Slowly but Surely

“Slowly but surely.”

For the past nine years this has been my default response to the question: “So, Guy, how’s the writing going?”

“It’s fine. I’m getting there, slowly but surely.”

My friends and family usually laugh before waiting, expectantly, for a “proper” response. But my response has always, and will always be, the same.

“Seriously guys, I’m getting there. Slowly but surely, I’m getting there.”

I don’t think my friends and family ever took me seriously. Wanting to be a writer is a common dream now after all, especially around university campuses, so I can’t blame them for thinking I was like every other wannabe raconteur. I’m sure they have all been waiting for the day when my response would inevitably change to: “Actually, guys, you know what? The writing’s been going badly for a while now and in all honesty, I’m probably just kidding myself. I think it’s about time I followed everyone’s advice and gave it up. I need to focus on my ‘career’ after all.”

But that day never came, because, let’s face it, being realistic has never really been my strong point.

You see, most people who don’t want to write think that people who do want to write simply sit down in front of a laptop and begin, almost whimsically, to type out the perfect story  – preferably one that came to them whilst sipping macchiatos at the local café. They believe that once the great coffee God has slipped his/her imagination pill into your caramel swirls the words simple vomit out of you until perfection is achieved. They believe that if that novel isn’t perfect once that final full stop punctures the screen then you are simply not worthy of the title of writer and must give up the momentary muse immediately before crippling alcoholism sets in.

But they couldn’t be more wrong. Seriously, that’s not how writing works – for the majority of us at least.

On Saturday (27th February – I think) I received a phone call from an agent – one that I have been working with for quite some time.  During this phone call I was told that my writing was in fact good enough (who knew?) and said agent would very much like to place her name next to mine and represent me from here on out. I was over the moon! Genuinely, words cannot express the sheer delight that fizzed through me. Because, you see, contrary to popular belief, I had not just hammered out a perfect first draft and sent it off (if only!). I’d pretty much re-written the novel from scratch with the agent acting as a mentor, and then redrafted over and over, polishing it to an ever greater shine with no real clue as to whether the agent would take me on or not. But she did! And guess what? This wasn’t even my first novel! It was my fifth! I’ll give you a moment to let that soak in. Five novels. Not one, or two, or even four, but five novels! That phone call was the result of nine years hard work, and I was chuffed to bits.

I realised I wanted to write books for a living when I was eighteen years old. I have been writing near enough every day since then (I am now twenty-seven), and despite the doubts, despite the rejections, I kept going. You see (again, contrary to popular belief) writing takes time – good writing, at least. Like an apprentice sculptor you might have that vision of perfection in your head, but it takes years of working on your craft before you can even begin to carve something that looks vaguely similar, and even then you’ll always be far from perfection (something I now believe doesn’t, and should not, exist).

But why would any self-respecting human do that? Why would anyone spend so much time on something only to get nothing back?

Well, I suppose there are many reasons.

The first being my obsession with already super-successful writers. When I find a writer I like, it’s not enough for me to simply buy their books. I need to know them. I need to know their journey – the pilgrimage that has lead them to this pinnacle of human achievement that I admire so vehemently. Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, Neil Gaiman, David Mitchell, John Wyndham, etc, etc. I needed to know their life stories – I needed to know their secrets.

And you know what?

I found them.

And by them, I mean it.

That’s right. It. Singular.

I found that thing that all the great writers possess that everyone else does not. I found the Holy Grail of knowledge that would ultimately lead me to that phone call – that great, life changing phone call. And it was this:

Stubborn determination.

No, seriously, it’s that simple.

Don’t give up.

But that can’t be it! I thought. That – that’s insane! It can’t be that easy!

And it isn’t – not really. Stubborn determination is not easy. You have to suffer. A lot. And I don’t mean to sound depressive or like writing was a chore, because that is not it at all. I write because I have to. My head is a bucket and it needs emptying on a regular basis. If I don’t tip the words out, I get cranky. It’s not good. The writing isn’t the problem, it’s getting your writing noticed. For that, you need to take those hits. You need to receive those rejection letters, you need to feel that disappointment . . . and keep moving forward. You need to sit in front of a page of writing and hate it . . . but then keep moving forward. You need to send your book to agents and get “No” after “No” after “No” . . . but then keep moving forward.

Not everyone will go through this. I’m sure there are those really annoying people for whom a caramel macchiato is enough, but for me I needed that determination. I needed it like a plant needs rain. Without it I would have withered and died at my desk. Thankfully, I learned this lesson early. I was taught it by the best.

Book one, for me, was the hardest. It was my greatest achievement and my greatest disappointment all rolled into one. I was naïve. I was young. But I kept moving forward. Book two was still hard, but the edges had been rounded off. After rejection, Ikept moving forward. When it came to book three I sent it off expecting rejection, but it was still sprinkled with hope. It was the same with book four! And by the time I reached book five, nine years of none stop writing had filled my noggin! Nine years of rejection and iron-clad determination coated everything I did. By book five, I had made a plethora of mistakes – mistakes that would have made most wannabe writers throw in the towel and yell: “ENOUGH!”

But by book five, I had it. That stubborn determination. That refusal to give up. That belief that if I simply kept pushing forward I too could have what my hero’s had. I too could get that elusive publishing deal.

I imagined myself a runner in a great race. In it, every human who wanted to be a writer was running alongside me and the finish line was a publishing deal. And we were running. Sweating, bleeding, crying, we were running, and all around me people were dropping out. All around me there were people who had had enough, and one by one they were pulling over to breath. But still I knew, the more people that pulled out, the greater my chances of being the last one standing. And that’s all that matters. So I ran. I ran and I ran, over and over, getting fitter, faster. Still, all around me people were dropping, but that stubborn refusal kept me going. I had the idea that if I could only keep running, eventually everyone else will quit and I will be the last man standing. Then I’d be guaranteed the deal!

I have lived my life by that race. Every time I felt like quitting, I told myself: “No! If you quit, someone behind will overtake. Keep moving forward.”

And now I have an agent. The biggest hurdle so far has been conquered. But even bigger hurdles await. Will the book that secured my agent be published? Well, the figure that seems to be sliding through the publishing community is 50%. That’s half of all agent-submitted manuscripts accepted by publishers. Those odds are the best I’ve ever had. They’re not perfect, but they’re still pretty darn good. I have as much chance of being rejected as I have of being accepted.

But guess what?

A rejection doesn’t matter! If the publishers say no, then I will write another. I am writing another! And I will keep writing books until the publishers have no choice but to say yes. Even then, when they do say yes, a new battle will begin. I’ll go on school visits, talk in libraries, take part in book festivals. I’ll even have reviews! Good and bad. But no matter what the world throws my way, I will forever keep moving forward.

When I told my friends I had an agent, they were chuffed. They congratulated me and praised me and made my ego swell like a party balloon. But when they asked what would happen next – when I’d be published – my response was the same as ever:

“I have a long way to go yet, but I’m getting there. Slowly but surely, I’m getting there.”

“But you have an agent now! That’s got to make it easier!”

“Maybe,” I replied. “Maybe not. But as I said, I’ll get there eventually, slowly but surely.”

The publishing industry is in no rush. It is the race track, and we, the writers, must decide: is it better to be a hare, or a tortoise? Sure, we feel like hares. We want to rush towards that publishing deal. We feel ready. We think our books are perfect and genius and the world needs to see them! But we all know that it is better to be a tortoise. Why?

Because they get there in the end – slowly but surely.

So if anyone out there wants to be a writer, remember: be the tortoise. Work, write, edit, submit, reject and repeat. Work, write, edit, submit, reject, repeat. If you follow this system, you too will get there.

Slowly but surely.

Just keep moving forward.

I.M.

Welcome to the Jungle

“It’s a fantastic time to be writing children’s and YA fiction,” Frances Hardinge told the world last week.  The Lie Tree had just become the second children’s book in history to win the overall Costa Book Of The Year.  “For those who think children’s and YA fiction is not their thing: please do come and explore.  There’s a beautiful jungle out there.”

 

And so begins the rather spectacular blog-post currently doing the rounds on social media. It was written (I believe) by the lovely (and somewhat heroic) people at MiddleGradeStrikesBack, and is well worth your time.

If you haven’t read it yet, click on this link and give it a go. Seriously, just do it. Like right now. Please. Just click the link. I’m not going to quit until you do. It’s quite enlightening:

http://middlegradestrikesback.blogspot.co.uk/2016/02/coverkidsbooks-facts.html

So, because you have all just gone away and read the article, and then promptly returned having remembered that you were in fact reading something else entirely beforehand, you will know what I’m talking about. It’s quite a damning article, highlighting the gross lack of coverage in our media in regards to children’s literature.

“Grab the metaphorical pitch forks!” you yell . . . but wait! I believe there is more to this than a simple lack of coverage. Will putting more reviews in newspapers help promote children’s fiction? Of course it will, and it would be a great place to start, but we’d be wrong to think that that alone will elevate children’s fiction to the godly status it deserves. What we have here is not a media issue . . . it is a cultural one.

“A cultural issue!” you’re probably scoffing. But yes, ultimately, I believe it is the case. Now let me tell you why.

I have been an avid reader for as long as I can remember, and as soon as I graduated from university I knew that I wanted to share that love of reading with others – to pass the reading bug gallantly on to the next generation. “I’ll become an English teacher!” I naively proclaimed, but then I thought back to my own English lessons: The unending criticisms of Nobel winning novels; the out-of-context, haemorrhage-inducing essays on Shakespeare; the line by line break downs of poems (that in no way resembled the dream-like scenes from The Dead Poets Society), and I quickly changed my mind.

So now, at the age of 27, I am a primary school teacher. And I love it. Seriously, it rocks . . . but my dream of being the next Robin Williams was quickly shattered. Teaching children to read is hard. No, wait, teaching children to read is easy . . . teaching children to love reading? Now that’s hard.

I have, admittedly, only been teaching for a few years, but in that short time, the cultural hole has already revealed itself. I am about to lay down some of the things that I believe are wrong with our culture. Now, you may very well disagree with what I have to say, and that’s fine. I know some people will read this a say “Hey, wait a minute! I do that already!” In which case, BRAVO! You are a hero! Go and spread the word!

Have I thought long and hard about these things? No. Am I shooting the words from my metaphorical hip? Maybe. Am I quickly typing this out so I can read a couple more chapters of “The Five People You Meet In Heaven?” before marking roughly forty books? You bet. But never-the-less.

Here are my observations since beginning my teaching journey.

 

Cultural Issue #1 – Teachers That Don’t Read

How is a person expected to instil a love of reading when they themselves do not read for pleasure? Children are not stupid. If you tell a class to sit and read, and then quickly begin marking or checking emails or doing something other than reading, they will notice . . . and they will switch off. If you want the children to read, READ WITH THEM! For twenty minutes every afternoon my kids and I kick off our shoes, put our feet on the desks, and read. That’s okay. I read my books. They read their books. Sometimes we don’t read at all and just talk about our books. I share my favourites with the kids. They share their favourites with me, and that’s okay too. The result? Kids enjoy reading. Not all of them, granted, but most. To me, a teacher who doesn’t read is like a chef who doesn’t use salt. Yes he/she can still do their job, but there will forever be something missing.

 

Cultural Issue #2 – Punishment

Both parents and teachers are guilty of this. When a child is naughty, they are told to stay in and read. All this does is create a bridge in their minds between reading and punishment, which does more harm than good. Believe me. There are other things children can be doing (their time’s tables for example – everyone hates those), but whatever you do, don’t give reading as a punishment. Make it a reward! “If you finish your work to the required standard, you can lay on the bean-bags in the reading corner and chill with a book!” It’s not that difficult.

 

Cultural Issue #3 – Reading Schemes

Schools are obsessed with levelling children and putting them on the correct “bands”. Some people are so hooked on this system that they force children to stick to their bands until they have proven – somehow – that they are ready for the next one. Don’t. I told my children to ignore the scheme and pick books they wanted to read. And guess what? They did. Did the weaker readers pick whopping great novels like War and Peace to begin with so they looked awesome? Of course, but after a period of time they corrected themselves and found a book they liked. I also read thin books so they realise big books don’t equal good books (from my experience, the opposite seems to be true!)

I have met people obsessed with forcing children to finish books too. DON’T! If a book is boring, tell them to put it down and pick another. I don’t finish books that are dull so why should they?  

 

Cultural Issue #4 – Parents

Dear parent. Do not tell me you struggle to get your child to read when you yourself don’t do it. Your children idolise you. They want to be you. If you come home and lounge in front of the TV, they will do the same. If you sit at home with a book. They will do the same.

Also, I once had a parent come to me and complain that I’d asked his child to read at home. He said, and I quote, “When my son gets home, he relaxes. He doesn’t do school work, and I don’t want him to do school work. It is your job to teach him to read, not mine.”

Parents need to take responsibility as much as teachers. This, I know, can be hard. That parent clearly didn’t read himself, and judging by his tone had probably had a bad experience in the past – perhaps he had been forced to read in class by a non-reading teacher. The solution to this? I don’t know. Seriously. I’m not a parent. Perhaps it is a generational thing that will heal with time. If we get the children of today into books, perhaps this won’t happen. Perhaps it will. Anyway, onwards we go!

 

Cultural Issue #5 – Television

No, I’m not about to say TV is bad for kids. We all love a bit of tele (Have you seen Game of Thrones!). What I mean by TV is the coverage and promotion it gives to children fiction. Mainly – where is it? How difficult would it be, just once a week, during prime-time kids TV slots, to have a short program in which presenters discuss books and interview authors and play book-based games and have children on actually reviewing books themselves, or SOMETHING! Just once a week would do! That’s 52 episodes a year! I’m sure there’d be 52 newly published MG authors who’d love to go and promote their books and play games and have fun. Teachers would see it and be more open to having the authors in schools, children would be psyched to have them come, and parents could engage and watch it too! Seriously, the fact that this program doesn’t exist baffles me!

 

But as I said, these are just ramblings. All I know is that there is so much potential being wasted. Children’s fiction is, to me, the greatest of all fiction, and right now, as many keep saying, we are in a golden age the likes of which the world has never seen before. Through children’s books I have visited a million different worlds, seen through the eyes of a million different people, been on great adventures, saved kingdoms, ruined kingdoms, travelled the solar system and passed through the gates of heaven; through them, I have grown. Every book that I have ever read has changed me in one way or another, and for each and every one, I am grateful.

Frances Hardinge is right, there is a beautiful jungle out there, and it is our job to welcome the next generation inside. Let’s get the message out!

(P.S. If you are a parent or teacher who wishes to find ways of promoting books at home or in school, read “The Rights of the Reader” by Daniel Pennac and “The Book Whisperer” by Donalyn Miller. They’re awesome!)

(P.P.S – Use the hashtag #CoverKidsBooks and spread the word)

Peace and Love,

I.M.

Story 1 – Imagination Man

Imagination Man

 

It is said that there are three worlds. The first is a world where the sun shines and the clouds glide and the rain falls; a world where people buy houses, go to work and fall in and out of love. It is a world run by people, money, fear and loathing. It is a world built to end.

The second world is the afterlife; the world of the soul, spirit, the phantom and the ghost. It is a world run by the dead, for the dead. It is built on hope, faith, happiness and joy. It is a world designed to last.

But there is a third world.

It is a world that both the mortal and immortal alike visit on a daily basis without even knowing that they are there. It is a world that is ever growing, ever expanding, laughing and crying. It is a nightmare and a fantasy; euphoria and dejection. It is a world between worlds that only you and I can see.

It is my world, for I am the Imagination Man, and I am always watching, saving and collecting.

The world of the imagination is a joy and a curse, filled and fuelled by the dreams, fears and untruths of you and those you hold dear.

As I walk my quaint chocolate cobbled streets I see things you cannot even begin to imagine – or can you? Did these creations come from your mind? Did these phantoms of the heart stroll through my gates from your subconscious? Is it your mind that is turning the light into dark and the sea into stone?

I talk with such bleakness, because, you see, I remember a time – the time of the child – when all things in your world were bright and happy; a time when the fields of corn swayed peacefully in the springtime zephyr and birds chirped and sung their early morning song. It was a time when the smells of sugar cane, candy floss and the crashing sea mists filled the air and everything that you ate tasted of toffee-apples and ice-cream and syrup. It was a time of simple pleasures.

I remember the day you were taken to the park by your grandparents and you ate tuna sandwiches and chocolate and your imagination turned my world into a giant climbing frame built of jungle trees, vines and rushing rivers of chocolate fish. It was a world of adventure, laughter and secret quests. That day made me the happiest that I had been for a very long time . . .  but it was not meant to be.

Soon after came the time of adolescence and your mind turned my world into a swirling vortex of hallucination and paranoia. Your girlfriend filled every window down my imaginary street, holding and embracing others in scenes that you tried so hard to detain. Soon every door was padlocked, sealing your fears inside. You held back your dreams to save your fears, but it was too much. At the tender age of eighteen the padlocks in my world vaporised and your nightmares filled my life. Murderers, zombies and back-stabbing friends cavorted about my lands turning the sky black and the sun red. My own imagination could not build enough walls to save me from your ghosts.

But the worst was yet to come. Now, in your tender middle age, your imagination is all but gone. I spend my days walking through endless white seeing nothing but lottery balls and money piles and naked colleagues. I see only the bad, never the good. You no longer imagine a world that is free and limitless, but a world that is destined to be, and forever will be, restricted and closed. You see the worst and never the best; you do not dream of candy forests and talking pets, you do not think about the girl next door in a pretty white dress, you just see your life, your wife and the end of time. There is no light in your world, only dark.

I am here to tell you, dear reader, that that is not the way it’s meant to be. Dreams are only what you make them. You may think that these dreams of yours are nothing but imagination that must be restrained, but in my world they are fact, fate, and everything that matters. Don’t you see? If you lock your dreams away behind padlocked doors then there, forever, they will remain, until one day the locks will no longer hold and they will buckle and break and your mind will once again be set free and be filled with dreams and hopes and aspirations . . . but, by then it will be too late. By then you will have entered the age of the old and you will be able to do nothing but imagine your life in the way it could, and should, have been.

Dear reader I urge you, do not lock away your dreams, for they are real, more real than you could ever see; only you could see, if you put down the locks, and let them be.

For I am the Imagination Man and I come from a world where nothing is as it seems.

Introduction from me, the Imagination Man

Dear all,

I have decided to begin a blog in order to spread the word about my short stories and hopefully entertain some folks along the way. I have been writing fantastical stories for five years and have decided to finally unleash them on the world!

My stories so far have been enjoyed by all, considered strange by most and described as “genius” by another (though his place in my life is a purely fictitious one), but please, do not listen to me. I beg you to read on and make up your own minds, comment below if you must and tell the world that the Imagination Man is here.

My first story shall arrive at midnight.