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Friday, 26 November 2010

Catherine Condie, Author, on Whirl of the Wheel

A slightly different take on the interview with Catherine, refreshing in her approach, for which I thank her. Here’s how we went about it.

Born in Cambridge,UK, Catherine began her career in PR and corporate communications, progressing as an editor of science journals, and as communications advisor for a European programme. She currently works in internet marketing and is a school literacy governor. Catherine is also a singer/songwriter and guitarist, and plays in a rock band.

Whirl of the Wheel summary

Three children whirl back in time through an enchanted potter’s wheel into the reality of evacuation in 1940s Britain . . . Whirl of the Wheel pulls feisty Connie, her brother Charlie-Mouse, and school pest Malcolm into dangers on the homefront and towards a military operations secret that will save their home. The children hit trouble when Malcolm fails to return to the present day.

Poetry of a normal day
My tea is steaming so I’ll type and it will cool down as my fingers work their way to the end of this, my first blog.
I drink cold tea most days. There’s usually something more pressing than getting to drink hot tea. It could be writing a bit of promotional material, or checking a website. Or continuing with my latest project to get noticed as an up-and-coming author, or to put everything in place so I can make my fortune by running my business from home. Oh and yes, I will need to pick the children up from school, attend reading club beforehand and prepare for the latest school governor’s meeting. Maybe tomorrow, and only after I’ve cleaned the bathroom, I’ll get back to work on my new book.
I started enjoying creative writing at a reasonably young age. My mother recently handed me a batch of school reports, which along with the numerous ‘Catherine tries hard’ comments is a hint of something in the line written by Mrs Farrow, the form teacher who brought everything together in my final year at Queen Edith’s County Primary School. ‘Poetry is her forté,’ Mrs Farrow wrote. I have always remembered this. Thank you Mrs Farrow. And from another of my most favourite teachers (we both had frizzy hairstyles) Miss Faben in Class 5 (Year 4) there is, ‘Stories interesting and well written.’
I tell you about my primary school days because I remember the pride of having my poetry (mostly rhyming) pinned up on the walls of various classrooms as I weaved through the school years. The encouragement from this time is lasting and I have to say I still try to be poetic in my writing. It is the feeling a pattern of sentences or collection of words evokes that interests me most, and I try hard to present my stories and songs in similar creative fashion.
I started song writing just as soon as I could play the guitar at the age of nine. Thank you Mr Ife, Class 2 (Year 5), always smiling. My mother duly sent in a tape of five songs I had recorded to Roger Whittaker who had a slot on the radio at the time. Roger replied, very politely, and suggested I should continue.
At this point I will spare you my musical history, of how I could have learned to read music and therefore allowed myself a chance of superstardom, and of my life history where I forwent university for various good reasons at the time. I will also put off a splurge on my happy and successful career, which keeps the writing thread attached. But I will note very briefly the early days of my song writing, as they contain an important link to the context of my first novel thirty years later.
I have a folder of over 100 songs and many more beginnings of songs I have written with my guitar. I like vocal or instrumental harmonies in music. Inspired primarily by the Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel and the harmonised groups of the sixties, by the country music playing out on our music centre, musicals on tv, and later by the Cambridge Folk Festival and artists such as Kirsty McColl and Kate & Anna McGarrigle, my song writing began with basic ballads, and when I reached secondary school I began to perform to the public. I teamed up with my best friend Hilary and we would sing and play to a large group of elderly visitors in the school youth club, or later at school reviews. Needless to say, our harmonies were our forté and the song writing began to roll.
This writing pun brings me nicely to Whirl of the Wheel, although it is my book and not a song at all. Why did I write it? What is it about?
I wrote it because I would try for many years to come up with the ultimate mystery story in my head. I’d been an avid Agatha Christie reader and I believe I must have coupled the excitement of these mysteries with the stories of Daphne du Maurier, Victoria Holt etc. and bound with these the experiences of my even younger reading days with Enid Blyton. The seeds had been sown, and my songs with their verses, middle eights, instrumentals, and verse repeats gave me patterns of structure I understood and could transfer in some way to my writing. Of course there have since been many more creative influences that have nurtured the book and which include, I am proud to say, the strong writing skills of my parents.

I finished Whirl of the Wheel early this year. It is a traditional adventure into World War II for children and young adults, with a mystery and a bit of a twist. But more than anything it’s a story led by a normal girl who happens to be in a wheelchair . . . Connie is modelled on my best friend Hilary’s daughter, Katie.
I have attempted to make Whirl of the Wheel a fun book and Connie and her brother Charlie-Mouse make that happen. But the story brings with it a certain reality of war in a way that may educate. And for me, ‘living the experiences’ of each of the characters and writing letters from the evacuees, Kit and Bert, were the most enjoyable parts of all.
The book has been a great adventure . . . one of my projects, yes, but the one that has given me the greatest challenges and most focus. It has taken me willingly from factual editor all the way back to my poetry beginnings at primary school and taught me that it’s okay to write for pleasure and to be proud of what can be achieved.
My writing challenges are growing along with my children too. I am moving my target age group accordingly. For my next project (after the sparkling bathroom sink) I am getting to grips with a young adult thriller and both will be old enough to enjoy it by the time the book is finished. A whodunnit? Not quite, a bit more Bourne Identity to music I think.
But before I get too detailed, I think I’m going to have to ask you to hold the post here because I have to rush off to reading club. It’s 2.30pm, and I’ve noticed that as I go I need to clear away two full teacups of varying temperature from the dining table behind me.

Beginning writers make many mistakes; what do you think is the most harmful?

My biggest mistake when starting out as a writer was presuming that as an experienced journalist and editor and mother of two under-10s I knew how to write for children. As any marketing professional knows, each target market is approached differently and this is the same for writing. I entered a steep learning curve to develop my writing skills specifically for the 8+ age group.

To what extent are grammar and spelling important to a writer?

I see grammar and spelling as my strong points and am grateful that I am in most respects a perfectionist when it comes to writing and production editing. I think if you wish to be noticed in the slush pile, or to have any credibility in the self-published market, you need to present your work correctly. And so yes, my opinion is that the presentation of a manuscript is equally as important as an eye-catching story, or skilled writing.

How much revision of your MS do you do before you send it off?
Once I finally finished my manuscript I decided to self-publish. I am still keen to be represented, as it adds that extra layer of recognition, but first and foremost I thought I would like to gain credibility in the rapidly expanding electronic marketplace.

To what extent do you think genre is useful in the publishing world?

Whirl of the Wheel is written for the older child/young adult. In the UK this might span school years 4 to 8. But I would hope that the tale appeals to adults also. In this respect, sometimes genre is restrictive if books are labelled as age-specific.

How do you know where to begin any given story?

When beginning a book (or a scene) I always have it in my mind to get in on the story late and to leave it early. I think this works perfectly for the age groups I write for.

Do you have support, either from family and friends or a writing group?

I worked with Cornerstones Literary Agency in 2008, attending a residential writing course and the support of regular communication. I have found the association with Cornerstones to be valuable and encouraging. The company maintains an interest in my work, and in my new book. I am also a member of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Editors and attend seminars and events. On the internet, my story development was accelerated by my presence on Authonomy. I am currently working with Authors on Show to promote myself more effectively. My children, my family and friends have been my greatest helpers in writing this book.

How long does it normally take you to write a novel?

I began writing Whirl of the Wheel in between looking after my young children and working part-time. So it didn't really take priority. Once I decided to change career direction, things happened much more quickly. I would say it took me about three years to write, but that the last six months were the most inspired. I am now half way through my second novel and this has taken me only a couple of months. The learning I have acquired during Whirl of the Wheel has enabled me to develop my story more quickly, and with confidence.

If there’s a single aspect to writing that really frustrates you, what is it?

My greatest problem as a children's writer is my tendency to want to keep things as short and concise. The need as an editor to be complete in my meaning in as few words as possible will probably never leave me and I find it infuriating when I carry out a word count as I am sure the book should be longer! Thankfully, I love description, and I hope this complements my style of writing.

Do you think writing is a natural gift or an acquired skill?

I think creativity is a natural gift, which can be translated in many different ways, including writing. But I also think that writing can be learned. Like any subject, it can be studied and work can be crafted to form an effective or pleasing result. But if we are to differentiate, I suppose you could liken a piece of writing to a piece of music. If played by a naturally talented musician, then a piece will impact the listener with a complete range of emotions. With a piece of writing, if there is natural creativity on any number of levels, there may be extra emotional or poetic dimensions also.

What single piece of advice would you give to writers still hoping to be published?

For those wishing to see their work in print, I would say that there has never been a better opportunity than now. With the rise in popularity of electronic reading devices and audiobooks, publishing a book is now a process rather than a dream. There are so many ways you can distribute your book to your readership, and the internet has presented a massive base for marketing electronic and printed matter. Indeed, a senior member of the HarperCollins team noted at its July 2010 seminar that self-publishing is not a barrier to being signed by a major publisher, and it can be of benefit to create an awareness of a writer's talents.

What are you writing now?

I'm currently working to turn Whirl of the Wheel into an audiobook. I am also writing a young-adult thriller set in France, which I hope to finish for early 2011.

How can people buy your book?

Whirl of the Wheel is available for free multi-format download at

In paperback for £5.98 at Amazon in the UK and in the USA for $9.39

Do you have a website or a blog that readers can visit?

Whirl of the Wheel blog at

Given unlimited resources, what would be your ideal writing environment?

I'd love to have my own writing study, but I'm not fussy - I write in our dining room, looking out into our small but pleasant garden. I'd love to write outside, but I'd have to solve the screen glare first!
Thank you Stuart!
Best wishes

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