If you’ve ever thought about writing or illustrating your own book, then Curtis Brown Creative have launched a series of online courses for aspiring picture book creators. They asked me and my fab friend and Jampires co-author Sarah McIntyre to help come up with content for three courses: one for writing (me), one for illustrating (Sarah) and a combined course offering material from both of us.
When I quit my day job to work in children’s books I spent a long time floundering around: I was completely clueless as to how to go about it. We’re passing on our experience so you don’t have to make the same mistakes and can get on with being creative.
There are detailed notes and accompanying video content, creative exercises and mentoring, all to help you make your picture book idea a reality. The courses start in October, so sign up now at the CBC website.
Book 2 of the Dundoodle Mysteries has an important role for the villainous Mrs Puddingham-Pye. I thought I’d write about her for my newsletter, The Dundoodle News, as not only is she a favourite of mine (I love a villain!) but she also has a bit of a history. (If you want to read more of this kind of thing before everyone else, as well as other exclusive stuff, you can sign up for the Newshere.)
Back in 2014, I worked on a picture book with the brilliant Sarah McIntyre, called JAMPIRES, published by David Fickling Books. Sarah had an idea for these cute, little characters that were like vampires. But instead of blood, they loved to eat jam and other sweet things! It took us ages to come up with a story that worked for them, and the book went through many, many revisions before we found a story everyone liked (Psst! Available to purchase here!).
In one early version, I came up with a character called Mrs Puddingham-Pye – I can’t remember if she was meant to be a goodie or a baddie (she was probably both at one point or another). Georgie and Portia were a pair of nasty pets cats originally, rather than nasty twins. I imagined Mrs P-P to look like a deranged Jackie Onassis. Sarah even created this lovely painted study of her, based on one of my sketches.
Mrs P-P didn’t last very long in Jampires, but I liked the character and the pun of her name, so stored her away for future use. There were a number of occasions when I thought I might use her, but the projects I was working on didn’t feel right. Eventually, as I wrote the first draft of The CFG, and needed an antagonist, I knew this was her chance! Several characters in The CFG have food-related names, so it was the perfect fit.
When I’m creating characters, I often draw them to get a feel for their personality. Here’s my design, complete with malevolent handbag, which I recycled as a character for the Inktober daily drawing challenge (a whodunnit) in 2016. It just shows it’s always worth hanging on to ideas you like – you can find a use for them somewhere eventually!
Of course, Claire Powell has created her own fabulous version of Mrs P-P for The CFG, and I was really pleased that she picked up on the deranged Jackie O vibe, without any interference from me!
Finally – it’s out and in the shops! It’s feels like I’ve been talking about this book for years. It’s great to know people can now actually read The Chocolate Factory Ghost for themselves. Do buy it from your local bookshop if you can.
Huge thanks to my publishers Bloomsbury (editors Ellen Holgate and Lucy Mackay-Sim, publicist Lizz Skelly and team) for guiding the book into the world, and thanks of course to Claire Powellfor the fab illustrations that brought the world of the Dundoodle Mysteries to life.
It’d be great to hear what people think – if you’ve bought the book, a review on Amazon is always helpful.
If you tweet or Instagram a picture of yourself with the book, I’ll send you a nice, shiny signed bookmark. Just tag your pic with #DundoodleMysteries so I can find it.
I’m kicking off a new work project today. Here’s a sneaky peek at one of the characters! I’m using a Cintiq 21UX for this job, which I recently bought second-hand. I’m hoping it will make the process faster. Unfortunately it doesn’t make me a better artist!
This is a Cintiq – it’s a touch screen device that plugs into your computer and acts as a second screen (you can click on the photo to see it a bit bigger). With a stylus you can draw on it just like paper.
On the screen you can see a two page spread from the book I’m illustrating, with the text all ready in place.
The grey box is where the book designer wants the illustration to go. She’s also high-lighted some text in blue that is relevant to the picture. Using the Cintiq I can draw the illustration straight into the page, rather than using paper, pencils and ink and then having to scan the whole thing.
I always get a bit nervous about new projects and have to take a couple of days to get my head around the task and try not to panic about what I’m being asked to do. Sometimes you just have to go for a walk to get your thoughts together.
Treacle and I found some gigantic fungi growing in the local park on our walk yesterday. Bigger than cabbages and twice as ugly!
And on a trip to Sainsbury’s I was very pleased to see they were stocking the re-packaged Monster & Chips for their Reading Scheme. It looks very nice next to all the other books and they’re doing a buy-one-get-one-free offer, if you’re interested!
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:
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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…