Friday, 23 December 2011

Have a very...

This image pretty much sums up what I’ve had to deal with since school ended a week ago. But I’m not complaining. I’m lucky to be able to spend so much time with my boys (he mutters as he picks shrapnel out of his scalp). We’ve had a lot of fun, and the dials still aren’t in the red. Yet…

I send you all my warmest Christmas wishes, dear reader/friend/passer-by, and if you don’t do Christmas, well, you can have my warmest wishes anyway. I’ve been warming them all year:)

Have you seen these hedgehogs?

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Designing a Character

These sketches and colour test show me looking for the sense of a character. It’s too early to say what he’s for, but I will say this is the first time I’ve worked with an author for ages. And there’s no doubt being an illustrator is slightly easier when it involves working to someone else’s specifications. Unless those specifications are crazy (happily not the case here). There’s such a thing as too much freedom.

Odd the difference between how someone looks in my head, and how they turn out on the page. Why is it I can’t just draw what I see in my mind’s eye? What is it about putting down marks that changes my intentions? Answers in the comments please.

This character is intended to be a cross between a dismal but kindly uncle type and a strong-arm butler. Someone you’d want with you in a dark alley, but not so much at a party. It’s the 1920s.

I finally get to draw a Homburg! Unless the author tells me not to.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Comic Books

For years now I have been drifting back towards the comic book/graphic novel mode. I say ‘back’, because it does feel like I’m coming home. As a teenager I always drew strip cartoons and comics, and it seemed like that was what I would always do. Until all of a sudden it wasn’t. The fact that this happened while I was at art school is no coincidence, but I can’t really blame anyone else (not even Batman) -- the fact is, it just didn’t seem to be something I could build a career on. I talked myself out of it.

I won’t bore you with the epic journey round my navel that has brought me to regret that decision. But I would like to share some of the landmark graphic books I came across on the way. And just in time for Christmas too.

La Théorie des Gens Seuls (or any of the Monsieur Jean books) by Dupuy & Berberian

When I moved to France I was pretty down on comic books. But Bandes Dessinées are a big deal over there, often the most popular section in bookshops, and it didn’t take me long to latch on to Monsieur Jean as something a bit special. These are the stories of a frustrated twenty-something (then thirty-something) Parisian writer as he tries to steer a course through modern life. They should strike a chord with anyone who has struggled to understand the opposite sex, been perplexed by their friends or wondered how to be a good parent. Do you know anyone like that?

Plenty of humour, moments of pathos, and lots of sitting in cafés with self-doubt and small cups of coffee. France in a book! But available in English too.

Rébétiko (La Mauvaise Herbe) by David Prudhomme

When I first read Rébétiko, I thought it was nothing less than the best graphic novel I’d ever seen. Even now, having discovered some real treasures, I still think this is the case. The book feels drawn in a way few graphic novels do, as if it was taped together from fragments torn from someone’s sketchbook, and the story (set in hard-line Greece during the 30s) reads like true experience. But the greatest thing in this book is the music. I don’t mean that to sound gimmicky, simply that this tale of musicians, whose music has been proscribed by the state, is shot through with sound, energy and dance. It’s a masterpiece.

I don’t think Rébétiko has been translated into English, but really, you don’t need to read it all. The book would be worth owning just for the art on pages 57 to 66 alone. Get a taste of it here.

Rupestres! by various (see link)

Okay, another French one, but I’m trying to keep this chronological. Rupestres! is the work of six comic book artists as they make a tour of the prehistoric painted caves of Southern France, paying homage to, and trying to connect with, the earliest ‘cartoonists’. The six styles vary wildly, but are tied together by shared experience. The book is based on a real trip (there are some photographs too) and will take you deeper into the mysteries of the prehistoric mind and the origins of art than any textbook on the subject.

Rupestres! isn’t available in English, but again, it’s the graphic statement that really matters. And that’s triumphant. For anyone who cares about drawing.

Hicksville by Dylan Horrocks

Prompted by my good blogging friend Rachel Fenton, I finally got round to reading Hicksville only recently. With a narrative that runs on several levels, through different comic book genres and stories, Hicksville might have been too tricksy for its own good, if it weren’t so full of good humour and humanity. And this tale of artists, searchers and tea-lovers is like an introduction to the world of comics itself, and the lovely people it seems to attract. 

The perfect cure for anyone who thinks comic books are just about superheroes and big-eyed manga girls (*shudder*). And hey, it’s in English:)    

 Nelson by various (see link)

Newly published, Nelson acts as an anthology of contemporary British comic art, and that’s why I bought it. But in just a few pages I found myself drawn into the story of Nel, as she grows up without her twin, Sonny. The constantly changing styles didn’t upset the story as much as I thought, and the journey through Nel’s life is packed with period details and ‘how we used to live’ charm (the music! The hair!). I wish this book had been available while I was still at art school. Grown-up content, but the perfect surprise Christmas gift for anyone who likes telling stories in pictures.

All proceeds go to Shelter.


I’m always on the lookout for new books to read. If you’ve read a comic/graphic book recently and want to share it, please leave a note in the comments.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

On Finishing

Yesterday I sent the line edit back for Haunters. Since then I have been wrestling with a very odd feeling: the dawning realisation that the bloody thing’s actually finished!

Now, obviously there’s going to be some comeback from the last edit, and I’m sure I’ll be tippexing the screen right up to the end, but right now -- and for the first time in the three years and seven drafts it has taken to reach this point -- I honestly can’t think of anything else I could do with it.

When I signed the contract, my agent gave me some very sound advice. In response to my flapping about how craptastic the book was probably going to end up, she told me… well, first she told me to get a grip, but then she told me that the only way to protect myself from critics, detractors and one-star Amazonian book demolishers was to be entirely sure that I had done everything I possibly could to make the book as strong as it could be. If there was a stop, I had to pull it out. If there was an extra mile, I had to plod down it, hacking at the nettles -- yes, even in the rain. I probably looked like a frightened rabbit when she told me all this, but I took that advice to heart.

Of course, the book could still be utterly craptastic. But objectivity? Well, that’s a whole other subject.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Being Edited

I am currently working through the line edit of my Science Fiction thriller Haunters (blogged about before as ‘The Ghost Effect’ and due to be published by the Chicken House next May). For those who don’t know what a line edit is, it’s the part of the editorial process that involves the most red ink, the part where the text is scrutinised line by line in search of errors, inconsistencies and crapness. My editor has cut 6,000 words. That’s a lot of crapness. Here is some of it:

  1. Purple prose. Of the ‘behold my literary sensibilities’ variety. I don’t know whether to be grateful or embarrassed about this, so I shall be both.
  2. Repetition. Saying it clearly the first time means not having to say it loosely again and again.
  3. Waffle. My book isn’t set in Belgium. And even if it was, characters should never be allowed to sit about in comfy chairs, explaining the plot to each other. At least not in front of the reader.
  4. Un-warranted non-verbal communication and other narrative ticks. Such as staring, gasping, sighing, eye-rolling and arse-scratching. Actually, no-one ever scratched their arse in my book, but if they had, they wouldn’t be doing it now.
  5. Seeming. When things patently are.   
  6. Many instance of the word that. On the whole I think that this is a good thing.
  7. A policeman. Yes, a whole policeman. He was a rubbish policeman anyway. I like to think that he’s now in the next street, scratching his arse.
  8. Repetition. Oh…

I’m told some writers actually go ahead and publish their own e-books without any input from an editor. Don’t do that. 

Friday, 4 November 2011

Harry Potter and the Good Cause

Okay, okay, I know. But at least this time it’s for the benefit of others. I have donated a book with a signed sketch in it to Team Hannah. Please take time to visit the site.

I've seen these sell for 4 figures in the past (not for my benefit, I should add), and since I don’t often do this kind of thing, there could be the chance of a rare and unusual Christmas bargain here. And if you can’t bid, you can always spread the word…


Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Covers My Book Won't Have

Borrowing an idea from top comic book artist Dave Shelton, I thought I’d post one of the many cover concepts that won’t make it to the finished version of my illustrated comic novella Dan and the Dead.

This image was thrashed out between the designer and myself, using elements from previous roughs and new sketches made both in and out of Photoshop. I really liked it (as an idea), but those who will be marketing the book thought it looked a tad too ‘young’. And so, for once, ‘back to the drawing board’ wasn’t a cliché. 

This book was created with reluctant boy readers in mind so anything that might put them off has to be addressed. The story is voice driven, so there’s much more emphasis on Dan’s character and attitude in the new version. I’ve just sent it off. Let’s hope they like it.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Finding Yourself When You're Five

This is a map of my son Benjy's imagination. He asked me to "put it on a machine and on the internet please, Daddy". So I have.

Friday, 14 October 2011

One Reason Why Picture Book Publishers Still Don’t Like Rhyme

Just a short post today, as an addendum to my ever-popular – at least according to the stats --  rhyming picture book posts.
Next year I have a new picture book out called The Pets You Get, illustrated by the unstoppable Adrian Reynolds (this, to the left, is one of his thumbnails). It’s in rhyme, and the first verse text I’ll have had published since Jack’s Tractor rumbled out. But just when I thought all my work was done and the edits finished, my editor called to ask if I could write a prose version as well, saying that ‘the rights team find picture books with rhyming texts are impossible to sell abroad and so rather than give them an excuse for not selling the book, I think it would be a good idea if we could provide them with a prose version.’ 
I’ve never been asked to do such a thing before, but it makes perfect sense. And apparently it works. It was hard, though, taking carefully constructed metrical writing and slapping it down into unadorned prose. But it just goes to show the extra lengths you have to go to when dealing with verse. Aspiring picture book writer beware!
The Pets You Get is available for pre-order. Just saying...

Monday, 3 October 2011

The Big Draw at the DLWP

We had lots of fun at the De La Warr Pavilion yesterday, at their Big Draw event in support of the Campaign For Drawing. The underwater theme was explored in everything from sand marks to felt-tipped oyster shells. There were pebbles to decorate, ultraviolet lights to play in, origami fish to fold and -- for a lucky few -- a limited edition Molsekine Sketchbook as a prize. No excuse not to draw, and even grown ups were allowed to join in. Needless to say, my two little boys LOVED it. And the special edition sketchbook? Um... well, I might share it...

Friday, 30 September 2011

Dan and the Dead Character Studies -- Dan

More sketchbook pages, this time showing Dan, the hero of my comic-gothic novella Dan and the Dead, due to be published next summer by A&C Black. I’m illustrating this with black and white chapter heading pictures and a colour cover, and I want to give the book a graphic novel/comic feel, because I believe that will help make it more appealing for its core audience: boys, 10 – 14, who have little motivation to read.
These samples are interesting (to me, anyway) because they are free hand sketches and not pen work tracing a pencil rough beneath. This will hopefully allow me to keep some of the energy and movement of original drawing, rather than turning the rough into an ink fossil of itself. In other words, it’s seat-of-the-pants work. I hope my bottom doesn’t stick out too much.
Click for a closer look if you like. Still working on lots of things, not least the lettering…
Oh, and if you’ve got any spare money, Dan and the Dead is now available for pre-order
Don’t forget, books look better in pairs:)  

Friday, 23 September 2011

Drawing From Life

I went life drawing last night for the first time in years. And it was a humbling experience. There’s nothing like being confronted with the real thing to remind us that everything we draw is in a kind of shorthand. It’s less a question of trying to succeed in capturing the subject than an exercise in trying to control the failure to do so. Which is why drawing from life is so important, and why I’m pleased to have found a new group to join. It’s the visual arts’ equivalent of practicing scales.

But it wasn’t just the drawing that made me feel like a student again. The heat of the room (one of us is naked, after all), the smell of fixative and charcoal dust, the furtive chalky scratchings, and – because there’s always one – the squeal of a board marker being thrown about a sheet of A1 paper, all took me back to Fridays at Norwich School of Art and Design in the 90s. And I struggle with the drawing no less now than I did then.

Don’t bother to click for a closer look – I’m sure you’ve got better things to do:)

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Random Ruritanian Gypsy...

...because no blog should be without one.

Much happier with the looser line here (compared to the slightly syrupy quality of the line in my last post, I mean). Click for a better view.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

The Night’s Template

I’ve been messing about with my blog again, as regular visitors (Hi, Mum!) might have noticed. I have never really been happy with its appearance, so I thought I’d try and make it look like my actual desk. With a sketchbook on it. Do you see? So... what do you think? Stylish? Rubbish? All pretty pebbles and no trousers? You can be honest – It’ll no doubt look entirely different tomorrow.

In the meantime, here’s Peter Falk making drawing look cool (thanks, Julian).

Editted to add: Nah, don't like it. Cold light of day, and all that. So now it's back as it was. 

Saturday, 3 September 2011

Stubby Pencil Drawings of a Stubby Subject

This post about a dachshund has been moved to my new blog. Please click this link of you want to see sketches of the daft animal.

Monday, 22 August 2011

The Beautiful Word

I've been drawing musicians again, this time The Beautiful Word, who gave a short free performance on the roof of the De La Warr Pavillion in Bexhill. It was windy, and with the sea views the lead singer (above with the toy piano) said it was like playing on an ocean liner. A great building and a very cute band. Somehow I, er, didn't quite manage to draw the male members. however, while we waited for them to start, I did grab a quick sketch of some of the very Bexhillian audience. Click if you want a better view.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011


I’ve just been away on a sketching/mooching/laughing holiday with some very dear chums, something I’ve been doing from time to time for years. These trips, organised by the very-moose-like Julian Sedgwick, are moments of heightened drawing activity for me – intervals of proper sketching between prolonged bouts of quotidian daily grind moleskine wipe-out. I always come back determined to keep up the pace, but I never manage it for long.
Here’s a sketch of Adrian Reynolds playing his banjo, which he does with great flare (despite my cheesy sound effects). Click for a closer look. I didn’t draw his face because I was more interested in his fingers. In fact, I’m especially interested in his fingers right now because Adrian is, as I write this, illustrating my next picture book in rhyme, due out next year with Andersen Press. I hope he doesn’t break a nail.

Monday, 15 August 2011


I've been away for three weeks. There was lots of drawing. Normal intermittent blog service will be resumed soonish...

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Character Sketches -- 2

Another character from my novel, this time the gifted but ruthless ‘hero-turned-bad’ Adam Lang. He is the archetypal golden boy, back-slapped off the rails by excessive praise of his talents -- brought up to aim so high that he despises everyone below him. I think we all went to school with someone like that. Adam stalks through the story re-arranging the past so that those who don’t fit his vision of the world were never even born in the first place. And when he’s finished, even those who survive can’t be sure he was ever there.
Click for a closer look, but don’t hold his gaze for too long…       

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Character sketches -- 1

My novel won’t be illustrated, but that hasn’t stopped me doodling the main characters. I’ll post some of the sketches here while I wait to hear what my editor thinks of the latest revision. This cluster of heads shows my search for a clear sense of Eddie, a troubled fourteen-year-old boy who spends most of the book (and the year 1940) on the run from a ghost he believes is trying to kill him. He’s right about that, but not in the way he thinks.
As ever, click for a closer look.  

Friday, 1 July 2011

Six Days

Here’s a boost for fellow Chicken House author Philip Webb, whose debut SF novel, Six Days, is about to be published. I was privileged to read this book a year ago (back when it had a whole other title and publication date) and hearing a little of its progress towards publication has been fascinating and very instructive for me. Find out more here.
Six Days is a fine book indeed, with a truly epic scope (prehistoric stone circles, organic space craft, a billion-year old computer with dangerous hang ups…), but its heart is surely in the 'scavs' and their hand-to-mouth existence in the ruins of London. The voice and voices are strong, the questions intriguing, and I found it easy to follow Cass, Wilbur, Erin and Peyto in their struggle. Philip Webb knows how to tell a story and conjure vivid imagery, as well as balance a sentence perfectly. Strongly recommended for readers 11 (ish)+ who enjoy using their brains.   

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

How to Survive Being Edited and Still Love Your Book/Editor/Self (and Even Occasionally Smile:-)

This wasn’t lifted from a guidebook or a ‘How To’ blog, it comes direct from the Sharp End. I find revising my novel under editorial guidance a bit like experiencing assisted indigestion. Of course, gas is always better out than in, but now I’ve got someone to kick it out, and then give me soda water and interesting new stuff to eat afterwards. It’s exhausting, it’s essential, and I cope with it by being…

-NERVOUS. Don’t let anyone tell you to be relaxed about your work. Nervous energy is good – it prevents complacent or comfortable writing, and keeps you out of the biscuit tin. And fortunately there’s loads to be nervous about, especially if it’s your first novel. So bite those nails! Drink too much coffee! And don’t worry if a little cold sweat seeps into your keyboard -- there really is everything to play for and everything to lose. A nervous brain is a very active organ, a nervous brain gets things done. So keep it real, brothers and sisters -- keep it twitchy.

-HUMBLE. You are not in complete control of your novel, only the writing of it. And this is good because no way can you be expected to bring much objectivity to something you’ve been giving birth to for years. If it’s rubbish, you need to be told. If your editor spots a useful connection you could make, or a logical flaw you shouldn’thave, just be grateful. The only question you should ask is, ‘would this change improve the book?’. If the answer is yes – and somewhere deep down you’ll always know the answer to that question – then go for it. Just remember to also be...

-RUTHLESS. You’re living on your nervous system and your ego is in chains. Now you are loose in a world of your own making with the most powerful weapon a creator can have: the delete button. Even your main character reaches for a spare pair of trousers as you clank by, your senses straining in every direction for signs of plot device, flabby prose and vile non sequiturs. You have already driven cliché to the edge of extinction, and reduced vast herds of Adverbs to a few captive specimens. On your keyboard, no button shines as brightly as the one that used to say ‘Delete’.

A huddle of emaciated back-stories spot you. They point at each other and shriek, ‘Him! Do it to him!’ but you merely scatter them with your passing – you’re after new prey now. Up ahead, a minor character who no longer pulls his weight is too busy ordering pizza to notice your approach. It’s only when your monstrous scales disrupt his wireless connection, preventing him from uploading his third best Mahjong score, that he looks up into your pitiless lens. In a second, he’s off his chaise longue and running, but it’s already too late.

You know where he lives.

Friday, 10 June 2011

Getting the Title Right, Getting the Title Wrong...

 Regular readers of this blog will know that I have a novel due out next year, a supernatural thriller entitled The Ghost Effect. I’ve been a bit sparing with details of this event until now, mostly because I have been up to my mind’s eye in rounds of heavy revision. But as time slips by and things begin to speed up, I can start reporting milestones in the book’s progress towards publication, starting now with the news that my book almost certainly won’t be called The Ghost Effect.

Now, I always suspected this might happen, even though I did put a lot of thought into the issue of titling over the two years of the book’s creation. The story is about kids who can travel in time through their dreams. Because it’s non-physical time-travel, they take on an ethereal form as they do this, being spotted throughout history as ghosts. The title was conceived as a combination of the creepy Germanic ‘ghost’ with the  Latinate, science word ‘effect’, a mis-match that was intended to create an intriguing whole. Like the Butterfly Effect, only spookier. At least, that was the idea. However, I always felt that ‘effect’ was a weak title word, and, as it turns out, so does everyone else.

So, what will the title actually be? Well, that’s being debated right now. There is one strong contender, but I won’t say anything about that just yet. What does strike me though is how closely those involved in marketing books think about these things. And also just how popular one-word titles have become. Finding a single word that captures the essence of my book, is universally relatable, and looks/sounds fab, though, now that’s a tall order! Even the English language has its limits. But one thing is certain – it’s crucial to get it right. Watch this space.

Friday, 20 May 2011

I Flatline at Weekends

I’ve been neglecting my blog. And like a sick patient in an understaffed hospital, my blog is suffering as a result. But don’t take my word for it, just scroll down to the very bottom of this screen and take a look at its cardiogram. Eek!

Obviously, the ideal pulse rate would be a once-a-day (or at least twice-a-week) rhythm of site traffic spikes, as my scintillating wit and industry relevant infoblasts bring waves of visits to each post, but, um… I’m still warming up to that. In the meantime, while I wait to be industry relevant and scintillating (and rather than resort to posting pictures of kittens), maybe a detailed study of my blog’s stats will suggest a suitable medicine.

My most visited (I won’t say ‘read’), blog post is without doubt my claim-to-fame one. There’s nothing surprising there: write about something famous and people will find it. But my second most visited post, and by some margin too, is a throwaway piece I knocked out in a few minutes, whose popularity seems to be based on the fact that the play on words in its title is also a popular spelling mistake. So clearly the best shot in the arm I can give my blog is a dose of…

…Harry Potter and the Googled Myrrhmaid!

There. Long term though, there’s no alternative to getting back into the driving seat and making the effort to blog more regularly, but I have to move house first. In the meantime, please don’t worry if the patient slips into a temporary coma, it should be over by the end of June. And don’t go away, because there’s loads of news about my novel coming up (hey, I saw that look!), and more about Dan and the Dead, as well as my adventures with websites, my thoughts on branding (cowboy!), the experience of being edited, and the ups and downs and headaches of working with ideas. I’m also going to be giving stuff away.

See you soon (I hope!)

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Out to Launch

Last night I went to the launch party for Caroline Green’s debut YA title DarkRide, a book I just about finished on the train journey home. Not because it’s short, I might add, just brilliant and difficult to stop reading. Congratulations, Caroline!

The launch itself had all the essential ingredients -- wine, a reading, good company and a charming author – not to mention that other strange phenomenon of a 21st Century social life: the meeting of people one has already ‘met’ via social networking. In short, I had a great time, and I couldn’t help noticing that a lot of books were sold too.

The reason I find this particularly noteworthy is the fact that I was recently told (by those who know) that new authors shouldn’t feel the necessity to hold a book launch at all, at least from the point of view of sales. The reason being that all those who would come would probably have bought the book anyway. This has had me wondering about my own debut next year and whether I should go to the trouble of organising a launch party if, as is likely, the publishers don’t hold one. But last night’s spectacle of happy people chatting over dwindling piles of stock as the wine flowed has me thinking again. And after all, without that launch party I wouldn’t have met the author, I probably wouldn’t have bought her book any time soon, and I certainly wouldn’t have had it signed. So my question over whether to launch or not seems to have been answered right there. At least, from the sales perspective – it goes without saying that it’s always fun to open a bottle or two with friends, whatever the bean-counters think.

Before I sign off, I’d also like to send out congratulations to Fiona Dunbar, whose new book, Divine Freaks, is published today. Fiona was at Caroline’s launch last night, so I was finally able to chat in person with someone I only knew by reputation and facebook. Divine Freaks, by the way, is about a girl who can see ghosts, and you have only to glance at my last post to see why I find that interesting. Congratulations Fiona!  

Sunday, 17 April 2011

Dan and the Dead

For a long time now I have been quietly working on a comic-Gothic novella for A&C Black (part of the Bloomsbury Group) and as the contract has recently been signed, I can finally announce the good news on my blog. This is a big deal for me, not only because it means I have a second fiction title coming out in 2012 (hurray!), but also because it will be lightly illustrated, and therefore the first time I have been able to combine my own illustrations with my writing for older readers. Double hurray! (The picture above is just a sample, but click for a closer look anyway.)

This project began life as a proposed contribution to a new series of very slim chapter books aimed at reluctant teen readers, but A&C Black felt the idea could be taken further than that, launching me on a very protracted (but ultimately very fruitful) journey. And there was even a brief of sorts: imagine a boy of between 10 and 14 years who has almost given up on reading, but who might yet be tempted to open a book if it looked exciting enough. You have this one chance to get him hooked. Now write! 
It turns out that was precisely the challenge I needed, and the stripped down, revved-up 22,000 word text that resulted was a sheer delight to write. I'm not saying it was easy – it certainly wasn't – but I learnt so much that I was able to go back to my novel afterwards and rip many thousands of pointless words right out of it.

So what's it about? Well, it's about a boy called Dan who can see dead people. Yup, like in the film, only I've added a twist that should hopefully freshen things up a bit. The basic set-up owes something to Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), and sees Dan team up with the ghost of an Eighteenth Century gentleman called Simon, and go into business solving the troubles of the 'Desperate Dead'. For a rather extraordinary fee. Dan's the talent, Si thinks he's the brains of the outfit, and between them they're pretty damn awesome. In a skin-of-Dan's-teeth kind of way. There are dead Victorian magicians to contend with, the feisty ghost of murdered teen Emmeline, sleazy nightclub owners, gold polyester fluffy dice, scary lady vicars and more North Sea than is good for a boy whose hands are tied behind his back. Oh, and there are guns and car chases. And a severed finger. And something very, very grisly that Dan has to carry around all the time. There was even a Quiet Moment for a while, but I decided to delete it.

Anyway, it's something to put in the diary for next Spring:)

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

In Search of a Lost Reader

The recent death of Diana Wynne Jones has got me thinking. A great many tributes have been posted on-line recently, not just by those who actually knew her, but also by many who trace their own development as writers back to reading her magical books as children. And it's that that's got me thinking, because no matter how far I delve into the crumb-filled cardboard spaceship of my own childhood memories, I can't find Diana Wynne Jones in there anywhere.

Perhaps it doesn't matter. I mean, I have read some her books as a grown up, and seeing as how I have a professional interest in keeping my inner eleven-year-old alive and dreaming, maybe that's enough. But I can't shake off the obvious question: what was I reading then?

Well, the earliest memory I have of being signed up for permanent membership of the Great Book Club of Life was reading The Hobbit at about age 13. Yes, I know that's probably the most uninteresting piece of autobiographical information I have ever posted here (what boy didn't read The Hobbit at age 13?), but for all it's banality, it was still a key event for me. It was the first time I remember feeling bereft at the finishing of a book, and also the moment I understood fully that a story doesn't disappear just because it's over. I even remember exactly where I was standing when I realised I could turn the book over and start it again if I wanted to. The best thing about book covers is everything they contain.

Anyway,The Hobbit led to The Lord of the Rings, and from there I discovered Terry Pratchett, Terry Brooks, John Wyndham, Douglas Adams, Arthur C. Clarke, Real Life, and eventually Girls. But how did I get to Tolkein in the first place? What steps did I take to become a committed reader? And how can I – as a writer for children -- help make sure that other young people get switched on too?

Well, I can reveal that I did read Enid Blyton, though only because I borrowed my little sister's Magic faraway Tree books. I was about 11, and already aware that they were too young for me. I have also -- with the help of Facebook friends -- uncovered the fact that I read The Three Investigators, and this might push my reading back to the age of ten. There were comics of course, and much further back I know my father read Beatrix Potter to me, and my mother was definitely there when the tiger came to tea, but no matter how I look at it there's definitely a big round hole in my memory, and it's at exactly the point where Diana Wynne Jones would have fitted in nicely.

Oh, well. I can't exactly complain about having lots of great books still to read, now can I? But I am sorry to have missed her first time round, back when I wasn't bristling with critical faculties, prejudice and ugly ambition – back when all I needed was a torch and a duvet and a heap of books under my pillow.

So how did you become a reader? And what do you do to help the young people in your life find out where the stories are? In fact, should you do anything?

(I lifted this photo from a fansite. I have no idea if I need permission to use it or not -- feel free to tell me if you know better)

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

"Read this -- it's good for you..."

Michael Gove (British Secretary of State for Education) is getting a proper ribbing for his recent comment that ‘…our children should be reading fifty books a year’. Quite apart from the tragicomic illogicality of saying such a thing at a time of library cuts -- and indeed the absence of libraries in an increasing number of British
schools -- his call for ‘leading children’s authors’ to select titles isn’t going down too well either. Librarians are surely the true experts, as many authors themselves are pointing out.

What really worries me though is the nature of many of the books on any such list of fifty (why fifty?) titles children 'must read'. When grown-ups start waving classic works of children’s literature at their kids, you can almost hear the Angel of Literacy crinkling at the edges as she shrivels and dies.

As a boy of 12 or so, we started reading Treasure Island in English Class. The teacher read aloud for five minutes, then we took it in turns to stumble through Stevenson’s Victorian prose ourselves. There seemed to be a story in there somewhere, but all I could hear was a hesitant drone and the rustle of paper aeroplanes. When weeks turned to months, the teacher finally decided something had to be done. She held a vote and we elected to stop reading and do a mini project on democracy instead. Obviously we all loathed Treasure Island by then.

Years later, when writing my own seafaring tale, I read Treasure Island again (hoping to pinch Stevenson’s research). Needless to say it’s quite brilliant, and Long John Silver is one of the great villains of literature. But as a set text at school, blurted out from behind the hunched shoulders of the class bully, it didn’t stand a

Isn’t it time to abandon the concept of ‘children’s classics’ altogether, and accept that Stevenson, Ransome, Carroll, et al are best left for more mature readers? Let’s stop beating kids round the head with what they should read, and let them take their pick from modern writing, comics, flash fiction, anything that keeps them reading. This is meant to be a 'Golden Age of Children’s Writing,' after all. But it’s libraries, not lists, that could help it become a Golden Age of Reading too.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Don't Just Read About It...

It's now possible to help Japan without leaving the world of books and writing by bidding on the Authors For Japan site (created by Keris Stainton). Up for grabs are signed books, advance copies, original artwork and critiques. Why not go to the site now and rummage about? There's something for everyone, and every penny goes to help the real people behind the dramatic footage we've all been watching of the disaster that has struck Japan. I'm bidding. Will you?

Friday, 11 March 2011

Remembering Rosemary

This morning my former agent, Rosemary Canter, died at home. It wasn't exactly a surprise given that she had been suffering ill health for so long, but it's still a shock that I know I share with everyone who ever spent time with Rosemary. She was a towering figure in the world of children's books, the big league agent I often felt I didn't deserve, a grown-up and shrewd business woman blessed with a child's delight for story.
I met Rosemary through my tutor at art school, who was also one of her clients. I'd been muddling along as an un-agented illustrator for a couple of years, and with my first picture book text contracted I felt it was time to find representation. I had already been rejected by three agents, and frankly I didn't think Rosemary would be very impressed with me. For a start, I probably looked about twelve and my portfolio of samples was a shambles. She asked me about the kinds of things I was interested in and I remember making some goofy greenhorn comments. She was very patient and professional, and if she looked at her watch I didn't notice.
Towards the end of the interview, I told her I'd written a new picture book text and she asked me to tell it to her. I was caught off guard by this, but did my best to conjure up the unlikely tale of a badger who finds a chocolate biscuit only to lose it again through a daft scheme to multiply his good fortune. When I finished, Rosemary offered representation. She said later that the way I'd told the story made her feel like a little girl again. This is still one of the greatest compliments anyone has ever paid me. That text went on to be published as Ludwig and the Chocolate Biscuit Tree, and my decade as Rosemary's client began.
Rosemary stuck with me during some very lean and unproductive times, when another agent might have questioned my place on her list. She also had to ride to my rescue when my link to a certain boy wizard took on a complex and frankly quite scary legal dimension. Much later, when I met her over coffee to announce that I was working on a novel of my own (despite the fact that I'd never shown her any desire to do such a reckless thing in the past) she took it in her stride and told me to send it to her as soon as the first draft was ready. She took me seriously and that alone gave me enormous confidence.
Since then there have been ups (when she read that first draft she phoned to tell me that I had 'all the gifts' – glow!) and more than a few downs (such as her response to the first draft of my next attempt at a novel: 'perhaps there's something else you could be working on?' – cringe), but Rosemary stood by me regardless. Only yesterday I sent a revised picture book text back to my editor, a text that Rosemary enriched enormously with a few insightful comments. She was that kind of agent too.
Rosemary was last year succeeded at United Agents by the capable and tireless Jodie Marsh (I still feel like I have an agent I don't deserve!), though her loss will be no less keenly felt for that. It's a sad, sad day for a great many people, but right now I find I have only one thing left to say.
Rosemary, thank you.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

"Darling, Don't Tell the Children..."

The world of children's writing and publishing is dominated by adults. So much so, that I often cause shocked disbelief in people outside when I explain that actual, live children are rarely, if ever, involved in any aspect of it. Except of course as consumers, though even there adult readers have recently staged an invasion. Which is no bad thing, but still...

So where are the kids in all this? Well, one place they might be found now is this fantastic new Guardian site (actually a sub-section of Guardian Books, but what the hey?). It's a rare spot for young readers themselves -- still handed down by grown ups, but at least its heart is in the right place and real children and teens are involved. It's well worth digging through if you have an interest in writing for the young.

US agent Mary Kole recently posted about the ranks of adult gatekeepers that stand between writers and children. It sounds all wrong, doesn't it, but that's how it's done. So I was amused to read about Lucy Coats' recent World Book Night adventure. That's one way to reach readers directly, and all in a good cause too.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

The Next Big Thing

Following my last post, I thought I should have a stab at guessing what might be 'hotter than hot' in Kid-lit in the next few years. Not because I advocate writing anything other than the story you have to tell (trend-chasing is for losers, right?), but because precedent suggests it's bound to change the publishing landscape, whatever it is.

The web is surely the best place to hunt for nascent signs of tomorrow's 'Harry Twilight', and the opinions of readers are easy to find and always interesting. However, what people read now only tells us about the acquisitions climate of two or more years ago, which is more relevant to my last post than this one. The opinions of writers themselves are far more likely to take us toward the future, and those of agents even more so, but surely the nearest we can get to the publishing sensation of tomorrow is to look closely at what is exciting commissioning editors right now. Or at least at the things they have noticed are missing.

About two years ago the head of a British publishing house told me he believed 'young detectives' (think Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys/Secret Seven) were overdue for a comeback. Since then several editors have suggested to me that they feel the same way, and there certainly does seem to be a gap in the market. There have been close equivalents in the Young Bond series (and now Young Sherlock Holmes) and individual books (such as Siobhan Dowd's delightful London Eye Mystery) have been very successful. Character-driven mystery-tackling in its broadest sense is perennially popular (Artemis Fowl, Joshua Garcia, Alex Rider, etc), but where is the Red Hand Gang of the 21st Century? Either the 'group of crime-busting child/teen detectives in a short-text series' format has morphed into something else or it's been neglected. Few contemporary teenagers are going to want to read or watch Nancy Drew now, but is that because they don't want crime fiction of their own or is that because Nancy Drew is very dated and 70s cheesy (at least on the telly)?

The clichés and archetypes of the genre are well known: a dashing but flawed leader (with a dog), a nerd with specs who is the brainy one, and a fiery girl (probably with red hair) to stir things up and provide a dash of very tame sexual tension. Then the set-up needs a 'Something Else' that gives the kids an edge (a gift for disguises perhaps, or a rich uncle with 'access') while the writer must have a talent for slow-drip backstory and long term character development. Stir all this together and serve it up in a dozen or more plot-driven shorter novels, and watch the fan base grow and the film rights get optioned.

Or not. At the very least it's something to think about (minus the clichés, of course). But identifying a gap in the market is a long way from spotting The Next Big Thing, and as far as I can tell that publisher and those editors have yet to be proved right.

But what if the next hot intellectual property is already here? I've just finished reading I Am Number Four by James Frey and Jobie Hughes (under the name Pittacus Lore). The book -- soon to be a series and already a movie -- reads like a self-concious attempt to reboot a tried and trusted formula in order to generate a fresh publishing sensation. First wizards, then vampires, and now... aliens? Traditional Sci-Fi themes of the space western/Star Wars type are also conspicuously lacking in today's Kid-lit market place (I've long wondered why we don't have a modern teen take on Flash Gordon or Blake's Seven, and perhaps Nathan Bransford has too), but it could be that Pittacus Lore has found the right way to exploit them. Book one was published six months ago, and with five more planned someone somewhere is investing heavily in Aliens. Did I mention there's already a film?

So, er.. that'll be my conclusion then: the Next Big Thing in Children's publishing might well be super-powered alien heartthrobs who gang up to solve crime. Or it might be something else.

You heard it here first:)

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

What's Not To Write?

I wonder if Children's publishing is the branch of literature most beset by trends. It certainly seems that way. Over the last decade a stream of themes and archetypes have burst onto the bookshelf only to be dropped in the 'No-no' box a few years later – the point at which only the very well-established can get away with writing something new about them.

By my reckoning the contents of that box is very rich and becoming richer by the year, but how long before those themes become fresh again? A generation?

New writers, looking for their first book deal, obviously need to be aware of the contents of the 'No-no' box, even as they also opt out of the fools game of trend-chasing. It's a fine line to tread, especially as tastes amongst editors, agents and readers (in that order) can change while you're still beavering away at the keyboard. And what do you do if your favourite subject has become deeply unfashionable? The answer to that, I'm afraid, is write about something else, or self-publish and hope.

So what's in that box right now? What should an aspiring children's writer, hoping to attract the attention of agents and editors in 2011 and 2012, be avoiding like a plague of vampires?

Well, boy wizards must be somewhere near the bottom. Along with anyone else who discovers they have powers and need to go away to a special school to learn how to use them. Unless, I suppose, they have powers we've never read about before.

Somewhere just above magic would be pirates. I learnt just how unpopular they had become the hard way. Alongside pirates are similar historical archetypes such as highwaymen and Vikings. In fact, historic themes as a whole are a hard sell now, precisely because they were rumoured to be the 'next big thing' about eight years ago and weren't.

Just above pirates are all those supernatural creatures we've been seeing so much of. If a supernatural creature isn't there, it's because we haven't been seeing much of it, so get writing quick! You're too late for werewolves or hunky fallen angels, but you might just get away with a yeti with dreamboat eyes.

Then -- and last to go into the box -- we have steampunk, partly because there’s been a splurge of it in the last 18 months (and there's still a lot more in the tube), but also because it’s a dead end. A glorious, wonder-filled dead end, but a no-through-road nonetheless. This airship sailed last year.

And then... well, I don't know. Can anyone think of anything else? My guess is that zombies and demons are due to be dropped in the 'No-no' box pretty soon, though to look at the bookshelves they are still enormously popular. But that's precisely the point.

Saturday, 5 February 2011

Save Our Libraries Day -- Saturday 5th of Feb.

In Britain we now have something called 'The Big Society'. For those of you who don't live here, this is the government's Grand Idea, designed to stimulate local entrepreneurial flare while pulling back the role of central government. I'm all for giving new ideas a go, but looked at from any angle it's hard to see the Big Society as much more than a Big Sticking Plaster slapped hastily over the effects of even bigger cuts in public spending. Cuts that plunge painfully near an author's bone when they they cause the loss of public libraries.

Of course, it's not just writers who should be worried. Everyone has something invested in the concept of the free lending library, whether they have forgotten what that is or not. And don't take my word for it. Philip Pullman's recent speech in Oxford, where the local council has decided that Big Society means the proposed closure of 20 of the county's 43 libraries, does more than anything else I've read to highlight the value of what we may be about to lose. Please take some time to read it (though the chances are you have already).

I'm lucky because my local library isn't threatened. It's a bright, clean, modern place, and never empty. But I know that this isn't always the case. Some have been allowed to become 'gloomy old buildings full of unread books', and many respond to their possible closure with disinterest. You have only to read some of the negative reaction to Pullman's speech to find out what a part of the British population thinks of libraries. And as their use is allowed to decline, some local authorities -- invited by government to 'be creative' in their response to the Big Society – have deemed libraries to be irrelevant and unprofitable (!), dead wood to be hacked off. An easy way to save money.

So much for being creative. A truly big idea would see our less popular, shabbier libraries re-vitalised as centres of literacy and civic pride, designed to counter the numb-skull notion that we don't need them 'coz it's all on the internet'. Like Pullman, I want to live in a Long Society that remembers the past and invests across generations, not a short sighted one that can't see beyond next year's accounting and the vague positives of 'bigness'.

In 1994, Norwich central library burnt down. It was a traumatic event for the city, and I sensed the ruin and shock of it even though I no longer lived there. I used the library as a boy, and remember it as a grand and sober institution, a repository of local history stretching back a thousand years, a lending library stacked to its high ceiling with upright spines. It may not have been a very joyful place for a child, but there's something especially bitter about the stink of burning history and books, however old you are.

Norwich responded to this disaster not by rebuilding a cheap imitation of what was lost (as many called for), and certainly not by grabbing the chance to cut spending, but by finding the courage and foresight to create something innovative: a 21st Century forum.

The Forum is not merely a new, modern library, but a beacon of cultural and civic life, with conference rooms, cafés and even (horror!) shops. But it's most emphatically not a Mall. It is what all libraries, even small branches, could aspire to be with the help of some genuinely creative thinking from local and central government: a crossroads and meeting point for ideas, friends, and all aspects of regional cultural life; an icon of local identity; a temple to information in all formats. In short, a place that will still be relevant when the 'Big Society' is nothing more than a passage in a history book. A book anyone in Norwich will be able to read because they have such a cracking library.

Thanks to Phil Bradley for the picture.