Posted in Personal life, Self-publishing, Writing

The Unintended Consequences of a Writing Life

My latest post for the Authors Electric collective, originally published on 30th March 2018

head and shoulders photo of Debbie at churchyard gate with graveyard behind
In the churchyard of St Mary’s, Hawkesbury (Photo by Angela Fitch)

In 2010, realising that no matter how hard I worked in my day job, it was leaving me unfulfilled, I made the radical decision to walk away from it without a job to go to. I intended to refocus my life on my writing ambitions.

Reading Between the Lines

It felt like a miracle when I almost immediately landed a part-time job with a wonderful children’s reading charityRead for Good, which served two purposes for me (apart from giving me an income, that is):

  • It reinforced the importance of books and reading not only for children but for all ages, which in turn validated my ambition to write books myself.
  • It gave me space to explore different ways in which I could write what I wanted to write – and indeed to discover exactly what that was.
The first three in my Sophie Sayers Village Mystery series – soon to be four!

Using commissioned non-fiction projects and experimental short stories as stepping stones, I gradually gained the confidence and competence needed to achieve my long-term goal to write a novel.

Now I’m hooked, with three novels published in the last year, the fourth due out next month, and my planned series of seven, the Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries, now starting to morph into a series of ten.

Planning for Success

But as in all of life, the things that you don’t plan are often some of the most exciting.

Here are five serendipitous things that have happened to me over the last few years while I was making other plans. Not only is my writing life is the richer for them, but it turns out they’ve helped other people too.

1) Being invited to join a regular monthly spot on BBC Radio Gloucestershire‘s lunchtime show, in its Book Club slot, alongside its delightful presenters, initially Clare Carter and now Dominic Cotter, and The Bookseller’s Caroline Sanderson, to talk about our chosen book of the month and any other book-related topics that take our fancy – and I’ve discovered I love doing radio.

photo of Debbie and Caroline in tinsel-decked recording studio
Enjoying the BBC Radio Gloucestershire Christmas party with fellow Book Club panelist Caroline Sanderson (Photo: Dominic Cotter, the show’s presenter)

2) Launching a free local literature festival to bring indie authors, poets and illustrators to my community at the Hawkesbury Upton Lit Fest, with no admission charges so that visitors could save their money to buy the speakers’ books instead. This started out as a simple plan to spend a few hours in one of the village pubs with a few writer friends – four years on, it’s somehow morphed into 50+ authors in a packed day-long programme, this year with an art exhibition running in tandem.


3) Being the inadvertent catalyst for a new book by other authors – the panel of authors I’d introduced to each other for the second Hawkesbury Upton Lit Fest to discuss writing about difference (that’s politically-correct-speak for disability, to be clear) got together afterwards to collaborate on Silent Voices, an anthology by carers and the cared-for, venting their feelings.

cover of Silent Voices
So proud to have been a catalyst for this moving book

4) Encouraging other writers to grow from nervous debutant to confident published author, either through their participation in the authors’ groups I run in Cheltenham and Bristol or through their participation in the Hawkesbury Upton Lit Fest. (I’ve observed a direct relationship between the most nerves and the biggest post-performance smile at every event.)

5) Helping other people achieve their publishing ambitions through what I’ve learned on my own journey as an indie author, such as enabling a 95-year-old, terminally ill refugee to turn his memoirs into a book before he died, or helping a retired neighbour revive children’s stories she’d written decades ago. Not only was I able to publish them as books, I also sent her into the village school as guest author on World Book Day, where she was very well received.

Cover of Parrot Talk
One of four children’s books that I’ve helped Betty Salthouse publish so far

Is It Karma?

Some author friends swear there is such a thing as book karma: if you’re helpful to others, that helpfulness will come back to you in some other form at a later date.

So is it karma that this week that I spotted the first book in my Sophie Sayers series rising up the cosy mystery charts?

If so, I’m fine with that. When I started self-publishing my books (I’d written stories all my life but hadn’t seriously pursued publication), I thought just writing the books would be satisfying enough for me. And if anyone else benefited along the way from anything I did, I’d jokingly tell myself that virtue was its own reward, or I’d get my reward in heaven, and that would be enough for me.

And if there aren’t any books in heaven? Then I’m not going. 

If you’re within reach of the Cotswolds, come along and join in the fun at this year’s Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival this month, on Saturday 21st April. Download the full programme from its website, www.hulitfest.com, to help you plan your day in advance – but there’s no advance booking required, and no admission charge. Just turn up on the day and enjoy! 
 

I’ll be launching the fourth in my Sophie Sayers Village Mystery series, Murder by the Book, at the Festival, but you can pre-order an ebook copy here in the meantime at the special launch price of 99p/99c, and the paperback from 21st April, at viewbook.at/MurderByTheBook.

Posted in Reading

Books Are My Scarecrow’s Bag

A post that kills three birds with one stone – what a shot! – for Books Are My Bag, the Hawkesbury Scarecrow Trail, and the Little Free Library.

Photo of bluestockinged scarecrow with Books are my Bag bag and Little Free Library
Meet Virginia, Hawkesbury Upton’s very own bluestocking bookworm

Last weekend I pulled off an especially fine piece of multitasking – I managed to promote three different worthy causes in one fell swoop:

  • The first ever Hawkesbury Upton Scarecrow Trail
  • The second Books Are My Bag campaign
  • The year-round Little Free Library programme

As you can see from the photo, my scarecrow, Virginia, is a stylish bookworm. Her Cheltenham Festival of Literature t-shirt complements her blue stockings, and her whole outfit is set off by last year’s must-have accessory for anyone who loves books, the exclusive Books Are My Bag campaign souvenir bag. Keeping her well supplied with reading matter is my new Little Free Library, set up as a British offshoot of the free community library campaign founded in the USA a few years ago.

Books Are My Bag is a national movement in the UK to remind everybody of the value of the independent high street book shop. What the publishing trade likes to call “bricks-and-mortar stores” offer many benefits unavailable from online retailers, (though they can usually order you a book in just as fast as Amazon and the like, without charging you postage or a membership fee), or recent entrants to the book market, such as grocery superstores. High street bookshops have expert staff able to help you find the perfect book for yourself or for others. Over the next few days, participating stores will be sharing their passion for books and reading with special events all over the country. For more information about Books Are My Bag, and to find an event in a local indie bookshop near you, visit their website: www.booksaremybag.com.

Scarecrow with picnic basket
Life’s a picnic, whatever the weather, for Hawkesbury Youth Club’s scarecrow, tucking in outside the Village Hall

The Hawkesbury Upton Scarecrow Trail offers a fun display of 14 scarecrows dotted about the village. You can pick up a free map from the village shop or post office all this week. The trail will be in place until the end of Sunday 12th October. There’s no particular theme or cause, other than a bit of autumnal fun! See if you can spot them all.

The idea of the Little Free Library was set up by an American chap, Todd Bol, in 2009, with a single box of books, in the shape of an old-fashioned schoolhouse, in memory of his late mother, a schoolteacher who loved reading. The idea quickly caught on – after all, what’s not to love about free books? – and now there are estimated to be over 15,000 around the world. Mine’s the first in Hawkesbury Upton! Todd’s mother would be very proud of him.

Close up of my Little Free Library
Something for everyone in here
Debbie by the Library
Well, I always wanted to be a librarian when I was little

My Little Free Library is starting off with a stock of books from our home and donated by others. I’ll be adding lots of new books as space becomes available, including those that I receive free to review from authors and publishers (I do a lot of book reviewing for various magazines and organisations).

Photo of Gordon with the finished Library
Meet the architect and builder, my husband Gordon

Anyone is welcome to help themselves to a free book (or more than one!) If they’d like to treat it as a swap, and put one back, that would be great, but it’s not essential.

My Little Free Library will provide an extra source of books in the village, supplementing the shelves of donated books that are sold for £1 each by the Hawkesbury Shop and the village hair salon, Head Start Studio, in aid of the village school’s PTA. But my Little Free Library offers books at no cost at all, so everyone can afford them, and they’ll be accessible outside the shops’ opening hours. For more information about the Little Free Library scheme, to order your own official sign, or to make a donation to its cause, visit their website: www.littlefreelibrary.org.

Of course, you have to take pot luck with a Little Free Library – you’re unlikely to find a particular book that you’re looking for, but it’s a great no-risk way of being more adventurous with your reading, trying out a genre or author that you wouldn’t normally pick up. Who knows what new interest you might discover?

But if you’re bent on getting a specific book, you don’t have to go far. We’re lucky enough to live within a short drive of three independent bookshops – the Yellow-Lighted Bookshop in Nailsworth and Tetbury, the Cotswold Bookroom in Wotton-under-Edge, and, 20 miles away in Bristol, the fabulous Foyles bookshop in Cabot Circus, where I’ll be launching the new paperback edition of my must-read book for anyone affected by or interested in Type 1 diabetes. Like to get an invitation? Just contact me and I’ll send one right over.

And if that’s not enough – Hawkesbury Upton is also served by a mobile library, sent out once a fortnight from the fab Yate library a few miles away. (I’ve just had a flash fiction story inspired by our mobile library accepted for a new anthology, Change the Ending, to be published shortly – more news of that soon!) We really have no excuse for not getting stuck into good books in these parts.

If you liked this post, you might also enjoy these others on the theme of books and reading:

Like to get my latest blog post in your email inbox as soon as it’s published? Click the follow button in the column to the right of this post.

Like to receive my occasional newsletter, with a free exclusive short story in every issue? Subscribe via the sign-up box in the column on the right of this post. 

 

 

 

Posted in Reading, Writing

Back to School Books – My Reviews for Today’s Child Magazine

A post about my latest book review column in the parenting magazine Today’s Child

Header for Sept Oct issueEvery two months I have a great excuse for getting stuck into children’s books: the review pages that I write for the parenting magazine, Today’s Child. Available on free distribution in London, this colourful and lively magazine may also be read online via one of those cute widgets that lets you flip through the pages as if it’s a real magazine.

Why I Write for Today’s Child

I started writing for Today’s Child when I worked for the national charity Read for Good, which runs sponsored Readathons in schools all over the country, and which also sends free books and storytellers into children in hospital via its ReadWell programme. Approached by an advertising sales executive to place a paid ad for the charity, I countered with the offer of a piece of editorial as an alternative, and the editor liked what I’d written so much that the arrangement has morphed into a regular gig as their book reviewer, with occasional features on other issues thrown in as the opportunity arises. For the next issue, for example, I’ll be writing a feature on Type 1 Diabetes, to coincide with World Diabetes Day on 14th November, and promoting the new paperback edition of my family memoir Coming To Terms With Type 1 Diabetes, to be launched on the eve of World Diabetes Day.

Today’s Child is run by a lively young team with big ideas and a great sense of colour and design. The magazine recently had a makeover, and its new look is bright, cheerful and upbeat. Each issue has a particular theme, as does my book reviews page. I include some new books, but I also often refer to classics and old favourites that remain in fashion, and I think that approach adds value to my feature – I’m clearly not just regurgitating the big publishers’ PR campaigns. I’m also happy to feature books from small independent presses and self-published authors, if I like their books and think they’ll be enjoyed by the magazine’s readers.

Photos of three of my old childhood diaries
Diaries – more durable than any blog

The September/October issue was, not surprisingly, all about Back to School, a theme that is front of mind for most parents at this time of year. Next issue I’ll be writing about diaries and journals, providing ideas for Christmas gifts and inspiration for children to start or keep a diary-writing habit when the new year kicks in. From childhood, I was an avid diarist, and I still have all my old diaries on a high shelf on the landing, much to my eleven-year-old daughter’s amusement – time to hide them, I think, now she can reach the shelf! My blog has now replaced my diaries, and as any regular reader here will know, I do love to blog! But I wouldn’t be without a paper diary too.

More Information about Today’s Child

Today’s Child has regular competitions and shares lots of fun stuff on its Facebook page and on Twitter, so if you’d like to follow them there, here are the links:

Click here to read the latest issue – and flip to pages 16-17 to see my latest reviews:

More About My Book Reviews

Today’s Child isn’t the only magazine that I review books for – I’m also a regular reviewer for Vine Leaves Literary Journal,  equally beautiful and valuable to a completely different audience.

I think all writers should not only be avid readers but review books too, whether or not they choose to share their reviews in public, in magazines or online. (I’m also a top reviewer for Amazon, by the way, steadily approaching the Top #1000 badge and aspiring to climb higher!)

I also try to include book reviews on this website, by way of recommended reading, but am way behind just now, due to other commitments. I’m now planning to allocate an hour every weekend to updating my site and elsewhere with book reviews, and hope to catch up eventually – though reading an average of 2-3 books a week, this will take a while! If you’d like to see the reviews I’ve currently got on this site, you’ll find them here: My Book Reviews.

Like to Review My Books?

Of course, I do have a vested interest in reviewing books – as an author myself, I know how rewarding it is to receive a review of one of my own books! So if you’ve read and enjoyed one of mine, I’d be very grateful if you could spare a moment to post a quick review somewhere – whether on Amazon, Goodreads, your own blog, or anywhere else.

And if you’re a book blogger or journalist who would like a free review copy of any of my books, just send me a message via the contact form, specifying which book you’d like and where you intend to review it. Thank you so much – and happy reading to one and all!

Posted in Writing

My Work as a Children’s Book Reviewer

Continuing the series of posts that describe what I do all day, here’s a post about my gig as children’s book reviewer for Today’s Child magazine.

Banner advertising Today's Child
With a little help from yours truly, the latest issue of Today’s Child hits the ether

For the Love of Children’s Books

Anyone who knows me will be aware that I love to read books. A few years ago I landed a super job with children’s reading charity Read for Good, which gave me a great excuse to embrace children’s books. Read for Good’s fabulous work, through its Readathon and ReadWell brands, also made me realise the importance of leisure reading in children’s lives:

  • being in the habit of reading for pleasure in childhood is a greater influence on your lifelong success and happiness than financial wealth and social class (which is why Readathon runs sponsors reads in schools to encourage children to read for fun)
  • having access to books in hospital makes seriously ill children and their carers feel better (which is why ReadWell provides free books and storytellers to children’s hospitals)
Sir Tony Robinson is the inspiring patron of Read for Good
Sir Tony Robinson is the inspiring patron of Read for Good

Read for Good and Today’s Child

My role at Read for Good included administrative, promotional and marketing tasks. One day I fielded a phone call from Today’s Child‘s advertising department, asking whether we’d be willing to place a paid advert in its pages. As a registered charity, we spent very little on advertising, but I did offer as an alternative some free editorial copy about Read for Good, which they were happy to accept.

They liked what I wrote so much that they invited me to write a regular column for them, not always about the charity’s work, but focusing on aspects of reading. This has evolved into a regular double-page spread of book reviews, and in each issue I look at a particular genre, such as books about art or sport or the current season, and I put it into a wider parenting context. That way the feature is much more than a series of book reviews but an interesting, longer read that hangs together.

When I left Read for Good last year to write full time from home, I continued to write for Today’s Child, which has rapidly evolved from a London-only freebie paper to an online magazine with global reach.

How I Compile the Review Features

I announce in each issue what the next feature’s theme will be, so that any publishers wishing to send me suitable free review copies may do so. I welcome submissions from self-publishing authors too that match the chosen theme, so if you have a book that you think would be suitable, please contact me with more details.

ReadWell logo
Going full circle

After use, I pass all review copies on to Read for Good to put to use for that fabulous charity, whether to give to schools running Readathon sponsored reads or to send into children in hospital via ReadWell.

The July/August issue has just been published, and this time I was looking at books about art. You can read the feature online here via the paper’s fab online reading app.

Next issue, I’ll be considering back-to-school books. But first, let the summer holidays begin!

Further Reading

Posted in Personal life, Reading

Why Reading Makes Life Better

Tony Robinson
A ReadWell mobile bookcase, destined for a UK children’s hospital, with the support (or in this case supporting!) Read for Good’s patron Sir Tony Robinson (Photo by Read for Good)

The internet (God bless it) is awash with pithy sayings about the power of books to change lives, so it’s good now and again to be allowed to say something online about the subject without the constraints of the 140 character Tweet or the space allowed for a status update before Facebook cuts you off with a “see more” link.

My latest article for the monthly online parenting magazine Kideeko talks about the power of books to make life better for poorly children. It draws on my experience of three years working for the children’s reading charity Read for Good – parent of Readathon (which runs Sponsored Reads in schools) and ReadWell (taking books and storytellers to children in hospital).

Whether or not you have children at home, I reckon it’s still worth reading my article, if you have a moment to spare, to remind yourself of the power of storytelling to distract you from life’s ups and downs. To read the article in full, please click this link: Make Life Better with a Book

And if you’d like some ideas of great reads to curl up with, take a trip to my Book Reviews directory.