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favourite moments from the Harry Potter Studio Tour

harry-potter-entranceLast week we went on the Harry Potter Studio Tour. It was an amazing experience! We left our youngest son (aged three) with my parents and took our two older boys (aged seven and nine) down to Watford – a fair old drive from Northumberland – staying two nights in a Premier Inn so that we could spend a whole day at the studios. It was well worth it. We arrived at 10.30 in the morning and didn’t leave ’till 4pm. We could have stayed longer – there was certainly more than enough to keep us interested – but we kind of ran out of steam in the end. It was a very busy day and I reached saturation point with input!

Favourite moments

There’s so much (too much!) I could tell you about the experience but, in the interests of brevity, I thought I’d just share my highlights. Maybe I can whet your appetite and persuade you to go along and experience it yourself!

The Great Hall

There’s a particularly exciting way that this set piece is introduced, which for me made it one of the highlights. It’s also right at the start of the tour so you’re all, “Eeek, We’re actually here! It’s like being in a film! Look at that fireplace! OMG did Alan Rickman really wear that costume*?! It’s the Griffindor dining table! CAN I EAT THAT CAKE?!!”** ‘etc. etc. (Well, I was – you may be calmer). My phone was packed with photos before we even left the hall.the-great-hall

*Yes he really did.

**No you can’t – it’s plastic.

Dumbledore’s Office

I’m not even sure what was so exciting about this set piece except that OH YES I DO – IT’S DUMBLEDORE’S OFFICE! Perhaps it’s just because I liked this room in the film, and perhaps it’s because you can actually go into part of it (you look at other sets from the outside) but for me it was magical.dumbledores-office
I also loved the potions lab (it even had spoons that ‘magically’ turned in cauldrons), The Burrow where the Weasely family lived (complete with knitting that knits itself, knives that chop and irons that iron – and all responsive to your waving hand. Fun.) and the Griffindor common room and bedroom. Oh and the Ministry of Magic… and all the other set pieces really because they are the actual sets from the actual films and Julie Walters and Jason Isaacs and Maggie Smith and Gary Oldman etc. were actually in them. See that stool? ALAN RICKMAN SAT ON IT! OH YES HE DID!

harry-potter-sets
L – R from the top: Potions lab, The Burrow, Griffindor Common Room, Griffindor boys bedroom, Professor Umbridge’s Office, The Hogwarts clock.

The Hogwarts Express!

I’m not usually excited by trains but I made an exception for this one. The photo below is of the actual train that was used for external shots in the film. You can go inside it too, where each carriage has been ‘dressed’ to represent a different year at Hogwarts. There’s also the opportunity to sit in a different, open-sided train carriage (the one used for filming internal shots) which jiggles around and has images flashing by the windows. You can do a bit of acting – “There’s a dementor at the window – look terrified!”– and have your photos taken in it which is pretty fun too. Oh, and you can pretend to push a trolley through platform 9 3/4 of coursehogwarts-express

The Creature Workshop.

This was just so cool. I saw John Cleese’s fake, ‘Nearly-headless Nick’ head, Fawkes the Phoenix (I always loved Fawkes), Buckbeak the hippogriff and a tiny shrivelled Voldemort that my husband swears looks like he feels first thing in the morning. Also thestrels, Aragog the giant spider and life sized models of cast members. All awesome.creature-workshop

Diagon Alley

I loved this street, it was so cool to see all the shops – I wanted to rush into Ollivanders for a wand or Flourish & Blotts for a book. And I REALLY wanted to go into Weasleys Wizzarding Wheezes for some tricks! Unfortunately you can’t actually enter any of the shops but still, being on the street is pretty exciting!diagon-alley

Cardboard versions of the sets

These were just gorgeous – perfect miniature replicas of the sets in white cardboard. Or perhaps ‘replicas’ is the wrong word since they were made before the actual sets. They are little works of art in their own right and really made me realise the artistry that goes into set design. I wish I could have taken better photos but the models were, understandably, all behind glass (and the glass had got rather finger-printy by later in the day!).

hogwarts-card-model

The Huge Hogwarts Model

This was, without a doubt, my favourite moment of the tour and it came right at the very end. I walked round the corner and literally gasped when I saw it. It’s a 1:24 scale model of the entire Hogwarts estate and is both miniature yet huge (50 feet in diameter!). The model was used to film the aerial shots of Hogwarts so it’s totally realistic. Close-up shots were filmed not only on set, but also on location in various parts of the UK, and when you look at the model you can see that it was designed with these locations in mind. For example, some was filmed in Durham and you can see a section of the model that’s like Durham cathedral. It’s intricate and clever and just plain old stunning. It takes up a whole room and they change the lighting over it so sometimes it’s day light and other times night time. All the windows are lit so it’s like the most gigantic, beautiful, twinkling Christmas decoration ever. If I’m completely honest, I felt a bit emotional looking at it.hogwartsYou can probably tell that we had a brilliant day. My nine-year-old who is a massive Harry Potter fan was enraptured all the way round, and he was so excited to see all the places Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint had been – I’ve probably shown my age with my choice of actors to be thrilled about! (but c’mon – Alan Rickman!).

Bottom line – we all loved it and we loved it all!

 

Book review: The Forgotten and the Fantastical 2

the forgotten and the fantastical 2Remember how you felt as a child, snuggled up under the covers while someone read you fairy tales… lights down low, voices hushed, an air of both the mysterious and familiar surrounding you? Magical wasn’t it? Well, this book of fairy tales for adults allows you to relive some of those feelings right now, with dark forests, evil queens, witches, beasts and fairies all dancing through its pages.

But not in a twee way, oh no! All the stories in this collection offer something a bit different. Some are twists on well know tales – Rumplestiltskin in a modern metropolis (where an iPhone 4 is offered in exchange for the man’s magical skills!), a sleeping beauty who survives major European war, and a Hansel who grows up scarred by his childhood capture – all familiar, yet new.

Other stories take a fairy tale theme and make it their own, so Icarus takes an inaugural flight from a prisoner of war camp in one memorable tale, while a fairy is rescued from certain freezing death in – of all places – Elephant and Castle, in another. And there are The Northern Lights (real-live magic I’ve always thought, despite the scientific explanation), seasons that alter with the life and death of characters, and forests that thrive with their inhabitants and thrum with the beat of elemental passion.

And of course there are mirrors – there are magic mirrors in any fairy tale anthology aren’t there? The ones in this book take on all sorts of powers though, from the classic, evil ‘mirror, mirror on the wall’, to those which show us possible futures and those which help establish female identity in a patriarchal society (mirrors are nothing if not symbolic after all).

As I’d expect from Mother’s Milk Books, motherhood, femininity and empathy also run throughout many of the stories, and breastfeeding makes a number of appearances in a natural way that, for me, adds a gentle realism to the tales. Not that women have the monopoly on love and nurture – one story bursting with love (‘The Worm’ by Sarah Hindmarsh) has a horrible, devouring beast with a soft, devotional side and a master with a true sense of loyalty and love… the ending brought tears to my eyes!

The anthology has seventeen stories which vary in style. Some I enjoyed more than others, and of course I had my favourites. I hope I’ve given you a flavour of some of these but just to highlight some particular standouts – I enjoyed the sci-fi edge to Marija Smitts’ ‘Little Lost Soul’ –the writing drew me in from the very first line and I loved its contemplation of what it is to be human. I also thought ‘Hansel’s Trouble’ by Lindsey Watkins was wonderful – really tightly written and with such an interesting premise – I mean, what child loses its mother to illness, gets abandoned in a wood by its father, is captured by an evil witch, narrowly escapes the cooking pot and then lives ‘happily ever after’? Surely such life events would cause psychological scarring? Well, quite – the author was on to that!

My absolute, overall favourite though was ‘Seal Woman’ by Rachel Rivett. This was a very short tale that had a lovely, lilting poetic feel to it. Told in the first person, the emotion built throughout the story towards a standout last line that gave me goosebumps. Delicious.

So there you have it – an anthology well worth reading. I really enjoyed it and was pulled into the stories, even as I sat in the sunshine sipping a beer, about as far from being a princess lost in a dark forest as I could be!

And do you know what? I’m not even particularly into fairy tales or magic or anything like that, so if you’re not either, don’t let that put you off giving this book a try. You’ll be off into the magical forest of imagination before you know it – and what better place is there to explore?

***

The Forgotten and the Fantastical 2 is edited by Teika Bellamy and published by Mother’s Milk Books. It is available to buy here. I was sent a free copy in exchange for an honest review.

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Book Review: The Pursuit of Happiness (and why it’s making us anxious) – Ruth Whippman

the pursuit of happiness cover

“As your average cynical Brit, when Ruth Whippman moves to California, it seems to her that the American obsession with finding happiness is driving everyone crazy.

But soon she gets sucked in. The meditates and tries ‘mindful dishwashing’. She attends a self-help course that promises total transformation (and learns that all her problems are her own fault). She visits a strange Nevada happiness dystopia (with one of the highest suicide rates in America), delves deeper into the darker truths behind the influential ‘science of happiness’, and even ventures to Utah, where she learns God’s personal secret to eternal bliss…”

 

Oh, this was such an interesting book! I felt this way as I was reading it and, since then, the variety and strength of opinion I’ve seen in other reviews has only confirmed my belief. It seems it’s not really one of those ‘meh – it was alright books': some people have really taken exception to its tone while others have loved it, and even those who have disliked elements have still said it’s fascinating in places. It just is.

Personally, I loved the style, the authors observations and her description of her experiences and discoveries. Her dry, British take on things had me chuckling, often.

At the start of the book, Whippman has recently moved to America with her husband and two-year-old son. I’ve not been through such a huge geographical shift myself, but I could still relate to her struggles to find her feet (and happiness) as a mother amidst the advice and conflicting parenting styles of those around her. Parenting can feel like a strange new world wherever you are. Admittedly, I did find myself thinking “Really? is this truly what it’s like in America?!” at times and according to other reviews, I think she’s possibly describing the extreme. I also found her views on attachment parenting a bit off-putting… but a bit of disagreement isn’t necessarily a bad thing – everyone sees the world through their own lens and being aware of where my views differed from the author’s made me contemplate her experiences more than I otherwise would have done, I think.

And those experiences are well worth the extra contemplation – the book details what is basically her voyage of discovery into what makes us happy (and what doesn’t), with the (chunky) chapters exploring the different areas she looks into.

I found the section on self-help courses quite worrying: there is so much money to be made in this particular industry and the ethics, in places, are massively dubious. There’s one scene in which a sobbing audience member in a seminar has her traumatic childhood experience labelled as ‘NEVER HAPPENED’, on the basis that many of our experiences are altered by our own perception of them. While I agree that some of our history is open to interpretation, and I’m all for taking responsibility where responsibility is due, the idea that horrible life events are all down to how we see things is horrendously victim-blaming. It made my skin crawl.

The chapter on positive psychology lead me down similar paths. I understand the desire to believe that our happiness is something entirely under our own control – that if we just have the right mindset anything can be achieved. A belief like that can be empowering and there’s a lot to be said for positivity. But you can’t overlook the hardships that life throws some people, and the idea that it’s somehow just a matter of how you perceive things seems to dismiss the genuine problems people have, and puts the onus on them to ‘get over it’ rather than on us as a community to support those who need it. How the positive psychology movement (another area where there’s plenty of money to be made… ) backs up its claims also troubles me. Whippman follows the ‘scientific evidence’, does her own research and discovers a pattern of deceit I found genuinely shocking.

the pursuit of happiness

Happiness for me: reading while my son whittles a stick.

But it wasn’t all self-help exposés – the book looks at many different methods of achieving happiness and notes that religious people in the US are generally happier than non religious people, with Mormons topping the (self-attributed) happiness charts. This fact sends the author on a weekend stay with a Mormon family where she learns about their community and beliefs. I found this section enlightening and thought Whippman explored the positives and negatives well, with interviews that were both eye-opening and touching. The important role that a supportive community can play in individual happiness came through clearly in this area and made a lot of sense to me, as did the fact that talking about difficulties rather than suppressing them is vital.

As luck would have it, I was on a blogging break when I read the chapter on social media. If you’ve read my post about my week you’ll be able to understand how the author’s observations about how social media can undermine happiness really resonated with me. As a blogger and (usually… ) avid FaceBook and Twitter user, it definitely gave me cause to reflect.

Overall, I thought the message that came through the book was that – despite the focus on the idea that ‘happiness comes from within’ (which seems to form a fundamental tenet of the happiness industry) – happiness is really found in our interactions with other people. Inner resilience is important too of course, but if we can create and nurture good relationships with family and friends it will go a long way to making us happier people. Similarly, the path to a happier society is through acting as a supportive community. (I’m desperately trying not to put politics into this but goddammit David Cameron, you are getting it so wrong.)

I know this isn’t a brief review but I could have written even more! I just urge you to read the book – whether you agree or disagree with everything Whippman writes, it’ll make you think. Can’t say fairer than that.

*I was sent this book to review as part of the BritMums book club. All opinions are my own.*

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Book review: Runaway Girl by Emily Organ

Runaway-Girl-cover“London, 1352. A girl is missing and someone doesn’t want her found.

After the death of her family, Alice has chosen a quiet life of seclusion in a monastery. But she is hit by a personal tragedy which forces her to confront the dangers of medieval London.

When her 14 year old friend, Constance, vanishes, Alice’s life is turned upside down. Is Constance’s disappearance linked to a dead girl pulled from the Thames? And another girl is on the run – but who is she running from?

Alice’s desperate search stirs up something sinister and soon her own life is in danger. Powerful forces are at work to ensure the truth will never be uncovered.”

Having enjoyed Emily’s first two books, The Last Day and The Outsider, I jumped at the chance to read and review an advanced copy of her latest novel, Runaway Girl. And I’m glad I did. This was a gripping read – part mystery, part adventure, part historical novel and with more than a whiff of romance too!

The central premise of the story – that of missing and runaway girls – was a compelling one which had me rooting for the characters against the horribly patriarchal society in which they lived. I rarely read historical novels (I’m more of a modern day, psychological thriller kind of girl) so I was initially unsure how I’d feel about a book where no one could so much as pick up a phone let alone be constantly socially-connected the way most of us are these days.

However, the two central female protagonists, despite being firmly rooted in their medieval setting, had a modern enough flavour for me to identify with them. Indeed, the fact that Alice can’t set up a FB page or #FindConstance hashtag for her missing friend but has to rely almost entirely on her own instincts and abilities out on the filthy, dangerous London streets, only upped the ante for me. In a society where ‘covering things up’ and putting the blame on women was widespread, who couldn’t root for these strong female characters who had so much to fight against?

Especially – and I’m giving him his own paragraph here to emphasise his monstrousness – the hideous Sir Walter! I do love a novel with a villain to truly loathe and this character was certainly one of those. I can’t over-emphasise how much I yearned for him to get his comeuppance and I also can’t give away whether I got what I hoped for!

Although it works as a standalone novel, Runaway Girl is the first in a trilogy and I can’t wait to find out what happens next for Alice. Her story is clearly not over yet!

Runaway Girl is OUT NOW .

To read my mini reviews of Emily’s previous novels along with an interview please click here.

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grandma’s poetry – an interview with Di Castle

As a writer hoping to have my own books published one day, I’m always interested to hear from published authors – there is so much I can learn! So, when I was recently contacted by Di Castle asking if I would like to review her ‘Grandma’s Poetry Book’, I said I’d be happy to (there was a free book in it for me, after all… ) and asked if I could interview her too.

I’m pleased to say Di’s answer was yes! The interview is below (and Di was very generous with her responses so it’s well worth a read) but first, here’s a bit about the book:

grandma's poetry book

Grandma’s poetry book is a collection of poems by Di Castle about her experience of being a grandmother. Each poem is individually illustrated by Denise Horn.

As Di has been been a grandmother for fifteen years and writing since before the birth of her first grandchild, the poems cover a huge range of milestones, from the first pregnancy announcement, through births, toddler troubles, school days and on to the teenage years.

The poems have a light touch but capture a whole range of experiences and moods. They’re often humorous but also moving and they feel very honest and real. They are all in rhyming verse so if you’re after a more serious, heavy-weight sort of poetry this might not be the book for you, but personally I found Di’s style very readable and enjoyable.

The book itself feels like a quality product and Denise Horn’s illustrations blend perfectly with the poems. I enjoyed dipping in and out and it was often the pictures that drew me to read a particular poem, which I think is a sure sign of a successful collaboration.

The poems have brought both a smile to my face and, at times a tear to my eye. There is a deep current of love that runs through the whole book and having read it, even though I am many years from being a grandmother myself, I have a genuine sense of what it might feel like. I can imagine it would make a great present for any grandmother!

***

Hi Di, thanks for sending me a copy of your book (I hope you like my review!) and for agreeing to this interview.

The book contains poems about your – many and varied – experiences of being a grandmother. How long did it take you to write them? Did some flow out of your pen more easily than others?

It took 16 years from start to finish. I began writing them before my first grandchild was born – in fact when my friend became a grandmother. My own first granddaughter was born in 2000. I wrote thoughts and rhyming couplets in my notebook which I later developed and eventually realised I had enough for a book. 

Some poems were easier than others. Some had been in competitions so were fairly well honed. Some were done at the last minute to make sure all my grandchildren were included. I struggled with one or two of them but the mothers helped me with ideas. It is true though that some poems seem to write themselves while others have to be crafted.

What is your editing process? Did it vary with each poem?

They all start off in my writers’ notebooks and then after some alterations and additions I put them on the computer, print them out and then carry them around with me when I am travelling e.g to grandchildren by train. I read and reread, scribble over them and put them away. They evolve really and I return to them over and over to re-read, read aloud and polish them.

What made you decide to compile your poems into an anthology?

I really wanted to publish my memoir of growing up with a deaf sister but have run into various difficulties getting agents (although I do have a few interested now). I was impatient then to get into print and realised I had sufficient material in my poems to publish a book. Also I wanted to get them published for my grandchildren as a gift from me. They love them. I am now keen to get my memoir published for them as well but editing and revising takes so much time. Grandma filled the gap really.

Your book contains lovely illustrations that blend well with your poetry – how did you go about finding an illustrator?

I tried a few local artists but some declined as they felt their type of art would not do the poetry credit. Eventually someone recommended Denise Horn. She asked to see my poems then replied by return not to let anyone else do it as she wanted to do it. Right from the start I felt she captured the essence of each poem. The rest is history. She is my greatest fan and I am hers. We now have a fantastic friendship.

Why did you decide to self-publish (rather than go down a traditional route)?

It is very difficult to get an agent or a publisher for poetry. You have to be Carol Ann Duffy or dead! No-one wants your poetry if you are not already well known. It is a chicken and egg situation really. You have to be published before anyone looks at you and no-one looks at you until you are. I felt at my age I could not wait, and heard of other writers who had self published and then had been picked up by a mainstream publisher. That is still my dream! Also, I soon discovered that if I did find a mainstream publisher they may not take Denise as the illustrator but would get their own and I wanted Denise to do it. 

What has your experience of self-publishing been? Do you have any tips or recommendations?

I cannot speak highly enough of Matador. Their staff loved my work from the time I handed over some sheets of poems and some illustrations at the Winchester Writers’ Conference in 2013. I had visited other self-publishing stands and they wanted me to go through hoops e.g produce a PDF of the poems. What? And to get the illustrations professionally scanned. I had already paid Denise and that route would have been too expensive. I was not overly impressed with the quality of the books produced by other self-publishing companies and have been absolutely delighted with the quality of Grandma’s Poetry Book. I see people pick it up and they are immediately taken with it.

The process was so smooth with Matador. Every email is answered within 24 hours and they are so helpful and treat you as if you are the only author they have!! The personal touch helps. It has cost more money but in the end I had a superior product and I am sure Grandma will be around for many years so it was worth getting the best I could for her!

How long did the publishing process take?

It took about 10 months from start to finish. I began with enquiry emails, asking more questions and more and more until we got to the contract stage. All the time I was polishing the poems, reading them at open mic nights to test the water and getting them the right length. Then I had to write the preface and Denise and I had to write our bios which was new to us. I uploaded the files in early May 2024 but it took until the end of October to get the first delivery of books.

How have you been marketing your book? Has your focus been with online sales or in your local community (or both)?

As far as online or local community, I have done both. I have done a lot of local signings and have talks booked over the next year in the area with WI and over60 groups plus evening talks at a local hotel in the summer season. I have have booked myself into every available local summer fair and other events which are in a good cause further afield – I think it will be a lovely way to spend a day and I have a willing chauffeur!!

I have nurtured a relationship with my local bookshop which has sold about 30 books since Christmas. The book is also in two other Dorset bookshops and I now have a supplier ID for the National Trust. This has taken time with personal visits, follow up emails and using contacts.

I was very green about social media but I have grown my twitter following from 200 to 1500 in six months by contacting mummy bloggers and mums groups, asking for follows, reviews and retweets. I am now one of the 100 authors on the Henpicked site which publishes articles of informative interest to women over 40+. They have 6000 followers and likes on Facebook and are great at retweeting. I have my own website with more information about the book and also have a Writer page on Facebook. Any social media is good.

Has the experience of writing, producing and selling a book been as you imagined?

It has been better than I imagined. I cannot explain how much difference it has made to my life. It has been a life-long dream to be published and I am lucky to be in the generation where the awful term ‘vanity’ publishing has been banished and the ‘indie’ author term has grown. It has allowed me to be involved with local charities, giving free copies for raffles and I have got to know so many people through this venture, so many lovely people. One buyer is reading two poems a night to her mother who has Alzheimers and they talk about when the children were small and it acts as reminiscence therapy. That brought a warm feeling to my heart. I get so much praise in reviews and via email and it is good to know I have made people ‘laugh and cry’ as they say.

Have you got any advice for those of us writing poetry (or anything else for that matter) who are wondering about publishing it?

I would say ‘go for it’ but think about your audience and how you are going to promote it. I think I have a very receptive target market. The illustrations have helped so I would say do try to get an illustrator or do your own. For poetry, self publishing is probably best although there are poetry presses which may take your work. You can look through Writers and Artists’ Yearbook. 

Further, do build up a good network of writers and people who could be your readers. Join a poetry group and read your work aloud. Find an open mic night. Send poems to the local paper. Enter competitions such as those at Winchester Writers’ Festival. Attend Festivals, read other work (especially in the genre you are writing) and listen to what they tell you in writing workshops. 

If you have produced something creative it should be out there being read and if no publisher wants it that does not mean it is not any good. Poetry now forms a large part of the GCSE English Literature and your work may be welcomed in schools with talks and readings. Have faith in your abilities and just get on and do it. But after that, keep writing. Apparently you are more likely to get sales if you have more than one book on Amazon. So write, write, write and don’t give up. And keep the faith!

Thanks Di and good luck with book sales and all your future creative endeavours!

I’m linking this up with The Prompt at Mumturnedmom. This week it is ‘confidence’ and I hope the confidence that allowed Di to publish her work can inspire others to do the same!

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agent hunting

cropped-books.jpgA few weeks ago I announced in a blog post that I intended to start looking for literary agents to submit my picture book manuscript to. As if by magic, I then received an email from Harry at Agent Hunter offering me a free subscription to their website in exchange for an honest review. It seemed like a highly sensible idea, so I said yes and signed up.

Was it a good idea? In a nutshell – yes. Here are my thoughts:

Agent Hunter claims to be “A simple way to find your literary agent or publisher.” and is basically a big, searchable, database of UK agents and publishers.

I used the ‘agent search’ section of the site so this review focuses mainly on that.

When you begin the agent search there are lots of different options for narrowing down your selection, for example by agent likes and dislikes, number of years experience, how many clients they represent and their accessibility (are they on twitter? Do they attend literary festivals etc). All very useful in terms of finding an agent who suits your style of writing and appeals to you.

I found the ‘genre’ option particularly useful – it narrowed down the type of books agents were looking for into three main groups (fiction, non-fiction and children) and then 24 sub-categories within those, so I was able to be really specific and pick only agents who represented picture books. I also liked the ‘client list status’ option which allows you to select either ‘keen to build client list’, ‘open to new clients’ or ‘client list largely complete’ and thus avoid approaching agents who simply aren’t on the look-out for new clients.

Once you’ve created your filtered list (and there are more options that I have space to mention here) you can save it to avoid faffing around again next time you log on. When you go through your agent list there is lots of useful information for each one including:

  • An ‘agency page’ which has biographical information about the agency they work for and lists all the agents who work there alongside submission advice and links to their websites and social media accounts. Of particular use here is the ‘standard response time’ which can vary a fair bit between agencies.
  • An ‘agent page’ which has biographical info about that particular agent and (of particular interest/use) personal information about some agents, such as their literary likes and dislikes and their passions.
  • A question and answer section (on the agent page) which – although not all agents have answered it –  could be very illuminating.
  • An ‘interesting links’ section. I loved this, as following these links could take you to all sorts of different information – agency news, interviews with the agent, articles about their clients success – really anything that gave you a flavour of what this particular agent was about.

All this information gives you a pretty good idea about whether you’d like to submit to an agent and, if you would, you can add them to your shortlist.

A quick look at the ‘publisher search’ part of the site reveals that there are also plenty of useful ways to refine your search in this section too, including ‘type of publisher’ and an ‘accepts un-agented submissions’ option which I can imagine being very useful if you’re thinking of approaching publishers directly.

Sounds good – you might be thinking – only couldn’t I just type ‘literary agents’ into google and come up with the same list? Well sort of, but when you do that (and I’ve tried) you end up with loads of agencies. You then have to search them for different agents and try and work out if the agency, or anyone within it, is looking for your sort of book. It would take much longer.

Also, having had a good trawl through lots of agents sites there was certainly information on Agent Hunter that I couldn’t actually find on the agents websites. Agent Hunter has collected information that can help you to be better informed.

Is it a perfect site? Not entirely (is anything?). I would really have liked to have had ‘location’ as part of the search function. Not everyone lives in London (the site itself acknowledges this) and it would have been nice to search for ‘agents in Northern England’ (even though these are few and far between, it seems!). If this information was even on the initial list of agents details, that would be useful but instead I had to click through to the agency information on each page to find where they were located.

I also found in one instance that an agent with a ‘closed client list’ was on my list of agents ‘keen to build client list’, and I suspect there are always going to be little details like that that sneak through the net. Things change, and I suppose the site can’t be totally up-to-date with everyone all the time!

These are very small gripes though in what is ultimately an incredibly useful website. When approaching agents you really want to be sure that they are a good match for you and I definitely felt better equipped and more confident having used this site. I have a shortlist of agents I’d like to approach and I’m not scared to use it!

I should probably mention the cost, which is £5 for a month’s subscription, £8 for six months or £12 for a year. I got a subscription for free but I can honestly say that, for the amount of time it has saved me and the extra information it contained, I would have been willing to pay. My thanks to Harry for giving me the subscription.

Finally, here’s some useful advice (taken from the Agent Hunter site) for any of us currently looking for an agent.

“Be persistent: agents make decisions about whom to represent for very different, personal and specific reasons. Your manuscript just needs to land on the right agent’s desk at the right time. It’s alchemy, really, magic but unpredictable. Make absolutely sure that the first few pages of the manuscript or sample chapters are impeccable and brilliant. We read thousands of submissions and we make important judgements (and, yes, decisions) on the first few pages, so they need to be very, very good.”

Tim Bates, Pollinger
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gin and ruin: an interview with Aimee Horton

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Ever heard of Dottie Harris? The creation of Aimee Horton, she’s a chaotic, engaging, thirty-something mum, and heroine of three books. Survival of the Ginnest (the first in the series) is an innovative novella entirely in the form of Facebook status updates, Survival of the Christmas Spirit is a short story and Mothers Ruined (the latest addition to the series) is Aimee’s first full length novel.

I read the first two of these earlier this year and as soon as Mothers Ruined came out in May I snapped it up! Dottie is very easy to identify with (reassuringly prone to getting herself into scrapes such as accidentally dyeing her children green!) and the books are enjoyable and funny – highly recommended if you’re looking for a light-hearted read this summer.

Aimee is a member of the lovely community of writer/bloggers that I have found myself a part of since starting my blog ten months ago. I love finding out about other people’s writing processes and, as I am currently working on my first book, I was particularly interested to hear about Aimee’s experience of writing and self-publishing her work. I was very pleased when she agreed to an interview:

Hi Aimee, Mothers Ruined has been out for two months now. How did it feel to publish it and what has your experience since then been?

Publishing Mothers Ruined (or Dottie as I often refer to it!) was terrifying. The two previous books I’ve published were small, I could kid myself that negative feedback was ok, but this time I was terrified. The last month I’ve been floating. Nothing productive has been achieved! I’ve just been twitchy waiting for reviews!

As a mum of three young kids (who likes the odd gin!) I found it very easy to identify with Dottie. How much of your own personality did you put into her?

Ha, I think she’s a nicer more dramatic version of me! I think Dottie came from my attempt to laugh rather than cry at the more trying points of motherhood, and she just developed into her own person.

I’m currently writing a book and keep finding my characters surprise me – did you find that when writing this book? Or as it was your third Dottie book, did you already know all there was to know about her?

I think I know Dottie so well she just flowed, it was the other characters, her husband and her friends (and enemies!) which surprised me! I’m very much keen to develop a story for Jane Dottie’s best friend who has touched me a bit!

How long did it take you to write Mother’s Ruined? Do you write every day?

It took about two months to write the full draft, I started officially at the beginning of February after playing about during January. Then with final edits etc. it was done the day before publishing! AHHH!

I don’t write my stories every day (right now), but I do try and write something,even if it’s an idea for a blog post! When I have a mission I try and write 3 school days a week.

Did you write lots of drafts? What was your editing process?

I often write the first three or four chapters a few times, then just go for it and have one draft, and then HOPEFULLY it’s just a bit of moving around.

I’m lucky to have some lovely people I trust, who put up with me sending words whether it’s on a chapter or a daily word basis – they give me honest feedback, then they help me with editing. Either from a “I would perhaps look at that” or “AIMEE – COMMAS SERIOUSLY?!”

Dottie was really easy to edit and write to be honest, I’m interested to see how this next book comes out with a totally new character.

What made you decide to go down the self-publishing route?

Honestly? Impatience. I wanted it NOW NOW NOW. I know how long it takes to get a traditional deal most of the time, and I’m not very good at waiting. I needed to just publish and move on!

What’s next? Will we be seeing more of Dottie in the future?

I do have more ideas for Dottie, but I want to visit a few other stories first. Dottie has a sequel already lined up, and as I’ve said before I’d love to write about Jane too.

However, right now I’m writing about Lucy and her story so can’t wait to see what happens there!

Sometimes writing a book seems like a massive mountain to climb… and that’s before considering editing, publishing and promoting! Do you have any advice for those of us just starting out?  

Set deadlines and targets first of all. Otherwise you may never do it. Also, grow a thick skin and surround yourself in good, honest people who you trust. Be prepared for people to say “I don’t like that” both in the draft and the final released version. Listening to advice is good, but also go with your gut.

Thanks Aimee! Good luck with your next book and I look forward to reading about Lucy and Jane as well as Dottie in the future.

Aimee is currently running a competition on her blog where if you download and review Mothers Ruined on Amazon then you can win a fab print. Go and check it out!

I’m off to crack on with my writing – having found out that Aimee wrote Dottie in three-and-a-half months I feel I should up the pace on my my novel!

#HarryAugust

cropped-books.jpgEvery so often I read a book that’s so good I want to shout about it from the roof tops, to grasp strangers in the street by the lapels and exhort them to read it, and to phone all my friends and shout: “YOU MUST READ THIS BOOK!” at them ’till they relent.

I’ve just finished such a book and thought that instead of putting myself in slippery house-top peril, or at risk of being arrested, or deafening my friends I would blog about it.

It’s called The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August.

It’s by Claire North.

And it’s amazing. Huge in scope yet beautiful in detail. About the whole of humanity and yet also – at its heart – simply about one human relationship. It’s about hate and love and ambition and sacrifice and…

Well, that’s basically all I’m going to say about it. I could tell you the bare outlines of the story but (apart from the fact you could read that elsewhere) I think this is a book that it’s good to just dive in and read. I could try to suggest that it’s one genre of book or another but actually it’s one of those books that is very hard to categorise. And categories can be misleading: in fact, even with what I’ve just told you, I may have suggested something about it that it’s not.

So, if you’re reading this then go, now, and read something else. Read The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August.

Go on.

books, glorious books

As a child, I loved reading. I could happily spend hours tucked into a big armchair with a book, the sounds of the house fading into the background as I disappeared into another world. My brothers and I also listened to masses of audio books, and I’m pretty sure that our nightly bed time stories went on for far longer than our poor sore-throated parents wanted them to!

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As I got older though, I found myself reading less. Or at least, I read what I was required to for school or university and then didn’t feel much like reading anything else. TV and films gradually took the place of my beloved books. From time to time I would feel sad about that, but mostly it was just how it was. I still thought of myself as ‘a book lover’ but I rarely read for pleasure.

By my late twenties my first son had arrived, followed by his brother two years later. I was running my own business and the resulting racing around and tiredness left me struggling to even finish an article in a magazine some days. Deep down I felt I was missing something, but my ‘book worm’ days felt so far behind me it was hard to recapture them.

Then at the beginning of this year something changed. I was just starting maternity leave with baby-number-three, and – with my sons in school and nursery – my mornings were child-free. I was heavily pregnant so moving around was becoming less and less fun. My childhood memories of hiding in an armchair began calling to me. So I got my hands on an e-reader (and by ‘got my hands on’ I mean ‘swiped from my husband and he’s yet to get it back’), read a few book reviews, found something I fancied and off I went. I finished that book and started another, then another.

The months went by, and I read whenever I could. At all the times that I wasn’t writing (or dealing with kids, or housework… ) I’d grab my Kindle and slip quietly into whatever wonderful fictional reality awaited me. I read in labour (remember how I said mine went on for ages? I had to have something to do!) then I read while feeding the baby.

And now it’s early October and I’ve read nearly fifty books this year. That’s nearly…oooh… forty-nine more books than I read last year! And I’ve loved it. I won’t lie, they haven’t all been serious works of fiction. They weren’t all War and Peace. In fact, NONE of them were War and Peace. There have been many times – staggering around bleary-eyed after being up a gazillion times in the night – when I’ve just wanted something light and cheerful to distract me. But I’ve read some really fantastic books; books that have made me laugh and cry and some that have really made me think.

And as a writer, all of them have had value. They’ve helped me realise what I want to achieve, showing me everything from what I would love (in my wildest dreams) to emulate, to what I’d rather avoid. And sometimes what I’m just plain not interested in.

So I’ve decided I’m going to use this blog – over the coming weeks and months – to write about some of the books I’ve read. In part, as a written reminder for myself about what I learned from them, but largely just to talk about some books that I’ve really loved and to share them with anyone else that is interested. I’ve really got some gems to recommend!