My latest date with an indie author arrived a bit late, but was well worth waiting for, as I am sure you will agree. I am grateful to Sylva Fae for interrupting her holiday to answer my questions.
Sylva grew up in Lancashire where, “[If] there were hard times for my parents . . . they kept them well hidden from me and my brother. I had a simple but fun childhood, and I look back with fond memories. My parents were artists who had a love of travel and the outdoors. My dad especially loved travelling and would prioritise holidays abroad over buying expensive toys etc – he wanted us to experience new places and learn about other cultures first hand. My mum was the driving force behind buying a farm, which became a sanctuary for injured wildlife and unwanted pets. When not chasing hens and goats out of the house, we often went on adventures around the local moors and would play in the fresh air while my mum sketched the landscape.”
She now lives in Cheshire and owns a woodland in Shropshire. I wondered how that came about and what were the pros and cons.
“When my eldest daughter was a toddler we booked onto a supposedly child-friendly campsite. It turned into a nightmare of rules and regulations with tents regimentally spaced in a crowded field, then there was a horrendous rainstorm! Faced with keeping a rowdy toddler entertained in a tent, we gave up and came home. We had envisaged a relaxing camping experience, sat around the fire as the sun went down, space for our daughter to run wild and have fun, but instead we got the opposite. With a little research, we discovered that there were companies selling plots of woodland. We spent the summer pottering around different sites, until we found our vision of the idyllic woodland camp, hidden in the Shropshire countryside.
Everyone thought we were mad buying a woodland, and they’re probably right but we love it.
We have created a camping area with a fire pit and benches, that is enjoyed by many of our family and friends. Our three girls have the opportunity to experience a little of the childhood we had. They run wild, climb trees, make dens and have learned to cook on a campfire. It’s great to get them playing and learning new skills in the fresh air rather than slaves to technology, like so many other young people nowadays.
Drawbacks? None that I can think of. The woods provide us with a safe place to camp, fuel to heat our house over winter, and as an investment, the value of the land has more than doubled in the nine years we have had it. The only thing I wish was different is that we’d done this years earlier.”
When I asked her about the challenges involved in her past career as a teacher of children and young adults with special needs, she explained how she “fell into this line of work quite by accident, mainly because most of the other teachers were daunted by the challenge the groups presented.
“I never saw disabilities or learning difficulties, I only saw people who approached learning in different ways.
I planned my lessons to enable them to achieve at a rate and in a meaningful way to each individual. It was incredibly rewarding but also frustrating in that the current education system doesn’t fully recognise the achievements these young people make.
The lessons I learned from working with groups of this nature have enhanced my life, and the skills I now carry forward are valuable in many situations.”
Many of Sylva’s books are based on stories she created with her young children very much in mind and contributing to the process. I asked how she thought they compared to traditional children’s fiction like Enid Blyton’s “Famous Five” and “Secret Seven” or more recent works like the “Harry Potter” books.
“I grew up as an Enid Blyton fan, I think I read pretty much every one of her books. I do have a few chapter books, aimed at a similar level on the go, but my main focus is producing picture books. My own children loved the rhyming stories by Julia Donaldson, and the repetitive Hairy Maclary books by Lynley Dodd, and I aspire to create stories that will engage children in the same way.
As her children get older she is adapting her style: “I wanted to create the picture books as memories for my girls of the stories we created together, but already they have outgrown them. I have a few middle school chapter books in the works and a young adult book half written. I must say that I do love the picture book style most of all, but maybe that will change as my girls grow.”
Asked when and where she writes, she explains that since taking voluntary redundancy from her teaching job she writes while her girls are in school – and continues:
“Well, that’s always the plan but inspiration seems to come mostly at night, so I often work in the evenings as well. I type ideas on my mobile phone as they come to me so I’m rarely away from writing. I love to ponder story ideas while I’m sat on a log at the campfire.”
Next we talked about the difference between traditional publishing and self-publishing:
“I was offered publishing deals by two small press publishers but I didn’t feel completely happy with either. I’m not sure what it was that held me back, but I decided to publish independently instead, and I’m glad I did as both publishers have since gone out of business.
I did discover a fantastic publisher through my good friend and children’s author Paul Ian Cross. The Little Lights Studio in Vienna has created a bedtime stories app for families, and I’m proud to have been a part of this project from the beginning. I have five stories in the app and I’m in the process of writing five more.
So now I self-publish books but have a modern publisher for online stories – it’s quite a good combination for me.”
Like all the best children’s books hers are prolifically illustrated – by the author:
“I spent a long time trying to find an illustrator to create the pictures I have when I write. I discovered several things – I am very picky about the styles I like, illustrators are justifiably pricey, and I only like the most expensive! Because of this I stalled for a couple of years, unable to afford what I wanted but unwilling to compromise. I then discovered I could create my own illustrations quite by accident. It started just as a bit of fun creating the story characters for my children, but after showing a couple of my writer friends, they gave me the confidence to illustrate my own stories. Cover design is really just an extension of the illustration process so I do that too.”
Editing, however, is something Sylva regards as too important to undertake herself:
“Editing is definitely something I seek support with.
I believe in supporting other authors and have always offered my services as a beta reader and proof reader to anyone who needs it.
Now we have a faithful network of friends who share skills on a pay-it-forward basis. My work is currently being edited by children’s author Millie Slavidou.”
Noting that Sylva’s website has been rather neglected of late, I wondered how much effort she puts into marketing, probably the most difficult aspect of publishing for us independents.
“You are right! I started the blog after advice from experienced author Lesley Hayes, to write every day. She persuaded me to set up the blog and has encouraged me from the start. As soon as I found the way to illustrate and publish my own books, my energies have gone into that, and yes my poor little blog has been neglected. This is something I want to rectify. My next marketing plan is to reinvent the blog and use it as an additional marketing tool.
I think our best marketing tool is interacting within our community. The more we become involved and support one another, the more help we receive with marketing of our own books. You get what you put in.
I particularly enjoy doing live marketing events, reading to children and answering their questions. Young children are my main audience so their feedback is the most valuable.”
When I asked about her reading preferences she produced a long list of independent authors, including some who have, or soon will be, featured in these ‘dates’.
“I love a good psychological thriller, I want to be kept guessing right until the last page. Since I started beta reading for my writer group, I have read around many genres, perhaps ones I wouldn’t have chosen previously but it has been a great experience. Independent authors like Lesley Hayes, Nico Laeser and Val Tobin are current favourites of mine. In expanding my genres I’ve also discovered authors like Susan Faw, Eric Lahti and Melanie Smith. Each has a different style but I have learned so much from each of them. I would love to meet any of my indie author friends, as I feel we have become friends despite never meeting in real life.”
I like to ask my subjects to reveal something about themselves that might surprise their fans – or, in the case of a children’s author, the fans’ parents. Sylva offers three things:
“My debut book Rainbow Monsters won the Chanticleer Little Peeps award for best in category.
Perhaps not surprising given that I own a woodland, but I run a bushcraft and wild camping group when I’m not writing.
I’m a secret geek! I won the US Navy cryptology challenge two years running despite having no prior knowledge of cryptology or related subjects. Russian newspapers speculated that the winners were being recruited into a top-secret government taskforce, and
my local newspaper suggested I might be a spy!
Of course I’m not a spy, I only did the challenge because I enjoy learning new skills and I’m tenacious in pursuing my goals.
I guess I apply this same tenacity and persistence to my writing too. There is no luck in becoming an author, it takes a lot of hard work and a willingness to learn new skills constantly.”