Archive for the ‘Schools’ Category

In the summer I attended celebrations marking the 50th anniversary of my old school, Anthony Gell, in Wirksworth. As part of the celebrations, they aim to gather 50 short pieces of writing from people who worked or studied at Gell during its 50 years of community comprehensive education.

I was asked to contribute, and considered it an honour. But all the work it has taken to bring Kikimora to publication meant that I had not yet found the time. Last week I was gently reminded that the deadline is the end of November, and today I finally sat down to write my piece. It ended up going somewhere I hadn’t anticipated.

“Why bother to learn a dead language?” people typically ask after hearing I have a GCSE in Latin. “It’s useless.”

Everyone knows that you learn Latin by sitting in a classroom reciting en masse, “Amo amas amat…” – the conjugations of the verb to love. I’m afraid I didn’t do much of that in my class of one, sitting in the office of my Headmaster, Mr Pearce. Latin was not on the curriculum of this small, rural comprehensive, but Mr Pearce was more than happy to teach anyone who showed interest.

Why did I want to learn it? I’m not even sure. Something to do with a general interest in ancient history, with mythology and magic – those were the things I associated with Latin. Though if my interests had lain elsewhere I suppose I might have associated it with medicine, with biology or with the church.

What I didn’t realise I was signing up for was something which would alter the way I perceive language, the way I learn, and even the way I think.

Almost the first thing I was taught after amo amas amat, was to examine my existing vocabulary for associated words: amorous, paramour.

When I learnt puer (boy) I found: puerile.
Agricola (farmer): agriculture, agrarian.
Mare (sea): marine, maritime.
Nauta (sailor): nautical… and so on.

Latin words form the roots of countless other words, not just in English, but in many European languages (all of the so-called Romance languages – Romance as in Romans, not as in love).

Now whenever I encounter a word I don’t know I break it down into its constituent parts. What does it sound like? What root might it be formed from? It’s surprising how often this proves a useful technique – allowing you to at least get close to the word’s true meaning, even if not quite all the way.

What I learned in my Latin lessons was not a dead, useless language, but the ability to think around a problem, to analyse and dissect, to look past the unfamiliar and try and find something recognisable.

That is a valuable skill – particularly if you apply it to more than language. For instance, to culture, to creed, to lifestyle.

We live in dangerous times. There are many people who, for their own selfish reasons, want to foster a culture of us and them, to instil fear, distrust, suspicion, hatred. But most people – ordinary people who don’t have vested interests in arms, in land grabs, in oil, in religious fanaticism – aren’t so different from each other. Most people just want to feed their children, to love whomever they love, and go about their lives peacefully and without fear.

I’m writing this on Saturday 14 November 2015 as the world reels from the latest terrorist attacks in Paris, as the inevitable backlash against Islam rises again in the West, as the thousands of refugees remain mired in border camps throughout Europe, alternately vilified and beatified by a press pushed one way by public outcry and another way by their corporate paymasters.

I can’t help feeling that the world could be a better place if people everywhere learned to look beyond the unknown, the different, the perceived-to-be-threatening, and instead look for the familiar – people just like themselves, with the same desire to love, to nurture, to live in peace. Stop seeing them and see more kinds of us. After all, it is harder to gun down us, than to gun down them. Harder to blow up us than to blow up them. Harder to deny food and shelter to us, than to them.

A proud moment today. My old school requested a signed copy of Darklands for the school library.

When I was young I wanted to be lots of things: a pirate, James Bond, a mad scientist with sticky up white hair, Tarzan, a painter, an explorer… I also kind of liked writing stories. But I remember quite distinctly at the age of 13 realising that writing was the one; the real one. That’s what I was going to do with my life.

And I have, more or less. It doesn’t yet pay the bills, so something else has to, but I have been writing stories on and off for over quarter of a century. It takes me a while, and if something isn’t quite working I set it aside for a year or two. Or ten.

But I got there in the end, publishing my first novel, Darklands, in 2011.

When my old school requested a signed copy it made me think of the time in Mr Hannam’s English class when the idea took hold in my mind that I would be a writer. I don’t recall specifically what sparked it; but I knew that I loved words; I loved stories. And whatever magic made printed words sweep you up and take you on incredible journeys – I wanted to do that.

As an indie author it’s easy to get demoralised and to feel that you’re shouting into a void, but today I’ll take a moment to feel proud. I made a decision at the age of 13; I worked towards it in my spare time, I persevered when I felt discouraged, I made sacrifices of time and earnings – and 25 years later I achieved what I’d set out to. I published my first novel.

Signed copy of Darklands going to Anthony Gell School

Signed copy of Darklands going to Anthony Gell School

Stepping stonesI first published Darklands as an eBook at the end of August 2011 (followed by a paperback in April 2012). I had always intended to do a round up of my first year in self publishing – the highs, the lows, the financial realities – but somehow, never found the time. So this is more like my first 14 months in publishing. I hope it might be useful or of interest to other writers looking at self publishing and wondering what to expect.

On the whole, I’d say I am pretty happy with how things have gone. But I would also say that I have severely readjusted my expectations from the beginning of the year. Reader feedback has been excellent, but sales have nevertheless been … s-l-o-w.

I have been extremely conservative about outlaying any money for services – possibly even too conservative (you have to speculate to accumulate, right?) This is mostly due to my paranonia about being fleeced by cynical snake oil merchants looking to milk the hopeful-writer cash cow…

I had no costs associated with the actual book production. My sister proof-read; my partner did the cover design; I did all the formatting and layout. Nor were there any production costs for publishing the paperback, or for the ISBN (though there are costs now that I want to edit the paperback. More on that below).

Even so, income has not exceeded outgoings, and I find I am out of pocket at the end of this first year.

The highs

Darklands has received seven reviews on, all five star; four ratings on Goodreads, average 4.5 stars. I have visited a secondary school to talk to the students about writing and self publishing. I have done three radio interviews on different local stations. I’ve done four interviews for book sites, and have a guest post coming up in December for the Speculative Salon. And last weekend I encountered my first fan! An unknown (and it must be admitted, rather drunk) bloke accosted me in the pub to tell me how much he had enjoyed Darklands (which he had read to his daughters). Awesome.

The lows, the reality checks and the nitty gritty

I’ve sent out review requests to over 20 book bloggers (all hand picked as likely candidates, and sent personal messages). Seven of those I contacted back in 2011 replied sounding positive, but only two actually reviewed Darklands (Thanks, Bookstack and Hey Tara!) Of the 13 I’ve contacted this year NONE have responded except by automated reply. I wonder at this difference. Are book bloggers just becoming so saturated by review requests that they don’t have the time/inclination to respond? Are my emails getting caught in spam folders (and is it possible my surname helps with that?!)?

I’ve sent out info packs to four local libraries. None have responded to me; and I can guess from checking the County library catalogue that none have ordered Darklands. I’ve written to my old school. As yet I’ve had no written response, but I did bump into the librarian a couple of weeks back, who expressed great interest, and promised to get back to me. I’ve written to my two local branchs of Waterstones, but again had no response. Maybe I’d have better luck in person – or at least, someone who’s a better salesperson than me might…

Over this first year I have sold a little over one hundred books – about two thirds eBooks to one third paperbacks (I don’t have a definite figure, because paperbacks I’ve sold through Amazon or other wholesalers don’t appear in any figures I have access to … until they do – which happens twice a year, and hasn’t yet! That said, I can hazard a guess at how many paperbacks Amazon has sold just from keeping an eye on the sales rank). My royalties vary between £1 and £3.

I’ve so far paid £470 in book related expenses. I’ve received back £270. I am currently owed £40, $17 and €4 by retailers (I’m not sure I will ever see the dollars or euros, due to the threshholds it is necessary to accrue before Amazon will make payments).

So what costs did I encounter, given that I’ve been so parsimonious?

In initial publishing excitement I spent £20 on Facebook ads the day the eBook came out (A complete waste of money. It didn’t even have any reviews yet. No one bought it except people I know). I bought 40 paperbacks, most of which I’ve sold (six still pending payment). I paid £88 to my publisher, Feedaread, for the distribution package which makes Darklands available to Amazon. I’ve also just paid them £39 for the privilege of producing a new cover (I had been intending to tweak a couple of things inside the book as well – mainly regarding the Kikimora preview at the end. But that would have set me back an additional £39! Eagle-eyed readers will note that the price was £29 when I discussed it a few weeks back. It’s gone up. Sigh) I’ve paid £25 to book a stall at a Christmas market in Derby. I’ve had smaller incidental costs, such as display stands and stamps (I’m not even counting the petrol I use driving to radio interviews, school visits, delivering books to the bookshop, etc). It all adds up.

One hundred books in a year doesn’t sound much, does it? I had certainly expected and hoped to move more than that when I set out on this endeavour. But I underestimated many things about this process – not least how vastly over-saturated the young adult fiction market is, and therefore how competitive; how precise your marketing has to be (clue: mine hasn’t been so far).

One area I’m feeling increasingly uncertain about is whether Darklands really is young adult, or ‘middle grade’ (whatever the hell that is). I originally envisaged it as for 12-14 year olds, but several parents have told me their ten year olds read and enjoyed it. I just read this post on the difference between middle grade and young adult, but I can’t say I feel much wiser. A year ago I hadn’t the slightest notion that it would matter one way or another. I read books for any age group if they appeal to me, and always have. I’m coming to realise that it matters very much. But this subject deserves a whole blog post of its own, so I may return to it in future.

What are the lessons to be learned here?

Firstly, for all my social networking, tweeting, blogging, commenting on other people’s blogs – apparently I’m still rubbish at e-marketing. My best selling day was at Celebrating Cromford, standing at a stall – I’m hoping to replicate that success at the Derby Christmas market.

I’m still hoping to generate some word of mouth. I need to get the book out to more people. Those who read it like it, but most of the world is competely unaware of its existence. A bigger problem seems to be those who do know of its existence, but are indifferent. I think my new cover design (when it finally arrives. FeedaRead have been SO slow and awkward about the alteration) will help with this. The new cover looks slicker, more professional, and more enticing.

I really really need to get more reviews*. I’d also rather like it if they weren’t all five stars! It makes people suspicious – like my mum wrote them all (in fact I forbade my sisters from leaving reviews on Amazon, as I didn’t think it would project too professional an image to have reviews by people with the same surname as me!)

But how to get more reviews? There’s a polite suggestion at the end of the book that a review would be great. But I’m not going to harass my readers to leave reviews if it’s not the kind of thing they do, or they are uncomfortable about it. As discussed above, I’m currently having no luck interesting book bloggers. Maybe I should contact them all again, just to politely enquire if they received my initial email? But if people aren’t interested I don’t want to nag them. Indie authors have a bad enough name already. I don’t want to be annoying.

So how will my publishing adventure develop in 2013? I think the christmas market will be a good indicator of how well I can capture the public imagination. If you can’t sell children’s books the last weekend before christmas there’s probably not much hope! I’m also planning to publish Kikimora at some point in the new year (no, not summer 2012, like it says at the end of Darklands :-S). How will having two titles affect my marketing approach? How much smoother might Kikimora’s publication go, with all the Darklands lessons already under my belt?

In many ways, self publishing Darklands was completely a test; a proof of concept. I have been writing stories my whole life, but I had no idea whether I was actually any good at it, or if it was all just a silly dream. Self publishing has shown me that people enjoy reading my book; that it stands up as a story, that I can construct a proper plot that holds attention and keeps people guessing. I wasn’t sure of any of this 15 months ago – which is one reason I was so loathe to outlay any money up front.

But I suspect I have been thinking like an amateur, acting like an amateur, and selling myself short.

If I want to actually make this writing thing work and make any kind of real impact in the wider world then I suspect money will need to be spent on some kind of marketing and promotion (no, not facebook ads!)

Another area of complete ignorance for me to investigate. Woot.

Stick with me, and we’ll see how this indie publishing adventure pans out 🙂

* A recent post on a popular book blog said the author was happy to read self published books – so long as they had at least 50 reviews on Amazon, and 30 reviews from Goodreads friends!

Save Wootton Fields LibraryYesterday I visited Caroline Chisholm School in Northampton, a modern school incorporating primary and secondary. After giving a talk to the creative writing students, I was given a tour, and dropped into the library (Wootton Fields) to donate a couple of copies of Darklands.

It’s an excellent, large, well stocked library, serving both the school and the public. Whilst chatting to the librarians it transpired that they are under notice of being closed down within a couple of months, as a cost saving exercise. The large book stock will be replaced by a temporary mobile library.

Really? This is what the council wants to save money on? One large library serving the public, a secondary school and a primary school? Which was shortlisted for Library of the Year by the Bookseller Industry Awards 2012? Which as well as the usual library services also provides many events and activities throughout the year?

Astonishing. And utterly depressing. Surely no one doubts that childrens education is one of the last places cuts should be made? And surely no one doubts that a library is absolutely crucial to providing education?

Libraries matter – and none more so than school libraries. One of the campaign’s supporters told me yesterday,

“The library is used by people of all ages – all members of the community. Families use it together.”

Wootton Fields Library only has a few weeks to make its case. They’d really appreciate anyone helping out any way they can. You can find them on Facebook, and on Twitter, @woottonlibrary.

A rally is planned outside the library building for Sunday July 8 at 2pm. I won’t be able to go, as I’ve returned home to Derbyshire now. I hope it doesn’t rain on them :-S

*UPDATE: 80 supporters turned up for the rally on sunday afternoon, despite the weather AND the tennis!*

Many dozens of authors have already given their support to the campaign to save Wootton Fields Library, including Anne Fine, Julia Golding, Malorie Blackman, Meg Rosoff, and Marcus Sedgwick.

You can add your support by signing the e-petition here.

You can also contact members of the County Council to register your unhappiness about the proposed closure:

Councillor Heather Smith (Cabinet Member responsible for Libraries)
Councillor Joan Kirkbride (Deputy Leader of the Council)
Countillor Phil Larratt (County Councillor for our ward)

Or you could contact the local press in Northampton to tell them how you feel about the proposed closure. Contacts below:

The Northampton Chronicle & Echo, Callum Jones,
Anglia TV news. Katrina Rattigan, Please also CC in
BBC Radio Northampton, Willy Gilder, Please also CC in
BBC Look East TV news,

Thanks for any help.

Today I’ve been to visit a creative writing group at Caroline Chisholm School, Northampton.

I had prepared plenty of material in advance. I wrote myself crib notes on index cards. I found a short passage to read from Darklands. But I had no idea how long it would actually take me to deliver it all. Well, that’s not entirely true. The one thing I knew for sure was that my reading took three and a half minutes. I did a lot of timed readings when I was preparing for my talk on the radio a few weeks back.

I was given an hour, just before lunch. I had fifteen cards filled with subject headings and cryptic notes. A sample index card:

Writers & Artists Yearbook
Listings. Articles. Publishers > Slush pile > Agents (short cut?)
Agents > slush pile! But get help.
Submission criteria.

I knew that the length of time I could talk would very much depend on how much I relaxed into my role and became garrulous. It might take an hour – or maybe I’ll whizz through it all in ten minutes with a terrified rictus grin frozen onto my face?

After a slightly shaky start, I relaxed sufficiently to discuss most of the stuff on my cards. Though I somehow managed to miss out the whole slush pile bit from the card quoted above.

In the end I spoke for about 35 minutes, then invited questions. The teachers had primed the kids well and they had plenty to ask. What’s your favourite book? Do you find it hard to get ideas? Did you always want to be a writer? Nice easy stuff.

The scariest bit was right at the end. With ten minutes to spare I was invited to mingle and chat with the kids. Freestyle? Off-piste?? Unscripted???

*The cold, cold fear*

Some of the kids showed me stories they had written – a surprising number had written horror stories about killer clowns, one of which had ‘mouldy looking teeth.’ A nice detail, I thought.

I’ve also donated two copies of Darklands to the school library – which is in danger of being closed down by the local authorities.

Really?? Schools don’t need libraries now? (You can find out how to help their cause by visiting their facebook page)

One of the kids asked if I’d had any bad reviews, and I said that I hadn’t, but kind of wished I had. “It doesn’t seem like you’re a real writer until you’ve been absolutely slated.” Hmm, that sounds dangerously like an invitation, doesn’t it? I wonder if I’ll come to regret it..? :-S

me sulking, at school, circa 1989

me sulking looking brooding and pensive at school, circa 1989
(picture courtesy of Alice Lockett)

I’ve been invited to give a talk about writing at a school next week. Fantastic! But also – seven hells, what on earth will I talk about?

Luckily I made copious notes when I went to a very good talk by Paula Rawsthorne and Dan Tunstall a few weeks ago – about the kinds of things they discussed, and how they approached it. So using that as a starting point, I sat down yesterday to come up with some ideas.

Four hours later I looked up from my laptop, stretched my cramped hands, and realised the dog was overdue his walkies. Apparently I have quite a lot to say. My problem has rapidly changed from ‘what shall I say?’ to ‘what shall I leave out?’ 🙂

Of course, remembering any of my witty and incisive anecdotes while staring down a ravening pack of 14 year olds is another matter… :-S

But one thing I’ve learnt from my occasional (and much hated) task of having to train clients at work is that no matter what goes wrong (and stuff always does) DO NOT let them sense your terror. The same is doubly true of teenagers. Though they fill me with bowel-loosening horror, I will endeavour to maintain a calm and carefree exterior.

The other thing I’ve learnt is that it all goes a lot better, and the things that go wrong won’t matter half so much if the first thing you do is establish some rapport*. Paula Rawsthorne did this very well – asking the teen members of the audience about what books they like and what they don’t like (I nearly cheered myself when she said, ‘Oh good, I’m so glad you don’t like Twilight!’). She also told a very funny (and gross) story about being puked on by a child.

Unfortunately I’ve never had that honour. I’ll have to think up some other way to make myself amusing and gently self-deprecating. Suggestions..?

* Although this doesn’t always work exactly as planned. The very first time I had to deliver training at work this is what happened: The clients arrived, I went to greet them, held out my hand, and the guy said, “I’m sorry. I don’t shake hands with women.”
Oooooookay. Where the hell do you go from there?
As it happens, the only way from there is up. And interestingly, the same guy offered me a crisp later, so I guess he wasn’t afraid of catching girl cooties.