Waverton Good Read Award

A huge thank you to the residents of Waverton in Cheshire who have included ‘Not Thomas’ on the longlist of their debut novel award for 2018.

The Waverton Good Read Award is a really brilliant idea for a prize, where a whole village of book lovers become involved in reading and voting for their favourites. The award has been running for 15 years and was first given to Mark Haddon for his novel ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time’.

This year there are some well-known titles among the 24 on the longlist, including Gail Honeyman’s ‘Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine’, Keith Stuart’s ‘A Boy Made of Blocks’ and Graham Norton’s ‘Holding’. Rebecca F John’s wonderful novel ‘The Haunting of Henry Twist’ is included too, which means there are two of us originally from Llanelli on the list.

The shortlisting happens later this month and, of course, with such strong contenders I’d be delighted if ‘Not Thomas’ got through to the second round. But being longlisted by real readers who have no agenda other than enjoying what they read is prize enough for me.

Wouldn’t it be fabulous if there were more prizes like the Waverton Good Read Award?

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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.

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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Surprise, Surprise…

Surprises are not my thing – my husband will vouch for that.

He normally sticks to selecting Christmas and birthday presents from a string of handy suggestions I give him, usually a long list of book titles. That way we avoid surprises and I get a stack of new books to read. Perfect.

As I say, that’s what he normally does but this year he bravely decided to go off-list.

He bought me something a little different. The present nestling under the tree from him to me was almost book-shaped, but not quite. It turned out to be –

a kindle. And yes, I was surprised.

I’ve occasionally attempted to read novels I’ve downloaded to my phone and not enjoyed them very much at all. I’ll concede, though, that reading on my phone has been fine for train journeys, when I’d rather not weigh down my bag with a novel. There’s also the added bonus of leaving space in my handbag for the new novel I inevitably buy while I’m out.

But reading electronically is nothing like that cosy, multi-sensory experience you get from actually holding a book in your hands and turning the pages. And I know I’m not the only person who adores the smell of a new book.

I think I might have mentioned these points just once or twice (if not a hundred times) to the aforementioned husband. And still, here it was, a kindle.

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It took me a while to even get it out of the box – after all, I’d been given real, actual books by my children for Christmas who’d sensibly stuck to the tried and tested formula. They both gasped when I unwrapped the interloper, unsure whether Dad had pulled off something extremely daring or had just got it oh so very wrong.

Well, it took us all a little while to find out.

After I’d devoured those brand new gorgeous novels, I turned to the kindle and got quite a surprise – of the pleasant kind. It was simple to use and extremely light, the text was large and I could read it while filing my nails or eating my breakfast (two activities that have always caused, in my opinion, wasted reading time).

I began by downloading a few titles I’d heard good things about on book blogs but hadn’t got around to buying. Some were even on 99p offer, which made me feel rather guilty – all the work that’s gone into a book is worth so, so much more than a mere 99p. But I soon remembered that my own book is sometimes on that special offer too, and I get quite excited if it creates a spike in sales.

So conscience eased slightly, I downloaded away and began sampling authors I’d never tried before. It was addictive. I found I was even reading as I stirred the pasta sauce for dinner. I was whizzing through titles. As a bonus, I could now also use my kindle to read the novels I’d had unread on my phone for so long, and at last I was enjoying those too.

I’ll admit I’m a convert.

What could have been a nasty surprise turned out to be anything but and I’ve probably read twice as many books as I would normally have since Christmas. I still love real pick-me-up-and-read-me books best of all and I can’t see that changing any time soon, but I certainly won’t be returning my kindle.

And extra brownie points to Simon for successfully going off-list!

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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 on kindle, 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.

Not the Booker Final Public Vote

A huge thank you and diolch yn fawr to everyone who voted ‘Not Thomas’ onto the shortlist of the Guardian’s Not the Booker prize.

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The final public vote has just opened to help decide the winner. I know the original vote was fraught with problems because of the Guardian’s fiendishly difficult website, but if you’d like to vote for Not Thomas and have the energy to tackle that voting page again, this is the link.

Hopefully, having navigated the page once, second time around it won’t be quite so horrendous. 

Of course, you’re still able to vote even if you didn’t vote in the first round. Click in the box that says ‘join the discussion’ near the bottom of the voting page. 

The Guardian would like your vote to start with the word VOTE then the title and author of the book and a 50 word review. Your previous review should still be online, and if you click on your username it should take you to it.

It’s been a weird couple of months on the shortlist

and I have yet to take part in the Big Green Bookshop event, where I’ll meet some of the other authors, which I’m really looking forward to, and my scathing reviewer, Sam Jordison, which should be rather interesting. I’ll be reporting back when I get the chance!

In the meantime, thank you so much for your support of Not T and me – I appreciate it very much indeed.

Bye for now & diolch o galon,

Sara x

P.S. Here’s that voting link again

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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Ruth Rowland on Creating the Cover for Not Thomas

Lettering artist, Ruth Rowland, explains the thinking behind her emotive design for the cover of Not Thomas on her website today.

As well as designing book covers, Ruth creates logos and designs lettering for TV & film. She also creates lettering for album covers too, and she’s worked with musicians such as – to name just a handful – Bill Wyman, Simple Minds, James Blunt and most thrilling of all for me, Kate Bush.

I absolutely love the cover Ruth has created for ‘Not Thomas’, and the feedback Honno Press and I have had about it has been wonderful.

I’m very grateful to Ruth for capturing the feeling of the book so perfectly. And that connection to Kate Bush –  a singer I listened to on a loop for all those years as I wrote about little Tomos – that’s just the icing on the cake!

Ruth’s website: Ruth Rowland Lettering Artist

Sara’s debut novel ‘Not Thomas’ – a story of child neglect, love and hope, shown through the eyes of a five-year-old boy – 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 all good bookshops.

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When Crying is Good

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It’s a strange thing to have written a book with the potential to make people cry. I knew it made me cry – I could hardly edit some sentences for the tears – but I had no real idea if when someone else read Not Thomas it would have the same effect on them.

Before it went to print, four authors read it and gave Honno, my publisher, some lovely endorsements to use on the cover and inside the book. All four authors said they found it sad, and some of them emailed me and told me it had made them cry. That was good news – maybe.

But what about readers that wanted a book for pleasure, rather than to ‘endorse’ it – what would they think when they read it? Would they find it sad? Too sad? I didn’t know what to think.

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Until the other week…

I was holding a signing event with early editions of my novel where a lovely person called Alli came along and bought herself a copy. I was amazed when she messaged me on twitter close to midnight that same day. ‘It was un-put-downable,’ she said. ‘I started crying at page 30 and didn’t stop until the end.’

The next day she wrote about her teary experience on her own blog, and eight other people who read her account bought a copy of the novel or downloaded the e-book. Wow! I was over the moon. That’s the kind of thing I’ve dreamt about: people getting to know about my book by word of mouth – or word of blog. Whichever, it was fabulous!

It was also really interesting to read the comments left on Alli’s blog. Some people were less than keen on a ‘sad’ book, while others were attracted to the idea of a good weep. And there were definitely more in the ‘crying’ camp.

It reminded me of a conversation I’d had with a former teaching colleague in June, when I first had my early copies of Not Thomas. I had taken some into school as gifts and was explaining the setting of the story – how Tomos has been removed from his lovely foster family and sent back to live with his mum; how she’s hiding a drug addiction and so she badly neglects him; and how the story is told from his five-year-old point of view.

And then I gave an apology. ‘It’s a bit of a weepy, I’m afraid. One reviewer said it should be printed on plastic paper so the reader’s tears don’t ruin the pages.’

‘Don’t apologise,’ the ex-colleague said. ‘That’s a bonus. Sometimes life is a pile of manure’ (I’m paraphrasing there) ‘but in real-life you can’t always let your guard down and have a good weep, so I love books that give me permission to cry. It’s a release – like weepy films.’

And she made perfect sense.

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Of course, we shouldn’t feel we have to hide our tears. It ought to be OK to have a cry whenever we want. But most of us are used to packing away the upsetting baggage and just carrying on with life. So maybe she was right – sometimes we do need to give ourselves permission to have a good weep.

Her comment forced me to think again about my own attitude to having written a ‘sad’ book. So now when I explain the set-up for Not Thomas and someone says: ‘Oh dear that sounds very sad’ I don’t apologise anymore. Instead I say, ‘It is a bit of a weepy, but there are some funny moments too. And reviewers have called it “ultimately uplifting”.’

At ‘ultimately uplifting’ the person I’m talking to usually sighs with relief.

And if they do decide to buy the book and dedicate five or six hours to reading it, I hope in that time their mouths will have smiled, as Tomos might say, even if their eyes have cried.

Thanks for reading!

What do you think? Do you like books that make you cry? Does it help to know a sad book is ‘ultimately uplifting’?

I’d love to know your thoughts,

Sara x

Sara’s debut novel Not Thomas is published by Honno Press in paperback and as an e-book, and is available to buy on Amazon.

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An Unusual Book Signing Memento

Just last weekend I held my very first book signing event with early copies of ‘Not Thomas’ at the Waterstones bookstore in Carmarthen. It was my first signing for this book, but wasn’t my first signing ever – I’m used to doing these events with my children’s books and they’re something I really enjoy. As a book lover, why wouldn’t I want an excuse to stand around a bookshop discussing books with other book lovers? It’s a wonderful way to spend an afternoon.

 

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But I’d been warned that this signing would be different. The managers of the shops I’d booked events at told me that children’s books and adults’ books are two very different beasts. Children’s books (at least mine) tend to retail for around £5, a good impulse-spend price. You can sell to parents, to grandparents, aunties and uncles. They’ll come in for a browse and go home with a little present for a beloved youngster.

But books for adults are entirely different. They cost more, for a start, and they have a much more limited and specific audience. And sometimes they give the impression that they’re aimed at one sex more than the other – and that halves your potential customers at a stroke.

So, the managers said, be prepared to talk to lots of people on the day, but don’t expect to sell many books – that’s just the way it goes with books for adults. I’d taken all this on board and was thoroughly prepared to sell one book, if I was lucky. And I decided not to be disappointed if I sold no more than that.

But the word fairies must have been on my side because my day went far better than expected. The weather was drizzly – not great for heading to the beach or the countryside – and the shop was very busy, with plenty of people browsing the tables of special offers. I had lots of opportunities to give out ‘Not Thomas’ flyers and to chat to potential customers, telling them what the novel was about. And most people were very happy to stop and talk, particularly when they saw my banner – placed right in the middle of the shop with a huge picture of the book cover on it.

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Two good friends from my writing group arrived near the end of my session, and by this time I was down to my last three copies. As we started to chat, I suddenly had a little rush of customers. All three books went in two minutes. It was surreal to see three people standing at the checkout, each with a copy of my book. My writing friends had obviously brought me extra luck! No copy left for them – well, not until our next writing circle meeting, anyway.

So, feeling extremely fortunate, I very happily packed up my banner and set off to the nearest coffee house for a long awaited cup of chai latte – my reward of choice. To off-set the amount of sugar in a mug of that guilty pleasure, I forwent the cake and had a toasted teacake instead.

As I sat relaxing, waiting for my drink to cool and the butter to melt on the bun, the smoke detectors in the café went off. Someone had burned the toast and the whole place was evacuated. Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough hands to take my toasted teacake, so I had to stuff one half into my mouth and leave the other half on the table. All the customers ended up finishing drinks out on the street – haphazard alfresco style.

The staff locked up and waited for the obligatory visit from the fire brigade. As we drained our cups, they handed out tokens for free drinks and told us not to worry about returning their china. It wasn’t exactly practical to leave mugs on the pavement.

So I now have a lovely big Café Nero mug as a memento of my first ‘Not Thomas’ signing. It’s a cheerful and bizarre reminder of the day I spent a few very happy hours in Waterstones – not that I’m ever likely to forget that day in a hurry!

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Sara’s debut novel Not Thomas is published by Honno Press in paperback and as an ebook and is available to buy on Amazon.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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One Scary Interview & The Law of Three

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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.)

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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.

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