Welcome to the five hundred and sixteenth of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, biographers, agents, publishers and more. Today’s is with children’s / YA author Ashley Howland. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further.
Morgen: Hello, Ashley. Please tell us something about yourself, where you’re based, and how you came to be a writer.
Ashley: I’m a mother of two, who works as an instructor and curriculum manager for Labs ‘n Life, teaching youth at risk to train Labradors as companion dogs for children with Autism. In my spare time (ha) I love writing. It has always been a passion of mine, but I never used to let anyone read what I wrote. Then I started teaching and I loved to write stories for my students to help them learn. We also used to write stories together as a class. I discovered that the kids really enjoyed my writing, so I did a writing course and became more confident in my ability. Now I love nothing more than giving my books to kids and letting them read. Of course my toughest critics are my own children, but they are also my biggest support. They love telling everyone that mum writes books. I am also extremely lucky to have characters who provide me with endless inspiration right in my own home – my beautiful Labradors. Lastly, but certainly not least my Husband – Ross, who puts up with me when I get in the mode of writing and lock myself in a room with my computer. Life is busy and although I would love more time to write I wouldn’t change a thing, after all if it wasn’t for my busy family, I would have no inspiration.
Morgen: I loved that you laughed at ‘spare time’. I think most of us know that feeling. I have my fifth NaNoWriMo coming up (only my second alongside this blog so the 5pm fiction slot will have a month off). What genre do you generally write and have you considered other genres?
Ashley: I write children’s books. Mainly novels for pre-teens, but I also have a few ideas that are turning themselves into picture books and even novels for early teenagers. I love writing for children and really can’t see myself writing anything else, but who knows what ideas will pop into my head.
Morgen: Absolutely, and I love that they do. What have you had published to-date? Do you write under a pseudonym?
Ashley: I have had two children’s novels published – Ghostnapped and Obi the Super Puppy and the Mystery of the Red Mist. I am very proud to have had these books published and while I don’t write under a pseudonym I do have a bit of a secret identity. I have used Howland – my maiden name, rather than my married name. I did this because it was always my mother’s (Ann Howland) dream to have her writing published. She was an English teacher who used to write journals and diaries. Sadly she passed away almost eight years ago and never achieved her dream. I chose to use Howland as a tribute to how hard she tried to get published. I am glad I made this decision, I don’t use my maiden name any more, and it’s nice to see Howland those front covers, I’m sure she would have loved that.
Morgen: I have a 90-something neighbour who writes poetry and short stories, and she keeps saying that she’d like to have been published. I offer to submit for her but she says she needs to sort them out and that’s as far as we get. Have you had any rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?
Ashley: Lots. In fact I got rejected from every publisher I sent my stories too here in Australia. I don’t even think they were looked at because I didn’t have an agent. I really don’t know, but I never received any feedback. It made me more determined to get published, so I started to look online and eventually found an agent, who took my book (Ghostnapped) and then eventually their publisher – Strategic picked my stories up.
Morgen: Congratulations. Have you won or been shortlisted in any competitions?
Ashley: Not as yet – I am looking at a few competitions now and am keen to enter, would love that to boost my writing.
Morgen: I like competitions with a theme as it gets me writing something new, then if it doesn’t get anywhere, I still have the piece to send somewhere else. How did you find your agent? How vital do you think they are to an author’s success?
Ashley: The agent I went with was online and they helped me by assisting in finding a publisher, again online. Eventually it was their publisher who took my work, so it was quite a simple process. As I said before I really felt like here in Australia you need an agent, because so many publishers won’t even look at your work. It’s a shame, but I guess they must get so many manuscripts. However I think you can make it on your own if you are prepared to put in the work.
Morgen: It is a shame and I think it’s certainly true all over with the bigger publishers but the smaller houses are more receptive. Are your books available as eBooks? Were you involved in that process at all? Do you read eBooks or is it paper all the way?
Ashley: They will probably be soon, I am looking into it. I think it is the way the world is going. I’m just not sure how many children use E-readers. Personally I still prefer my kids to actually hold a book. However I love my e-reader because I can take so many books with me and read them anywhere. I have read more since getting the E – reader than ever before. So I guess I am torn a bit at the moment. While my kids are still on picture books though it’s definitely paper, there is very little as beautiful as receiving a new book for a gift.
Morgen: I know some children have iPads and the likes (that way they still get the colour) but most people I’ve spoken to still prefer, as you say, holding a book, although love having the choice. How much of the marketing do you do for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Ashley: I try, but this is an area I find really difficult. It’s hard enough raising a young family, working and finding time to write. Then throw in marketing and it just gets really difficult. However I have a web page and a Facebook page and twitter account (@AshleyHowland), so I try and keep updating that regularly and I blog (WordPress: Ghostnapped) when I can. I also have some printed material that I take with me when I work, fortunately my work got a plug on the back of both of my books and they are related, so I am able to do this. My best marketing tools are my kids, who love telling people that “Mum writes books!”
Morgen: Yay for WordPress. I can’t recall anyone who says they love marketing, in fact it’s usually the answer to “what’s your least favourite aspect of writing?”, although we do enjoy the interaction we get with other writers and readers which we wouldn’t get so much otherwise. Do you have a favourite of your characters?
Ashley: Of my published books I can’t go past Obi – that’s because he’s real. He is my ten year old Labrador and he has touched the hearts of so many kids, he’s a very special boy. It was so much fun writing about all the crazy things he did as a pup and his reasons behind them all. I am currently writing a sequel and it’s really fun to bring in some of the other dogs that I work with – especially my boy Stitch, who is becoming quite a character in his own right.
Aside from my dogs I have a character – Callie, who is the focus of the book I am currently editing (It’s What You do Next That Counts). Every time I go back and edit this story I like her more and more, she’s fun, and quite complicated as most teenagers are. I have a long way to go with this story, so it will be great having her develop more as I progress.
Morgen: My dog appears on my podcast page, it’s a shame they don’t know they’re ‘famous’. Did you have any say in the titles / covers of your books?
Ashley: The titles are completely mine, which I am very grateful for, as I love the titles of both books. For Ghostnapped my publishing company designed the front cover and I was a little bit hesitant at first. I actually showed it to some kids and they loved it, they all said they would pick it up and want to look further (Yes, kids do judge books by their cover!). My second book – Obi the Super Puppy and the Mystery of the Red Mist was a bit different because I had this amazing photo of Obi that was taken by a friend (Ian Myers). I really wanted to use this photo so I sent it in and the cover they made was fantastic. I loved it the first time I saw it and so did everyone else.
Morgen: It must make you more confident as a whole package when you like every aspect of it and covers are important. What are you working on at the moment / next?
Ashley: I have lots of projects at the moment in various stages of completion. The first is a children’s book that is designed for those kids just branching out into chapter books. It is called The Homework Goblin. I am also having a friend do some illustrations for this book and I can’t wait to see her take on my story. The second editing project I have going is a book for early teens called “It’s What You Do Next That Counts”. It’s a story about a year in the life of Callie – a teenager girl whose life is completely thrown upside down when her parents are unfortunately killed. It is set in two of my favourite locations in this world – Perth, Western Australia and Vancouver, Canada. I have a lot of work to do on this story to get it just right, but I am really proud of it, so I look forward to getting it published.
Finally, well sort of finally I am writing a sequel to Obi, it’s a lot of fun because of the dynamics of writing about the relationship between my dogs and my beautiful daughters. I am also enjoying bringing in Stitch – our puppy and in this book I am introducing Rigger, a big cuddly Labrador with a heart of gold.
Of course I also have lots if ideas all over the place, so there is never the opportunity to be bored, just frustrated that I don’t have enough time. However I also believe that is what makes writing so special to me.
Morgen: I know that feeling. A writing friend told me the other day that she knows of an author who writes very little because she doesn’t have the ideas. I’m the opposite. I think I have too many to be able to write in my lifetime and I write / blog one (albeit usually just a few hundred words) every day. Do you manage to write every day? Do you ever suffer from writer’s block?
Ashley: I wish I could write every day, certainly there are points in stories, when I am just on a roll and each night I will sit and write. There are other weeks when for various reasons I won’t even look at writing. My stories are always on my mind though and I will notoriously have to jot down ideas on anything to remember them, so I always have pen and paper. I quite often misplace these ideas, but they turn up eventually and fit into a story somewhere.
I’m not really sure if I have ever had writer’s block as such. There have been times when I just need to take a break, so that’s what I do. I will leave projects and come back to them later. I have a folder on my computer full of half completed stories, new character profiles, situations, locations and sometimes just one line. Writing to me can be a bit like a jigsaw puzzle, you just have to be patient because it will happen eventually.
If I am really struggling for motivation or to advance on an idea then I read. The more I read the more my own ideas begin to develop. It all works out in the long run and is so amazing when you hold each book for the first time.
Morgen: Your lucky your ideas come back to you. I know that I’ve lost a few corkers over the years but soon learned to have a pen / paper in every jacket pocket / handbag / room. Do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?
Ashley: I do a bit of both. Generally my stories come to me with a basic plot, which I always type down; to be sure I don’t lose it. However when I am actually writing that story I just run with it and see where it takes me. For example with my latest story “It’s What You Do Next That Counts” the characters really wrote the plot for me. As each character grew new subplots and ideas developed. I got on a great role with that story and really enjoyed writing it. Of course when the plot changes and the story rolls it usually means more editing to ensure it is consistent. Editing is not generally as much fun, but it is all part of the challenge.
Morgen: The characters taking over is one of my favourite aspects. Do you have a method for creating your characters, their names and what do you think makes them believable?
Ashley: It depends on the story I am writing. I am lucky that I work with so many amazing Labradors, who each have their own personalities. So my Obi series is great, they all have their names and I get to watch them each day. I know my dogs inside out so to speak, so it is a lot of fun to write the stories around their personalities.
As for my two legged characters I spend a lot of time working with children and teenagers, so I am exposed to lots of different names and personalities. I also like to Google my characters names for meanings (I did this when I had my daughters as well!). I think the biggest thing that makes character believable is their faults. No one in this world is perfect; thankfully, it would be a pretty boring world then. It is also important that the character has depth; they think and act differently in different situations. I spend a lot of time creating complete characters, their families, history, likes, dislikes, abilities. I may not use all of this in my story, but it helps me to get to know them and work out how they would react when presented with certain challenges.
Morgen: One exercise I use on a fairly regular basis for my Monday night writing workshops is to hand out magazine photographs (at least two per person) and character templates (where they fill in the name, nickname, nationality, age, job, hair colour, height, weight, favourite music, favourite food, regular saying, relationship, children, siblings, religion, aspirations, quirks) then using these two characters, write a piece from two prompt slips (e.g. He doesn’t speak the language, She dislikes his mother… etc). It’s fun. Going off topic for a moment, do you write any poetry?
Ashley: I don’t know if I would really call it poetry, but I have written some rhyming stories. I’m not sure this is my best format of writing, but it can be fun and the kids get a laugh. I haven’t had anything published yet. Although there is a rhyme about all of the Labs ‘n Life dogs that I am working on for the webpage, which is a bit of fun. I think poetry is very challenging, and is definitely a skill in itself. However it can also be fantastic to read.
Morgen: Writing should be fun, especially for children, and it’s lovely to hear that you all enjoy it so much. How about non-fiction or short stories?
Ashley: I spent a lot of my time at work writing curriculum documents, worksheets and instructor plans. So generally when I sit down to write I prefer it to be fun and take me away into another world. I will probably write some nonfiction at some stage about training the dogs, but at the moment I prefer the fantasy of fiction.
I do write short stories, mainly with my students for our Reading Dogs program. The kids help me to write the stories for other kids to read, which is a lot of fun.
Morgen: Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Ashley: I still need to do a lot of editing – my ideas do not always remain consistent. As the plot and characters take me in different directions there are often things that need to be changed. For all my current books and the ones I am editing now I have had them independently assessed, by Sally Odgers. She has given me fantastic critiques of what is working well and where these inconsistencies lie. Most of the time I have a feeling of what needs to be done, but the advantage of having someone else read is that they are just reading the words and following the story. Sometimes ideas, characters or plot can get a bit lost when you are reading your own work. I have noticed that my writing style has developed more and with each book I am becoming a more structured writer. I also did an editing course to ensure my skills improved in this area.
Morgen: We are too close to our own work and should always have a second person’s opinion. I have a small (but expert ) bunch of people, mostly writers, helping me. Do you have to do much research?
Ashley: I love the research part. I research locations, usually by visiting and taking lots of photos. Then I will also jump on the internet to make sure I have information to make my stories more complete. Often this research can take your story in a new direction and give it much more depth. Sometimes this research has even led me to a whole new story. For Ghostnapped my monster was completely developed by the research that I did on the location I had chosen.
Morgen: How funny. Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
Ashley: I’m sure some of my ideas will sit in the computer for ever and never get read. Although I have often found that an idea that isn’t working will fit into a different story down the track. So I never delete anything.
Morgen: Oh nor do I. I cringe when writers tell me they deleted something they didn’t like or that didn’t work. I like to think that my experience will allow me to go back and see what’s ‘wrong’ with my earlier pieces. There’s even a novel I wrote as ‘therapy’ that I want to publish (although I will have to change the antagonist’s name… unfortunately, it’s perfect!). What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life? Has anything surprised you?
Ashley: I love the actual writing, just letting the words flow and the characters take shape. It’s fantastic when a character just takes you on a whole adventure. I also love hearing from the kids and their parents who have read my books. One mother told me all they heard their son doing one day was laughing from his bedroom. It went on all day, until he eventually emerged, having finished reading my book. He has since read is again and again, and he still laughs. That makes me feel amazing.
Actually having two books published has surprised me. When Ghostnapped was sent to me as an actual book for approval I just held it for a while. To see my name in print and read my own book was incredible. I was even more proud of Obi the Super Puppy and the Mystery of the Red Mist. Not just because it was all about my special boy, but because as my second book it showed me that Ghostnapped was not a fluke. I’m sure I will be equally surprised and delighted with each book to come.
Morgen: I love getting feedback, especially via email, and even found it funny when someone (on Goodreads) had read one of my free eShorts (Feeding The Father, which is based on a true story) and hated it so much (hopefully the story, not the writing, she’d previously enjoyed April’s Fool) that she vowed never to read anything of mine again. I couldn’t resist clicking the ‘like’ button on that review. What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Ashley: Just keep reading and writing. Never delete anything, even if it sounds terrible, it may just be an amazing idea in the future. I would also recommend getting out and experiencing life, meet new people, do new things. Every real adventure will make your writing so much more inspiring. Finally I would say never give up, there will be rejection along the way. Don’t take it personally, use each rejection as motivation to succeed. It’ll be worth it in the long run.
Morgen: It will indeed. If you could invite three people from any era to dinner, who would you choose and what would you cook (or hide the takeaway containers)?
Ashley: Wow I would get my husband to cook, he is a great chef and loves cooking. I have no patience for it. The three people I would invite would be Roald Dahl, he was and will always be my favourite author (I now love reading his books to my daughters). The second would have to be Cesar Milan, I saw him perform recently and would love the opportunity to hear more of his stories and experiences. Finally, as he’s the chef I’d better invite Ross, my husband. I’m sure he’d choose very different guests though!!!
Morgen: Roald Dahl is one of my three (the others would be Kate Atkinson and my father, who died in 2001). Are you involved in anything else writing-related other than actual writing or marketing of your writing?
Ashley: As the curriculum manager at Labs ‘n Life I get the honour of writing curriculum documents, assessments, resources and worksheets. It sometimes seems endless and can really make my head spin, but someone has to do it. I do enjoy this, but it is so nice to sit down and write pure fiction to escape. I also get to do some story writing with my students, and editing of their stories. We recently started a reading dogs program, which is great because our other students are currently producing the readings for this program. So I have had a lot of fun encouraging students to write.
Morgen: I love editing other writers’ work (much more enjoyable than doing my own). What do you do when you’re not writing? Any hobbies or party tricks?
Ashley: When I am not writing I am chasing my daughters around, mainly to gymnastics, swimming and of course school. I also enjoy looking after my spoilt dogs, Obi and Stitch and the random extra Labradors that get dropped over frequently. Aside from that I love playing volleyball (only socially now), hanging out at the gym and spending time with my husband. Life is pretty hectic, but certainly ever dull.
Morgen: That’s the way it should be. Are there any writing-related websites that you find useful?
Ashley: I love looking at other author’s websites. It’s great to see how they present their own work and to get ideas for marketing.
Morgen: Are you on any forums or networking sites? If so, how valuable do you find them?
Ashley: I mainly use Twitter, it’s great for quick updates and to add links or photos to share. I also have a Facebook page, which is generally for the same type of instant updating. I haven’t joined any forums and only blog when I get a change. However all my sites are linked, so updating one does all, which is very helpful.
Morgen: Don’t you just love technology. What do you think the future holds for a writer?
Ashley: I think writing will always be there, but the format will change. EBooks are becoming so popular, so I guess it’s going to be the new way of getting our stories across. People will always want to read, so the more books the better!
Morgen: They will, and I think because of gadgets on which to read, they are. Where can we find out about you and your work?
Ashley: My web page can be found at: http://ahowland.org
This is the page I update most regularly and has all the links to my books, videos, twitter and blog.
Morgen: Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
Ashley: Just to say thank you for the opportunity to share my books and views about writing.
Morgen: You’re very welcome, Ashley. Thank you for joining me.
If you are reading this and you write, in whatever genre, and are thinking “ooh, I’d like to do this” then you can… just email me and I’ll send you the information. They do now (January 2013) carry a fee (£10 / €12.50 / $15) for the new interviews on this blog but everything else (see Opportunities on this blog) is free.
If you go for the interview, it’s very simple; I send you a questionnaire (I have them for novelists, short story authors, children’s authors, non-fiction authors, and poets). You complete the questions, and I let you know when it’s going to go live. Before it does so, I add in comments as if we’re chatting, and then they get posted. When that’s done, I email you with the link so you can share it with your corner of the literary world. And if you have a writing-related blog / podcast and would like to interview me… let me know.
Alternatively, if you’d like a free Q&A-only interview, I now have http://morgensauthorinterviews.wordpress.com on which I’ve rerun the original interviews posted here then posted new interviews which I then reblog here. These interviews are Q&A only, so I don’t add in my comments but they do get exposure on both sites.
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