Separation Anxiety

Recently I’ve been waking up in the night, heart pounding, mouth dry, with a searing flash of worry in my brain.

My first thought is that I’ve misplaced something important, forgotten something vital. It’s that ‘I’ve left the baby on the bus’ feeling.

It takes me only a few seconds to realise that both my babies grew up long ago. Then I remember, thankfully, that they’re fine – they’re old enough to look after themselves and, mercifully, they’re safe.

Finally the problem dawns on me. I’m a writer. The baby I think I’ve left on the bus is one I’ve created. Not real, not flesh and blood. He’s fictitious. But somehow that fact doesn’t make me feel any better.

I’ve had this feeling before.

When my newest book was a manuscript, waiting on my editor’s desk to have its fate decided, I spent night after night waking up in a cold sweat.

It’s not that the novel feels like my baby (I wouldn’t usually feel this anxious about a new book). No, it’s because I’ve been writing about Tomos, the main character, for almost 14 years now. He’s been my pet project – tucked away in a file on my laptop and scribblings in notebooks – and he’s seen me out of my forties and into my fifties, while I get on with my other, more cheerful writing.

My real-life children have grown up in that time. Tomos has not. He’s still five. He’s still scared, hungry and alone.

pexels-photo (1)

 

And now my novel’s been published. It’s out of the safety of my laptop and in the hands of other people. Some of them will be people I know, but most of them will be people I’ve never met.

And that’s the whole point of writing and publishing a book. As authors, we want our books to be read by as many people as possible. But Tomos, he’s five. He’s like my child. And I’ve just abandoned him.

If you can remember the first time you left your child at nursery, or the first time they walked through the gates of that huge comp, or when you drove off and left them at their college hall of res, you’ll understand how I’m feeling.

Tomos. He’s out there. He’s at the mercy of others. I can’t tell him it’ll be OK anymore.

I want to pull him back. I want to hold him to me and never let him go.

But it’s too late. He’s off into the big wide world and there’s no reversing that.

All I can do is ask – if you find Tomos, scared and alone, somewhere out there on your travels, please take care of him for me.

 

pexels-photo-66357

 

Thank you,

Sara x

P.S. I wrote this after very little sleep and a large glass of wine – I think it shows! Not feeling quite so worried about my little boy now that I’ve had lovely feedback from some wonderful people who, it turns out, care about Tomos almost as much as I do.  

Sara’s debut novel for adults ‘Not Thomas’ is published by Honno Press in paperback and on Kindle and is available to pre-order now at £8.99 on Amazon.

cropped-not-thomas-header.jpg

Finding that writer’s voice – and losing it again

If, like me, you’ve attended lots of courses on creative writing and read stacks of self-help books on the subject, you’ll be well used to the phrase ‘finding your writer’s voice’. It’s that one thing every writer simply MUST do.

But what’s never clear, when you’re new to writing, is exactly how you do it. A writer’s voice seems something elusive at best, ethereal at worst. It’s enough to stop the faint-hearted at the first hurdle.

I have to admit, it’s taken me a long time to find a comfortable writer’s voice. I set off on this writing trek many years ago, via a creative writing course. And then another. And another. They were wonderful and pretty addictive. They were the ideal place to test out ideas with other people just starting out on their own writing journey too (sorry for using the ‘j’ word there).

Looking back at some of the early pieces I wrote for those courses, I realise that I made finding my writing voice harder than necessary. Instead of simply writing freely, and despite the advice from my excellent tutors, I was often trying to copy a formula.

At one stage, I was quite attracted to writing short stories for women’s magazines. I’d had a couple of poems accepted by one of the popular publications, and the prospect of being paid to write short fiction was very appealing.

Sadly, my attempts at writing uplifting stories were pretty dire. I did send off a couple to the magazine that had accepted my poems, and to some other well-known publications too. But while their replies were politely encouraging – “enjoyable but not quite what we’re looking for” – I didn’t have the know-how to work at improving the stories, and so I soon gave up.

Reading those attempts after many years have passed, I can see plenty of problems with them. An obvious one was that I simply wasn’t writing as ‘me’. I was trying to use a manufactured writing voice, and the stories suffered as a result. Forcing a voice just doesn’t work.

marketing-man-person-communication

So how do you find that elusive voice without forcing it? Well, another of the reasons those stories were rejected was because I hadn’t done my research. I’d read a few stories in women’s magazines but I hadn’t read anywhere near enough. It was more than a bit presumptuous to think I could write an acceptable story without immersing myself in the form beforehand. I thought I knew the formula so I could just go ahead and write. Very wrong.

I didn’t have the dedication to read enough short stories to improve my ability to write them. That says to me now that I was barking up the wrong tree all along. I was looking for my writer’s voice in the wrong place. And perhaps I’d have found one, but it wouldn’t have been mine.

When I gave up trying to write those short stories, I discovered I quite enjoyed writing for children. As a teacher and parent, I was reading lots and lots of children’s books anyway, so when I stopped to think about it I already knew the kind of writing I wanted to emulate. Once I started concentrating on children’s stories, my writing voice began to form naturally.

20170524_180613 (1)

I started to write stories about children too, and in those stories my central character was a little neglected boy called Tomos. I was much more comfortable writing about him than trying to write uplifting stories for magazines. I had found my topic and, as with my children’s books, the voice came naturally. Finally I understood what it meant to ‘find your writer’s voice’.

Weirdly, though, I couldn’t keep that voice. Very quickly I realised Tomos’s story would have more impact in his own words – and he was a frightened five-year-old who spoke in short sentences and used very simple terms. The moment I’d found my comfortable writer’s voice, I had to get rid of it again. I re-wrote my stories about Tomos and changed them from third to first person – I didn’t mind; I felt I had to keep writing in Tomos’s voice. The stories turned into a novel, and happily I’ll be having my pre-publication book launch for ‘Not Thomas’ this month.

I’m planning my next novel now, with the help of some lovely notebooks.

20170524_180336 (1)

Again it has a child as the central character – no surprises there – but this time that child is quite a bit older than five. Just like ‘Not Thomas’, it’ll be written in the first person. So will I be using my own writer’s voice? I guess I’ll just have to start tapping away on the laptop and see.

But it’s just occurred to me that maybe writing in the voice of a child is my writer’s voice.

Are you searching for your writer’s voice, or have you found it? What tips could you give a new writer to help them find theirs?

Thanks for reading – I’m working on finding my ‘blogging voice’ at the moment!

Please leave me a comment if you have the time,

Sara xx

(aka children’s writer, Wendy White!)

Sara’s debut novel ‘Not Thomas’ is published by Honno Press in paperback and on Kindle and is available to pre-order now on Amazon.

not-thomas-header

Music to Make Me Cry – My Not Thomas Playlist

I love listening to music when I write.

I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, and I’ve met quite a few authors who prefer to write with no distractions, but music works for me. I find it creates a background emotion.

There are some songs I return to, time & time again, when my creativity needs a boost. These are songs I play to remind myself that ordinary people can transform themselves into songwriters and create something fantastically beautiful out of thin air –and lots musical talent, of course. When those songs come on the radio, they make me want to drop everything and write.

Songs like Hozier’s ‘Take Me to Church’ and Stereophonics’ ‘Graffiti on a Train’ make me turn up the radio to full volume and surrender to their inspiring brilliance.

There are other songs, though, that remind me of something I’m already working on. They help ease me back into that piece of writing, and keep me in the mood I’m trying to create. They’re the ones I play quietly in the background while I tap away on my laptop.

I had a playlist when I was writing ‘Not Thomas’.

The most-played song on that list was Kate Bush’s ‘Moments of Pleasure’. In a previous post, What Wuthering Heights did for me – the confessions of a Kate Bush fan, I wrote about how playing that song helped me evoke the feelings of Tomos, the little boy who’s the central character in my book. I’d hear the music and feel the emotion, even if I hadn’t written about Tomos for months. But there were other songs that helped too. Here’s a few of them, thanks to YouTube.

Calon Lân, a well-loved Welsh hymn, was one of my starting points for ‘Not Thomas’.

In fact, for quite some time the working title of ‘Not Thomas’ was ‘A Pure Heart’ – the English meaning of ‘calon lân’. The title eventually (and thankfully) got changed, after I listened to the advice of my writing group. (More about the failure of ‘A Pure Heart’ as a title in What’s in a Name?)

Tomos sings Calon Lân near the start of the book. He’s been taught the words by Nanno – his beloved ‘foster gran’. This version, by Cerys Matthews, is my favourite on YouTube.

It’s the childlike quality of her voice that gets me every time.

In the case of Calon Lân, the lyrics loosely suited the theme of the book, particularly – and rather sadly – the opening line ‘I don’t ask for a life of luxury’, as Tomos is living in terrible poverty.

But most of the songs I listened to didn’t have lyrics that connected to the subject matter. Instead I chose them for the way the music or the tone of the singer’s voice affected me.

It was the emotion the singer conveyed that was important.

Like this one:

I only have to hear the opening chords of ‘Talk to Me of Mendocino’ by Kate & Anna McGarrigle for my eyes to fill with tears. The music and their voices manage to convey, so beautifully, that sense of longing to be somewhere else.

It’s perfect for Tomos, as he constantly longs to be back in the love and safety of his foster parents’ home.

And since I’ve already blogged about how important ‘Moments of Pleasure’ by Kate Bush was to me when I was writing ‘Not Thomas’, I ought to include another song of Kate’s which I played a lot too.

‘This Woman’s Work’ is an obvious choice, I suppose, when you think of songs that conjure up vulnerability – it was used by the NSPCC in one of their TV adverts.

Again, the opening notes get me every time.

And finally:

This last song, ‘Lost Boy’ by Ruth B, is a cheat.

It came out in 2016 and I’d long finished writing ‘Not Thomas’ by then. I was in a dress shop in lovely Llandeilo when I first heard it playing on the shop’s radio. It stopped me in my tracks.

I knew by this time that my book would be published and that Tomos’s story would see the light of day, something I’d thought for so many years would never happen. And the realisation that my novel was actually going to be published hit me.

I grabbed the nearest frock and hid in the changing room until the moment of realisation – and the tears – had passed.

Had Ruth B’s ‘Lost Boy’ come out ten years before, I’d have been playing it as I wrote. It’s Tomos to a tee. I think it’s beautiful.

All these songs have something in common – lots of emotion. One comment from an early reader of ‘Not Thomas’ said it should be printed on plastic to save the paper from tears.

Maybe my playlist explains why.

Thanks for reading.

Love,

Sara x

If you’re a writer, do you ever listen to music while you’re working or do you prefer silence?

If you’ve read Not Thomas, can you see any influence from the songs above in the novel? 

Do you have a single piece of music or a song which you always find inspirational?

Sara’s debut novel Not Thomas –  a story of child neglect and hope – is published by Honno Press and is available in paperback and on Kindle directly through the publisher and also from Amazon.

The lady’s here. The lady with the big bag. She’s knocking on the front door. She’s knocking and knocking. I’m not opening the door. I’m not letting her in. I’m behind the black chair. I’m waiting for her to go away.

cropped-not-thomas-header.jpg

One Scary Interview & The Law of Three

black-and-white-trees-winter-branches

I had a scary experience recently – one that had me quaking; one that had me doubting if I was capable of stringing a sentence together and left me wanting to hide under the duvet for an entire week. My terrifying experience? I was interviewed.

To be fair, it wasn’t just a run-of-the-mill kind of interview. No. It was an interview in which I had to speak in Welsh.

I do speak a bit of Welsh. I grew up in west Wales and I went to Welsh classes for…well, let’s just say ‘a number of years’. An embarrassing number of years, it turns out, because I obviously didn’t learn enough.

This interview was with S4C, a Welsh-language programme maker. They were making a film about my home town and a wonderful group of people I’m proud to support – the Kidwelly Book Hunters. During the interview I discovered two things – that my command of the Welsh language isn’t nearly as good as I thought it was, and being interviewed isn’t quite the exciting experience I was hoping it would be.

To be honest, I was in a huge rush – I had a book signing event I had to dash off to. And there was a camera and bright light near my face, and a sound boom dangling over my head. My vocabulary just deserted me. So I switched to English – but by then I couldn’t speak that properly either. Oh, the shame…I turned as red as the cardigan I was wearing for St David’s Day!

The very friendly team doing the filming reassured me that the end result would be fine. And, thanks to their skilful editing, my interview was included in their programme. It was ‘blink & you’ll miss it’ though. But at least they used my Welsh attempt, so hopefully I had made some sense after all.

Whether I’d said what I actually wanted to say, who knows? Not me. The interview had gone past in a blur. And even when I watched it back (through my fingers) I couldn’t understand what I was saying because I was nervous all over again. One thing was blatantly obvious – I needed to improve my interview technique.

So when I saw the Society of Authors was running a course on exactly that, I couldn’t resist. I signed up, packed a bag with chocolate bars, Quavers and the latest edition of Mslexia (my favourite reading on long journeys) and headed off on the train to London for the day.

The course was held at the SoA’s offices in a large, old town house in the rather well-to-do area of Kensington. There were just four of us that afternoon, all writers as you’d expect, and we gelled straight away. I won’t name-check the other attendees as we had a pact that the course was confidential, but they all had exciting projects on the go. It was an all-woman group. Our tutor told us it’s rare for a man to sign up for this course. (It’s good to know that so many of them have such complete confidence in their abilities.)

Claire Walding, a TV producer of many years, was our tutor. She was very relaxed and put us all at ease immediately. She would talk us through interview technique, she explained, then interview us individually while filming on her iPad.

You’d have thought it would have been nerve-racking, being filmed in front of three total strangers, but actually it was fun. Claire had already explained the principles of getting a message across in a short interview. She told us there were three things to remember –

identify three main points you want to make (there’s that three again);

keep them in mind constantly;

& mention them early in the interview.

If you have a longer interview, she said, like at a literary festival (‘Chance would be a fine thing,’ we all commented) just go into more depth about your three main points.

Simple!

pexels-photo-266688But do you think we could actually manage it? We were all reasonably relaxed as Claire interviewed us (a bonus for me after my S4C experience) and we all really enjoyed watching each other’s interviews. Once we were being filmed, though, our three main points went right out of our heads. Even worse, we forgot to mention –

the title of our books (essential, obviously!)

the names of our main characters (also essential, Claire told us, to make people feel connected to the book)

& generally everything else we were hoping to promote.

We analysed the films, pin-pointed where we went wrong, made notes and determined to do better. Then Claire filmed us again.

This time she dropped in interesting facts she’d sneakily found out beforehand on our websites. She asked me about my children’s book, ‘Welsh Cakes & Custard’, and sent me off on a complete tangent about St David’s Day and school projects. I had managed to remember to mention my new novel for adults, ‘Not Thomas’, right at the start of the interview, but she quickly and successfully led me away from my other main points.

Thankfully, I wasn’t the only one she derailed. None of us managed to get more than one of our three main points across. Claire said that was fine – it had been her intention to throw us all off track. We learn by our mistakes. We’d got it wrong when it didn’t matter so we would remember to get it right when it did.

Fingers crossed!

And what did I learn from my afternoon with Claire and my fellow authors at the SoA?

Well, the number one thing I learnt was that it’s all too easy to get distracted in an interview and not mention the really important points (like the title of my novel!). Concentration and determination is key.

I also learned that laughing isn’t so bad after all. I was worried that if I came across as too cheerful it would be at odds with the content of my novel, which could (most definitely) be classed as ‘dark’. Laughter lightens the mood, Claire reassured me, and reminds the audience that, along with the difficult subjects of child neglect and drugs, ‘Not Thomas’ also has a lot of hope. (I’m secretly very relieved about the laughing bit. It’s something I do a lot of.)

black-and-white-boats-lake-three

And lastly, I learnt the power of three – I must have my three main points about ‘Not Thomas’ all ready and uppermost in my mind. So here goes –

#1: it’s a novel about drug addiction, child neglect and murder;

#2: it’s told from the view-point of five-year-old Tomos;

#3: Tomos is an amalgamation of children I taught / heard about when I was teaching.

And I must actually mention the three points. Yes, actually mention them. See, I’ve mentioned them! OK, so I didn’t mention them at the start, or all the way through. But next time I will.

Anyway, I really enjoyed my afternoon at the Society of Authors, and I’m all prepared to be interviewed. Chances are I won’t get a sniff at another interview now.

Where’s S4C when I need them?

What are your experiences of being interviewed?

Is it something you’d actively seek out, or do you shy away from the limelight?

Do you have any tips to share on how to survive being interviewed (pretty please!)?

Thank you so much for reading this blog post – double the length of my usual posts. I wrote it on the ferry home from Ireland so had three whole hours to devote to it!

Sara’s debut novel Not Thomas is published by Honno Press on 19th July 2017 and is available to pre-order now on Amazon.

cropped-not-thomas-header.jpg

Proofs & Launches

So I’ve sent the proofs of ‘Not Thomas’ back to my publisher and that’s all my input for my first (& hopefully not my last) novel for adults done. For the last week and a half, I’ve been reading those proofs very carefully – for ‘reading’ read ‘rereading and rereading and rereading’ (and I could probably add on a few more too). I was determined to be thorough as I knew this was my very last chance to change anything that wasn’t quite right. I knew it wasn’t possible to make big alterations at this late stage, so I thank my lucky stars I didn’t come across anything major I felt needed changing.20170402_151043

But something did surprise me – surprise isn’t quite the right word, shock is probably much more accurate. While I was reading through the proofs for what I expected to be the last time, I came across a description of a man called Fly. He’s definitely a horrible character, someone who bangs on the doors and scares Tomos. Fly has a web tattoo on his face, so Tomos calls him ‘the man with the web tattoo’. Nice & easy – hard to get wrong, or so you’d think.

And yet, after reading the book so many times, I spotted a place where Tomos calls Fly ‘the man with the spider tattoo’. I came out in a cold sweat. I’ve been working on this novel for a long time (a ridiculously long time in fact) and I probably wrote that scene at least four years ago. So I would guess I’ve read that description over a hundred times. And every time I must have read ‘web’ not ‘spider’. Scary. Thanks be to St Anthony for Word’s ‘search & find’ tool. I searched and was very relieved to find no other spiders lurking. But by now my confidence in my own ability to spot obvious mistakes was thoroughly shaken. What if there were other things I’d missed? So I started at the top again – reread, reread, reread.

Finally, I posted the proofs back to Honno along with my notes, and I was extremely relieved, a few days later, when my editor confirmed she’d changed that one ‘spider’ to ‘web’. Of course, there were plenty of other typos that needed changing, but none of them bothered me as much as that spider.not-thomas-front-cover-for-ai-1-12-16

And that’s all the checking and changing done, as far as I’m concerned anyway. The next time I see ‘Not Thomas’ it’ll be as an actual book. That feels exciting and a bit nerve-racking too. But it’s very comforting to have had some lovely comments back from the authors who’ve been reading the manuscript. ‘Heart-wrenching’ & ‘an affirmation of the human spirit’ are quotes I’m particularly pleased with. And all the readers so far have called it an ‘emotional read’. I’m delighted with that. It means, for those readers at least, I’ve achieved my goal.

 

As a distraction from all that proofreading, I went to not one but two book launches. The first was for Helen Flook’s wonderful new picture book, ‘The Great Dinosaur Hunt’. The launch was in Cardiff Museum, where the opening of her book is set. Helen illustrated my first two children’s books and although we’ve exchanged emails over the last few years, we’d never met. So it was really lovely to finally put a face to the name, to chat and to thank her, in person, for designing the cover of ‘Welsh Cakes and Custard’. I loved it from the very first time I saw it, and so many people have commented on how eye-catching it is. Covers are so very important, and Helen did a brilliant job.20170405_124448 (1)

The second book launch was for Eloise Williams’ gorgeous new children’s novel, Gaslight. That was in Carmarthen’s Waterstones – with wine and nibbles. And yes, cake too! (I have a thing about cake at book launches – see my earlier blog!) Eloise, who along with writing also acts, got us all involved in reading from her novel. It was great fun and a lovely afternoon. I was especially pleased to meet Janet and Penny again. They’re the force behind the excellent Firefly Press which publishes Eloise’s books. I’m looking forward to reading my signed copy very soon.20170408_150716.jpg

And from Carmarthen I dashed the 20 miles or so to Llanelli, and storytelling at Spoken Word Saturday in a very atmospheric converted chapel. I caught the second half and was just in time to hear my very own book launch being announced for the afternoon of June 10th at the Spoken Word event.20170408_171023

So what with that announcement, and having sent off the proofs, ‘Not Thomas’ seems very real now. Like I said, it’s exciting and a bit scary – my first (& hopefully not my last!) novel for adults is almost ready for the big, wide world (well, Wales at least!).

What’s your favourite sort of book launch?

Been to any interesting ones lately?

Or have you had any shocks when you were proofreading?
My debut novel Not Thomas is published by Honno Press and is available to pre-order now on Amazon.

not-thomas-header

My Three Book Rule

 

I always have three books on the go at any one time. I don’t mean I’m reading three novels all at once – that would be impossible as far as I’m concerned (although I’m sure there are plenty of people who’d find it a doddle). No, what I mean is that along with the one book I’m reading, I’m working on two others of my own – one on my laptop or with pen and paper, and one in my head. I always assumed this was the way most writers worked, but after chatting to quite a few over the last couple of years, it turns out there are as many ways to get a book written as there are authors. Anyway, here’s the process I use. It’s my three book rule.

Book One in my Three Book Rule: the novel I read for relaxation.
I know some writers don’t read while they’re working on a book themselves, but I simply could not live without reading. And how else can a writer discover what techniques do and don’t work in a novel? I read all sorts, but in the mix will be books by local and, more generally, Welsh and Irish authors, novels that have been recommended to me, novels that have been nominated for or have won prizes, and some by my favourite authors – Emma Donoghue, Colm Tóibíin and Rose Tremain, to name a few. There’ll be detective novels too, and Belinda Bauer and Ian Rankin are among my favourites crime writers. I usually read one and a half books per week – not many by some people’s standards, I know!

20170403_105350

Book Two in my Three Book Rule: the one I’ve already written and am now revising / editing.
This is the book that puts a smile on my face every day. I’ll have finished all the ‘creative’ parts of it and I’ll be tidying it up – thinking about grammar, sentence structure and whether bits need deleting or swapping around. I think of this as the practical part and it’s the bit of writing I enjoy most. There are rules to follow and rights & wrongs, and I find something reassuring in working to a publisher’s house-style.

20170402_151031

I know this will make me seem weird to many fellow writers, but it’s the part I love. I settle into my special writing chair, put my feet up and enjoy the editing process. Yes, working on Book Two is the best bit – and nothing like working on Book Three. Book Three makes me scared, and takes a long, long time.

Book Three in my Three Book Rule: the one that’s in my head.
This is the book that’s using up my imagination. It’s why I’m happy to be simply following house-style rules for Book Two – Book Three is absorbing all my creativity. Like all books, Book Three starts with an idea. That’s the seed that hopefully will grow into a full blown novel. I seem to get most of my ideas when I’m listening to music and I find melodies and tones in voices (rather than actual lyrics) can evoke characters and locations. So when I get inspiration, I tend to relate it to whatever songs or singers I was listening to at the time.

If I’m very fortunate, that inspiration will stick around. It’ll lodge in my brain and start growing. It’ll be just a sense of something to start with, a feeling, an atmosphere. There’ll be a character slowly forming. To help it on its way, I’ll make a playlist of the songs I was listening to when the idea first came to me, and I’ll play and replay it. (I’ll be blogging about my ‘Not Thomas’ playlist soon.)

I’ll think about the character that’s living in my head while I’m doing mundane things around the house or when I’m out shopping, and gradually that character’s story will grow. I won’t be able to explain it to anyone else at this stage. In fact, I won’t want to talk about it at all in case my imaginary character just turns and runs. But at some point, usually months and months down the line, the story will become solid enough for me to believe that I might just be able to write it down.

This is my least favourite part of the writing process, the bit where I have to test the story that was in my head and see if it can exist outside it. There are anxious days where I know I have to start writing but I don’t want to. If I start writing the novel only to discover it’s got no substance, then I’m back to the drawing board, hoping for another idea to begin percolating in my head. And you can never choose when that might happen – it could be years! But at some point, I bite the bullet and start tapping away at the keyboard. If the story is one that does survive being typed up, then months and months of writing start. Gradually I’ll begin to enjoy it and start to believe I’ll get to the end of writing the whole thing.

And eventually it’ll become the book I’ll be editing in my favourite chair, while – hopefully, fingers crossed & touch wood – another idea is percolating in my head.

But thank goodness for Book One in my Three Book Rule – that’s the book where someone else has done all the hard work and I just get to enjoy the end result. I really couldn’t live without it!

What do you think?
Do you have any book recommendations?
Can you read a novel for relaxation and write your own at the same time?
And does anyone else enjoy revising / editing their own work more than the creative part?
I’d love to know!

Sara’s debut novel Not Thomas is published by Honno Press and is available to pre-order now on Amazon.

not-thomas-header

The view from behind the chair

pexels-photo (1)Children hide behind chairs for all sorts of reasons. Some fun, some not fun at all. When I was setting up my website a couple of months ago, I needed a title for it. Like my Sara Gethin pen name which had been sitting at the back of my mind for years, I had a name in reserve for the blog. It was a name that connected to the five-year-old child in my novel, ‘Not Thomas’, and his habit of hiding behind a big black chair whenever things at home got scary, or when someone unexpectedly knocked on the door. It was ‘The View from behind the Chair’.

I can relate to Tomos’s habit of curling up small behind the big chair. Don’t get me wrong, my childhood was happy and nothing at all like Tomos’s, but at around his age I did spend quite a lot of time behind a chair. I was hiding too – hiding from people who made fun of me.

Well, they didn’t make fun of me  exactly, just the fact that I was still attached to my old bottle at four years old. A baby’s bottle that was never filled. I loved it, that empty plastic bottle. We were inseparable. It was like the dummy I’d never had.

There was once a photo of me with it in my mouth, taken by accident. I was standing at the back of a large family group, peeping through the adults’ legs. And there it was – Bottle – hanging like an oversized cigarette from the corner of my lip. No one realised I had popped it in my mouth.

But when the photos eventually came back from the chemist (it was that long ago) oh, the shame! I still remember it. Here was hard evidence of my odd habit. It was burned in the fireplace – the photo that is, not the bottle (Bottle survived to suffer a different fate at a later date) and he and I ran off once more to our hiding place behind the big chair.

Despite the problems he caused me, Bottle also made me think on my feet. One day, a neighbour came to our open back door while I was playing in the kitchen with my older brother and sister. My bottle, as usual, was firmly clamped between my teeth. As I looked in horror at our ‘Aunty’ Lois standing on the doorstep, I silently and with an ashen-faced whipped the bottle from my mouth and dropped it behind my back into the laundry basket my mother was carrying on her way to our top-loader washing machine.

My family thought it was hilarious, especially as I’d stood there staring at the woman for a good five seconds with the bottle still in my mouth before I’d surreptitiously (or so I’d thought) disposed of it. They were still recounting the story years later. It caused me quite a lot of confusion as a child. I was so proud that I’d done something my family thought very, very funny, but I was also ashamed because Bottle was a part of the story. And I was ashamed of Bottle.

pexels-photo-262103

Of course, I would never have felt Bottle was shameful if other people hadn’t made me feel that way. While my immediate family mostly ignored my habit, I was teased mercilessly by my many uncles whenever they visited, which was often. I spent hours behind that chair in our lounge, waiting for them to go home so Bottle and I could come out.

I can vividly recall the texture of the fabric on the chair’s back, the raised pattern beneath my fingers, the smell of the cloth, and yes, the view, half obscured by the arm of the chair. A section of the TV screen, a glimpse of a programme I’d been looking forward to seeing. And all the time listening for my name to be mentioned, along with a teasing – ‘What have you got behind there? Come out and show us’.

That’s absolutely nowhere near as bad as the problems some people endured in childhood, I know. And it’s nothing like what poor Tomos has to put up with in my novel. But remembering how I felt as a young child back then certainly helped me put myself in Tomos’s place – small and uncomfortable.

My ‘problem’ was easily resolved in the end. Bottle broke. I’d tried to take good care of him, but he was four years old. That’s ancient for a bottle. So he ended up in the dustbin and I cried and cried. But eventually I got over him. Life without him was easier. And there was no reason to hide behind the chair anymore.

Sadly, that’s Tomos’s place now.

And the blog ended up being called ‘Not Me’, like ‘Not Thomas’, because I’m not Sara, I’m Wendy really. What do you reckon, should I have gone for ‘The View from behind the Chair’ instead?

All other views considered.

The child at the window – images, ideas and imagination

pexels-photoThere are some images that stay with us. Those that are dark and frightening may haunt us for a lifetime; others sit quietly in our subconscious and float to the surface now and then. One image I’ve carried with me for years is that of a child at a window, and it became a recurring theme in my writing.

People often ask where ideas for stories come from, and it’s something that puzzled me too, until I actually set aside time to write. I was forever thinking up ideas for what might be an interesting basis for a story while I was chopping vegetables or driving around. I’d have a vision of what a story could look like and then, by the time I’d finished preparing dinner or parked the car, I’d promptly forget the whole thing.

Eventually, after starting a writing course, I began to keep a notebook for these germs of creativity. It was the first piece of advice my writing tutor offered. And I slowly trained myself to retain the ideas until I could write them down. At last I managed to corral my sparks of inspiration into a form I could use. Then I found there was inspiration everywhere – on television and in newspapers, in conversations overheard in cafes or on the train. And, of course, in real day-to-day life.

I used to work as a primary school teacher and people sometimes ask if the central character in ‘Not Thomas’ is based on a child I taught. In fact, he’s not based on any one child – he’s a mixture of many disadvantaged children I’ve known from the schools I taught at. Some of these children were already being monitored by social services, while others were on the verge of being referred.

‘At risk’ children tend to stick in your mind. There was the girl left alone every evening while her mother went out with a new boyfriend; the many children who came to school hungry, having not eaten a proper meal since their last school dinner. And the young boy that kept watch from the window to see when other children were setting out for school. His mother never got up early enough to see him off and he couldn’t tell the time, so that was the only way he had of knowing when to leave. He spent a long time looking out of that window.

There can’t be many teachers who haven’t known at least one child like these. Most schools have quite a few. Sometimes they’re the ones that slip through the net, the ones whose lives are difficult but who somehow struggle on. Often the best a teacher can do is make sure social services know about their concerns, and then keep a careful eye on the child.

Tomos, the boy in my novel, spends hours at the window. He’s watching for his neighbour to stop at the gate and walk him to school. And he waits at the window for his mother to come home too. Even though he has visits from a social worker, he’s still suffering from neglect. His supply teacher – he calls her simply ‘Miss’ – knows he’s not being properly looked after and she’s raised her concerns with the school’s head. She’s done what teachers everywhere do, and she’s keeping a close eye on him. She’s not based on any particular teacher I taught with, although there were plenty like her – genuinely concerned people who were always striving to do their best.

But there’s more than concern driving Miss’s actions. She has a shared history with Tomos, and her own reasons for bringing sandwiches and clean clothes to school for him. And it means she’s prepared to do much more than any right-minded teacher would.

She, of course, is a fictional teacher, caring for a fictional child. Over the years I spent writing about them, Tomos and Miss became very real to me. Even so, they’re still simply the products of my imagination. But that image – the one of the child looking out of the window – that’s reality. It’s an image recreated over and over by the many, many children waiting patiently to go to school, or watching all alone for someone to come home.

Those children are completely real.

not-thomas-header

What Wuthering Heights did for me – the confessions of a Kate Bush fan

kate-bushI love Kate Bush’s music. I’ve been a fan ever since I first heard those jingling notes of Wuthering Heights’ opening bars. I’d just fallen in love with the novel – having had to read it for my English Lit O’Level – and so Cathy and Heathcliff were already occupying a lot of my headspace when Kate started singing about their ‘wiley, windy moor’. Perfect timing, as far as I was concerned.

Kate was unlike anything else Top of the Pops was offering back in the late seventies. Her unique voice and style certainly made me sit up and take notice. I loved her hair. At 16, I saved all my Saturday job money to pay for a Kate Bush perm, and I absolutely adored it. When I got back from the hairdressers, my dad was shocked at how my long dark hair had doubled in size. He called what I considered my gorgeous new style ‘punk’. I’m not sure he’d actually seen any punks at that point and, as I angrily informed him through the bathroom door, he’d got off lightly if all he had to worry about was my wavy hairstyle – I could have come home with a safety pin through my nose. Thankfully, no photos still exist of my Wuthering Heights phase – all safely burnt.

Kate’s hair wasn’t the only thing I copied. Bizarrely, I loved the way she danced. It was a style even I could copy – me, who couldn’t actually dance at all, who had never had even one ballet or tap lesson. I’d throw myself around the bedroom, mimicking her moves, while her iconic first album, ‘The Kick Inside’, blared out. I never took my new found ability to any discos though – no one except Kate actually danced like that in public.

But the main thing I loved was her vocal style. She has a Marmite voice, I know, and I fell into the ‘adore’ camp. I still do. And, along with her hair and dance moves, I discovered I could copy her singing too. Back in ’78, I would wail the opening lines of Wuthering Heights at full volume in our newly installed shower, much to my family’s despair. To be fair to them, they were already putting up with me clomping about my bedroom every evening with the record player at full blast. Even now I’m tempted to launch into a bar or two of the song when the urge takes me – my poor husband!

I’ve found Kate’s singing quite inspirational over the years. While I was writing my novel, I played her music on a loop and found that I only needed to hear a particular song to tap into the emotions of my five-year-old protagonist, Tomos. While I guess ‘This Woman’s Work’ should have been the obvious choice to conjure up the feelings of a small child, it was actually ‘Moments of Pleasure’ that worked best. The lyrics bear no relation to the subject I was writing about, but there’s such vulnerability in Kate’s voice, a sadness mixed with optimism. It summed up Tomos perfectly, all his unhappiness and hope.

And in a curious twist, my novel has another connection with the singer. Ruth Rowland, the lettering artist who designed the wonderful cover for ‘Not Thomas’, has also designed the script for Kate’s latest album, ‘Before the Dawn’. I smile every time I think of that fact. At last I have something that connects me, however tenuously, to my icon. Apart, that is, from my avant-garde dance moves and a long grown out perm…

Here’s a link to that song

Want to Write a Novel? Don’t Take a Leaf Out of My Book…

p1040360-bwI spend a lot of Saturdays in bookshops, standing at a book signing table (yes, standing – if I sit down people ignore me!) and attempting to interest passers-by in my books. I mostly find it a really enjoyable, positive experience and I’ve met some very interesting people. And the tiny few that aren’t so friendly, well, they’re quickly forgotten.

Recently, as I’ve chatted away about my current books, which are for children, I’ve felt compelled to mention that I have a novel for adults coming out soon. (I have to say it that way round – sadly, ‘adult novel’ has a totally different connotation.)
‘It’s about a five-year-old boy who’s desperate to see his foster father again,’ I tell them, ‘but he’s living with his mum who’s hiding a drug addiction.’

As I rabbit on, I suspect those poor, patient people I’ve cornered are conjuring up images of me steadily typing a beginning, a middle and an end to my novel. And when they finally get a word in edgeways they almost always ask the question – ‘How long did it take to write?’

Now, that’s an embarrassing question to answer, because if I’m completely honest, it took me around fourteen years. Admittedly, I did also write three books for children in that time, but all the same, fourteen years? Ridiculous!

Even more ridiculous is the fact that I didn’t write the book in any sensible order. I started with a chunk that would eventually become the middle. It was as ‘homework’ for a creative writing course I was taking at the time, and I wrote about a young boy called Tomos. He was lying in a high sleeper bed, waiting for his mum to come home and worrying about some frightening things his friend Wes had told him.

pexels-photoI had a vague idea I could make that story the basis of a novel and so, about six months later, I wrote what would eventually become the end. I printed out the two stories and put them away in a drawer until the next year, when I wrote a piece I thought might start the novel. I had no real plot in mind, and for most of the time Tomos’s stories just sat in the drawer.

But I thought about Tomos often. When I ignored him and left him lying on his high sleeper bed for too long, the thought of that little boy all alone gnawed away at me, until I had to leave whatever else I was writing and return to him. Then I’d give him something new to do – a solo to sing in the Christmas concert or a note to find from his beloved foster mum – and abandon him once more.

I’d promised myself that when the youngest of my two children went off to Uni I’d do something with Tomos’s stories, but my son was nearing the end of his course and I still hadn’t given Tomos the attention he was patiently waiting for. So, after years of dipping in and out, I decided to read the story as a whole.

Immediately I realised I didn’t have a novel at all, just a series of scenes. But by that time, I had the whole plot in my head – although I hadn’t committed any of it to paper. I knew why. It was because the plot would hurt Tomos. After all those years of writing about him I was beginning to think of him as my third child, even if he did only exist in my imagination. And I didn’t relish hurting him.

But if I wanted the story to hold together, I was going to have to do something drastic – I needed to pull the rug out from under Tomos’s feet. So I took a deep breath and did exactly that.

And that’s when all the separate parts knitted together. All the necessary bits were there, they just needed bad things to happen to tug them into a whole. In some ways, I wish Tomos could still be sitting on his high sleeper bed waiting for me to send him on a trip to the petting farm. But then I guess I’d never have finished the novel.

So I got there in the end, but as I said – want to write a novel? Don’t take a leaf out of my book.

not-thomas-header