Friday, 21 July 2017

Coming Out

By Nick Cross

Photo by Ruffroot Creative

How long did it take you to pluck up the courage to tell someone you wanted to be a writer? I can remember it was a long while before I would admit to it in public, and there are still times when I’m not sure (usually when the writing is going badly). But recently, I’ve been troubled by an even bigger secret, something I’ve been dimly aware of for some years but also terrified of admitting:

I want to be a writer/illustrator.

When I revealed this information at the recent SCBWI Picture Book Retreat, I was surprised to find that nobody laughed at me. In fact, everyone was broadly supportive of my new creative orientation. So perhaps it’s only me who worries this is a terrible idea.

I’m sure if I was to pick any agent or editor at random on Twitter and ask them this question: “My friend is an amateur artist. Should I get them to illustrate my book before I send it to you?” the answer would be a polite but firm: “No.” Amateur artists have a long and storied history of ruining promising books before they ever get a sniff of publication. So why would my amateur art be any different?

What I should do is open up Word, write a terrific story and stop worrying my pretty little head about stuff like design, layout and illustration - all those things that are firmly above my pay grade.

And yet...

I haven’t had so much fun in years of pure writing as I have from a few months of designing, illustrating and laying out my own illustrated novel. Suddenly, everything is story, from the first word on the page to the last doodle in the margin. Now I can be the ultimate control freak and tell the story exactly the way I envisaged it. The power! The power!

OK, time to calm down a bit. Where did this strange illustration urge come from? Well, after much reflection, I can mostly blame Sarah McIntyre. I met Sarah in early 2010 and vividly remember the Social Networking session she featured in at that year's SCBWI-BI Conference. At the end of that panel, I turned to my neighbour and said the words “I want to be Sarah McIntyre,” a fact recorded in the blog post I wrote shortly afterwards. At the time, I was suffering from serious depression, so consciously I was talking about channelling Sarah’s confidence, exuberance and all-round joie de vivre. But unconsciously, there was clearly some other stuff going on.

Sarah McIntyre signing books at the 2010 conference (photo by Kathryn Evans)

But still, I hesitated to pick up a pencil. Drawing was a scary, alien activity to me. And every time I tried to sketch someone, I got a picture of a scary alien instead (which was definitely not what I intended). It probably doesn’t help that my wife is a professional artist, who started drawing in childhood. I always felt that there was an unspoken non-competition agreement in our marriage – she wouldn’t try writing if I didn’t try my hand at drawing. I reckon this was mostly in my head, however, when I think about the various art products she’s given me over the years in an attempt to get me started (mostly without success).

Which brings me on to the confusing world of art materials. The great appeal of writing is its accessibility - all you really need is a biro, a cheap pad of A4 paper and the ability to string a sentence together. This accessibility is also true of illustration, though to a novice it certainly doesn’t look that way. In fact, the massive range of art materials can be totally baffling. Some of this doubtless comes down to technique, personal preference and the effect you want to achieve. But the cynical part of me says it’s all about selling practically the same product to artists again and again. Why have one type of coloured pencil when fifty would do? Why have one type of brush when you can sell hundreds? And so on. While some people might welcome the opportunity to experiment, I find this level of choice freezes me up. It conveys the message that I can’t be a “proper” artist unless I use exactly the right art materials.

I don’t want this article to read like a list of excuses, but there’s another key reason for my fear of drawing. I have no visual imagination - a condition also called aphantasia (see the excellent blog posts by Addy Farmer and Juliet Clare Bell for much more about the condition). Since I can’t rely on pictures in my head to guide what I’m drawing, I would have to work from photos or from life. However, that’s exactly what my wife does (since it weirdly turns out that she has aphantasia too) and she’s a pretty damn good artist!

See more by Claire Cross at her Facebook gallery

So, what broke my drawing block and prompted this coming out as a writer/illustrator? It started gradually, when I worked on a highly-illustrated middle grade novel called Max Tastic’s Guide to Internet Stardom with SCBWI illustrator Paul Morton. I suggested to Paul that we could collaborate and sent him several samples of my work. Max was the character Paul immediately latched onto, and he got to work producing character designs and page layouts. Due to my lack of visual imagination, I had no idea what the characters in my story looked like, so I was delighted by what Paul came up with. But I was somewhat surprised to find I had a lot of opinions on the layouts and how the various elements combined to tell the story. I could see how the eye of the reader needed to be guided around the page, and how to organise page turns for maximum surprise value.

Once Max was out on submission, my thoughts turned (very gradually) to my next children's novel. I realised that I wanted to do something equally graphical, but also that I was sick and tired of the whole process of trying to get buy-in from the publishing industry. I decided to create a self-published illustrated novel from the ground up, which meant I would need to do everything myself: words, images, typography and layouts. I’m already pretty competent with Photoshop, so from a technical perspective I only had to get to grips with InDesign and the way the two integrate. For cost reasons, I have hideously old versions of both of these applications, but so far they are doing the job.

That just left the tricky part - creating the artwork. The concept behind the book is that the protagonist is creating the majority of the illustrations, which allows me to include some deliberately imperfect art. Hopefully, it will be charmingly imperfect! I listed what materials my protagonist would have to hand, and this boiled down to a set of permanent marker pens of different sizes. For aesthetic and cost reasons, I’m intending to publish the book in black-and-white, so that meant I only needed black ones! Here’s what I’ve collected so far:

I’m very much learning about illustration as I go along. My wife recently bought me some special non-bleed marker pen paper which I hadn’t realised even existed – it’s far better than the thick cartridge paper I’d previously been using.

It turns out that I’m pretty good at imagining what I want a picture to be. I’d hesitate to call it “visualising,” but I’m at least able to express the drawing in words, in a similar way to writing a description in a story. Once I have the description, I can then turn that into a piece of artwork using found images (either public domain or Creative Commons). This is not an easy process, but I think my lack of visual expectation makes it easier for me to enjoy the finished result (which is a refreshing change from the insane perfectionism I tend to apply to the written word).

Here’s an example of a description I wrote for myself:

Advert for concert with winning design of someone playing the tuba, printed on half US letter sized glossy paper. Fold it in half and then flatten it out. Perhaps work in colour until the final stage? Photographing may be better than scanning to show the shine on the paper. Photoshop treat photograph or find royalty-free painting?

Here’s the public domain photo I selected (this is actually a sousaphone, but it's close enough):

Photo by Bryant Watson

And here’s the finished artwork:

I didn’t need to print it out and re-photograph it because I found some neat Photoshop tricks that made the image look like it was folded.

I am never going to be a great artist, or even what you might call an “illustrator”. Right now, because the book needs line drawings in many places, I’m getting around my lack of talent by creating a photomontage from public domain sources and then tracing the result using a lightbox. This feels a lot like cheating, but it does get the job done. I hope in due course to progress to freehand drawings, once my skill and confidence levels increase.

Original royalty-free map from

Scanned tracing with handwriting-style text added

So there you have it. I now feel that I have finally and irrevocably “come out” to you, the internet. In a statement of my intent, I’ve even updated my SCBWI profile:

The skills are listed alphabetically, and I’d prefer it said “writer and illustrator” or even “Writer who foolishly thinks he can draw.” But such things are not to be.


Nick Cross is a children's writer/illustrator and Undiscovered Voices winner. He received a 2015 SCBWI Magazine Merit Award, for his short story The Last Typewriter.

Nick is also the Blog Network Editor for SCBWI Words & Pictures magazine. His Blog Break column appears fortnightly on W&P.

Friday, 14 July 2017

Home truths - writing about home and finding your way there

by Addy Farmer

A Place to call Home by the marvellous Alexis Deacon
I remember. I went to Italy when I was seventeen. I was going to learn Italian while I looked after two bambini for a Contessa in Turin. Let me tell you now, it was not all Prosecco and panini. I retain an impression of a thin and cavernous house. Inside it was all peeling wall paper and actual servants. The 'bambini' were 13 and 11 and HORRIBLE. I began to feel like one of Mary Poppin's predecessors i.e one of the rejected, loser nannies. The bambini hated me (dead rabbits outside my door/hateful little notes/a complete refusal to do anything I asked) and I loathed them back. To cap it all the only Italian I completely got down was , 'Dove la Contessa?' 'cos I could never find her and she was always asking for me..
oh, how I longed for this!
I couldn't wait to leave home and get abroad for my big adventure before university but the reality did not live up to expectation. I did move on from that ghastly first house to another more settling place but that time was never going to be a shining memory; rather it introduced me to homesickness and that particular ACHE for the familiar.

So, what is home?

  • family and friends
  • the house
  • the climate
  • the surrounds
  • the sounds and smells
It's not one of these things but a mix of all. For me, in hot, unfamiliar Italy, I wanted my family and friends. I wanted the smell of the meadow near our house, the warm-ish, rainy unpredictable weather, the coffee shop on the High Street, the lane of shady trees, the sound of the trains at the station on the hill, the spooky old mausoleum. It was all part of my internal world and I missed it. 
But maybe most important of all was the sure and certain knowledge that there would be someone who wanted you there.

How important are stories about finding a way home?
One of our SCBWI-ers, Stephen Burgess, said, "As an ex-academic, I know there is a large sociological literature on the home that you might find interesting (one of my interests was in ideas of place), Think of how home is contrasted with away for Frodo in The Lord of the Rings."  
Frodo wants his settled, idyllic home in the Shires. Not for him the nomadic life. "I pity snails, and all that carry their homes on their backs." At the start Frodo is like his Uncle Bilbo when he says:
Bother burgling and everything to do with it! I wish I was at home in my nice hole by the fire, with the kettle just beginning to sing!”
Bilbo Baggins, The Hobbit, Roast Mutton
And yet, still Frodo manages to take his home within him on his great and dangerous adventure; he is able to conjure it up in adversity. Thoughts of the Shires and all it stands for give him the strength to fight for its existence.
Fight for the Shires, Frodo!
From the excellent Brainpickings comes this quote from Ursula Le Guin: 
Home, imagined, comes to be. It is real, realer than any other place, but you can’t get to it unless your people show you how to imagine it—whoever your people are. They may not be your relatives. They may never have spoken your language. They may have been dead for a thousand years. They may be nothing but words printed on paper, ghosts of voices, shadows of minds. But they can guide you home.
She goes on to say, 
All of us have to learn how to invent our lives, make them up, imagine them. We need to be taught these skills; we need guides to show us how. Without them, our lives get made up for us by other people.
This may speak more to the importance of story as a way of shaping a child's inner life and strength but it is also an insight into how we as story tellers can help children find their way home in a turbulent world. Our characters' homes can become our readers' second homes; a welcome refuge in an uncertain world. As a reader we can return to these second homes again and again. 
Wether you arrive by screen or book, you will always find a welcome at Hogwarts. J.K Rowling
How is home depicted in story?
It can be an actual place. It maybe a squash and a squeeze but it's your squash and squeeze - just right for you.
Here's Angelica O'Brien's suggestion 
In a similar vein, Alice Thorp says; "The Trip to Panama by Janosch. Love this one. They go on a big adventure to find the house of their dreams but (spoiler alert) it turns out to be their own home all along. But they discover more great things to bring to it eg a comfortable sofa."

No home should be without a comfy sofa
Home is the lost parents you have to get back to.

Beegu by Alexis Deacon - the ears say it all
When Beegu lands on Earth, she is lost and misses home. She is a friendly little creature, but the Earth People don't seem very welcoming at all. Her sadness is made better by the children she meets. It's all good - like me, she finds her way back home eventually. She returned to loving parents who missed her. Some characters don't have it so lucky.

There's the home you never knew but always searched for
Godric Hollow - the home Harry Potter never knew
For Harry Potter, home is a place of tumbling feelings. Godric's Hollow was where he had a family. It was in Godric’s Hollow that, but for Voldemort, he would have grown up and spent every school holiday. He could have invited friends to his house. . . . He might even have had brothers and sisters. . . . It would have been his mother who had made his seventeenth birthday cake. The life he had lost had hardly ever seemed so real to him as at this moment, when he knew he was about to see the place where it had been taken from him. 

For Harry, Hogwarts became his home because it was where he found friendship, familiarity and certainty (plus all those lovely meals but that's another blog post entirely, Paula Harrison!)
A blog post from me would be incomplete without a mention of the Moomins. So thanks to Pat Walsh for suggesting the delectable Moomin house as a truly wondrous home you don't have to live in in order to go to. And it's not just the reader but also all those wanderers and misfits who gravitate towards the Moomin house with its warm heart and never-ending welcome. 

"Once a year the Hattifatteners collect there before setting out again on their endless foraging expedition round the world. They come from all points of the compass, silent and serious with their small, white empty faces, and why they hold this yearly meeting it is difficult to say, as they can neither hear nor speak, and have no object in life but the distant goal of their journey's end. Perhaps they like to have a place where they feel at home and can rest a little and meet friends."
— Tove Jansson (Finn Family Moomintroll

Angelica O'Brien talks about Dustbin Baby: "great depiction of a foster child trying to figure out her 'home'. Wilson uses this theme a lot e.g. Suitcase Kid & Tracy Beaker, but Dustbin Baby nails it. This is what I think based on my own experiences as a third culture kid moving a lot."

Home as the family you will strive to bring together again

It's true that their mother has abandoned the four Tillerman children somewhere in the middle of Connecticut. It's still true they have to find their way, somehow, to Great-aunt Cilla's house in Bridgeport, which may be their only hope of staying together as a family.
Both Amelia Mansfield and Mary Hoffman mention Homecoming by Cynthia Voigt. Amelia says, "Homecoming is one of my favourites. What about The Secret Garden? Mandy by Julie Edwards on a similar theme. Goodnight Mr Tom? This is one of my favourite themes as well.

Home in a dystopian/alien world.
It can dictate the mood of the story as in Teri Terry's, Contagion,
"The setting in Contagion where Shay lives (Killin) is important to the mood of the story, and also from Shay's POV that how she feels about it has changed - her allegiance has shifted to this, as her new home."
Killin - Scotland - some places maybe easier to call home than others
Maybe this is an example of making a home wherever you are because you have to. It is a matter of survival; a Viking hangover, as suggested by Suzie Wilde:
"In researching the Vikings I realised that no one calls their own home anything but 'home'. (There may be several: I call my present house; my old house in Portsmouth; our ancient country, Wales, Home). Others call it what they choose, usually derogatory: Old Shithead's hut an actual example."
The Vikings were plain speakers, it's true. They also moved about a bit in order to find a place to survive and thrive; driven out of their homelands by hunger. Home as the place where the heart is, was no doubt a necessity for the Vikings. 

Today. we find others driven out of the homes by war.

The Refugee Experience
by Wendy Meddour - about missing home and finding your way into a new one
Wendy Meddour was prompted to write 'A Hen in the Wardrobe' because muslims were being very poorly represented in children's literature. She wanted to do something about it - with both humour and fun involved. It's a book about belonging, friendship, and the poignant but often funny trials of having a parent from another culture. 'Chapter: Under the Stars' is all about home. The Dad, Mr Ramadan, wants to stay in North Africa. The child, Ramzi, wants to go back to England. 
They both want the thing called 'home', but 'home' is also their relationship and wanting each other to be happy, so they have to work out what 'home' means for them. 
With refugees in mind, thanks to Katherine Edgar for suggesting, Judith Kerr's classic, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit 

And to Suzanne Afford for Watership Down by Richard Adams. A classic tale about animals forced to find a new home following human persecution.

Finding the right home for your story
So, you've found how you're going to deal with home and now you want to create that home for your reader. As writers we are going to create many homes, many families and we are going to have to know them pretty well to convince our readers that they are their families and their homes as well. So, be practical, make sure of where your story home is. 
Have that home ready with doors wide open for visitors. Know which rooms your hero loves, where the cat likes to be sick, where the ghost appears; you know the drill. Here's Kathy Evan's map of Teva's world in, More of Me.

She says, "The house where Teva lived was almost a character in More of Me - it was part prison/part sanctuary - I had a few issues with the physicality of it so I got on right move , found a house that fit the bill and printed of the floor plan so I could allocate the rooms. It's interesting how you can twist the idea of home to become something sinister but still beloved... "

Nicola Keller says, "As a one time architect, I found that Barefoot Book's 'Bear At Home' had a very unlikely room layout, but that's probably not the answer you wanted!" Hmm, not really Nicola but thanks anyway. So many thanks go to all of you lovely SCBWI-ers who were interested in the theme of home. Sorry, if I didn't mention your contribution but as usual, I'd left it to the last moment ...
Let's end on a song - thank you, Candy. Home is where we come to in the end. It is the place inside us, outside us, the place we yearn for and feel comfortable in and where we always, always find a welcome.

Friday, 7 July 2017

Who Is Driving Your Story?

By Em Lynas

When I first started writing I was under the impression that the protagonist was in the driving seat and I wrote mainly from that POV. I thought that they wanted/needed something and everyone else was pretty much there to either help or get in the way. That their story was the most important story in the book.

I've learned better. After all it's the wants/needs of each of the other characters that establish the big world and small world scenarios thus creating a space for the protagonist's story.

A protagonist has nothing to fight against or engage with if the other characters don't act on their desires.


For instance, In the soon to be published (Yay!) You Can't Make Me Go To Witch School! (By me!) Daisy is destined to be a Shakespearean actress. Nothing and no one is there to stop her. She will perform her Bottom, get another part, then another part, learn her craft and eventually grab the Oscar and make a tearful speech about all the help she's had. That's the story she's in the diving seat of, and the car is a slow moving sedan going in a straight line.

Pitch that to an agent!

So, another character has to put a spanner in the works, take the wheel, and send the car down a bypass.

Introducing - Granny Wart.

She dumps Daisy at Toadspit Towers School for Witches. Putting an end to Daisy's dreams of stardom. But why would she? Granny has to have her reasons. She has to be motivated by something. Love, desire, hate, selfishness, greed, etc. She needs a backstory that impels her to leave Daisy at school and then, Ms Sage, the deputy headmistress, needs a backstory which impels her to keep Daisy at school. Which means Daisy is then impelled to fight against them both.

The motivations and desires of others pushes the protagonist into their story. 

In Harry Potter, Mr Dursley prevents Harry from receiving his Hogwarts letter. His motivation is driven by a strong dislike of magic and magical people, and a refusal to allow Harry to engage in that sort of abnormal behaviour. So when Harry meets Hagrid, he has no desire to stay with the Dursley's and enters Hogwarts.

A beautifully illustrated version from Chris Riddell

In Francis Hardinge's The Lie Tree it's Faith's father's abnormal behaviour that triggers her actions through the book. I don't want to give any spoilers but it would be a book about a boring archaeological dig if he didn't have a secret to hide, giving her a secret to uncover. I loved it.

In Hamish and the World Stoppers by Danny Wallace, illustrated by the uber-talented Jamie Littler (who just happens to be my illustrator too) something is making the world stop. If it wasn't, then Hamish's dad would not have gone missing and Hamish wouldn't have a mystery to solve. Who or what is that something and what's their motivation for doing it?

In Anne of Green Gables by L. M Montgomery Marilla and Matthew are motivated to adopt a boy who can help on the farm because of Matthew's heart problem and they end up with Anne. The complication being she's a girl not a boy and so, because she doesn't fit their original motivation, they reject her. So she has to fight to stay.

In the excellent Netflix series Anne with an E Matthew and Marilla's backstories are given room and we see why they react to Anne in the way they do. We see what they lost and how much they gain by having Anne in their lives. Personally, I think the story is deeper for that. Purists may not agree.

I've filled in lots of character creation sheets in the past but they often focus on the superficial e.g. what they look like, what they're wearing etc. Please do share if you have any links to character creation sheets based on discovering motivations and personalities.

Meanwhile I'm asking these questions about all of the characters in my books.

How did they get to be the person they are at this moment in time?

What went right/wrong for them?

What do they want in the future? For themselves, the protagonist and the other characters?

What motivates them - status, money, value, safety, learning etc

Why don't they want the protagonist to get what the protagonist wants?

Feel free to add to these questions too.

This might make an interesting starting point for future books - Don't begin with the protagonist. Begin with the world of the antagonist and secondary characters. Then drop someone else in who doesn't want what they want.

The book that immediately springs to mind here is Pollyanna by E. H. Porter

The world of grumpy people is firmly established, each with their own reason for being grumpy, and then Pollyanna is dropped into it like a pebble in a pond. She could never have spiralled down into unhappiness if the other characters' actions hadn't been motivated by severe grumpiness.

So, who is driving your story?

by Em Lynas

Currently residing on twitter as @emlynas and fb as Maureen Lynas
Published by Nosy Crow. Represented by Skylark Literary.

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