by the Arts Council of Wales and the brainchild of Hay Festival’s own Peter Florence.

I came across the call-out for applicants for the scheme in the Literature Wales’ newsletter back in March and decided to apply (under my real name, Wendy White). I was absolutely delighted when I found out a few weeks later that my application had been successful.

I spent 11 days at the festival, along with 19 other writers from Wales, being nurtured, nourished and inspired by the amazing programme of workshops and masterclasses wonderful Hay Fellow, Tiffany Murray, organised for us.

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A brief moment in the sunshine away from our Writers at Work tent

In future blogs I’ll be sharing some of the advice I gleaned from the authors, poets, publishers and agents who spoke to us, but today I’m sharing a link to Hay Festival’s blog page, and my own contribution to that. There are also posts on the website by some of the other writers who took part in the scheme, sharing their own viewpoints on our time at Hay.

It was an amazing and extremely beneficial 11 days. I came home exhausted after the packed programme, but truly inspired to take my writing to the next level and very grateful for the whole fantastic literary experience.

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The Hay Writers at Work class of 2018 with program organiser, Tiffany Murray (in sunglasses) Dr Phil George, Chair of the Arts Council Wales (right of photo) and our group organiser, Carys (back left)

But best of all, I’ve expanded my network of writing friends and I know they’ll be a real support to me. I’m looking forward to supporting their new work and cheering them on in the future too.

The Hay Writers at Work scheme can only go ahead with the generous help of the Arts Council of Wales but hopefully, if funding continues, places will be available for more writers from Wales to attend next year’s festival.

I’d advise any writer who’s eligible (that is, who’s from Wales or lives in Wales) to keep a look out for the notice in Literature Wales’ newsletter early in 2019 and just go ahead and apply – it’s an opportunity that’s too good to miss.

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A Hay Festival rose, presented to Eluned Gramich after her book launch at the festival

Sara’s debut novel ‘Not Thomas’ – a story of child neglect, love and hope, shown through the eyes of five-year-old Tomos – is published by Honno Press in paperback and as an e-book, and is available to buy direct from the publisher, from Amazon and from bookshops.

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Hay Writers at Work 2018

I’m absolutely delighted to be among 20 writers from Wales who are taking part in the Writers at Work project at the Hay Festival this year

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Writers at Work will run for the whole 11 days of the festival and has a fantastic program of workshops and talks, with speakers ranging from authors and poets to publishing industry professionals. I’m especially looking forward to hearing the advice of Roddy Doyle, Frances Hardinge and Ian McEwan.

The object of the scheme, now in its third year, is to aid the professional development of writers from Wales. It’s funded by the Arts Council Wales and led by Hay Fellow, Tiffany Murray.

Meet the 20 writers taking part.

We’ll also have the chance to read from our work at public sessions and to discuss our new writing with members of the group.

I’m hugely grateful to be included in the class of 2018. It’s a fabulous opportunity and the start of the festival – 24th May – can’t come too soon! 

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Sara’s debut novel ‘Not Thomas’ – a story of child neglect, love and hope, shown through the eyes of five-year-old Tomos – is published by Honno Press in paperback and as an e-book, and is available to buy direct from the publisher, from Amazon and from bookshops.

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People They Ain’t No Good

I came across this heartfelt cover of Nick Cave’s ‘People Ain’t No Good’ on the end credits of ‘Damned’ – Jo Brand’s very dark comedy about social workers. I had to add it to the tracklist for my WIP, ‘Emmet and Me’, about children’s homes in Ireland in the 1960s. It’s ideal for creating the right atmosphere to write by.

And ten-year-old Emmet and his friend Claire would definitely agree with the sentiment of the song’s title.

Camille O’Sullivan & ‘People Ain’t No Good’ Live Version  

Sara’s debut novel ‘Not Thomas’ – a story of child neglect, love and hope, shown through the eyes of five-year-old Tomos – is published by Honno Press in paperback and as an e-book, and is available to buy direct from the publisher, from Amazon and from bookshops.

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Getting Started on a New Writing Project #WritingTips

Getting started on a new writing project

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Well, I can procrastinate no longer – the time has come for me to sit down and begin writing what will hopefully become my second novel.

I think I can hear my editor muttering “about time too” 70 miles away in Aberystwyth, and I don’t blame her. I’m a very slow writer. I need to have the story straight in my head before I’ll consider typing even one word, and percolating a story isn’t a quick process, well, not for me anyway. 

My first novel, Not Thomas, lived in my head for ten years or more, and it was fully formed before I began typing it up. My next story has been growing for around two years – so not very long, relatively speaking. It feels a little soon to begin typing, if I’m honest. 

And it’s a long, long time since I began writing a new novel – 16 years, to be precise.

I started Not Thomas in 2001 and wrote it incredibly slowly (my About Sara page explains why it took me so excruciatingly long) so I’m just a little bit out of practise. To help remind myself of all the things that are good to think about right at the start of the creative process, I thought I’d make this the theme of my blog for the next month or two.

So, to ease me gently into writing novel #2, here’s my first tip to myself for starting a new project:

Get a new notebook or two.

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I write very little long-hand, preferring to type straight onto my laptop, but I couldn’t be without a large A4 notebook. For me, it’s the very first thing needed for a new writing project – after getting the story all sorted in my head and ready to go, that is. And honestly, it’s not just an excuse to buy beautiful stationery – although buying beautiful stationery is one of my favourite pastimes. It’s a starting point, somewhere to commit ideas to paper, and get them out of my head.

I write my synopsis in one notebook, chosen especially for the project, usually spring-bound, so it’ll stay open all by itself on my kitchen table. I also use this notebook to jot down sentences that come to me in random fashion, character sketches and anything else that occurs to me when I’m cooking, washing up or writing something else. As I don’t tend to type up in order, I can just flick through the notebook to find inspiration and a section of the story to write about. 

And the little notebook stays in my handbag, so when I’m out and about I always have somewhere to jot down my thoughts.  

So that’s my starting point. I’d be really interested to hear what preparations you have for starting to write a new novel. What are your must-haves? Are you a procrastinator like me, or do you just dive right in? Drop me a line and let me know.

Diolch yn fawr and thanks for reading,

Sara x

Sara’s debut novel ‘Not Thomas’ – a story of child neglect, love and hope, shown through the eyes of five-year-old Tomos – is published by Honno Press in paperback and as an e-book, and is available to buy direct from the publisher, from Amazon and from bookshops.

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Not Thomas Not the Booker Not to be…

So it’s over

The Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize drew to a close this morning with a very happy outcome for one of the authors on the shortlist.

Dark Chapter by Winnie M Li is Not the Booker winner 2017

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Huge congratulations to Winnie. Her book is moving and brave and a worthy winner. The public vote was a closely fought battle, with Winnie’s novel achieving 130 votes, 24 ahead of Harriet Paige’s Man with a Seagull on his Head.

The public vote wasn’t the end of it, though. The judges’ verdict came next, chaired by Sam Jordison, head judge (think Len Goodman or Shirley Ballas) and organiser of the Not the Booker prize for the last 9 years.

The judges’ comments were really interesting, and listening to and watching them live online as each book was reviewed was a rather surreal experience.

And there was a little surprise for me.

One of the judges – book blogger and avid reader, Jackie Law – made some lovely comments about Not Thomas, saying it was her second choice behind Man with a Seagull on his Head. She called Not T poignant, never mawkish and a very engaging story which raised important issues without preaching. I’m very grateful to Jackie for her positive remarks.

Next the judges’ points were awarded. Yvain Poncet, along with Jackie, voted for Man with a Seagull, while third judge, Hannah Macdonald, gave her vote to Dark Chapter which, when added to the public vote, made this novel the winner.

Sam commented that Dark Chapter was ‘possibly controversial but that’s what winners are meant to be.’ He decided not to use his casting vote, saying: ‘We can feel that we made a strong choice.’

And that was the Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize done and dusted for another year

IMG_20171012_193740997Not the Booker shortlisted authors at the Big Green Bookshop, Wood Green, London, from left to right: Rowena Macdonald, Harriet Paige – chair, Sam Jordison – Winnie M Li & me

 

I feel as if I’ve woken up from a very strange dream. This prize contest began back in July and seems to have dominated the last two and a half months of my writing life. It’s been a completely bizarre episode but one, as I’ve said many times since the summer, I wouldn’t have missed for the world.

So what have I learned from my Not the Booker experience?

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Well…

#1 Sometimes opportunities come along that are too good to waste and you have to be brave and just throw yourself at them – even if, like me, you’re not terribly brave at all.

#2 Public voting is a mixed blessing – some people don’t mind you letting them know they can vote for your book if they wish, while some people do.

But…

#3 The vast majority of people are helpful, kind and supportive.

#4 Social media is a godsend – but you knew that already, it’s just me that needed convincing.

#5 Social media is not a godsend when you’re on it for eight hours or more, seven days in a row.

And finally…

#6 Being shortlisted, when you’ve not got a snowball’s chance in hell of going any further (I’m thinking judges’ voting here) is almost as good as winning – I am just so grateful I had a place on that shortlist.

As I was dropping off to sleep last night, I began wondering what advice I’d give anyone who finds their book nominated for the NTB next year

I’d say go for it 100%, obviously, but what else? What tips would I share?

And then I started thinking of a whole new blog post, one titled ‘So you’ve been nominated for the Not the Booker Prize 2018…’

But I think I’ll put that on hold until next year, by which time the last few months will be a happy, distant memory and I won’t remember a single tip to share.

Thank you for reading and keeping me company on this often weird and wonderful experience. And to everyone who voted for Not Thomas and cheered me on – I am so grateful. You are all magnificent!

Diolch o galon,

Sara x

P.S. I’m planning on starting what I hope will become my new novel soon, and so my next series of blog posts will have some writing tips about points to remember when beginning a fresh WiP. I need reminding – I began writing Not T back in 2001!

Sara’s debut novel ‘Not Thomas’ – a story of child neglect, love and hope, shown through the eyes of five-year-old Tomos – is published by Honno Press in paperback and as an e-book, and is available to buy direct from the publisher, from Amazon and from bookshops.

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#MusicTherapyThursday

I’ll be taking part in the Big Green Bookshop’s Not the Booker discussion event in London this evening, so today, in need of a little relaxation, I thought I’d turn to the music of Kate Bush. I’ve chosen ‘Moments of Pleasure’.

This is the song I played when I wanted to get into the mood for writing as Tomos. I don’t really know why this song came to epitomise Tomos for me – the lyrics don’t relate to the theme of Not Thomas at all – but something in the tone of the music just worked. I think the music has a sadness but also hope. 

And the vulnerability of Kate’s voice never failed to trigger the right emotions in me. Now I only need to hear the opening couple of notes to be right back there with Tomos, in that decrepit house, in the dark, up on his high sleeper bed, under the jumpers and towels, with Mammy’s pink tee shirt…

P.S. If you haven’t already, please consider voting for Not Thomas on the Guardian’s online Not the Booker prize page – voting closes on Sunday night and the winner will be announced on Monday, 16th October. Thank you!

Sara’s debut novel ‘Not Thomas’ – a story of child neglect, love and hope, shown through the eyes of five-year-old Tomos – is published by Honno Press in paperback and as an e-book, and is available to buy direct from the publisher, from Amazon and from bookshops.