Friday, 19 December 2014

away in a baxter street manger

I am supposed to be working, dear reader, but I am totally away with the tweeties (or the angels). For this entire week I have written, oh, about twelve words, and all of them have been in Christmas cards. As part of my procrastination here are some shots from around the Baxter Street manger. (What is a manger, anyway? Is it a shed, a stable or a cheap, pet-friendly hotel? Like many archaic words acquired during childhood I have never actually looked into the real meaning. You know, you stand there in the Sunday School choir and mouth these carols, but you have no idea what they mean. Ditto, the cattle are lowing. Seriously?) 
To the books. Himself and I are entering the 21st century and, wait for it, we are getting one of those hideous big tellies for Christmas. Well, Himself, is getting the telly. I am getting an antique Chinese cabinet on which to rest Satan's toy. Come Christmas day I will happily sit and 'watch' the cabinet, dear reader, it's ever so divine AND it has drawers! I am so excited. I LOVE placing things in new drawers. LOVE. 
So, meantime, as part of my procrastination busy-work, the bookcase in the Good Room had to be moved to make way for the future. Hard yakka, dear reader. Hard, dusty yakka. And yet it was a lovely opportunity to look at some of my old books, to flick through soft, yellowing pages and do some serious...stroking. Books hold so many memories for me. Not just their narratives but where I was when I read them, how I was feeling when I discovered a certain author, the impact the book had on my days while I was reading it—living it. The impact it had on my later life. Ecetera...
I wish I could run red velvet curtains in front of the new, unspeakably gauche TV but such fancy stagecraft is beyond my capabilities. At any rate, the bookcase is not going far. Just across the other side of the room, in fact. So, even while we are viewing the Flat Screen and marvelling at this Christmas Miracle and being Joyful and Triumphant, we will still be surrounded by BOOKS. We will still be somehow...grounded. All I can say is, thank heavens for that. 
Bless you for reading my ramblings, dear reader. Bless you. 
Now, back to the writing. I'm sure there are more cards to fill in. xx



PS Just as an aside, dear reader. When I was, oh, about eight, I thought that the cattle are lowing meant that the cattle were down on their knees. Kind of like us when we were in church. Failing that I thought perhaps it meant the cattle were 'lo and beholding'. In other words, they were looking at one another and saying, 'Lo and behold, it's the baby Jesus'. I still believed in talking animals and Narnia and all that jazz, and this Baby Jesus story was a fine story indeed and there were bound to be talking animals somewhere in Bethlehem... Surely?


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Thursday, 11 December 2014

other ways to meet our characters


This little girl, Martha, has been in my mind for well over five years, dear reader. Probably more. She is a secondary (but powerful) character in a novel that I recently completed. I have been 'writing her' over and over. And since going along to art classes I have been drawing her over and over. Of course, I have agonised about going public with my drawings but then I thought, Courage, Jen. Courage. It's a simple line but it's kind of what Eowyn says to Merry as they ride into battle in Lord of the Rings and it's a handy line to remember when one is wobbling. Very...helpful. 

During my Thursday night art classes, I have been learning about colour and mixed media and light and all sorts of things. I have also been learning about drawing children's heads as opposed to our big, wonky, adult noggins. I have discovered that one can add expression with shading, too, and that a broken line is a good line.

I will tell you more about the book Martha features in soon. It will be published by HarperCollins next year (2015) but as yet we haven't settled on a title (ahem). For now, I can say that fiddling about with art and learning about art is definitely helping me write. It is stimulating my imagination, too. I have found art to be incredibly rewarding and now that I'm committed to the process I often wonder why I waited so long to pick up a coloured pencil. 

Creativity. It all comes from the same source and that source flows through all of us. The more I am willing to be vulnerable, the more at ease I am with being an amateur, the faster I learn and the more joyful I find the process. That has been my experience anyway. 

Be kind to yourself, dear reader, in all your creative pursuits and before you know it you will be so in love with what you're doing you won't even need to be courageous. xx


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Tuesday, 25 November 2014

but is it scary?

SCARY!! How far is too far when writing for kids? I can only speak from my own experience, dear reader, so I hope this post doesn't read like an infomercial. But the question is always with me. Always bobbing through my mind like a creepy halloween balloon. In my Ten Tips for Writing Junior Fiction, I wrote: Tip 6, 'Kids love to be scared. But not too scared!'

Anyone familiar with my work knows there is always a dash of 'scary' in my books. Especially in the Truly Tan series (even my editor was 'genuinely afraid' when reading Truly Tan: Freaked! for the first time). The Accidental Princess also has its moments. Actually, it has several. And yes, Tensy Farlow and the Home for Mislaid Children, is particularly spooky — it is after all gothic fiction.

Only read in daylight hours...

But this question of how far is too far always...haunts me. Kids love to be scared — but not terrified, and I certainly don't want to be the one who has upset them. By the same token, they won't tolerate being patronised and will pick a fraud a mile away. If you want to 'write scary' for children you must give it plenty of thought, you must be committed to striking the balance.  

Over the past few years, as my work has gained popularity, I've had more opportunities to speak to my readers directly — at signings and school visits and whatnot. They also write to me. I've spoken with countless parents, too. It's always an eye-opener. For instance, one boy who was mad for Truly Tan became too frightened to continue when he discovered there was a cat skeleton in the story. He insisted his mother shut the book. He just couldn't go on (he told me this himself). However, his mum, obviously a wise soul, took the book aside and read ahead. Then she explained to him that the cat skeleton scene was actually very FUNNY. He was reassured and off they went again. Of course, as he told me matter-of-factly, he was only six then. He has since gone on to read all four books ON HIS OWN. In this spirit many children have proudly told me that Truly Tan is the first scary book they have read ALONE. Apparently this is a rite of passage.

Scarier than a ghost.

One mother wrote to tell me her daughter loved Tensy Farlow but could only read it in daylight hours. Another reader said she hid it under her bed and came back to it three months later. For a time, my local bookshop had a little warning sticker on the Tensy shelf.

But what really intrigues me, are the unintentional Bogey Men. They're not always what I would expect. In Truly Tan, it seems that more kids are scared of the dead fox than they are of Wandering Wanda (the ghost). One little girl could not go on with The Accidental Princess because she was 'scared' of the sisters fighting (I was sure she was going to point the finger at the Witch Queen or the nasty weasel-riding imps). What you and I might simply call 'drama' she found too 'scary' to deal with ('scary' defines a lot of emotions when you're seven). When her mother reassured her that the sisters eventually make up and that under it all they love each other, this little girl (an only child) relented and with her mother's encouragement went on to relish the story. The illustrations also helped. (Note to self, carefully selected illustrations are a godsend in junior novels and if done well add to the joy of reading and do not make the book look 'babyish'). Because of The Accidental Princess, this mother and daughter had the opportunity to discuss sibling rivalry and forgiveness. It was a rewarding experience for them both and their anecdote gave me another priceless insight into my readers' minds. 
In The Accidental Princess, the friction between the sisters is 'scarier' for some readers than the imps...

There are no right or wrong answers here and of course every child is different and brings their own unique experience and level of maturity to a story. As a writer however what seems to work for me is to balance the scary bits with loads of humour and, in the true spirit of Enid Blyton, mountains of food. As I said, it's all a matter of balance, and sugar-frosted angel cake helps keep the scales level (ahem).

Perhaps you might like to share your stories with me, dear reader? I'd love to know what defines 'scary' in your household. I'd love to hear from you.

In the meantime, 'once upon a midnight dreary'; I will keep striving to be scary. But not too scary! 

Jen. xx 
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Sunday, 9 November 2014

I can't stop!

I haven't blogged properly or consistently for quite some time, dear reader, and for that I apologise. But I want to tell you that over the past twelve months I have become distracted, consumed and now these days obsessed by art. So, when I am not writing, I am drawing, painting, cutting and pasting. Is it because I am in my 50s and can no longer suppress these urges? Possibly. Life has definitely become more URGENT these days and the time for frittering and second-guessing is gone. Perhaps to outsiders I seem rather boring. But I just don't want to run about socialising and yammering and seeking entertainment outside myself — entertainment that someone else has constructed for me. I don't want to watch or pontificate or consume. I want to CREATE. In other words, I just want to stay home and make stuff.

 Oddly enough (or maybe not) I have felt quite embarrassed by this. At times ashamed. I mean, who am I to think I can Do Art? Where are my qualifications? Where is my speech about how I was always the kid who could draw? I don't have a speech like that or a history like that. A recent (and surprisingly quite wonderful) school reunion made me think about these issues more deeply. I realised that for me school was always about survival. Social survival. It was never about self-expression or developing talents. It was about trying to get through the days, weeks, years while always feeling decidedly...shredded. In those days all my energy was spent simply trying to Appear Normal. But now I have grown up. Now I can make choices and assert myself. Now I can surround myself with the right people, those who are happy to love me and support me and inspire me. It's such a wonderful place to be. I get so excited about the startling privilege of being here on the planet surrounded by so much CHOICE! We mustn't waste life. Not a second of it. And if we are aching to create, then we must. The urge to create is in and of itself a gift.

I have this ongoing fantasy that helps keep me motivated. In it I am dead and I'm going through an Exit Interview. God says, 'So what did you get up, Jen?' And I say, 'Well, I bitched and moaned. I looked around a bit, too. I saw the greed, the violence, the injustice, and quite frankly, I was paralysed with despair'.
And God looks at me for a long moment. Then He says, 'But what did you think of the ice-cream?'

I will share more with you about my artistic journey as it unfolds but in the meantime I came across this video. If, like me, you struggle with self-doubt, if you long for more self-expression and are busting to take some artistic 'risks', watch this video. It is so reassuring, so inspiring. Especially for those of us who are, for want of a better term, Late Bloomers. 

Yours in perpetual watercolour. Jen xx


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Monday, 27 October 2014

take two...

I made a little 'vlog', dear reader. I know that some of you have children who enjoy reading my Truly Tan books so this for them. Please excuse the nail polish... xx

video

Also, here's the YouTube link if you are having trouble seeing this in Blogger.
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Sunday, 19 October 2014

spring bunnies

Housekeeping today, dear reader.
Spring cleaning.
Even dusting bookshelves...
Himself is cooking a roast.
Pistachio ice-cream with fresh raspberry coulis for dessert. (I'm afraid I cannot guarantee a photo).
Kids coming to dinner.
We hope they don't rate us on Urban Spoon.
Pulling out the vintage.
Listening to the Lord of the Rings soundtrack and wondering if Tolkien would have liked it.
Waiting for my David Austin rose to bloom.
Sending you Happy Tidings from Baxter Street, dear reader. xx





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Thursday, 16 October 2014

get the picture?

I can't do a scrap more work until I get this out of my system. I am mad for this film. MAD. Love, love, love. This is Jim Jarmusch at his 'Dead Man' best. I'll have to reshuffle my All Time Top Five. That's how good this film is... 
Right. Good. As you were, dear reader. xx






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Thursday, 9 October 2014

pub dates and that


 From this...


To this!

Yesterday I received advance copies of the fourth book in my Truly Tan series. Advance copies pop up without warning, dear reader. Like so much of the publishing process it's all a bit unpredictable and, well, random. After a few years as a published author and with a bit of experience behind you, you have a vague idea of when these first eagerly awaited copies might arrive but you never know exactly when it will be. The same goes for pub dates — not the date you're going to the pub with your editor, 'pub date' is of course industry speak for 'publication date'. Unless you're something of a superstar and there's actually an embargo on your masterpiece, books come out 'around' the time of the pub date. Actually, they have been known to simply appear haphazardly. VOILA! I suppose this is because there are lots of trucks and truck drivers and warehouse people hefting your books to and fro, beep, beep, beep, and they can't possibly all turn up at the same bookshop on exactly the same day. Also, bookshop people have loads of work to do and sometimes your books might have arrived but not yet been unpacked. On occasion I've been informed by friends (usually on social media) that my book is out because they've just spotted it in the window of such and such a shop. Once, many years ago, I went to an industry drinks night only to find that my new book was on display and I hadn't even GLIMPSED it yet. Not even an advance copy. (It was an advance copy that was on display). It was an exercise in Extreme Willpower for me not to shove everyone and their fancy canapes out of the way as I made a flying leap for my darling new book... Even when it finally found its way around the room to me, I wanted to snatch it up and bolt out of there. I longed to take it to some secluded corner where I could pore over it in private. But I didn't. I just sipped my champers and smiled graciously. 'Oh that old thing' was the look I was chasing that night...

Until tomorrow, dear reader, I remain Yours in Constant Surprise. xx

Truly Tan: Freaked! Illustrated by Claire Robertson, due for release early November, HarperCollins Publishers Australia.

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Monday, 6 October 2014

Ted says, Don't read!


Advice to Aspiring Authors, 101: Read, read, read! Over and over that's what I hear published authors hollering. In addition they say read voraciously, read widely, especially in your chosen field. Well, um, quite frankly this advice always makes me feel...uncomfortable. It just doesn't wash with me nor does it reflect my experience. If you are an aspiring writer I would say, please, please, please, don't read too much. Don't read everything you can get your hands on. And don't read too widely or obsessively in your favoured genre, the genre you want to write in. Here's why:

Reading takes time. Have you got that much time? Writing is infinitely harder, infinitely more time-consuming so that's where you should be — at your desk writing, not lying on the couch reading another book.

Reading too much clutters your mind. You end up with a head full of other people's characters and plots and stylistic foibles and your own voice (which early on is tentative and shy) gets buried.

Reading too much will intimidate you. Your inner artist doesn't need to be intimidated, she needs to be supported. She also needs to practise her art, she needs to forget about what others are doing or achieving and GET CRACKING.

Reading too much will confuse you. What should I do, how should I do it? maybe I should do it this way, that way, start here, start there, try to be more like so-and-so... Yadda yadda, yadda. Give your brain some air. Give your imagination some SPACE.

You risk getting really DERIVATIVE if you read too much. This need not be intentional, in fact it can be quite unconscious. I'm not just referring to voice here either. Just about everyone has had the experience of mimicking the voice of the novel they're currently reading. When I read Harry Potter I kept calling everyone in my WIP 'dear boy'. I'm surprised my characters didn't all end up with their mothers' eyes. No, it's not just voice, it's plot devices and narrative structures that you risk regurgitating too. 

You could end up stifling unique creative impulses if you read too much. By losing yourself in the work of others and, let's face it, comparing yourself to them, you could easily end up second-guessing yourself, undermining your own talent, disregarding or dismissing what could be fresh, original, uniquely YOU.



Don't get me wrong — I'm not saying don't read. I'm simply saying that if you are an aspiring author put some boundaries around your reading and most of all BE SELECTIVE. Read quality. Read beyond your genre too, outside your field. And in terms of the genre you want to work in, only read, say, the top five. The best. Forget the rest. Reading everything that comes out, keeping up with latest trends, studying the market. Urgh. That's just time-wasting. That's just procrastination. Honestly, you don't have to kiss ALL the frogs.



Of course, I have been inspired by Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl etc. But most of the books that have influenced me are not directly linked to or anything like what I actually write. I might be a children's author but I haven't read a lot of children's books. Not really. I have however read the classics (repeatedly) and torn apart metaphysical poetry and tried to figure out how it works and I have studied a large chunk of the Western canon... and pondered over just about everything PIXAR has created. I love, love, love words and I love analysing the art of story-telling. But these days I don't read all that much. I'm too busy writing. 

Are you at that point, do you think? Are you ready to drop your training wheels and pedal along on your own for a while? I bet you are. Give it a try. Trust yourself. Trust that you know enough, that just for now you have read enough, gleaned, absorbed, integrated the basics. Just for a while, write, write, write, rather than read. Sharpen your focus. See how you go... xx
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Saturday, 4 October 2014

power surges


What have you done this week that has brought you closer to your dreams, dear reader? Did you take a fairy step towards your goals or did you march forward confidently? Perhaps you donned your fashionable Swedish clogs and tottered along with a defiant smile. Perhaps you dilly-dallied or, god forbid, back-peddled. No matter. There is still tomorrow. Isn't that fab? 

Clogs,dear reader, clogs. I do so love them...

Personally, I have been struggling with a great deal of anger. I've been FUMING and RANTING and BLUSTERING about all sorts of things personal and political. But I have had a breakthrough. I've decided to welcome and embrace the anger. Moreover, I've decided to GET CLEAR about a few things. Namely, my boundaries. And I've decided not be afraid of my anger or apologise for it (this is huge for me). I've allowed it to heave me up out of my muddy little flowerpot, push me into the sunshine and, hopefully, into a new, bright productive phase. 
Honestly, anger can be so empowering, so exciting. Have you noticed lots of changes around you this month, dear reader, lots of shuffling and wriggling and bumping up against the norm or is it just me? I'd love to hear what you think...
Until tomorrow, let's move forward with a spring in our step and say, 'That sir, is bullshit' whenever we damn well please. Onwards! xx



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