A week into the hottest summer holidays on record and I was buying a jumper. Why? That’s a very good question. Motherhood hasn’t written off my sanity just yet (well, not completely anyway) but you could be forgiven for thinking I’d lost my marbles. What I had lost – or rather, purposely left at home, was one chewable gummy glove, a red and white striped nappy changing pouch and two young boys, who (when the mood suits them) sometimes answer to the names of my children. I was in London – by myself, alone, freedom – enjoying the company of fourteen other creatives, an author, an editor and a very sexy illustrator on a two day writing workshop at Penguin Random House! I had remembered my laptop, charger, notepad, brightly coloured pens, etc, but hadn’t considered encountering such an icy air conditioned office in the middle of July. Hence the need to skip across to H&M to buy winter clothing for my glorious summer retreat.
And it was a wonderful retreat. For two days, I got to be the person I really want to be. Forgive me, you know I love my boys, they were never far from my thoughts and I loved getting updates about their day from Daddy – but to get a sense of being ‘me’ again, the other me that doesn’t start with mum, was fantastic! My brain was challenged, I could think creatively, I got praise for a job well done and no one complained if I took a bite of my sandwich before them or whined if I went to the loo! The train commute was novel – I actually smiled at three people on my journey into London, which would usually be a massive faux-pas, but nothing was going to get in my way of having some fun – not even a super-charged air conditioning unit on overdrive.
I had booked the workshop, open-minded to what I might learn, but hopeful that I would come away with renewed confidence. If you’re a regular reader of this little blog of mine, you’ll know that I’ve believed I have the ability to write a children’s picture book for some time… My teaching background, alongside becoming a parent, has been cause for countless stories to be ‘performed’ and whilst my performing arts degree qualifies me to growl like the Gruffalo and recite We’re Going on a Bear Hunt with ease (see, my degree wasn’t wasted, Mum!) even that can’t help me lift some texts from the page. As you sit here reading this, I bet all of the parents amongst you can think of at least one time when you’ve thought to yourself, “How on earth did that get published?!” …and this is what has led to me believing there is hope for my writing yet.
Granted, the workshop did teach me that I need to refine some of my ideas. Apparently, limbless octopuses and anything from a zoo doesn’t have a place reserved on a bookshelf in Waterstones – though in my defence I was put on the spot to concoct this narrative in ten minutes with only ‘Inky’, the Beanie Baby as my inspiration.
However, if the pro author had a success rate of one in ten ideas, then I probably shouldn’t be too hard on myself. Rejection, it seems, comes with the territory and one thing I know that I can do is to have a good sob, before picking myself back up again with renewed vigour. After the octopus flop, I redeemed myself by sharing some of the work I had previously been writing at home. I’m pleased to say that I received some encouraging feedback and though I still need to refine some of the details within my story, I got the confirmation I needed to hear that I know how to write. I can use language effectively and was ‘competent’ using rhyme and playing with the words rhythmically. This last comment came from the children’s picture book editor – so I was very happy to hear that.
As with many things in life, it quickly became clear that to achieve publication you need to play the game. I hadn’t really thought too much about trends in children’s stories before, and the sad truth of the industry is that many of our favourite childhood stories probably wouldn’t get published if they landed on an editor’s desk today. Many would be considered too wordy (500 words is the usual limit for a children’s picture book now) or not lean enough with too much description. The current trend is for short, sharp, bold texts with vibrant illustrations that explode from the page. Unless you’re Julia Donaldson, rhyming stories aren’t currently preferred…
…Which led to me hurriedly writing a first draft of a new story idea on the train journey of day two. On arrival, I made a point of seeking out the author, Alan Durant, to review my new idea. No octopuses – check; no zoos – check; is it feasible? Check! And off I went beavering away for the next few hours to come up with a text worthy of sharing to my new creative writing buddies and the professional panel.
I was pleased with my efforts. The story centres around sibling jealousy and is currently only 168 words in total – so it meets the short, sharp, lean criteria. When it reached my turn to pitch my idea, I ensured my performance was Oscar-worthy. Tone of voice, characterisation, poignant pauses, it was all very carefully considered. (See Mum, again my degree wasn’t a waste!) I’m really happy to tell you all that again that I received some lovely feedback. The sexy illustrator, Ed Vere, thought… actually I can’t remember what he thought – I’m sure he said something nice, but I was distracted by how hot he was (or maybe that was just the jumper I’d bought making me turn red?!)
Either way, the plan now is to spend some time focusing on my new story before submitting it to agents. Based on the more critical elements of my feedback, I want to play around with structure a little to build in more surprise and humour. What I need to do is carve out more time at home to dedicate to writing. At my current rate, if it usually takes a few years to get a book published, then my stories aren’t likely to see the light of day for a few decades! Fortunately, one of the highlights of the retreat was meeting a wonderful group of kind, talented and supportive writers, who I felt like I’d known for a lot longer than just two days. Since the workshop, we have all been in contact and although it’s early days, everyone appears to be very encouraging in spurring on each other’s efforts to write.
Since the workshop, the contents of my bag have been replaced with one chewable gummy glove, a red and white striped nappy changing pouch and such other paraphernalia relating to two small boys. My days are filled listening to their grunts and groans about the wrong coloured spoon or the fact that I kissed them when they didn’t want me to and of course, toilet trips are no longer solo expeditions. There is no escaping motherhood for long; the reality of returning to the battleground at home hit me hard. And love them though I do, sometimes when it all gets too much, there’s only one word to use:
Hmm… only one word… now, I wonder if there’s a story in that?