Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?

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IMG_20140228_085958During my fantastic two-day visit to Chase Lane Primary School in Chingford last week, no one asked every author’s least favourite question. The children – all seven hundred of them – were far too bright and curious for anything so dull.

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A real Space Penguin?

Instead, I was asked about my use of describing words by a girl in Year Two, and whether I used blurb, and how long penguins live for, and whether penguins in space are real, and if I had books in Chinese, and what book I would recommend for a girl not interested in girly stuff. ‘That penguin in space. Was it dead?’ was dealt with to everyone’s satisfaction as I explained that the Hubble telescope’s picture of a space penguin was in fact a photograph of stars and nebulae and red bits for which I had no name. I was able to tell them that yes I had met most of the authors they mentioned, although caveats applied to David Walliams. I have yet to establish whether he heard me in the Bristol University Union circa 1989 in my band, the Smokin’ Bristols, but live in hope.

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Meet and greet

learned about aunts called Lucy and sisters called Courtney. I was told about trips to the seaside, and sick brothers, and pets. I saw for myself the esteem in which the children held their books in every single classroom’s beautifully themed Book Corners, designed to celebrate Book Week – hot air balloons, jungles, castles, spaceships, bedrooms and caves and tents – and had the unenviable task of judging them.

SPACE PENGUINS 5: PLANET PERIL! Out 3 March 2014

SPACE PENGUINS 5:
PLANET PERIL!
Out 3 March 2014

Everywhere I went, I was followed by excitable whispering. That’s her! Hi Lucy! It’s Lucy Courtenay! I was a rock star. I was a TV celebrity.

 

I was an author.

Big Library Love

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Farnham Library's new extension.

Farnham Library’s new extension.

PLR time!

PLR stands for many things. Potato Liberation Regiment. Polyunsaturated Lemon Rinds. For authors, it means angel music  from the clouds, known more specifically as Public Lending Right.

I knew nothing about PLR before I became an author. Then I heard the whispers.

‘With PLR, you earn approximately 5p every time someone borrows one of your books from a library. Last year I earned enough to buy a Caribbean island*!’

Frankly disbelieving, I settled down to debating percentage splits with my illustrators. I filled in some forms. I waited. And in February of that first year I stared at my bank balance with incredulity.

Here are some statistics to send you running half-crazed into the street screaming and rending your beards.

My borrowed books stand as tall as THIS.

My borrowed books stand as tall as the Sneeuberg.          (Bless you.)

Based on data from 45 library authorities, 22372 writers, illustrators, photographers, ghost writers, editors, translators and adapters will receive anything from £1 to £6600 this year. 200 people (1.3% of the whole) earn the maximum amount. If you make more than £6600, the extra money goes back into the system to pay everyone else. 

77 books of mine were borrowed 202,663 times. Assuming each book is 20cm long, a row of them would stretch for 25 miles. I could line the whole A31 from Farnham to Winchester. If each book is approximately 1cm thick, I could stack them on top of each other to a  height of 2026 metres, matching the snowy apex of the Sneeuberg in South Africa.

This is not me. This is better than the one of me.

This is not me. This is better than the one of me.

And PLR is so fabulously levelling. Once a year, puny authors like me can be in the same earning bracket as the leviathans. ‘I earned the same as that JK Rowling last year, yeah…’  It’s a massive part of the average author’s annual income, which can be terrifyingly sporadic. And it doesn’t cost you a THING. 

So I say this to you. All of you.

KEEP SUPPORTING YOUR LIBRARIES, FRIENDS!

You pay for my children’s shoes, my annual heating bills, that blackmailer who regularly threatens to post photographs of me with a horrifying teen mullet. I  love you for it and will buy you a coffee next time we meet!

*sandbank of the small variety

Inside The Teenage Mind

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HB 1 coverMy hormones are INSANE and NO ONE is respecting my boundaries and it’s all boys and drama and coursework and selfies and it’s like there’s fireworks exploding in my head – which is totally confused totally all of the time – and my body is ballooning in the weirdest directions and ZOMG I have BOOBS now although they are worse than pathetic they don’t even extend past my ribcage and don’t even get me STARTED on the cow in the corridor today who eyeballed my skirt like she’d never seen a skirt like it before and I’m, hello? It’s called a SCHOOL UNIFORM and double hello? YOU’RE WEARING IT TOO, and what the 1D’s wrong with everyone?

*snorts like a bull*

*applies more mascara*

So he says he’ll call me but does he call me of course he doesn’t call me because all boys are liars and I wish they weren’t even on the same planet as us and more especially I wish they weren’t on Facebook with 1643 friends until we actually need them and there’s this one boy? I don’t even like him but I could be twerking through the science block and would he notice me no because I don’t wear make-up HB 2 coverand my phone is the worst phone in the universe because it doesn’t have 4G (!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!) and I’ve never been to Glasto (WRECK MY LIFE EVIL NON-PARENTS) and I don’t support Chelsea United or whatever other saddo teams are out there because footballers are too rich and drive cars that wreck the planet and also nick my mum’s favourite parking space at Waitrose and fill the magazines with their girlfriends’ insanely perfect skinny bodies and I have a BUTT so get over it H&M and make skinny jeans that actually FIT REAL PEOPLE why don’t you.

I need marshmallows. And FaceTime. And nail varnish. And I cannot WAIT for HEARTSIDE BAY to come out in February 2014 because the characters will understand this dumb whirlpool the world calls adolescence and those of us who have to endure its ENDLESSNESS and POINTLESSNESS and there will be hot boys that will notice me somehow through the pages and make me feel better about all of it.

AlexPBut I’ll probably have to keep nicking the books back off my mum sad cow who will read them too and pretend she’s fifteen again because it was fun when she did it (riiiight) and she wants to remember the good times they had in the Victorian days wearing a ra-ra skirt Gran made her out of a pillowcase and eating rainbow crystals from the sweet shop (totally not what they sound like) and watching Bruce Willis when he had hair on some TV cheesefest called Moonlighting.

Here’s Alex Pettyfer.

You know, because.

Coffee Angels

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AlfieI don’t have time for this. I have 80,000 words to find by 1 January, across a smorgasbord of penguins, teenagers and bath-shy monkeys. And there’s Christmas to factor in, and weekends, and the Strictly Come Dancing finals. There’s a cake to ice too. But the coffee angel has spoken.

Today is the Older One’s birthday. He’s eleven. A day of joy and food, balloons and Sellotape that goes wrong and ends up attaching the cat to the kitchen work surface. A day of songs, and fights over the (new) Wii controller, of badly wrapped parcels and a merry start of 5.52am.

We wondered if he’d make it through day one. And days two and three. Even when he opened his dewy blue eyes at the close of day three, we wondered. The Chinese doctor who came up that long corridor at the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital to tell me “He gon be fine, he very clever, his eyes follow me round room” – what did she know? Brain scans. Mental and physical lesions. Fits. Tubes. ICU pumps emitting mysterious belches. I shuffled like an old lady up and down that corridor, DVT stockings turning as grey as shrouds, to dab his lips with milk, straighten his incongruous hat and puzzle over how he came to be here, 8 pounds 3 ounces of bonny pink baby, among the tiny premature scraps of wrinkled red flesh in their Pyrex boxes all weighing roughly the same as an egg. We had gone off the track. We were lumbering down an unmarked cliffside, all pointy scree and jagged teeth and screaming.

coffee angelBack in my room, I watched Foyle’s War in silent seclusion from the real mothers, the ones stuffing first-time nipples into animated mouths and wondering what would happen next. My boobs were like rocks. My eyes were like cheese graters.

That first night I dreamed of angels. Four golden beings, one at each corner of his cot, wings folded in close to their backs. Eight feet tall, they extended shining arms over his body, hands touching at the crossroads above his heart. Keeping him on the Earth and not letting him leave. They stayed all night.

He’s still here.

I can’t wash the coffee angel up.

So You Think You Can Write Children’s Books?

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Jonny and Lucy sitting in a tree, G-U-R-N-I-N-G
(except it’s a restaurant)

Don’t stop breathing or anything, but I have an actual career-related blog for you today. Nothing to do with sleeping otters, or noodly boobs, or National Talk Like a Pirate Day. EVERYTHING to do with the job that I love.

Here I am after an exhilarating panel event for the Hertford Children’s Book Festival on Thursday. The silly face is all Jonny Zucker‘s fault for being a hilarious partner in crime. The Space Penguins T-shirt is a thing of beauty, I know.

The event kicked off a 4-day festival organised by lovely author Freya North. It involved posing behind a table at Hertford Theatre while wearing tremendous shoes and said T-shirt, facing a room full of beaming people holding notepads, and blethering on the topic above, on the subject of which I am apparently an industry expert.

I wasn’t sure I was meant to be there.

A quick perusal of my statistics gave me heart. Or, to give its correct regional spelling, Hert. 86 published titles with another 7 lurking in the pipeline, available in around 19 territories ranging from Thailand to Turkey, under a dozen sly pseudonyms plus me being me. Maybe I was allowed to be there after all. Maybe I hadn’t gatecrashed the show. Maybe my experiences WERE relevant to people trying to break into the realms of the printed word. Wow!

Tremendous Shoes

Tremendous Shoes

So You Think You Can Write Children’s Books? For those of you not present in Hertford Theatre on Thursday, here is my version of the basics.

  • We all know how YOU feel about getting lost in a Brazilian shopping centre, or being eaten by the Minotaur, or dangling from a cliff over a pounding ocean. We’ve been there. Maybe we’re dangling from that cliff ourselves right now, shouting for help. But this is the world of children’s books, with a child’s perspective on things. Find your 10-year-old self if writing for 8-year-olds, or your 12-year-old self if writing for 10-year-olds etc. Always add a couple of years on to the age group you’re writing for, except if you’re writing about penguins because their age, frankly, doesn’t matter.
  • Be prepared to fail a hundred times. Getting a deal took me sixteen years. I feel your pain.
  • Find an agent. Curtis Brown has a fantastic new submissions system on their website for you all to throw yourselves at. No more stamps! No more ink running out half way through that scene about a rat and a parasol that you were so proud of! Follow the instructions. No gimmicks. No strange photos of yourselves holding kittens hostage.
  • Don’t worry about illustrations. Publishers choose illustrators, not you. Once you find yourself in the glorious position of HAVING SOMEONE INTERESTED IN YOUR WRITING, then maybe you can dangle thoughts of illustrators like worms on hooks above your editors’ gaping mouths. But not until then. You have plenty of other stuff to think about first.
  • If an agent says they are interested but would like you to change A, B and C – change it. Limbo dancers should have nothing on you. An agent has bothered to contact you. Be grateful. Faint, maybe. Don’t be precious.
  • Yes, I said agent (see earlier point). Not publisher. Always try agents first. Agents know their business, and if they like you, it probably means there’s a publisher out there that will like you too. But if someone offers to represent you for an upfront fee, run. That person is Voldemort.
  • Buy the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook and read all the articles. Learn from what you read.
  • Write because you enjoy it, not because you fancy buying a beachside villa in the Bahamas. It ain’t going to happen.
  • Tibbles

    Tibbles

    I wouldn’t advise self-publishing if you want to make a living at this game. As I said at the event, it’s a bit like you drawing a fantastic picture of your cat, framing it, hanging it on your sitting-room wall, throwing your front door open and waiting for the stampeding hordes to admire it. However lovely Tibbles might be, no one’s going to come because they just won’t know you’re there, waiting, your coffee machine trembling with optimism. An agent can get Tibbles hanging somewhere more central for you. Heck, maybe even the National Gallery. Before long, you could be up to your armpits in commissions of cat portraiture. Or writing. Or whatever.

  • I was quite pleased with my cat analogy.
  • READ the books that are currently out there. It’s your competition. Fabulous Young Adult gems like John Green’s The Fault In Our Stars, or Holly Smale’s delightful Geek Girl. Go and fancy Jace in The Mortal Instruments series.  Romp with the monsters in Beast Quest, and analyse why children love them. Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Tom Gates. Books that today’s youngsters buy in droves. This is no longer a world where Chalet Girls or Biggles make readers swoon.
  • Have a really, really good idea and write it really, really well.

Many thanks to Hertford Theatre for such a great venue, and David’s Bookshop for selling our books. Thanks Freya for the steak. Thanks Jonny for the amusing beard. Thanks audience for turning up, listening and buying books. May the words flow from your pens like mighty rivers of inspiration, but don’t come up with anything too clever because I’ll never talk to you again.

See you next year?

Bored now

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I know I haven’t been anywhere near you for months. I’m sure you have all been weeping into your cornflakes about my lack of communication. You probably haven’t slept. You may have struck me off, or unliked me, or taken out a contract on my virtual life. Or indeed on my real life. What can I say? How can I possibly make amends?

When I look up, Facebook will have evaporated.

When I look up, Facebook will have evaporated.

Meh.

You didn’t miss me one bit. In fact – and it’s OK to admit it – the sight of this update pinging into your email made your heart sink. What, MORE inbox stuff to wade through, along with Facebook updates and Twitter follows and Ebay ending-soons and LinkedIn connections (Dolores Umbridge has a New Role as a Health and Safety Officer in a high-security jail in Alabama!)  and that blog you thought was funny six months ago – whoops, that’s me – and something about nursery furniture because you once fatally clicked ‘like’ on a crocheted baby hat that resembled a bumble bee…? Doesn’t it all make you want to put your head in the sand and pull down the blinds – hang on, do that the other way round, grit’s a bugger on window sills – and JUST HOPE IT ALL GOES AWAY?

Sea_otters_holding_handsTo soothe you as you contemplate the fragmented horror of your existence, here is a  picture of snoozing sea otters. They hold hands to stop themselves floating away from each other when they sleep.

But I say to you: Float free, friends! Just don’t get eaten by octopi because you weren’t looking where you were going! Drop by occasionally if you would like to know more about the progressing adventures of the Space Penguins (just finished writing  #6: MONSTER MOON, thanks for asking) or have any questions about those books I have already potty-trained and sent out into the big wide world to widdle on the wrong person’s shoes.

Otherwise, forget me. Go away and live unencumbered lives.

Wolf Hats and Noodly Boobs

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Thank you Chuck Wendig for reminding me how much fun I had last year doing a blog about the bizarre search terms people key into their computers which bring them to phraseandfable. You may recall that deep sea racing mullet and the mysterious spelling glove. It’s time for a few more.

wolf hat Wolf Hats and Noodly Boobs

In the natural order of things, these items presumably go together. I’m off to Sainsburys, do I have everything? Wolf hat, check. Noodly boobs, gotcha. Yay, I’m off to the supermarket in my wolf hat and noodly boobs, everybody sing! The wolf hat has furry earflaps and maybe some beading on the chin strap to get that Native American vibe. The noodly boobs are an add-on, an afterthought, perhaps they even jingle shortly before you douse them in chilli sauce and slurp.

Ponsonable Poams

Hot patooties, that poam’s ponsonable. It’s got ponsons coursing through it, pulsing with promise in iambic pentameter. Poams should be groaned in the gloaming, coated in foal foam for maximum ponsonability. Don’t you find?

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Not quite the look I wanted

Squirrel in a Sarong

This South East Asian rodent may be shy, but it instinctively knows its way around several metres of batik. It says ‘nuts’ to man-made fibres because they chafe. Here it comes now, sashaying shamelessly down the beach at Phuket, flicking its tail in such a way that its tiny, brightly coloured garment sways and swings behind it. Go forth and hula, small skirted creature.

And stay off my droll yankee or I’ll shoot you and turn your bottom half into a napkin.

Paperclip Chainmail

I’m off down the Hundred Years War, love. You seen my chainmail?

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The one in paperclip chainmail’s MINE

Think I washed it.

You washed my chainmail? How am I supposed to charge down the enemy now?

We’ll use these paperclips the tax collector left behind last time he came collecting our tithes. Link them up and voila: Henry V’s your uncle.

Don’t go using French words at me.

You look great. Dead macho. Just promise you’ll move around a lot. They mow you down when you’re stationery.