Friday, 22 June 2018

Why we (writers especially) should all love the Moomins

It's the 22nd June which is officially just gone the middle of Summer which in turn means that we'll be on the countdown to Christmas pretty soon. Naturally, I cannot let this time slip by without referring to the Moomins - those adorable, testy, life enhancing, tough and bold characters dreamed up by the brilliant, Tove Jansson.

Image result for tove jansson
Tove Jansson
Anyone who knows me, knows that I am very fond of these books and characters. In fact, the very lovely, Jo Wyton, bought me this book for my birthday...

which was as generous and awesome a gift as any moomin would give (I think that makes you an honorary moomin, Jo, Moomintroll?). It is a wonderful reference guide by the very bearded, Philip Ardagh, to all things Moomin.

Hers is a unique world; a unique vision. It is a world of magic and melancholy, of friendship and family and love, all told with a simplicity and clarity that belies Jansson's remarkable insight into even the smallest creature's hopes, fears and dreams ... And it is peopled with a most heart-warming array of living, breathing funny and lovable characters to be found between the pages of any book. Philip Ardagh (The Ancestor?)

What's so great about the Moomins? Where they live!

They live in a house, which sits in a valley, near to the sea

Image result for moomin's house
does the charm of this setting need explaining? If so, do NOT read on

When one of the many extraordinary-ordinary characters, the free-spirit, Snufkin, returns from his travels, he sees:
There below him lay the Valley of the Moomins. And in the middle amongst the plum and poplar trees, stood a blue Moominhouse, as blue and as peaceful and wonderful as when he had left it.
The Moomin house is central to the stories. It is a home to anyone who needs it, including a reader who can settle in and recognise family loves and woes, the comings and goings and food; yes, they drink coffee. Everybody knows about the Moomin house, even those who live far away. Even if they know nothing of the Moomins, visitors to the valley will drift towards the house and make themselves at home in this most welcoming of places with that most accepting and welcoming of mothers, Moominmama - the roundest, most comfortable and sensible of Moomins.

Plus, who can't love someone who has a beloved handbag which was once taken by Thingumy and Bob because they liked sleeping in 'pittle lockets'.

What reader could not want someone like her in vague charge. She usually always knows what to do and you really, really need that in a world where magic and change and difficult characters, live side by side.

What's so great about the Moomins? The characters!

Which brings me to my next reason for loving the Moomins. If you have never read a Moomin book you may think that these are mere cuddly, wuddly, characters who have nothing much to say. Wrong.

Moominvalley characters may be different and yet we all know them! Tove Jansson gives us every facet of human nature and makes them familiar even in their strangeness to the reader. The immediate Moomintroll family is a tiny bit dysfunctional. Moominpapa has an adventuring heart and always wants to be off in the boat without proper reference to the feelings of Moominmama or Moomintroll in these matters. On the plus side, his family does go with him and have great adventures which only sometimes end in disaster. And Moomintroll has inherited this thirst for adventure, his curiousity

"I think it's very adventurous to float down a winding river," said Moomintroll. "You never know what you'll meet around the next corner." Comet in Moominland

The batty but wise older relation comes in the form of the Moomins' Ancestor who lives in the stove and is incredibly old. He's even older than Grandpa Grumble, who likes a moan. And definitely hairier.

I don't think the Moomins are related to Little My but she spends a lot of time at their house being either, 'glad or angry'.
'Little My is used to taking care of herself ... I'm more worried about the people who happen to cross her path." Moominsummer Madness 
The Hemulens are very fond of rules and can get quite upset when people refuse to take them seriously.

We have the calm thinker, Too-ticky

The child-like, Sniff who wants adventures but when they arrive doesn't know what to do with them.

"Sniff lay under his blanket and screamed." is a fairly typical reaction

Yeah - we've all been there.

Oh, so many minor, brilliant characters. Like The Woodies; 24 tiny children who were lost or abandoned in a park but don't worry they were later rescued by brave Snufkin (although he came to slightly regret it what with all their crying and arguing). Or the Niblings who had the bad habit of chewing off noses if they're too long. And then there's the curious Hattifatteners

".... the little white creatures who are for ever wandering restlessly from place to place in their aimless quest for nobody knows what." Comet in Moominland
And why not.

What's so great? Exciting stuff happens!

This is no sleepy valley where nothing the weather and land stays quiet. There are actual disasters to overcome. When a volcano erupts, Moominmama is quite put out:

"Oh dear me," she said. "What a terribly hot and sooty day. Volcanoes are such a nuisance." Moominsummer Madness
Then there was the tornado which blew the roof of the Fillyjonk's house and the flood which sent the Moomins packing. Only for them to take shelter in an abandoned theatre where the only thing to do was to put on a play for everybody - of course.

Catastrophes happen but the Moomins are never defeated; they simply make the best of it because that's really all you can do.

What so great about the Moomins? There's magic in the air!

The Hobgoblins Hat brings chaos. Midsummer Eve brings a time for wishing. Moominpapa has his very own crystal ball. There are even ghosts. And then there's one of my favourite characters, the invsible Child or Ninny who was so scared that became 'misty and difficult to see'. Don't worry, she nearly recovers eventually.

Why should writers love the Moomins? 

They are cuddly (not all of them - Hattifateners *shudder* but I want to hug lots of them).

They eat proper food, even coffee (I do have a Moomin recipe book)

There is always dark and light in the stories

They have Big Ideas which sometimes don't work but they're not afraid to try them out.

They are sometimes sad. And that's okay.

They make the best of testing situations

They do not judge

Apart from being HUGELY entertaining, the Moomins and all their friends and relations, exist inside the sort of world you never want to end. Tove Jansson also offers an alternative philosophy. Don’t fear the unexplainable or waste time worrying about things that can’t be solved or changed. If your house floods, make the best of that upside-down-view of your kitchen. Live like a Moomin… unless there’s ever a volcano that’s about to erupt near your house. Then maybe it would be better to leave.

Friday, 15 June 2018

Author School Visits - Tip 1

by Em Lynas

I haven't done many school visits yet as my books You Can't Make Me Go To Witch School and Get Me Out of Witch School haven't even been out a year yet and I've been busy writing Help! I'm Trapped At Witch School! until this month.

But I have done a few and I'm learning what works and what doesn't work for me and so I thought I'd share because it might be helpful to all you authors out there who aren't ex-teachers and are feeling the fear of the school visit.

I've just been appearing at the West End Festival in Glasgow as part of their schools programme and it's got me thinking about the importance of dialogue to establish character from the outset for mg readers and how that helps in the creation of events.

Pre-published misconception - children coming along with their school to talks/workshops/performances will be familiar with the book.

The truth - This is unlikely. If there's been time, an organised teacher, and an available book then, yes they may have read some but mostly - not. They're coming along for many reasons, it might be a free visit organised by a festival, it might be they've picked me at random or because I'm local. Or because they need to tick the - we've seen an author box. Or it may be they are huge fans and can't wait to hear what I have to say. I just don't know what situation I'm walking in to.

So, as I'm planning I'm thinking - How do I engage the children (and teachers) and interact with them about a book they probably know nothing about? How do I talk about it without giving away any spoilers? How do I make that fun?

Well, luckily, You Can't make me Go To Witch School has illustrations by the fabulous Jamie Littler and so I based my event around them and talked about character creation with the aid of a simple Power Point slide show. This has a become even simpler with each event. I think I started at 25 slides and now I'm down to 8. It was also interactive for the first event - Noooooooo!

The slideshow is a sort of Who's Who at Toadspit Towers.
Here's a few characters with the relevant dialogue I read from the book.

Copyright Jamie Littler, You Can't Make Me Go To Witch School, Middle Grade book
Daisy Wart

Reluctant Witch and Awesome Actress.

“Granny.” I say it with firmness. This is definitely a hands-on-hips moment, so I put them there. “Chocolate, currently in my backpack, is a birthday treat. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare with pictures, also currently in my backpack, is a birthday treat. Money, in the backpack, is a birthday treat. Dumping me at witch school is NOT a birthday treat. I absolutely refuse to enter a dilapidated building named Toadspit Towers because I am NOT a witch!”
Copyright Jamie Littler, You Can't Make Me Go To Witch School, Middle Grade book

Ms Thorn

Lover of Strictness and Conformity

“Is you the headmistress?” asks Granny. “Is you Ms Toadspit?”
“I am not,” says the woman. “I am Ms Constance Thorn. Senior Teacher of Toadspit Towers. You may speak.”

Dominique Laffitte 
Copyright Jamie Littler, You Can't Make Me Go To Witch School, Middle Grade book

Thinks She Is The Best and Brightest Witch at Toadspit Towers
“Ms Thorn has appointed I dormitory monitor for I am the Best and Brightest Witch.” She points at the rosette on her cauldron as proof. “I have knowledge of everything in this school. If there is anything you want to know then ask I. And if there is anything you should know then I shall tell you. And if there is anything you do wrong, I shall tell you that too. You are lucky to be sharing the dormitory of the youngest Best and Brightest Witch in the history of Toadspit Towers.

Copyright Jamie Littler, You Can't Make Me Go To Witch School, Middle Grade book

Jessica Moss
Feeling The Fun And Loving Her Life!

“What’s happen— Hey, a new girl,” she says, spotting me. Her eyes light up at the sight of the cake. “Ooh, cake. My mam can’t bake cakes. They go flat in the middle and come out like biscuits. But that’s OK because I like biscuits. And pie.”

Once the children had been introduced to the characters we chatted about who was going to be for or against Daisy. Who was going to help her to escape from Witch School and who was going to get in the way.

That's when I realised how important first impressions are to children in mg and why the first words spoken are so important. They completely 'got' each character from the way they spoke, the words they used and the attitude. It was a light bulb moment even though I really should have known that all along but as I was writing the books I was just writing for me, creating individuals who I wanted to spend time with. I wasn't always thinking about the reader and how quickly I need to establish personality. I will now though.

We were able to go  deeper into the characters but I'll blog about that another time. This could end up being a series.

So I learned something on that visit as well as having a ball with the kids making up new characters. I'm already trimming and adjusting ready for the next one and I'm sure I'll learn something on that too.

If you don't have illustrations you can still use images. You could find three images for each character and ask the children to choose the one that was the most likely to say the dialogue. That could be fun!


@emlynas on twitter - follow me!

Em is published by Nosy Crow and rep'd by Amber Caraveo

Friday, 8 June 2018

Countdown to Launching Bone Talk

By Candy Gourlay

It is exactly 35 days until the launch party for my new book, Bone Talk, on the 13th of July. Which is 20 days until the book is officially available in the shops! If you've ever wondered what publishers did to promote their books, here is a behind the scenes taste of the work being done by my publisher, David Fickling Books, to pave the way for Bone Talk's launch.

*In the video I forgot to mention Thornhill by Pam Smy and Wed Wabbit by Lissa Evans (I already had my own copies so I didn't put those in my bag – but now I wish I did, they would make good presents!)

Friday, 1 June 2018

Highlighting The Heart of Your Story with Motifs

By Kathryn Evans

Motifs, metaphors, whatever you want to call them, those little beats in your story help highlight the heart of what you're trying to say. First though....


Why Does A Story Need A Heart?

A heart sets rhythm and it pulses life.  It's also why your story matters.   If you're writing for children, it will matter so much that it's probably the thing you'll talk about when you take your book into schools. It's what you hope your reader will take away from your story. Your story needs a heart, because without it,  the experience of reading is ultimately empty.

Take Wonder by R. J Palacio. On the surface, that's a story about a little boy with a badly disfigured face - but the heart of the story is actually about how other people respond to him. It's about society's acceptance, or not, of what's normal.

Or Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine.  The surface story is about a woman who doesn't know how to make friends so lives a very structured life to 'just get through'. But the heart of that story is about loneliness, about how most of us are afraid of it and stay away,  fearing it may be contagious, without ever asking why someone behaves the way they do. The heart of the story is about the danger of isolation and the joy of friendship.

In Wonder, we care about August, not because he has a damaged face, but because of the way he interacts with people, because of they way they respond to him.  We care about Eleanor because we begin to  understand why she is the way she is and how that feels. Both of these books will change the way the reader looks at the world, will make the reader think about the heart of the story - acceptance and loneliness.

Using Themes and Motifs.

In Wonder, Auggie has a space helmet that he loves to wear.   It's about hiding his face but it's also about showing his adventurous spirit, the image he wants to project to the world - if it was a balaclava it would give an entirely different message. It was given to him by his sister's friend, a friend the sister thinks has betrayed her, but the connection of the helmet shows us this is not that case. His Dad gets rid of it, not because wearing the helmet looks weird, but because he wants to see Auggies face, a face he loves no matter what.  That helmet crops up  frequently, highlighting, explaining,  connecting. It's a perfect example of a motif used to demonstrate a theme,  its regular appearance pulses though the book

In Eleanor Oliphant,  there are a number of motifs. Alcohol is one - 2 bottles of vodka every weekend and then, when things get really dire, more. But it's also there as an offering to take to a party - a half drunk bottle , a bridge between Eleanor's old life and the new one that is beginning to flourish. Eleanor hasn't quite made it across the divide at that stage, so the bottle is only half full.

Clothing is also a motif, an appropriate one in some ways, it's the mask we use to represent us.  Not just the clothes we wear, but the clothes we dress our surroundings in - as Eleanor moves in confidence to a more connected human being, she changes what she wears and also changes the decor in her flat.

 The motif  that really effected me in Eleanor Oliphant, was physical contact - no one touches Eleanor. When she first goes to the hairdresser, a step into the new world, it's very sensual. When she has a bikini wax, the intimate contact is painful but welcome.  The lack of touch in her life is significant and highlighted by her developing relationship with Raymond,  who gently breaks through the boundaries with hugs. Real life hugs. Hugs are the antidote to loneliness. This is a scientific fact. It changed the way I behave, I now make sure I give my father-in-law a big old hug every time I see him.


Finding the Heart of Your Story.

Motifs are a technical way of highlighting the heart of your story, but what if you don't know what it is? It isn't always obvious, often we think we're writing a story about one thing, and it turns out there's something else going on altogether - you know, like when your characters do something entirely unexpected, when your subconcious takes hold and flips the story in a different direction - it's the same magic at work.

For ages, I thought  my new book was  about  how we build a family around us after we lose our own - and it is kind of about that, but it's a story set in two time zones and I didn't understand why I'd done that, why it mattered. It was only in editing the story that I realised having a story across decades, allows me to explore our perceptions of things like beauty and what's considered to be acceptable behaviour and how that effects people.

If you are struggling to find the heart of your story, take a look at the turning point in a significant character's emotional arc. There'll be something there that they change their mind about that leads to the satisfying conclusion of the story.

In Wonder,  Auggie and Jack get attacked on camp but Amos and other school children, who've previously been horrible to them, defend them, they see Auggie as one of them, not just a weird looking kid.  This moment is about acceptance. There's another  heartbeat when Auggie wins a medal at school and accepts it in front of everyone, no longer hiding, but fully emerged.

In Eleanor Oliphant, Eleanor admits to herself that the mother that dominates her life is only alive in her imagination. This is a point where she accepts the past has made her life a misery but that she can let it go and and have a better life, that she deserves a better life. There is no physical connection with the mother, but there is with Raymond, her friend, and her newly acquired cat.

Look at your story with different eyes, where are the turning points, what do they mean? Are they reflected through the story? Identify the heart of your story and then keep it in mind all the way through- have a whole editorial pass, just for this. It'll be worth it, I promise.


 Kathryn Evans is the award winning author of More of MeA gripping thriller with a sinister sci-fi edge, exploring family, identity and sacrifice. She loves faffing about on social media: find her  on Facebook and Instagram @kathrynevansauthor and tweeting @KathrynEvansInk.  

Friday, 25 May 2018

My Year of Launching Prodigiously

By Candy Gourlay

I am in Book Launch Mode. Here's a gratuitous picture of my two new books.

Candy Gourlay's New Books in 2018: IS IT A MERMAID? and BONE TALK
I have written in the past about how to organise a book launch party. This article is not about that, although book launch parties are integral parts of the book launch and I have actually just spent the past month attending the launch parties of friends.

This particular book launch piece is about bringing a book into the world – in my case TWO books, in one year. My first picture book Is It a Mermaid? was published in the UK in April, then in the US in May. And my third novel Bone Talk is going to be published in the UK in August.

Launching a book is a mind trick for us authors.

I mean writing a book takes time – my novels can be in progress for five to six years! – and during that time writing THE END is the only goal. And once the book is finished, what do authors want to do? We want to write the next book ... not faff around with marketing!

In an ideal world, of course, authors can stay in their caves accumulating word count and cholesterol.

But the world has not been ideal since it turned global.

Publishers have shed that fusty old practice of nurturing an author then publishing to the small, appreciative audience who could be relied upon to buy books anyway. It was a smaller space with author and books at its centre - not bottom lines and market shares.

And then of course came the internet, which may at first have appeared to be the procrastinating author's blessing, but has now put the task of promotion squarely in the author's cave.

You need a plan on how you're going to engage with people before your book is available, and then motivate them to buy your book once it's published.

Your First 1000 Copies: The Step-by-Step Guide to Marketing Your Book by Tim Grahl

Yes, I have read book launch guru Tim Grahl's guide. And yes, I've also read Grahl's Book Launch Blueprint – which by the way is currently available as a free download. It's full of great tips and Grahl's personal experiences helping turn his author clients into success stories.

But will reading the book sell you're first 1000 copies? Nah. Reading is not doing. And most people would rather read ... then complain that it's all too hard. So my first launching tip is this:

Do it. 

Which is going to be tough.

You will need to be as motivated to market as you are to write the book. It's a full time job in itself – you can't do it unless you understand how it all works. You can't do it unless you have time away from work, new book, family, pet, etc. You can't do it without skills, like Luke couldn't rescue Princess Leia right away because he was only a moisture farmer.

When I give talks on book marketing, it's hard to watch the eager faces of the audience crumple one by one as people realise the enormity of the task.

But guys, you are authors. Remember how hard it was to start writing your book? How you had  this great idea and hesitated for weeks, thinking, should I or shouldn't I? Thinking, it will take forever to write it! Then deciding, yes, you want it. Yes, you will write it. And then spending five bloody years working on it.

This is actually a wee bit easier.

You just need to do that thing you did. Say yes. And then get on with it.

Who are you marketing to? 
Unlike authors who write for grown ups, we kidlit authors know that the sales of our book are curated by the forces that circle young people like Dementors circling Hogwarts – parents, grandparents, teachers, librarians, Zoella ... these are the forces that influence the actual buying of your books (since our readers don't tend to buy books themselves).

Most of you guys probably already get the idea of marketing to influencers.

One of the new ideas I stumbled upon while procrastinating was the idea of the Purchase Funnel –actually to the marketing profession it's an old idea ... but, hey, it's new to me. I was trying to understand Facebook advertising (Argh!) so I clicked on a podcast on how to build a Facebook Ad Funnel.

Before your eyes glaze over, the podcast was actually fascinating – and my takeaway was invaluable:

It's not just about knowing who your target audience is, it's knowing how enthusiastic he or she is about you and your books.

The idea is you have to market in a different way to different levels of enthusiasm.

Hot is the person who is always going to buy your book (Diehard fans, if you're lucky to have those. Mom ... Dad ... Grandma).

Well .. maybe Grandma

Warm is the person who is likely but not guaranteed to buy your book (Friends, sadly. People who have read your previous books. People who have not read your previous book but are interested in your themes, etc.)


Cold is the person who has had no contact with you and has no interest in your themes (The Dad in the bookshop who was staring at the shelf with your book on it but probably not at your book. Zoella. The BBC. Benedict Cumberbatch...).


The takeaway is: each of these groups need a different approach.

Otherwise you will find yourself engaging some and repelling others in equal measure.

When I say 'marketing to' I really mean 'building a relationship with'. 

If you're in for the long haul – as in, planning a career in book writing – then you need to build an audience that is in it for the long haul too.

Yes our readers are children who will outgrow our books. But every child who is captivated by your book will grow up to be an adult who will put that book into another child's hand.

Most of us authors became writers because of some adult in our life – usually a librarian – who said, 'I think you will love reading this.' Now that's a relationship.

Is there such a thing as a loving relationship that begins with an email saying 'Buy my book'?

Food for thought.


Marshall Your Troops. 

Luke Skywalker needed Obi Wan Kenobi to learn how to use the force. It's okay to be a padawan (non-Star Wars fans: a padawan is an apprentice).


In fact, with this marketing gig, you will probably be a padawan all your life because though you do marketing it is not your job. You are an author and if you are out online marketing away and not writing books then you are in serious danger of not having anything to sell.

It is easy to think, sitting in the writer's cave, that one is all alone in the world.

You are not alone.

There are people out there willing to help you. And a lot of them will do it for free. You may not have skills but some of your friends do. I'm sure they will all be clamouring to help, you've been such a fantastic giving friend. Have you?

And if you're lucky enough to be traditionally published, your publisher will have a publicist and a sales team. Talk to them. Ply them with alcohol. Make them like you.

There is so much information on the internet about marketing. Get good at Googling. Google knows lots of things you need. How to do a Book Launch Party. How to Set up a Mailing List. How to Market My Book.

There are live spaces (as in not online) where you can be discovered. Libraries. Bookshops. Schools. Courses. Workshops. Fairs. Festivals. Though you may prefer to lurk in your cave, for the reader (or influencer), meeting you in person might be the  most compelling incentive to buy your book.

Comb your hair. Brush your teeth. Leave the pyjamas at home.

Do an audit of what you already have. 

In the fog of despair, it's easy to forget that you're a pretty cool person with lots of talents you can deploy to this impossible task.

You might not have noticed that you already have an asset in you had not previously identified as a marketing tool in your armoury.

Have you got a blog packed with useful articles that you can repackage as free resources?

Do you have a circle of friends, of people who are passionate about the same interests? It could be a Parent's Association, a hobby club, an online forum. Perhaps your book has a theme that could be of use/help to an interest group.

My new book stars the dugong, an animal who is endangered because its sea grass habitat is under threat. I am trying to hook up with seagrass organisations and use the book as a platform to raise awareness about this lovely beast.

If you are sure you haven't got one, join the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators – make friends, attend events, help people.

Do you have a creative skill that you can deploy - are you an artist? A poet? A knitter? A teacher?

In your audit consider not just the skill that can help you do the marketing, but what you can make so that the readers will come.

Make things. 

So many authors are taking courses in Twitter and Facebook and hoping that social media is going to be the way, the truth and the light of their book launch.

It's important to consider two things:

1. Much as we would like promotion to be all about Twitter (admit it, O social media addicted fellow authors!) – tweeting has not been shown to boost book sales. It is one tool, but probably not the best tool because people are not usually persuaded by shouting through a megaphone. People need more than words to buy a book.

2. Ask not who will buy your book ... ask what you can give away to get people to pay attention to your book.

Since I raised my bleary eyes from the 24/7 job of writing my books, I've been making things. Well, sometimes it's not me making it – I persuaded my baby brother who happens to be an animator to make a book trailer for Is It a Mermaid:

I wanted to do something fun at the launch of Is It a Mermaid and while spending a short holiday with my best friend, Frankie, we found ourselves giggling uncontrollably in a Portuguese train while making up lyrics to the tune of I Feel Pretty from West Side Story. I recruited my talented singing neighbour, Andrew, and the result is a rather hilarious performance at the launch (with friends Heather and Perraine singing backup):

I realised that my author website was beginning to look old fashioned so I have been redesigning it, with custom pages for each book. I haven't got money for a web designer so I am using a free Wix website. Check it out.

I've been working closely with the publicists of my publishers, Otter-Barry Books and David Fickling Books, asking them to pitch me for festivals, saying yes to most requests. The other day, I presented a three minute spiel (there were ten other authors) to independent bookshops and the sales team at Faber (who take DFB books to bookshops). I had never done such a thing before and it woke me up to the need for more information about my forthcoming novel in advance of its publication. So I took my three minute spiel and turned it into this video.

(Can you tell that I like making videos?)

I have so much more to do. I am working on a new presentation to bring to school visits on the themes of my new books. I am creating free bonus materials for schools and readers to download from my website. And with Bone Talk out in August, I have another book launch party to plan!

It's a full time job.

But you shouldn't allow it to be.

Because you already have a job.  So my final tip is one that will make sure you will continue to  launch books for some time to come.


Did I mention that my first picture book is out gorgeously illustrated by Francesca Chessa? Available at all good book stores.

Is it a Mermaid by Candy Gourlay and Francesca Chessa

Friday, 18 May 2018

Don’t Look Down!

By Nick Cross

Photo by Quinn Dombrowski

I’m a month and a half away from my (self-imposed) deadline to complete the first full draft of my novel. This isn’t a finish-it-and-put-it-in-a-drawer situation, because people are lined up and apparently eager to read it. As a result, I feel like I’m up on a high wire, inching my way through the book and desperately trying not to look down!

The novel is not the only high wire situation, because I’m trying to write this blog post at the same time. Normally, I’d take several days out of my usual schedule to write and format a Slushpile blog post, but there simply isn’t time. So if I randomly start typing dialogue, I’m sure you’ll forgive me.

I like and need deadlines - they’re the only reason I ever get anything finished. But they’re also a source of significant stress. When I set this deadline - back in early January - it seemed like plenty of time to get the job done. And I have worked steadily since then - researching, replotting and writing. The thing I really, really want to do is illustrate and lay out the story, but I have to keep telling myself it’s no good doing that until I have a story to illustrate!

So, I edge along the high wire, day by day, word by word, focusing my attention just in front of my feet. But as much as I try to keep everything on schedule, unexpected stuff happens. Sometimes, I’ll get to a certain point in the story and discover the next few metres of wire are missing because I haven’t planned in enough detail. Other times, I’ll think “Gee, wouldn’t it be cool if...” and weigh up whether it’s worth stepping across to a different tightrope entirely. Occasionally, I stretch a metaphor so far past breaking point that I wonder if my reader will notice...

Photo by Tom A La Rue

Hemingway famously said that all first drafts are shit. Mine aren’t. I’d love to say that’s because I’m the most amazing genius writer the world has ever seen, but it’s mostly because they aren’t first drafts at all. Where other writers splurge with their words, mine are delicately placed. Where other writers start with simple characterisations that they deepen in later drafts, I find my characters as I go, often looping back to add detail to previous scenes or even altering earlier plot to better shape their arc. Frequently, I will scrap a whole draft that isn’t working and go back to the start (I am technically on version 5 of my current novel).

Is this a good way to work, or madness? Would I be happier taking the NaNoWriMo approach of blitzing my first draft and fixing it in the edit? I certainly see myself as less productive than other writers and get frustrated often, but I’m pleased with the quality of what I eventually produce. I felt a little less crazy recently when I read Kelly McCaughrain’s blog post - her technique, which I will sum up as “Don’t panic and fix problems early” spoke to my own way of working.

Experience is definitely a factor - I’ve written enough novels now that I know the kinds of problems I’m likely to have and how to head them off. Conversely, I also know that every novel throws up its own unique issues, and I’ll have to develop coping techniques for that. Writing is a bit like life in that respect!

Photo by Fred Marie

I guess I'll just keep tiptoeing along the wire, balancing as best I can and trying not to think of the yawning chasm beneath me. Because, it’s only a book, right? What could possibly go wrong?


Nick Cross is a children's writer/illustrator and Undiscovered Voices winner. He received a 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, 4 May 2018

Funny Bones - can we learn to write 'funny'?

by Addy Farmer

Me, as a crazy kid, having hilarious fun playing pretend tennis
Let me just put you in the picture. I was a funny kid; in fact some of my contemporaries called me, 'weird' which back then I actually took as a compliment, so perhaps case proven. Being a reasonably content weirdo did not make me popular but again, it didn't bother me. I liked the company of a few equally weird friends (See photo above of us playing pretend tennis). Then I had an epiphany. I was in class and it was my turn to go to the Tuck Shop and get sweets for anyone who asked. I took the orders and the money and bought everything on the list - except I didn't because I forgot a particular bar of chocolate for a large girl who always really hungry for this chocolate. She got cross, had a rant, demanded that I went back even though there was not much break left. I panicked and said, "They ran out last week when you ate it all."
Yes, I know, it's not that funny and actually it's rude. BUT everyone laughed. Maybe it was surprise-laughter, I don't know but something changed after that. I began to say out loud what I found funny and people laughed and it felt good. 
funny kid
Back then, being funny was a crowd pleaser and it's a crowd-pleaser for readers now. I love to write funny stuff for children and it made me wonder whether is was a Thing you can learn to do or whether you just had to have funny bones. 

Image result for lissa evans wed wabbitThis is one of my favourite funny books, WED WABBIT by LISSA EVANS. When Fidge and Graham find themselves tumbling down a wabbit hole to a fantasy land whose inhabitants look like colourful dustbins and speak in rhyme. “In Wimbley Land live Wimbley Woos / Who come in many different hues… Yellow are timid, Blue are strong / Grey are wise and rarely wrong …” Their king has been deposed and armies of “Blues” carry out the orders of a scary new dictator called Wed Wabbit. It has some wildly funny characters like Dr Carrot who is an actual carrot who believes he is an actual doctor. Then there's Ella, the toy elephant who believes in the power of positive thinking and is a life coach. "Also available for Voice Development, Audition Technique and Confidence Workshops". And then there is the eponymous Wed Wabbit who is not called Red Rabbit because his owner in the real world is a four year old girl who can't pronounce her 'r's. She also has very strict views on how life should be lived and articulates them through Wed Wabbit. The book is a brilliant look at friendship and fear and it's FUNNY. Why?

  • It's a world ruled by a four year old's toy rabbit. 
  • It's a giant toy rabbit who cannot pronounce her 'r's
  • It's a giant toy rabbit has some anarchic pronouncements

  • The fantasy world is full of toys come impossibly to life but are instantly recognisable as characters from the real world. Their altered state makes them funny
  • Badly done rhyme
"Accept our thanks for everything.
We've come to free our captured king
Restore him to his usual state and afterwards invite everyone round to a really enormous party going on until all hours with mountains of food and drink and sweets to celebrate"

Image result for There a werewolf in my tentPAMELA BUTCHART is a another recent discovery for me. She is the author of funny books for a slightly younger reader. Her books are about a group of very different school friends. Their adventures are set in a real world school but their approach to life make that real world, surreal.  In THERE'S A WEREWOLF IN MY TENT, when Izzy and her friends go on a school camping trip, weird things start happening like howling at night and stolen sausages (a sausage is a comedy foodstuff, like a custard cream). But it's when they see their new teacher's hairy legs that they know that she's a werewolf. Of course, she's a werewolf! Because for an eight year old, it's the obvious explanation.
"I could see by the look in Zach's eye that he KNEW what had made the howling sound and it was BAD.
That's when Zach said, "I have to tell you. There is DANGER among us."
Jodi rolled her eyes because Zach was doing that THING he does when he makes EVERYTHING sound like a FILM and he won't talk like a
Why is this funny?
  • Wild leaps of imagination which our heroes. They make a ridiculous assumption about the teacher being a werewolf
  • Having made the assumption, then finding ways of dealing with werewolves which get them into trouble
  • The way the friends speak to one another is shown through the fonts and pictures 
THE SHRINKING OF TREEHORN by FLORENCE HEIDE PARRY and EDWARD GOREY is a classic. I mention it because it is the mad idea that a boy called Treehorn shrinks. His parents are indifferent to what happens to him rather like the parents in John Burningham's excellent, 'NOT NOW, BERNARD'. At the end of the book, when he is restored to hi normal size, he looks in the mirror

His face was green. His ears were green. His hair was green. He was green all over.
Treehorn sighed. "I don't think I'll tell anyone," he thought to himself. "If I don't say anything, they won't notice."
Image result for the shrinking of treehorn

Why is this funny?
  • The illustrations reflect the restrained story-telling brilliantly
  • Parents will not accept that their son is shrinking in front of their eyes. It allows the reader to shout at them
  • Treehorn's quiet pragmatic approach to a crazy situation is funny
Image result for the shrinking of treehorn

What can we learn about writing funny stories?

  • observe/find some physical tics/behaviour which are plain embarrassing for oneself or in others
  • make your characters oddball but recognisable
  • give your characters reasons to misunderstand one another e.g language/culture/age
  • give them a reason to misunderstand a situation
  • toy with your setting/world 

If your idea of funny is running through a wheatfield then MAY be (I thankyou) you might want to consider another genre.  In the end, you have to write what makes you fire on all cylinders. Most likely, if you find it funny, then your reader will.  Whatever you do, if you want to write funny stories, then read funny stories. Here are some recommendations from the SCBWI hive mind. Enjoy!

Elaine Cline Amelia Bedelia picture books. This was also featured at the scbwi bi conference as one of the children videod shared this book as his favourite. The story does a lot of play on words.

Chloe Taylor Anything by Morris gleitzman especially Bumface. The voice is incredibly strong and the premise is hilarious (a boy whose irresponsible mother keeps having kids juggles looking after his siblings and reminding his mother to take her contraceptive pill when all he wants is a normal childhood.) It's better than it sounds.

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Chloe Taylor Actually no! That's second place! Letters from a mouse by herbie Brennan. You have to read it to understand. It's beautiful and takes about ten minutes to read. Get it! It's funny because the reader knows what is going on but the narrator doesn't.

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Kathryn Evans The Georgia Nicholson books , Angus Thongs etc , ridiculous and truthful and brilliant- kind of slapstick silly but also poignant

Fiona Dunbar Mr Gum. Because every sentence plays around with words in delightfully unexpected ways.

Lucy Courtenay I was going to suggest this too.

Annie Edge Seconding Mr Gum - because it's so damn clever. Good humour isn't just about bums and farts after all (although bums and farts can get you a long way in kidlit!).

BeeBee Taylor Em lynas cant make me go to witch school and Jennifer killick Alex sparrow and the really big stink both are well written light hearted and the jokes are hilarious

Joy Judge Jim Smith wrote (and illustrated) the Future Ratboy series. There were three in total and they all had us all in stitches. My daughters (6 and 4) really enjoyed them and it helped transition my eldest from picture books to chapter books. It’s daft and ...See More

Joy Judge Can I just add that a lot of the books we have at home appeal to the adults as well as the kids. It’s a real sweet spot, as I’m more inclined to buy humour books where some of the jokes are directed at adults. The Supertato PB sets up a scene where an evil pea finds himself on a shopping trolley. He jumps off it and the line ‘but the pea was off his trolley and lying in wait’ gets me every time. 😂

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Lucy Courtenay Mr Gum hits the spot for all ages because it's so gloriously random.

Sheila M. Averbuch TALES OF A FOURTH GRADE NOTHING for the true-life portrait of a toddler and chaos that ensues with older brother

Victoria Woolfe Jonathan Stroud's Lockwood and Co MG ghost can't beat Stroud for his rapier-sharp wit and intelligent humour. It's worth reading the whole of book three just for the immortal lines, 'egg whisk'. (You'll know it when you read it!)

Maureen LynasMaureen and 13 others manage the membership, moderators, settings, and posts for SCBWI British Isles. I go for voice so Angus, Thongs etc and Noah Can't Even... by Simon James Green. And there's a sequel soon!

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