• Meet the JAMPIRES!

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    Who are the JAMPIRES?

    They are these cheeky little chaps! And that’s their friend Sam too. They’re flying off to… well, you’ll have to read JAMPIRES to find out! It’s a picture co-written and co-illustrated by the super-brilliant Sarah McIntyre and myself that’s out on September 4th.

    Sarah asked me years to ago to work with her on a book: she had an idea about little creatures who were like vampires but preferred jammy doughnuts to human necks! Interestingly, Sarah wasn’t a fan of vampires themselves and wanted to avoid all the easily recognisable vampiric clichés. We went all around the houses trying to come up with ideas – jampires are tricky little devils to pin down – but eventually found, as is usually the case, that one of the simplest ideas was the best. And it works, even if I do say so myself. A yummy, treat-filled book, perfect for Christmas (sorry for mentioning it in August but it really is!). We have a JAMPIRES website too where you can read more and have a go at some fun activities.

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    The book is a true collaboration: we worked on the text together, then Sarah drew the finished art over my page roughs. I think this might confuse some people who are more used to the idea of author and illustrator being something separate but it can make for a very satisfying creative experience for the people involved. Sarah has gone on to further collaborative projects: her books with Philip Reeve (Seawigs, Cakes in Space) are also co-productions and have been widely acclaimed.

    One of the collaborative tools we employed was the appropriately named ‘comics jam’. We improvised a comic together to generate story ideas, taking it in turns to write and draw a page, never knowing what was going to happen next!  You can read the whole comic here. We’ve had some copies of the comic printed – if you see us around we may let you have one. Here’s a page from the comic that explains how we worked (click for a bigger view):

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    Comics jams are a great way to make comics with friends or classmates – we’ve used them in workshops and events and the ideas come thick and fast. Find out more about how to make your own comics jam on our Jampires activity page.

    We are launching the book at the end of this month at Jamie Oliver’s Big Feastival. Our amazing publicist Philippa Perry has even commissioned a special Jampires Jam from boutique jam-maker The Butch Institute for the occasion. Can’t wait to try it! We’ve also had a photo shoot (photographer: David Warren) in our glitzy Jampires event costumes – so showbiz! There’ll be more about JAMPIRES and the launch very soon, so keep an eye on our Twitter feeds: @davidoconnell and @jabberworks for more.

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  • Monster & Chips at Sainsbury’s

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    I’ve had a couple of ‘good post’ days recently. Not so long ago the postman brought the Dutch edition of book 2 of Monster & Chips or ‘De Monster-Snackbar‘. The book has been given the sub-title “The Pizza of Darkness” as I guess “Night of the Living Bread” doesn’t translate! As ever, the Dutch publisher and translator Sandra Hessels have done a great job and it’s a prized addition to my personal corner of the bookshelf.

    Joining it is a version of book 1 that’s been repackaged by Sainsbury’s for their reading scheme. It’s in hardback and full-colour, and reprints chapter 1, where Joe first meets Fuzzby! It’s part of the scheme’s Ruby Level so ideal for those readers comfortable with reading alone. It’s available in stores from the end of August.

  • Southwold

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    Last week was holiday time. I haven’t had such a good holiday in years. It was our first attempt at going on holiday with the dog so we didn’t wander too far. We rented a tiny fisherman’s cottage in Southwold, Suffolk, a few hours drive away from London.

    The weather was perfect all week: sunny with a light sea breeze, so just right for lots of walking (and we did LOTS). We even managed a couple of afternoons on the beach too.

    It’s a lovely part of the world – people often think of East Anglia as boring because it’s flat. And it most definitely is that.

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    But it’s wonderfully isolated and hugely atmospheric. Big, windswept skies; smuggler’s creeks hidden by tall, whispering reed beds; soft sun-baked sand dunes; storm-battered shingle bars; salt-bitten fishing boats and drowned towns.

    There were even a few cheap but cheerful robots.

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    Look at those big east country skies! Whoosh!

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    Southwold harbour. Some great fresh fish and seafood to be bought here. A ferryman will row you across the river for 90p! Otherwise it’s a walk up to a disused railway bridge.

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    Lots of interesting things buried in the sand for the dog to sniff.

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    It was our second attempt at introducing the Treacle to the sea, but she didn’t seem that impressed. She was much more excited by the potential of sand for digging. She also had the walkies of her life. We set out early each day for a long walk through the dunes to the harbour and various other parts of the nearby countryside. She’s come back home looking a lot slimmer than when she left.

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    I’d like to think we have too, but there were too many cream teas, home-made cakes, ice creams, good pub food and local beer (Adnams Brewery has its home in Southwold) so I doubt that’s the case.

    Do I look relaxed? Because I was. It was a wonderful week.

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  • Guardian Competition Winner!

    I’ve just come back from a holiday (more about that tomorrow) to find that The Guardian have posted some of the entries to the Monster & Chips competition that ran a while ago.

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    And here’s the winner: congratulations to Luke Westall! I chose his character, Itsi, as I thought Luke had shown the best imagination in both his drawing and in the things he had written about his character. There was a lot about Itsi’s personality and how he would fit into the world of monsters: I could just see him in a Monster & Chips story. Also, sabre-tooth cats are very cool.

    Part of Luke’s prize was a drawing of Itsi by me, so here’s my version:

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    Huge thanks to The Guardian for hosting the competition! You can see a whole load of other entrants here.

    Here’s another bit of Monster & Chips artwork sent to me recently – a great picture of Joe, chips and all, drawn by Tomos Rees. Tomos’ mum and dad are old friends of mine – apparently he likes to draw every night before bedtime. I wish I could be that organised!

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    Upcoming: LFCC

    I’ll be at the London Film & Comic Convention in a couple of weeks. It’s not an event I’ve been to before and I’m really looking forward to it.

    As well as all the comics folks there will be all sorts of film types making personal appearances: Princess Leia, a couple of Doctor Whos and a few of the cast of Games of Thrones that are still alive (and some that are not)!

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    And there is a YA Literature Convention being run in parallel, curated by the current Children’s Laureate, Malorie Blackman. Should be a lot of fun!

  • From the page to real life…

    Monster and Chips

    zombie cupcakes

    World Book Day was back in March – it’s a chance for children at schools all over the country to dress up as characters from their favourite books.

    I’ve not heard of anyone dressing up as characters from MONSTER & CHIPS so these photos sent to me by a mum yesterday are a first, as far as I know! And they’re brilliant!

    Take a look at ‘Joe’. He’s absolutely perfect – even the hair is right! And look at those hand-sewn zombie cupcakes! Spectacular creativity and a lot of hard work too. My day is officially MADE.

  • My Writing Process Blog Tour

    I’ve been tagged by my JAMPIRES collaborator Sarah McIntyre for the Writing Process Blog Tour. It’s a like one of those chain letter things but actually useful and interesting – see Sarah’s entry here and follow the links back to see who else has taken part. We all have to answer the same four questions:

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    What am I working on?

    I’m currently writing the second of a three-book series of picture books that will be illustrated by the super-talented Francesca Gambatesa. They’ve not been officially ‘announced’ by the publisher as far as I know so I probably shouldn’t say much, but they all have a light-hearted take on family and relationships. Like JAMPIRES, they are all rhyming texts – an extra challenge. I belong to a writers’ group and one of the authors there described writing rhyming texts as like putting a puzzle together. If you edit one word you often have to reconstruct the whole verse from scratch. It can be very tricky.

    At the same time, I’m writing what I hope will be the first part of a new young fiction series, similar to my Monster & Chips books. I’ve got a lot of young fiction ideas and it’s difficult to know which idea to tackle first. As soon as I start writing one thing it doesn’t seem fresh and exciting and I get the urge to pursue one of my other ideas. I drew a comic about dealing with ideas in a previous post.

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    In addition to these ‘main projects’ I want to do a picture book where I’m both author and illustrator and am slowly putting a book dummy together. It’s something I’ve not done before on my own so I’m finding it a bit intimidating. Working with Sarah on JAMPIRES has been hugely helpful, as we collaborated on both the text and the images (there’ll be more on how we did this this as we approach publication day) but there’s a real art to putting a picture book together which is quite unlike writing a prose book. It’s very challenging.

    I’m about to start work on illustrating a young fiction book that someone else has written so that doesn’t leave me with many gaps in the diary. However, I’m trying to keep my webcomic Tozo updated as often as I can and I want to start work on a pre-teen novel that I’d like to have completed (or at least a first draft completed) by about this time next year. There’s nothing like an ambitious schedule…

    How does my work differ from others of its genre?

    It probably doesn’t very much. If you go into a bookshop there’s a veritable wall of young fiction (books for 6-10 year olds) and they do look very similar. Usually funny, sometimes gross, with LOADS of diary-style books about nerdy, hopeless kids unwittingly getting into trouble at school. The quality is variable and one of my editors was saying the other day how there’s actually a shortage of good quality books for this age group.

    I like to think I spend as much time on character, plot and language as I do on jokes, but humour has always been the main aspect. With my newer ideas I want to make sure the focus is on quality story-telling over humour, rather than the other way around.

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    Why do I write what I do?

    Funny books are my thing, and it feels like I just can’t stop myself from putting a joke in a sentence if I get the chance. I don’t know why that is – I’m certainly not any kind of comedian – but I do like the idea that my readers might be chuckling away and given a bit of an escape from whatever is going on in their lives.

    I write for this age group because I think I ‘get’ how their minds work better than other ages. As a relatively new writer they are an easier age group to write for because it’s important to keep the plot straight-forward and fairly linear. There’s no description, just action and dialogue. Whilst picture books are for younger readers, they are much more complex and multi-layered in the way they are constructed. Every word is analysed. And with books for older readers there’s all the emotional stuff – characters have to be far more fully-formed. Not that any of that will stop me having a go at trying to write for them!

    How does my writing process work?

    I have an idea and spend a while – a LONG while – sketching out characters and developing the idea in more detail. Sometimes I use drawings to work out character and places but mostly I just make notes. I use Microsoft OneNote to store all my ideas for projects so I can access them wherever I am, through my phone or online.

    For the young fiction ideas I then make a book plan with a detailed description of the events in the book, breaking it down into chapters. I use that to launch into the actual writing: it’s the framework on top of which everything is built. I occasionally send ideas to my agent just to get a second opinion/sanity check so I can avoid wasting time on ideas that just aren’t going to sell or have been done by someone else. The writing group is good for testing things out too.

    It sounds like I have it all organised but it’s not the case. There’s plenty of procrastination, coffee drinking, dog-walks and general work avoidance going on too!

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    That’s all from me! I’m tagging Alex Milway to do the blog tour next – he’s the creator of the new Pigsticks & Harold series of books. His other work includes the Mousehunter trilogy, published by Faber & Faber in the UK (Little, Brown in the US), and the Mythical 9th Division series of books, published by Walker Books.

    He’s also the founder of the Crystal Palace Children’s Book Festival, regularly runs school events and workshops around the country and is an all-round good chap!

  • The Joy of Events

    I’ve surprised myself that I really enjoy book events – something I didn’t expect when I started out doing them. I work with a great age group that are enthusiastic and full of ideas, and are not afraid to push things a little! [Click on the image to make it bigger.]

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    One such event took place at Oxford’s Bookfeast on Tuesday, as part of their annual schools festival. I did a couple of drawing-and-talking activities in the wonderful surroundings of the Pitt Rivers Museum, hidden at the back of the University’s Natural History Museum. The Pitt Rivers Museum holds a huge collection of anthropology and archaeology from around the world and made for an amazing venue. So many inspirational objects to look at whilst I scribbled away on the flip chart!

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    The kids are also very good at asking very direct questions. These didn’t all come from Tuesday’s audience but are fairly representative of the type of things I get asked [click to make bigger]:

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    I’m always trying to think of ways to improve my presentation and make it more entertaining, and am curious to see what other authors do.

    I don’t think I’ll ever be able to match author Veronica Cosantelli, however, who turned up for her event with her corn snake, named Thisbe, in tow. I tried to take a snap but Thisbe was just too busy to pose – she’d already done a runner in the car park! Gorgeous colours and patterns on her scales. I’m sure she was a hit with the audience.

    As well as Veronica, it was great to meet author Dave Cousins too, and to briefly bump into Tom Gates creator Liz Pichon once again (the audience were very impressed that I’d met her!).

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    Thanks so much to the organisers of Bookfeast for inviting me along for the day, and in particular to volunteers Sue and Mervyn who looked after me so well. As ex-teachers they were great with the kids which is always helpful.

    My co-creator on JAMPIRES (coming soon!), Sarah McIntyrehas written a blog post for event organisers on how to make for a good author visit. There should probably be a companion piece on ‘How to be a good author when on a visit’ – it’s always good to be as prepared as possible!

    MCM Expo

    Speaking of events, I’ll be at the MCM EXPO in London’s EXCEL centre this weekend with loads of comics folk, gamers, movie and anime fans and, of course, those crazy cosplayers.

    I’ve not been to an MCM EXPO in a while and I’m really looking forward to it. I’ll be camped out in the comics village at table CP6 in my ink+PAPER hat on (not actually a hat) and probably scribbling away on something –  do stop for a chat if you’re there.

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  • Judging Monsters & Unmasking Comics

    Yesterday was a bit of struggle.

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    Firstly, I had to judge the entrants to the Guardian Children’s Books monster drawing competition.

    It was great to see so many exciting and colourful pictures! A lot of thought and hard work had gone into the drawing (and often, the accompanying text) and it looked like the entrants had had a lot fun being creative, which is what I’d hoped. The struggle was in picking a winner. Whenever someone judging a competition says “I wish I could pick them all!” it’s easy to think that they’re not being genuine, but I really, really wish I could. Anyway, a winner has been chosen and will be announced on the Guardian website very soon.

    The second struggle of the day was walking my dog Treacle through the rain to get her hair cut (it grows very quickly, probably something to do with her shih tzu ancestry, I’m told) and then back home though the rain again.

    Result: one wet, sulky dog and one wet, sulky human.

    I think of my dog as being completely daft, but am often surprised by how sensitive she is to body language and mood. She knew ‘Daddy’ was in a bad temper.

    And so, instead of trying to clamber onto my lap or root around in the rubbish looking for food scraps as is her usual way, she just sat, still and quiet until the mood passed. Then back to normal.

    Dogs are great.

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    comics-unmasked

    The last struggle of the day, having got myself warm and dry, was to venture out into the rain again (still sniffling from my stupid cold) to attend the opening reception for the Comics Unmasked exhibition at the British Library. Of course, I’m very glad I did. Subtitled ‘Art & Anarchy in the UK’, the exhibition is co-curated by Adrian Edwards, John Harris Dunning and the brilliant Paul Gravett. It looks at the history of British comics and their wide-ranging style and subject matter, with a focus on those works that challenge social, political and sexual boundaries. Fascinating stuff and beautifully designed by Dave McKean, it’s an amazing-looking, eye-opening exhibition.

    As usual, I was hopeless at getting any photos but here are a few grabs from Twitter to give an idea of the evening. From the British Library’s own feed:

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    Jonathan Ross, broadcaster and comics fan, gave the opening speech. Lawless Nelly is the exhibition mascot, designed by Jamie Hewlett, and apparently named by a BL staffer after Charles Dickens’ mistress!

    From Bridget Hannigan’s feed:

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    Woodrow Phoenix‘s one-of-a-kind super-sized comic ‘She Lives’. A huge piece of work in many senses.

    From innovative comic-maker Douglas Noble’s feed:

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    One of the nice things about the exhibition is the inclusion of screens displaying digital comics of various genres. Douglas’ work is particularly interesting and thought-provoking. I’ve being enjoying his current Parakoe series very much.

    Lastly, one picture of mine! I was delighted to see the inclusion of ink+PAPER, the comics anthology that I created and edit, amongst the exhibits. It was open at the comic created by Katriona Chapman, detailing her experiences with flat-sharing and the state of the housing market. It’s a beautiful piece of work, and Katriona’s first ever comic, so I’m thrilled it’s being displayed.

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    If you’d like to see Katriona’s comic in full you can get your own copy (issue #4) right here. I’ll also be selling ink+PAPER at the Alternative Press Takeover in just over a week’s time.

    Details of the Comics Unmasked exhibition can be found here. There is also a series of events and workshops associated with it – I’m looking forward to seeing a personal hero, Posy Simmonds, chatting with Steve Bell in a couple of months.

  • Monsters abroad at ChipLitFest and Amsterdam

    It’s been a busy few days with a bit of wandering around but I’m back home and suffering silently (NOT REALLY) with a nasty cold. Here’s what’s been happening:

    ChipLitFest

    Also known as the Chipping Norton Literary Festival, it’s a relatively recent addition to the literary festival circuit. However, that hasn’t stopped it being ambitious in its programme as well as beautifully organised – and all in a lovely setting up in the Cotswolds.

    I was there as part of the Schools Programme, visiting Kingham and Chadlington Primary Schools for some monster drawing workshops! Here’s a pic of me in action that I’ve stolen from the Twitter feed of the wonderful HarperCollins publicist Becca Palmer (@BeePea91) who was super-efficient in getting me out into the wilds of Oxfordshire and back again, safe and sound.

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    The children came up with some brilliant ideas (no surprises there, from my experience with these events) but also asked some very direct questions about writing and creating books – some budding authors there, I think. Either way, it was a lot of fun!

    Here’s a pic (also stolen from the Twitter feed of @ChipLitFest themselves) of some of the other authors attending the Schools Programme at a superb dinner organised by the festival team at The Chequers:

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    Top, left-right: Emily BarrCraig Green, Sarah Lean, publicist Becca Palmer, Jane Elson and Festival Operations Director Caroline Wills-Wright.

    Bottom, left-right: Hachette Publicist Lizz Skelly, me, Sharon Gosling, Teri Terry, Sharon Jones and Tamsyn Murray. The photographer was Festival Director Clare Mackintosh!

    Thanks so much to everyone behind the scenes at the festival: drivers, selling volunteers, food makers and wonderful bookshop Jaffe & Neale for hosting our lovely Green Room. It all made for a brilliant time!

    Amsterdam

    After the festival I dashed off to Heathrow airport to catch the last flight of the day to Amsterdam. I lived there for a couple of years and absolutely love it. It’s been four years since I’ve been back, but as soon as I stepped off the ‘plane everything felt very familiar and I was very much at home. It was the weekend of the first King’s Day so all the locals were in a party mood, filling the city with a relaxed but convivial atmosphere.

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    Saturday had the perfect weather for wandering around old haunts, looking for bargains in the tax and licence-free flea-market that’s permitted just for the day, and also for general people-watching. Everyone wears the national colour of orange so the streets and canals have a vibrant and jolly feel to them.

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    It was also a chance to spot the Dutch edition of Monster & Chips or De Monster-Snackbar, as it’s called, out in the wild. Excitingly, it was on display in the five-storey Scheltema bookshop on Koningsplein.

    De Monster-Snackbar looks great in this hardback edition. It’s published by Veltman-Jeugd and translated by Sandra Hessels. There were lots of fabulous picture books on sale, so I picked up a few of those as souvenirs too.

    Coincidentally my friend Dirk spotted De Monster-Snackbar in SpeelBoek in Amersfoort at the same time! Thanks, Dirk.

    Upcoming

    Now it’s time to get back to work, if I can shake off the sniffles! Lots to do. I’m working on some picture books and doing some writing too, for picture books and ‘young fiction’ (ages 7-10).

    Added to that, I started a novel a while back and am keen to get it finished in the next year or so – will have to fit that in somewhere.

    Some events: I’ve mentioned the Alt Press Takeover in a previous post. I’ve also got myself a table at the MCM Expo at the end of May which is usually pretty crazy. It’s a while since I’ve been to an Expo so I’m really looking forward to that.

    Before then, I’m in Oxford at the Bookfeast for more monster shenanigans. See you there?

  • Ideas

    ideas

    I drew this comic to illustrate my attempts at allowing myself some free-thinking R&D time: time to develop those random ideas that pop up (usually just before I fall asleep, or when I’m wide awake at 4am) and see if I can make something more substantial from them.

    Over a year ago, I wrote a post about time management and I thought I should update on my progress on this tricky topic, for my own records and anyone else that might be interested in an admittedly dry subject! I got quite a response from that post so it must be a common challenge. Long, dull post alert!

    The general idea was to avoid work swamping other aspects of life through proper planning and use of the many tools and techniques available. There would always be times when a work situation would take priority but the hope was that this could be minimised with a bit of organisation. There were not supposed to be too many hard and fast rules, it was more about trying to find a framework to use as a reference.

    I’ll recap all the tools I wrote about in January 2013 and how effective they’ve proven to be since.

    Hardware:

    PC and Android smartphone: the foundation of everything! Making use of Cloud-based software means I’ve got rid of my written to-do list and paper diary. I take meeting notes in a notebook as this is still quicker than anything else, but I transfer them to some kind of electronic form immediately afterwards.

    As well as the PC/phone combo, I also make a lot of use of my iPad for work. It’s portable but doesn’t suffer as much as a phone from clumsy typing. Useful for going through my emails in bed with an early morning coffee, or doing a bit of work over cake in a wifi-friendly cafe! I’ve also used it (with a bluetooth keyboard) on a long train journey to do some proper document writing. A very handy gadget indeed.

    The other bit of new ‘hardware’ is… my dog. Having something completely dependent on you means that your time is not your own any more. My dog has to be let out in the morning, fed, walked, groomed (and cuddled). These are obligations that I can’t ignore. But whilst these obligations take up time they have had an unexpected side-effect of making me more organised. As she has her own routine, I’ve developed a routine around her – always good for getting things done. I get up much earlier than I used to and get much more admin done in the mornings than before, a time when I’m not at my best creatively. I’m not sure I’d recommend anyone get a dog for time management purposes, but it’s interesting how these things work out!

     

    My dog - not bothered about time management at all.
    My dog – not bothered about time management at all.

    Software:

    Google mail/calendar: I’m still completely hooked into these. There’s an email button on Facebook events pages (a source of quite bit of social stuff) that means I can insert them into my calendar easily.

    Trello: project management software. I’ve not used this at all as I’ve found other tools that can do a similar job in a slightly less complicated way (OneNote, below). Still could be useful given the right project.

    Evernote: a personal database. I’ve replaced this with Microsoft OneNote because I bought a copy of Office and it came with it. Whilst not as pretty as Evernote it does the same job and has become essential for work. Each project (e.g., a book) has its own section in the database with subsections for research notes, inspirational images, publication schedule, marketing ideas and, inevitably, to-do lists. Accessible on all devices via the Cloud, as everything must be now. I love using this: it’s where all my ideas go.

    A new thing for me is Pinterest. Complementing OneNote, this is a popular image organising/scrapbooking website (and app). I’ve mixed feelings about Pinterest (and Tumblr) in that they encourage the idea that images on the web don’t belong to anybody, but the upside is that I’ve discovered so much great stuff and brilliant artists.

    Twitter/Facebook: I probably use these less and less, interestingly, which has been great for clawing back time. A quick scan of the feeds a few times a day to keep in touch with what everyone’s doing and that’s about it. I still use them for plugging my work (which I’m trying not to feel guilty about) but the informal discussion/chat side of things has never felt natural to me so I’ve pretty much given up on that. I still don’t know what the ideal is for social networking vs. productivity.

    Finally, a quick mention of Photoshop actions, where you can record and save your keystrokes for repetitive tasks. I use these a lot, particularly for book and comic work where many (if not hundreds) of pages have the same layer structure and settings, and to prep black and white art for colouring. I know some experienced Photoshop users who have never made use of these and it would save them a lot of time and tedium.

    Other ideas:

    Wall calendar: I have a year planner stuck to my wall for a quick at-a-glance view of the year. I’ve not made as much use of this as I thought I would, to the point where I didn’t bother buying one for 2014 and made my own instead. Still good for a quick snapshot of the year for events and deadlines.

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    Methods:

    Email use: I use the five sentences rule as much as I can and it really works. Email inbox is officially under control! I’ve not being very good at restricting my email time to specific periods but that’s not so much an issue as I feel like I have email sorted at the moment.

    Calendar/to-do list: I tried to get rid of my to-do list by putting tasks in the calendar and thus time-boxing them. This was successful for a while, then the to-do lists started creeping back in. It was the same problem that I’d always had of under-estimating time needed to do particular things and not completing them in the designated time limit.

    Consequently, I now use the calendar for recording how much time I spend on a task for future reference, e.g. the number of hours spent on 100 illustrations for a 200 page chapter book, a task I’ve had to do more than once and hopefully will get to do more of in the future! I also work out daily targets for a piece of work. For a basic example, if I need to do 100 illustrations in 6 weeks, that means I have to do 100/(6 weeks x 5 working days) = approx 4 illos every working day. If I meet the daily target it makes me less panicky about the final deadline, plus I’ve allowed contingency by not including the weekends as work time so there’s a safety net as well.

    As for the to-do lists, I try to keep them short and specific, with a list for the day and a list of medium term priorities. I keep these in OneNote. NO POST-IT NOTES ALLOWED!

    I think my time management has improved a lot in the last year but it’s still a struggle. One thing I’ve found is that those tasks that fall by the wayside (housework, home decorating) do so not because I don’t have time but because I don’t want to do them at all. It’s important to be honest with yourself as to why you’re not doing something and not blame it on lack of time by default. There may be other ways to deal with it – pass it on to someone else, perhaps?

    Free day: something I’m experimenting with recently (and going back to today’s comic) is allowing myself a ‘free day’ a week to work on whatever idea is bugging me at the current time or just have some non-work drawing/writing fun, regardless of a deadline or not. It sounds very decadent, but I’ve so many ideas I’m worried will never see the light of day just because they are having to wait their turn and are constantly getting pushed to the back of the queue by other priorities. The next day I go back to scheduled work and the idea/fun has to wait until the next week’s free day. This way I get to do some enjoyable R&D stuff and still feel like I’m keeping everything bubbling along at the same time. It’s as close to multi-tasking as I’ll ever get.

    I’ve made an entry in my calendar (POW!) to write another update on my time management in a year’s time. Meanwhile, the struggle continues…

  • Whitstable

    Taking advantage of the spring sunshine, we zipped along surprisingly quiet roads for a day at Whitstable on the Kent coast yesterday.  The countryside was looking particularly fecund as we drove along – lots of flowering fruit trees and fields of shocking yellow oilseed. Whitstable was fairly quiet when we arrived but soon began to bustle.

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    It was a multi-purpose visit. We were taking the new car for a test run (it worked), trying out some seafood (fishfinger sandwiches – yum!), doing a bit of walking, some book research and also to introduce the dog to the sea (she was not impressed). Lots of colours and textures and things of interest to look at (for us and the dog).

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    I thought Whitstable sounded like a good name for a character so drew a comic-ette featuring him:

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    Upcoming:

    What else am I up to? I’m doing a couple of school events as part of the Chipping Norton Literary Festival just after Easter, after which I’m rushing straight to the airport to fly to Amsterdam for its first ever King’s Day – I’m expecting some Dutch-style craziness if the previous Queen’s Days were anything to go by.

    Then on May 10th I’ll have table at the Alternative Press Takeover at the Bishopsgate Institute. I’ve been to many alternative press shows in the past few years and you can’t beat them for the diversity of material on display. Certainly some of the most inspiring small press events I’ve been to. Do come along – it’s free to get in!

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    Aside from that, I’m working on a few picture books, some illustration work and some new writing projects – plenty to keep me busy. Oh and don’t forget that the Monster & Chips drawing competition on The Guardian website is ongoing until April 29th – have a go at drawing your own monster and win prizes!

  • Monstrous Drawing Competition in The Guardian

    Excitingly, The Guardian are running a MONSTER & CHIPS competition throughout April where you can win a piece of original art drawn by me!

    Get your pencils, pens and crayons together and create your own monster – the winning entry gets their monster drawn into a picture by me, as well as a signed copy of Monster & Chips: Food Fright! There are runners-up prizes of books too. I can’t wait to see what people come up with. All the details can be found over at The Guardian’s website.

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    For the competition, The Guardian asked me to give my ten top tips for creating monsters. I’ve reproduced them here:

    The Monster and Chips series of books have an enormous cast of characters but very few of them are actually human (or “hooman”, as the monsters say). From Fuzzby Bixington, the monster chef, to Uncton Slugglesbutt, his villainous rival, I’ve had to create and draw all kinds of strange and funny creatures to inhabit Monsterworld. The wonderful thing about making monsters is that there are no rules, but here are some things that might help you while working in your own creature laboratory.

    1. When drawing a monster, start with a simple shape that fits its character: maybe an oval for a fat, blobby monster or a rectangle for tall, strong tree-monster or a triangle for a squat, pointy-headed frog monster. Or combine all three for something really strange… Blobotreefrogasaurus!
    2. What is the body made of? Is it covered in bright green fur like Fuzzby, the owner of the Monster Diner? Or a hard insect exoskeleton like Gordon, a customer who dissolves his food with acid saliva? Or maybe wobbling blue jelly, like flatulent Mr Jubbins and his see-through tummy?
    3. How many heads? Just one eye or fifty-three? Four ears or seven antlers? As many legs as a centipede or a one-legged hopping monster? The sky is the limit (especially if the legs are really long). Just remember that drawing twenty-nine tentacles can get boring very quickly if you have to do it over and over again.
    4. Does your monster wear clothes? Monster apparel is something that is often forgotten. Perhaps King Kong would have been more welcome if he’d worn a smart tie, stripy socks and patent leather shoes. Would people have run screaming from Godzilla if he’d been wearing a woolly cardigan and a bobble hat? Choose your monster’s attire carefully: it’s a fine line between trendy triumph and monster fashion disaster!
    5. Gross is good: the grosser the better. Everyone likes a fart joke. Even your granny (probably)! Make your monster as disgusting as possible. Sludge-drippingly, mucous-oozingly, slime-burpingly, toilet-stinkingly, cheese-bubblingly, bog-gurglingly, toe-chewingly, bum-scratchingly, tongue-dibblingly disgusting. But make sure you’ve had your dinner first.
    6. Speaking of dinner, what does your monster like to eat? Everyone loves the monster-sized chips served at Fuzzby’s Diner, but perhaps your monster has a particular favourite food? Stinky Coughy Pudding? Splodgeburgers? CHILDREN ON TOAST? The food it eats can reveal a lot about your monster’s character.
    7. Where does your monster live? A lovely, tidy monster house with curtains tied back with ribbon? Or a dark, toadstool-infested cave with hot-and-cold running rats? Or maybe UNDER YOUR BED RIGHT NOW? EEEK! In Food Fright, the “hooman” boy Joe discovers a load of monsters are living in the shadowy sewers beneath Fuzzby’s diner. If only he can find his way out…
    8. Does your monster have a job? All the Bixington family are cooks or chefs. Fuzzby’s cousin Zuffby is an expert monster mega-sandwich maker. Perhaps your monster is a teacher, teaching young monsters rending and writhing? Or a mechanic, like Fuzzby’s friend Petrolla who specialises in machines that explode (sometimes on purpose).
    9. How does your monster talk? Does it have its own language? Does it roar like a dragon with fiery special effects? Or does it fart Morse code? Does it sound creepy, nice or just plain silly and stupid? In the Monster and Chips books all the monsters sound just like ordinary grown-up humans, as I’ve never heard anything sillier or more stupid than the way ordinary grown-up humans speak.
    10. Finally, and very importantly, make sure your monster has a name! I like names that tell you something about the monster. Like “Fuzzby” which sounds warm and cuddly. Or “Barry”, which sounds like… um, a cat (luckily there is a cat called Barry in Monster and Chips! Phew!) Alternatively, just throw a load of words together: the audience at a Monster and Chips event at the Edinburgh Book Festival lost year came up with a monster name of Sluggybottom Ninjapants! You can’t get more descriptive than that!

    The competition runs until April 29th.

  • Monster & Chips 3: Food Fright Publication Day!

    It’s a very important day today!

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    The third book in the MONSTER & CHIPS series is out today – happy publication day to me!

    In Food Fright, Joe, Fuzzby and the gang face the Terror of the Towering Sandwiches, explore the sewers under the Diner, have a Great Brutish Bake-Off and visit the Monster Fair. Lots of messy and disgusting food-related fun!

    Once again, the publishers have done an amazing job – the book looks great and it’s wonderful to see it side by side with books 1 and 2. You can find out more on the dedicated Food Fright page.

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  • The Big Write at the Discover Children’s Story Centre

    There were Secret Agent shenanigans at the Discover Children’s Story Centre last weekend – was everyone exactly who they seemed?

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    What exactly was going on?

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    Have no fear – it was just a bunch of comic illustrators being nutty as usual. That’s Secret Agents Richy K. Chandler, Laura Ellen Anderson and Jamie Littler (whose photo I’ve pinched) up top, and escapees Sarah McIntyre (another victim of photo theft) and me below. All part of Discover’s Big Write Festival!

    The Centre has an amazing interactive exhibition running throughout the summer, taking the form of a secret agent academy. It really is fun, and quite challenging too – definitely worth a visit just for that.

    However, at the weekend there were loads of other activities as well, with author and illustrator visits and a comic making workshop, which it was my pleasure to organise. It was secret agent-themed too!

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    I made a poster for it and some other artwork you can see below. I also created some activity sheets for visitors: a character design page, a colouring sheet and a comic/book cover. You can download printable versions of all of these from my activities page.

    Here are some ideas-and-inspiration posters I created for the workshop space:

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    And I also made some bunting with a secret code displayed on it, so special messages around the room could be decoded. You can see it in this photo hanging above the  busy secret agent workshoppers:

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    Speaking of busy, here’s Agent Littler doing some live-drawing (photo by Richy). Check out Richy’s blog for more photos of Saturday.

    On Sunday we were joined by Sarah, and the super-talented and funny Gary Northfield and Alex Milway. It was quite unseasonably sunny, so we relocated to Discover’s fantastic garden for our comic-making.

    As usual I didn’t think to take photos but Sarah has written a lovely comprehensive report on her blog. Loads of photos from inside the Centre too!

    Thanks so much to all the brilliant illustrators who came and helped me with this event, and to the Discover Centre for being such wonderful hosts and looking after us all. If you came along, I hope you enjoyed yourself – congratulations, you are officially Secret Agent Comic-makers!

  • World Book Day at Chicken & Frog

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    I celebrated World Book Day a bit later than the official day (last Thursday) but last Saturday was a lot of fun, nonetheless!

    I was the guest of the brilliant Natasha and Jim, who run Chicken & Frog, the only independent children’s book shop in Brentwood, and who provide the warmest welcome in Essex!

    It’s a great little shop – a real treasure trove of wonderful books.

    Not only that, they run a creative writing club, as well as other tuition services. The back of the shop is set up for writing, drawing and other activities – a fantastic local resource. Do go and say hello (and buy some books) if you’re in the neighbourhood!

    It was straight down to business, drawing and creating monsters (with help from some very keen artists and story-makers). Jim & Natasha have kindly let me borrow some of their photos for this report: look how colourful and cosy the shop is!
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    We made an epic battle between the sometimes evil/sometimes good Dr Frankenspring (and his radioactive shrinking sandwich) and the jelly-like Turkey Bocotpus, whose appetite seemed to get him into trouble. Then it was into the workshop room for some individual monster-making activities. There were some monstrously inventive work going on.

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    You can download the monster-making sheets from my activities page, if you want to have a go yourself. I’ll be adding more printable things to it soon, so keep an eye on it.

    Huge thanks to Chicken & Frog for looking after me – I had a lovely time!