Thursday, 29 April 2010

Taking a lion for a walk

I may have said this before. When you get to my age it can feel like you have said most things before. I keep promising myself never to tell another anecdote because I always have the nagging doubt that the person I'm telling it to has already heard it and is just being too polite to say. And there is nothing worse than hearing an anecdote - honed by many tellings - for the second or even third time. Once you miss that opening to say 'Sorry - you've told me that already,' you have to listen to the whole thing. If it's funny you have to laugh. Groan.

The good thing about repeating an anecdote by blog is that in cyberspace no one can hear you yawn. So here goes. . .

When I was a kid - I think I was probably about eight - we were doing art and the teacher introduced the thing we were about to do by talking about Paul Klee and saying that she wanted us to put our pencils on the paper and just take the line wherever we wanted. She described this as 'Taking a line for a walk'.

Except what I heard was 'Taking a lion for a walk'.

I imagined that my pencil was somehow a lion and that I had him on a leash. I can't remember if the line that I drew was any different than those of the other pupils in my class, but I do know that the phrase 'taking a lion for a walk' never quite left me and it seemed to say something about what I wanted from my drawings as I got older. It still does.

And now that I write for a living, it seems to say something about writing too. There are so many ways a story can go, so many possible lives for any character a writer creates. There is always a tension between control and the need to adapt to the new possibilities that open up as you write.

As I'm sure I've said before, it does sound horribly pretentious when a writer says that a character develops a life of their own, but they do - or they certainly should. And I suppose that is one of the reasons that 'taking a lion for a walk' rings true to me. I feel that when I'm working well I am not fully in control of the outcome - that occasionally I'm being pulled in another direction.

When you are producing work for money and to a deadline, safety can always seem like a justifiable option. But safety is deadening. There has to be an element of uncertainty - of danger.

Otherwise you're taking a poodle for a walk.

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Shiny new jacket

I received some very exciting post today - a set of covers for The Dead of Winter from Kate Clarke of Bloomsbury Children's Books design department. I had seen versions of this before, but not the finished thing. I have taken a photograph rather than scanned it in so that you can see that it has a foil effect to accentuate the frosty feel.

Covers are a source of frequent complaint by authors and I've spoken about this before. Everyone understands how important a cover is and obviously authors want something that does justice to their book. Often they can feel a little powerless to intervene in the process. It can be soul-destroying to put so much effort into the writing of a book and then see it go out into the world with a lackluster jacket.

My take on covers has always been that - without misrepresenting the book - they should stand on their own as a piece of design whose function is not to illustrate the story (though it can do that as well) but to sell the book - to make the book desirable. Increasingly that means producing something powerful enough that it will catch a potential reader's eye at the size of an Amazon thumbnail. I am clearly biased as I did the image, but I think this is a very strong cover.

Of course, none of this will matter if the book does not capture the reader's imagination. But getting someone to choose your book from the myriad of others out there is half - maybe more than half - of the battle.

The Dead of Winter is out in October.

Friday, 23 April 2010

Happy St George's Day!

Here's a poem in celebration of the fact that as well as England being the land of bonnets and brollies, it is also home to a great radical tradition. This is To the Men of England by Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Men of England, wherefore plough
For the lords who lay ye low?
Wherefore weave with toil and care
The rich robes your tyrants wear?

Wherefore feed and clothe and save,
From the cradle to the grave,
Those ungrateful drones who would
Drain your sweat -nay, drink your blood?

Wherefore, Bees of England, forge
Many a weapon, chain, and scourge,
That these stingless drones may spoil
The forced produce of your toil?

Have ye leisure, comfort, calm,
Shelter, food, love's gentle balm?
Or what is it ye buy so dear
With your pain and with your fear?

The seed ye sow another reaps;
The wealth ye find another keeps;
The robes ye weave another wears;
The arms ye forge another bears.

Sow seed, -but let no tyrant reap;
Find wealth, -let no imposter heap;
Weave robes, -let not the idle wear;
Forge arms, in your defence to bear.

Shrink to your cellars, holes, and cells;
In halls ye deck another dwells.
Why shake the chains ye wrought? Ye see
The steel ye tempered glance on ye.

With plough and spade and hoe and loom,
Trace your grave, and build your tomb,
And weave your winding-sheet, till fair
England be your sepulchre!

Thursday, 8 April 2010

Uncorrected proofs

Two copies of the uncorrected proofs of The Dead of Winter arrived today. It is very exciting to see it in book form for the first time.

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Le terrificante storie di zio Montague

Uli Rushby-Smith from Bloomsbury Rights Department got in touch yesterday saying she had a busy time at the Bologna Children's Book Fair (which is always nice to hear) and that interest in my books was brisk (which is even nicer to hear). She passed on details of my Italian publisher, Newton Compton, and that encouraged me to have a look at their website and see if they had anything about my books.

Not only did I find the cover of the Italian edition of Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror, but also this great promo they've put up on YouTube. . .

Monday, 5 April 2010

Grantchester meadows

My brother-in-law came up for the day yesterday and we took a stroll along the Cam at Grantchester Meadows. The afternoon had been mainly overcast but had cleared and the low sun was making everything glow with the trippy hyper-reality of a Pre-Raphaelite painting. The photos don't really do it justice.

Friday, 2 April 2010

Blog awards

The more observant of you will notice a big orange badge on the blog. Use this to nominate your favourite blog for a blog award. For a list of those already nominated follow this link.

Of course I would be delighted if you decided to nominate mine - but by all means nominate your own. Today is the last day you can do it. Go on.

Go on, go on, go on, go on, go on, go on, go on.

Thursday, 1 April 2010


I have a big apology to make to all those who may have come to the blog in the last few months hoping for news of the Cumbria Book Appeal I began before Christmas. To recap for those who missed it, I was responding to the severe floods in Cumbria that took place last year and had the idea that authors and illustrators of children's books might put a bit of a spark into what was going to be a very muted Christmas by sending the present of a book to children in the affected area.

All authors and illustrators have copies of their books lying around. We are sent advance copies when the books are printed - though it might interest those of you who do not write that these are not free copies: the cost is offset against any royalties we might generate. But nevertheless I did think that this was a relatively painless way of authors making a connection with some of their readers in a time of crisis.

The idea was that we would sign a book (or two or six) and send them to a collection point where they would be somehow distributed to the children. I contacted Cumbria Council and spoke to their media person. He was initially very keen and encouraging and so I blogged, Facebooked and emailed anyone and everyone I could think of to see if there was any interest from authors and illustrators.

Just about all the people I contacted came back immediately with 'I'm in - where do I send the books?' That issue - the issue of where to actually send the books became one of the stumbling blocks. Also I had by this time had further contact with the council using a contact of Jim Eldridge, a writer I knew from my days working for Scholastic. But with the infrastructure of the area in tatters, they clearly saw this scheme as a potential burden on their already strained resources.

I thought - and still think - they were wrong, but I absolutely understand why they might think that. The most heartening response actually came from publishers and bookshops - the areas of the business you might have thought would be least sentimental. Lisa Edwards at Scholastic was a continual source of support and practical help. But I also need to thank the wonderful Philippa Dickinson at Random House, Alistair Spalding at Egmont, Anna Howarth at Usborne, Anne Clark at Piccadilly Press and Susannah Nuckey at Bloomsbury. Nikki Gamble from Writeaway was also a star and I want to thank all the authors and illustrators on facebook who were so quick to offer books and to the likes of Fiona Dunbar and Sally Nicholls who took the trouble to spread the word and bring in new authors. Thanks too to Jo McCrum of the Society Of Authors. If I've forgotten anyone then I am obviously an arse.

The lovely Kate Johnson at Heffer's here in Cambridge was also incredibly supportive and enthusiastic and made a generous offer both of books and potentially of transport. It was Lisa Edwards who put me in touch with Alison Cattanach at Hills Bookshop in Workington and it was they who made the most practical contribution of offering storage and distribution of the books. It makes it doubly frustrating that we were unable to make use of their kind offer.

The idea shifted from signed books for individual children to a combination of signed and unsigned books for school libraries. But the fact remains that I never did get an answer from Cumbria as to how many children we were talking about or even the number of schools. Though generous offers did come in from authors and illustrators I have to confess I expected more. I suspect that is true of everyone who organises anything like this. We numbered about 80, but I was hoping for at least 200.

All this is leading to the fact that I have to announce that the plan is dead. It has probably been obvious for a couple of months, but I did not want to actually admit that I had failed. Josh Lacey made the point to me that my initial idea was the one that was appealing. Sending books to school libraries was not the same at all. It's true. It was not what I had seen happening. But I thought that this would be better than nothing.

I was forced to accept that it was not going to happen for Christmas, but hoped that we might get it going after Christmas. But then there was the infinitely more disastrous Haiti earthquake and my scheme seemed in poor taste suddenly set against that. Then there was the snow. Then there was simply the issue of when do we send. There needed to be a logic to that. Christmas was a time for presents - it made sense. World Book Day? Everyone is so busy with other things. And so it went on. Very, very reluctantly, I have had to accept that the moment has passed. It is infuriating, but there we are.

I want to thank everyone who sent emails and contacted me with words of encouragement or with heart-warming enthusiasm. The generosity of the authors who contacted me was wonderful. Perhaps there will be another opportunity to harness that goodwill in the future.

Best wishes