Our chat with Tania…
I can’t remember when I knew I wanted to be a writer or when I started writing because both those things happened at a really young age for me. What I do remember is the first word I read for myself. I must have been about four and my mum was encouraging me to sound out the letters. Cuh. Aa. Ter. And suddenly, there it was: CAT. I’ll never forget that instant of epiphany. It was as if - for a moment - an actual cat had been conjured into existence. I think I’ve been trying to use words to conjure up things ever since.
My first book getting turned down was a bad time for me. I’d got an agent on the strength of the manuscript, and a couple of publishers had shown interest, and I’d convinced myself that it was going to happen. When the book was rejected by everyone, the disappointment was crushing. Plus, I’d just had my first baby and was feeling overwhelmed and a bit lost. I thought I should probably just give up on writing. But the idea made me so miserable, that I decided to reframe the whole thing. True, I’d been rejected, but I’d also come very close to not being rejected. Which meant the next book I wrote might have a chance. I think it’s easy to forget, when you’re starting out, that writing is a craft that you can – and will – get better at if you stick with it.
After my second book for children, The Secret Life of Daisy Fitzjohn, I got a letter from a girl telling me how much she loved the book, and in particular, the character of Frank, Daisy Fitzjohn’s imaginary friend. On a whim, I decided to send a thank you letter back, not from me, but from Frank. That was the start of almost a year of correspondence. As Frank, I wrote long letters describing my latest adventures, complete with pencil drawings. The girl replied with tales of her own imaginary friends and suggestions as to how Frank could get out of whatever difficulty she happened to be facing. The whole thing gave us both great joy!
A few years ago, I was giving a talk at a school in Connecticut, in the USA. During the question and answer session, a boy put up his hand and asked me if I was any good at doing an American accent. I told him I was terrible. A second later, the entire gathering of more than three hundred kids were doing a slow hand clap and chanting DO IT! DO IT! How did I respond? I tend – like a lot of people – to double down when I feel I’m being bullied. I drew myself up to my full height, gestured for silence, and said “Ay’m afrayd it is ebso-lutely out of the question!” in my best Queen of England voice. Amazingly, it worked!
Don’t go by what your mum says, because she’ll always say she loves your work. People who care for you will avoid hurting your feelings no matter what. And don’t go by the damning-with-faint-praise comments from people in your writing group, because writing groups can be weird and sometimes toxic. Instead, find two or three readers who know something about books and writing, and whose opinion you genuinely respect. Then listen to what they say. Try to separate yourself from your writing. Think of it as a small machine that you are trying to get to work. If one of your respected readers says you may need to add a pulley or two, and a lot of the cogs don’t actually serve any purpose, you don’t have to agree. But it should be because you objectively decide the advice won’t improve your machine, rather than out of a sense of hurt pride, or an over-attachment to your prose, or simply because you’ve been working so long on your project that you can’t bear to rewrite it all over again. A lot of people say they want readers to give them ‘an honest opinion’ when in fact what they want is to be given courage by being told their work is good. But being told the ways your work is not good (by someone you respect) is a hundred times more valuable, and (after the initial disappointment and secret outrage) far more likely to boost your courage. Because now you have a way forward to make your work better and more likely to be published.