Archive for the category “Getting inspired”

Want to write? Never give up

As I approached my late thirties I was pretty sure that my dreams of being in print were well and truly over.

Encouraged by my English professor at University, the poet Philip Hobsbaum, I’d had poetry and short stories published, and I tried to write a big ‘serious’ novel in my twenties. The novel I wrote was structurally a mess and didn’t fit any recognisable genre, and so unsurprisingly it did not win me an agent or a publishing deal, although I had a very kind letter from Robin Robertson at Jonathan Cape encouraging me to ‘keep going’.

What went wrong? I became unsure of myself, I lost my confidence for a while. Then stuff happened. My dad died. I had my first child. I had my second child. There was always an excuse not to put myself on the line again, not to make myself vulnerable, open to rejection.

I could never stop writing altogether. I wrote lots of short stories (which I never sent anywhere), but I pretty much gave up on every being published, which was quite heartbreaking. Wanting to write had been part of my identity since I’d been about four years old. It was how I justified to myself all my daydreaming, it was why no other career had ever completely ‘grabbed’ me. If I wasn’t ever going to be a writer, then who was I?

One day a friend said ‘You’re funny. Why don’t you write funny?’, because she knew I was a huge comedy fan and I went to a lot of stand up. You could call me a comedy nerd, following lots of comedy from here and the US, the quirkier the better (I love ‘Episodes’, ‘This is Jinsy’, ‘Black Books’, ‘Gavin and Stacey’, ‘Inside Number 9’, ‘League of Gentlemen’, ‘Nighty Night’, ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’, ‘Seinfeld’, ’30 Rock’, the list goes on and on.) It did seem odd that I’d never tried writing humour before, since I love it so much.

Although I’ve always read and loved all types of fiction from all genres, I’d always felt that I should be writing something very serious and ‘important’. Was this the curse of studying English Literature? I don’t know. But I had a word with myself and decided to loosen up and have some fun, instead of trying to write the next ‘Ulysses’.

I bought Carole Blake’s book ‘From Pitch to Publication’ which helped me to understand the nuts and bolts of writing a book for a particular market. I decided to try teenage humorous fiction. Carole Blake’s advice worked, because a few years later I had two teen novels published by Scholastic –  ‘Diary of a Parent Trainer’ and ‘My Big Fat Teen Crisis’ for girls aged 11-15, both humorous but with serious issues in there too.

Then I was lucky enough to have ‘The Abominators’ published by Little Brown Young Readers. It is a series for children aged 6-11 which I wrote for my own sons. It is about a very posh boy called Cecil Trumpington Potts who wears silk pants with the family crest embroidered on them. He has never met any other children, he wears his hair in a centre parting and he talks in baby talk. When he joins Grimely East Primary school he decides that he wants to join the most mischievous gang in Year 5, ‘The Abominators’. What could possibly go wrong…?

Today I am sitting pinching myself because not only has ‘The Abominators’ series made it into print (in 2013), but last week on World Book Day a primary school pupil dressed up as Cecil Trumpington Potts, and today his teacher sent me the photo below (with permission to use it).

This is year 4 pupil Ben, I can’t say where he lives and what school he goes to, but he has absolutely MADE MY DAY. He recreated Cecil’s bow tie and his centre parting – and the family crest on the panty wanty woos!

If someone had told me when I was on the verge on giving up on writing, that a child would be going to World Book Day dressed up as a character from my imagination, I would never have believed them. Thank you Ben, and thank you to all the children who have read and enjoyed ‘The Abominators’ and my other books (including the 6000+ children who have borrowed them from UK libraries). You have made it all worthwhile, and I’ve had SO MUCH fun along the way! I’m glad I did not give up.

The Abominators

Year 4 pupil Ben dressed as Cecil Trumpington Potts on World Book Day

Long overdue, just updated my author page on Amazon

I have just updated my author page on Amazon to read as follows:

My name is Jen Smith – I write teen books under the name Jenny Smith, and books for 7-10 year olds under the name J.L. Smith.

I live in Princes Risborough in Buckinghamshire, with my family and my small dog Angus. My ambition is to swim with whales, dolphins and porpoises, unfortunately the local leisure centre is not being co-operative.

2013 sees the publication of ‘The Abominators’ series for children aged 7-10. This was written to encourage one of my sons (who is dyslexic and was not a confident reader) to read, and is filled with humour, ridiculousness, naughtiness and pranks which I knew would appeal to him. It is illustrated by the brilliant Sam Hearn, who really brings the story to life with his hilarious line drawings. At a visit by a group of Year 4s to our local bookshop, 26 out of 38 children (that’s 7 out of 10) voted for The Abominators to take back for their school library. The reviews so far are very encouraging.

I was born and brought up in Glasgow, and loved to write from a very young age thanks to my father’s storytelling.

I have a blog where I review books and talk about writing and life in general called

In my early twenties I worked in Africa for a relief and development charity. I am so glad I had this experience because since then I’ve never been overly attached to possessions and ‘stuff’. It is relationships, friendships and experiences that represent your life. I put this message across in ‘The Abominators’ where Cecil and his father are no longer rich, but Cecil has never been happier because now he has friends.

I returned to the UK and joined school text book publishers Heinemann (now Pearson), where part of my job was organising author visits to schools. I met and was inspired by children’s authors Anne Fine, Dick King-Smith and Nigel Hinton. Meeting them made me think ‘maybe one day I could do that’.

I don’t think that studying English Literature at University helped me in my writing. Studying the ‘greats’ meant that I never thought that anything I wrote was good enough. I submitted a very serious literary novel to publishers in the early 1990s (with the encouragement of none other than Professor Philip Hobsbaum, highly respected poet and English Literature lecturer), and although I had some encouragement from Robin Robertson who was then at Jonathan Cape it went no further. This confirmed all of my insecurities and I was so discouraged I did not write anything (except a few short stories and poems) for twelve years.

In 2006 a good friend said to me: ‘You’re funny, you should write funny’. This led to the first draft of ‘Diary of a Parent Trainer’, which was accepted by Scholastic in 2008. It was published in 2011, followed by ‘My Big Fat Teen Crisis’ which came out in 2012. ‘Diary of a Parent Trainer’ has been published in eight other countries, and is doing very well in France and Germany.

I’ve appeared twice on Dave Gorman’s radio comedy show ‘Genius’, love watching stand up and comedy and think humour is not just important, it is a divine force (put that in your pipe and smoke it, literary snobs).

As my day job I am a freelance copywriter. I write (on a voluntary basis) for charities at the Clare Foundation. I can be contacted on:

I think that libraries are important and we should safeguard them, whatever future form they may take. Young people from disadvantaged backgrounds need a place where they can access great literature free of charge, this is a right that must not be lost. My father came from a poor background and he educated himself in his local library.

Nelson Mandela and the end of apartheid in South Africa

In the months just before Nelson Mandela was released, I was working for World Vision in Lesotho and Botswana. Lesotho was in effect a ‘hostage state’ in South Africa, home to many of Mandela’s supporters who had been hounded out of South Africa because of their political views.

There was a strong feeling that things had to change and possibly were about to change, but never did I feel this more than when I went on a short trip to Johannesburg. As I drove into the city, I asked my friend why – if the white South Africans were relatively wealthy – did they all have outside toilets. He looked embarrassed. ‘They’re not outside toilets,’ he said, ‘They’re the maid’s quarters. The white South Africans do not want the maids living under the same roof.’

I was appalled. There must have been barely enough room for them to lie down.

One day I went out and just walked around on my own in what the people I was staying with considered was a ‘safe’ area. There were some nice coffee shops, and I was just walking along enjoying the sights when a smartly dressed, very elderly man approached me. He asked me what I was doing in Johannesburg and we chatted for a short while, and then he said:

“Can I ask a favour of you?”

“Of course,” I said.

It turned out that he wanted to buy me a coffee. He said that times were about to change and that he wanted to make a gesture, and to take a young white woman into a coffee shop and buy her a coffee would be that gesture. He said that he was asking me respectfully, and that he was of course old enough to be my grandfather.

We went into the coffee shop and there was immediately a collective intake of breath. There was an huge atmosphere of disapproval. The waitress (who incidentally was not white) slammed our coffees down in front of us so that the coffee spilled on to the table, she was muttering angrily.

It was very clear that we had broken the rules and everybody was unhappy about it. Looking back I am now wondering if there was an unwritten (or written?) rule that this was a whites only coffee shop, certainly all the customers were white. Maybe the man knew that if he went in with me they would not want to make a scene and kick him out, who knows.

I just know that multi-racial coffee was too much at that moment in time in December 1989.

The old man grinned, enjoying every minute of it. It turned out that he was quite a well known jazz musician. I should have known because he was wearing a very cool hat. I was uncomfortable because of all the glares, but then I realised that in that moment I was part of something important.

He paid for the coffee, and outside the coffee shop we shook hands and he wished me well in my life.

I had to fly back to Lesotho, and in the airport I saw Winnie Mandela, in full military regalia. The atmosphere was charged, apparently she had met with Walter Sisulu (who had just been released from prison that October, after 26 years in prison). There was a feeling of euphoria, a tangible excitement. When I asked if they thought that Mandela would be freed, people said that it was only a matter of time.

I was only a few weeks back in the UK when I was glued to the TV screen like millions of others, watching Mandela walk out of prison as a free man. Like many others who had gone to concerts to support the campaign for his freedom, and drunk in student bars named after him, and worn the badge saying ‘FREE NELSON MANDELA’, I wept.

Everything changed in South Africa, and I am certain that if I went back to that same coffee shop and had a ‘multi racial’ coffee, nobody would blink. The slavery and prejudice is over. There are still tough times, but apartheid is, thankfully, dead.

Now Nelson Mandela is in hospital, and it is exactly how it was with my mum. The lungs, and repeated hospitalisations. So I know what is going on, and that it is realistically just a matter of time.

But what a legacy that man is leaving. To have been an agent of such an important change, to have gone from a prisoner, seen as a terrorist, to the President of South Africa. To be loved by so many people. His family, his country who see him as a father, and by strangers like me – on the other side of the world, choked up because of a news report saying that he ‘deteriorated’ this morning.

I hope that he pulls through this time, but we have to face the fact that he is very frail now. The world will be a much poorer place without Nelson Mandela in it, but there is so much to celebrate about what he achieved.


“For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”

– Nelson Mandela

Chatterbooks in Aylesbury

On Tuesday I went to Aylesbury library to have a reading session with some children who are members of the ‘Chatterbooks’ scheme. The scheme encourages reading in Primary age children and is a chance for them to talk about what they’ve read.

This visit was organised by the events organiser at the library, Ben Foster. He’d sent me some very funny emails offering a limo and champagne so I felt relaxed before I even got there.

The group were all enthusiastic, with one little girl in particular full of questions. We talked about how many possibilities language gives us. They all made up silly names for themselves and then I challenged them to tell me something about the characters who might have those names. One boy said that his character was very tiny when he was not feeling confident, but could be a giant when he was feeling brave. Every one of them came up with a strong idea and I think got the point that ideas are about putting things together and seeing if they make sense or if they create something new.

At one point they asked about my books for teenagers. I was trying to explain the plot of ‘Diary of a Parent Trainer’ and told them that the lead character was writing a manual about how to ‘operate’ grown ups. One little girl asked what the manual would be, and I said that it would be a complete user’s guide, so you had full instructions about operating your grown up.

“I REALLY need one of these!” she cried, clapping her hands together.

There were twin boys there, very bright and full of questions about writing. One of them shyly showed me an exercise book which was crammed full of his story, you could see he’d put in hours of work and it was impressive for somebody still at Primary school. I was glad I had talked to them about planning out stories and being selective as you write, I think he took it on board and I hope it will help him.

Then his twin brother asked me to sign a piece of paper and said: “Could you please write a message to me telling me to not let my brother give up writing, because he’s really good.”

I swallowed down the lump which was forming in my throat, and did exactly that.

Great visit, great kids, well done Chatterbooks.

Chatterbooks in Aylesbury 4th June

Chatterbooks is a fantastic scheme in local libraries where children and teenagers meet to discuss books they’ve read. I’m lucky enough to have gone along to a Chatterbooks session at Beaconsfield library, and in June I’m going to one at Aylesbury library.

It’s great to meet enthusiastic readers and talk about what books they enjoy. Thank you, Aylesbury library, and Ben Foster, for this poster to advertise the event. Ben has offered me vintage wine and a limo of course, but I’ve settled for a chariot, pulled by a large team of West Highland terriers…


The Hammer and Tongue Oxford Poetry Slam Final

What a FANTASTIC time at the Oxford poetry slam final at the Old Fire Station last night. Stewart Taylor’s magnificent performance of the very, very funny ‘Do Not Mock The Clog’ deserved to win, especially with the energy and talent he put into the delivery. With the energy filled, hilariously entertaining set from from the genius who is Tim Clare (in particular his Noah’s Ark Bar and Grill poem which just got better and better and funnier and funnier as it went on) and everybody else with their thought provoking, funny, moving poems … what a night!
It was wonderful to meet the very talented 2012 slam winner Davy Mac, whose poems are clever, witty and topical and delivered with panache (I loved it when he made his hat announce ‘Hufflepuff’ as an icebreaker).
I was very impressed with Micah Isser’s clever, surprising perspectives and beautiful imagery, Eric Coffin Gould’s heart stopping, deeply moving love poems, Dan Holloway’s soaring tale of the dark side of London, Kate Walton’s lyrical, flowing and magical dances of remembrance and finally Anna Percy’s raw, powerful poems, challenging our perceptions of body image and female identity.
I performed as Jen Russell (my maiden name) and nerves did get the better of me, especially in the second performance (I was that woman who was literally shaking) but I still really enjoyed the opportunity and personal challenge of getting up and ‘facing the fear’. Hammer and Tongue, I salute you. Well done for everything and thank you.

I’m in a Poetry Slam final!

It’s being held on 14th May in Oxford at the Old Fire Station. Competing under my maiden name, Jen Russell. Have to memorise three of my poems. Terrified, but looking forward to it as the Slam in Chipping Norton was so adrenalin-fuelled and exciting. Come along! The link is here:


My favourite event at this year’s ChipLitFest: ‘Evie and the Perfect Cupcake’

My favourite event at the ChipLitFest was in a little room at The Chequers, where Tina Sederholm performed her show: ‘Evie and the Perfect Cupcake’.

‘Evie and the Perfect Cupcake’ is about a girl called Evie who lives in a benign parallel universe, called ‘the Calorie Galaxy’ where calories are plentiful but weight is policed. The one hour monologue is performed with wit, sparkle and fun and is all about the tyranny of being thin, and the usually self-imposed (fuelled by peer pressure and media images) desire for physical perfection which entraps so many women.

Tina Sederholm takes us on Evie’s journey, where she emulates her successful sister and loses weight, despite the advice of her wonderful Aunt Gloria. Towards the end of the performance, it all gets serious, and at this point I found that my eyes were (quite literally) welling up with tears for all the Evies in the world who think that they have to be ‘good’, who deny themselves and torture themselves in a quest for perfection, forgetting who they really are in the process.

Every woman who has ever had an issue with image, weight or self esteem (that’s probably all of us then) should see this show. I will be thinking about it, and it’s impact on me, for a long time.

Look out for Tina Sederholm at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe this year, I highly recommend the show.

Tina Sederholm

Tina Sederholm

Poetry Slam at the Chipping Norton Literary Festival

Went to the Poetry Slam (run by Hammer and Tongue) at the Chipping Norton Literary Festival.

People got up and had three minutes to read their work. Five random audience members held up scores, and the middle three scores were added up for the final score.

On the spur of the moment, egged on by Paddington Clare, and very terrified, I entered the slam under my maiden name (which is my poetry name) Jen Russell. I got Russ to text my poems and read one of them, called ‘The Western Arcade’, off the screen of my mobile phone. They had to tell me to talk into the microphone, my legs were shaking and I was sure I was going to throw up.

The round of applause and decent scores was great validation and even though it took an hour for my heartbeat to get back to normal, I’m glad I did it.

Now here’s the surprise… I came joint first! So I’m through to the regionals in Oxford on 14th May. I have to have three poems ready in case I get through all the rounds, so am having a think about which would work best in performance. I might also have to memorise them which would work better than reading off my phone.

Thanks to Hammer and Tongue for organising such a fun, adrenalin rush of an event in celebration of participation and poetry.

The Middle Class ABC

Went to a very funny and entertaining talk at the Chipping Norton Literary Festival, entitled ‘The Middle Class ABC’. The book of the same name was written by Zebedee Helm (who also did the illustrations) and by TV producer Fi Cotter-Craig.

In the talk they took turns reading extracts from the book, while Zebedee (is this his real name?, please may it be so) did LIVE and brilliant drawings on a flip pad. Paddington Clare and I were right at the front so we had the best possible view, while hopefully not unnerving Zebedee and Fi too much with our over enthusiastic grins (we don’t get out much).

Having bought the book, I expect to hear guests chortling uncontrollably from my loo in the very near future – hopefully because they are reading ‘The Middle Class ABC’ and not for other, more sinister, reasons.

The books is described as follows:

“The Middle-Class ABC is the book loos the length and breadth of the land have been waiting for – a humorous celebration of the facts and foibles, manners and mores of contemporary British middle class life.

Letter by letter, the clever, witty and sometimes absurd observations and cartoons will ring true for all good Middlings who will instantly recognise both their and their friends’ choices – children’s names, foodie fads, and holiday destinations.

Crammed full of affectionately teasing jokes this is a book for to enjoy at any time of year in the course of going about one’s business.”

Here is the Amazon link:


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