Writing One Day at a Time

I wonder if you have an idea for a story that you’ll write One Day?

Or maybe several stories?

Are you writing them already, or waiting until you have the time?

Three years ago, writing kept me going through a life-threatening illness, taking it one day at a time.

As I recovered I thought about how long I’d wanted to write Children’s Books as well as illustrate them (answer: many years).

I had two characters swirling around in my head. I didn’t know who had the strongest voice, but I knew where they started and what they were trying to do.

As my ideas spilled out into notebooks over the next year I saw that I had a long way to go before I could transform them into a story that I loved. A really long way.

I realised how much I had to learn.

I felt that it was time now to do something about it.

What would you do, at this point? Or what have you done, if you came to this crossroads?

* * * * * * *

At first I fantasised about doing an MA in Writing for Young People, at Bath Spa University, and I went to an Open Day, although I knew I couldn’t afford the fees.

Or couldn’t afford them yet, whispered a tiny voice, as I wandered the grounds. (It was my inner optimist, not a wish-granting sprite).

But I’d acknowledged my need to do something.

I drew up a plan.

I searched out courses, workshops, talks, coaches, societies I wanted to join and books I wanted to read – and I applied to the Arts Council England’s Developing Your Creative Practice Fund.

This grant is for cultural and creative practitioners who want to make a step change in their career, and take time to focus on their creative development.

I needed to be very clear about what my aims were, so applying helped me to focus on what I really wanted:

To learn to write Children’s Books so that I can have a sustainable writing/illustrating practice that I love and feel proud of, one that gives me a sense of purpose.

It was a glorious moment when I opened the email telling me I’d got the grant!

Suddenly everything seemed possible – like that joyful anticipation at the beginning of the long summer holidays when you’re about 7 or 8.

Some of my ideas were as scary as they were exciting – like a week long residential Arvon writing course – but I was looking forward to the challenge and couldn’t wait to begin.

* * * * * * *

Of course, none of us knew quite how challenging 2020 was going to be.

Working around home schooling during lockdown was hard, but nothing compared to the hard times that so many people were having world wide.

I’m looking back now over a year of experimenting, learning, playing, and pushing myself out of my comfort zone – it’s been at times wonderful and intense, and at other times frustrating. Although my funded period has finished, I intend to carry on in the same vein, slightly more slowly.

At the end of the year, these are the points I’m reminding myself of:

  • Keep coming back to the story, even if it’s only short bursts – it needs to be regular. Persevere – one day at a time. Weekly deep dives if possible.
  • Keep on learning – search out affordable and free events online. Book Festivals, Ted Talks, blogs, tutorials.
  • Connect to the writing community. I’ve met and been inspired by loads of lovely writers online over the past year. Their generosity in sharing advice is so heartening.
  • Don’t be afraid to write badly. I’m happy to make truly terrible drawings before I come up with something I like – I need to do the same with writing.

“We all have 10,000 bad drawings in us. The sooner we get them out, the better.”

Walt Stanchfield (American animator, writer and teacher)

There’s no neat ending to this involving book deals and a new life! I’m still writing my Middle Grade story, alongside Picture Books and younger fiction.

I feel clearer about what I’m doing, and much braver.

I’m writing this partly to set my intentions, partly as a Thank You Letter to the Arts Council, and maybe in the hope that it might spark off an idea for someone – to take a step towards something you’re dreaming of!

Thank you Arts Council England, for supporting me and so many other artists, especially during this strange time.

I’ll be writing more over the next few weeks about the process of immersing myself in the world of Children’s Books.

What challenges would you choose, if you identified something you wanted to work at, and how would you encourage yourself to leave your comfort zone?

Maybe you already have?

Sketchbooks IV: Sticks

Recently at Art Club with The Good Ship Illustration we were drawing with sticks dipped in ink, and I found that I loved it! It creates a very spiky line, but it was quite liberating to embrace that line …

The drawings were still timed, but stopping to dip the sticks meant that I couldn’t work quite as quickly as usual, and it was good slow down.

I found that if a stick is quite blunt and slightly splintery at the end, it can give a lovely ‘dry brush’ effect.
I wanted to remember which sticks made the best marks, so I named them (after ’80s pop stars).

Sketchbooks III: Colour play

Red and blue

This Summer I’ve been playing around with red and blue together.

When I got home I started working on a red and blue character.

She’s (loosely) based on a character from a Picture Book idea I’m working on…

…and this is how she ended up!

Sketchbooks II: Drawing Things

Drawing Things …

10 minute timed drawing with inks and pencil

Something that’s really helped my creative process recently is doing quick timed drawings of everyday objects.

5 minute drawing putting colour down first, then drawing on top with pencil.

I started doing these at Art Club with The Good Ship Illustration, which is live on Instagram at 8 pm GMT (and it’s free!)

I find that knowing I don’t have long to draw means I can make looser marks, and not worry too much about being accurate.

In my haste to draw quickly, I knocked over some ink – so when it was dry I drew on top of it.

3 minutes negative space drawing

When we started looking at the negative space – the space surrounding the objects – I couldn’t quite see how I could do anything other than follow the outline of the things…

5 minutes, gouache and pencil.

…then I realised that I could add just enough detail to make them things rather than shapes.

There’s something about drawing the same things over again, but differently each time, that’s exciting and relaxing at the same time.

I like working so quickly that I really don’t know how each drawing will turn out!

10 minutes, pastel and pencil.

Sketchbooks I: Surroundings

Trying out pencil and pen together on a morning walk

Throughout this long period of Lockdown we’ve been lucky to be able to work from home and homeschool.

More experiments – pen for trees and pencil for houses, or vice versa?

When we were only allowed out to exercise, I really missed being able to stop and draw. I used to love drawing people in streets, supermarkets and cafes.

Drawing the view from my window with sticks dipped in ink.

Homeschooling meant that instead of having whole mornings in my studio, I was only picking up my sketchbook for the odd half hour, which felt frustrating. Eventually I worked out more of a balance, but it took time.

I found that I keep coming back to drawing tiny faraway houses nestling in the hills where I live!

I began to draw everyday objects, my garden, my family and the views from my windows, and realised that there was so much I could learn from what was around me.

A quick warm up drawing in my studio – I like the accidental splodge of red in the middle.

I also did a lovely online illustration course by The Good Ship Illustration (more about that later!) which helped me to experiment with how and what I draw.

An old tractor, roped off – to the dismay of passing kids.

When we could spend a bit more time outside, I found I was drawing in a different way – really looking at my surroundings. By limiting myself to only 2 or 3 materials when I’m out and about, I don’t feel overwhelmed by trying to get everything in.

Drawing by the sea after being at home for so long was exhilarating …

Has anyone else used sketchbooks more, or in a different way, during Lockdown? Or even started drawing for the first time?

Printable Cheer

In these strange days, I’ve been heartened by the examples of kindness and community spirit I’ve seen.

Whether it’s been neighbours discussing home schooling, postcards offering help through my parents’ letterbox, or images of Italians on balconies singing, each time I witness this kindness in action it helps me to focus on hope rather than fear.

I’ve seen how inventive people are – Rhymetime sessions for babies and children that my friend Esther Steward held in Bristol can now be live-streamed so that families can still enjoy them – anywhere.

I’ve listened to Oliver Jeffers reading aloud from his picture books (he’s doing this each weekday until it’s safe to go out again). My children claim to be too old for this now but I’m not!

Singer/songwriter Emma Wallace is singing a cheery song or soothing lullaby everyday on Instagram (and taking requests!) – she has the most beautiful voice.

I’ve been trying to think what I can offer, apart from in my local community, and I thought some cheering images to download for free might be welcome.

Fox Hug Card

So if you can’t hug someone for the time being and would like to send them a Fox Hug card, you can download one here! It’s an A4 sheet with an A5 image on so that you can fold it in half.

You can also download it as an A4 image to frame here:

Or if you’d like to send someone a digital hug instead of printing it :

Please let me know if these work ok, I’ve never put downloadable images on my website before!

I hope everyone is well and taking care xx

Elegant & Burly

A couple of years ago, my youngest fell over and hurt her knee.

As I cuddled her, I whispered ‘You’re a big strong girly!’

She replied ‘Elegant and burly!’

I had no idea why – although I think it was because she’d been watching an Ice Age film where a character was described as ‘Elegant and hairy’. Anyway, I thought to myself that it would be a good name for something. A shop, maybe.

So when my friend Sarah Lowe and I decided to set up a shop on Etsy selling Handmade Things, we decided to call ourselves Elegant & Burly. (In fact our first choice was Lightfoot & Lowe, but that already existed! And I’m glad now that it did).

We realised that Elegant & Burly could also mean a certain balance… beauty with just enough burliness to stop it being overly refined. We thought of a few examples (the bearded fisherman, who wears glittery nail varnish; the hefty rhino in a delicate fascinator; or the divine opera singer eating a great big pasty).

We even invented a word – Burlegance: 1. The state or quality of being both elegant and burly, whether it be hugely hefty with a hint of elegance, or exquisite with a touch of burliness. 2. Something that is burlegant.

We chose The Secret Garden as a theme for our first range, as we both loved Frances Hodgson Burnett’s book when we were little.

Sarah has made some beautiful jewellery, including pendants of silver leaves cast from leaves from her garden (she is an amazing garden designer).

So there you have it – ElegantandBurly is our new Etsy shop!

Drawing Dogs

A few years ago I started doodling scenes from my family life. I wanted to capture moments that I might forget, things that made me laugh or stop and think.

I meant the sketches to be very quick and silly, but I was getting caught up in whether they looked enough like my children.

I tried drawing them as little dogs instead, and to my surprise the drawings began to flow much more easily.

When I tried out drawing them daily for #inktober on Twitter a few years ago, the characters began to develop a different shape.

Then on holiday in France we got caught in a thunderstorm while we were visiting an amphitheatre. We made a dash for the car under a tarpaulin that didn’t quite cover us all, and as we ran though the streets of Orange laughing and getting soaked, I knew that it was a scene I wanted to draw. I sketched it that day, then did an ink drawing back home in England. I wanted to capture the exhilaration and the holiday feeling, and it was the first time that the dogs seemed like a family.

There have been loads of dog drawings over the past few years. There have been stories that didn’t really get anywhere, and lots of dioramas.

Last year I was very ill and was lucky enough to be able to take the time to really rest and recover. Throughout my treatment and as I grew stronger I drew, wrote and collaged a lot, and found I didn’t want to draw dogs at all. Because I was drawing in a journal just for myself, and not thinking about posting anything, it didn’t matter if my characters looked ‘right’ or not. For the first time in years I could draw without thinking about an audience. Despite the circumstances, it was liberating. I began to realise that I wanted to do more than little inky dog doodles.

I didn’t know if I would go back to drawing dogs, but alongside experimenting with printmaking, painting on canvas, writing and paper cutting I started working with an iPad and Ipencil for the first time, and the dogs have found a new lease of life there. So I think the dogs characters may still be around for a while…

… but in amongst lots of other things.