Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Paperback winter

I got an email from Kate Clarke, the designer at Bloomsbury who works on my covers. She was sending me the proposed cover for the paperback of The Dead of Winter to ask what I thought.

The answer was that I thought it looked great. It will be out in October.

Sunday, 16 January 2011


Drove for half an hour to a windswept field in Cambridgeshire today. I was taking my son and two teammates to a football match. The forecast was for heavy rain, but we were lucky to get away with a cold, sharp breeze down our necks instead. It was a classic English scene - a group of windswept parents huddled under a glowering sky to watch their sons get covered in mud.

And a little glory as well this week! My son's team actually won. I don't think I would be showing them a great disrespect if I said that this was not entirely expected. All the more welcome for that, though.

Saturday, 15 January 2011


I have been going through Helen Szirtes' notes on Mister Creecher. These are more detailed points following on from the changes I made in response to much broader queries about the book.

We are doing this part of the edit using 'track changes' in Word. All Helen's changes are highlighted and there are comments and questions in the margin. There weren't that many, but at this stage they always tend to be difficult to resolve.

One of the things that has come up in this book is the fact that I had the main character saying 'Jesus!' when shocked or surprised or angered. I had a directive to remove these or find a replacement.

Editing is like any form of negotiations - there is no point wasting time and effort and goodwill fighting fights you know you are bound to lose. This was one of those - although I did find it infuriating. Not just because I don't accept that it a character in a book cannot say things that the author or the reader might find offensive, but more that I find it impossible to replace it with anything that was not more offensive.

That aside, it was good to read through Mister Creecher again. I don't often get giddy about a book. Quite the reverse - I usually feel more and more depressed about it, until when it is finally published I have convinced myself that it must be absolute garbage and that I have wasted my life and brought shame to my family. But I'm quite excited about Mister Creecher.

Although there is plenty of time between now and its publication in June, for me to get depressed.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Genuinely, thrillingly horrible. . .

A lovely parcel arrived today from Bloomsbury - a jiffy bag full of the rejacketed Tales of Terror from the Tunnel's Mouth, ahead of it's publication in March.

I was very impressed. I finished the proof editing with Isabel Ford at Bloomsbury just before Christmas and was not expecting the book to appear quite so quickly. It was pure chance that Tunnel's Mouth should be done first, but it must mean that the other two Tales of Terror will be arriving shortly.

It will be interesting to see what happens when the rejacketed books go on sale. They look so different from the David Roberts editions - it will be fascinating to see who picks them up. I have had books rejacketed before and felt no benefit whatsoever (and that is very, very disappointing) but I am pretty hopeful that this re-issue will be much more successful.

As well as having no David Roberts illustration on the cover, the books will have no illustrations inside either. This is not any criticism of David's work - no one has ever said anything but very nice things to me about those drawings and I have always been very happy with them.

This is a different way of presenting the stories. Not better - just different.

Saturday, 8 January 2011

Leeds Book Award

I had some good news from Ian Lamb at Bloomsbury before Christmas. The Dead of Winter has been shortlisted for the Leeds Book Award in the 11-14 category. It is always nice to be noticed in among the blizzard of books that are eligible.

Voting takes place until the end of April with the winner announced in May. For details of how you can get involved if you live in Leeds, and for a look at the other books on the various shortlists, follow the link.

Friday, 7 January 2011

A delightfully scary book. . .

I have been the final edits to the bonus stories in the rejacketed Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror and Tales of Terror from the Black Ship. Uncle Montague has a story called Skating and The Black Ship has a story called The Mermaid. Before Christmas I did the same thing with a story called The Voice at the end of Tales of Terror from the Tunnel's Mouth.

I have been working with Isabel Ford from Bloomsbury on these. She sends me the proof copy of the book as a PDF marked with her notes - about missing commas or capitals or whatever - but also any final queries about meaning or sentence structure.

This stage is perhaps the most nerve wracking of all. It is the last chance to make any changes, or to spot any mistakes. I am always amazed by how many things Isabel manages to find, and embarrassed that I have looked through the same thing and found next to nothing!

It is also a tantalising stage because for the first time you see the book taking its eventual form. The pages are laid out as they will be in the printed copy. There is a proper font and page numbers, chapter heads and title page. And if you don't get a little bit excited at this point, you probably shouldn't be a writer.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Back to school

My son went back to school today and I went back to my desk to put in the first full day for a while. I hear a lot of macho stuff from writers (of both sexes) about how they work every day including/except Christmas Day as though their work was some kind of religious vocation.

Well I am proud to say that I don't. I don't always put my work first. Writing is a huge part of my life, but my wife and my son come first. That was true when I was an illustrator and it's still true. There are a lot of great writers who were failures when it came to being friends or fathers or husbands.

It is true to say that writing is one of those activities that needs to be done regularly. The engine needs to be kept running for the process to run smoothly. Otherwise you waste so much time just getting back into the necessary frame of mind needed.

A lot of my writing goes on in my head and leaves no trace. A lot goes on in notebooks, where I will scribble down alternative endings for a story or play about with some element that is getting in the way.

You do have to make yourselves available to write - available to the possibility of writing would be more truthful. But there is not always a correlation between effort and output. Sometimes the harder you work, the less you produce. Sometimes the words come so easily I start to worry that I am remembering them from my own (or someone else's) work.

A great deal of the process of writing - at the beginning and end of a book - is work that is vitally important but is concerned with either the shape of the book or the tiny details that will make a book shine (or not). A writer can (or certainly should in my opinion) spend days returning to a sentence or a paragraph, tweaking it and coaxing it into a thing of beauty.

This might result in thirty rather than three thousand words, but if they are the right ones, that is more than enough.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Arrogant puffery

On Sunday my wife read out a letter from The Observer. It said:

The self-righteous and arrogant puffery of the assorted literati to whom you gave publicity in your headlines and articles on Bookstart really cannot go unchallenged. Handing out new books to those patronisingly thought to be in need of them has little or nothing to do with literacy but, of course, has everything to do with the amount of money made by authors and publishers and it would have been more honest had those fulminating against the threat to cut the £13m of taxpayers' money presently doled out to this so-called charity declared their financial interest.

The letter was by Ann Keith, whom - a spot of Googling discovered - was (and maybe still is) a librarian at Christ's College here in Cambridge. Where to start?

That a librarian should have such an antagonistic attitude to writers is certainly bizarre, but that she would set herself so violently against an organisation that promotes reading and gives books to children is sad and actually disgraceful.

Is it 'patronising' to give books to children? In what way? Does she mean that it is patronising to assume that these children are disadvantaged in some way and need our help in the owning of books? If she does, she misses the point entirely - that in fact is the new government's plan for the book-gifting scheme: that the books will go only to those who 'need' them.

But the book-gifting schemes as they stand at the moment make no such assumptions - and that is their strength. They do not make the patronising assumption that simply because parents have the money to buy books that they see the point of books. I'm sure we all know well-off friends or acquaintances who do not seem to have a place for literature in their lives and so do not see it as a necessary part of their children's lives. It is not only poor children who do not know what it is like to have a bedtime story read to them or understand the thrill of becoming totally enthralled by a book.

But of course, Ms Keith has made the point that I am only saying all this because I have a financial motive. I need children to buy my books so that I can afford to fly my diamond-studded helicopter between the various mansions and private islands owned by my author friends.

Let's start with Booktrust and the Booked Up scheme. I will not pretend that there is not a possible financial dividend from being put onto that list. The books are bought from the publisher but at a reduced rate with reduced royalties, but it raises the author's profile which is never a bad thing, and a child that enjoyed that book may buy - or ask his or her parents to buy - another in the series. I was honoured to be put on the list, but I was also aware that it would do my career no harm. I am not about to make any apologies for that.

I am a full time writer and have been for a little over ten years now. Apart from a little illustration (and I'm talking one or two jobs a year) I have no other source of income. I consider myself a successful author, in that I think I produce good work and I have a living wage, but my income is still nothing to shout about. I earned more working one day a week as an illustrator on The Economist than I have working all week as a writer for much of my career. Having said that The Economist paid very well, as did newspaper cartooning in general. I have done enough other jobs - proof-reading (mind-numbingly boring) and working in a steelworks (mind-numbingly boring and hideously dangerous) for instance, to know that I could be a lot worse off. Money isn't everything.

I have said before that writing is a compulsion and you had better have it if you have any thoughts of attempting it as a career. But we write for children and young people because we love doing it - not all the time, but most of the time. Not only do writers earn very little, they compound it by doing lots of work for nothing, whether it be a visit to their local school or library or taking part in events. Much of this stuff can be seen as 'self-promotion' but in truth it isn't very effective and comes about mainly because children's authors and illustrators are suckers for this kind of thing.

When I first started writing we were in the first stages of Harry Potter fever and I - along with all other children's authors - would be regularly asked what we earned. We expect eight year olds to assume that if one author is a squillionaire, then all authors must be - but to get the same naivety from an adult is a little galling. But why the hell shouldn't I do a job I like and get well paid. Who would I be harming?

Of course I want to sell lots of books, both because I want my books to be read and I want them to be popular, and because I want to earn more money than I do. Who doesn't? But we are not, as authors, in control of how many books we sell. We are not in control of whether they get reviewed, where they get reviewed or how they get reviewed, whether we get nominated for awards or invited to festivals - or whether we get chosen to be on a list like Booked Up.

The money we are sure of receiving (providing we do work that the publisher wants to publish) is not great in most cases. This is known as the 'advance' - that is, money advanced to the author set against what the book will earn in royalties. Nothing in publishing is simple, so that this advance comes in three even smaller tranches - one on signature of contract, one on delivery of manuscript and one on publication. All other forms of income from a book - royalties, foreign sales, audio or film deals - may never actually materialise. Many advances are never paid off.

Incidentally, the royalties take an age to come through. They are paid in twice-yearly batches - January to June and July to December - but of course the author does not get paid straight away. They have to be processed. For three months. Then your agent will probably hang on to it for another month. So as an author you will see a profit from the sales of your book (if there is one, remember) a year later. Unpredictable income, no paid holidays, no sick-leave. Welcome to the puffed up, glamorous world of writing.

Mostly I assume that if a writer is earning more than me, they are working harder than me, and in most cases that will be true. The only way to get rich is to have a bestseller and/or a movie made of your book. There are so few children's authors who fit into this category that it isn't even worth factoring in. To even earn a decent standing of living most authors have to either work damned hard and write a lot of books, have another job as well, or have a partner who does a job with an actual recognisable wage. Certainly, if you have ever dreamed of being an author, follow that dream out of a desire to write, not out of a desire for riches. Buy a lottery ticket instead. The odds are better.

But what a preposterous notion it is, Ms Keith, that children's authors have to declare a financial interest before leaping to the defence of an organisation like Booktrust - an organisation that everyone (particularly librarians) ought to hold in the highest regard. Shame on you.

Monday, 3 January 2011


I went to London with my son yesterday. We took the underground to London Bridge and walked along the river to Tate Modern (popping into Southwark Cathedral on the way) where we went to see the Gauguin exhibition.

I never quite know what to make of Gauguin. A good Gauguin is a lovely thing indeed, but a bad one is pretty awful, and many never seem to rise above the level of merely interesting. We really enjoyed the early landscapes from Brittany and there was one Tahitian landscape - it may have even been called 'Tahitian Landscape' that we both really liked - but, with a few exceptions, the many, many paintings of Tahitian women leave me a bit cold.

My son pointed out that Gauguin was really good at painting animals, and I don't think I had noticed that before. He's right. He does not paint them in a pedantic way, but he does seem to get the essence of whatever creature he's painting. If only he'd applied the same skill to portraying the essence of those dead-eyed Tahitian women.

I do like the way he paints, though. I mean, I like the way he puts the paint down. It is tentative at first, and quite restrained in colour, but then he just seems to hit on a way of working that really suits him. Like all good painters he makes this seem inevitable - but of course it is anything but, as anyone who has ever tried to paint will tell you.

I have few problems with the way he painted. It's what he painted that I struggle with.

Outside the Tate we saw an extraordinary scene. We heard bagpipe (of the medieval, rather than Scottish variety) coming from a boat on the Thames and saw that on board was a tall man dressed from head to foot in green leaves and crowned with holly.

Much to my son's embarrassment I yelled to the crew and asked what was going on and was told that they were wassailing the boat and the nearby Globe Theatre in a series of pre-Twelfth Night celebrations.

Twelfth night - Epiphany - has lost most of its significance to us, apart from the name of a Shakespeare play and the day most of us take down our Christmas decorations. It was much more of big deal in the past of course. And supposedly marking the visit of the magi to the baby Jesus, it was clearly seen as an appropriate day to hand out gifts by Elizabeth I who used to dole out treats for her favourites at her lavish Christmas celebrations in Greenwich Palace. A knighthood for Walter Raleigh was a Twelfth Night gift, if memory serves.

It was wonderful to see something so rich and colourful in London. The Holly Man was magnificent and the whole thing was done with affection and a kind of joyful reverence. The crowd was happy to join in and why not? It was freezing cold and grey and a Green Man was a welcome sight.

We wassailed the boat (effectively blessed it with alcohol) and the crowd moved off to wassail The Globe. I've only ever associated wassailing with apple trees, but who cares? It was great. And I think Paul Gauguin would have enjoyed it.

Saturday, 1 January 2011

And a new one just begun. . .

Another year begins. . .

I am particularly looking forward to getting Mister Creecher honed to perfection (or as close it as is humanly possible) before that gets published in the summer. I have already pitched a new idea for the next book to Sarah Odedina, but only verbally and I will need to get that written down in a more coherent synopsis and sample chapters. But the good news is that she liked it and so did the meeting she took it too. More about that book later. . .

March is going to be very busy. I have my World Book Day flipbook coming out, shared with the wonderful Philip Reeve and I also have the rejacketed Tales of Terror books coming out, each with an additional story.

I have been asked to attend the Edinburgh Book Festival in August, which is very exciting. I went a couple of years ago and thoroughly enjoyed it. Edinburgh is such a great city and the festival is so well organised. I'm also hoping to see Chris Riddell and Paul Stewart up there is we can manage to synch our visits.

I have also had an enquiry from the Hay Literary Festival. I have never been to Hay and was beginning to feel like I'd been barred for some reason, so that is also good news.

But whilst I am anticipating an exciting year for me personally, I am less excited about what is happening all around me. Like many countries in the world, we are in the grip of a financial crisis, brought about, to a large degree by the reckless greed of a small group of bank employees.

The people resposible seem to have not only escaped without any kind of punishment, but continue to be grotesquely rewarded for their errors. Meanwhile we are told that we will have to face cuts to all manner of services.

Much of this cost-cutting is politically motivated. If the previous administration came up with a scheme, it must be wrong and therefore should be axed. The poor and the young seem to be disproportionately paying for the sins of the already over-paid.

There has already been a campaign by well-known sports people following the decision to axe the excellent scheme to bring local sports experts into schools to promote excellence. The government has already backtracked under this pressure.

Now it is the turn of authors to step up. The author Alan Gibbons has been coordinating a response to cutbacks in the library services and the continuing erosion of the principle reading for pleasure in schools with his Campaign for the Book.

Authors have objected strongly to the pre-Christmas attack on Booktrust. The plans to axe Booktrust's £13m grant make me and many other people absolutely furious. It is actually a relatively small amount of money and fades into insignificance when set against the continuing financial incontinence of the banks. Bob Diamond, the head of Barclay's Bank, declined his bonus for 2009, but still trousered £63m from his basic (sic) wage plus sales of stocks and shares.

Booktrust is an organisation that should be cherished and encouraged for its book-gifting scheme alone, but it does far more than that. The government have backtracked (again) under the barrage of criticism, but it may simply be waiting for the fuss to die down. Certainly the governments stated desire to make sure that if books are gifted they reach the children who need them most misses the point.

Yes, there are many children from disadvantaged background who do not have books as part of their home lives, but there are many children from relatively wealthy background about which the same could be said. There are many adults who do not read for pleasure and when they have children, see no need to read to them or to buy them books. Sadly, this phenomenon is not restricted to one social class or income bracket.

Authors also quite rightly objected to the attack on PLR, the scheme whereby authors receive a small amount every time one of their books is borrowed from a library. The body that administers the scheme does an excellent job, but the government had decided it was going to cut back on the number of quangos (quasi non-governmental organisation), so it had to go.

When writers objected, the government said it wasn't getting rid of PLR, just the administering body - that job would be transferred to another body that would be semi-independent of government. A quango, in other words.


To be continued. . .