Book 5 and 10 tips on writing novels

I’m back to writing. Back to book 5. Back to being a novelist rather than an illustrator! Just me, my imagination and a word processor. Excellent!

I did quite a considerable amount of work on the plot for book 5 last summer, but the extraordinary amount of illustration required for The Great Space Race swamped me, so it all feels fresh, exciting and new.

So there’s a lot of ground work already done. I also have some notes from my literary agent, Clare, who has an exceptionally good eye for knowing what’s working and what’s not. I tend to listen hard to what Clare has to say, because she will be trying to sell the book shortly. Clare, I should point out, was the first person to believe in the Guild Trilogy and thought it was worth trying to get published. That’s why I care very much what she thinks.

One of Clare’s suggestions was to move the story into the first person (as in –  ‘I did this, I did that’), an idea I’d toyed with because I’d had such fun writing the Space Race that way. The Guild Trilogy is, of course, written in the third person (as in – ‘he did this, she did that’).

Writing in the first person gives the whole script a very different and somehow more immediate feel. Lots of authors use the third person because it allows you to see different points of view from the various different characters. With the first person, you get a single point of view, so are very much on one person’s journey.

With the renewed energies of 2010, I have launched forth. I have a plot structure through to the end (very important), and have written the first 10,000 words. This week I’ve been working through it, cutting, sharpening, editing to get those first 30 pages working as hard as possible. And those first 30 pages are some of the most important.

So what am I actually doing when I’m writing a first draft? I get asked this quite a bit, so perhaps it is time for… a list!

Here are some of my own tips on writing adventure novels for children. These are hard won, but I hasten to add there are many, many different ways to write a book, so this can no way be described as definitive.

1 ) The target is 50,000 words, because that is the length publishers like for children’s fiction. It is unrealistic to think 100,000 words will be rolling off the presses, unless I change my name to J. K. Mowlling.

2 ) Every paragraph must have a purpose. Anything unnecessary to the plot will probably be cut by editors later, so there’s not much point spending time writing it in the first place.

3 ) Something fundamental should change for the characters in each chapter to turn the story (a discovery, an event, a piece of information revealed). The more twists and turns the better. This drives the story forward. If nothing much has happened in a chapter, what’s the point of it being there. Is it stuffed full of exposition (see tip 9 below)?

4 ) For each chapter I ask: ‘What’s at stake here?’

5 ) For each chapter I also ask: ‘Where’s the jeopardy?’

6 ) I try to keep my chapters short. 1,500 words is more than enough. 5,000 words is far, far too long.

7 ) Nothing is sacred. Just because I especially like a chapter or an idea, I don’t get hung up on it. If it starts to get in the way of the developing story, I cut it out (but save it somewhere on my computer just in case!) then let the new material breathe and grow.

8 ) I know that not all my ideas will make it to the final draft. With this mindset from the start, it makes editing and cutting much less painful.

9 ) Exposition (in other words backstory, history lessons explaining plot, aimless pages about the character’s upbringing etc…) tend to stop the story dead. Exposition is the enemy. It needs to be fed in very, very slowly. In the trilogy, I tended to relegate exposition to sidebars, footnotes, appendices, foldouts, and illustration where possible. Anywhere but in the story… unless essential.

10) It’s a bit of cliqué now, but I like write the sort of book I would have enjoyed when I was young.

Making Documentaries

I’ve just finished making some short web documentaries, or ‘webisodes’, with director Steve Friendship about how I work as an illustrator and writer .

The idea is that each of these 5 films will be about 5 minutes long. They will be focusing on different aspects of my work, and how I take an idea from a scribbled note to a finished book. These will hopefully show you and everyone else a little bit more about me and my life as a working novelist and illustrator.

So my tiny flat, (or apartment… call it what you will!) became a studio for the day, with lights, cameras and tripods fighting for space. It was quite a squeeze.

It took a good hour to set everything up, then we worked through the running order trying to establish how we should go about shooting each of the webisodes. It quickly became a very busy morning of takes and re-takes with regular breaks for cups of tea.

In the afternoon we took a taxi to Walker Books (my UK publishers), where we were able to film my editors and the art director talking my books, as well as some getting some shots of the publicity department who are just beginning to get ready for launch Space Race next August.

It was the first time everyone has seen the recently completed Space Race in proof form, so a great moment to capture on film. (The book looks good! Everyone seems very happy with it! Phew!)

Then back to my flat to shoot the last 2 films, finishing at about 8pm in the evening. A long day, but I hope we have some good results.

I plan to upload the films to YouTube once Steve has edited them down. This may take a few weeks, but I will let you know once they are available. I’ll post them here on my blog as well, of course.

Many thanks to Steve who worked so hard and for all the Walker Books team who agreed to help.

Monkey • Robot • Cowboy • Hero

Today I finished the last illustration for The Great Space Race.

There will be changes, no doubt, and fine adjustments, but every page exists and – dare I say it – every gap now has an illustration in it. Breathe out slowly… and relax.

What a crazy year 2009 turned out to be – I remember thinking it would be relatively easy to create the artwork for Space Race after the trickiness of the Guild Trilogy. Two months’ work, I thought to myself. Simple! I had always rated the airship illustration for Operation Storm City as the benchmark of torment in my career as an illustrator (all those cables and frames in perspective!), but The Great Space Race beat it by a country mile. Several country miles with a few country kilometers lumped in, for good measure.

All those 5.30am starts have produced a satisfying result, I believe… I hope… I pray! The book now begins to slip away from me and begin its own journey – first of all to the final edit, then to the printers, and finally to the bookshops in August. My creative involvement is almost at an end. Sending that final piece of artwork is certainly a moment of divergence, if not outright departure. A parting of the ways. New horizons beckon and new stories are waiting to be told (in a big heap of scribbled notes beside my keyboard).

After such an intensive slog, there is an upside, and this is it. Days like today. An undeniable happy-making moment. It is like the silence after turning off VERY LOUD MUSIC. My desk, so long a battleground of to-do lists, script edits and tricky problems to solve is now unusually clear. I keep looking over it thinking there must be something to do. There isn’t.

But back to loud music. I wasn’t entirely idle over the Christmas break, and managed to record several tracks for an album I’m putting together for The Great Space Race. It’s going to be called ‘Monkey•Robot•Cowboy•Hero’ (artwork above).

Why? Well the narrator of The Great Space Race is a character called Ace. He is in a band with his best friend Jake, so I thought it would be great if readers of the book can hear Jake and Ace’s music. Why not?

The plan is to post these tracks on web as extra background material for the book. I have therefore been playing lots of very loud guitar, which is a wonderful antedote to all that quiet illustrating of the last few months. Jimi Hendrix eat your heart out. I’ll post a link here as soon as it is mixed down and sounding good.

Oh… and I managed to have a long overdue haircut, just in time for the really cold weather.