Meet the author: Anne Parsons

This month I’m delighted to chat to independent author Anne Parsons who’s just published her second chapter book featuring charming Archie, the family dog with jumping skills and lots more. I worked with Anne as an editor and mentor so I feel I know Archie very well! Thank you for sharing your insights into self-publishing, Anne.

What inspired your project?

I started writing for children when I became a governor at a local primary school, about five years ago. I volunteered to help children with their reading, and this inspired me to write my first book. I am enthusiastic about children learning to read independently as young as possible – the ability to read provides so many benefits for them.

The story is based on the adventures of my dog, an Airedale Terrier, who sadly passed away. I have many fond memories of him, so I decided to see if I could write about his adventures, using dog agility as the theme.

What was your biggest challenge?

The biggest challenge was expressing these memories in a meaningful way for children aged 6-9 years, showing them how to overcome life’s little challenges.

What’s your favourite aspect of the book?

I have two favourite aspects. The first is Archie’s determination to overcome the challenges he faces to continue his quest as a jumping champion. The second is the encounter with Betty and George and overcoming the challenge of homelessness through the friendship of Archie and his family.

What have you learned along the way?

I have learned more about self- publishing. With this second book I have spent more time on presentation and production. The final product needs to please a variety of audiences. Paramount is your readership, but it needs to appeal to both independent and online bookshops to sell well.

Top tips for debut writers?

Self- publishing is not easy, but I do get a buzz from self-promotion, via lovely visits to schools and libraries, storytelling and running workshops. Don’t be afraid to start writing, at any age. You may surprise yourself!

You can order Archie, Wait! via well-known retailers, and online here and you can follow Anne on Twitter @AnneRParsons.

Meet the author: Joanna Watts

This month I’m delighted to catch up with debut picture book author Joanna Watts. We worked together for around a year as she developed her utterly charming, natural-world story When Duck Got Stuck which Jo has now self-published. Welcome to my Q and A, Jo, and thank you for sharing your insights into the picture book as an artform. Music to my ears!

What inspired your project?

My own happy memories as a young child in Cornwall, England, and the joy and innocence of carefree summer days spent on my bike, exploring the picturesque countryside.  The enchanting beauty of a lush woodland and the peaceful sounds within – of a trickling stream, and the creatures that live below the shady canopies of large trees, overgrown shrubs and in and around the muddy lakes. 

Also, my young daughter and her innate love of nature and our natural environment.  Her intrigue in animal behavior, and wide-eyed curiosity of their habitats and protecting their precious environment.

What was your biggest challenge?

Originally my story was written in rhyme, and the words seemed to tumble from my mind onto the paper.  I was advised to rework the story into straightforward prose, and I found it tricky to join the structural building blocks of my picture book story, whilst understanding that brevity is key.

What’s your favorite aspect of the book?

The relationship between the protagonist Lou, and her gentle and loyal sidekick Pru. What a wonderful team they make!

What have you learned along the way?

I’ve learned that picture book writing is an artform!  Understanding that the interplay between what’s written and what’s shown in the illustrations is vital for a well-structured story.

Top Tips for debut writers.

Whatever your creative project, do not wait for the light to be green to give it a go. START! Find a mentor or someone that will guide and support you, and champion you and your creativity.

You can order When Duck Got Stuck via links on Jo’s website at the recommended price of £8.99.

Editing layer by layer

Editing a completed manuscript (or a section of your work in progress, depending on your creative process) can seem a daunting task. But, as with so many things in life, breaking it down into smaller steps can make it feel much more doable.

A good way to approach editing is to think in layers. Visualise these as beautiful and connected – but also distinct. It’s best to start with the foundational aspects of your narrative: the plot and structure. So your first task is to review your text just with this in mind. This is the time to put on your ‘logical glasses’ and inspect your work with a forensic eye. Are events character-driven, do they link together and show cause and effect? Is anything too convenient or random, making it too easy for your protagonist to achieve their aims? Does it all make sense?

Then it’s time to swap to a fresh lens and consider, one by one, aspects such as pace, tension, drama, point of view, atmosphere, setting and description. This is also a good time to review your cast: is every character absolutely necessary or could one or two be ditched? Does each character feel real and rounded, fresh and original, and does s/he speak and act as him or herself all the way through? Could you deepen the emotional story that’s woven into the action?

At the self-editing stage, it’s brilliant to involve trusted beta readers who can help you with creative decisions that might be niggling away at you, such as name choices for people and places, or the way a particular symbol or visual image surfaces and resurfaces throughout the whole story.

After all this hard work, you definitely deserve a treat. I believe that celebrating each step – or layer – of the editing process can help sustain confidence and motivation. With a slice of layer cake, of course…

Seeing is believing

When I am creating the setting for a story, being able to ‘see’ the environment (whether real or fantastical, contemporary or historical) is a vital part of my process. Being a visual writer, for me this often involves drawings, sketches and jottings.

My work in progress, set in a town inspired by Brighton in the present day, features children living in a range of different types of housing, from a Sixties tower block to a white-painted Victoria terraced house on a narrow, sloping street. My heroine lives in a tumbledown maisonette. But, on reviewing my first draft of Ruby and the STAR Club, I realised that at one point I have Ruby running upstairs to a bedroom she may or not share with her little brother. It was time to gain some clarity on her home so I spent a little time drawing the layout and imagining how Ruby might move through the space. What does she see when she looks out of the kitchen window, for example?

A young child’s home is (ideally) the cornerstone of security so making this feel real and believable is important. If, like me, you have passion for drawing room schemes, it is also fun!

Three tips for bringing a story setting to life:

  1. Sketch the buildings that feature strongly in the story, inside and out, thinking about scale and era

2. Draw a map so you can see where key events happen and figure out how long it takes your characters to reach different destinations

3. Think in colour: what sort of decorating choices, patterns, textures, or levels of clutter might suit different characters (or, in the case of children’s fiction, their parents or older siblings)?

Five top photo tips

Over the past few month I have been lucky to watch, read and listen to many sources of practical help for writers – so this month, my own blog offers a few tip that might come in handy if you’re using images for social media, reviews or your author website.

1 Always take photos in landscape format – it’s then far easier to make them work for most social media channels and websites. This can be tricky if you want to take a photo of a book cover (your own or one you are sharing or reviewing) as this will almost certainly be portrait. Try laying it on a surface and taking a shot with a background, or capturing just the main title area to give a flavour. Here’s an example:

2 Try Canva, the free online design site. Here, you can upload images, choose the format you want (Twitter, say) and resize an image in that exact proportion in moments. You can name it and download it as a jpeg file, ready to use later – or publish straight to social media.

3 To compress your images, another useful free site is Tinypng which lets you automatically do this, without reducing quality. The reason this matters is, when people visit your website they may be using a phone or other mobile device and you want to make sure that everything loads quickly and doesn’t eat up their data!

4 Looking for a ready made photo? It can be hard to tell if images you see online are copyright free, so I like Pexels which makes it crystal clear. I always credit the creator, of course.

5 When you’re naming an image file it’s good to think about searching and accessibility. It might seem odd to use a long name but is helpful for anyone visually impaired, and also for behind-the-scenes search engines that will identify authentic images. The image file below is labelled ‘I’m Not a Mouse picture book image’ and was created for promoting a review. Job done!

Top image credit: Andre Furtado at

All in the balance

I was inspired recently by a talk at the online Bookseller Children’s Conference, where the founders of small, independent publishing company Magic Cat discussed how they have navigated 2020 with all the unexpected challenges it has brought.

As part of their response strategy to extraordinary times, Magic Cat owners Rachel Williams and Jenny Broom put together a ‘balance board’ showing the things they could not control, such as bookshops closing their doors and the impossibility of international travel; and those that they could control, such as the quality of books produced by the company and creating a refreshed, thoughtful, business-savvy digital presence. What can writers learn from this, during the pandemic and beyond?

You’ve got the power

It’s useful to start by thinking about our own power – and remembering that we have some! For all the things we can’t control (how an agent or editor responds to our work, whether people will buy our books, what reviews may be like) there’s something in counterbalance that we do have the power to curate or develop – or even ditch, if it’s no longer serving us. We can, for example, create a new daily routine that prioritises a restorative walk; schedule time to update our book listings for PLR to help boost income; or take a break from social media to help preserve precious writing time.

“Wobbles and muddles
help us adapt, learn and grow”

A better balance

A second useful strand is balance – a concept that’s rarely held up to the light and acknowledged as the incredibly difficult thing that it is for humans to achieve, either physically, emotionally or on a practical level.

We learn the basics as toddlers, falling often, seeking comfort, trying again and eventually (if we are lucky) becoming proficient at standing, walking, jumping, hopping, skipping and running; and perhaps later on cycling, dancing or skating.

Learning and growing

As adults we amass an amazing range of ‘balance skills’ across all areas of our lives but, when something’s askew, it is all too easy to heap criticism on ourselves. But without wobbles and muddles we would never adapt, learn and grow. We’d stay static, afraid – and how then can creativity flourish?

If you’re in a jotting mood, write down how you’ve shaped your writing life as external circumstances and your own obligations and aims have changed; how you’ve identified competing forces, reviewed priorities and adjusted routines. You may be better at balance than you think.

Image credit: Nicollazzi Xiong at

Season of mists and manuscripts

People often talk about writer’s block, but sometimes a rough patch along the creative journey feels like facing a nebulous invisible barrier, mysterious as autumn mist. This often strikes writers who’ve embarked on a novel – typically 100,000 words – or a Young Adult or Middle Grade work, which may be up to 60,000 words.

Tackling a project of this scale, even if you’ve done so before, is an immense task on many levels – emotional, practical, creative. Even in a ‘normal’ year without all the anxiety and uncertainty arising from the pandemic, a writer may face a ‘misty patch’ that gets in the way of finishing that all-important first full draft. Often, it seems to arise around 35,000 to 40,000 words in – a huge investment for any writer, but perhaps only a third to half way through the eventual book.

“If you’re stuck in the middle, try writing the ending next.”

Here are three tips to help you find your way through the mist:

1.Write in patchwork form

There’s no law that says you must start at the beginning and write in linear fashion until you reach the end. Pick a chapter further along in the narrative – or maybe the very last scene – and write for enjoyment without worrying about where it is leading. You can stitch it all together later. If you’ve written a synopsis or treatment for the project, you’ll know exactly where each scene goes. If not, you have the joy of finding out!

2. Write the hardest scene

Sometimes there can be a fear of a particular step in the story that is acting as a brake. Author Louise Tondeur recommends writing the hardest chapter. What would help you tackle it? Imagine how you’ll feel once it’s written. Relieved? Happy? Encouraged? Possibly all three. Mapping out a rough but robust summary of the chapter before starting to write can also help, Lou says.

3. Give yourself permission

Novelist Laura Wilkinson describes an early, complete manuscript as a ‘dirty first draft’ whilst acknowledging how important it is to write the whole story, rather than polishing early chapters or sections (or, as it’s otherwise known, procrastinating!). Getting the whole story down is vital, since without this the process of editing and refining cannot begin. Sometimes the thing we need most is to give ourselves permission to ‘just write’, without the pressure of perfectionism.

“Look on your writing project as a glorious patchwork.”

If your manuscript seems lost in the mist, think about the extra clarity that comes once the weather clears, try a few practical techniques – and award yourself an autumn-themed treat once you’re back in your stride. A nutmeg-scented candle, a morning off to kick about in the leaves, or a socially distanced coffee with a like-minded friend looking over water, drinking in the ebbs, flows and sparkle and the bright clear light.

Good for the soul, and for the work in progress.

Guest writer: J Ayoola

Jokae Ayoola debut author with her picture book How We Love Our Hair

I’m delighted to welcome debut author J Ayoola to my blog as she launches her picture book How We Love Our Hair. Designed to inspire girls to enjoy and care for their afro hair, this fun, character-filled book with illustrations by designer Pelumi I is full of practical tips. Welcome to this little corner of the #WritersCafe!

What inspired your project?

The inspiration came from my personal experience with afro hair and the experiences of women around me. Often the struggle of not knowing how to care for afro-textured hair has created frustration for many with my hair type. So, I decided I wanted to write a book to educate little girls from a young age about afro hair care so they wouldn’t have to experience the same challenges. It is also a book for parents who have not yet got to grips with the fundamentals when it comes to healthy hair care practices.

What was your biggest challenge?

My biggest challenge was staying motivated. I have had some difficulties with health which have caused setbacks, but I soon realised that this project was just what I needed to take my mind off it all and keep going.

What’s your favourite aspect of the book?

That each character has their chapter with an educational theme running through it.

What have you learned along the way?

Perfectionism is good but can slow you down so at some point you have to let go and realise there will always be room for growth.

Top tips for debut writers?

  1. Build your audience, whether it’s creating posts or reposting posts for an audience on social media. Ask yourself, where do they hang out online? Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or all three? Then join them and be a part of the fun, engage and build a mini-community. You will need their support when you launch.
  2. Seek out other self-publishers and find out what challenges they have and what tips and advice they can give you. Social media is an excellent place for this.
  3. Don’t forget to document or write down the steps you take along the way; this will make it easier for when you do future books. The same with expenses, keep a log and try to stick to a budget.

Order your copy

Having worked with Jokae as a Cornerstones mentor, I am delighted to see her project in print. How We Love Our Hair is available to order online. You can also follow her on Facebook and Instagram.

The writing season


As the season changes from summer to autumn, cloud by cloud and leaf by leaf, it’s a natural time to pause, reflect and savour that instinct to settle into a different rhythm. We can relish the freshness of a breeze after summer’s humidity, enjoy the earthy colours emerging around us – and, in terms of our creative life, take a long, deep breath.

“The changing season brings a new phase
of creative possibility.”

In our agricultural past, people and communities were deeply and inescapably connected to the ebbs and flows of the seasons. Fallow periods contrasted with high-energy phases, in line with the need to plough the ground ready to plant seeds, care for newborn lambs or bring in the harvest, as nature dictated. The year’s rhythms, and its lulls, were as familiar and foundational as our own breath, in and out. Of course, dependency on the seasons and the weather brought great uncertainty and, at times, suffering. But that connected way of life also offered an upside: regular (guilt-free) and sometimes lengthy ‘in between times’ that provided the opportunity to rest and recharge.

“The chance to pause can be both precious
and surprisingly productive.”

In today’s world those natural patterns have, for many of us, all but disappeared. For all the comforts and advantages of modern life it can feel as if we’re on duty 24/7. The space to reflect, allow ideas to settle and rest our busy brains can be hard to find. Yet for writers, the chance to pause for a while can be both precious and surprisingly productive. Gaps between paragraphs give greater clarity to the whole page, after all.

Top tips 

As the blackberries ripen and the acorns drop, here are three tips for taking advantage of the seasonal cusp:

  1. Do less. For a week, a day or (depending on your commitments) even an hour. Don’t be busy, just be.
  2. Breathe deeply. Savour the scents and the changing temperatures around you. They offer a gentle but unmistakeable gateway to the new season, a new phase of possibility.
  3. Play. Kick up leaves, search for conkers, jump in puddles. Play is a powerful driver for creativity… who knows how it might impact your work in progress?





Running for writers

Running shoes on a pavment for running for writers blog

Walking is well known as a valuable part of many writers’ routine, offering a calming balance to the often intense nature of writing, along with fresh air, physical movement and space – but what about running?

For some, it’s impossible due to health issues or practical factors. But for those lucky enough to be able to make running part of their week it can be a revelation as I found when, with encouragement from my daughter, I embarked on the ‘couch to 5k’ programme.

I’m not naturally sporty but it was being made to take part in cross country running at school, without training or preparation, that really put me off. I can still recall the dread I felt when faced with that hill…

So perhaps it is no surprise that, as an adult, I’d frequently say words to the effect, ‘I can cycle, I can do yoga, but I’m not a runner’. I believed that running was not something I could ever do, still less enjoy. But I was wrong.

“Build stamina and assemble support – every
writer needs a bit of both!”

So what changed? It is all to do with the coaching aspect of the couch to 5k programme, which encourages you to build your stamina steadily, week by week; recognise your achievements; look towards the horizon; and, importantly, train your mind as much as your body. The message that comes through is, ‘keep going to the end: you can do this’.

You can choose your coach – I chose Olympic sprinter Michael Johnson. There’s practical advice about fluid intake and running technique, too, so new runners can build their knowledge and ‘skills toolkit’.

While the programme is designed to build over nine weeks, there’s no pressure for it to be linear. Tired one week? Go back to an earlier, easier run. There’s no rush, and there’s everything to gain by listening to your needs.

The parallels to the writer’s life are easy to see. Whatever the ultimate goal may be, writers usually face rejection(s), periods of writer’s block, setbacks and lulls in confidence. Self-belief can be a particular issue. A novel may take years to write, and dozens of drafts before it’s ready to be sent out into the world. So, just like athletes, writers need stamina, resilience – and support.

“Your support system will be unique,
just as your writing is.

As a mentor and editor, I value the opportunity to offer encouragement as well as ‘nuts and bolts’ feedback on a work-in-progress. As a writer, I have found my own support system – a combination of wise, supportive writer friends, skilled and enthusiastic beta readers, who are also published authors, through the wonderful New Writing South and the very best non-writer friends who shore me up and celebrate with me in equal measure. I find that being part of the #WritingCommunity on Twitter is beneficial, too.

Now, as a runner as well as a writer (see what’s changed?) I am acquiring ‘stamina habits’ that boost my confidence as well as my fitness. And that feels like a really positive step.

My pavement playlist

I’m aiming for stamina rather than speed, so I listen to Jack Savoretti, The Feeling and Tom Odell. Your playlist might be very different…