Dinosaur Douglas Books
(How a cheeky dinosaur is helping young children look after their health)
I am a children’s author with over 35 books, published by various publishers. including Walker Books, OUP, MacMillan and Hachette, translated and sold around the world. I became author/publisher a few years ago, after I met Kate Barnard, Consultant in Paediatric Dentistry at Chelsea & Westminster Hospital.
Kate told me that almost one-third of five year olds and half of eight year olds have fillings or missing teeth caused by decay, and the most common cause of hospital admission in primary school children each year is dental decay and infection; 26,000 children aged five-nine needed emergency dental surgery last year.
Kate wanted an inexpensive book that would make children realize the importance of brushing their teeth. It needed to be available to as many children and parents as possible, including people on low income and those who didn’t go into bookshops.
Kate and I met many times and Dinosaur Douglas and the Beastly Bugs took shape, finally becoming a fun, rhyming story about a cheeky dinosaur.
Alex Godwin, international artist and street painter, who had painted the streets of London, Berlin, South Africa and beyond, had long wanted to illustrate a children’s book. I sent her the story. She sent back some sketches. We loved them.
Why did I choose to self-publish this book?
Having worked in publishing as editor and commissioning editor of children’s and adult books, I was aware that no publisher would commission a book about teeth, written in rhyme, with an unknown illustrator. Most picture books are beautifully produced hardbacks with international appeal; they become paperbacks once they have proved to sell well as hardbacks.
Publishers usually send picture books abroad for printing as it’s less expensive. I wanted to keep the project local. A friendly Hammersmith printer advised me on format, paper quality, spine, cover and print-run, keeping costs to a minimum.
With the aim of getting the book into all local nurseries and reception classes, I approached local businesses for sponsorship. A dentist, architect, chemist, hardware store and others were interested. An estate agent challenged me, “If you are doing this for the local community, why isn’t the council backing you?”
I had already approached the council several times, without success. Now I had one more try. My proposal bounced from one councilor’s office to another and finally landed on the Senior Public Health Officer’s desk – and I received a phone call.
I dabbled with writing on and off for almost ten years before I decided to follow the route of self-publishing. I had been made redundant from my job just before having my baby and she was now four months old. I really thought if not now - then when?!
YouTube is a life saver because any question I seemed to have about self-publishing, someone had kindly made a video on that subject – perfect! I researched CreateSpace and Lulu and a few other self-publishing platforms before deciding which to use.
I will not lie, self-publishing is a challenge but this was my process in seven steps;
Literally that was it. It sounds pretty simple but because it was my first attempt at really doing this on my own, there was a lot to learn and I felt very exposed. As my daughter was so young I was very sleep deprived and the fact that I, or no one I was in contact with at the time, knew how to do this I was so anxious about getting it wrong.
Luckily for me during this time two things kept me going;
1.The fear of not trying at all was so much greater than not trying while I was given the chance.
2.That and the comforting feeling of ‘what’s the worst that could happen?’
The worst-case scenarios that I could imagine were
That second scenario scared me, so I did it.
Nine months after publishing my book and getting into the rhythm of finding events to attend and local stockists I was asked to take part in the ‘Can’t put it down’ festival. I had decided that after the reading, it would be nice for the children to colour in pictures from the story. As the theme of my story is around sharing I thought that it would also be nice for the children (and adults!) to have the chance to make a friendship bracelet for someone special. I chose two activities that I enjoy and that I felt comfortable with. I also thought would be able to keep children entertained in small groups and individually.
Just over a week before the event ordering more copies of my book went horribly wrong and the sleepless nights with my daughter reared their ugly head. The overwhelming feeling of doing things wrong came back and after lots of tears I emailed Jo and cancelled my slot in the festival. Jo (who was organising the event) was very understanding and luckily, after the ‘all hope is lost’ feeling I managed to pull a few strings here and there to get enough books to bring to the event – Phew!
So - on a very rainy August afternoon I read my story The Butterfly Princess to a room full of lovely children accompanied by their grownups. The highlight of my day was definitely a little girl who came dressed as a butterfly with enthusiasm that matched her beautifully bright wings. It was such a special moment to look around the room to see everyone engaged. The children loved the colouring activities, got very involved with creating their bracelets and even enjoyed watching their bracelets come together as their parents looped away. The adults loved making the friendship bracelets just as much as the children. The inventive ways of holding and looping thread was such a wonderful sight. Some of the parents even asked for more thread to try again at home. It was really nice to know that the children would continue to share a one to one moment with a grownup learning a new craft.
The book follows Kemi, a black girl with big, curly, kinky afro hair, as she gets her hair done on wash day. As aware as I was of how important the topic of the book was for children in accepting and appreciating the beauty in their hair, I didn’t realise just how much it was needed for more than that. Love Thy Fro was needed because it represented children that aren’t always represented in mainstream children’s books.
This realisation made me realise there was work to be done, and I decided I wanted to play a part in doing the work to make that change.
Diverse children’s books are needed now more than ever, especially given the society we live in. To be diverse is to be inclusive, and why wouldn’t we want all children to be included in literature?
Many people often think that when we talk about diversity, we’re only talking about race. As important as race is, diversity relates to so much more than just that; household structures, disability and health, culture, religion, language. There is diversity within all of these things and more, and children's books should be representative of the different children from all of these worlds.
There are a number of benefits to children that come from diversity and inclusion in books. Children feel like a part of society and don’t feel excluded. Children are able to learn about, and appreciate, other cultures and people from different backgrounds. As children see images they can relate to, they begin to feel more valued which helps to raise their self-esteem and confidence. And they become more aspirational as they aspire to be like the images they see.
When you look at the benefits and what diversity really means, it seems so simple, so the fact that much of mainstream publishing isn’t embracing it is quite baffling. People often mistakenly think books that embrace diversity are only for children from diverse backgrounds but that shouldn’t be the case. For decades, children have managed to make a connection to characters from primarily white backgrounds in popular books, so there’s no reason why connections can’t be made to children from non-white backgrounds. These books that embrace diversity are for everyone, even more so than those that don’t.
Diversity educates. It inspires. It gives a greater understanding. It’s inclusive. It's our role, as authors, publishers, parents, teachers and librarians to make sure that diverse literature is brought to the forefront of publishing.
Book reviews are like gold dust to authors, particularly to unknown authors. They are so important to me that I dedicated a whole page at the back of my latest book (EATS) practically begging for readers to review it AND I gave away several FREE copies of the book, paying for the postage and everything. I am always hungry for reviews, looking for ways to increase my review numbers on Goodreads and Amazon and I appeal to you all now, reading these words - go review the book you have just read, it really makes a difference.
Nothing on this Earth will make you want to read a book other than someone you know (who has the same taste as you) raving about it. No point raving about David Walliams or Roald Dahl, rave about an unknown, rave about a book that needs a push, a little helping hand. Rave about my books, *winks, but means it really*!
It’s not just about doing a good turn for an author, giving them a tip, like the hardworking waiting staff they are, it is also the ‘feel good factor’. It’s free, costs you nothing, but a little time and the benefits to the author are incredible. What a rush it is to feel you’ve helped. The star ratings on Amazon and Goodreads really work - it’s something about algorithms that’s beyond me, but it makes a big difference. It also helps to get good books into the hands of children who might otherwise be reluctant readers, boosting children’s literacy, now we’re all for that, right? The other benefit is if you’re an author and you review books, other authors will review yours. One good turn… blah blah.
You don’t need to write reams - in fact, definitely don’t write reams. Leave that to book bloggers. Write a paragraph or two, write a sentence, just write: Great! but give it some stars. I review every book I like (I only write negative reviews if the book is already massively successful or I have been asked to write a review and I always warn the author first), or I ask my children for their thoughts. You can read my reviews on Goodreads if you like: https://www.goodreads.com/review/list/50098246-camilla-chester?sort=review&view=reviews. I don’t review on my website blog, but I do post up what I am reading now and again.
I’m just getting ready for a talk at Hounslow Library in West London and it reminded me that I promised to share a few tips about events promoting books.
There are two books in the Tigeropolis series, with a third underway. The stories are targeted at ‘confident readers’, 8-12 and tell the story of a family of vegetarian tigers living in the foothills of the Himalayas who are battling to save their beloved forest (Tigeropolis) from the developers’ encroaching bulldozers. The books are humourous, but with an underlying conservation theme, and loosely (very loosely) based on my experiences of conservation in India.
My first ever promotional book event was at a local primary school. The Literacy Coordinator had asked if I would do a short talk at a morning assembly for World Book Day.
I decided that rather than talk too much about the books I should focus on what inspired me to write the series; describing my first encounter with a tiger, interspersed with a few tiger facts and then finish with a short reading from the book. In Tigeropolis the tigers have forgotten how to be wild and need to re-learn old skills, so the piece I chose to read describes how they learnt to roar again. It was a bit intimidating faced with 350 children aged 5 – 12, many dressed as tigers, but thankfully it seems they did genuinely have an interest in tigers and stayed engaged throughout. At the end they also liked to show that they too knew how to roar!
So, what tips can I pass on?
Number 1 - Establish exactly what your host organisation wants, but also make sure they really know what you can offer.
As I’ve said my books are based on tiger conservation, so I’m also able to talk more generally about tigers and conservation. Some schools therefore ask me to go round individual year groups as well as do a general talk to an Assembly talking about a range of issues. This of course adds considerably to the time commitment, but it can be very interesting – and also challenging, as some of the questions can be quite tough.
Number 2 - Try to involve the audience.
I always try to get the audience to answer questions and to talk about their own experience with tigers in zoos, safari parks, etc. Sometimes I get them to vote on the possible plot ideas I have for the current book I’m working on. And of course, the roaring practice at the end usually works out well as an exercise in audience participation.
Number 3 - Leave time for Q&As.
This is always a highlight for me – although you do find that quite a few children are so focussed on asking their own question that they haven’t noticed that their question has already been asked 3 times. There are only so many different ways you can answer ‘what inspired you to write the book? ’ without repeating yourself too obviously.
Number 4 - Have realistic expectations about how many book sales will be generated.
It may seem obvious but it’s worth repeating – most primary school children do not carry significant quantities of spare cash, or have credit cards, therefore you will either have to get the school to organise pre-sales (advance notes to parents/guardians and sort out paperwork and cash collection), or rely on a brief window of opportunity at the end of the day when parents/guardians are collecting their children. So you need to establish how any sales opportunity will work and it’s most certainly worth trying to make it as easy as possible for the school to encourage pre-ordering. My most successful event so far enabled me to sell just over 100 books (all pre-sales), the least successful was about 15 (and that was when selling at the end of the school day). I should mention, by the way, signing and individually dedicating one hundred books takes quite a bit of time – indeed an entire lunch hour, and then some.
Number 5 - If you are using props, videos or Powerpoint you need to have a back-up plan when it all goes wrong.
And trust me, things do go wrong. Projectors might be missing connector leads, power sockets may be in the wrong place, supply teachers might not know passwords, there can also be problematic acoustics, or lighting, or simply just not having enough space (especially in books shops). Mostly you don’t have the time/opportunity to do a recce – you just have to turn up, take 10 mins to set up and then you’re on. I usually WeTranfer my presentation ahead of time – partly to enable the teachers/shop staff to have a bit more of an idea of what I’m going to say and also to encourage them to have things set up before I arrive – nonetheless I have my presentation on a laptop, a memory stick and I can also run it off my iPhone if necessary. I even have some of the key slides printed out on an A3 flip chart, just in case.
Number 6 - Confirm arrangements a couple of days before you turn up and make sure you have a contact name.
Whilst the school might quite like having you there, it quickly becomes clear you are not the key thing on most people’s minds – and especially at the start of the school day, so you need to know who is expecting you and how to contact them. I also must admit on at least one occasion I, myself, forgot all about the fact I was doing a talk the next day – luckily I glanced at my calendar just before going to bed and suddenly realised I needed to be at a school for 8.30 the next morning on the other side of London.
Number 7 - Don’t do it if you don’t enjoy it.
It’s fun – but it’s hard work – you are on show for at least an hour (and possibly all day) and people expect you to perform throughout that time. That said, it’s also clear children really do like the idea of an ‘author’ visiting them, so that’s always a nice thought to have at the back of your mind as you munch your way through the school lunch you might be lucky enough to be offered just before you go on.
Oh, and finally, if, like me, you are going to ask 300 children to roar simultaneously, and full throated, take my advice and bring some earplugs!
Tigeropolis – Beyond the Deep Forest and
Tigeropolis – The Grand Opening are published by Belle Media
Check out my new Children's picture book (4+) out now: Captain Bobo
The manuscript for A Year in the Life of Brack, my first self-published illustrated children’s book, was ready. Phew! I had already made contact with Matador.
Then came the crucial issue of choosing an illustrator.
Yes, it’s a self-published book but it needed to stand alongside the mainstream publishers. I’m OK at art but I knew that my book illustration efforts would not give a good impression. I definitely needed a professional. Someone who could illustrate in a way that would match the humour and quirkiness of characters in the story. I was looking for someone with a lively sense of colour whose illustrations would stand out. Where to find this person?
I looked through as many illustrated children’s books as I could and jotted down some names of illustrators whose style I liked. I searched the internet for their names. It turned out that they happened to be fairly up-market illustrators, but I thought, what have I got to lose? You can imagine, I guess. A lot! The fees they charged were way out my league.
I was stuck. I talked to Matador and they gave me the following advice.
Try Art Colleges, or Universities with Art Departments, they often have very talented students. Try to find someone local, then you’ll have the chance to meet and discuss your ideas. Decide if you want graphically designed, or hand-drawn illustrations? Bare in mind, they said, that hand-drawn illustrations will probably take longer.
In the meantime, I had to decide where, and how many, illustrations there should be. I decided to pinpoint the main events in the story, scenes which would have a dramatic effect. There were over twenty possibilities. (In the end I had to reduce the number, due to costs). As I was writing the story I visualised the events, the scenes, the characters, their reactions and their expressions. I wanted to place the illustrations evenly across the book, although, I don’t think I achieved this in Brack. Next time..!
Back on the internet, I searched for children’s illustrators based in the Midlands. I found Anna’s name, looked at her work on her website, liked what I saw and got in touch. I sent her the manuscript – with descriptions of the illustration suggestions interspersed in the text. she liked the story and we agreed to meet up.
We got on well, and that’s always a good start. She showed me some examples of her work. The vibrant colours and happy feel to her illustrations appealed to me and I thought they would suit the story well. We discussed timeframe and costs. She told me that she hand-draws her work. We talked about style, colours, characters etc. She went away and did a trial illustration of Brack, which I loved, and so we decided to work together.
In a nutshell. Find an illustrator whose style fits your story, your budget and your timeframe. Someone who communicates regularly and promptly. Someone who is open to suggestions and is prepared to adjust. Drawing up a contract between the parties is a good idea, although Anna and I managed quite well without one. I would say that regular communication and flexibility are key to achieving results.
Check out Anna Landmane's website here:
For a long time now, I have been teaching both children and adults, and I found in all those years that the one thing to get over, in drawing, is the lack of confidence.
Show somebody they can draw something, and the world is their oyster.
When I was teaching young children in after -school art, I soon realised that some children drew naturally, and some did not. I searched for books which showed them how to draw objects in a simple way. There weren’t any. Those who couldn’t draw had to content themselves with colouring- in or sticker books .
So I decided to do my own.
I demonstrated in a simple way that every object can be broken down into shapes . I used a bar under the step- by -step drawing to indicate to the young artist as to what they should do next. For example with a face, the clue would be a circle and then next two circles for eyes.
I was also particularly interested in showing that before one starts drawing, the pencil is held in a relaxed manner. I decided the first few pages should address this problem. Many children and adults press hard, too quickly, and this determines the end result far too early.
A drawing should evolve with many lines, so the artist can choose which of the many they have sketched is the one they want. After a while they may use one line, but not by “trying too hard” and making an indentation in the paper.
Also I have endeavoured to show the shape within the shape. (For instance the circle in the sun). Once the trick is learned it can be applied to any object . This shows the young artist how to approach drawing for rest of their drawing career.
I had a collection of sheets which I had used with children over the years, and pretty much had the whole book in rough form waiting to be produced. These were subjects they had been requesting ( e.g. a castle, a helicopter etc.)
Adults who could not draw for the younger generation , now could , and children who thought they couldn’t, now have the confidence to give it a go!
My first drawing experience that I remember, was when I was five, at school in Pretoria , South Africa. I realised I could not draw as well as my peers in the class. I remember being devastated, and asking my friend Patricia how do I do it? She tried to help, but she was only 5 !
I was in my second year at university before I felt I could draw as well as I could paint. This is because no one throughout my school career ever taught me the basics. I have come across many people whose confidence was undermined by negative experience in their early creativity, from teachers or peers. I see my challenge as overcoming the fear of a blank sheet of paper.
So I had the book, but only in rough form. I then needed a picture book editor and designer. Susan Reuben, the picture book editor, suggested I divide the book into sections, each section culminating in a finished coloured picture incorporating the previous section.
I find this invaluable as most children are never sure where to put the horizon line, or how to arrange the images.
I met Irene Malvezi, the graphic designer, while were exhibiting at “The Untitled Artists Fair” in Chelsea, London, and she was immediately captivated by my ideas for the book “Draw Water and Other Things”. She jumped at the chance to “do something worthwhile”. Since then she has retired from graphic design. Irene’s new challenge now, is a Masters Degree in Art Psychotherapy.
She magicked my rough drawings into a beautiful book. I am forever grateful to her.
I decided to publish on my own, after a short period with an American publisher.
I now have a publishing name, linked to my logo
www.patopress.com Pato means duck in Spanish and Portuguese. (Irene is from Brazil)
It is hard work doing it on my own, but it can be very rewarding.
I have done numerous workshops at Waterstones. The staff always remark how quiet they are!
My next how to draw book Draw Queens , Kings and
All Things Royal is on sale at the Royal Collection shop.
The ecological books Elly’s Adventure in the Animal Park and Elly’s Adventure Down by the Sea are written and illustrated by me.
Each time I have had the immensely invaluable advice from Susan Reuben.
I advise anyone setting out to publish, to make sure they get a good editor.
I also strongly advise membership of the Society of Authors. They have been so helpful to me on many occasions and they also have interesting and useful lectures and workshops.
My printers for the first three books were extremely helpful, but of course this is an expense. I am experimenting with Print on Demand (through Createspace). They have printed all my translated books. (9 translations of Elly’s Adventure in the Animal Park )
My latest POD book Elly’s Adventure Down by the Sea is with Ingrams. I am not having much sales success with it, and am still trying to work out why!
On Tuesday 1 August, I took part in the first Can’t Put It Down festival. My audience was a group of three-year-olds accompanied by their mothers and grandmothers. How was I going to keep their interest for an hour? Well, I made sure the book I was using for the event was right for the age of the audience, though often you don’t know what age child is going to show up so you have to be prepared to be flexible. I find if I divide the session into three differing sections: sitting looking and listening, then moving about and finally creating something, a very young audience is less likely to become fidgety. I start by drawing on the flip chart and asking the children to guess what I’m drawing. If you’re an illustrator and gifted at off-the-cuff live drawing, then you could base your whole event on this; it’s always popular. I’m not, and so I have to practice beforehand. However, I can do it sufficiently well to catch the children’s attention and lead them into the story. Not being great at live drawing can have the advantage of not daunting an audience, especially an older audience who then feel inspired to have a go themselves.
By the end of the drawing, I usually have the three-year-olds’ attention and can read or tell the story. Being both the author and illustrator, I like to show the original artwork alongside the artwork in the book and involve a parent to help hold up the pictures. In ‘Flood’ there are many little creatures on bits of debris in the flood so we spend some time looking for them in the artwork. With an older audience, I will spend longer sitting looking at roughs and sketches.
After sitting through a story, a bunch of three-year-olds’ are needing to move about. So, I get out glove puppets of the characters and we act out a part of the story. It’s amazing how children with a puppet can lose all inhibitions. I have some books that lend themselves more than others to this activity: one where the children can use puppets to change the end of the story, another where they can make up new episodes. Sometimes I bring along props, like a large tree cut-out and have the puppets coming out of a hole. With ‘Flood’ I have the puppet characters steering their way through the flood to land. They hang on to each other’s tails with the hen at the back caught in the fox’s brush calling out ‘to the right!’ or ‘to the left,’ the fox pulling on the Ox’s tail, and the Ox bellowing out ‘ow’ and changing direction. All very noisy.
The final stage of the event is quieter: I hand out colouring sheets where, referring to the book, the children can match a creature with the bit of debris it’s sitting on to stay dry and also ‘little books’ for them to draw in. These ‘little books’ are made by folding and cutting a single A 4 sheet of paper; parents often want to be shown how to make them so they can do this activity at home. The children now have something they have created to take home, along with a ‘Flood’ bookmark and hopefully a signed copy of the book.
When it comes to school events there is a slightly different emphasis, although I still follow a similar pattern to a bookshop event. Often a school wants you to fit in with a theme. Schools can also ask you to cover every year group even though your books are picture books, so I have to know which of my books lend themselves to a creative writing task, or a story board task for the older pupils. The objective with all pupils but especially the top primary pupils is to inspire them to want to create something which then surprises them and their teacher and makes them proud of what they have done. To do this you have to free them from their inhibitions and preconceptions. The way I do this is by getting pupils, whatever their age to use the puppets to act out the opening of a story, set, for example on a beach and make it all come alive by talking about what can be seen, heard and felt. Then I ask them to do a ten-minute sketch of a place they know, their own beach, which will be the setting for their own story. For this exercise, I ask for A3 paper and black marker pens. When there are no pencils and rubbers involved everything becomes looser and more fluid.
Events are fun. Whether you are in a bookshop or a classroom, the most rewarding thing about them is being able to inspire your audience to want to do something they don’t normally do.
It’s a good time to be an indie children’s author
If children’s books are the poor relations of literature, then how much further down the pecking order are self-published children’s books?
I’m joking, of course. The reputation of books for young readers has soared immeasurably in recent years. There’s still some catching up to do, but we can take pride in the fact that, unlike other categories, the children’s book market grew 3.5% in 2015, and our segment accounts for 24% of the UK book market. Hurrah!
The stigma of self-publishing – or independent publishing, as we now call it – is on the decline. Each time I attend an event about indie publishing, I find more professionals from traditional publishing in evidence: often speaking, even looking for writers.
To the outside universe, our worlds are converging. But are authors’ own attitudes to indie publishing moving with the times?
It’s no longer the case that authors publish their own work because it isn’t good enough for a mainstream publisher. Until recently, I worked in-house as a children’s publisher, so I know a bit about this.
Some books have a finite audience. (And some much-hyped books underperform massively.) Your audience of 500 might not be enough to attract a mainstream publisher – who has budgets to meet and market share to grab – but that’s no reason for you to forsake that readership. If you publish the book yourself, and win those 500 readers you may go on to net 750 or 1,000 or even 2,000 or more. Then you’ve an enticing platform from which to offer your next book. A ready-made, eager audience is definitely attractive to publishers. Indeed, they’ll be impressed by evidence of a serious appetite for your work.
The big questions faced by publishers are also faced by indie authors: who is going to read it? How are we going to reach those readers?
An indie author can answer the first question pretty easily. Start small; start local. What about the second?
A good package is essential for any book. I knew that when I self-published by novel for adults, Ready to Love, it had to look as good as any paperback novel you’d find in a bookshop. (I hope it is as good …) That meant investing in proper editing, typesetting, production and – above all – cover design. You get what you pay for in this business. There’s no value in a cupboard full of unwanted books whose fate was sealed by the author’s lack of investment in the production.
It takes a huge effort to publish your book independently because you have to co-ordinate and control the process. There’s nothing like devoting your own time and money to a project to make you think: Is it worth it? Is it good enough to lavish these resources on? Moreover – is my career as a writer worth that investment? Don’t just think in terms of one-off books (publishers seldom do), think about the long term.
I’m so pleased I have a finished book as a physical object to offer people. People’s reactions to it have given my confidence to begin something new. I don’t yet know what that next book’s path towards its audience will be – but I feel as if I’m getting somewhere. Building something. I know I can use all I’ve learned to hopefully be even more successful next time.
I hope you feel that way too as you journey on the path to publication. I look forward to seeing your books and hearing your stories.
And good luck!
Jon Appleton worked in publishing for 20 years – for Hodder, Orion, Scholastic and Piccadilly Press, amongst others. Now he’s a freelance editor, writer and writers’ mentor. You can contact him at email@example.com, follow him on Twitter @appletonsbooks and follow his blog here.
How'd You Get the Idea In the First Place?
As it happens, I can tell you!
I was listening to my iPod, Adele’s first album,one spring morning in 2007 as I was walking along the Stowe, Vermont Recreation Path. It’s a beautiful path that follows a rocky stream through woods and fields with the Green Mountains in the long view. I had recently gotten a half-time job (I’m a government lawyer by day) and I had two kids in school. This meant I had a little mental space and time with which to work for the first time in years. I had been a writer before law school, for local newspapers and in a college PR office, and I had continued writing (for fun) on a blog that I have kept since 2006. I mention this because I was in the writing habit, which helped, I think, to keep ideas coming. The walking part is important too. I walk every day if I can. I got to thinking that day as I listened to Adele sing about how important it was for gifted people to arrive at the right place and time if their gifts are to be realized.
I've always been a reader, of course, and my major in college was English literature. So when this thought flitted across my mind, I immediately thought of Thomas Gray’s famous poem, ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,’ which includes this notion as one of its major themes. That is, it contemplates those whose talents never stood a chance, given the time and place in which they were deposited. I wondered what if some exceptional people weren't constrained by the circumstances of their birth? What if the Universe had a way of, very occasionally, correcting these mistakes? Of shifting people born in the wrong time and place to the place where they and their talents could flourish?
What about, a time travel story, I thought, with a cossetted but basically good American rich kid at its center? How about a rescue mission – where our hero has to find a girl born out of her time and a secret not meant to be and then get home with them both?
It was my own small “J.K. Rowling moment” – the one we’ve all heard about, when Ms. Rowling was riding on a train and suddenly had an idea for a story about a school for young wizards?
I’m no J.K. Rowling, but I think I experienced something of the same thrill. I knew such a story would allow me to braid together many of my lifelong interests: English language and literature, social history, especially women’s history, the differences between English and American culture, as well as their similarities, and about how we all must meet the challenges that life throws at us. I could also write about fun stuff (for me) Staffordshire pottery, London in the twenties, the English countryside and English country living at its last gasp between the wars. I could include three-speed bicycles and manual typewriters and dogs and old buildings and old songs and new music and stranger-in-a-strange land and all of that!
The book unfolded itself right there.
Well, sort of. I then had to spend the next five years working it all out.
It wasn’t all joy, working on the book. But it did a great deal for me personally. I enjoyed the research, writing the characters into being, and working out the plot lines. Mostly I was trying to write the book I wished was out there for me to read when I was growing up.
Any Advice For Aspiring Writers/Self-Publishers?
I’ll venture this much more: all writers should read good writing and stand up for it. I am dismayed that there are readers out there, by the millions, apparently, who don’t care much about how a story is written. For a writer to take that attitude seems almost criminal. (Believe it or not, there are such people). Good writing matters and bad writing, at least when offered to the public for sale, deserves to be punished.
I am self published and happily so. Not because I’ve been made rich and famous but because I used my time and energy in a way that meant I now have a book to show. I sent the manuscript around to about 25 agents when it was done. I got one nibble from an agent who then passed. Submitting was a lot of work. How much time do we have? I wanted it done and, as time went on, I wanted it done my way.
Finally, Looks Matter
My way was OK, but one mistake I made initially was in the packaging. I have a background in public relations and have worked on a few magazines and I developed a cover that I liked pretty well. It wasn’t terrible. One or two readers commented that the book was better than its cover. Hmm. About a year after the book’s initial release, I heard from a potential audio book narrator who is also a hardheaded businessman. The cover was not good enough, he said flatly. People do judge books by their covers. I got the message. I went looking for an artist who could convey the romance of the 1920s – someone who could do with light what Maxfield Parrish had done. I found him in Juan Wijngaard. I came across Juan’s work at the website of the well-known art gallery The Illustration Cupboard, in London. I approached him very sheepishly because he was a real Artist and I had no idea how one approaches real Artists. It turned out he was very nice and he had some interest – if he liked the book.
This last bit was key for me too. I had approached at least one other book designer by then whose work I liked. I asked if he would read my book and he said “no.” He did not have time. I offered to pay more and he still said no. I appreciated his candor, but this was a deal breaker. I felt strongly that a book cover is a collaborative effort. Juan and I found quickly that we had lots of common ground. (He’s Dutch, which is what you want in a painter, correct? And he loved bikes (see reference to “Dutch”) and music, which is a key story element. He had lived in England and trained at the Royal Academy. There was a lot of synchronicity at work. The Universe, in its way, seemed to have matched us, or so it seemed to me. He created a beautiful cover and I relaunched the book with his cover and just a few corrections to the text.
I invested some money in Juan, and in the excellent book designer Scarlett Ruger, but not a crazy amount. I don’t have crazy amounts. I reasoned that even if this investment were never repaid monetarily, it would be repaid by the pride I felt in having made something just as good as I could. If I had things to do over again, I wouldn’t have tried to skimp on that first –round cover. I had put six years of my time writing into the book and that was justification enough to invest in what lay beyond my skill. The cover realized an inward vision for me and I hope it will draw in readers who will not be disappointed in what they find behind it.