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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Sending a new novel out into the World

Being a writer is the perfect occupation for a person like me.

I’m someone who likes their own space and enjoys their own company, someone who lives more in their head than in the outside world. Sitting at a desk – or more often than not, before my laptop at the kitchen table – is my natural environment.

But two weeks ago, I was dragged out of my comfort zone, forced to make myself reasonably presentable and put centre stage in front of a room full of people.

Why?

Because I had a new book to send out into the big, wide world.

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I needed a pre-publication book launch for Not Thomas – pre-publication because it’s not officially out until the middle of July.

And who exactly was forcing me? Well – me, myself, I, if I’m honest. My bossy self.  I knew I had to get my new book out into the world, and there was only one sure way to do it. (I’m good at pushing myself to do things I’d rather not. As an essentially shy person, I’ve had a lot of practice.)

So how did it feel, being out of my comfort zone?

Well, I knew having the centre of attention focused on me for a whole afternoon would be a tall order. And so when an organiser of another event offered to include me in theirs, I jumped at the chance. It was the perfect solution for me.

Early copies of Not Thomas were launched as part of Spoken Word Saturday, a fabulous event that happens in Llanelli’s Ffwrnes Theatre every second Sat. And I was so grateful to Eleanor Shaw, the organiser, for suggesting it and bringing it all together.

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Eleanor was on holiday that weekend, so her friend & colleague, David Pitt, hosted the event. He was brilliant and I felt I could relax knowing everything was well organised and running to plan. (This photo captures the moment we heard that the last of our participants was about to walk through the door!)

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We had music from the wonderful Liz Crippin, poems and stories from Richard Foreman and Rhoda Thomas, plus readings from my writing circle friends, Mari Dafis and David Wallington.

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Then it was time for cake – yay! – and more cake, and tea all round.

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After refreshments, Jon Gower, well-loved Welsh author and broadcaster who’d written a cover endorsement for Not Thomas, introduced my novel. He did the book proud – he even mentioned Dickens’ Little Nell and my Tomos in the same sentence! (My parents are already treasuring that gem.)

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Caroline Oakley, my editor, gave an overview of the work Honno does, and most interestingly for the writers in the room, what she was hoping someone would submit in the future.

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And then it was my turn.

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I was pretty nervous but by that time, everything had gone so well that I had relaxed quite a bit. Still, I was glad I’d written down what I wanted to say – my brain had totally deserted me.

I thanked people, then read a section of Not Thomas (the part about the Christmas concert where Tomos is singing the solo and trying to find his mum in the crowd). I was delighted with how the extract was received – when you’re reading the words of a five-year-old boy, you don’t know if it sounds right or just weird. But the audience’s reaction was lovely.

To look out and see the sixty or so faces watching and listening intently, and to see all those early copies of Not Thomas sitting on people’s tables was just amazing. The audience was full of friends too, which was so lovely to see.

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So would I do it all again? Absolutely!

But for now, it’s back to the kitchen table to work away at what will hopefully become the next book…

A very big THANK YOU / DIOLCH YN FAWR to Eleanor Shaw, David Pitt, Spoken Word Saturday, Ffwrnes Theatre Llanelli & the staff there, Rhoda Thomas, Mari Dafis, Richard Foreman, David Wallington, Jon Gower and Caroline Oakley. And to everyone who came along and supported me – you are all wonderful!

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

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

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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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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.

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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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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.