Category Archives: Language

Wolf Hats and Noodly Boobs


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?


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?


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.


Rules for Writing (2)


A big rule in children’s books is: no stand-alones. It’s important to think in trilogies, sets of six, that kind of thing. So let’s do three of these ‘Rules for Writing’ riffs and take it from there. You never know. I might sell translation rights and get a licensing deal. It’s important to be open-ended.

Margaret Atwood: showing how it’s done

After the disappointment of Elmore Leonard (see Rules of Writing (1)), who better to analyse next than Margaret Atwood? Her book THE HANDMAID’S TALE totally out-dystopes THE HUNGER GAMES and boots it into a cocked cornucopia. How would Ms Atwood fare in the cut-throat world of ponies, bottom jokes and amusing chapter-head puns inhabited by phraseandfable? Here are her ten rules.

1. Take a pencil to write with on aeroplanes. Pens leak. But if the pencil breaks, you can’t sharpen it on the plane, because you can’t take knives with you. Therefore: take two pencils.

This is not just advice about writing, friends. It’s advice about life.

2. If both pencils break, you can do a rough sharpening job with a nail file of the metal or glass type.

This woman really thinks things through. You could give her a dragon rampaging through an enchanted forest, no problem. No randomly burned villages. No continuity issues with the heroine’s hair or ill thought-out knight scenarios.

3. Take something to write on. Paper is good. In a pinch, pieces of wood or your arm will do.

You have an idea and you desperately need to write it down because your brain is like a teabag and just the tiniest amount of hot water will wash all your thoughts into the chipped mug of forgetfulness. And YOU HAVE NO PAPER! It’s a disaster! A… what was I talking about again?

4. If you’re using a computer, always safeguard new text with a ­memory stick.

Yes. Unless you really REALLY enjoyed that extremely complex exposition about your future world / alien planet / superpower accident and fancy doing it all over again in exactly the same way.

5. Do back exercises. Pain is distracting.

Comfy writing chair: check. Well-positioned keyboard: check. That’s your lot. Be grateful.

6. Hold the reader’s attention. But you don’t know who the reader is, so it’s like shooting fish with a slingshot in the dark. What ­fascinates A will bore the pants off B.

Children’s writers have a small advantage of writing for age bands / genders here. As a rule of thumb, boys hate ballet, girl heroes and kissing. Girls like everything. Editors and sales folk believe this to be true. I can’t speak for the writers or the actual children themselves.

7. You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality.

Lose the grip on reality, Mags. It’s a hindrance.

How did I get here again?

8. You can never judge your own book because you’ve seen how the rabbits were smuggled into the hat. 

I’m deeply interested in those rabbits. Were they up your sleeve? Inside your shirt? Whipped up from a parallel universe with an incantation whose precise origins are lost in a sea of time and wizards?

9. Don’t sit down in the middle of the woods. If you’re lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong. 

THE GRUFFALO is a good example of what can happen if you sit down in the middle of the woods without having first checked everything out. Even if your nut is Fairtrade.

*NEWSFLASH* Gruffalo loses the plot

10. Prayer might work. Or reading ­something else. Or a constant visual­isation of the holy grail that is the finished, published version of your resplendent book.

Also prawn cocktail crisps and Mah Jong online.
A whopping 8/10 for Margaret Atwood there, people. But we shouldn’t be surprised. She’s done children’s books already and the titles are fabulous. WANDERING WENDA AND WIDOW WALLOP’S WUNDERGROUND WASHERY, for goodness sake! Genius!

Rules for Writing (1)


I found a great article in The Guardian some time ago, where famous writers gave their ten rules about writing. Should we children’s authors follow the same rules? Isn’t there’s too much else going on inside the crazy place that we call, for the sake of argument, our heads?

Elmore Leonard:
King of fart jokes

The first sage and important grown-up author on the list: Elmore Leonard, American king of westerns and thrillers. Kids love both. Bodes well. So how will he score in the face of the merciless forensic analysis that is phraseandfable?

1. Never open a book with weather.

Personally, I love it when a book cracks you right into a custard rainstorm, or a howling wind so cold that the nearest iceberg is reaching for a bobble hat and a warming mug of Horlicks.

2. Avoid prologues.

Try breaking this to the prologues. What have they ever done to you? Children’s writing is about inclusivity, man! Prologues all the way in this house!

3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.

When I write young fiction, I think about this question a great deal. Shouldn’t I be introducing a few more exciting words to enhance my young readers’ vocabulary? Joked, groaned, bellowed? Prognosticated? Please, can I use prognosticated?

“And… FIRE”

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”.

I admit to a fear of adverbs, especially the hairy ones with too many legs. I should take heart from JK Rowling. There’s a writer who wasn’t scared. Armies of adverbs advance through her books, left, right and hopefully. As with most things, moderation is the key.

5. Keep your exclamation points ­under control.

Good lord, Leonard, you fool! These are children we’re talking about! CHILDREN!! They LOVE ‘EM!!!

6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose”.

… except when hell suddenly breaks loose, which happens a lot around Darren Shan and David Gatward. Just saying.

“Wha gwaan?”

7. Use regional dialect – patois – sparingly.

To which I shall merely reply: Rastamouse.

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

What about when the character has six heads and green teeth? Or is a witch in fabulous stripy socks? When it’s VERY IMPORTANT INDEED that you know the character you’re reading about is a weird vegetarian vampire about to bite your neck and turn you into a beetroot? Please.

9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.

Crikey, Len. First people, now places. Don’t you describe anything at all? Description can be GOOD. Pirate ships with window boxes and pants drying in the rigging. Cute koala cubs with ears like cheerleaders’ pompoms. Odd planets where everything’s just deliciously wrong. The precise squidginess of chocolate cake.

SCARLET SILVER: swimming with description

10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

At last! Totally with you on this one. If you’ve got stuff readers tend to skip, then you’ve got no business being a children’s writer. Or indeed, any sort of writer at all.

And finally:

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10: if it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

Best advice of the lot. Read over what you’ve written. Then read it again. Then fix it. But leave the bit about the dinosaur drooling on the teacher’s handbag. I love that bit.

* * * * *

So there you go, all those friends and weirdos still hanging in there as I ramble away. Elmore Leonard scores 2½ out of 11 as a children’s writer. Disappointing. No Working Partners commissions for him any time soon. 

Apply Here and Pray


Someone I know has just asked if I can help with his CV and write a covering note for a prospective employer. I’m happy to offer my expertise. But just how wise is it to ask a children’s fiction author to write your personal statement for you?

It’s the warrior! And I just bought a new hat

As a highly motivated warrior with a tendency for flaying squirrels and pinning them to the enemy’s heavily bolted wooden gates, I’m just the person for the job at Krumbly Biscuits Inc. My hand can be turned to any task, however bloodthirsty, and I have a nice line in battle cries. I sprinkle Rice Krispies in my hair and encourage crows to widdle on my head as I make my final death charge. It makes a fine show as I storm the gates at annual sales conferences.

Having just completed my degree in Fairies, Witches and Magic, I feel that I could bring an inexplicable something to Carpet & Rug Ltd. Something which none of your customers could explain, but which might leave them with a warm sense of well-being and an urge to dance uncontrollably through your salesroom, singing about shagpile.

Qualifications: chocolate

Passionately committed as I am to finance-related products, there is a risk that halfway through a sales pitch for you at Sign Up & Cry, I will bite off my own head and post it to Belgium where it will gorge on chocolate and send you postcards written with its tongue.

Skill set: includes incineration

I would bring a wide range of colour, jokes and entertainment to the Soupy’s Circus staffroom at break times, occasionally pointing out of the tent window while gasping: “Was that a dragon I just saw, buffing the Ringmaster’s unicycle?”

I’m going to enjoy this. I can’t speak for the friend, although he’s bound to find an extremely interesting job by the time I’ve finished with him.

Deep Sea Racing Mullets a go-go


I am enchanted by the random brilliance of those heat-seeking missiles of the web, those vehicles the apparent size of Mars that pluck stuff from the ether at the press of a button and deliver it to a screen near you: SEARCH ENGINES.

Let’s take some examples from the rich tapestry of search terms directing folks to phraseandfable, shall we?

No one said it was supposed to be an OXYGEN mask


This delicious collision of words conjures something fabulous and possibly Venetian. But why would someone type it in? Are they actually going to a breathless banquet and urgently in need of facial equipment? Is it a quote? Has Fifty Shades of Grey met Casanova on the information highway? And what on earth has it got to do with my ramblings here on phraseandfable?


Spinal Tap instantly springs to mind, but their album was of course Smell the Glove, which is quite a different matter. ‘Spelling glove’ is therefore a WikiLeak. The government is investing billions in the secret development of special finger hats that will allow civil servants to spell liaison correctly! Will it ultimately be rolled out to schools? I shall be looking at the Queen’s white silk gloves in an entirely new light. “One shall now spell… diarrhoea.”

I’m a kighnt. A nikght. A knitgh. A guy with a sword.


This has some connection with my blog entry of 23 February 2012, but it’s tentative to say the least. Men’s French gauntlets. Ooh. Slinky chain mail, obtained on the Rue Saint-Honoré, the accessoires du jour. Do they come with a sword? Must one be called Jean, or Pierre, or indeed Jean-Pierre, in order to carry them off? Is this searcher in cahoots with the spelling glove enthusiast?



I can actually make sense of this one. Strange but true (see 18 April 2012). But I do still wonder at the combination. Has the consumption of iron-rich comestibles been proved to conjure religious ecstasy while napping?

Fetch me a snorkel and I’m yours, babe


This is unquestionably my favourite in an I’ve-eaten-too-much-cheese kind of way. Is having a head like a deep sea racing mullet an advantage? Is it an Olympic 100m Butterfly tactic? Does it have anything to do with hairstyles? Or are there simply squadrons of hi-spec fish belting around the Atlantic with John West sponsorship tattooed on their fins?


Good. I’m done. I can now rest easy in the knowledge that should these terms ever be typed into a search engine again, the result will be 100% accurate.

The great joy is that we shall NEVER KNOW the logic behind the random. Only the search engines know this, and they are, for once, keeping schtum on the subject. So all you bloodhounds out there, looking for jobs? Get back to your Bonios. Search engines have it covered.

Is Pinteresting?


There’s a new bird in town. It’s making the book hide its face and the twits stop cheeping. It’s Pinterest and it has nothing to do with savings accounts.

However, I hold up my hand and admit: it’s not for me.

That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy the pictures. I do. There’s a smashing one of Portugal that took my fancy immediately – see left. You will notice that it is made primarily of words.

I have thus reached the conclusion that Pinterest is for the VISUAL creatives out there, not the wordy nerds. You know who you are. Yes dear artist friend, I’m talking about you. I’m not sure I can visually create anything, short of a special-occasion gurn for my newly minted nephew.

Are you a visual creative or a wordy one? Take this test to find out.


Here, kitty kitty kitty

A) You see a picture of a little girl crying her eyes out on a fabulous beach. Do you:

  1. Report the photographer to Social Services
  2. Get Google maps to locate the spot so you can go there on holiday
  3. Attempt to paint it but struggle with finding the right shade of cerulean
  4. Write it down

B) Someone pins a picture of your book TIGER TROUBLE. Do you:

  1. Celebrate with a large Pimms
  2. Try to repin but forward it to the Venezuelan Embassy by mistake
  3. Attempt to crayon a version of the tiger on a tablecloth
  4. Write it down

C) You find a mystifying swirly image that you can’t figure out. Do you:

  1. Ask for clarification from the person who pinned it
  2. Rush for the acrylics and design a sarong based on the same colour principles
  3. Decide it reminds you of sick
  4. Write it down

Do you see where I’m going with this? I’m off on a hunt for a decent collective noun.

“O Fazio!”


Ah, Italia. Land of tomatoes and hair gel, Caravaggio and cobbles, gelato and alleyways smelling of wee. It’s on my mind at the moment. This can partly be blamed on the children’s book fair junket taking place in Bologna this week (where hopefully my books are going down a storm), and partly on last night’s viewing of BBC4’s Inspector Montalbano on iPlayer. I am now intermittently muttering “Ecco-la!” and “Fazio!” around the house and fighting the urge to get operatic with the washing machine, which has sprung a leak.

Ecco-la!” means “Look at that female object!” I’m not employing it to draw attention to anything female or otherwise; it just bursts out of me like water from an ill-fitting garden hose when I’m making tea or checking my emails and fills me with vigour and purpose. The experience is highly recommended.

Fazio – or more accurately, Fazio! – is Inspector Montalbano’s sergeant, constantly summoned down the airy corridors of the Vigata police station with magnificent emphasis thus. The quality Montalbano imparts to the “Fa” part of “Fazio!” is as bright as gold and summarises everything that’s beautiful about the language.

Another reason for watching Inspector Montalbano is balcony envy. A moment of reverential silencio, please.

Buona fortuna to all in Bologna this week. And if you make me rich and famous enough to get a balcony like this one day, so much the better.