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.


Being chased by tigers

After a fruitful telephone call with my (genius) art director Ben yesterday, I am now in possession of the Space Race To Do List and a PDF of the book as it stands. Phew! The new ground is cut, so we are entering the final stages.

This is the first time I’ve seen the novel in its entirety with illustrations and text together. Ben and I are very excited, and it certainly looks different.

Although I’ve never been chased by a tiger or any other large wild animal, the feeling I have now is, I imagine, like that first risky glance back after a spectacular sprint through the jungle to see if you’re safe or not. A lot of the physical symptoms are similar – exhaustion, some stiffness in the legs and a not inconsiderable dose of adrenaline still running through m’ veins – but who said this would be easy?

It’s funny, but seldom does anyone ever say what a very lonely and fearful business being a writer can be. Lots of uncharted jungle. Lots of tigers. So next time you’re in a bookshop, remember all those poor authors who have run blindly through the undergrowth to bring you… well… robot monkey armies in this instance.

I have completed all of the really difficult illustrations and much of what is left is polishing, adjusting and tidying up. The list is 4 sides of A4, but I know it is just a matter of getting up early and sticking at it.

For those who want a bit more detail about The List, the complex technical bit is that all the text must be black, or shades of black, so that foreign publishers can remove it at the printing stage and replace it with their own translations. This sounds simple enough, but this occupies a fair chunk of what I have to do. It’s my own fault because I got carried away in places.

Running too fast to escape those tigers. Growl, growl.

The Great Space Race website goes live

CGI scene from the trailer

It is great to announce that The Great Space Race website is now live. At the moment it is aimed at the book trade, particularly the Frankfurt Book Fair, which is just about to start as I write this. Frankfurt is one of the biggest events in the publishing calender, so is really quite important. I hope it will help to sell the book around the world. Fingers crossed!

The exciting bit is that there is a trailer with a short interview and CGI (computer generated imagery) of key scenes, created by the hugely talented Simon Nankivell and Andrew Ballard at Postworks Media. This means you can watch a bunch of rockets blasting off and racing for the moon in full wide screen. Well done, chaps! Not sure I could have built all that in my Dad’s garden.

I should thank my brother for playing the drums – his 1960s classic Gretsch kit sounds, well, galactic.

There is also a PDF sampler to download, showing the layout and illustration. You’ll note there is a bit of a change in style from the trilogy.

Let me know what you think.

Operation Storm City launches in the USA

At long last, Operation Storm City (book 3 of my Guild Trilogy) hits the shelves in the USA – today! Before you ask, no, I don’t know what the delay was all about because it was published in France and the UK late last year. Publishers move in strange ways! Anyway, it’s out there now.

The story is even more action-packed than the last two (you’d expect nothing else), with Becca and Doug finally discovering what happened to their parents’ mysterious expedition to the deserts of western China, and why they went there in the first place. Phew!

There are some new bad guys in there – a crazy Russian general called Pugachev, hell-bent on a globe threatening scheme, as well as some of the old reliables such as Pembleton-Crozier and his shocking wife Lucretia.

Much of the action mirrors the places I travelled to in China (see retro-blogs various on this site), so if you want to read up on some of the background work that went into creating the book, please feel free. I’ve set up a Operation Storm City ‘Category’ for all of the related material (see left-hand side).

A few words on the illustrations. This was, I think, even more complicated to do than in the other two previous books, particularly the massive airship Becca and Doug board to cross the Himalaya Mountains. This took ages and ages and ages and ages to do! Never again

There’s also a huge pullout drawing at the back of the machine at Ur-Can as well as… planes… trains… you get the idea!

The book was great fun to do, and it is very exciting that the series is now complete. After five years of work, we’re finally there, and I really happy with the way everything has turned out.

You can read my Amazon interview on Operation Storm City HERE

I hope you enjoy it!

Operation Storm City research trip to Asia. Retro-blog 6: Crossing China (part 2)

Day 6. Aboard the train to Urumqi.

I sit on a small fold down seat in the corridor and drink in views of China for hour after hour. It is very cold outside and there is a light dusting of snow on the flat, featureless landscape. This gives the whole scene the appearance of a lightly dusted cake. We are near Diwopu. A low mist hangs in the air and cuts visibility to a half a mile or so. Every so often a line of telegraph poles disappears into the murk towards some impossibly remote outpost. This is Sinkiang, and it is a truly desperate place.

We pass 4 blokes, heavily wrapped, standing beside the line in the middle of nowhere. I assume they are railway workers. There seems to be no other reason for the to be there, but who knows?

The businesswoman has left overnight and we have another passenger. He is quite dapper – and quite possibly a doctor; he sets about taking the pulses of the old couple with casual ease. I feel like getting in line for a free medical. He tells a few jokes and soon has them laughing. Again there is the impenetrable language barrier so it’s all lost on me. Despite our apparent remoteness, the doc makes a couple of calls on his cell phone! I return to watching the hypnotic landscape outside, while listening to Fawlty Towers on my iPod – as strange a flavour combination as you can imagine.


The land is more hilly, but no less bleak as we skirt the Gobi desert. ‘Greensleeves’ and ‘Scarborough Fair’ play on the carriage PA, and, rather alarmingly for a journey that’s lasted so long already, the tune: ‘We’ve Only Just Begun’. Surely not? Surely we’re nearly there?

We pass Hami and the snow begins to clear. The mist lifts to reveal a landscape of muted tans, blues, and greys. The only movement to be seen is small dust devils twisting and spinning like desert djinns. We’re now in the vast wastelands of Western China and it is just as unremittingly empty as I’d imagined. There is no vegetation, and no hint (other than the railway) that mankind has ever made much of an impression here. This is the territory in which a huge chunk of Operation Storm City is set. Sinkiang is suddenly no longer a name I’ve written many times, but a very real and dangerous place just outside the thin glass of the carriage window.


I reach Urumqi (also known as Wulumqi depending on your map) in the evening. It’s a big, ugly Chinese city mainly built  of concrete. I give the old couple a postcard of London and say goodbye as best I can before climbing down onto the platform. We have reached  the geographic centre of Asia and the most landlocked city in the world. There are no signs in English as there had been at Shanghai station. I drift out on the jostling tide of my fellow passengers. Outside, I’m immediately surrounded by eager cab drivers who flock around me. I show one of them the picture of the hotel I want; he nods vigourously, pushes me into his tired looking minibus, then drives me there at top speed as if his life depended on it.

The hotel has a free room (thank goodness). I certainly need a bath and change of clothes. The building is designed in the bland international style, and towers up to about 30 stories high. It is very, very new. There’s oil in these parts, which naturally brings a certain level of luxury trailing in its wake. In my sparklingly room I find flowers floating in the lavatory bowl! This I take to be an artistic touch rather than a mistake. Either way it is a welcomed change of comfort levels from the squatter facilities on the train. From a Chinese town on rails to utter luxury in under 20 minutes. The contrast is almost too much.

I find the bar and order a cold beer. The bartender pours it slowly, just like the famous scene from the 1959 classic film: ‘Ice Cold in Alex’. I wonder idly how many railway sleepers I have travelled across on the 4077km (2,500 mile) journey of  the last two days. I wonder, too, about the old couple on the train. To spend that long with people you cannot speak to is so utterly frustrating. We crossed China together! They were my travelling companions on a great journey. We all suffered that terrible night of snoring  – and survived! What on earth were they doing in Shanghai? I expect they were wondering much the same about me  – What on earth is he doing going to Urumqi?

Operation Storm City research trip to Asia. Retro-blog 5: Crossing China

Day 5

Aboard the Shanghai-Urumqi train across China (see map below).

The aroma aboard is garlicky and a little fetid. The cabin is a four berth, soft  sleeper class, run by a grumpy female attendant. It’s all very clean, with a communal thermos of hot water, a small table beneath which is a heater, a pillow and duvet, and best of all – a pair of disposable slippers for each person! I’m directed to a bottom bunk on which a businessman is slouched, one leg up and arms crossed. He is a little overweight and has something of the Ricky Gervaise about him. My other two companions are an elderly couple. Somehow I struggle to communicate that I am from London. After that, conversation drops off to zilch.

Gervaise eventually takes an upper bunk. His talent is for snoring – at an Olympic standard. He sounds like a single cylinder steam engine, making it seem, for all the world, as if the train is being pulled along by him. The up-stroke sounds tortured, confined and difficult. Then a longish pause. Long enough for one to think perhaps he has died. The gasping down-stroke hisses as if steam were escaping. All night! Sleep is therefore elusive. I unearth my iPod for a soporific blast of Coldplay and lull myself to sleep.

Gervaise is woken at 6am by the carriage attendant. He alights at Zheng Zhou. The elderly couple look exhausted by last night’s row. I certainly am. A lovely calm has descends on the cabin as if someone had switched off loud music. The old man and I smile at each other in relief and there is a brief moment of connection. He nods. I nod and smile.

I look on my map of China to gauge progress, but it’s pitifully slow.


I have been gazing out of the window at the hypnotic Chinese agricultural landscape. It is very flat here near Xian. There are mounds in many of the fields which I take to be graves. The Christians have been through – I’ve seen two churches, their crosses proudly displayed. My great, great uncle, the Right Reverend Howard West Kilvinton Mowll was a Bishop in China during the 1920s, and I wonder idly if he’d ever visited.

We pass the desperate vista of people sifting through rubbish tips… everywhere there’s evidence of building, people, agriculture. The houses range from track side shacks to smart concrete buildings with satellite dishes.

We have a replacement for Gervaise. She is a business woman – all smart suit and briefcase. She has what I take to be her son with her, but there is no room for him. She is trying to arrange a move so they can be together, I think. I have the feeling that I, a solo European, am something of a surprise to her. The rearrangements are cut short by a drunk woman in a compartment at the end of the coach yelling.


It is cold now. I stretch out for a sleep, but the businesswoman is perched at the end of my bunk so this is difficult. Oh, for an upper bunk! My mind switches to the journey. I had been planning to jump off at Turpan (one stop before Urumqi), but I’m not sure I’m allowed. I’ve been issued with a berth card in exchange for my ticket, and I can see I could very easily  infringe the strict rules if I get off before my listed destination. This means I must plan for a night in Urumqi. I ponder the thought that I’ll still be aboard this train in 24hours time, and reach for Evelyn Waugh.

Late afternoon:

We are now in the mountains dusted with snow. The track follows a steep and dramatic gorge through which a red river flows. We pass through several tunnels and into a flat plateau surrounded by low mountains. This is the China of one’s imagination.

After Gan Gou, the architecture is suddenly more defensive as if we are reaching more dangerous territory. Houses have outer courtyards without windows, giving them the appearance of small forts. The roads are rough tracks. Everywhere terracing has cut and shaped the landscape of tan coloured earth. A bleak place without a scrap of green to be seen. The temperature is plummeting and we are heading deeper into China. Ahead is what has been described as China’s wild west – Sinkiang.

Operation Storm City research trip to Asia. Retro-blog 4: Leaving Shanghai

Day 4

Several problems present themselves:

1) I need to buy some gloves. It will be cold in Sinkiang (Xinjiang).

2) I need to post some gifts back to the UK.

3) Cash. Credit and debit card cash machines are difficult to find where I’m going, so I must plan on taking enough money to last me through to Chengdu.

I ask for directions at reception to the post office, and am told it is one block up. This turns out to be a lie. I walk four blocks as the rain starts to pour down. I find the post office near Soochow Creek, nowhere near where I’d been directed to.

The building is worth the effort: huge and European in style, it has a sweeping double staircase, all carved with great care in the finest stone. Upstairs I find a tranquil scene – perhaps 120 kiosks, but only 4 open for business. A very helpful chap wraps my gifts in brown paper and string with great nimbleness… and at absolutely no cost!

Just when I think everything is going swimmingly, I hit Chinese bureaucracy. I am presented with four forms:

1) Customs

2) Delivery

3) More customs

4) A fourth form in French… and my French is very fourth form.

I spend a happy ten minutes declaring all sorts of things, and assuring the Chinese government I’m not exporting priceless antiquities, then queue up at the kiosks. (My written assurances weren’t good enough it seems, and the package arrived in the UK some weeks later having been thoroughly searched.)

We English pride ourselves on our queuing, our ability to wait our turn in an orderly manner and not complain. Hmmmh…

An important lesson learnt – kindness and manners have little currency in a Chinese post office. After I’ve been rudely usurped three times, I see my chance and dive in elbows out, putting my height advantage to good use. The package is snatched away from me by the member of staff, weighed, stamped, stamped again and dispatched. I am almost dragged out of the way by the next customer.

Gloves are not fashionable in China as far as I can see. I trawl the department stores of the Nanjing Road, but all I hear from the shop assistants is ‘No got’. In the process I am offered some smashing gloves ‘for lady’, fingerless driving gloves with chequered pattern, and my favourite – a pair of boxing gloves! Imagine crossing the deserts of China wearing a pair of those beauties.

I finally manage to pick up a pair of North Face gloves from a street stall. Closer examination of the general build quality leads me to think these are more South Face than North Face, but hey, they work. I also pick up a small SW radio to listen to the BBC World Service. I stock up with a huge wad of money from an ATM, and return to the hotel to pack. I feel weighed down with food and water, but I’m not sure what to expect on this colossal train journey. Rather take too much than too little, I decide. I shower then stash the cash in my boots.

I check out from the eccentric Peace Hotel, then take a cab across town to the railway station. We drive on elevated roads for most of the journey through Shanghai. It is still raining hard. Cold English rain. The neon reflects in puddles. The cab stinks of cheap, harsh tobacco, and a small flat screen in the headrest blasts out adverts in a language I don’t understand. On either side the skyscrapers loom and I feel like I’m in the film ‘Blade Runner’. This is the future. This will be one of the most important cities of the 21st century. A sudden pang of nervousness at the thought of where I am, what I am doing and where I’m going.

What a station – vast and busy. I walk into the ‘Hard Class’ waiting area, where thousands of people sit on the floor beside their carefully tied luggage. I show my ticket to the inspector and he laughs, and hurries me through a locked door and steers me into the very plush ‘Soft Class’ waiting area with chrome and leather seats, a café,the promise of a wash room and even drinking water. My bags are scanned, and the bleeper goes wild at my Faraday Bag (see retro blog 1). Nobody is bothered. I see that they have no interest in the result of the scan; they just happy enough to see that you’ve been through the process. Chinese bureaucracy is a strange animal.

My train number appears reassuringly in red on the smart electronic board, but it’s not boarding yet. I’ve still an hour to wait. I tuck into Evelyn Waugh and relax a little.

Shot into Shanghai at 420KPH aboard the MAGLEV train, I am to leave on the less glamourous T52 to Urumqi… and in the pouring rain.