Friday, 26 April 2013

I've had this brilliant idea....

I saw Chris Riddell for lunch the day before yesterday.  It's always great to see Chris.  He is always so generous and enthusiastic.

Inevitably, there comes a point where we talk about what we've just done, what we are doing now, and what we are about to do - or hope to do.  We talk about ideas.  We both come from a background in cartooning and so I think we both find generating ideas one of the easier parts of the job.

Ideas fall into a number of categories for me.  There are the ones I'm happy to share and there are ones I want to keep to myself for a while.  There are ones I want to try out on someone just to see a reaction, and there are ones I feel nervous about.  The ones I feel nervous about are probably the best ones - they are the ones I care about.

It's tricky talking to other writers about ideas in any case.  Writers find it hard not to take the idea and run with it.  If I mention an idea to Chris he always, without fail, goes off at a complete tangent to the book I intend to write.

But one thing I have learned over the years, is that ideas are as much of a distraction as they are a recipe for success.  It is good to have ideas.  Of course it is.  I'd rather have lots than none.  But ideas are seductive.

The trouble is, an idea is not a book, any more than an idea is a painting or a building.  I have dozens of ideas at any given time.  And that's not counting the ones that I have jotted down in past notebooks or have filed away on my computer.

Any one of these ideas may become my next book, in theory - but in reality many of those ideas will never get further than a sentence or two.  Now some of that is down to the fact that I have far more ideas than I can ever convert to finished books, but it is also because many of those ideas, whilst appearing to be great ideas when said quickly, simply won't support the weight of a book.

Ideas have to be tested.  Even in the plot-dominated world of children's books, a successful novel still has to be about so much more.  It has to be about character for one thing.  And whilst you might have a great idea for a character, that character has to come alive in the writing.

Because any idea could be given to a dozen different writers or artists and each one would take it somewhere different.

Ideas can be beautiful things when they are still in your head or in your notebook, but just saying them out loud can sometimes be enough to unmask them as impostors.  Sometimes they last longer.  These are the worst kind - the kind that lead you on for weeks, up and down mountains until you end up trapped in a jungle or alone on a deserted beach, sobbing quietly to yourself.  Metaphorically, I mean.  Apart from the sobbing bit.

Be wary of ideas.  Appreciate them for what they are.  Work on the basis that you are always going to come up with more and don't cache them for later.  The great thing about a book like Philip Pullman's Northern Lights or Philip Reeve's Mortal Engines, is that they are stuffed full of great ideas.

There is no shortcut to the doing bit of a book.  Sooner or later you need to get writing and see what happens.  Most writers I know - me included - hate writing synopses.  One of the reasons I think we hate them is because we know that a synopsis might kill an idea that we had been cradling for months.

Having said all that, you need to be careful with ideas too.  Don't mention the good ones too early.  Don't send them out ill-formed.  Don't think that voicing an idea casually will trick people into liking it. There are no casual conversations about books with editors or agents.  If you care about an idea, treat it with respect.

And don't ask people what they think of your idea until you know what you think.


Thursday, 25 April 2013

What's been going on?



I have been fairly busy in the last few weeks, one way and another.

I queued up with an expectant gaggle of other painters to submit my two works for consideration by the selection committee for the the Royal Academy Summer Show.  I dithered about what to put in, and the paint was barely dry before I bubble-wrapped them and took them down on the train.  Above are two (poor) mobile phone shots of the paintings.


Having got in last year, I will feel doubly disappointed if I'm not chosen this year.  It is such a thrill to see your work on those walls.  I went to see the Manet show while I was there and exhibiting in the same space used for Manet is quite exciting.  We hear in May.  Fingers crossed.

I was lucky enough to be asked to sit in a seminar panel at the London Book Fair with Matt Haig (who chaired it ) and Brenda Gardner from Piccadilly Press.  The event was entitled Writing Outside of the Box, and was meant to be about attitudes to genre-writing in children's publishing.  But to be honest, the debate wandered about a little.  We needed to have a clearer point of focus and panellists with more divergent views.  Perhaps we should have had a marketing person, or someone from retail or a writer for adults - someone to add another point of view.  It needed a fight, basically.

I had a chance to see friends and fellow authors like Anne Rooney and Teri Terry.  I saw my agent Philippa Milnes-Smith for lunch and finally meet Maurice Lyon, my editor at Bloomsbury.  Maurice has been covering Ellie Fountain's maternity leave and I was beginning to think I wouldn't get to see him before she returned.  He turned out to be every bit as nice a chap as I had been told to expect.

I bumped into old (in the sense of previous) editors:  Sarah Odedina, who is now at the helm at Hot Key, and Annie Eaton from Random House who published my very first book, Dog Magic! under the Young Corgi imprint at Transworld.  I actually felt like a knew quite a lot of people there.  Maybe I've been around too long.

The London Book Fair is a rather airless hangar full of stands with books on shelves and groups of people sitting around in rapt conversation.  I went upstairs out of curiosity and saw the translation rights area, laid out like a huge exam room or Soviet era interrogation centre.  It was a little bit scary.

I came back to the fair a couple of days later for a Booktrust reception.  Booktrust is such a wonderful organisation and it was good to hear their news, put faces to email address and chat to the likes of Wendy Cooling, Sarah Macintyre and Babette Cole.

On the work front I have been working through the proofs of The Dead Men Stood Together.  I have been reading through them aloud.  I do this at the first draft stage, before I send it in to my publisher, and I do it again at the proof stage.  It may seem like an affectation but it is very practical.

Whilst not all books are designed to be read aloud, all books are read aloud, in effect.  They are read aloud (if you see what I mean) in the reader's head.  It may not seem important for sentences to sound right, but it is.  If they sound right, they probably are right.

Even if it wasn't, reading the words aloud is the surest way I know of catching any mistakes - particularly in punctuation.  Commas that need to be full stops, sentences that need a missing comma - it all becomes much clearer when you read aloud, as, of course, do any repetitions or confusions.  I had 'scene' and 'seen' in the same sentence, for instance.  It looked fine on the written page, but read aloud it was just plain odd.

Helen Szirtes and Isabel Ford, who together have worked on every one of my Bloomsbury books, have both read through the proofs and the next thing will be for us all to compare notes before it goes off to the printers.  It is a book I am very proud of.  It is published in September.  More news nearer the time, of course. . .

As I have said many times, writers are rarely working on one book.  As well as being at the proof stage with The Dead Men Stood Together, having had my idea approved by Bloomsbury, I am now writing Marley's Ghost, a story linked to Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol.  That book will be published next year and will form a trilogy of books based on works that had a particular impact on me when young:  Mister Creecher/Frankenstein, The Dead Men Stood Together/The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Marley's Ghost/A Christmas Carol.