KEEPING SANE & SOLVENT: PART TWO

11 May 2020

In our second helping of lockdown stories and advice, we asked five children’s writers to tell us how they are faring.

HANNAH SHAW

Before the lockdown kicked in, I had an acquaintance on Facebook who was building ‘an isolation pod’ in his conservatory so he could isolate from the rest of his family if he got the virus. I thought it was ridiculous… this was before I realised how serious the situation would become. Now, spending time in an isolation pod (without Covid-19 please) is just what I need! As I write this, my seven-year-old is painting my toenails and my four-year-old is begging me to draw him a dinosaur. Top lockdown parenting tip: Don’t start offering to draw bespoke colouring sheets for your children; they’ll never stop asking for them.

I wrote the first draft of my current book in a state of heightened anxiety, I was checking the news and my social media every five minutes. The manuscript was a mess and it is only now that I’m starting to write with any clarity again. Occasionally, I’ll hide in the garden shed where the WiFi is weak just so I can scribble without distractions. Although it has been tricky to juggle home schooling, working and standing in a supermarket queue for hours on end; I consider myself lucky to still have some work. I’m in the middle of a very silly series, it is set in an entirely imaginary magical world with a Unicorn Pig as the main protagonist! I’m hoping my stories will provide as much escapism for the children who read them as they do for me to write and illustrate.

I’m sad that I won’t be able to do school and library visits or festivals for a while. I’ve wanted to continue connect with my readers so I’ve made some ‘magical draw-a-long’ videos to show them how to draw characters from my stories. I have a book coming out in July so it’s likely I’ll have to do a virtual book launch. Staying on top of social media has never been more important. With bookshops and schools currently closed and Amazon not delivering new books, children’s writers and publishers need to keep being inventive with how they attract new readers (or their parents, as many of our readers are too young to be online). So, do be active on Instagram and Twitter but turn off your notifications or hide in your shed when you’re trying to write!

Hannah Shaw is a children’s author and illustrator hannahshawillustrator.co.uk. Her new series Unipiggle: The Unicorn Pig is published by Usborne. Unipiggle: Unicorn Muddle is out now. Unipiggle: Dragon Trouble will be published July 2020. @hannahshawdraws

 

ANTHONY McGOWAN

In the hungover wake of a significant birthday, I found a left-over helium balloon, which I weighted with a lump of Blu tack so that it floated alluringly in mid-air. It had an almost human way of wandering listlessly around the flat, appearing in the kitchen or living room or bedroom, propelled by barely perceptible air currents.

I am now a version of that balloon. I drift round the flat in the same aimless way, stopping off at my study or the living room or the bedroom, but not achieving anything useful in any of those places. Creative work is impossible. Something to do with the uncertainty, the not knowing how or when it will all end. I’ve managed a little editing, and I’ve been trying to master various software packages which might one day come in useful – Scrivener and Final Draft, and Civilization VI, World Domination Edition.

Oh, and I took my cheap Homebase toolbox from its storage space on top of the wardrobe, and sorted through the odds and sods I’d crammed in there over the years. A large spring, that may have once formed part of the dishwasher door. A curious arrangement with a long bolt and a wingnut and a piece of attached plastic, that I finally realised might be a clamp of some sort. It had to go. If I begin with the clamping, there’s no knowing where it will end. I took many curious screws, washers widgets, flanges, and fol-de-rols out of the toolbox, studied them for a while, then put them back again. Finally, the toolbox was returned to the top of the wardrobe, lightened only by the loss of the clamp, which I first put in the bin, then removed to my study, just in case.

Is it all really so bad? There are pleasant parts to this. I’m less isolated than I’ve ever been in my life, as my wife and daughter are constantly around. I suppose that might be why I’m finding it so difficult to work… I feel for all those suffering directly or indirectly – my mum and dad, my brother and two of my sisters were (or are) nurses. But in truth I’m fine, we’re fine. Bored. Eager for it to be over, but fine. I miss working in the British Library. I miss playing cricket with The Authors XI. I miss pubs. I’ve grown as fat as a cartoon capitalist in a communist propaganda poster. But these are relatively minor gripes.

Future plans? Learning to touch type. At the moment I jab with two fingers like someone brutally interrogating a suspect. It would be nice if my fat digits danced over the keyboard, like little Pavlovas, en pointe. And I might indulge myself in a little amateur clamping…

Anthony McGowan has written over 40 books for adults, teenagers and younger children. His latest YA novel, Lark, is currently shortlisted for the CILIP Carnegie Medal. How to Teach Philosophy to Your Dog, a humorous introduction to philosophy, was published to wide acclaim by Oneworld in 2019.

 

JAMES MAYHEW

Illustrators and authors are used to being in self-isolation. So the pandemic hasn’t had such a great impact on me psychologically, as it might have done on those in other professions. However, I find many projects dangling, suspended. Finished books may not now be published for another 18 months, while existing projects seem to have lost momentum, now that deadlines are less urgent. I also worry about the financial implications. Discount-selling means royalties are already low; and with bookshops less accessible, that will only get worse.

Very few authors and illustrators make a living from their books in any case. Most children’s authors and illustrators make ends meet with events at festivals, schools and so on; and by teaching or running workshops. As freelancers we are very vulnerable. I’ve lost dozens of paid events, more than half my annual income. Projects that have taken months to plan have fallen through.

So how will I survive? I’m an optimist. I see new opportunities open to me – to write new things, to try new illustration techniques, and very importantly…to recharge. I’ve worked very hard for many years. This is a chance to pause for breath. I intend to take it. As the breadwinner I need to pay the bills – so in the meantime, I will be “creative” with my creativity. I have 30 years’ worth of original illustrations I can sell, and I’ve already had enquiries about that. I’m also enjoying developing online content, and investigating ways to make that pay.

Most of all, I remind myself of a simple truth: as long people keep on having babies, there will be a need for children’s books!

James Mayhew has been creating books for children for 30 years, including the Katie series, Ella Bella Ballerina, Koshka’s Tales, Mrs Noah’s Pockets and Gaspard the Fox. James also works with orchestras and musicians, presenting concerts that combine music and art, created live on stage. @mrjamesmayhew

 

PATRICE LAWRENCE

Last December, I was in northern Italy touring schools with EDT, the Italian publisher of Orangeboy. By January 2020, Italy had declared a national emergency and by the beginning of March, the country was in strict lockdown and the wonderful people I’d been hanging out with for a week couldn’t leave their homes. This should have brought home to me what was coming my way, but I was in a state of denial.

So when reality hit, I was completely unprepared. Within a few days, most of my paid events – schools, festivals, talks, creative writing tutoring, workshops – disappeared. But beyond that, was a failed attempt to process the impossible. My brain stayed absent and my ability to focus accompanied it. I couldn’t write anything – why should it matter?

This is what helped me.

  1. Reading non-fiction. I buried myself in Lara Maiklem’s Mudlarking and books about Georgian London. I was vicariously walking the now forbidden streets. Then gradually, I started teasing out and noting ideas for stories. There’s no pressure to write them, but they’re there if I need them.
  2. Listening to audiobooks. I still needed stories, but injected straight into my system. My comfort listening was Kobna Holbrook-Smith’s perfect narration of Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series. And, again, I was virtually walking the streets of London while absorbing lessons about character development, sustaining series and pop culture references. I’ve now graduated to watching Elementary, the US version of Sherlock, on Amazon Prime. I’ve been unable to focus on full-length films but 45 minutes of mystery that’s resolved in the end works perfectly. It’s also a handy lesson in developing longer story arcs.
  3. Friends. Phone calls for talking and laughing. WhatsApp chats about moveable deadlines and dal recipes. And publishing gossip, of course. I’ve tried to avoid social Zoom. Trying to quell my anxiety and fury for an artificial situation fuelled by low bandwidth is a little beyond me at the moment.
  4. My writing group. We are meeting over Zoom but it works well because our sessions are quite structured anyway. I’m lucky enough to have a new book to write but I can’t find the motivation. With the world falling apart, why would my book matter? My writing group has provided me with encouragement and numerous prompts. I’ve been choosing one at random and trying to free-write 500 words inspired by it every day. I’ve been taken to places I didn’t expect and am starting to feel excited by the possibilities in my new book again.

Patrice Lawrence is an award-winning writer for children and young people whose books include Orangeboy, Indigo Donut, Rose Interrupted and the forthcoming Eight Pieces of Silva in August, all published by Hachette Children’s Books. @LawrencePatrice

 

TONY BRADMAN

I’ve been working from home as a freelance writer for longer than I care to remember. So not much has changed for me, which is slightly embarrassing when I talk to friends and family who are finding the lockdown strange and difficult. One of my daughters has two young children, and she and her partner are having to balance doing their full-time jobs from home with home schooling and childcare. And my other daughter is a key worker in a school for kids with special needs. All of that is far tougher than anything I might face as a freelance writer of children’s books.

I was also lucky to be working on a long-term project before the lockdown began, a book that won’t see the light of day until Autumn 2021. That’s been keeping me busy – there’s a lot of research involved and the writing is as demanding as ever. But I’m not immune to what’s happening. I’ve had a number of school visits and events cancelled, and there’s a definite sense of anxiety among publishers, booksellers and writers. We’re all very worried about the impact of the crisis on our business and that has just taken the usual uncertainties of the writer’s life to a whole new level.

That said, there have been positives too. I’ve had some amazing messages from brilliant teachers and children about my books – in that sense social media has been a great boost. That’s led to some new contacts and friendships, and several invitations to schools for when things return to whatever will pass for normality. And as chair of ALCS it’s been great – but no surprise at all – to see just how hard the team at ALCS is continuing to work at every level on behalf of you, our members. Your work is still being used out there, and we’re still collecting money for you. So as footballer Stuart Pearce once said, ‘there’s a carrot at the end of the tunnel’. Take care and stay strong!

Tony Bradman is Chair of the ALCS Board. @tbradman