Introducing Pete (and his time-travelling underpants)

I'm really excited to introduce you to the characters of my new book, the first in the 'Pete's Time-travelling Underpants' series. Titled 'Rule Britannia', it sees the hero, Pete Tollywash, transported back to Roman Britain by a dirty, old pair of underpants which his godmother gives him for his thirteenth birthday.  The cast are a motley crew who range from the insane to the downright despicable. Fortunately, there are exceptions, including Julius, a friendly young slaveboy with an incredible secret. Through his hilarious and exciting adventures, Pete learns that Roman Britain was not all it was cracked up to be and, in fact, could be pretty disgusting - think Horrible Histories meets Quantum Leap. So, let's meet the cast.

21st century AD cast

Pete Tollywash

13-year-old schoolboy and resident of Guildford, a large town outside London. Pete is pretty lazy and, when it comes to history, completely clueless. Fortunately
(or should that be unfortunately?) for him he’s about to get a much-needed history lesson. He is convinced that his Auntie Cheryl is just being her usual insane self when she gives him underpants for his birthday. When he finds himself thrown into a disgusting, smelly prison in Roman Britain, he starts to think she may have been right about these ’time-travelling underpants’. 

Auntie Cheryl

Though officially ‘out of her tree’, Pete’s godmother, Cheryl Snarlborough, is also a very respectable History teacher at a local secondary school. Her love of history stems from the fact that she too once time-travelled in the famous underpants. She has now passed the duty on to the next generation, but that doesn’t stop her interfering and getting Pete into lots of trouble. 

Pete’s family 

Pete is hindered along the way by his loving family. His mother, Linda, hasn’t yet quite come to terms with having two teenage sons and his father, Harry, is just generally pretty baffled. The bane of Pete’s life is Jim, his older brother and the star of his school. Pete can’t quite compete with Jim academically (well it’s probably fairer to say he doesn’t even try). The only person who doesn’t cause Pete trouble is his big sister Susie, but that’s mainly because she’s away at university most of the time.

1st century AD cast

Julius

13-year-old slaveboy from East Anglia working for the same master as Pete. Julius is a bright young boy, but for some reason he takes a shine to Pete. So much so, that he lets Pete in on his secret. This propels both of them into an adventure that will put their friendship to the test and bring them up against the evil Noxius Maximus.

Snottius

The chief slave. Snottius looks down on all the other slaves. He claims this is because he is a Gaul (sadly not the good kind, like Asterix) and they are Britons. In actual fact, it’s because he’s a rather unpleasant little toad. Suffice to say, he is not impressed when his master, Probus, comes home from the slave market with Pete in tow.

Noxius Maximus 

The local prefect, that is to say the head of the local government in East Anglia, Noxius lives up to his name. His favourite pastime is torturing the local Britons in his prison. Noxius is a thoroughly nasty piece of work who sells our hero into slavery. But can Pete and Julius stop his evil plans?

 

 

Superbus 

Superbus by name, Superbus by nature (‘superbus’, among other things, means ‘arrogant’ in Latin). The son of Pete's master, Probus,  he is lovingly called ‘snot-for-brains’ by Julius and Pete quickly learns why. What Superbus lacks in intelligence, he more than makes up for in downright unpleasantness. Even so, he does provide plenty of amusement for Pete and Julius who find it just too hard not to play practical jokes on him.
 
You will be able to meet these characters and more in 'Pete's Time-travelling Underpants' - available on Amazon from 22nd June.

 

 

 

 

Why everyone should have a regular writing habit

I recently wrote my first book. It was by turns an uplifting and a disheartening process. On some days my writing seemed to flow like a mountain torrent, on others I simply wanted to jump off a mountain. Going through all of this, the good, the bad and the ugly, taught me one thing: everyone should write. Really? Do I mean everyone? Yes, I do. Not necessarily a book, but everyone should write something meaningful to them on a regular basis.

photo-1455390582262-044cdead277a
Photo credit: Aaron Burden
Like most people, I’ve been writing since my early school days and I take it for granted. Until a few years ago, it was rare that I wrote for any reason except to achieve a task (send an email at work, text a friend to arrange to meet, fill in a mortgage application). Writing for any reason but to get things done would probably have seemed a luxury, something bohemian and, perhaps, a little elitist. But writing a book encouraged me to do even more ‘non-essential’ (which is to say ‘more meaningful') writing and even take up a journal. The benefits I’ve gained from this have convinced me that everyone should write. Here’s why.

Writing helps you work out what you believe

Surely we know what we believe? Why do we need to write it down? Just the act of sitting down to write what you believe will answer this question for you. You will probably write a couple of bold statements (as I did) and then re-read them and think of something else which contradicts or substantially changes what you’ve already written down. In a short time you will have written down, crossed out, added and removed dozens of beliefs. They probably all existed inside of you, but just hadn’t been questioned. Writing them down on paper is the only way I’ve found to marshall these thoughts effectively. You may ask why it’s important to know clearly what you believe. How else will you navigate the difficult decisions of life with any kind of clarity if you don’t?
This isn’t simply a once and done activity. You will need to revisit it, because, if you are writing regularly, you will find that your beliefs are being shaped and modified daily.

Writing clarifies complex situations

Evernote Snapshot 20160518 164951
Just as writing helps us to work out what we believe, it helps us to simplify the complexity of what is going on in our lives and in our heads. Whenever I feel overwhelmed or down I sit down and write. I write down the things swirling around my brain and the feelings they engender.  The simple act of writing gives me a sense of regaining control over these thoughts and feelings. Once they are on a page in front of me, I can identify the important and the unimportant, dismiss the unimportant and start to address the important. Trying to address these thoughts and feelings in my brain just causes clutter and stress. Writing them down gives me the space to work out what to do about them.

Writing regularly fixes memories in your mind

This is perhaps the best reason to write regularly. My memory of recent events has improved dramatically. Writing down the events and feelings of a day force you to re-live them and in so doing this fixes them into your brain much more securely than relying on simple memory. The most effective revision technique I found at school and university was to re-write my notes. It’s taken me many more years to realise the value of this in life more widely.

Writing regularly improves confidence

Photo credit: Green Chameleon
Photo credit: Green Chameleon
This is not a product of writing alone, but of writing and sharing. Writing something and showing it to other people is scary, no matter how many times you do it. You feel you’re putting yourself on the page to be critiqued. However, the more I do this, the more my confidence generally (and not just with writing) grows. If you are taking up a writing habit, I would recommend you keep your writing to yourself as you start out, but at some point you should start to share it with close family and friends who you know will be supportive. Even showing to these people to begin with will be daunting, but the more you do it, the more your confidence will grow. Another wonderful by-product of sharing my writing has been realising the widespread and genuine support I have among the people I know (even with those people I might not have expected it from).
So, what’s holding you back? Or, if you do write regularly, what are your reasons for doing so? Please do leave a comment below to let me know.

Top children’s books with a female lead

What makes a book memorable for you? For me, it is usually an engaging lead character. This is definitely the case for most of the books I remember fondly from my childhood. So, to celebrate the release of my new book, 'Holly Watson and the furry thieves' (which stars a ten-year-old girl), I decided to look at other children’s books with a highly engaging female lead. My choices cover a range of reading abilities from picture books to full-length novels, but they have a couple of things in common: they all have a great female star and are brilliant for boys as well as girls. Read on to find what made my list.

Six of the best children's books with an engaging female lead

1. The Paper Bag Princess - by Robert Munsch

Copyright: Annick Press
Copyright: Annick Press
This is a great picture book for young girls AND boys. It is a fun inversion of the usual fairytale of the princess imprisoned by the dragon. When a dragon destroy's Princess Elizabeth’s castle and kidnaps her fiancé, Prince Ronald, she sets out to rescue him in the only clothing she has left - a paper bag. Our courageous and highly intelligent heroine's adventure teaches her some important lessons about herself and some unpleasant truths about her husband-to-be.

2. Pippi Longstocking - by Astrid Lindgren

Pippi Longstocking is the quirky and mysterious girl who moves in next door to Tommy and Annika. She has a monkey and a horse, but, it would seem, no parents. Having been brought up at sea on her now-missing father’s ship, Pippi lacks an understanding of the conventions of urban life, a trait which makes her all the more endearing. Her wild imagination and complete lack of understanding of 'how she should behave' lead Pippi and her new neighbours into a series of outrageous and comical escapades.

3. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe - by C.S. Lewis

Copyright: Geoffrey Bles
Copyright: Geoffrey Bles
Though she is one of four siblings, Lucy Pevensie is the obvious star of ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’, the first book in the classic 'Narnia' fantasy series. It is Lucy that first enters the world of Narnia through the wardrobe and it is Lucy who then leads her three siblings into this fantastical world.  Finally, it is Lucy’s faith that wins through. For me, she is by far the most likeable of the Pevensie children as she lacks the cynicism of her brothers and demonstrates a huge generosity of spirit and a very strong will.

4. Matilda - by Roald Dahl

'Matilda' is one of the best of Roald Dahl’s books (which is saying something) and a character still loved almost thirty years after her creation. She is a prodigiously intelligent girl who, incredibly, is also very popular with her classmates due to her patient and kind character. However, her obnoxious parents and her terrifying headmistress, Miss Trunchball, fail to see Matilda’s gifts and treat her with the utmost disdain. When her teacher, Miss Honey, attempts and fails to get Matilda’s parents and Miss Trunchball to see our heroine’s gifts, Matilda discovers another gift - an aptitude for revenge.

5. Anne of Green Gables - by L.M. Montgomery

Orphan Anne Shirley is intelligent, imaginative and eager to please. Due to a misunderstanding at her orphanage, she is sent to work on a farm in the wilds of Nova Scotia. The farm’s owners, brother and sister Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert, are expecting a boy to be sent to them, but Anne’s good nature and willingness to help soon dispel their disappointment. Her chattiness and imagination, though, bring her into conflict with Marilla and she also finds her red hair makes her the object of teasing from some of her new classmates. The beauty of this book is that we get to watch Anne grow and we see her flaws as well as her many qualities.

6. Holly Watson and the furry thieves - by Barford Fitzgerald

Copyright: Barford Fitzgerald I cannot finish my list of top children’s books with a female lead without a mention of the heroine of my new book, ten-year-old schoolgirl Holly Watson. Holly is highly intelligent, loyal and perhaps a little too sure of herself.  When her best friend Charlie is accused of stealing a mobile phone in the local park, Holly decides she is the only person who can solve the mystery. Very soon, though, she finds herself in over her head and realises that she cannot do it all alone.

Over to you

So, what are your favourite children's books with an engaging female lead and why? Please let me know by leaving a comment below. My latest book, 'Holly Watson and the furry thieves', is available now on Amazon.

Do we need to gender-label children’s books?

Is your book for boys or girls?

girl-1176165_1920I am currently preparing two children's books for publication and one of the questions I am often asked is "Who are they for?" My answer is that they are for children (aged 7 plus if we have to be more specific, but I'd rather let the reader decide if I'm honest). I am then pressed on this. "Yes, but are they for boys or girls?"
 
This question perplexed me the first time I was asked it. I had never thought in these terms (perhaps very naively as most other things for children - clothes, toys, TV shows - are marketed very clearly for one gender or the other). I wanted to say, "Let the child decide", but of course it's not as simple as that. One of my books stars a ten-year-old girl and the other a thirteen-year-old boy. I imagine, therefore, that the assumption will be made that one is for girls and the other for boys. But is it necessary to label books in this way?

A boy who read books about girls and liked 'My Little Pony'

I certainly did not think in this way about books as a child and I read books with both girls and boys as the lead characters (as well as books with giants, jungle animals and talking mice as lead characters!). I enjoyed 'When Hitler stole pink rabbit' (which even had a pink cover) as much as I did 'Charlie and the chocolate factory' - both very different books anyway even if you ignore the gender of the lead character. My reading experience was much richer for that. I believe it also helped my development of empathy and understanding of other people.
 
my-little-pony-468916_960_720At an even younger age, I didn't even think in terms of gender regarding toys and I owned two 'My Little Pony' figures as a toddler. They were given to me by my late grandmother for Christmas when I was about 18 months old. I am told I had mithered (to use the northern English dialect term which Grandma would no doubt have used) for these bright pink and purple equines and that my mother had suggested to my grandmother (who had no idea what 1980's children might be into) that she might get them for me.
 
They remained a staple in my toy box until about the age of four when I gave them to a girl who lived up the road. I don't know whether I did so because I was being made aware at primary school and by other children that these weren't for me or whether I grew tired of them. But, it is clear that gender labels meant nothing to me at a young age.

'Let Books be Books'

child-316510_960_720I was pleased, therefore to be directed recently by a friend to 'Let Books be Books', a campaign led by the organisation 'Let Toys be Toys'. They believe that marketing books as being for girls or boys is limiting and restrictive. They even state on their website that such "artificial boundaries turn children away from their true preferences, and provide a fertile ground for bullying". They are currently running a petition asking publishers of children's books to stop marketing books in this way and have already had agreement from a few big names, such as Usborne, Scholastic and Ladybird.
 
Yet many people would argue that it is simply a case of helping parents, carers, relatives, etc. find appropriate books for children. Some may even argue that in helping adults and children to find new books it encourages reading. While I do sympathise with that argument, I do agree with the 'Let Books be Books' campaign that such labels can narrow children's horizons. This in turn could discourage children's imaginations and restrict their learning. Instead, we should think about what books to give to children based on their interests and reading level.

Over to you

So what do you think about the marketing of children's books by gender? Is it harmful and restrictive or is it a helpful way to help adults and children find new books and encourage reading? Do let me know in the comments section below.
 
My first book for children, 'Holly Watson and the furry thieves' (which stars a girl in case you were wondering), will be available to buy from Wednesday 11th May. Sign up to my mailing list to be among the first to hear about its release.

Introducing Holly Watson (and friends)

Holly-Watson-and-the-furry-thieves-3D-BookCover-transparent_backgroundWith the upcoming release of my new book ‘Holly Watson and the furry thieves’, I thought I’d better introduce you to some of the characters you’ll shortly meet. It seems like I’ve known them for a long time, but you will, of course, have no idea who they are. I’m very excited to be sharing them with you.

The premise

As you may have guessed, the star of the show is a 10-year-old girl called Holly Watson. The book centres around her attempts to prove her best friend’s innocence when he is accused of stealing a mobile phone in the local park and her investigation to find the real culprit. She cannot do it all alone and is surrounded by a supporting cast of friends and family. But not everyone wishes to see Holly succeed.

The origin of the story

Kelsey Park in the snow
Kelsey Park in the snow
I was inspired to write this book while watching the outrageous behaviour of the incredibly bold squirrels in my own local park, Kelsey Park in Beckenham, South London. If you do plan to go down to Kelsey Park, do just watch out for the squirrels. They have no fear of human beings and think nothing of intimidating grown men and women (or at least the more timid grown-ups like me) into handing over whatever edible items they might have on them.
Anyway, Kelsey Park, in fictionalised form, is the setting for this first book in the appropriately named ‘Kelsey Park Detective Agency’ series. So, who are the main characters?

The main characters

Holly Watson

imageedit_3_7509140796Holly is a highly confident, curious and intelligent girl who likes to play the detective. She is sometimes a bit too gung-ho in her enthusiasm to help others and this often gets her into scrapes. Holly is fiercely loyal and is a very good friend. She is the goalkeeper of her school’s football team, a dab hand at puzzles and she hates bullies.

Charlie Dunn

thumb_imageedit_4_6876444064_1024Charlie Dunn is the polar opposite of Holly. He is a rather plump, shy and unpopular ten-year-old boy who doesn’t have a sporting bone in his body. In spite of this , or perhaps because of it, he is Holly’s best friend. Like Holly, he is a faithful friend and kind, but in the first book he finds himself the number one suspect in a local crime.

Raluca Ionesco

thumb_imageedit_5_5322092078_1024Raluca is the calm, contemplative balance to Holly’s gung-ho attitude. She joins Holly’s school mid-way through the first term of year 6, having moved to South London with her family from Birmingham. She is very proud of her Romanian heritage, but very quickly adapts to South London life.

The Watson family

Holly is the eldest of the Watson family’s three daughters. Her two sisters are Sarah, a rather surly seven-year-old who is far too ‘cool for school’, and three-year-old Daisy, who is as mad as a hatter. Sarah is jealous of her big sister (though she wouldn’t admit it) and the relationship she has with their dad. Daisy is too busy in her own little world to notice either of her sisters. Holly’s parents, Debbie and Paul, adore their three daughters, but even they will not believe Holly when she protests poor Charlie’s innocence. We cannot forget the Watson’s very fat and very lazy cat, Duchess, who, despite the unpromising outward appearance, has a surprise or two up her sleeve.

Over to you

Which of these characters do you like the sound of most? Let me know in the comments below. You will be able to meet them all very shortly in ‘Holly Watson and the furry thieves’, out soon. To be the first to find out about the book’s release, sign up to my mailing list. You can also find me on Facebook.

Six tips for keeping productive as a creative

Keeping productive: the constant battle

It may come as a shock to the thousands who dream of freedom from the tyranny of working for someone else that being only accountable to yourself is often even harder. It definitely is for me. The one thing I’ve struggled with particularly in my move into 'indie authorship' is staying productive. Who knows (unless I tell them) that I watched South Park rather than writing those 1,000 words I meant to write? What concern is it of anyone but me if I spent the time I meant to use to update my author Facebook page clicking on links to funny animal videos instead? You would think that being accountable to yourself should of itself mean you are more intrinsically motivated and likely to achieve your goals. After all, surely you don't want to let yourself down, of all people? Sadly, I’ve not found that to be the case and so I have put into place a few approaches to keep me on the straight and narrow.

My top six productivity tips

1. Set deadlines

time-481444_960_720This is perhaps the most obvious and the most important tip. No matter how artificial it is, a deadline creates accountability and urgency, even if you are the only person who knows it and no one else is impacted if you miss it. When you have a big task like writing and self-publishing a book it is necessary to break this down into further deadlines and milestones (e.g. complete outline; complete first draft; submit to editor; commission cover designer, etc.). Not only does this create further urgency, it also creates a sense of progress and achievement, which is often one of the things you most lack and most need when working for yourself.

2. Batch similar activities into blocks of time

How many of us check email, Twitter and Facebook whenever we see a notification (and stop doing what we were meant to be doing to do so)? This switching back-and-forth from one activity type (e.g. writing) to another (e.g. scanning your Facebook feed)is not highly effective multi-tasking (though I used to tell myself it was), but a massive productivity killer.So, I try to group similar activities together into blocks of time. For example, I have three email and social media check-in points per day (early morning, lunchtime and mid afternoon). I do all my checking and responding then. This reduces massively the dreaded social media time-drain.

3. Treat writing like any other job

conference-room-768441__180This goes for any project where you are only accountable to yourself and not only writing. Scheduling my writing and related activities in the same way I would a meeting in ‘normal’ work and respecting the timings significantly increase the chances I will do it. In fact, I rarely fail to do what I've scheduled and where I do fail it is normally that I’ve not worked on whatever it was for as long as I wanted rather than I haven’t done it at all.

4. Tell other people what you are doing (whether they want to hear it or not!)

As I said, being accountable only to yourself is actually harder than being accountable to someone else, so create ‘false’ accountability to other people. If you’ve told your spouse, best friend, mum or Aunt Tabitha’s dog that you’re writing a book (or starting a business, or finally going to clear out the attic) you’ll feel more like you have to follow through than if only you know it. Some people often go further and set up formal accountability with other people and have regular check-ins. This is sometimes called an ‘accountabilibuddy’, which is a truly appalling term which I believe was coined by the creators of South Park (or at least that is where I first heard it). I haven’t got an ‘accountabilibuddy’ as yet, but, in spite of the silly name, it seems a very promising idea. 

5. Write things down as soon as they occur to you

study-1231393_960_720Do you get distracted from what you’re meant to be doing now by what you’re meant or want to be doing later or what you’ve already failed to do? My brain used to swirl with 'to do' lists and reminders of what I’d forgotten to do. Then I read the ‘Getting things done’ methodology (by David Allen) which proposes the premise that your brain is not meant as a store of things you need to do or haven’t done. In fact, it is absolutely rubbish at that (whenever I say to myself “I must remember to do…”, I can categorically guarantee that I will not remember to do whatever it was). Writing things down allows your brain to focus on higher order activities, like idea generation and critical thinking.I find a product called Evernote great for this as it’s on my phone, tablet and computer, so I will always have access to what I’ve written.

6. Identify the essential, biggest impact activities for the day

When I was a management consultant one of the almost daily mantras was a quote from the management expert Peter Drucker - “There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all". Putting in place the approaches above is pointless if you aren’t using them to do the right things. Something I’ve recently started doing each evening is asking myself “What must I do tomorrow if I do nothing else?" This has been really effective as it has helped me hone in on the important activities and means I have a real sense of achievement at the end of the day.

What would you add?

So, there you have it: my top six productivity tips. This list is by no means exhaustive, but I have found these approaches the most helpful in keeping me motivated and productive. What tips would you add to the list? Please let me know in the comments below.

Why creativity is important (and how we are killing it)

Every child is an artist, the problem is staying an artist when you grow up - Pablo Picasso
When was the last time you did something which had no immediate practical application? When did you last do something truly creative? It may have been yesterday, but, more likely, it was a lot longer ago than that. Our creative urges, almost universal in primary school children, are often beaten out of us as the more practical consideration of finding a job for our future becomes the focus. But it doesn’t have to be like this and, in fact, the two can quite happily go hand-in-hand.

Why creativity is important

1. It leads to innovation which leads to progress

moon-walk-60616_960_720Thinking in terms of the macro benefits of creativity to society and the economy for a moment, it makes financial sense. In the business world we need creativity desperately in order to solve the problems which businesses and the wider world face and for businesses to become more effective and efficient. If there is no creativity, where will progress come from?

2. It produces more effective workers in the modern world

Again, to think of the need for creativity in practical and financial terms, modern jobs require much more creativity than they did in the past and will continue to demand it even more. Fostering a child's creativity and inquisitiveness will fit them better for the world in which they will live and work than pushing them down a narrow corridor of learning purely what is practical and will get you a job right now.

3. It increases mental well-being

photo-1448932133140-b4045783ed9eAlthough we live in perhaps the most prosperous time in history by most measures, many of my peers complain of disaffection and unhappiness in what they do. We are also increasingly concerned for the mental health of children and young people. It is no coincidence that “adult colouring books" are now taking up acres of shop floor space and seen as an effective way to deal with stress. Though, admittedly, these do not demands masses of creativity, their popularity shows that we miss doing something that has no obvious immediate practical application and allows a little creative expression.

4. It promotes greater problem-solving (and less whingeing)

Someone who is engaged in creative activities is more likely to approach problems as something to solve than something to complain about. And funnily enough, proactively addressing problems and not whingeing both make us feel better!

How we are killing creativity

1. Making being wrong a crime

My experience of working in the business world has shown me that many people are almost paralysed by the fear of being wrong. There seems to be an unwritten rule that it is almost better to do nothing than do something wrong. This naturally reduces creativity and thereby, ultimately, effectiveness in the workplace.

2. Teaching to the exam

birger-kollmeier-910261_960_720This is not a criticism of teachers. I was a teacher in a previous life and found myself virtually forced to teach to the exam in some instances. Exploring a topic and following a line of thinking are not rewarded - there isn't time to go off-topic. I decided to drop Physics at school because it was taught in a very prescriptive manner of copy down the note, learn the note, repeat the note in the exam. Just to be clear, though, this isn't Physics' fault and conversations with friends who have taken their study of Physics far beyond the age of 13 have convinced me of the wonder and opportunity for creativity which the subject offers.

3. Demoting the arts in schools

The most obvious manifestation of creativity in schools is the arts, like Music, (English) Literature and Art itself, but we hear reports daily of reductions in funding for these areas and prominent political figures denying their usefulness. The focus is on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects. These STEM subjects are fundamental to human progress and should quite rightly form a significant part of a rounded education, but given the prescriptive way they are often taught, where are children going to learn creativity?
In summary, having the opportunity and capacity for creativity make us better workers and happier humans, yet we are inadvertently stifling, if not killing it entirely.
What do you think? Is creativity a luxury or is it something essential? Let me know your thoughts by leaving a comment below. If you’ve enjoyed this post and found it useful, please do share it with your friends through Facebook, Twitter, Google+, etc.

Want to find out more?

You can follow me on Twitter (@BarfordFitzG) or ‘like’ my Facebook page to keep up with what I am doing and any future posts. You can find out about the two books on which I am currently working here.

What learning the piano has taught me about writing

No learning is ever wasted

pianist-1149172_960_720What does learning the piano have to do with writing? I can hear you asking this question as you open this blog post. The answer is a heck of a lot more than you’d think (or I thought until recently). But one thing I have come to realise is that few lessons are only useful in the context in which we first learn them. To put it another way: no learning is ever wasted. So it has proved with my new pastime of learning the piano, which has delighted and frustrated me in equal measure. A few admissions about me and music before we start:
  1. I am tone deaf.
  2. I was worse than hopeless at Music in school.
  3. I had no idea what any of the funny squiggles on a page of music meant until a few weeks ago.
So, I am learning piano from the lowest of bases, which is pretty much the case with me and this new world of self-publishing and indie authorship too. This has meant that learning the piano has furnished me with many lessons that are equally applicable to being an author.

Five writing lessons from learning the piano

1. Some days are just hard, but that’s fine

cat-1248010_960_720
These cats are probably making a better sound than I do on many days.
Some days practising the piano has felt like wading through incredibly thick treacle while wearing iron boots. I have had to force myself to stay on the piano stool for my allotted practice time, even though the urge to run screaming from the piano has, at times, been overwhelming. However, the following day, when I have returned to the piano stool, I have found things suddenly click. I have experienced this time and again with writing as well. This has taught me that I need to put the hours in (whether practising piano or writing) regardless of how difficult it feels on that particular day. I will reap the benefit of that input at a later date. I just need to have faith in the process

2. You can only improve by doing

Those of you who have read previous posts of mine will remember that I have had problems in the past with spending too much time researching and not enough time writing. Learning the piano has reminded me of the importance of doing in order to learn and improve. Reading about playing the piano isn't going to make me Lang Lang (actually nor is practising, come to think of it), but practising might actually give me a chance of becoming half-decent.

3. The ‘slog' is easier to bear when it's something creative

This is a very important life lesson for me. I have found it much easier to persevere with the hard work of learning the piano and writing than I did with jobs I have done in the past. The common theme between these two pursuits (and what that previous work was missing) is the creativity involved. This is a sustaining force.

4. A change is as good as a rest

Watching TV is not the only way to relax and refresh the brain (in fact it’s probably a pretty bad way). Doing something else mentally stimulating is a good way to recover from work (whether it be writing or any other job) and can help you to do that work much better. I have found my creative thinking to be far greater and my brain to feel far fresher at the end of a session of piano practice (which always comes toward the end of the day) than with other, more passive means of relaxation.

5. If it’s tough, don’t stop, just take it slower

ice-climbing-1247606_960_720I am working my way through a fantastic book of piano pieces written by Bela Bartok which he composed specifically to teach his son the piano. This means that they are getting progressively more difficult and introducing new ‘concepts’ as they go along. I have found two or three of the pieces particularly challenging and almost overwhelming. Instead of throwing in the towel, though, I have simply slowed down and taken these particularly complicated pieces at a more manageable pace and in smaller chunks. This means I will get to my ‘destination’ more slowly than I intended, but it means I should still get there. There have been times when I have been writing when my narrative has become bogged down and I have found it hard to resolve a particular tension that has come into the story. taking this approach has helped me to work through these sections and come out the other side.

Over to you

I have applied the lessons above to my writing, but, on reviewing them, I can see that they are applicable to most things in life. What useful life lessons have you learnt from unexpected sources? I would love it if you let me know by leaving a comment below. If you’ve enjoyed this post and found it useful, please do share it with your friends through Facebook, Twitter, Google+, etc. (you’ll find shortcut buttons for doing so below).

Want to find out more?

You can sign up for email notifications here, follow me on Twitter (@BarfordFitzG) or ‘like’ my Facebook page to keep up with what I am doing and any future posts.
You can find out about the two books on which I am currently working here. I hope to publish the first of these in Spring 2016.

Six of the best: favourite reads from my childhood (and today)

Childhood books stay with you

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Do you remember your favourite books when you were a child? Do you find that those books have stayed with you much more than books you've read in later life? Working on my first two children's books (which will be published shortly - see here for more information) has made me reflect on my own favourite children’s books a great deal. It has also made me realise the extent to which they have influenced me (mostly unconsciously). When I considered the question of what my favourite children's books were, I found it very hard to pick 6 above the others. So here are 6 from among my favourites.

Six of my favourites

1. The Twits by Roald Dahl

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Copyright: Puffin Books
It was hard to single out only one of Roald Dahl's books. He is a colossus of children's literature. I almost chose the Witches, a book whose downright ghoulishness still haunts me to this day (in a good way). When I think of Mr. and Mrs. Twit, two of the vilest human beings ever committed to the page, I can’t stop a huge smile spreading across my face, so it had to be them. This tale of a couple who take pleasure in making each other miserable and torturing their pet monkeys and the local birds is filled with Dahl's clear misanthropic tendencies. But it is still incredibly funny and a joy to read. I still laugh at the memory of the pranks these two awful people play on each other.

2. Funny Bones by Allan and Janet Ahlberg

Allan and Janet Ahlberg are the king and queen of picture books and have dozens of titles to their names (a good number of which I owned as a child), but Funny Bones remains supreme amongst them. "In a dark, dark town, there was a dark, dark street and in the dark, dark street, there was a dark, dark house...". These opening lines will be familiar to thousands of parents and children alike. In spite of this rather spooky opening, this is a hugely entertaining and fun book, perfect for bedtime reading to even very small ones.

3. The Deptford Mice Trilogy by Robin Jarvis

I suppose this is a cheat as it's three books rather than one, but, oh well. I picked up the first of these books, The Dark Portal, at a book fair at my primary school. I was hooked from the beginning to this tale of the Deptford mice’s struggles against the evil and shadowy Jupiter, a sort of feline Darth Vader as he seemed to my young imagination. These books are scary, action-packed and highly evocative of the underground world which they describe. Great fun.

4. Fred by Posy Simmonds

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Copyright: Andersen Press
  You probably think of cartoons for adults, or graphic novels as I guess they are these days, such as Gemma Bovery, when you think of Posy Simmonds. I fondly think of her as the author of the fantastic children’s book Fred, which is a heart-warming story of two children whose cat, Fred, dies. They both loved Fred and are obviously sad to lose him, but they’d always thought he was a rather boring and lazy cat. How little they knew. After Fred’s death, they discover that they had him all wrong and that in actual fact he had been a megastar of the feline world who catkind now bitterly mourns. I now realise that Fred unconsciously influenced the cat character in my own upcoming book (click here for more information on this book). Fred is a brilliant creation.

5. Alfie gets in first by Shirley Williams

The Alfie books in general are great fun, always have a good moral and they have fantastic pictures. I’d recommend any of them. The characters are apparently based on Shirley Hughes’ own daughter and grandchildren and this comes through in the genuineness of the characters and the affection with which Hughes so clearly writes of them. In this particular tale, poor Alfie manages to get himself trapped in the house while his mum and little sister are stuck out on the doorstep (following a mishap as Alfie’s mum was struggling with Alfie’s little sister’s pushchair - a pain familiar to many parents, I am sure). All the neighbours club together on the doorstep to free young Alfie, while on the inside our young hero hatches his own scheme.

6. Mr. Stink by David Walliams

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Copyright: Harper Collins Children's Books
I thought I would include a modern title for my final recommendation. David Walliams’ Mr. Stink, though fairly recent, is still a timeless tale that teaches us that there is more than meets the eye to all human beings. Our young heroine, Chloe, befriends a homeless man, Mr. Stink, with an interesting history and a very sad story of how he came to be homeless. This is a humorous tale which still manages to deal sensitively and not at all ‘childishly’ with some relatively grown-up themes.

Over to you

What children’s books would you have on your 'favourites list' and why? Leave me a comment below to let me know. If you’ve enjoyed this post and found it useful, please do share it with your friends through Facebook, Twitter, Google+ or any other networks you use (you’ll find shortcut buttons for doing so below).

Want to find out more?

You can sign up for email notifications here, follow me on Twitter (@BarfordFitzG) or ‘like’ my Facebook page to keep up with what I am doing and any future posts.
You can find out about the two books on which I am currently working here. I hope to publish the first of these in Spring 2016.

The top 5 mistakes I’ve made in my self-publishing journey (and what they’ve taught me)

Fantastic, accelerated learning experiences

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What are the times you’ve learned most? Probably the times you’ve made most mistakes, I would guess. Yet at the time you probably felt bad about making these mistakes, only to realise later how you benefitted from them. I, on the other hand, like to think of these not as mistakes, but fantastic, accelerated learning experiences. Since I started this self-publishing journey I have had many 'fantastic, accelerated learning experiences’ (and my first book won’t even be published for just over a month)!

"Get it wrong quickly"

I used to work with someone who regularly said, “Get it wrong quickly”, when discussing some new task we needed to complete. This was their way of saying “just [expletive deleted] do it". However, there is some wisdom in this advice if you apply it to activities or decisions that are not life or death or which do not have the potential to ruin you financially (and, to be fair, the activities to which this advice related were not in either of those two camps). Often having a crack at something and getting it wrong is the fastest way to learn how to do it. For your own enlightenment I share below perhaps my most fundamental mistakes / 'fantastic, accelerated learning experiences’ to date.

My top 5 mistakes

1. Diving into action without a plan

I realise that for many people planning is probably even less preferable than having a tooth pulled, but it really can save quite a bit of wasted effort and heartache. I’ve dived into a few things related to setting myself up as an 'independent author' without really planning them (just in case you are worried, this doesn’t include the books themselves). The most obvious thing I failed to plan was my website, or should I say, my previous website, now firmly deleted from the WordPress universe.  You may well argue, though, that this current website too could benefit from a bit more planning (if so, please let me know your thoughts on my contact page here!). Anyway, having decided I needed a website, the first thing I did was go onto wordpress.com and start bashing about and setting one up. I hadn’t really planned what was going to be in it and how it might look. After a few hours of said 'bashing about’, I decided I just needed to take the proverbial axe to the website and just canned it completely. I then spent about 30 minutes one evening brainstorming this one and then set it up in about another 30 minutes a few days later. A lot less elapsed time and effort for a much better outcome.

2. Too much time researching, not enough doing

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Jeremy had been researching the correct usage of 'hashtags' for 8 weeks now
Obviously there are lots of moving parts to this ‘self-publishing’ and ‘independent author’ thing and I am still getting to grips with it. That is not an excuse, though, for spending whole days doing ‘internet research’ into it. I realised very quickly I was using research as a proxy for action. If you are buying a house, choosing your child’s school or looking for a job (pretty big life choices) then days of research is fine and probably to be recommended. If you are thinking about how to set up a Twitter account and how to use it, days of research may not be very worthwhile (I know this now).  I’ve since realised that the amount of time researching should be proportionate to the importance and complexity of the decision or action that will follow it.

3. Believing 'time out’ is wasted time

Have you ever had an epiphany in the shower or suddenly worked out what to do about that delicate situation at work while walking the dog? If you are anything like me, you often do your best and most creative thinking away from your desk or normal work environment. Although I probably knew this somewhere at the back of my mind, I would often force myself to forego anything more than a 5 minute break and any form of prolonged relaxation because I thought this was wasted time and I couldn’t justify it. However, a little like taking a few minutes to plan before starting something, time away from your main work is an investment that will save you time in the future. If nothing else, it will mean you are more productive in the hours that you are working, and in all likelihood it will also mean you come to that work with many more ideas.

4. Not treating writing like any other job

If you’ve read my previous posts, you will be aware that I am hoping to be able to make some form of living from writing. Something you make a living from is also known as a job (just in case you were wondering). However, I was not treating writing as a job. If you want to do something professionally, you have to approach it professionally. Jeff Goins, a great writer and blogger (go check him out if you haven’t), talks about the importance of 'turning up', i.e. you have to put in a day’s work and take writing seriously if you are going to get anything out of it (I paraphrase. Jeff puts it better me than me on his own site). So I now schedule writing and things related to it just as if it were a crucial meeting at work.

5. Editing as I write

Do you spend ages at work writing and re-writing the same sentence of the same email, thinking of just the right way to phrase it, instead of just writing the email? You can’t see the wood for the trees. I’ve done it myself many times and have caught myself doing it quite often while writing my first two books. This is, in effect, multi-tasking (something which we men, of course, are not meant to be able to do and something which I certainly cannot do) as writing and editing are two very different skills. I’ve now learned to turn off what many other writers call the ‘internal editor’ as I write. That is to say, when I’m writing, I’m just writing. I then worry about editing and finessing the words later. This is definitely more time-efficient and leads to a more cohesive piece overall.
Have you committed any of the mistakes above yourself? Or do you have further advice to add? Please let me know by leaving a comment. If you’ve enjoyed this post and found it useful, please do share it with your friends through Facebook, Twitter, Google+ or any other networks you use (you’ll find shortcut buttons for doing so below).

Want to find out more?

You can sign up for email notifications here, follow me on Twitter (@BarfordFitzG) or ‘like’ my Facebook page to keep up with what I am doing and any future posts.
You can find out about the two books on which I am currently working here. I hope to publish the first of these in Spring 2016.