Tuesday, 29 December 2009

The King and I

I wrote nothing over Christmas. Maybe I needed the break, but it didn't feel good, writing nothing. It's hard to work with holidays on, families in and piles of gift paper rising all around. I suppose I could have pulled a 'leave me – I'm a genius!' moment but thankfully I've got nowhere near enough confidence for that. So no writing for a whole week, but I have read a book, and that's the next best thing, especially if that book is On Writing by Stephen King.

I've never been part of a writer's group or had any tuition or guidance on the craft, except for some editorial feedback and what I've picked up from blog reading over the last six months. I tend to think that if you're any good at something you can mostly find your own way, until, that is, you've reached the point where you need concrete feedback on an actual piece of work. When it comes to novel writing I'm still just a beginner, and beginners need to get stuck right in and not worry about technique until they have something they can apply it to.

So On Writing has come to me at just the right time: revision time, right at the moment when I need someone to guide me through a maze of my own making and point out that readers don't actually want a maze, they want a journey, with clear signs and maybe a coffee shop or two on the way. On Writing is itself so clear and honest, and the author so close, that it almost feels like Stephen King was one of my Christmas guests this year! And I feel bad, because while he gave me the gift of his priceless experience and advice, all I gave him in return was a few percent of £8.99.

Next year I'll let him carve the turkey. I might not watch though.

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Happy Christmas!

Joyeux Noël from Rouen, from its lights and its ice and its mediaeval streets, from the irritable shoppers and the hot spiced cider that will make it all okay again.

Joyeux Noël from the Christmas market, le village Quebecois and its tee-pee, from the steam-pipe carousel and the gingerbread smiles of the children, from the antique shops, the music, and the cut stones of the place, both old and new.

Joyeux Noël from the skaters, from the spotlit bats that swarm at the towers of the cathedral, and Joyeux Noël from the coldest clown I've ever seen.

Joyeux Noël from my little son's first snowman...

...and joyeux Noël from me.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Is My Novel Too Long?

The first draft of The Ghost Effect is now complete at just a little over 74,000 words. Is this too much? Of course, I know there's no easy answer to this. Except, wait! My agent did once tell me that a story is only too long if it feels too long. So there's my answer. The problem is, the last person to judge that is the author himself.

All first drafts need several edits to get them into shape, and my novel is no different. The very first revision will of course include the rampant removal of rogue elements, maybe even whole scenes, and this could bring the text below the magic 70k threshold. But why have I even imposed such an arbitrary limit on myself? Philip Pullman doesn't seem concerned (not that I'd have the brass neck to pursue such a comparison).

The fact is, I'm baffled by this subject, and even my imaginary eleven-year-old is too precocious to help me. Authors should write with a clear idea of their readership, but while those who write for fellow adults can use themselves as ideal readers, children's writers have to peer into the fog of otherness for a glimpse of theirs. My own memories of being eleventyteen are too faint to go much beyond abstract unhappiness and apprehension about homework. My own two children won't be able to help me do better than this for at least another six years yet, so I'm reduced to picking up what I can, where I can get it – mostly from other books targeted at a similar age. This is what makes people like this so important to someone like me.

For those who don't know, children's books are roughly age-banded into four main groups: picture books for the under fives, first reader/chapter books for 5 to 8, first novels for 9 to 12 (termed 'middle grade' in the US) and then 'teen fiction' or 'young adult', which usually trails off at about 16 because readers older than this can and do wade out into the deeper currents of mainstream literature.

So step one for a children's writer is to consciously aim at some place on this spectrum, whilst hoping that the book will also appeal to others outside it, especially in a world where adults are increasingly turning to kid-lit for their kicks. The Ghost Effect was written straight at the upper end of 9 to 12, with a little overlap beyond. This sub-band is sometimes termed 'upper middle grade' or 'tween' fiction. So, how long should a book for this age group ideally be? I really don't know, and frankly I don't think anyone does, but editors I submit my text to will all have an opinion.

Some on-line sources say that fiction for 9 to 12-year-olds should rarely exceed 50k words, but others (perhaps more recent) note that 9-year-olds are tackling longer and longer texts. This is encouraging but it doesn't really answer my question.

I recently discovered that you can find a word count for selected books on Amazon by hunting for the 'Text stats' link in the 'Inside This Book' sub-menu (about half way down a given book's page). It's a shame this isn't available for all books, but it does help deepen my unholy obsession with quantity.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on this moveable feast, whether you're writing for children/young adults or not. I know the answer is 'it depends', but still...

Monday, 14 December 2009

It's a First Draft Hair Day

As it's been, frankly, for some time. But it's not just sticky-up hair and an increased tolerance for odd socks -- preoccupation with the fates of people who don't exist (to the exclusion of those who do) hasn't made me an easy person to be around lately. I know I'm not the only one whose eyes look in as much as they look out, but that's no more an excuse for grumpiness than it is for not using a comb. Mind you, I don't think I've ever used of those.

The first draft itself isn't actually finished yet, though I expect to round off the last scene this week. The achievement is less momentous than it might have been because I've crossed this finishing line once before, and with the same characters too. This time however I know those characters much better, and I've given them some interesting new scenery and a richer story. Of course, the big unknown is whether or not these are people that someone other than their creator will be the slightest bit interested in. There's only one way to find out. But first there's that brain-frazzling first revision to do. Oh, and Christmas of course.

The Ghost Effect is a 70k word upper-Middle Grade paranormal adventure about time, loss and the secret power of dreams. Let's hope that one day it'll be an actual book too.

Monday, 7 December 2009

Festival du Livre de Jeunesse

I've been neglecting my blog a bit lately. I always told myself that I would post at least twice a week, but I'm struggling to reach even half that. Thanks to all those who follow my blog and who haven't got bored and wandered off yet. Please stay! I will try harder, but only once my novel is finished. More about that soon, but as I'm only a few thousand words off a first draft, my mind is very much elsewhere.

Talking of elsewhere, I visited Rouen's annual children's book festival this weekend – how could I not? – and felt briefly energised by the sight of so many books and bookish types. I say briefly because I met friends for dinner afterwards and lost my creative drive somewhere between the duck and the whisky trifle.

It would normally be a huge event for me, a children's book festival in my home town, but as I've mentioned before none of my picture books are published in France, and so I feel oddly detached around the French publishing industry. The first year I was in Rouen I did sit at a table at the festival, at the stand of the ABC Bookshop (Rouen's first source of books in English) but this only seemed to emphasise my sense of not belonging. There were piles of my Clovis books, and even a 'learn English!' worksheet I'd cobbled together in French to make the books more appealing. A few were sold, I signed some of those and drew for the children, but...

Six years later, I still have nothing published in France, but last year a Belgian publisher brought out my second Clovis book, The Biggest Splash as Le Grand Plouf! and that made me happy. My author copies vanished in a moment, though I still have a stack of De Grootste Plons through want of Flemish-speaking acquaintances.

In a previous post, I mentioned that I don't like reading in French. I also said that I'm tired of seeing all these vampires. Well, despite both these things remaining true, I'm now struggling through Les Vampires de Londres by Fabrice Colin, banging my head against the edge of my vocabulary but enjoying the book nonetheless.

Rouen is so beautiful at the moment, so ancient and Christmas light-charming. Expect photos shortly, but in the meantime, with 'beautiful' and 'charming' still in the air, here's a book promotion video to make any aspiring novelist dream:

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

The Looking-Glass Window

Be careful when you look in the mirror. You never know who might be looking back.

The woman who used to own our house must have been very paranoid. There's only one window in the building that gives out onto the street, and she had it filled with a sheet of unbreakable reflective glass, flush with the wall and fixed forever shut. A looking-glass for the people.

And the people do look in. We live in a quartier populaire, which means that our end of town is chock-full of all sorts (though it can also be polite code for 'dodgy district'). Walk five minutes one way and there's a college and a vast music school. Walk the other way and you'll soon pass the homeless shelter, and -- once the sun's gone down -- some very friendly young ladies. Moving quickly on, you can't miss the enormous hospital with its busy helipad, a multi-ethnic shopping street, a swimming pool, the biggest crèche in France and a dojo, all within a short walk of our house and its public mirror. So when I say people look in, I really do mean a great many people.

But when they stop to pick their teeth, refresh their make-up or explore their noses, doesn't it occur to them that they might have an audience? My two small boys are sometimes just the other side, laughing hysterically as madame vainly tries to eliminate swimming-pool hair, or as monsieur delves in his beard for a lost piece of Brie. And some people love to just stop and linger there, giving themselves alluring looks and sweeping back their manes. And that's just the men!

You can tell the looking-glass window is well known, because people walk past it with their eyes fixed on their reflections the whole way, as if they had assumed the narcissistic, three-quarter profile position several steps before, anxious not miss not a moment of self adulation.

I wanted to take photos of this vanity fair, to make a comedy montage souvenir for the future, but I have better things to do than lying in wait in my sitting room with the camera on standby. Instead, my family and I just treat it as a source of spontaneous entertainment, our very own Punch and Judy stand. That, or draw the curtains.

Of course, there's some glib metaphor value in all this. As writers we reflect ourselves in our writing, no matter how much we try to disguise it with lurid characterisation and exotic settings. The page is our mirror, and we like to see ourselves there, do we not? But as with the looking-glass window, there'll usually be someone else watching back, someone we must never forget as we write. Though we may never spot them, our readers see everything -- warts, self-indulgence and all.

Friday, 27 November 2009

Leo the Late Bloomer

Time for another book review, and it's something a bit special too.

Leo the Late Bloomer was a great favourite of mine as a child in the seventies, and glancing around the internet, I see I'm not the only one who remembers this classic American picture book. As far as I can tell this book is no longer available in the UK, but when my first child was born my mother kindly ordered me a copy from the US, bringing back floods of memories. By now that nostalgic present is almost unreadable, it's been so well-thumbed and fought over at bed times.

I can remember clearly having this book read to me, and how I patiently waited, night after night, for Leo the tiger to bloom, frustrated on his behalf that he couldn't read, write or eat neatly like his animal friends. I think all little children can relate to that as I did, especially if they have older brothers and sisters. And then what hope (okay, perhaps I'm making this bit up) was felt when he finally and triumphantly mastered these things! As with all childhood memories, I've no doubt embellished my fragmentary recollections. But I do have one strong memory, a response from my three-year-old self, circe 1976, now finally delivered to the illustrator after 33 years of being deep-frozen in my headbox:

Why, oh why, do all the tigers look exactly the same?

This really confused me. I can remember seeing the difference between Leo and his parents when they all sat together because of their sizes, but when they were spread out across a double page, uncertainty returned. And it must have really bothered me too, because the same feelings of bemusement come back today when I read the book, and prompt me to explain, 'now, remember, this one is Leo...

A small -- a very small -- blemish on an otherwise perfect book.

Leo the Late Bloomer is still available in France, and I was delighted to see it's one of the titles in my three-year-old's school book club. This means we'll soon be getting our fourth copy of this delightful tale of frustration, patience and triumph.

Leo the Late Bloomer (which is heartily recommended, especially if you have already got your copy of Jack's Tractor and just need a little something to go with it), by Robert Kraus and Jose Aruego (Illus.) is published in the US by Windmill Books through HarperCollins, and in France as Léo by Ecole des Loisirs.

Monday, 23 November 2009

Blogging Awards

In the real world, the best trophies are ones you can serve mulled-wine in. On-line however, where hot autumn comforts can only be virtual, there's still nothing nicer than being freely selected to receive a digital award for blog-keeping, and I'm very pleased to have been chosen for two of these in the last few days. So thank you Simon Kewin for the Superior Scribbler award and thanks also to Melinda Szymanik for the Kreativ Blogger award. Both Simon's Blog and Melinda's are worth spending some time at. Take wine with you, but please bring the virtual glasses back here afterwards.

These awards do come with certain rules and an obligation to pass them on. If you are here because you have been given an award by me, please go to the end of this post to see the rules for each award, though remember: no one is really obliged to do anything.

First though, to play the game, I have to nominate five fellow bloggers for the Superior Scribbler Award and then seven for the Kreativ one. That's a lot of nominations! It's obviously the case that every blog I follow is award-worthy, otherwise I wouldn't follow it, would I? Anyway, I find I can't select twelve blogs in any meaningful way, so I'll just go ahead and nominate seven people for BOTH awards and hope the Internet Award Police don't break down my door at three am and superglue my lap-top. Here then are the fabulous seven, in no particular order:

The Superior Scribbler Award and The Kreativ Blogger Award

  1. To the nine-year-old Bookreader at The Books I've Read, for being at once one of the most interesting people on-line (for children's writers like me) and also one of the scariest (punches are not pulled! Nor should they be).

  2. To William Sedgwick at The Fly in the Temple, for being a very talented young man with a great deal more to show and tell than his blog currently suggests. William, I hope this award encourages you to show more of your excellent life-drawing and then write about it.

  3. To Anita Saxena at Anita's Edge, for being brave and generous by sharing her writing with us and for hosting amusing collaborative writing games.

  4. To Natalie Bahm for extracting lessons on creativity and the art of writing from everyday events and family life, often in a humorous or touching way. And much more besides.

  5. To James Mayhew at Dusty Old Books for injecting a little soul into the internet.

  6. To Rachel Fenton at Snow Like Thought, for lyrical storytelling, painting and poetry, and for being patient with my facetious comments.

  7. To Penny at Planet Penny, for rampant creativity and assorted livestock, and for being the best mother a proud son could have.

Thanks to all of you for the interesting things you say and do, and for sharing them on-line.

Before I post the rules, I see that rule 3 of the Kreativ Blogger award states that I should now provide seven facts about myself that you don't know. Despite risking sending you back to Simon or Melinda's blog, here are seven marginally interesting things that might be of slight interest even as they make this long post even longer:

  • So, I have a pet peeve: people starting conversations with the word so, despite there being no previous information to justify it. It's potentially confusing and makes my toes curl. Mind you, I also dislike it when people trail off to an ending with the same word, so...

  • I like tea as much as coffee. This seems to annoy people, but what can I do? I also like dogs as much as cats and wine as much as beer. And I shall stand firm on this.

  • I don't suffer fools gladly, despite being something of a fool myself. Ah, hypocrisy.

  • I sometimes solve part of the crossword in my head, so that when I'm sitting at a café or bar, drinking tea/coffee/wine/beer, I can whip out the untouched grid and effortlessly start filling it in. Ah, vanity.

  • I secretly wish I could dress like a Regency dandy, despite not having the wardrobe or the consumptive physic. Or the nerve.

  • I was Alexander the Great in a previous life. No really, I was. Or was it Napoleon? No, it was definitely Alexander – you can still see his likeness in my imperial nose and proud Hellenic chin.

  • I sometimes lie about my life, and I've even done it in print. Fiction is a hard habit to suspend.

And now, the fun part...

These are the rules for the Superior Scribbler Award:

1.Each Superior Scribbler must in turn pass The Award on to 5 most-deserving Bloggy Friends.
2.Each Superior Scribbler must link to the author and the name of the blog from whom he/she has received The Award.
3.Each Superior Scribbler must display The Award on his/her blog, and link to
This Post, which explains The Award.
4.Each Blogger who wins The Superior Scribbler Award must visit
this post and add his/her name to the Mr. Linky List. That way, we'll be able to keep up-to-date on everyone who receives This Prestigious Honor!
5.Each Superior Scribbler must post these rules on his/her blog.

And these are the rules for the Kreativ Blogger Award:

1. Copy and paste the pretty picture which you see above onto your own blog.
2. Thank the person who gave you the award and post a link to their blog.
3. Write 7 things about yourself we do not know.
4. Choose 7 other bloggers to award.
5. Link to those 7 other bloggers.
6. Notify your 7 bloggers.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Fangs For Nothing

One of the disadvantages of being an English writer in France is the difficulty of getting books to read. I could read in French I suppose, but it takes more energy and feels a bit like peering at a world through frosted glass. In other words, I'd rather not. The internet is the obvious solution, but there are drawbacks there too. What I really miss is being able to wander into a good bookshop, browse and then make a chance purchase.

Now, there are some excellent bookshops in Rouen and I do wander around in them from time to time, if only to soak up the atmosphere. But today I decided I really ought to go and thoroughly explore the amazing children's section at L'Armitière with a view to assessing the market as it is today, on the shelf, regardless of any differences there may be between English-language and French publishing. What I found surprised me.

It turns out that most of the books there are translated from English anyway, and many of the others are trying to look like they are. And do you know what? It's not just hype, there really are hoards of vampires in bookstores these days, whole belfries of them! Though Transylvania is right out – modern vampires live mostly in the suburbs.

The weird thing is -- even though there was a special stand for vampire books -- I didn't see anything by Stephanie Meyer there. Though I did come away rather feeling that I had, if you see what I mean.

Whatever happened to vampires? They really have gone soft, haven't they? Now they are the toothbrushing playthings of adolescent female fantasy, I really feel the lack of good old fashioned, blood-hungry monsters. Not that I want to write about them particularly, but we need to leave something in the shadows, otherwise how will we scare our children? And it's no good looking to werewolves, zombies or fallen angels, they're just as dreamy and pretend-dangerous these days.

With one eye (as always) on the future, I collect romantic comedy plot ideas for adult fiction. Coming home from my visit to the vampire's air conditioned, bookish lair, something silly in that line occurred to me. A story about a shy, socially awkward young man who never has any luck with women, and who hides himself away to study all the faux-bestial anti-heroes in paranormal teen fiction. He emerges a year later, deathly pale from lack of sunlight and over-wise from all those glimpses into the secret desires of female writers. He learns how to cook, gets a job in publishing, and then goes on the rampage, carelessly letting his eighteenth century manners show beneath his leather jacket and simpering, 'Mon amour, I vish to slay you mercilessly, but for now, I sink I vill just hold your hand, no?'

Monday, 9 November 2009

Unbridled Self-promotion

Having come over all moody and Nordic in my last post, it's now time for something completely different. Here's a shameless plug for my latest book, Jack's Tractor.

Jack's Tractor was actually published in June, but due to an administrative mix up my author copies went astray. This is mostly my fault for changing address so often in the last few years. I only hope that the lucky recipient has enough English-speaking friends (with children) to make the most of their windfall. Otherwise, they can always prop up the piano or line the guinea pig's cage.

Anyway, having cleared this up with the lovely people at Hodder Children's Books, I finally received twelve shiny new hardbacks last Friday, and as everyone who has ever had anything published knows, that moment is always at least a little exciting.

Jack's Tractor is a significant book for me. It's my first published text that has been illustrated by someone else. I have two others under contract now, and a third out on submission, but this is the first to reach the shelves. Not being the illustrator has been a strange experience, and I was quite seriously worried that I wouldn't like the illustration style. But I needn't have been concerned – John Kelly has done an excellent job, with a style not dissimilar to my own, but very different in technique and finish. I love the colours and the vibrancy, and my children love the pictures too, which is the acid test.

Ironically, this book was slow in the production because the illustrator had some trouble of a repetitive strain nature – as acknowledged in his dedication -- which is one of the problems I've had with my own illustration style. John, if you're reading this, I feel for you and hope yours was only a temporary difficulty. Not least because I'd like you to illustrate another of my books one day.

Jack's Tractor, which has had good reviews, would make an excellent Christmas present (cof!) for anyone under six who likes noise, fun, colour and animals, and it can be ordered directly from the publisher, or from your nearest independent bookseller. Other purchasing options are available.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

I Was Having None Of It.

I've been an unsuccessful amber hunter for years, always baffled by the motley shore. But this time I was determined.

My trips to Denmark are infrequent, but with a growing family there I've managed a number of walks on the shores of the Baltic Sea. Under that dark body of water is a petrified forest, a lost landscape that has been scattering its treasure – crystallized blood of trees – in the deep currents since prehistory. During storms the sea casts it ashore, where it can be found, rough and mingled with seaweed, by those who know how to look.

Baltic Gold.

I don't care about the monetary value of amber. No one should whose livelihood doesn't depend on it. I can buy amber on the high street, or indeed coal – fossilized tree matter is very common. I only care about that lost forest and about connections in time and place. What I'm searching for is not an organic jewel, but a palm-full of ancient stuff, a hard-won pocket prize to warm and handle and look into, with maybe a fly trapped inside, or frozen bubbles of another world's air. But above all what I want is to find it myself, to make that personal connection. A piece of amber can be cut, polished and sold many times, but it can only be found once.

Denmark this autumn was picked out in amber colours. The window of the wood-burner, the birch leaves in the sodden forest, a candle flame seen through a chill glass of beer. Every golden flash a taunt -- a challenge to go down to the shore to try again.

But the weather was abysmal, even running to unseasonable snow, and not the nice kind either. The East wind was unstoppable and the sea boiled like a cauldron of lead. Perfect conditions for amber to be thrown ashore, but not for searching it out. Typically, I only had a light jacket and scarf with me, hardly proof against horizontal rain that felt like it came straight from Siberia (and it probably did).

I struggled down to the sea anyway, and spent an hour inclined against the gale, scanning the sand and seaweed through the spray. Somewhere nearby a grown man was foolish enough to try and fly a kite, but the scrap of blue at the end of his long line just raggled in the air, never more than a few feet off the ground. A whole family, wearing enormous padded tracksuits and muffled up to the eyes, arrived, staggered in the elements, and then hurried back to their car. It was as if the Baltic wanted to be left alone to count its treasure.

But I was having none of it. I staggered on and I blinked, and eventually I found something. A small, rough yellow-brown nugget, that even felt slightly warm to touch. Amber? Within seconds I knew.

It was just another stone.

By now it was time to leave. I couldn't stay on the edge of the world any longer. I had failed yet again. I made to throw the stone into the sea, but a glib thought came to me then. Something about every stone, even the humblest little pebble, having the potential to be polished up to bring out its best. And coming from such a place, and being immeasurably ancient itself, even my caramel-coloured imposter was a wonder in its humble way. And I was probably the first to have found it too, to have picked it out from the rest, to have looked closely at its tiny landscape. Then I remembered William Blake's grain of sand and these thoughts didn't seem so glib after all. I put the stone in my pocket and went home.

And what about the amber, that Viking fire-stone? Where was the charged sun-made miracle matter of the ancient Greeks? What of Baltic Gold? Well, it's still there. But I was having none of it.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Off to Denmark...

...to meet my newest nephew and become his Godfather (in an agnostic and slightly pagan way, but don't tell his mum). If you happen to be sailing in the Western Baltic in the next week and spot a solitary figure pacing the shore in search of raw amber, it might just be me.

Well, you never know.

Monday, 26 October 2009

SilverFin by Charlie Higson

When I started this blog I decided that I wouldn't do book reviews. But since I'm reading so much 9-12 (Middle Grade) fiction, and some teen stuff too, It seems a shame not to talk about it here, especially as I'm considering these books and their genre from a writer's point of view.

Here, then, is my review for SilverFin, the first in the 'Young Bond' series by Charlie Higson.

On a recent trip to the UK I bought a small armful of books from The Bumper Bookshop, an independent children's bookshop (and therefore a precious thing) in Hastings. The books I chose were mostly those flagged up as popular by the assistant, rather than titles I would have chosen myself. I need to read for information as much as for pleasure. Anyway, having recently given up on one of these books (it's hard to concentrate when there's blood trickling out of your ears), I decided to try this James Bond prequel next. I'm glad that I did.

I'm not a great fan of James Bond, much preferring John le Carré's approach to spy fiction. I have only read one of Ian Fleming's books, but I've seen plenty of the films, and so even my inner eleven-year-old wasn't really looking forward to SilverFin. I was expecting something much cheesier and gaudier than the rather restrained and considered schoolboy adventure that I actually found.

Since these books were deliberately commissioned by Ian Fleming Publications to extend the Bond canon back into the spy's childhood, Higson probably had little choice but to follow the famous 007 formula that we all know and, er recognise. And it's all here, believe me. But at the same time, the author has still managed to give us something fresher than might have been the case.

So yes, there's a dastardly foreign baddie with a plan to take over the world, but the author doesn't insult us with the usual German or oriental, or a shameful traduction of a Jew. An unwholesome American lunatic is far more interesting. And yes, the main female interest, Wilder Lawless, has a silly name and flowing blond hair, but thankfully she doesn't get the full Bond-girl treatment. No bulletproof bikini for her, though she does thunder around on a black horse called Martini.

There's a dash of formal intelligence gathering in the person of dying uncle Max, who also provides an Aston Martin for James to drive (this is the 1930s so it's okay), but we're spared the daft gadgets and empty patriotism. Teen Bond and his pals have to save the world with nothing more than pluck, penknives and schoolboy guile, and hurrah for that!

Perhaps the biggest surprise was just how likeable I found Higson's Bond. 007 has always seemed a suave, selfish blank to me, too smooth to ever have any purchase on a reader's/viewer's affections. But the bullied orphan we discover in SilverFin, capable and privileged but also vulnerable and unsure, is a hero anyone could get behind.

In terms of structure and plot, there are one or two slight weakness in my opinion. After an intriguing start we have to watch Bond find his feet at Eton, which slowed down the pace far too much for me. But I suppose, this being the very first official Bond story, there was a lot of background and character development to get out of the way first. The real adventure only starts half way through the book, and I can't help thinking there could have been more done to develop it in the first half. Also, Wilder Lawless gets too small a part, being little more than a token girl in the end, but I suspect she got edited into the background, since the author seems to like her.

These things aside though, I'm surprised at just how much my inner eleven-year-old enjoyed SilverFin, and I would recommend this book to anyone over ten in search of a well-written adventure story, Bond fan or not. Thank you, Charlie Higson.

SilverFin is published by Puffin Books in the UK and Miramax Books in the US.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

If Anyone Can...

Yesterday morning I took my son Max to watch pelicans being introduced to their new home at the zoological park at Clères. It was a very rainy day, which was no doubt perfect for pelicans. Less so for sketchbooks.

They were enormous! Max had been expecting something duck-sized I think. He was very impressed by them, and the first thing he did when he got home was draw one. And so, since I never did post another colour-bottom ant, here's Max's sketch of a pelican, standing triumphantly over a very exotic fish.

I'm especially intrigued by the way he's drawn feathers. I think he was influenced by a stylised depiction of a peacock that was pinned up round the zoo.

Monday, 19 October 2009

Lashed to the Keyboard

There's an acronym buzzing about writer's blogs: WIP. For those who don't know, it means Work In Progress and generally refers to a half-written novel. However, If you did already know that, the chances are you've long since noticed that there's a silent H in WIP. I was certainly aware of it today – six hours at the keyboard wrestling with an over-complex plot, or six of the best? What's the difference?

But at least I'm writing again, at least I'm back in the saddle. But isn't it supposed to be me with the whip?

Saturday, 10 October 2009

Special Agents and the Mission Possible

It seems I don't blog enough about writing. This is true, but it shouldn't be a surprise – I've been a visual artist for a great deal longer, and when it comes to writing I don't feel I know how to write about it yet, if you see what I mean.

As I've mentioned before, I was unable to find a publisher for my first completed novel. This has set a certain tone in my writing efforts this year. At the time I was quite shocked by this -- I think it's a good story, well(ish?) told, though there are certainly some kinks to be ironed out. And I'd turned down paid work to get it finished too. But also at the time (just six short months ago) I hadn't really explored the more authorly corners of the blogosphere, and had no idea how many aspiring novelists there are or just how stiff the competition is. Yes, I'm a published writer already, but moving from one publishing subset (picture books) to another makes me a beginner all over again.

Which is why I'm so lucky to already have an agent.

It's been a difficult summer for me and my writing. When, in the wake of all that rejection, my agent sent my second novel back for a major rethink, I was left pretty demoralised and confused. What was the best course of action? Run back to my illustration? Start a third novel (I have several ideas) or tackle that major re-think and find a solution?

It can be very tough to have that 'end of the line' phone call but at least with an agent the whole process of submission -- from hopeful optimism to bitter disappointment -- can be all over in a couple of months. No lingering 'maybes' for me – just one big terminal NO. But this was different -- with the second novel my agent was stopping me from using up another chance with real live editors (they're very busy people). In her words, 'we won't throw you to the lions.' And those lions are choosier than ever.

Writers are solitary creatures and need friends, but there are times when the best friend you can have is a no-nonsense industry professional with a big red pen. And an assistant. My agent's assistant has a sharp editorial eye and she produced detailed critical reports on both my novels. With the first, I was reluctant to make big changes based on such a report, naively saying that I would rather work on such things with an editor. That's a mistake I won't make again. So when she suggested that I spend time writing around the subjects and themes of my second novel in order to develop them and then present the (hopefully) more highly evolved result to her for a new assessment, I knew what I'd be doing over the following months.

And it did take months to do this. The lowest point of the whole exercise was deciding to embark on a detailed, blow-by-blow chapter plan of the story and then getting bogged down in that! It felt like having a puncture, but finding that the jack was broken and so going to fix that, but finding the spanner missing, so going to buy a new one, but the shop was shut, so...

that really was Mission Impossible, and dropping that approach marked a change for the better.

Ten days ago I finally clicked 'send' on a 5k word proposal/synopsis, complete with a list of characters and their motivations. And last Friday I heard back that the whole idea was 'much, much stronger'. So I'm writing again. And I mean, really writing, not faffing about with arcs and chapter plans (never do that! It's pure muse-icide! Like dismantling a butterfly to find out how it works, only in reverse.)

I've read a lot of 'why you need an agent' blog posts recently, but one advantage that I haven't seen mentioned is the dousing effect they can have on an author's flaming self-delusion. Left on your own with your head full of story, it's all too easy to end up wallowing in a sticky mire of self-indulgence, chasing your own shadow. A good agent will soon put a stop to that. That's what makes them so special.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

The Man in the Moon

Just a quick dive into my sketchbooks today, this time right down to my graduation year. After four years of art school, the habit of always carrying something to draw with and on was new but firmly established. No pocket Moleskines back then, and I clearly thought nothing of taking an A4 sketchbook to the pub. Click for a closer look.

The Pub in question was The Man in the Moon in Cambridge, known at the time for its live folk music. I wasn't into folk particularly, but I'd fallen in with the hurdy-gurdy crowd and was happy, as ever, for the chance to draw musicians.

I don't recall much detail of the evening (not for the reason you think – I just have a bad memory) but it's always a delight to be briefly transported back to a lost moment in time, no matter how sketchy. That reminds me, I must get on with some writing...

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Une Ménagerie for Max and an Ant Fourmi

I'm sure it's the height of egotism to post my own son's drawings and expect others to be interested in them. But I'm doing it anyway.

Here is Max's drawing of a zoo. What an elephant! There's also a friendly tiger, a giraffe, a butterfly and an 'orange-bottom ant'.

Max is five-years-old, and until about a month or so ago he showed very little inclination to draw anything. And I struggled to hide my disappointment. Not that I pressured him or anything, but our shared time with crayons and paper amounted to me drawing whatever he wanted on demand, and him sobbing 'Daddy, I can't!' if I suggested he do a little picture for me. Now he draws all the time. Imagine how I feel! Imagine how he feels!

I won't pretend that he's showing any great talent. All children draw like this at his age, without fear of error or of empty space. But natural aptitude or not, he will develop his new habit now, and my job is to encourage it as far as it will go and try to prevent it from being trampled on by some misguided teacher with an eraser and marks-out-of-ten.

Some say that we all have a talent for something. Others that there's no such thing. I don't know the truth of it, but I do know that everyone can aspire to draw to a certain extent. Not, it's true, as well as Rembrandt (or this exceptional young man), but anyone who can make a mark can probably make another, better one next time. So if you're reading this and have come through school with the idea that you can't, I say this to you: pick up pen and paper, think back to your fearless, five-year-old self, and then draw an orange-bottom ant.

I bet you can.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Have You Found Your Inner Smile?

From my sketchbooks, here's a drawing of my good friend Julian seeking a sense of metaphysical contentment. Or something. I doubt he'll find it in that glass though.

Julian -- screenwiter, artist and the founder of Moosetours® (sunny holidays for the discerning sketchbook keeper) -- has recently had some bookish frustration. Julian, if you're reading this, here's a virtual boost on the back from someone who knows all too well what that's like. Keep looking – it's in there somewhere.

And now I should get back to looking for mine (I think I left it pressed between the pages of an old book).

Have you found yours?

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Vade Retro!

I'm sending the Devil away from my blog now. He's had his say. However, despite my misgivings, I am going to borrow his e-reader for a bit, just to give it a second chance. I have the feeling I'm going to own one at some point in the future, though certainly not until they come up with something much less clunky and squint-making. If I ever sort out my time travel problems I might just zip forward to 2017 and then come back and blog about the Apple Soft-Touch Flexiscroll. No home will be without one.

And whatever you think of that, Flexiscroll can't be a worse name than Kindle. I'd love to know how that brand name was coughed up. Anyone know? Anyway, top marks go to the interesting and talented Rachel Fenton for holding Amazon's e-reader up to a mirror and perhaps glimpsing the diabolic truth behind the name Kindle:

Eld Nik!

Yes, I know it works better in Old English but still -- creepier and creepier. Someone should tell Dan Brown. No, on second thoughts, perhaps not...

Talking of time travel, I'm happy to say that the clouds have cleared slightly and I'm writing again. I don't want to tempt fate, but at the same time, declaring this in public might just help me keep up my new progress. Please hold me to account.

Nicola Morgan, also interesting and talented, recently posted some excellent advice on how to blog well. The lesson seems to be 'give to your readers rather more than you take from them'. Easier said than done, but since this post is mostly just waffle about demons and time travel, here's some music for you. Don't forget to consider buying it if you like it (and you will).

Sunday, 27 September 2009

To Hell With Books!

The paper kind, I mean. Let us embrace the convenience of the e-reader!

Now, this is hardly my heartfelt position on the subject of digital books. Like most wordy people I love my tatty old paperbacks and don't like the idea of a hand-held reading unit, no matter how slimline. But there would be little point adding my voice to those already busily (and ironically) defending paper in on-line forums and blogs. What else is there to say? Books are the most highly-evolved form of carbon capture known to man, they are always beautiful (even when their spines fall off) and a house with no books is a sorry and cheerless place. We love 'em so hands off!

But the fact is, the digital book – which has actually been with us for years – has recently seen a huge surge in popularity. When I was a student we often talked about the future of the printed book, but few of us were seriously worried about it. In particular, the idea of e-paper screens was not taken seriously. Now, a decade and a half later, there's already a choice of e-reader, with the Kindle possibly coming to the UK soon and new players entering the market. The US already seems to have welcomed e-readers with open arms, with digital sales of the latest Dan Brown novel briefly rivalling the paper edition. And there's talk of colour screens in the near future.

I had a little play with a Sony e-reader recently but I wasn't exactly seduced by it. In any event, I'm not temperamentally predisposed to being in the first wave of anything (though I don't like a Luddite). But it seems to me that there's nothing to be gained from merely complaining about this revolution in the medium of reading, or from hoping that it goes away. And might it not be a good thing? To explore that possibility, allow me to speak with forked tongue and give the Devil's defence of digital books.


Paper books are unhygienic. They are wasteful. They take up a lot of space and do their authors no favours.

Why not buy a Kindle instead? It has a such a wonderfully creepy name. For sure, the screen is a putrid shade and the grey text sits ill upon it, but give the tech time; one day paper will seem dull by comparison, and those still reading off it duller still.

Think of the poor planet! Think of the carbon being pumped into the air by book distributors. Think of all those printing sweatshops in the Far East. Just thinking of the ink alone should make you paper-lovers feel tainted with guilt. And think of the swarms of sales reps driving all day to make sure that your over-lit streets stay stacked high with books. Millions of books.

What a shame about half of them will have to be pulped. Chemically.

Turn to the e-reader today and help change this. Yes, in the long run lots of people will lose their jobs, but since e-books are much cheaper, even the unemployed will be able read the latest literature.

And what of the poor authors, watching their incomes dwindle as readers blithely pass on their work or give it to charity shops? How must they feel knowing that one sale might be read by a dozen people, with no control and certainly no recompense? Second hand bookshops are choking writers! But with an e-reader file swapping can be hindered, so that everyone who wants to read a book has to pay for it. And because the costs are low they probably will, which all adds up to a fuller wallet for the people who actually write the stuff in the first place.

So let's go digital. After all, why wouldn't you want to see out-of-print books become available again, or the market in poetry and short stories be revitalised?

Why would you NOT want a library in your pocket?

You know it makes sense! Hisssss...


That's more than enough of that. It's sometimes fun being the Devil's advocate but it's never nice being his mouthpiece. But does he have a point?

Wednesday, 23 September 2009


If you're here from the other place, yay!
Now I hope that you'll like me and stay.
Never let it be said
Self-promotion is dead,
Or that versification don't pay.

Welcome and help yourself to coffee -- it's for a good cause. Here's sugar and cream, and a batch of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. There's also a bottle of calvados if your day isn't going as planned. It's nice dashed into coffee too.

(Um, if you've come for the other thing, I'll meet you behind the yucca in five minutes)

Monday, 21 September 2009

My Particular Friend

I had such an unusual post planned. As part of the Journée du Patrimoine, a day of access to -- and celebration of -- France's cultural heritage, the Natural History Museum of Rouen offered a one-off guided tour. At night. By torchlight alone!

The museum is a seriously spooky place. Most of its shaggy exhibits date from the nineteenth century, and the long galleries of over-restored, glass-bound beasts give off a gothic Doctor Moreauishness even by day. There you can see the escaped circus elephant that roamed the city in the winter of 1910 (and which died from pneumonia as a result), a two-headed kitten embryo (pasta yellow in Victorian formaldehyde), and a whole menagerie of patched up and flaking beasts. So many glass eyes. Such narrow windows.

I should have liked to take my camera. I should have liked to capture shifting light and shadows in long exposure.

I should have booked earlier.

Having ground my teeth about missing this ghoulish evening, I have decided to turn back to my sketchbooks for a different subject entirely. Here, instead, is a tribute to my particular friend, Ben.

Now, I obviously don't want to suggest that there is any link between Ben and a bunch of moth-eaten, crumbly creatures from the past. He is in fact a fine specimen, and with all his own hair and teeth he's annoyingly better preserved than I am, given that we're the same age.

Ben and I first met when we were four-years-old, and he's worth a mention here mostly because he is the invisible presence behind many of my sketchbook drawings. We have journeyed a lot over the years, and whether he's had to wait for me, go on ahead, or just tolerate my distracted conversation in situ, Ben (who only draws cars) has always been a patient travelling companion.

Neither of us are especially adventurous I suppose (though we do like a laugh) but our wanderings -- from the Scottish Highlands to the Nubian Desert -- have left their traces in dozens of battered Moleskines. This quick sketch, coloured in Photoshop, shows Ben pondering his letters in a game of rude Scrabble (bonus points if you use bad language, especially if you make it up) in a pub in Northumberland. Ben is a formidable opponent, and this must have been dashed off during one of the brief moments when it was his go. No doubt he used an X and a Q across a triple word square and made those at the next table blush.

So no crooked animal shadows for me, but at least I have this chance to thank Ben for all the fun, the foreign forays, and more than thirty years of priceless friendship. May we never need to resort to formaldehyde.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Croatian Sketchbook

I've been digging through my sketchbooks again, and these drawings brought back memories of island hopping in Croatia in 2003. Although billed as a walking trip, the Adriatic Sea meant that we spent much of our holiday time aboard the brave little Stončica, eating oily fish and sleeping on the deck. Why brave? You'll find out in a moment.

The Stončica had formerly been a ferry, but she was so tiny that I can't see how she could have been very useful in that function. Her open rear deck supported a tent-like awning, and her foredeck was a little covered terrace with a table for meals. She was elderly but spruce, and manned by a crew of three: 'le captaine', his mate Zoran, and the youthful and goatish Goran. There was also a local guide (who slept in a tiny cabin), eight French tourists, and me.

French was the language of the trip, though none of the crew spoke it. But English-speaking entertainment was provided by Goran, whose filthy, multi-lingual tongue darted out whenever 'gurlees' came into view. In London's East End he'd have been called 'cheeky' and 'chipper', but on the Adriatic, with its nudist beaches, he was a seething mass of engine oil and hormones.

Each day would see us arrive in a sandy cove -- or village port -- of some new island. From there we would walk and climb through the hot pine interior to a rendezvous point on the other side. Being taken off the shore by Zoran in a rowing boat and pulled out to where the Stončica waited was 'most agreeable' according to a bland note in my sketchbook. It was indeed – a real Treasure Island touch.

The adventure of it all, however, reached an alarming peak when one morning le capitaine decided to set off from the tiny port of Polače despite a very peculiar sky. Within minutes the weather had turned nasty and then, as we headed out of the bay, everything went white. Some kind of storm (I don't really understand these things) set the Stončica spinning, with nothing visible in the blankness but a few yards of furious sea. Eight French tourists and one Englishman held on very tight. The crew kept their heads but I distinctly remember the look of terror on Goran's face, the 'gurlees' briefly forgotten. Somehow le capitaine got us back into port, soaked and missing many of our possessions, but safe. I lost my hat, but at least my sketchbook was dry (no Turner moment for me). We heard later that another craft had been sunk in the same freak storm. Thank you, brave little Stončica.

In one short, hot week we climbed the heights of Korčula, explored the renaissance ways of its ancient port, crossed Vernika, Mijet and a dozen smaller islands whose names esčape me (one so small that the restaurant on it was completely surrounded by water), and eventually arrived in the beautiful city of Dubrovnik in time for the medieval festival. And this was a poignant moment, for beneath the capering felt slippers and sackbuts, the marble streets were still shattered from the Balkan War.

This is one holiday I would dearly love to go on again, but emphatically not with serious walkers. What is it with people who walk just for walking's sake, and who resent lingering at a Byzantine ruin or in sylvan clearings because it wastes valuable walking time? Next time I'll go with fellow sketchers, go for longer and take colour. And next time I'll remember to draw Goran.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

When a Plot is a Place Where Weeds Grow

I feel like the urban gardener who can't find his allotment (wait for the pun). I have all the seeds I need, good tools and a bucket full of horse poo, but I've completely lost the plot.

Right now I'm just sitting here in Heartburn Café, chewing on my writer's block and mixing my metaphors, but that won't answer in the long run. They say that the way out of writer's block is to keep writing, but I have now written 30K words on top of a completed first draft (a sci-fi thriller about visiting the past), looking for ways to fix the story. All I know for sure is that I have a strong premise and interesting characters but a flawed story. What's needed is a bold move – a complete re-write. What I'm doing though is floundering about and drinking too much coffee.

Here's some free advice for would-be children's novelists: It doesn't matter how unusual your approach is, time-travel will always play havoc with linear tale-telling. And mess with your head. Best stick to vampires.

And now back to my block. Mustn't get any on my nice shirt though.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009


And to finish with the subject of my last post, I've just discovered something amusing. Vertigo and DC comics are publishing a series of graphic novels (The Unwritten) about a young man who has to live down being the inspiration behind his own father's literary creation: a bespectacled boy wizard of the same name, whose adventures are a global publishing sensation. Sound familiar? And what's the name of this mega-famous sorcerer's apprentice? Not Harry Potter but...

Tommy Taylor!

Perhaps I'm not who I thought I was.

Monday, 24 August 2009

Sketchbook Keeping for Dads

...or Mums.

"There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hallway." Or so said the critic Cyril Connolly. With the school holidays still stretching copiously ahead this quotation has been trundling about my mind lately. Not that there is a pram in my hallway – these days it's heaps of Lego, rubber swords and broken Spiderman merchandise – but the effect is the same. Or maybe worse.

When my first son was born, five years ago now, my sketchbook began to accumulate dust. I didn't notice because I was busy doing other things, things I had never had to think about before. Soon afterwards a very small digestive system began misfiring with very substantial consequences. Somehow 24 months slipped by and then, just as nappies, midnight screams and purée flinging began to recede it all started again and the dust on the sketchbook became so thick I could have drawn my portrait in it. If I'd had the time.

It is taboo to complain about having children. They are a gift and a privilege, and to display resentment at the time they take up and the limits they impose on their parents is considered shabby. It is shabby. Good parents are supposed to stretch and accommodate and keep smiling. But every parent knows, no matter what stance they take publicly, that they are slaves to their little ones. In the relay race of life, once that baton has been passed on it's time for the next generation to take priority while the oldies (that's us) wheeze to a stop and cheer them on.

But that being the case, why is my sketchbook no longer dusty? Did I wheeze it clean? Possibly, but the fact remains that I am back in the sketching business again, despite the steadily rising tide of scratched DVDs and nameless bits of plastic. So how have I managed it? And how am I able to write this with one child wriggling on my knee while the other bleats that he's 'hungry' and 'needs' chocolate?

Well, firstly it turns out that Mother Nature hands out extra supplies of patience when babies are born. Goodness (and my wife) knows that I've never had much of that, but somehow art manages to get out amidst the chaos. Whether or not it's good art is another question, but at least the flame splutters on. Of course, it also helps if – like me – you have lovely and incredibly generous parents-in-law.

Secondly, I sketch my children. They are the most challenging subjects, but they are also powerful antidotes to prissy drawing; get those sprightly forms down in three stokes, or don't get them down at all.

Thirdly, forget those A3, 100gm hot-pressed watercolour blocks. Leave behind those over-stuffed pencil cases with their pots of masking fluid, craft knives and bulldog-clips, and don't even think about charcoal. No, go to your nearest Muji and buy a few of their passport-sized sketchbooks (or get the Moleskine equivalent), then select a simple drawing implement, such as a Faber-Castell Pitt artist pen or a stubby pencil. Stick them in your pocket (with the baby wipes and sticky toys) and you're all set.

It seems to me that good art needs 'sombre enemies'. If your time is being devoured, you must put what remains to better use. If having children means you can't be creative and play computer games then be grateful – Mother Nature is helping you discover if you're a real artist or just a poser. Therefore don't despair, fellow sketchers, just downsize and keep going, and before you know it your children will want a sketchbook too. And besides, if that pram in the hallway looks too sombre, you can always come over all Bloomsbury and decorate it.

And now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go and be a dragon.

Saturday, 1 August 2009

Pirates in the Bottom Drawer

In common with most people these days, I have an un-published novel. Mine's a 70k word seafaring adventure about trickery, treasure and pirates, directed at nine to twelve-year-olds. Did you notice the word pirates? Something else I seem to have in common with most people these days. Arrrr.

Being visually-minded, I can't help wanting to illustrate my own story. Not in a full blown way, but if ever Puck and Ogwe get into print I'd like to do some chapter heading line drawings, and maybe some elements that can be incorporated into the cover. Maybe. Illustrating books for this age group is a thorny business. But since I am now entirely free of any editorial control in this matter, here's a colour sample.

 The pencil line is strong now that I have found a new approach to reinforcing it in Photoshop (though still too heavy in parts), and the colours are taken from scanned images (and toyed with so that I won't get into any copyright issues) and not actual fabric. I have also thought more thoroughly about the apparent scale of these textures in relation to the drawings they colour. I'm pleased. Click for a closer look.

Now all I need is a suitable approach to backgrounds.

Thursday, 30 July 2009

Monsieur Insoumis

This is the third in a series of Rouen characters I will be posting. His treatment is different to the previous two, partly because I have gone back to pencil (my first love) and partly because I'm still experimenting with using scanned textures for colour. Don't forget to click for a closer look.

There is an anarchist bookshop near where I live. It's not easy to glimpse inside because it's only occasionally open and then only at certain times of the day (ie. when the police are at lunch – this is France, remember). Even when it is open the owner seems determined to keep his clientèle limited to a trusted few; the look he gave me when I last peered inside wasn't welcoming. Was it my shoes? In any case, I'll have to go elsewhere for my subversive pamphlets.

The shop, in its usual shut-up state, has its windows covered by lift-down wooden shutters, painted in burnt-barricade black. Just in case anyone still doesn't think that political power is accursed, the following words of the great Louise Michel are stencilled there in white:

'Le pouvoir est maudit, c'est pour cela que je suis anarchiste!'

We inhabitants of Rouen recently received an official letter telling us to report to our local police station to be vetted. This was so we could declare our race, sexual orientation, political views, and to state which trades unions we belonged to. Obviously it was a stunt. I don't know how many actually turned up to do this, or who was to blame, but my guess is that Monsieur Insoumis knows something about it.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

The Dishwasher Dragon

Just for fun, here is the Dishwasher Dragon. He gets his name from the fact that I used only items from the kitchen sink to colour him: rubber gloves for his scales, head and wings, a sponge for his soft underbelly, and the red bristles of a washing-up brush for his, well, for his bristles. The bubbles were lifted from photos – I didn't even try to scan those.

He's not of publishable quality -- just for fun, remember -- but he's certainly a big colourful step in the right direction in terms of a new picture book technique. Click for a closer look, (but watch your tea-towel).

Friday, 24 July 2009

Monsieur Chevaline

This is the second in a series of Rouen characters I will be posting.

When we moved to Rouen it was to a flat in one of the most pungent streets in the city, off the bustling market square of St Marc. The shopping was fantastic, but the gutters ran with fish juice and brown cabbage on market days. The courtyard entrance to our building was, at that time, flanked by a greengrocer on one side and a horse butcher's shop on the other.

Well, 'shop' might not be the right word – it was more of a kiosk. When Monsieur Chevaline was open for business the front extended into the street, extended in fact beyond the shade of the stripy awning above it. The enormous red sausages he sold were therefore part-cured in the sun, as well as being lightly seasoned with fag ash as he leant proudly over his wares. Behind him there were posters of prancing ponies, cute enough for the wall of any little girl's bedroom.

I didn't shop there. I don't believe a horse is something that should be eaten, at least not by anyone who isn't living in the Pleistocene. And I'm not the only one; someone who owns a fat black, wedge-nibbed permanent marker wrote 'Barbare!' and 'ça se mange pas!' on the shutters one night. It wasn't me. Honest.

M. Chevaline is long gone now, but I do have one particularly clear image of him, vivid enough for a memory drawing.

Just inside the courtyard, set halfway up the grubby brick wall, was a metal door exactly like something from an elderly submarine. I only ever saw it open once. Monsieur Chevaline stepped out, wearing his bloody apron and holding an evil-looking blade.

He was chewing something tough.

'bon shooer,' he scronched

I suppose it might have been an After Eight mint.

Thursday, 23 July 2009

Rescued Pages

I love searching through my old drawings. I should have done it before. But there have been some nasty surprises too, such as discovering a sketchbook which my younger son had ripped apart. My younger son and my youngest critic it seems.

In one sketchbook I found these small drawings of my wife and our energetic cat. If you look closely (by clicking on the image) you will notice that there is also a bump in this picture. That's my younger son again.

This page was damaged, and the drawings themselves were so off-hand that I had done them over the top of heavily corrected plans for some building work. Fortunately, Photoshop can clean all that up. Shame it can't change nappies too.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Monsieur Antiquaire

This is the first of a series of Rouen Characters I will be posting.

I have noticed Monsieur Antiquaire working or lurking at the Antique Market at St Marc (Saturday mornings) ever since we moved to Rouen in 2003. He's almost as wide as he is tall and seems perfectly adapted to the loading and unloading of not-quite-antique furniture. I have never seen him without a roll-up. But then, come to think of it, I've never seen him roll one either.

Naturally, this is a memory drawing. I wouldn't want to be caught giving him furtive glances.

The quip about horse sausage isn't entirely flippant. There was a small boucherie chevaline near the market place, but you'll have to wait for the next Rouen character to find out more about that.

As for the drawing, I have been experimenting with using scanned fabric to colour line-work. I'm pleased with where this is going.

Don't forget to click for a closer look.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Timothy Moore

Looking for an excuse to have another try with Photoshop, I found this old portrait of the composer Tim Moore, for many years my landlord in Cambridge.

I think I have better preserved the lines from the sketch this time, although the pencil drawing itself is a little overworked and dense in parts. The colours are from Photoshop's palette and were only quickly added.

And what colours! Just in case anyone's wondering, the turquoise T-shirt under a claret-pink corduroy exterior is quite accurate. Timothy Moore, who lived in the scruffy basement of his town house while the rest of us inhabited rooms in the floors above, was a genuine, unconscious eccentric. The son of the Philosopher George Moore, and the nephew (I think) of poet T. Sturge Moore, there was more than a whiff of Bloomsbury about Tim. That and recycled cigars (one butt rammed into the end of another) and heart stew. He was a gentleman, a champagne communist (which, sadly, made him vulnerable to his tenants), and a believer in a cashless society, phonetic orthography and Jazz for children.

He died in 2003.

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

The Mighty Sprick

I'm posting this not because it's a great example of line and colour (and it's certainly not a prime piece of metrical writing) but simply because it reminds me that often a sketchbook is nothing more than a diary. This page brought back some warm memories of holidaying in the Dordogne with friends, sketchbooks and bikes.

Everyone else had to make do with their own machine, but I was lucky enough to find a Sprick in the shed at the gîte. Soviet made (or so I like to think), the Sprick was the last word in uncontrolled speed, inner-ear-rattling aerodynamics and here-I-come squeakiness. Seeing me rounding a corner on the valley road to Gavaudun must have been like 'being there' at an historic Tour de France in the early 1950s as Britain came last. But I didn't care -- I had the wind in my hair, rust on my ankles and stomach full of chips and rosé from the Café des Sports. And I didn't touch the brakes once.

Monday, 13 July 2009

My Picture Book Style

Here's another vignette. The coloured pencil gives a lovely soft finish and the line is appealing, but not very precise. This makes small details difficult, but provides a fluffy, child-friendly finish overall.

The Cramps!

This vignette is a sample of my picture book style as it is today. The technique requires several layers of ink on coarse-grained paper, with coloured pencil brushed or (more often) pressed over the top, and then highlights added if needed. It gives strong images, but it's actually quite a strain to keep up the pressure in the tips of my right fore and index finger, and thumb. This might sound surprising, but try keeping that very localised exertion up across twelve spreads (with backgrounds) and a cover. By the end of a project, I usually have shooting aches up my arms and across my back, and increasingly my hand gives up altogether and won't allow me to press with the pencil at all! This is one of the reasons I'm looking for a change in style.

Saturday, 11 July 2009

Italian Sketchbook 1

This other sketch was made in the town square of Mondovi, in Italy. Although it's another cramped scribble, I'm particularly pleased with the sun and the cloudless sky (which would have been easy to ignore), the darkness of the roof, and with the little old man loading books into his van.