Friday, 30 May 2008

The dotted line

My new Bloomsbury contracts arrived yesterday. It is always a satisfying moment, signing a new contract - not least because then actually receive some money.

For those not familiar with the arcane process of payment in publishing, the writer receives a wedge of money on signing the contract for a book, another wedge on delivery of the manuscript and another wedge on publication (and possibly another on publication of paperback if there is to be a hardback/paperback publication).

These payments are an advance from the publisher set against royalties on sales of the book. The better the book sells, the quicker your royalties will pay off that advance. The more generous the advance, the harder it is to pay it off.

But that is infinitely better than having a measly advance and still not selling. Royalties are pie in the sky - better to have a decent advance (unless you are J K Rowling - and then you get both anyway). Sales of a book are not a judgement on the quality of your book (or at least not always). Really bad books sell well and very, very good ones disappear without trace. It is a bit of a lottery.

In any case - a decent advance is a show of commitment from the publisher, and that means they are more likely to give your book a publicity budget. Anyone can promote authors who are already famous. It takes a bit more work to develop the careers of the rest of us. The work of the sales, marketing and publicity people is vital. There is a big difference between printing a book and publishing it. Anyone can print a book. I have to say Bloomsbury have been excellent publishers for me.

That said, a writer needs to justify an advance. It is always good to work off that advance - and that means helping to promote the books in any way that helps: doing author visits and talks, doing festivals, doing interviews. . .

And maybe running a blog.

Wednesday, 28 May 2008

Some changes to the blog

I had an email from my agent yesterday suggesting a few changes to the blog.

They were good suggestions - as Philippa's suggestions always are - so I have tweaked the left-hand column a bit to group my links to her and to my publishers and to the Tales of Terror website. I have also added cover shots of the next book - Tales of Terror from the Black Ship (US & UK editions) and of the rest of my books currently in print. Hopefully it all makes it clearer.

Tuesday, 27 May 2008

Is Mrs Coulter the Ice Queen?

I went to lunch with my friend Paul May today. He was in Cambridge for a conference on teaching music in primary schools. He is a primary school teacher and writer of children's books - a good one too (writer, that is - I can't speak for his teaching abilities).

We went to the Michaelhouse Cafe and talked for ages about teaching and education and writing and writers. Paul and I used to share an agent and a publisher and now share neither. We talked about about that. We talked about the way we write and what we write and what we'd like to write. Writers have that conversation a lot.

We also had a chat about Philip Pullman and C S Lewis. Paul hadn't seen the BBC4 programme about fantasy fiction, but he had wondered - like me - whether, for all his detestation of Lewis, Pullman wasn't just a bit affected by him. Were Lewis's books a spur for Pullman to write something himself, if only to show that it could be done better?

Mrs Coulter does have something of the White Witch about her (but then the White Witch had something of the Snow Queen about her). And then there is the frozen worlds that take up so much of Northern Lights and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. And of course there is the anti-religious theme of Pullman v the pro-Christian Lewis.

This is not a particularly thought-out theory - hey are such different books and such different authors. I just wonder whether Northern Lights was written - in part - as a reaction to Lewis, and is therefore influenced by him. And if that's true, would Northern Lights have been written without The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe? An odd thought.

Monday, 26 May 2008

Tap, tap, tap

A classic English Bank Holiday Monday - howling gales, cold and very very wet. I spent another day in the house tapping away at the keyboard, pacing about the house, tapping at the keyboard, making cups of tea and tapping at the keyboard some more.

The life of a writer is incredibly glamorous.

Saturday, 24 May 2008

Mad men

I drove my wife and son to the station today. They are bound for Somerset and a week's holiday with my mother-in-law. I on the other hand, have been left alone to write my latest book - Tales of Terror from the Tunnel's Mouth.

Infuriatingly, I video-taped the wrong channel like some gizmo-phobic wrinkly and missed last week's Mad Men, and so caught up with it on the BBC's iPlayer. I don't like watching things on the computer. Some of the boring connotations of computers leak into my viewing and tend to deaden whatever I am watching. That and the fact that I have to sit in my office in my boring office chair.

It says much about Mad Men, that it was still as engaging as ever. It is by far and away the best thing on TV and just about makes up for the loss of the The Sopranos. I understand that we do not have the resources in the UK to make anything with such high production values, but why is it that we can't make anything this grown up or ambitious in terms of writing? Unless it wears a bonnet and rides in a carriage.

Friday, 23 May 2008

And on guitar. . .

I went to the studio today and did some work on my paintings. I have put the four I have been working on to one side and am working on another four. They are going OK. I may even take some photos and post them on my blog. Maybe.

I went for a coffee with my studio mates Andrew and Lynette and had a real freelancers chat about the funny old ways of clients and how in almost every conceivable case, we knew best. We also talked about the illustrators Alan Adler and Ed Briant, both of whom I used to share studio space with in the 1980s - the same badly-lit Bloomsbury basement I shared with Andrew Ellis. Lynette - who is a graphic designer - shared studio space with them later at a different location in London. Another one of those strange coincidences that seem to be following me round at the moment.

I was at college with Alan Adler - he was on the MA Illustration course at Manchester when I was on the BA. We shared houses together both in Manchester and London and were briefly in a band while still at college in the late 70s (he on drums, me on guitar) that never performed. Which was probably just as well, thinking about it.

Thursday, 22 May 2008

New Hall

I went over to New Hall College in Cambridge today to see my friend Peter Kirkham who works in the gardens there. I had never been to New Hall before. It is one of the modern colleges of Cambridge - built in the sixties by the architects responsible for the Barbican complex in London.

There is something a bit grim and Stalinist about concrete, but the structure is definitely exciting in a severe kind of way. There is a huge dome over the dining hall that looks like a cross between an astronomical observatory and a massive concrete flower bud. I'd certainly like to see inside sometime.

I was amazed to discover there were only four gardeners to tend to over 11 acres (at least I think that's what Peter said. The gardens looked great though and I want to make a return trip later in the summer to see what else is going on. I particularly liked the herb garden where students are actively encouraged to eat the plants.

Wednesday, 21 May 2008

We don't want to have to stitch it back on, do we?

I went to the closing party for Heffers in the Grafton Centre in Cambridge last night. There were lots of people there, which was great, but it was a bit sad to see all those empty shelves as they sell their stock off. It is their last day tomorrow. Kate Johnson received a well-deserved round of applause. But maybe we should all have bought more books there instead of just coming to the events!

I had a long chat to Peter Kirkham about music and mentioned that I had a bit of a thing about New York bands - which I do. He suggested I do a blog about that. Hmmm. Maybe. He also claimed to be amazed at the coincidence of meeting Will Hill - this from a man who I met by chance (at Heffers come to think of it) and who turned out to have gone to my school in Newcastle-upon-Tyne (though much later)

I had another trip to the dentist this morning. The hygienist gave me an anaesthetic jab in the lower jaw, which numbs the gums (a bit) and the tongue. Because you lose sensation in the tongue for a few hours you have to be careful not to bite it (we don't want to have to stitch it back on do we?). She said, 'If you find yourself choking....'

Then she just trailed off. I never did discover what to do if I find myself cho..k...k..ack....klaah...

Tuesday, 20 May 2008

The Smugglers of Mourne

I scanned in some of my old illustrations today. These are from The Smugglers of Mourne by Martin Waddell.

Monday, 19 May 2008

(The angels wanna wear my) red shoes

Boxes full of Death and the Arrows arrived this morning, saved from the pulper by their soft-hearted author. These are the first editions with my illustration on the cover and I will gift them to a couple of schools I know. I would rather see them in a school library than destroyed (sob).

I got a lovely surprise a couple of days ago when I got an email from my agent saying that an old friend - Andrew Ellis - had been in touch, trying to track me down. I first met Andrew when he was on the Foundation Course at Manchester Polytechnic and I was in my first year - this would have been 1977 I suppose. Good grief! I am an old man.

Andrew went on to do Graphic Design at LCP in London while I stayed in Manchester for another couple of years before moving to London myself, where we shared studio space in a dingy basement opposite the British Museum.

The weird thing is, I seemed to have conjured him up. I sold all my records before we moved (though it causes me actual physical pain to recall it now) and I keep thinking about playing something and realising I no longer have it. So for some reason I was singing (The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes - with the great lines: I said I'm so happy I could die; she said drop dead then left with another guy - and I thought about going to see Elvis with Andrew at Rafters club in Manchester all those years ago.

I can see him now - a weird, twitchy and sweaty, gap-toothed geek. That's Elvis Costello by the way - not Andrew.

Sunday, 18 May 2008

Come on you 'U's

I went to Wembley today to watch Cambridge United play Exeter City in the play-offs to decide who went up. I went with my son, my friend Clive and his sons. On the way in we spotted Will Hill who is head of the Typography MA at Anglia Ruskin University, who was there with his son. We had a chat and split up to go our different ways as we entered the stadium to be frisked (I almost had my bicycle clips confiscated as an offensive weapon). We took our seats to discover Will was sitting next to Clive. What are the chances?

The game was not, it has to be said, of the highest quality though some of the flair was provided by Matt Gill, who played for Exeter (boo, hiss etc). Mattie was my tennis partner many moons ago when I lived in Norfolk and was coached by his brother, Darren, who was also a talented footballer before he turned to tennis coaching.

The stadium was the best thing about the day. The experience of being in such a huge crowd - even a less than capacity one - was fantastic. There was a man a couple of rows behind offering an X-rated commentary on the game and occasionally cheering 'Come on you 'U's'. I thought he was saying 'ewes' as in sheep, but it appears Cambridge United seem to have a capital letter as a nickname.

There were so many incidents off the pitch: a man receiving first aid on the way, having collapsed before he'd got to the entrance, a man being arrested after the game, the stern faced policeman on horseback, a family split up on the tube when one half wasn't quick enough to get off. There was even - much to the boys delight - a streaker. Well - an attempted streaker. He was grabbed by the stewards (if you see what I mean) as he stepped onto the grass and led away looking very crestfallen. There can be few sadder sights than a disappointed streaker.

Saturday, 17 May 2008

The woman in white

I have started to re-read Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White and I'm already hooked, just as I was when I first read it twenty-odd years ago. My son bought it for me for my birthday last year and I find that it helps to read a Victorian novel when I am writing my Victorian/Edwardian-set creepy stories. I read David Copperfield when I was writing Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror.

At the moment I am writing a book that has the working title of Tales of Terror from the Tunnel's Mouth. Like Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror and Tales from the Black Ship, it will feature a storyteller who tells (hopefully) sleep-disturbing stories.

I am working my way through several stories, not all of which will necessarily make it into the final book. I still have stories left over from Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror and the Black Ship, that I felt did not quite make or the grade, or that were waiting on that certain something to lift them out of just being OK. If a story is not quite right, the best thing to do is put it to one side if you can and see what happens when you next read it. Often it becomes very clear what needs to be done once you stop staring at it so closely.

It is amazing the difference a small change will make to a short story, and particularly stories such as these where you want to make sure that the reader is going just where you want them to go and nowhere else. I want to be sure that I have set everything up in the best possible way. It is rather like a magician and misdirection. A lot of the work is in not letting the reader anticipate the ending, or in encouraging them to anticipate a different ending. And just as with a magician, this effort should not be apparent. It should all seem effortless and inevitable. It should be the swan and not the paddling feet they remember.

Friday, 16 May 2008

Proofs and roughs

I got a call from my editor, Helen Szirtes, today. She was ringing to go through my notes on the proofs for Tales of Terror from the Black Ship and to point out yet more anomalies and errors we had not spotted earlier.

This really was the last conversation we are going to have about changes to the text until it goes into paperback. The fine tuning on a book is so important, but that is exactly why I find it so exhausting and stressful. Writing a book is like walking down an endlessly forking path: it is as much about dismissing options as it is about choosing them. If you are not careful you can begin to doubt those decisions you made early on to go down one path and not another.

At the end of the day Helen sent me a batch of roughs from David Roberts of illustrations for the book. I can't show you them - it isn't really fair on David to show his roughs - so you will just have to take my word for it that they are looking great.

Thursday, 15 May 2008

Spooky stories

I cycled over to the studio today, riding past the areas I had photographed in winter and am busy basing paintings on. They look so incredibly different now, with waist high nettles and misty drifts of cow parsley.

Again, I was painting over work I had done the day before. This may seem crazy written down, but it hopefully makes sense visually. I want the process I have gone through to show in the finished piece. I want the ghost of the previous versions to come through. The subject matter is not completely inconsequential - it should read as a particular kind of landscape - but it's all about the paint and the painting (the act of painting that is). For me anyway. It is a world away from illustration.

Speaking of which. . .

I got an email from Rachel Boden at Egmont today. I illustrated a book by Gillian Cross some time ago - The Monster from Underground - and it is being re-issued with a couple of other stories under the provisional title of Spooky Stories. She had been trying to contact me at my previous address and is going to send me a copy of the cover when she has it. It is out in September. Below is one of my illustrations.

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Never fall in love with your own work

I seem to have at least one conversation every day about the pointlessness of the SATs or the frustrating state of the English education system. I have been a governor in two different primary schools in England and have seen many more visiting as an author and as an illustrator. I have a huge respect for teachers and for head teachers. But that does not mean I necessarily have a huge respect for the way they are asked to teach.

I basically spent today's painting session in my studio painting over most of what I did yesterday (which in itself was painting over what had been done before). The trick to painting - to my sort of painting anyway, and to the sort of painting I admire - is not to fall in love with what you are doing. Don't like it too much that you are not willing to change it entirely. Don't be influenced by people walking past and saying, 'I like that.' It's nice to hear people like your work, but it shouldn't influence you one tiny bit.

Peter Kirkham sent me some more moth pictures. They are fantastic and I shall put some of them up as soon as I get the chance.

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

Is Hellboy a Christian?

I went to the studio today, switching my working day around. Instead of writing in the morning, I went across town and did some painting. I got back to the landscapes I had been working on a few weeks back. I had deserted them in favour of some strip and illustration ideas I had been playing about with. The Peter Doig show had really inspired me - both to get back to painting and to be a bit more fearless.

I spoke to Helen at Bloomsbury and she said that David Roberts had been working on Tales of Terror from the Black Ship and we might see some roughs by the end of the week. I'm really intrigued to see what he has come up with.

We had some interesting debates in Art Club today. I was getting the children to copy some Mike Mignola drawings just to see what they could learn from such a controlled style. To my great surprise this prompted a lively discussion about whether Hellboy is a Christian or not.

No sooner had we moved on from that controversy when I was asked did I know the band called Queen. Yes I did, I said, wondering where we were going with this one. 'Were they from the 19th or the 20th Century?' That the question came from a Year 6 in SATs week is a little worrying.

But I do like the idea that Queen was a 19th Century band.

Monday, 12 May 2008

Scream if I do anything unbearable. . .

I walked my son to school today for the first day of his SATs and then I had to cycle over to the dentists to have the hygienist do some industrial scraping of my teeth under anaesthetic. She told me that she had been trained in the army, practicing on Gurkhas and paratroopers. Gurkhas have an especially high pain threshold, she told me, as she hovered over me with what looked like something the Inquisition might have employed as a last resort.

The dentist who recommended this treatment is Swedish. He began examining me with the words - in the same lilting accent as Sven Goran Erickson - 'Scream if I do anything unbearable.' What a fantastic opening line.

In the afternoon, I sent the proofs of Tales of Terror from the Black Ship off to Bloomsbury, hoping that I had spotted everything that needed spotting. If I have it will be the first time ever. However hard everyone tries, no sooner has the book been printed than some glaringly obvious error leaps out from the page. And every author I know says the same.

Sunday, 11 May 2008

More proofs

Another glorious day in Cambridge, but I spent most of it indoors reading the proofs of Tales of Terror from the Black Ship to myself. This is my last chance to spot any errors or make any changes before I return them to Helen Szirtes at Bloomsbury tomorrow.

My son starts his SATs tests tomorrow. SATs are a curious phenomenon in England. The school spends months training the children to do the tests, which were intended as an assessment on the standard of teaching, and then take credit from the results. Perhaps they ought to pay the children for providing them with good PR. I would not mind if I thought that the tests and the endless preparation for them provided a format to reinforce learning, but I see little evidence of that.

If schools are going to be judged on the results of the tests, then of course they are going to train the children to do them. But SATs seem to have taken up nearly the entirety of Year 6. I struggle to think of any brand new information my son has taken on in the whole year. What History has he learned? What art has he done? Where is the creative writing? And when they are over, the children will do nothing new. It seems absolutely crazy to me.

Saturday, 10 May 2008

Mortar boards and burnt flesh

There was one of those extraordinary clashes of town and gown in Cambridge today, with queues of scholars in black, ermine-trimmed robes sweltering outside the Senate House whilst hordes of young men trouped by, stripped to the waists, lobster pink.

Why is that Englishmen have to throw off all their clothes at the first rays of sunshine. Some have the body to get away with it, but most don't. For every Adonis there is a score of Bacchus (or should that be Bacchi?). Put it away. It's not nice and it's not clever.

And litter has now replaced swallows as the first sign of summer. A moraine of plastic sandwich packaging and salad containers and water bottles drifts across every area of open ground. There is broken glass form beer bottles and pint glasses near every pub. The ugliness seems even greater somehow, set against the beauty of a place like Cambridge

I suddenly feel very, very old. I think I shall lie down for a while and listen to the wireless.

Friday, 9 May 2008


I had a very sad invite yesterday - to attend a farewell party for the staff at Heffers bookshop in Cambridge's Grafton Centre. It closes on 21 May.

I have been particularly involved with the children's section there over the last few years. I have been to so many well-attended events there - both as an author and as a punter. I will be very sad to see it go, and so will many, many other people in this area. It will be missed by children first and foremost; by their parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles - and by those of us who write and illustrate for children.

Children's bookshops are one of the areas in book selling where the purchaser often does not quite know what he or she wants. They need a pleasant place to browse, but they also need help and advice from staff who know about children's books and love them. Kate Johnson at Heffers is just such a person and I wish her well with her move to the Trinity Street branch.

A few years ago Cambridge had a dedicated Children's Bookshop in Trinity Street as well as a dedicated Art Bookshop, both under the Heffers banner. It seems terrible that a city like Cambridge cannot support such shops. And now we have lost another.

I met Suzanne Jones, the events organiser for Heffers, for coffee in the Trinity Street branch. Suzanne is another reason Heffers is so important to the cultural life of Cambridge. She is one of the most energetic and enthusiastic people I know and has been hugely supportive of local writers and incredibly encouraging of me personally. People like Suzanne make a difference. A real difference.

Thursday, 8 May 2008

More doodling

I popped round to see my friend Anne Cunningham this morning. She was having problem with her blog and asked me for help. I wasn't much use, but it was good to see her. We shared a studio together here in Cambridge for a while and I miss our putting the world to rights conversations.

Anne has a background in textile design and used to rent a studio in the same building as me in Shoreditch many years ago when I was working as an illustrator. She built up and ran her own design agency for years and is now having a lot of success locally with her paintings. You can see them by clicking on the link to her website.

When I got back there was a big box of books from Doodled Books. Doodled Books got in touch with me via this blog. They get authors to doodle in their books and then sell them. It is a step up from signed first editions I suppose and I like the idea. All I have to do now is get myself in a doodling frame of mind and hope I don't ruin the books.

Wednesday, 7 May 2008

Peter Doig

I went to London today for a meeting and took the opportunity to go and see the Peter Doig exhibition at the Tate - something I've been meaning to do for a while. It seemed wrong to be inside on such a sunny say, but it was worth it - the show was fantastic. I came away itching to paint (if only I had the time).

Peter Doig's work is an advert for the continuing validity of painting. And not only is it a big 'Yes!' for painting, it is a big 'Yes!' to the image in painting. Peter Doig paintings are very much about paint and the quality of the painted surface, but he actually paints recognisable things. He works from photographs a lot, but not in a photorealistic way.

Doig is fascinated by reflections. I remember a trendy art teacher coming to my school and getting us to draw a pile of boxes - but not the boxes themselves, she insisted: the spaces between the boxes. We all thought she was mad, but I suspect Doig would have got what she was on about straight away. He often paints the spaces between things and leaves the things themselves as vague ghosts. There's a real poetry in this.

So much of what is important in life, good and bad, happens in those spaces between things.

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

Fear and loathing in Cambridge

Cambridge was basking in sunshine today: wisteria blossom dripping from Sidney Sussex railings, cow parsley, marsh marigolds and lady's smock in Sheep's Green, birds twittering in the willows. And yet my mood was anything but bright today.

Bouts of self-loathing, existential angst and general fury with the venality of the world are no doubt vital parts of any artist's make up, but writing requires a calmer spirit than I have at the moment. If I was writing an angry, existentialist novel of self-loathing, then it might help, but I'm actually writing the follow-up to the as-yet-unpublished Tales of Terror from the Black Ship.

The new book is another set of chilling stories with another story linking them all together and will hopefully sit nicely with the previous two. Do I mean nicely? Horribly: crouch horribly as if ready to pounce.

Monday, 5 May 2008


My son and I cycled over to the American military cemetery today, on a beautiful sunny day, stopping off in the village of Coton to look round the church. On one wall there was a board with the Ten Commandments written in lovely wonky old script. The one that particularly caught my eye was the instruction not to covet thy neighbour's house.

I am SO guilty of that. I covet houses all the time as I am cycling around. And I'm not sure my coveting stops at houses. I spend far too much time coveting I have realised. It's definitely not good for the soul.

I shalt try not to covet so much.

Sunday, 4 May 2008

I used to work at the Economist. . .

But I'm alright now.

I went to a black tie dinner tonight as a guest of a very clever friend of mine called Mardi Dungey, standing in (if such a thing were possible) for her husband Ross. Dr Dungey is an economist. The dinner was at the Judge School of Business Studies, which is a zany redevelopment of a hospital, with a massive atrium and lots of colour like the inside of an Egyptian temple - the inside of a Playmobile Egyptian temple.

Mardi introduced me to everyone by saying I was a children's author, but then followed it up with, 'and he used to work as a cartoonist for the Economist'. Now this indeed true: I worked at the Economist for six years between 1990 and 1996 (when it was still in black and white and George Bush's dad was in the White House). My good friend Dave Simonds still works there - as well as doing the political cartoon in the New Statesman. But I never - ever - thought working at the Economist would win me any kudos. I guess I haven't been to enough dinners with economists. Or then again. . .

The food was great and we had a laugh. Mardi was great company and we're going to miss her and Ross when she goes back to Tasmania. She keeps threatening to try and find me a writer in residence deal down there. I hope she does. I like the sound of Tasmania.

Friday, 2 May 2008


The proofs of Tales of Terror from the Black Ship arrived today. They are the end result of a lot of searching questions and detailed inspection of my work by my editor, Helen Szirtes.

I always dread the arrival of proofs. They are exciting in as much as they give you the first glimpse of what the book will look like, but they are scary because they also represent the last possible chance to get things right before publication. Anything that slips through now will have to wait until the paperback to be corrected.

So I will attempt to read them through, without getting lost in the content and trying to check the structure is correct. The best way I know of doing this is to read the stories aloud. There is something about the act of reading aloud that shows up any errors in a flash. When you silently read, your mind (or maybe it is just the author's mind) corrects mistakes as you go. But reading aloud is different. You can not make yourself say something that is clearly wrong on the page.

Reading aloud is an important part of writing I think. A sentence can look nice on the page, but I want it to sound nice in the readers head. Saying the words is the only way I know of ensuring this. And anyway, books for children are often read aloud and should sound right.