Belonging to Your Tribe

fullsizerender-77There may be prehistoric wildcats, an amulet, imaginary worlds, a pet rat, and a mechanical shark submarine in the Nine Lives Trilogy, but behind it all is twelve-year-old Ebony Smart; a girl who just wants to belong.

So, why did I choose to write about belonging?

One reason is that I remember being the new girl in a school playground, looking around me and trying to figure out whom to talk to. And what I could possibly say. Everyone else was in a group or pair, and seemed quite happy with their little tribe. I can remember quite clearly that feeling of being on the outside, looking in through an invisible barrier and not knowing how to cross over it.

I also remember the times my brother and sister didn’t want me to join in their games. They were quite happy with how things were going, and adding me into the equation would feel like an interruption – so they didn’t want my input. At the time I felt crushed, even though I pretended that I didn’t care. Later, I would get my revenge by stopping one of them from joining in – but to be honest, it never felt like a nice thing to do and I felt just as bad as if I’d been left out.

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Some quiet storytelling

Another reason I wanted to look at the theme of belonging is because it’s an important part of our human existence. How could we have survived this long if we hadn’t formed social groups? We all need to belong to a tribe of some kind, so we can feel safe, loved, and respected. For some people, their tribe is their family; but not everyone is lucky enough to have a family for one reason or another. Your tribe might be your friends, your sports team, or a group of people that share your favourite hobby.

It can be difficult to find your tribe, and the dynamics will often shift. There’ll be awkward moments with fallouts, disagreements and upset, but these will usually sort themselves out over time and with a bit of effort. When you belong, it’s just as much about forgiveness and compromise as it is about having fun and enjoying each other’s company. You might have to bite your tongue or apologise sometimes, but your tribe will do the same for you. There’s no right or wrong way to belong – so long as your tribe makes you feel safe, happy, and confident, and you feel like you can be yourself, it’s a good fit.

But if you’ve ever felt lonely or left out like Ebony Smart, guess what? There’s probably someone else nearby feeling the exact same way. So why not seek them out and make your own tribe? Or, if you already belong, let them join in and see what they can add to your tribe? There are no invisible barriers – only the ones we create for ourselves.

(Note: post originally written for Girls Heart Books)

Caramel Hearts & Foodie Fiction

In my book, Caramel Hearts, there are real cake recipes throughout. These recipes structure the book and are weaved into the story.

FullSizeRender (44)The book is about a teenage girl with an alcoholic mum, trying to find her way in the world. When she finds a handwritten cookbook that belongs to her mum, she decides to bake the recipes and begins a journey of discovery. Here’s the blurb:

Can a book full of secrets reveal the past?

Liv Bloom’s life is even more complicated than that of your average fourteen-year-old: her father walked out on the family when she was young, her mother is in a recovery centre for alcoholics, and her older sister is struggling to step into Mum’s shoes.

The only person she can turn to is her best friend Sarah, who gets her out of scrapes at school and is a constant source of advice and companionship. One day Liv discovers a book of recipes written in her mum’s handwriting, which sets her off on a journey towards self-discovery and reconciliation – but a theft, a love rivalry and a school bully are just some of the many obstacles on the way.

So why did I add recipes to Caramel Hearts? Basically, the recipes were integral to the story. I love food and I love books and I think they work really well together. Food is a vital part of everyday life and it evokes such emotive responses; as soon as someone describes something they’ve eaten, your taste buds tingle and you can imagine the smells in the air. Food stirs emotions and brings back memories. Likewise, books have the same powerful impact, and when I came up with the idea for this book – with the handwritten cookbook at its centre – I wanted to combine the two to create a truly emotional journey.

The idea is not a new one, and I love to read about food in books and stories. Here are a few of my favourite food in fiction moments…

A House made of sweets! – Hansel and Gretel by Brothers Grimm

Although the tale is very dark, the idea of a house made of gingerbread and other sweets is so enticing – would you be able to resist it? I’ve always loved art and the description of the house in the book – and sometimes, accompanying illustrations – inspired many hours of designing bizarre and unusual structures made of clouds and tinned sardines!

‘Snozzcumbers’ – The BFG by Roald Dahl

I was smitten with snozzcumbers from the minute I read about them – disgusting vegetables that smelled really bad sounded strangely inviting. As a child that loved weird food (my favourite foods were winkles and olives), I was convinced that I would actually like snozzcumbers. I still want to try one! I also loved the inventive name.

‘Funny but delightful supper’ – The Railway Children by Edith Nesbitt

When the family moves into their new home, they have only the bits and bobs that they packed up from the store cupboard. The meal is strange, but a sense of hope and resilience pervades. ‘There were biscuits, the Marie and the plain kind, sardines, preserved ginger, cooking raisins, and candied peel and marmalade’. Doesn’t it sound delightful?

‘Drink me, eat me’ – Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Caroll

I was always a curious child, desperate for adventure, so the idea of food making you grow and shrink so you could pass through ‘off-limits’ doorways blew me away. And then of course, there’s the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party – such fun! I used to dream of characters I would invite to my own.

‘Please Sir, Can I have some more?’ – Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

As much as food is emotive, lack of food says so much more and this scene really sticks with you. Poor Oliver! But the scene shows how brave he is, and it means you can really root for him throughout. It gives you a hint that things will get better for him in the end.

I’ll Grind His Bones to Make My Bread’ – Jack and The Beanstalk

 This scene always has me on the edge of my seat. I loved the rhyme as a child; it was so simple and yet so threatening – perfect for games designed to scare your younger brother! The atmosphere is so tense, I often reread this scene when I’m writing, to compare. If my scene isn’t as tense, it needs more work.

‘Turkish delight!’ – The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis

My favourite sweet as a child was Turkish Delight – it’s still one of the only sweet things I like! I was so jealous of the Turkish delight bribe as we were only allowed sweets on a Sunday when I was growing up. I did consider whether, like Edmund, I would betray my family for some of rose-flavoured deliciousness; I have to admit, I thought it was a fair trade!

Looking at this list, it’s quite clear that I’d have been an easy target in a storybook or fairytale! I’d love to know,what are your favourite ‘food in fiction’ moments? Is there any food that evokes special memories when you see, smell or taste it? And does anyone else love winkles and olives?!

Note: this post was initially written for Girls Hearts Books – a great site, all about books, writing & reading – check it out! 

Writing Seascapes: The Book of Shadows

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My local pier

The sea is one of my favourite things. I find it intriguing, enchanting and at times, frightening. The sea is beautiful yet unpredictable. It whispers and calls, lulls and calms, and yet, it can be ferocious and murderous too. Did you know that seawater covers around 71% of the earth’s surface? That’s a lot of water to marvel at!

Despite its size, the sea is not a vast watery nothingness like many people believe; there are islands and reefs and ravines, and so much is hidden from view. The tides are in constant flux and below the waves, the sea is teeming with life. A wild and unruly beast, it is this incredible mix of qualities that made seascapes a prominent feature in my latest book, The Book of Shadows – Nine Lives Trilogy 2.

I live on the Atlantic coast in Southwest Ireland and I spend as much time as I can near the sea and on the sea. We have a small punt that we use for catching mackerel and pollock in the summer, and we often see lots of creatures such as jellyfish, dolphins, minke whales, and basking sharks. Then there are the seabirds including manx shearwaters, terns, guillemots, and gannets – so don’t be surprised when you find these creatures woven into my stories!

Even though my Nine Lives Trilogy is a fantasy story, it is important to me that the characters and events are believable. This means that the seascapes and high seas adventures had to be realistic as well as exciting, and so I’ve taken lots of inspiration from my immediate surroundings. There’s nothing better than heading out into open water, all your senses open, not knowing what you’ll encounter or how the journey will impact your story. It’s also fun interrogating fishermen and sailors for details that might add to your tale.

fullsizerender-77Did you realise, for instance, that it is considered unlucky to set sail on a Friday? Or that a tiny spot of rainbow portends rain? Did you know that fishermen prefer to use a clinch knot on their lines? Or that 30 foot long basking sharks might peek inside your boat (the young ones can be quite inquisitive)? Can you tell a schooner from a sloop? Finding out details like this is really fun and even though they’re not the focus of the action, they bring an extra atmospheric element and sense of realism.

Some of the place names in The Book of Shadows are real, while others are complete fiction. Gun Point, for instance, is an actual place, and so is Roaring Water Bay – these are the real names of places where I live (I just shifted them a little, geographically). Gallows Island is based on a mixture of Cape Clear and Long Island (I can see Long Island from my home); I needed to fuse the landscapes, but I also wanted a more sinister name, so I made that up.

History also plays a part, as West Cork was a haven for pirates in the 17thand 18th centuries. It’s a fascinating era, and so part of The Book of Shadows involves some pirate action – and not just regular pirates, but also black-hearted devils made of darkness and shadows. The idea for these creatures came after reading about the real-life ‘Barbary raids’ of 1631, when pirates kidnapped the inhabitants of Baltimore. They represent the darker side of the human psyche.

I hope you enjoy the seascapes and sea life that appears in my stories. And if you have any high seas adventures or facts of your own that you’d like to share, I’d love to hear them!

Happy writing x

Please note: this was originally written for Middle Grade Strikes Back as part of my The Book of Shadows blog tour. It’s a great site covering all sorts of topics, including #CoverKidsBooks – go check it out! 

Stay Motivated & Write Your Book

The New Year always brings out a feeling of potential and new possibilities in people, but this enthusiasm can quickly wane as the realities of returning to work, and real life, kick in. Personally, it’s been a busy start to the year with manuscript edits, new freelance clients, and lots of events organisation, and so my blog has been neglected (unlike Catherine Ryan Howard’s blog which is currently on fire – check it out!!!).

At the moment, although I’m on top of everything, I’m feeling a little overwhelmed and so I’m spending lots of time in nature on long walks, rather than online, to counterbalance the stress levels. We’ve survived Blue Monday, but just in case you’re suffering from January writing blues, here’s one of my most popular posts, originally written for Writers & Artists, about staying motivated to write your book.

Enjoy…

“Everyone has a book in them.” How many times have you heard this said? I’m guessing lots. But how many writers have you heard say this? Probably very few, if any.

I don’t subscribe to the notion that everyone’s got a book in them. I do believe that everyone has an idea or ideas – some good, some bad – but a book? That’s a different matter entirely, and I’m sure that anyone actually writing a book will nod his or her head enthusiastically when I say this.

fullsizerender-78? Because writing a book takes a huge amount of time and dedication, grit and determination – especially when you’re starting out. You have to take the germ of an idea and get it down on paper. Not just a bit of paper, either: around 70,000 to 120,000 words worth of paper, depending on your story and your intended readership. And that’s just the start.

When you get to the end of your initial draft, the actual work begins. Your plot has holes, your dialogue isn’t always realistic, and your characters aren’t quite as consistent as you had hoped. As Hemingway famously said, ‘the only kind of writing is rewriting.’ Your initial draft will not be good enough for publication, and it’s in the rewriting that a real book will form. But to get to this stage, you need to first complete your manuscript.

It’ll be a slog, and sometimes, without any guarantee of an agent/publisher/anyone else ever wanting to read it, you might even feel like giving up. But remember why you’re doing this – your love of books, reading and writing, and it’ll help you stay on track. You can have the most supportive partner/family/friends in the world, but the only person who can motivate you to keep going, is you.

So how do you get to the end of your manuscript without losing heart, enthusiasm, or both?

I don’t have a foolproof method – if only! But I can share the things that work for me. And if this helps just one more writer out there, then I’m happy. Here goes…

Top five motivation tips:

Try the NanoWrimo model – this means getting 50,000 words of your novel down on paper in one month. This may sound like a huge challenge – because it is! – but what this approach does is focus you on your book and help you to get your word count down. Immersing yourself with such intensity keeps the writing fresh and exciting, and you quickly learn to forget about editing as you go along. Nanowrimo is traditionally in November, but you don’t have to wait until then to try it out – you can use the basic principle at any time. This format works so well for me that I adopt it for the first draft of every book. I see it as giving me the clay to sculpt. Who cares if it’s rubbish in places? It’s better than getting stuck at 15,000 words. I find the intensity really liberating and I’d recommend anyone – especially those of you who find you over edit or can’t move forward –to give it a try.

Jump scenes – if you’re really stuck on a scene, it’s likely that you have other scenes bouncing around in your head, begging to be written. So write them. You don’t need to write your scenes in order; the truth of the matter is, it’ll probably all change around anyway when you do your first rewrite. And it’ll definitely change by the next draft. I find that approximately 20% of my initial draft (which I think of as a draft zero) is still present in the final version; so don’t get hung up on perfection when it comes to plot. Some people need to plot and plan to get started writing, and if this is you, don’t be surprised if you start to veer off course. And if you do, go with it – you can always fill in the gaps later.

Give Yourself a Breather – this is probably one of the most difficult aspects of writing because you love writing, you love your idea, and you’re hungry to get on. I wouldn’t recommend you stop completely, but taking a break and giving your work enough distance for it to breathe can sometimes help the story to grow in your head. Doing something mundane and repetitive is really useful; like ironing, weeding, or walking – it can help you to figure out where you’re going next, or solve a character issue. Your brain will still be mulling things over so if you’re really stuck, take a break for an hour or so, and then go back. This is the important bit: you must go back and write a little more to get any real benefit. You’ll probably be surprised how much more productive you suddenly are.

Reward Yourself – no matter how much you love writing, there are going to be tough days. There’ll be knocks, and self doubt, and struggles – and this is all completely normal. As humans, we tend to focus on the negative, especially when we’re doing something we really care about, and so you want to make sure you counterbalance this with lots of positives. Rewards can be small, such as a morning off to see a friend, a new pen or notebook, an evening at the theatre or a ticket to an author event or conference. Whatever it is that puts a smile on your face, reward yourself for small achievements. A book is going to take a long time to write, so keep it joyful to help cope with the challenging times ahead.

Keep learning – no matter how much you have improved on your writing journey, there is always more to know and more ways to challenge yourself. Learning your craft should be a joy, not a bind, and an integral part of your journey to completing your manuscript. Read lots and widely. Attend festivals and author events. Join a writing group for moral support. Talk to other writers on social media. Take a workshop or two. There’s no better motivator than a deadline or a critique. Choose the options that suit you and your personality, and enjoy in moderation – you still need time to write.

These suggestions are easy to add to your working day and they don’t take much effort. Maybe only one or two will work for you, but if you’re stuck in a rut or finding your motivation ebbing, then it’s worth giving them a try.  What do you have to lose? I’d love to hear how you’re getting on – happy writing!

Note: This article was originally written for Writers & Artists 

2016 Wrap Up!

2016 was an incredibly mixed year. Professionally, things couldn’t have been better, but there were some personal lows that certainly kept my feet on the ground and made me question many aspects of my life.

The year began with The Book of Learning – Nine Lives Trilogy 1 being chosen as the 2016 Dublin UNESCO City of Literature Citywide Read for Children. An initiative that encourages reading for fun, this is very close to my heart because if it wasn’t for books, my life would be very different indeed. Books were my childhood sanctuary and I can’t extol the value of reading enough – books really can change lives.

As for the UNESCO events from January to April, words can’t explain how amazing an experience this was. Walking into a room where all the children have read and enjoyed your book is just incredible, as was reading in the beautiful National Library of Ireland and the grand finale – a St Patrick’s Big Day Out event in a Georgian house based on 23 Mercury Lane in my book (with real pet rats).

The UNESCO team – particularly Jackie Lynam who has now become a true and valued friend – was incredible to work with; both professional and human. It was during this time that I lost two close friends and they were so incredibly supportive, I can’t thank them enough – so a huge thank you goes out to everyone involved. (Look out for Dave Rudden’s Knights of the Borrowed Dark events from January to March as the 2017 Dublin UNESCO Citywide Read kicks into action – they’re going to be amazing).

Publication wise, my first young adult book, Caramel Hearts, was released in Ireland and Australia in June, and I was honoured to have Sinead Gleeson launch the book for me. Sinead is an incredible woman whom I admire very much because of her kindness, her honesty and her integrity. Sinead’s writing and interviews always have a profound effect on me and I’m looking forward to more in 2017.

img_6895Later in the year, The Book of Shadows – Nine Lives Trilogy 2 was published, and this went on to be shortlisted for the Irish Book Awards! This was a wonderful night, shared with many great friends who were also shortlisted and I also got to see my husband in a tux! In addition, The Book of Learning was optioned for dramatic rights by the lovely and enthusiastic Ripple World Pictures – watch this space!

There have been over 100 events in schools and libraries this year, including a rather busy October, spent touring for joint events with Alan Early. The Children’s Book Festival is exciting yet hectic, but Alan really made the month fly by with plenty of laughs – if you haven’t already, you should check out his Arthur Quinn series. It’s brilliant.

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Festivals have been kind to me also this year, including West Cork Literary Festival, Doolin Writers Weekend, Ryedale Book Festival, Mountains to Sea, Belfast Book Festival and Listowel Writers Week – each was a pleasure and a joy and I can’t wait to return.

Festivals provide so much for writers; the chance to get in front of an audience, some income, time to meet with other writers and also attend their events to keep the whole writing side fresh and interesting. Writing festivals are a highlight in any writers’ calendar, so thank you to everyone who works tirelessly to keep them going!

However, on the flip side, some very close friends died this year, and the loss of their smiles, their chat, their talent, is keenly felt. In addition, with so much success comes lots of hard work and I have to admit, even though I’m a born grafter, I found the workload crushing at times. I’ve had to sometimes neglect those close to me and have struggled to maintain friendships without any free time. My husband, my friends and my village have all been so understanding – it’s an incredible thing to have finally found a home.

And so, what has 2016 shown me? To make sure you look after and cherish those close to you, as well as your own health – because that’s what really matters. And so, that’s exactly what I intend to do in 2017. I have many more people to thank for their support and encouragement this year, but that’s a post for New Year.

Happy Christmas all and see you in 2017 x

The Irish Book Awards & Making Dreams Reality

BookofshadowsWriting a book was simply a dream. I’ve always loved books; they’ve been my sanctuary for as long as I can remember. They got me through a traumatic childhood and continued to stick by me through thick and thin over the years. Books helped me dream, learn, imagination, escape, relax, feel secure and so much more. I’m turning 40 next year, so that’s a lot of hard work and support they’ve had to offer.

As for writing, I can’t actually remember a time when I didn’t write. I’m not one of those people with memories of being in the pram or cot; my first recollections are from the age of about six, and of writing poems. So writing was also a constant in my early life – until growing up and work got in the way. Over time, I let careers, ambition and financial concerns soak up my time and attention. I still read, but writing became a guilty secret, hidden away from the world, and eventually it dropped away completely.

But after establishing myself successfully in several careers and still not feeling particularly happy, I looked deep into my heart and asked – when did I last feel truly alive and full of possibility? And the answer was when I lost myself in stories. And so, I finally picked up a pen and started writing again. Poems, flash fiction, stories – eventually these got published. When I let writing back in my life again, I felt more complete. Eventually, I decided to try and realise my deeply buried dream of becoming a published author.

Ireland has a huge role to play in this dream becoming a reality. I moved here from Spain for work, and fell in love with the country and its people. I found the Inkwell workshops run by Vanessa O’Loughlin, and met fellow aspiring writers. The workshops were fantastic and inspiring, but the friendships developed were invaluable. We stayed in touch, supporting each other along the rocky and uncertain path to publication. I felt respected, supported and full of possibility. Ireland became my first true home and I began to realise that maybe being an author was something I could genuinely achieve.

Some risky decisions, a move to West Cork, a pile of work, and lots of rejection later, my first book deal was signed, followed by another! The Book of Learning – Nine Lives Trilogy 1 was chosen as the Dublin UNESCO Citywide Read for 2016, and it was such an honour to be part of a project that encourages reading for pleasure. After all, what better opportunity to try and pass on the one thing has been a constant in my life?

img_0040-1And now… In case you missed my inane ramblings across social media over the last week (I was in shock, forgive me!), The Book of Shadows – Nine Lives Trilogy 2 has been shortlisted for the Irish Book Awards in the Children’s Book of the Year (Senior) category. I’m still coming down to earth with a bump as it was completely unexpected. In addition, two of the authors I met way back when are also shortlisted for the Irish Book Awards this year; Cath Ryan Howard (shortlisted in Crime for Distress Signals) and Hazel Gaynor (shortlisted in Popular Fiction for The Girl From the Savoy). And Vanessa, who brought us all together, is shortlisted for her debut, Little Bones writing as Sam Blake.

Don’t get me wrong – I don’t write for awards but being shortlisted for something like this is a real honour. Writing is a lonely profession, with lots of uncertainty, meandering pathways and all the emotions. I write because I can’t not write; because my passion for books and story outweighs my passion for anything else. Sometimes it’s difficult to see the way forward, but you stumble on blindly. A shortlist like this is like a beacon; it says, you’re on the right path, keep going, it’ll be OK!

But this isn’t just about me. It’s about all the writers out there who strive every day to create the best stories they can – whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, for adults or children, in whatever genre they prefer. The book community in Ireland is really social and supportive, and yes, people have ambitions and dreams, but they work really hard to achieve them and never forget the human factor.

My category is incredible strong and I am genuinely delighted for everyone on that list because they all deserve a spot with their fantastic books; Claire Hennessy, Deirdre Sullivan, Cecelia Ahern, Dave Rudden and Anna Carey, you are all rock stars and I can’t wait to share the celebrations with you on the big day.

(P.S. If you love books and haven’t voted yet for your favourites, here’s the link)

Writing for Young People at The Story House

beautiful writingAre you writing for young people? Would you like a residential week at Lisnavagh House, Co. Carlow, to focus on your work?

I’m delighted to announce that I’ll be joining the wonderful Sheena Wilkinson and Patricia Ford at The Story House from Monday 20th – Saturday 25th February 2017, to bring you a week dedicated to writing for young people. Through relevant writing exercises, group discussion and one-to-one sessions, you will gain practical knowledge that you can apply to your own work in progress.

This course is aimed at anyone interested in writing fiction for young people and is limited to 12 participants (– I have it on good authority that there are at least three bookings already!). From the art of re-drafting to navigating the contemporary publishing world, we will help you to develop as a writer for this exciting age group.

You can read more about the week hereHope to see you there!