I had been wanting to write a children’s book for ages, but there was always an excuse not to – the births of my two boys, Zak (now nearly 11) and Sam (just turned 9); the ensuing meltdown years, when getting everyone safely strapped into the car every morning felt like a massive achievement in itself.
I’m a former advertising copywriter, so the creative itch was always there. Then last September, two years after attending a series of mind-altering creative writing workshops run by Ferdia McAnna, then Writer in Residence at Dundalk IT, I decided that it was time to finally have a decent scratch at that itch.
Work was very supportive, allowing me to reduce my teaching hours. My ever-encouraging husband agreed to shop in Lidl and Aldi and to not buy any new jeans. The boys liked the idea of me being at home every day when they came in from school. And so off we set on our frugal, alternative year.
I loved it from the start. I got my concept for the book while wandering idly through a shopping centre one Sunday afternoon – I was going to write a story about a pack of noisy, goofy wolves called the Skidderhunds who generated static electricity when they skidded and kept a whole village awake at 3am every night for years.
Writing about the Skidderhunds felt like being in a soft, happy bubble. The nice floaty sensation would start the minute I dropped the boys off at school in the morning. I would walk the long way home, past the swirling grey sea and on through our sleepy village to the estate where we live. Whatever the weather, I walked. This was my time to allow my writing brain to click into gear. I got used to waving to the same neighbours in exactly the same spots every morning as they whizzed by me in their cars.
I allowed myself half an hour to clear the kitchen and have a quick look at the papers online. Then, from 10am, it was down to business. The hardest part was ignoring the absurdly high laundry pile and the unwashed kitchen floor.
I wrote solidly for four hours every day, aiming for in and around 800 words. Some days were a lot more successful than others. On the good days, I would set the alarm on my phone in case I got too engrossed and forgot to prepare for the boys coming in from school.
They have high culinary expectations, those boys. They would burst in through the front door ravenous, expecting pancakes, tomato soup and lavishly buttered fresh, white bread. I would stop writing at 2pm, grab something to eat myself and then prepare for the invasion. I now know that I will relish this year when they’re older, especially those precious first ten minutes when they spilled in the door bursting with stories about their day.
I wrote my first draft quickly, loosely. It wasn’t until my second and third drafts that the bizarre Google searches began in earnest.
I remember thinking that if, God forbid, I am arrested at any point in the future then the Garda Síochána will most certainly be scratching their heads in bemusement as they scroll through the search history on my laptop.
The first thing I Googled was the word ‘Skidderhund,’ to make sure that the term didn’t already exist. It didn’t.
At the heart of my story is a pampered miniature poodle called Suzie, who is spoiled outrageously by her owner, Bunty Preen.
To get myself into the ‘posh poodle’ zone I Googled ‘Luxury Pet Hotels.’ I found one in Las Vegas (www.luxepethotels.com), which has its own doggy spa, where ‘licensed pet masseuses will massage your pet into a relaxing bliss.’ If you’re having a bad day at work, I strongly recommend that you click into their photo gallery and check out the luxury pet suites, each of which comes with its own 42 inch plasma TV.
Suzie the poodle’s lifespan is crucial to the time frame of the plot, so that’s what I Googled next.
I also had to Google ‘What happens to yoghurt when it’s left to ferment for six months?’ because Rory McKenna, my ten-year-old protagonist, has this deal with his best friend Don that if they break a promise, they have to eat the ageing yoghurt that’s hidden in Rory’s wardrobe and I wanted to describe what that yoghurt looked like.
And then came the scary bit – it was time to hand the story over to others to read. Zak and his buddy James were given two chapters each evening and I would grill them for feedback the next day.
It was fascinating to observe how different the adult feedback was to the children’s (a couple of close friends and my ruthlessly efficient sister – don’t worry, she would take that as a compliment – very kindly read it for me too). Zak and James spotted a major flaw in the story that the adults missed!
So now I’m at the ‘Sending it Out There’ stage and I’m feeling very out of sorts and unsettled. For anyone who can relate to this, I can’t recommend the Writing Tips section of Darren Shan’s website enough. It’s aimed at younger writers, but writers of any age can benefit hugely from it.
It’s full of practical, honest advice. He even has a ‘Rejection’ chapter, in which he suggests just hitting the send button when you’re feeling afraid ‘…Because we HAVE to face our fears in life. If we don’t, we can’t move forward, we’ll just stay in our comfort zone and rot.’
Whatever happens with the Skidderhunds, it’s been a blast – a riotous, funny, difficult, electric six months that I’ll remember when I’m even older than my husband’s now threadbare jeans.
What I’ve Learned from my Skidderhund Experience…
- Do your research so there are no mistakes a poodle owner will spot immediately!
- Give yourself time to percolate the story – going out for a walk or a run can help unravel the most irksome of plot issues.
- Don’t get hung up on writing perfectly – just write. You can edit and re-edit once you have something half decent down on paper.
- Write in different places – I escaped to my sister’s apartment in Dublin twice, when I had just completed drafts and wanted to read through them in peace, without boys asking for cups of hot chocolate or more butter on their toast every five minutes.
- When the creative juices are flowing, squeeze the hell out of them! There were days when the words just flowed for me. If you’re having one of those days, lock the front door, switch off your phone and make the most of it.
- Find yourself a good editor. My husband axed chunks out of my first draft and I hated him for it at the time. But by draft two, I knew he was right.
(c) Ciara O’Connor