Sunday, 27 July 2014

Meet my character - blog tour

Thanks to fellow Maverick author Alex English for inviting me to take part in this 'Meet My Character' blog tour. Alex's delightful debut children's book, Yuck said the Yak is out in September, and she introduced us to the book's main character last week. This week, it's my turn to tell you a bit about the lead character in my new book, Hocus Pocus Diplodocus.

1. What’s you character’s name? Are they a fictional or historical person?
He is called Hocus P. Diplodocus, and he is entirely fictional. He doesn't get his magical middle name until part-way through the book.

2. When and where is the story set?
The story is set 150 million years ago, in the land of the dinsoaurs.

3. What should we know about him/her?
Hocus is not like the other little dinosaurs. For a start, his skin is covered in star-shaped blotches, and he soon discovers he can do some pretty unusual and surprising things that the other dinosaurs can not. 

 4. What is their main conflict? What messes up their life?
Most of the time, Hocus is in control of his magical powers. But sometimes, usually when he sneezes, he makes things disappear by accident. This certainly has the potential to 'mess up his life'! 

5. What is their personal goal?

To entertain and amaze his fellow dinosaurs by performing incredible tricks in his weekly magic shows. 

6. What is the book’s working title? Can we read more about it?

The book is called 'Hocus Pocus Diplodocus', and the illustrations are by Kate Daubney. The book is out now and available to order from online retailers. It is also (hopefully) making it's way into a bookshop near you! 

7. When will it be published? 
It was published in May 2014.

Next week, it's the turn of another Maverick author, Rachel Lyon, to introduce you to the main character in her forthcoming book, called  I Wish I'd Been Born a Unicorn - don't miss it!

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Hocus Pocus is out there

I'm delighted to say that my debut children's picture book, Hocus Pocus Diplodocus is now out there in the world. It was released about a week earlier than expected, in mid-May. Now begins the challenging task of getting it noticed in the crowded world of children's picture books.

In the sadly shrinking bookshops of the UK, shelf space is at a premium, which means it's increasingly difficult for a debut author to get their book on display to the public. My publisher, Maverick Books, works hard to sell the book into the major booksellers, while its army of sales agents promote the book to a host of other distributors, independent booskshops and outlets.

Away from physical retailers, the book is now widely available to order from online outlets, including Amazon, Waterstone's, The Book Depository and many more.

In a bid to get it noticed and talked about, Maverick has also sent the book out to a long list of book reviewers. It's been a joy to read the early reviews which, I'm pleased to say, have been very positive. Here's a sample: Reviews4kids, The Book Bag and Parents in Touch

It's extremely rewarding to read comments from people I've never met who are enjoying my story. It's even better to find out that children are enjoying it!

I've done my first interview as an author too, for the 'Reviews4kids' website - which was great fun. Here it is: Interview with Steve Howson

While the publishers do all they can to promote the book, it's also up to me to get out there and bring it to new audiences. This process kicks off in earnest on 21 June, when I'll be doing a 'Meet the author' event at York Waterstones. I'll be there from 1pm-3pm, if you'd care to pop along. Hopefully we'll get plenty of children in to enjoy the book and take part in some ever-popular colouring-in activites.

Finally, I should say that whatever happens to the book from now on, nothing can beat the feeling of having a real book published for the first time. I'm so pleased with the way my story has been brought to life by Kate Daubney's bright, funny, lively illustrations.  

If you ever get your hands on a copy, I'd love to know what you think.

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Countdown to publication

As the long-awaited (by me, at least) publication date for Hocus Pocus Diplodocus approaches, the sense of anticipation is building and lots of exciting things have been happening to prepare for the book’s arrival. 

I received my first two advance copies in April, which was just about the most thrilling piece of mail I’ve ever received. I’d seen the book many times in pdf form, but nothing had prepared me for the joy of holding that first copy in my hands. Here it is:

The rest of the books have now been printed and are due to arrive on these shores any day. They will be despatched to the warehouse ready for distribution and should officially be released by the end of May. 

Earlier in April Maverick Books and I put together a press release about the book, spoiled slightly by a full colour picture of my grimacing visage, but rescued by some lovely images from the book itself. This has already been sent out to various press, and more will be going out nearer the publication date. 

The whole book-publishing experience still seems somewhat unreal to me. To reinforce these disconcerting feelings, I arranged my first book-signing event (what?) in the York Waterstones store. It will be on Saturday 21st June, 1pm-3pm – if you’re in the area! Even if you’re not, I’ll still be there. There’ll be colouring-in sheets for kids and, of course, copies of the book to peruse, and even buy! Steve Bicknell, Mr Maverick Books himself, will be there to mark what will be the book’s official ‘launch’. 

Once the book is in stock, Maverick will send a couple of hundred copies out to reviewers to start getting it talked about. Good reviews, I’m told, are essential for getting the book noticed and ‘in demand’. I can’t wait to start reading people’s reactions to it.  
While most reviewers like to have a physical book to read, some are happy to review from the pdf files. One of these is ‘Reviews4kids’ which, I’m delighted to say, were the first people to review Hocus Pocus Diplodocus. I’m even more delighted to say that they liked it! You can read their review here: I also did an interview for them, which will be on the site soon. 

As a life-long bookworm, I was overjoyed to be able to attend the London Book Fair this year – for the first time. It’s the UK’s major trade fair for the book industry. I spent a blissful day wandering around, browsing new releases, goggling at the extravagant stands of the big publishers and attending some useful seminars offering tips to authors. Of course, I also met up with the Maverick team on their glorious stand. It was great to catch up with Kim, Steve and Karen, and meet some of their other authors, as well as some of the sales agents who will be promoting my book. As a new title, Hocus Pocus Diplodocus featured prominently on the stand, as you can see below – so hopefully it got noticed by all the right people.

All in all, it’s been a magical couple of months. Next stop – publication day!

Sunday, 30 March 2014

The Writing Process - Blog Tour

This post is my contribution to the ‘The Writing Process Blog Tour’. The Tour involves writers answering four questions about their work and posting them in blog form on Monday morning (I'm a day early, due to work commitments tomorrow. Sorry!). Each writer then passes the baton to one or more other writers who do the same on the following Monday, and so the web of connected blogs grows. Lovely!

Many thanks to Alice Hemming for asking me to be one of her invited authors. Alice has written a fabulous debut picture book called The Black and White Club about a giraffe called George who feels a bit left out of a club for black and white animals. The book is published by, who are also publishing my first book, Hocus Pocus Diplodocus. Alice has a second picture book, called Bibble and The Bubbles, coming out later this year. Here’s a link to Alice’s website:

So, on to the four questions I’ve been asked to answer. Firstly, I have to say that as a debut author, I don’t feel very qualified to impart any great wisdom on children’s literature, but what I can do is provide an insight into how I work, what inspires me and what I love about books – especially children’s picture books.

1) What am I working on?

Well, lots of picture book stories. One or two are complete and with publishers awaiting a response. Some are nearing completion and some are no more than a few character names and plot ideas scribbled in a notepad. I keep coming up with new ideas all the time, so I have to train myself to concentrate on turning one or two at a time into finished stories.

My current batch of completed or nearly completed manuscripts includes stories about a pirate parrot, some unusual creatures that live behind waterfalls, an unlikely hero called Alan, an ‘undercover’ dad and a nonsense rhyming story.

I am also trying my hand at a longer story for early readers (age 6-9 category). This one started life as a picture book story, but after my wife read it, she suggested I was trying to cram too much into a short format, and a longer book might be more suitable. Of course, she was right, so I’m now developing the story into a longer text.

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I do try to come up with plots and characters that I haven’t come across in other picture books. But there are so many incredible picture books out there, I’m sure there must be some that are similar to mine.

I always want to tell a proper story with a plot; one that keeps you guessing or eager to read on to the final page. I also like to include lots of little details that repay subsequent readings. That often means I have a lot to squeeze into the limited picture book word count. It’s a challenge I enjoy, and forces me to keep my writing as economical as possible.

I especially like stories with a twist or an unexpected ending, or an ending that just makes you smile. I don’t enjoy picture books that just seem to fizzle out at the end. I try to leave the reader/listener with something to think about, or at least smile about.

That was my aim when writing Hocus Pocus Diplodocus. I had the idea for a dinosaur with magical powers, based simply on two of my son’s obsessions at the time. But I wanted to come up with an original story that had a twist and one that made kids stop and think a little bit about why you don’t see any dinosaurs around these days! It was thinking about that question that gave me the idea for the ending of the book.

The picture books I like most are those that have lots of humour and excitement for the young listener, but also some jokes and references that the weary adult reader (who may have to re-read the story night after night) can also enjoy.

3) Why do I write what I do?

For as long as I can remember I have wanted to be a published author. I used to make my own books when I was very young. But it was only when I had children of my own that I rediscovered the wonder of picture books. They are such works of art and the stories can be beautifully written, packing so much into a limited word count. Having read so many of these to my children, I felt I’d like to have a go at writing one. I had what I thought was a good idea for a story and set about writing it.

Fortunately, it was picked up by a publisher and so my adventures as a picture book author began. I am self-employed, working as a freelance copywriter, so writing picture books also fits nicely around my day job (see my answer to question 4)

Another reason for writing picture books is that my children are at the right age for reading them, so I have a good idea what children of that age will understand and find interesting or funny – which is very helpful when planning a story. 

4) How does my writing process work?

I wouldn’t call my haphazard writing efforts a ‘process’, but here’s how it works.

I often have a flurry of story  ideas all at once. Ideas usually come to me when I’m not actively trying to think of any. Usually in the car, or when I’m supposed to be working on something else, or trying to go to sleep.

I try to write them down as soon as I think of them because I need to catch them when they are fresh. If I don’t, I can easily forget the spark that gave me the idea in the first place.

I work as a freelance copywriter, which means I have the luxury of managing my own working time. That means I can fit my fiction writing around my other work. And because picture books are so short, it’s easy for me to dip in and out of them. I can read the whole story in a few minutes and tinker with it during a break from my business writing.

I think picture books benefit from repeated revision and honing to get the text as tight and expressive as possible, in the fewest possible words. You have to think visually too, and imagine how the pictures will tell some of the story for you.

Once I have an idea for a story that I’m happy with, writing the first draft will take a couple of days. But then the editing and revising process goes on for weeks. The longer I leave between reading the story, the more I find to change each time. It’s hard to read something you’ve written with ‘fresh eyes’, but the longer you leave between readings, the more chance you have of being objective about it.

This editing process could go on for ever, but at some point you have to decide that the story is finished and ready to send to a publisher. That’s a very exciting moment.

Next week… Rachel Lyon

That’s my part of the question answering bit over with. Now I’d like to pass the baton on to another Maverick author, Rachel Lyon, author of The Cautionary Tale of the Childe of Hale. Rachel will post her blog entry next Monday (7 April). In the meantime, here’s a link to her website:

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Turning words into pictures

Anyone who has looked into submitting a picture book story for publication will know that publishers really don’t want you to send illustrations with your manuscript. They want to find a great story first, then use their expertise to match it up with an appropriate illustrator. That’s the general advice. It’s hard enough to get your story picked out from the piles of unsolicited manuscripts, without diminishing your chances by insisting that it must be accompanied by your own dodgy artwork. 

Of course, if you’re an illustrator who has come up with a story idea, then the advice might be different. But, as a writer, this never applied to me. 

So, having had my story accepted by Maverick Books, I was keen to find out how they would go about finding the right illustrator.
Once they had skilfully divided up my story into the appropriate number of spreads for a standard 32-page picture book, Maverick’s approach was to ask a selection of suitable illustrators to produce one full-colour ‘test spread’. The chosen illustrators were given the same spread to work on, from which Maverick chose the favourite.

I had heard that some publishers don’t consult the author at all at this stage, but I was delighted that Maverick asked for my opinion from the outset. Clearly, their decision would be final, but it was great for me to be involed.

It was a thrilling moment when the test illustrations popped into my inbox. It was fascinating to see how different illustrators had interpreted my characters and how they had chosen to lay out the page. For me, there was one clear favourite, who seemed to have really captured the cheeky, mischievous, slightly naive character of Hocus Pocus that I had in mind when writing the story. Fortunately, Maverick’s preference was the same, and so the very talented Kate Daubney was appointed to illustrate my book.

The next step was for Kate to draw up sketches for every spread in the book. Once again, I was asked to comment on these, and my suggestions were fed back to Kate via my editor, Kim, at Maverick. Of course, Maverck made their own comments, based on years of experience of making outstanding picture books. Over a number weeks, the sketches were refined until everyone was happy with the look and content of each spread. Here’s an example of one of them:

Then Kate went away to produce the full-colour illustrations. Here’s the final version of the above spread. What a work of art!

The whole process was a joy to be involved in. It was amazing to see my story brought to life by Kate’s vibrant illustrations, and to see how she had visualised some of the episodes in the story.

The final stage was for Kim at Maverick to design the front cover and end-papers, and write the blurb for the back cover.

Now the book is complete and ready for printing. It will be out in May 2014. You can even pre-order it on Amazon or Waterstones if the fancy takes you!

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Contractual matters

Receiving your first publishing contract is an exciting moment for any debut author. Especially if, like me, you’ve dreamed about having a book published for most of your life.

But it’s also a time to be pragmatic. Much as you may wish to sign the thing immediately with a flourish of your quill pen, it’s important to rein in your artistic urges and make sure you have a fair and reasonable publishing deal.

The one I received for Hocus Pocus Diplodocus was remarkably straightforward and seemed fine to my untrained eye. However, I knew expert help was at hand in the shape of The Society of Authors and its free contract vetting service for new members. And, as a writer with a publishing contract offer, I qualified for membership.

I duly paid the membership fees and sent in my contract in for checking. The service was fabulous. Very promptly I received an email outlining some ways to make the contract more comprehensive and suggesting a few amendments.

I nervously fed these comments back to my publisher, hoping they would not precipitate an immediate rejection of my book. Thankfully, they were extremely graciously received, and the publisher was very amenable to altering the contract. They explained why they couldn’t alter some parts of the wording, but were every happy to go along with many of the Society’s suggestions.

I went back to the Society with the revised contract and spoke directly to one of their contract experts, who suggested a few further tweaks. These were made and, within a day, I signed a final version of the contract that everyone was happy with.

Without an agent on my side, I found it extremely reassuring to have an expert check through my contract. It also meant I could go back to the publisher with recommendations from an experienced third party, which added considerable weight to my requests for changes – and also distanced me slightly from what might have been awkward negotiations.  

But best of all, I was now a paid-up member of the Society of Authors. What prestigious company I was in! I felt like adorning my membership card with flashing lights and fixing it to my hat.

Mercifully for the world at large, I have no aptitude for electronics and almost never wear a hat.

Friday, 17 January 2014

Creating a children’s picture book. How long does it take?

Once my manuscript had been accepted by a publisher, I was keen to find out how long it would take to get it into the bookshops. To my astonishment, the answer was about 14-18 months!

I understood that getting all the illustrations completed was likely to be a time-consuming process, but I had no idea it would take so long.

However, once I found out exactly what was involved, and how much effort the publisher (Maverick Books) were going to put into promoting it, I could see why.

Here’s a brief rundown of what’s involved:

1. Initial manuscript editing – these are edits requested by Maverick and completed by me.

2. Layout – the text is laid out into a 32-page book format. Maverick takes care of this, using their experience of what makes a good spread.

3. Choosing an illustrator – this is where Maverick use their expertise to match my story with a suitable illustrator. Their approach is to ask two or three illustrators to do a test spread, from which they (taking into account my opinions) choose the preferred artist.

4. Sketches – the illustrator completes sketches for each spread in the book. Maverick and I comment on these and make suggestions and amendments.

5. Final text editing – to get the story just right, the text is sent to an external copy-editor, highly experienced in children’s book publishing, who makes comments and recommendations.

6. Illustrations – work on the illustrations progresses while the text is being finalised. This is a lengthy process, since each spread is a work of art.

7. Front cover design – once the internal spreads are completed, attention turns to the all-important front cover. This is a vital sales tool for the book, so it takes a while to get it just right.

8. Sales – once the book is at the print-ready stage, it’s time to start generating some interest among book buyers. At this stage Maverick starts really promoting the book to its buyers, agents and sales teams, and sends it out to as many reviewers as possible. The intention is to generate as much interest in the book as possible before it is released for sale. By building up this momentum, the publisher hopes to generate plenty of pre-release orders.

This is the stage we are at now, as I write this blog. Unfortunately my blog has fallen behind real time, but I’ll catch up soon!

9. Launch – finally, after several months of sales efforts, the book is released to the world (well, the UK at least). The first few weeks after publication are crucial to the success of any new title.

So, it’s easy to see why it takes up to 18 months to get a picture book from initial manuscript through to final publication. I don’t know if this is typical of all publishers, but I imagine that a larger publisher with more resources may be able to rattle through the process more quickly. However, I also doubt that larger publishers would lavish so much time and attention on a single title, especially one from a first-time author.