Things are looking up!

With my fellow shortlistees, junior judges, competition founder Caroline Ambrose and literary agent Sallyanne Sweeney at the Bath Children’s Novel Award Ceremony, Feb 2018

It’s been a long time since I talked about my writing journey, but there’s been a few sunny developments recently, so here’s what I’ve been up to over the last couple of years…

  • Jan 2015 – Decided to take a break from writing after my two latest projects (Blown-Away Man and The Adventures of Fartella Gasratilova) failed to find representation. Added them to my other self-published novels on Amazon and stepped away…
  • May 2016 – In an effort to hone my skills and develop a foolproof manuscript, I applied to the Curtis Brown Creative Writing for Children online course and got offered a place.
  • Spent the next 3 months developing my novel, The Reinvention of Rolo Rawlings (a YA comedy drama), under the guidance of award-winning author Catherine Johnson and my brilliantly creative writerly classmates. Re-wrote the first 5 chapters many, many times – taking it from a 1980s setting to the present day and from a diary format to a first person narrative.
  • March 2017 – Started the nail-biting process of submitting Rolo to agents.
  • Sept 2017 – Accepted an offer of representation with Lauren Gardner at Bell Lomax Moreton Literary Agency. Meeting Lauren and seeing her passion for Rolo was a surreal moment – especially after going it alone as an independent author for so long.
  • Dec 2017 – Had to pinch myself at learning I’d been longlisted for the Bath Children’s Novel Award.
  • Jan 2018 – Had to get the husband and kids to pinch me at learning I’d been shortlisted for the Bath Children’s Novel Award! In the end I didn’t win, but making it to the final 5 out of 750 entries was incredibly exciting and more confirmation that Rolo is my strongest piece of writing yet.
  • Feb 2018 – Am currently developing Rolo further under Lauren’s guidance and, all being well, hope to submit to publishers in the near future.

Back in January 2015 – after 10 years of gaining and losing literary agents, an endless river of rejections and some short-lived success at self-publishing – I hit a bit of a rockbottom on my writing journey. I knew I wasn’t going to give up, but I needed a break from trying. Now, three years later, I’m super-proud of Rolo and the response it’s achieved so far, and am looking to the future with fresh optimism. Watch this space… (she said, biting her nails…)

Creative courage and badass bling

As the countdown to Christmas gets underway, who better to discuss creativity with than Sarah Meredith, a Brighton-based jewellery designer whose mischievous and heart-warming brand Rock Cakes is selling like…well, hot cakes.

Your jewellery is bold, colourful and playful. Is “being true to yourself” an important element in your designs?

Rock Cakes is an integral part of my life, it comes in a close second after my family. I live and breathe it, and I think that shows in my work. The main ethos behind Rock Cakes is to spread happiness and make people smile. Traditional jewellery can be very safe and mundane so I try to pull in the opposite direction.

When I started Rock Cakes, I’d been suppressing my ideas for so long that they all just came flooding out. This was when I made the “Every cloud…” silver chains and some of the crowned animals and the crowned tooth — these pieces were effortless and are still some of my favourites.

I guess the playful element reflects how I think and behave. It can be challenging to keep that feeling going as the world around you changes — more pressures, less time, and a growing awareness of how other awesome designers are can give me a touch of designer’s block.

My self-awareness is growing: the more confident I become, the less I care about what people think and, in turn, the freer and stronger my work can be — but that definitely takes time. Being yourself within your work is really the only way you can have true uniqueness, create consistent interesting work, and stand out from the crowd.

Do you ever feel you’re taking a risk with a piece of jewellery — that maybe it’s a bit too… “out there”?

I think that risk-taking goes hand in hand with being successful at design and business. I’d say that I take risks frequently, some emotional and some financial. It might sound odd but I think it’s as much of a risk putting something out there that you’re not proud of, as it is putting something out there that people will think is weird or that exposes you a little.

My recent work has quite a lot of swearing in it. I’ve made a Christmas tree with an axe and the tree’s saying “fuck off”. He’s not really into Christmas — he thinks chopping down trees to drag into your house is ridiculous. I wanted to make some of these pieces last Christmas but I didn’t due to the swearing — I talked myself out of it.

I also make “Fucking Medals”. I enjoy making them and love people’s reaction to them, but I’ve received official warnings and had them banned on some of my online stores due to “bad taste”!!

Another risk I took was to make the planet ring in gold. I was pretty broke and it cost hundreds to make, especially as I wasn’t happy with the first one so we made it twice. It sold, so it was worth the risk but I could have been feeding my daughter beans on toast for weeks!

With time I think that knowledge and confidence suffocates risk. You learn what will and won’t work with your audience and which platforms you can’t sell certain products on.

Do you have any tips on finding creative courage?

Don’t overthink anything. If you have an idea write it down, sketch it out and act on it — trust your gut and literally just get on with it. Learning to be self-aware can build your confidence and, really, what’s the worst that can happen…? Overcoming the barrier of making what you really want can be huge. It can expose you, and lots of makers are shy and want to hide away. If you make something that’s precious to you and the reaction isn’t positive, it can hurt, so sometimes it seems easier not to do it. Some of my favourite designers are so true to themselves, I love the work of AdamJK and Cou CouSuzette — you can see they don’t hold anything back.

Do ideas for designs come easily? Or do you sometimes struggle to find inspiration?

I know what turns my creative head on. I’m a magazine, stationery, book and fashion junkie. I’ve been cutting and sticking magazine pages since as far back as 1998 — so I always have inspiration I can reference. I also love my own company. I’m very happy to be alone and this gives my brain time to wonder ­– that’s when things like Tupperware parties and sharks with severed hands pop into my head. I jot everything down and have a mega list of things that I want to make.

Did you always want to design jewellery? What route did you take to becoming a designer?

It was always going to be either medicine or art for me. Chemistry hurt my brain and art meant that I could party my way through the late 90s and chase boys — so art won. It wasn’t until I discovered metalwork on my art foundation that things clicked and I knew I wanted to study jewellery design at uni.

I completely immersed myself in my degree, I adored the work, the freedom and the parties, and graduated with a first — not that anybody has ever asked…

Getting my first graduate job at a jewellery store in Kensington was a harsh reality check. My days were filled with silver dip and glass cleaner, it was dull and I was frequently spoken down to. My second job was my lucky break: I worked for a jewellery designer in Notting Hill and made my way up through the company until I was the production manager and “second in command”. I got to meet some iconic people, set up a show at the Design Museum, work on a collection for H&M in Stockholm, browse vintage jewellery archives on Place Vendome in Paris, and I was in charge of buying stones worth thousands of pounds.

I was the middleman between the designer, customers and jewellers — which I loved, but it was bitter-sweet. I saw a different side of life, a very wealthy one, but I was pretty unhappy as it could be pretentious. I had to be kind of invisible when at work as there were strong egos in play. I was suppressing my creativity and myself. In hindsight, to be happy I needed to be first in command, not second, and the whole “fashion highbrow” was fucking with my head. After seven years I made a somewhat abrupt exit and moved to Brighton in 2008 where I set up Rock Cakes…

What has been your proudest moment in your career as a designer so far?

I guess my biggest challenge so far was being interviewed on The Bottom Line last year on Radio 4. When it comes to public speaking, I’m a rabbit in the headlights. When the BBC contacted me, my head was saying “no way” but I found myself replying “yes, I’d love to…” I was very nervous and it took me a few weeks to recover! I’m proud of myself that I did it, but I’ll never listen to it again!

What advice would you give to anyone thinking of jewellery design as a career — whether a school-leaver or someone considering a career change?

Practical advice is to go to art college or to an evening jewellery course and start learning. I’d also 100% recommend working for a jewellery designer or in a jewellery store — I learnt most of what I know when I worked in London. I was often out of my depth and learnt on the job which massively built up my confidence and knowledge.

If you want your own business, take advantage of online sites and social media. There’s no such thing as 9–5 anymore, and setting up a business is easier than ever — you can work a 9–5 job and from 7–11 to kick-start your own thing.

I’d also recommend joining up with your local creative community. Brighton is uniquely creative but there are Etsy groups across the UK. Surrounding yourself with like-minded people can be an awesome support and it’ll spur you on.

My final tip is to take an old-school notebook and pencil everywhere you go — write and draw your thoughts and ideas, cos you never know when they might come…


10 Tips to get kids reading independently at bedtime

When my eldest child reached the age of about nine, I realised that making the change from bedtime stories to independent reading wasn’t going to happen overnight. It was going to be a transition phase, and if I wanted my children to truly discover the joy of getting lost in a novel, I’d have to coach them. It was a slow process with a lot of reluctance along the way, but now at the ages of 11 and 13, I’m chuffed to have two book-loving kids.

Below are some of the things I tried out to help my kids discover what a brilliant experience it is to get teleported into a fictional world…

  1. CHALLENGE! I challenged them to read 12 chapter books in 12 months. If they completed the challenge, they’d win a prize such as a day out somewhere special or a voucher to spend in their favourite shop. Funnily enough, they told their friends about it which led to a bit of friendly competition!
  1. Keep it easy. We started the challenge with a chapter book that was well within my children’s capabilities, ie: 50/50 illustration/text. I didn’t up the difficulty level each time as I didn’t want to put them off. This was about learning to read by themselves – not accelerating their reading age.
  1. Start them off. I’d often read the first couple of chapters to them to get them started. Or I’d read a couple of pages every night and stop just as it was getting interesting. If they weren’t willing to read to themselves, I’d get them to read a few pages to me, then ask, “What do you think’s going to happen next? Why don’t you read the next few pages to yourself to see if you’re right?”
  1. Break it down. Suggest they read one chapter per night – or five pages if the chapters are long. Before they turn out their light, ask them what happened in that chapter. Which characters do they like? How do they think the story will turn out? Did they come across any words they didn’t understand?
  1. Strike a deal. Sometimes my kids would complain that the book was boring, so we compromised: they had to read to at least page 40 or the halfway mark before they could give up. If it still wasn’t grabbing them by then, they could choose another book. Usually, by the time they reached the agreed page, they were immersed.
  1. Know when to quit. If my kids reached the agreed page and still weren’t into it, they were free to ditch that book. I soon realised my children weren’t interested in many of the books I loved as a child. Once I read them a Famous Five novel and they forced me to abandon it at the penultimate chapter and begged me never to read them another one.
  1. Know when to get tough. For kids like mine who watch an hour or so of TV every day, asking them to read one chapter per night at bedtime is not unreasonable. I told mine if they could do it, then they’d get to stay up late on Friday and watch a film. If they couldn’t be bothered to give it a go, then no screen time the next day…
  1. Start a book log. Keeping a log of the books you’ve read and giving each one a star rating is a fun thing to do no matter how old you are. My youngest even wrote a blog for a while, writing a short review of each book she read. The rest of us all kept lists, which would get us talking – which books would we include in our Top 10 favourites? Which books would we take to a desert island? Which is better, the book or the film? Who is the worst villain ever?
  1. Talk to them about what you’re reading. Once, on holiday, I was telling my husband about the book I’d started reading (And The Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini). The kids were playing nearby but also listening to our conversation. “So then what happened to the little boy?” my eldest asked. I ended up recounting the first couple of chapters of the story. “Did he ever see his sister again?” the youngest asked. “I don’t know,” I replied. “I’ll have to read another chapter tonight and tell you tomorrow.” They held me to my word. By the end of the holiday, I had recounted the entire novel (leaving out anything too disturbing) to my kids – at their request.
  1. Never say never. For years it seemed like my children were the only kids in the universe not to be interested in Harry Potter. They point blank refused to even watch the films. Then, one rainy afternoon (aged 10 and 12 respectively), they got bored. I dared to suggest a Harry Potter film again. They were so bored, they agreed. Since then they’ve watched all the films and read all the books. My youngest has just read the Philosopher’s Stone for the second time and is urging me to read it, too. We’ve come a long way…


Skin: the final frontier

There’s so much more public awareness about all kinds of things these days – race, sexuality, disability, gender, mental health, bullying, to name just a few. And thank God for that. We’re making progress in the fight against stigma and discrimination. However, I find it profoundly disappointing that the level of ignorance surrounding acne remains the same as ever.

So here are a few things it might help you to know about acne. If you’re a parent who has kids that DON’T suffer from acne, please make them read this. I’m thinking of the kid in their class at school who does have acne and who could do with their understanding.

10 things you should know about acne.

  1. Acne is not caused by poor diet. FACT.
  2. Acne is not caused by poor hygiene. FACT.
  3. Acne is caused by a hormonal imbalance (a higher-than-average level of testosterone) that affects the sebaceous glands, making them over-productive. This isn’t something that can be solved by some amazing cleanser from Boots. We’re talking medication prescribed by a doctor or dermatologist.
  4. People who have acne usually go through a year or so of trying out various prescribed treatments, which vary in their effectiveness. Roaccutane, known as one of the most effective medications, usually requires at least 6 months of treatment and entails the risk of unpleasant side effects, such as super-dry skin and headaches.
  5. People who have acne are totally aware that they have it. You don’t need to tell them.
  6. You also don’t need to give them your advice – unless of course you’re a dermatologist or have had acne yourself. Suggestions like, “you should cut down on sugar” or “you shouldn’t wear so much make-up” come from ignorance – even if meant in kindness. People with acne get comments like this all the time. It’s not helpful. It’s the opposite.
  7. Acne tends to be temporary, even if it lasts several years. Ignorance, on the other hand, can last a lifetime if left untreated.
  8. People who have acne often don’t like to draw attention to themselves. So if they don’t seem to contribute much to conversation, perhaps they could do with some warm and friendly encouragement.
  9. A few zits does not equal acne. Moaning about your one spot in front of someone with acne is pretty insensitive.
  10. A person suffering from acne is doing their goddamn best to live a normal life, while feeling distraught about their appearance. You should be in awe of their courage.

And finally, people who have acne like to be looked in the eye, not in the skin. Be kind. Superiority or bitchiness are far uglier conditions to suffer from.



The pride and prejudice of reading



I recently read a non-fiction book called The Year of Reading Dangerously by Andy Miller. The author felt embarrassed about not having read enough “Great Literature” – especially as he’d claimed to his friends to have read many books that he actually hadn’t. So, to make amends, he set about drawing up a “list of betterment” which then became the premise for his book.

It was an entertaining read, but as he struggled through Middlemarch, War and Peace, Moby Dick and 47 other challenging tomes, I found myself thinking, why do this to yourself? (Unless, of course, you plan to write a humorous book about the experience and/or want to impress people.)

At university I struggled through a long list of “Great Literature”, namely French classics – only a handful of which I actually enjoyed. When I finished my degree, I almost felt like never reading anything again. But then I decided to celebrate my liberation from imposed reading by going out and buying Jilly Cooper’s Rivals. It was like downing a Gin & Tonic after years of being restricted to green smoothies. However, when reading this doorstop of frivolousness in public, I’d shield the cover from view – I didn’t want people to look down on me.

How ridiculous that some books should carry shame while others carry kudos. At a time when reading stories is not the go-to choice of entertainment for so many young people, literary snobbery is something we should be stamping out. And yet we continue to perpetuate it by keeping schtum about the books we’re too ashamed to admit we enjoyed – if not vocally damning them. (I’ve lost count of how many authors and critics have enjoyed publicly bashing Dan Brown. So what if The Da Vinci Code isn’t Pulitzer Prize material? Good on him for making a story accessible for thousands of people who struggle with reading.)

There’s a growing understanding among schools and libraries that in order to encourage kids to read more, we should encourage them to read anything – comics, graphic novels, non-fiction books, picture books, magazines, newspapers, ebooks, poems, blogs – to keep their appetite for reading on a positive trajectory. Perhaps it’s time we extended that ethos to adult reading habits, too.

We should be vocally celebrating the books we love – regardless of how uncool they may be in other people’s opinions. And we shouldn’t feel ashamed if we’ve never read any Jane Austen and can’t be arsed to either. It’s not a competition. You only lose if you deny yourself the pleasure of reading what you truly want to.

When a cat person gets a dog

Until recently I was the happy, easy-come, easy-go owner of a fat, middle-aged cat who spends his life eating, sleeping and pretending he hasn’t been fed. Pet ownership consisted of feeding, watering, an annual flu jab and strokies on demand. I was content. Cat was content. Husband was content. The kids, however, were not satisfied.

They’d been asking for a dog for years. We’d always said no way – we weren’t dog people. The husband was barely a cat person. But if there was one thing we were agreed on, it was that we didn’t want the responsibility, hassle and turd-scooping grossness of being dog owners. No thank you. Until one fateful day…

We were on a beach in Pembrokeshire. It was beautiful. The sun was shining, and the kids were paddling in the rock pools when the husband and I noticed another family with a dog. Their kids were chasing the dog across the sand. The dog was handsome. The dog was fun. They looked like an advert for a building society. The husband turned to me and said, “Shall we get a dog?” I felt his pulse to make sure he hadn’t been replaced by a cyborg. “Not yet,” he clarified. “I mean, maybe we could look into it…”

So we looked into it for the next 5 years, during which time the kids kept up a high-boiling pressure. Friends lent us their dogs. We walked dogs at the RSPCA shelter. We looked up different breeds on the internet. We watched dogumentaries. We warned the cat. And then one day, we did it. Enter Arnie, a 13-week-old chocolate Labrador.

The “get a puppy cos he’ll be smaller than the cat and the cat won’t feel threatened” plan backfired immediately: at 13 weeks, Arnie was already the same size as Ted. As a youngster, he was full of beans, excitement and curiosity – the polar opposite of twilight-yeared, life-weary rescue cat, Ted.

Ted, previously master of the house, hid under our bed. We bought a dog gate so that Arnie was limited to the kitchen when we weren’t around to keep an eye on him. Arnie wanted to play with every furry four-legged creature he met – including Ted. Ted doesn’t do play – apart from acting, when trying to dupe us into thinking he hasn’t been fed yet.

Ted only came downstairs when certain bodily needs left him no choice. The catflap went click and three seconds later (due to his size) clack, and you knew he’d made it outside for a visit to his poo patch in the garden. Which brings us on to one of the many “issues” of a cat-to-dog household.

Curious, eternally-starving Arnie seems to be missing an important chromosome: the one that tells you when you’re full. For him, Ted’s poo patch is the gift that keeps on giving. Our previously non-urgent approach to clearing out the cat poo in the garden is now as regular as Ted’s bowels themselves, which at two movements a day once seemed overwhelming – until Arnie came along.

At five or six shits a day, Arnie is the Cream of the Crap. The Dogfather of Defecation. The Emperor of Evacuation, and quite often, the Sultan of Squidge. Who knew that Arnie, named before this discovery, would become… The Turdinator? Who knew that he would poo first thing in the morning, last thing at night, three or four times in between and then wake us up at 3am for a bonus emission? WHY DOESN’T ANYONE TELL YOU THIS?

Here are some other things those dog-lovin’ friends don’t tell you:

  1. You’ll be spending a lot of time and money at your local vet’s surgery.
  2. You’ll be saying the word ‘sorry’ a lot more than you’ve ever done before. Especially to the cat.
  3. You’ll spend hours on the internet working out why your dog shits so much.
  4. After watching dogumentaries telling you how super-intelligent dogs are, you’ll worry yours is bored and under-stimulated and you’ll start reading him news articles from The Week.
  5. You’ll spend a fortune on dog toys that he ignores after 24 hours.

But here’s the good stuff:

  1. You end up meeting loads of people, most of them really nice. Some of them even become friends.
  2. You walk so much more than ever before. For a writer like me, that’s exactly what my sedentary body needs.
  3. You’re forced outdoors at the weekend, whatever the weather – which gets our family away from screens (also helping to preserve my tired, strained eyes).
  4. If the kids don’t do their agreed share of dog-related chores (or any kind of chores for that matter), you just say “Perhaps we should find Arnie a more suitable, loving family to live with…” and hey presto.
  5. His antics make us laugh every day.

Now, at just over a year old, Arnie has settled down a fair bit. He sits, lies down and stays on command, and there are no more middle-of-the-night poo shenanigans. He’s even learned to be calm and still when Ted’s in the vicinity. And yesterday we had a breakthrough: tempted by leftover milk in the husband’s late-night bowl of cereal, Ted voluntarily came within three feet of Arnie, hung around for a few minutes and then sauntered off, followed by a click………… clack.

Carry on middle class camping

After spending 24 hours in a field in Kent this weekend, I present to you my Camping Weekend Breakdown. Breakdown as in stats, not as in mental. (That came later.) I felt the need to work out how many hours were spent actually having fun vs how many hours were spent working towards having fun. So here goes…

• 30mins thinking of and typing up Camping Checklist Google Doc.

• 4hrs spent sourcing camping gear from every crevice of the house, lining it up by front door and packing.

• 1hr wondering where the fuck our 4th camp bed is.

• 30mins spent loading up car.

• 30mins spent repacking the car because husband says the way I did it was totally illogical.

• 10mins spent bickering with husband.

• 1hr spent driving to campsite with my feet on dashboard due to giant cooler box taking up all foot space. Kids buried under extra bedding in the back.

Weather: decent.

• 45mins and 4 people to erect our bastard tent. Discovery of lantern and a pair of knickers inside.

• 1hr spent setting up beds and preparing food. (Husband to sleep on a yoga mat due to missing 4th bed.)

• 2hrs spent chilling around campfire with friends, glugging fizz and being interrupted every 15 minutes by a child who needed the loo/needed more food/couldn’t find pyjamas/wanted their sibling’s torch. Sudden fizz-induced epiphany: we don’t actually own a 4th camp bed.

• One family abandons camp with vomiting child.

• 6hrs spent sleeping with child’s elbow in my face.

• Upon hideously early awakening due to other child needing loo, 30mins spent trying to unfold my face and re-inflate it.

Weather: rain.

• 1hr spent in tent sheltering from rain.

• 1hr spent outside tent discussing rain (in the rain).

• Another family abandons camp with poorly child. This time liquid poo is involved. A LOT of liquid poo. They have run out of clean clothes and the will to live.

• 20mins spent in tent privately discussing rain and possible bubonic plague outbreak in hushed tones.

• 1hr spent outside tent discussing rain and possible bubonic plague outbreak in hearty, cheerful tones.

• 1hr spent in small campsite café with a hundred other urban masochists.

• 1hr spent in Pizza Express in Tunbridge Wells hoping not to be spotted and shamed by the rest of our group.

• Another hour spent in Pizza Express in Tunbridge Wells, joined by the rest of our group. Shame dispersed by arrival of Tiramisu.

• 15mins spent strolling along high street receiving odd looks from well turned-out locals. We look like filth because we’re camping! Grrr!

• 2hrs spent in woods with kids trying to stay upright in the mud and being forced to ride a ‘see-saw’ which isn’t really a see-saw but an ill-placed log above a mud pit.

• 30mins spent discussing weather with less optimism. Rain has stopped but it is grey, chilly, and morale is sinking by the minute. Weather app says more rain likely.

Unanimous decision to abandon camp and return to civilization. Unanimous disappointed expressions masking sheer relief and ecstasy at the thought of being reunited with central heating and one’s own bed.

• 1hr spent rolling up camp beds, sleeping bags, hunting down their sacks, squeezing the bastard things into their bastard sacks and then dismantling bastard tent and vowing to sell it on eBay.

• 1hr spent driving back to Brighton with my feet sticking out window. Dashboard says it’s 12 degrees.

• 2hrs spent unpacking car, putting everything back in every crevice. Laundry basket overflowing. Child tramples mud upstairs. Husband unimpressed by my complaints of a stiff back.

• 12hrs spent sleeping. Wake up to a groaning stomach.