In this interesting indie author interview, Rachael chats with Berni Hellier, a children's writer and author of Twinkletoes. If you're interested in writing a children's book, you'll be sure to find Berni's experiences and advice helpful.
You can find the author's contact information and links to her books at the end of this post.
How important is research to you when you're writing your first draft?
The children’s books I write tend to be imaginary creative stories, so luckily, I have very little research to do. My newest book Twinkletoes is about a fairy and as far as I am aware, there is no official data on fairies to research. I did, however, have to research dog breeds to find Chief, the Cane Corso dog that features in the story.
In order to write children’s books, you have to know what works. By immersing yourself in children’s books, you learn what works and what doesn’t. In order to recreate something, you have to be very familiar with it. I could never write a fantasy novel without reading one.
When did you realise you wanted to be a writer? In other words, why are you a writer, and how important is it to you?
I have always loved writing. As a teenager I kept A4 diaries and found writing helped me to process my thoughts and emotions. When my children were small, I wrote a few Twinkletoes books but didn’t get them published. They remained scruffy scribbles in a notepad. I finished working in 2018 due to ill health and this finally gave me time to focus on the essentials, writing being one of them!
What inspires you to write, and where do you get your ideas?
My late father inspired me to write. He was a natural storyteller. I believe story-telling and writing are firmly entwined. I was a teacher for many years, and I know how powerful stories can be for children. I wanted to be able to create a little bit of magic. They grow up too soon, so providing them with magical picture books was appealing to me.
I don’t write to songs. I don’t mind having the radio on in the background whilst I am writing, but it’s not really a part of the writing process for me.
My idea for Twinkletoes came from my Dad. When my children were little, he told them stories about ‘Pixie’ who lived in his garden. Pixie would leave treats in the garden for my kids to find. Pixie, of course was invisible to us grown-ups. My children absolutely loved it and that is where Twinkletoes stemmed from.
Do you have a schedule for writing, or do you write only when you feel inspired? How often do you manage to write and when you do, how many words can you manage in one sitting?
I write when I feel like writing. I would hate it to become something I ‘have’ to do! Writing is escapism for me, not a chore.
I don’t really pay attention to how many words I write in a sitting.
Writers are often labelled as loners and introverts; in your opinion, is there any truth to that?
Well David Walliams is no introvert. However, I would say I am quite introverted. If I spend time with friends, I then need time to have some quiet time.
I don’t think writers are ‘loners’, I think this is a stereotype.
What would you say are the easiest and hardest things about writing a book? What do you love and hate the most about what you do?
The hardest thing about writing a book is making sure the story all fits together. It is so easy to forget to tell the reader something you already know. The easiest thing... once you have decided on the plot... is describing it.
I hate the formatting side of writing. I formatted my own novella but pay someone to format my children’s books. Writing the story is by far the easiest part of self-publishing.
Have you ever experienced “Writer’s Block”? How long did it last and how did you overcome it?
I once experienced writer’s block when writing my novella Complicated Souls. I find that if you just put it down for a while and step back from it, you come back with a clearer vision and can pick it up from there.
I sometimes write with the TV on in the background or by the beach, listening to the waves. I ALWAYS have tea on hand!
When you finish writing a book, how long do you wait before beginning the editing process and why? Do you edit your own work, or hire someone else to help you?
I edit as I am going along and again... at the end. I pay for editors and use friends/family members to proofread too.
Finding trustworthy professionals is hard. Ask for references. Ask to see books that they have worked on. I have used Fiverr for illustrators and found two amazing, talented artists. But I also had some bad experiences, so you have to do your research.
Many editors do free 1000 word sample edits. Take them up on this. See if you gel. Grammarly is useful and free for editing.
Many people advise not to judge a book by its cover. As an independent author, what are your thoughts on cover quality? Would you say it plays an important role in sales?
I do judge a book by the cover. It’s the first thing that attracts me. I also like to read reviews. Sometimes though, a mixture of amazing and critical reviews will actually entice me to read the book to decide for myself.
I think a book cover plays a huge part in marketing a book. It’s important the cover is readable and attractive so it appeals to readers. If you are primarily selling on Amazon, you need to ensure the cover is visible on a thumbnail.
The biggest mistake some debut authors make is to scrimp on book covers and not get their work edited. It is so off putting to pay for a book and find that it is riddled with spelling/punctuation/grammar mistakes. Also, you may have the best book ever, but with a boring cover, it simply will not get the exposure that it deserves.
Some people believe independent (self-published) authors produce books of poor quality in comparison to traditionally published books, often down to editing and cover design issues. What is your opinion on this; what would you say to those people as an independent author?
I have seen some fantastic independently published books, but I have also seen some awful ones. The thing about indie publishing is anyone can do it, so everything gets through the net. The difference is good quality indie books will sell and get great reviews, poorly done indie books will suffocate in silence.
What is your experience of publishing so far? How have you chosen to publish and why? What do you feel are the benefits of this method?
I am glad I finally built up the courage to self-publish and get my books ‘out there’. I have used KDP to publish as it seemed the safest way as there is no initial outlay (other than paying an editor and illustrator).
Having said that, if you are in writing to make money, DO NOT use print on demand services as it is the most expensive way to self-publish.
If you were asked to give advice to primary school children about writing creatively, what top tip would you share with them?
I used to be a primary school teacher. The best advice I would give to children is:
‘Forget about the spelling and the punctuation/grammar. Write from your imagination. Write from your heart.’
I have seen some truly amazing stories ruined by kids trying to get everything right and using simpler spelling to avoid mistakes. Kids are naturally creative but somewhere down the line we box them into good writers/poor writers. This is often based on the mechanics of writing. Good writing is all about great creative ideas and exciting plots. The mechanics of writing (grammar/spelling/punctuation) can all be corrected.
I would give similar advice to secondary aged children, but I’d also say:
‘Write like only you are going to read it’.
This is the age when kids become really self-conscious and many dread having their work read out aloud.
Lots of authors struggle to market and promote their book/s. Do you have any top tips you can share with them, and what have you found to be most effective?
I am hopeless at promoting my work. I really need to embark on a proper marketing strategy. Writing really isn’t about making money for me…but I’d love to reach more readers. I have done a few podcasts which help with this.
If I could get someone to market my books, this it would be wonderful. Oh to have a personal publicist!
Pricing my books is always difficult for me. I feel like I am ripping people off, but you have to know your worth. I look at the price of other books and adjust my prices and do free promotions too. As an indie publisher, it is difficult to compete with the likes of David Walliams who can produce a hardback for half the price of my paperback.
Podcasts are great for getting you some exposure. I have done a Thomas Trimble Podcast (Las Vegas) for my book ‘Eli the Dream Traveller’, and I did one with Bare Books Podcasts for my thriller ‘Complicated Souls’. It was lovely to hear I was one of the interviewer’s favourite authors from the series.
Another trick or tip is to think outside the box. For example, with my book Eli the Dream Traveller, I advertised it on astral projection Facebook groups and not just ‘author’ groups.
What is your opinion on the benefits of writing on mental health issues including anxiety and depression? Would you recommend it as a form of self-therapy; of looking inward and reflecting? If not, why?
After leaving teaching, I retrained as a counsellor, so I am quite familiar with mental health issues. I gave up work due to ill health in 2018 and started writing as it gave me a sense of purpose. Writing is a great therapeutic tool. It can be very cathartic to put things down in writing! Diaries and guided writing activities are amazing tools for self-reflection.
During bereavement counselling, I used writing a lot as a way to help clients access their inner world. There are instances though when writing could be detrimental for people with poor mental health. E.g. if a person with depression and ruminating thoughts keeps a diary it could be counter- productive. It could reinforce negative self- defeating thoughts. So it all depends on how the writing is used.
I read a wonderful book called ‘A Wildflower Kiss From Heaven’ by Natalia Shudruk, which demonstrates how journaling can help people through grief.
Do you believe writing can be learned, or that you must be born with a passion and/or talent?
Some people are born with a great natural flare for telling and writing stories. I think there is an art to writing but everyone can write. Some people just need more scaffolding than others.
Do you believe that it's more challenging to write about beliefs, morals and values that conflict with your own? How do you feel about books that explore unusual, 'risky' themes? When reading these books, do you feel at all uncomfortable?
Yes, I have difficulty writing about beliefs, morals and values that conflict with my own. I don’t think I have written a book that deals with a risky theme but I’m pretty sure I would feel uncomfortable with a theme I found distasteful.
World-building applies to all genres, even to those where it is not necessary for authors to create unique societies, landscapes and species. No matter your chosen genre, what top tip can you give aspiring authors when world-building?
Whatever world you create, be it fantasy or real, make sure it is believable and consistent. Authors should ask themselves questions (and answer them of course). What does my world look like? How does it feel? (climate/landscape), What dominates the world?
I suppose it’s about asking yourself ‘what if?’ questions. In Twinkletoes, I create a world where real life overlaps with the imaginary. It’s set in a typical back garden with flowers and a wishing well, yet there are homes in trees and an invisible fairy that can talk to animals!
How do you view and define success? What does it mean to you, and do you currently feel successful? If not, what would you need to achieve to reach success?
Success is finding contentment in life. I know that sounds like a cliché but it’s true. I think every author would like to write a bestseller, but for me, just seeing my work in print, and receiving good feedback makes me feel happy. If just one person loves my story, this is success for me!
What is the secret to becoming a bestselling author, if you believe there is one? Do you agree an Amazon bestselling status counts, even if that status was for a free or discounted book?
I think the secret to becoming a bestselling author is based on 3 factors:
a) writing a great book
b) being lucky enough to be discovered by a big publisher
c) writing a book pertinent for the times.
I think Amazon bestselling status does not necessarily correlate with ‘great book’. Bestsellers can be created by marketers who know how to manipulate Amazon and have the resources to do so.
How do you deal with rejection, criticism and bad reviews from friends, family and strangers? What would you say to someone struggling with a lack of support, or worried about online negativity?
I have never submitted to publishers so have not had to deal with rejection. Receiving criticism is part of the writing experience though. As my late father would say:
‘You can please some of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.’
The hardest part is receiving a low star review with no explanation. But you have to focus on the positives. It’s not in my nature to focus on the negatives. I do think that you have to be prepared for criticism before putting yourself out there. Writing is quite an exposing art!
What question/ comment do you hate receiving in relation to writing? Why do you think it frustrates you so much, and have other authors agreed with you? What answer/s do you usually give?
I haven’t really been asked any questions about writing that I dislike, let alone hate. Most people are genuinely interested in the process and I enjoy answering questions that they have.
Where do you shop for books, and what type of books do you read?
Amazon is where I buy most of my books. I love Kindle too. On the high street I love Waterstones, but my 23-year-old daughter, a real book worm often takes me into charity shops looking for books or small independent bookstores.
I read all types of books. If money was no object, all of my books would be hardbacks with protective sleeves. But in reality, the majority of my books are dogeared paperbacks. I recently tried an audio book and thought I would hate it… but I LOVED the experience. You can clean the kitchen, iron, walk the dog and listen to a great story!
Do you have a favourite author?
I don’t have a favourite author. There are so many great authors I could never have a favourite. It’s like asking me my favourite Roses sweet!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Berni Hellier was born and bred in Swansea, South Wales. She likes writing adult thrillers but also picture books for younger children. She is a wife and mother to two young adults. She loves spending time with her family and friends, and her naughty fox red Labrador Woody. She is a retired teacher and counsellor. She loves the beach and nature and is happiest when she is throwing a ball into the surf for Woody to retrieve.
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This author is not directly affiliated with Curious Cat Books and is a guest on the blog. Please see this website's policy regarding links and recommendations.
ABOUT THE BOOK
Twinkletoes and the Burglars
Release Date: 12/2020
Twinkletoes is a feisty fairy with unexpected powers. She is only visible to children and animals. When Twinkletoes gets angry her feet light up and sparks begin to fly. Can Twinkletoes save the day?
Join Twinkletoes as she tries to tackle two bungling burglars. Your child will love the fact that you can't see the fairy in the book but they can. Beautifully illustrated children's picture book.
"The interview questions were very though provoking and really made me think about what I do and why I do it. I suppose the questions helped me to evaluate my relationship with writing and my books. I enjoyed answering the questions and it was a fun activity to do." - Berni Hellier
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