Tag Archives: writing

Split Personality


I write lots of different kinds of books. Animals, aliens, fairies, monsters. And now I’m writing about… teenagers. But also writing about… penguins. And shortly pitching about… jungles.

This could end badly.


Mwa mwa mwa

The teenagers are kissing, fighting, acting, singing and dancing, dreaming of boys and girls, organising parties, painting each other like zombies. There are French exchange girls with boys on the brain, a moon with the kind of powers you don’t want to mess with and a dude in dodgy trainers. Did I mention the kissing? There’s lots of kissing.


Aim at the teenager! BOOP!

The penguins are zooming around in space, escaping from warring weirdos with too many eyes and a vast space zoo full of creatures to give Mexican bird-eating spiders nightmares as they fold up their long hairy legs and quake in the Central American undergrowth. Wham! Blam! Boop! (Intrepid pilot Rocky Waddle wishes to advise you never to peer down the barrel of a stun gun when it goes ‘Boop’.)

The jungle is enduring a cross little girl with too many opinions and absolutely no idea that she’s being followed by something large and hungry.


I have bare red knees innit

AND NONE OF THEM ARE BEING WRITTEN because I’m writing YOU. I have to concentrate or lose not just spinning plates but entire meals balanced thereon. At least one of my plates has a full roast lunch on it and gravy is going everywhere.

Where was I? Oh yes. Zombie penguins in the jungle.

*pootles off, whistling vaguely*



Waddle Twaddle


When you deliberately set out to follow lots of people on Twitter with the word ‘penguin’ in their Twitter address simply because you are madly promoting a series called SPACE PENGUINS – yes, that’s SPACE PENGUINS – you are guaranteed an amusing time.


Here is my assortment, amassed over the last two weeks. My colony, if you will.

1. Penguin Social (@PenguinSocial): Feel uncomfortable among your contemporaries? Suffer from fish breath, identity crises, chilblains? Pop over to Penguin Social to set your tiny penguin mind at rest.

2. Little Penguin (@OhDearPenguin): Heavily into British accents. What.

3. Awkward Penguin (@_AwkwardPenguin): Hasn’t responded to my follow, which is a little… what’s the word… difficult?

4. SpacePenguin(Spacey) (@AstroPenguin1): So out there that he has the word Space in his Twitter name twice.

5. Space Penguin (@THESpacePenguin): A little aggrieved at being alone no longer, but that’s the way the cuttlefish crumbles.

Alfie6. Space Penguin (@_SpacePenguin): A band from Bridlington. Rockhopper on!

7. Emma Dean (@spacepenguins85): Makes me think of school discos in shiny balldresses, don’t know why.

8. Leroy Penguin (@Leroy_penguin): Hip Hop rapping, eyebrow raising, tequila smashing afro penguin, 18. Too cool to follow me back.

9. Alice Sheppard (@PenguinGalaxy): MSc Astrophysicist, citizen science maniac and general dazed waffler (her words, not mine).

10. Pedro Penguin (@PedroPenguin): AN ACTUAL PENGUIN (African) at Toronto Zoo. He doesn’t tweet much. It’s more of a honking sound.

11. Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins): Ice hockey team. Given to incomprehensibilities like “X played 4 years with #Canes, tallying 53G-54A=107 in 286 reg-season games!”

12. The Penguin Press (@penguinpress): Not literally a press for squeezing penguins, I’m guessing? Though possibly not unlike those apple presses owned by cool people in the country with their own orchards.

13. Team Penguin (@TeamPeng): For all your RuneScape Penguin Distraction & Diversion Means! which explains them perfectly if you are fluent in geek.

14. Penguin Magic (@penguinmagic): Much in demand for children’s parties in Antarctica.

15. Penguin Books UK (@PenguinUKBooks): Why call yourself Penguin Books UK and yet tweet most confusingly as @PenguinUKBooks? Just a thought. (They don’t publish me.)

SPACE PENGUINS are out now. Finally. Buy them all please, for me and lovely illustrator James Davies. One for all and all for FISH!


Library Love


booksI had a tremendous time on National Libraries Day at Fleet Library last weekend, reading to a lovely audience about the odd assortment of animals and characters in my book KOALA CRAZY: specifically scary girl Cazza (“OK in a strangely terrifying way, with her death motif badges, regular detentions and insanely illegal school shoes”), dappy Taya (“If my plans to be an actress stroke fashion designer stroke singer don’t work out, perhaps I’ll be a teacher or a politician or some other kind of person who talks a lot and impresses people because I’m pretty good at it”), Taya’s sci-fi obsessed, spiky twin sister Tori (“K9  as robot dog – fine and actually pretty funny. 2thi as human person – not fine and about as funny as measles. Spelling stuff in stupid ways is just really annoying”) and confused kangaroo Caramel, who has no quotes because she’s a kangaroo and can’t talk. The atmosphere was relaxed, the room was airy, the children were attentive, the parents didn’t fidget too much, and everyone wanted to know what happened next because–

chapter 3 ended on a cliffhanger. *sly smile*

Ah, la Lumley

Ah, la Lumley

I also got to share a paragraph about it with Joanna Lumley in the Bookseller.  Ha!

All of which makes me doubly sad that a well-known author like Terry Deary should attack libraries and the important community work that they do.

Possibly he was saying it for effect. I understand that he enjoys taking a combative stance on things, which doubtless serves him well in his taekwondo classes, knife-throwing target practice and Special Forces training, but isn’t much help to these precious, endangered public spaces with their free reading material, free WiFi, cheap coffee, computer desks, e-book lending, knowledgable staff, toddler music sessions, rainproof roofs, blessed silence (except, admittedly, during said toddler sessions) and warm all-ages-welcome human environment. Humanity needs just as much investment as fibre-optic technologies, pork bellies and wind farms. More actually.

I have a Kindle and I see the value of e-books. I also spend an inordinate amount of time on my computer. But I try not to forget that we are still people in need of comfort, communication, kinship and communal spaces where these needs can be met. There is nothing sentimental about that, nor about the PLR money hard-pressed authors earn from library lending, not to mention the important publicity following library appearances like my own last weekend.

Perhaps Mr Deary will give away his PLR earnings this year. Perhaps he’s been stealthily doing so for years?


Drawing a Blank


I have a white board! I’d love to wax lyrical about this exciting development in my writing life but essentially it’s white and it’s a board and not even I can find much else to say about it at the moment. BUT, as Bob Hale would say, NOT FOR LONG!

You see, I have written myself into a computerised corner with my new project and have discovered an urgent need for a PLANNING TOOL that I can see without opening tabs (not on cans of beer though that is tempting) and flipping from screen to screen in a WHAT AM I DOING I’LL HAVE A BISCUIT AND THINK ABOUT IT HOPELESSLY kind of way. It’s a little embarrassing, to find myself at this juncture 30,000 words in. Also ironic, as I spend much of my editorial time urging other authors to plan BEFORE they start. Quite.

Unlike my usual projects, which have word counts ranging from 6,000 to 35,000 words, this honey needs to weigh in at around 80,000 words, and my usual habit of holding plot arcs in my head like a host of imaginary spinning plates is presently letting me down with lots of similarly imaginary crunching noises and illusory ceramic splinters up my fingernails. So, a white board it is.

Look! I’ve got a title and everything!


Brilliant! Why haven’t I thought of this before? I want 40 chapters, each around 2,000 words long. Lots of little boxes then, with different-coloured arrows from one to the next. Off I go!


Good. Yes. Well. This could take longer than anticipated.


Wolves and Angels


Fresh-faced from my first conference: The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators at the University of Winchester. What a gas! Brilliant speakers in Celia Rees and Debi Gliori, more spent on books in 2 days than I normally manage in a month, good food and conversation, and a terrific workshop with experts Julia Bell and Julia Golding which revealed to me how LAZY I am about characterisation.

Questions to ask when you come up with a character.

1. Who is this person?
2. What is their mood colour?
3. What animal do they remind you of?
4. What do they smell of?
5. What was the last thing they ate?
6. What are they thinking, the first time you see them?

*cracks knuckles, settles down to task, tongue firmly clamped between teeth*

Right. Let’s take, say, a wolf. 1) He’s a wolf. 2) He’s wolf-coloured. 3) He reminds me of a wolf. (This gets better.) 4) He smells of wet dog. 5) The last thing he ate was me. 6) He was thinking, ‘I’ll eat that author right there because she’s rubbish at characters.’

Hey, this is fun! I’m good at this! Let’s try another one.  1) He’s an angel. 2) He’s bright orange. 3) He reminds me of a golden eagle. 4) He smells of fire. 5) The last thing he ate was completely irrelevant because he’s an ANGEL, haven’t you been listening? 6) He was thinking something much too profound to put into words.

Fine. One angel, one wolf. So far so good. OR SO I THOUGHT.

Now swap one of the wolf’s six elements with one of the angel’s. Suddenly your angel smells of wet dog, and your wolf is bright orange. Or your angel likes eating authors and you have a zen wolf with a PhD in Philosophy. Zing!

This is so totally cool that I’m just going to leave it there.


Rules for Writing (3)


For my last trick, I would like to assess a former Poet Laureate and his suitability for life as a children’s entertainer – for that, minus the squirty flower, is what we children’s writers are.

Poetry in Motion

Sir Andrew Motion: economical with words and with a surname that makes me want to move along in a perambulatory fashion. We are spoiled for children’s poets, though they aren’t as celebrated as they deserve to be: Benjamin Zephaniah, Roger McGough, Michael Rosen, Giles Andreae, Shel Silverstein to name but a scraping from beneath my little fingernail. Would Sir Andrew suit this life, or is he too airy-fairy? Here are his 10 rules for a productive writing career.

1. Decide when in the day (or night) it best suits you to write, and organise your life accordingly.

How many times have I sat bolt upright in bed and thought to myself: “3am! I must get to my writing implements at once!” Er, never. Daytime writer, me.

2. Think with your senses as well as your brain.

This is like seeing with your eyes closed, shopping without spending, singing in your head and other sundry every-day experiences. Fine advice.

“Seriously. The human was big.”

3. Honour the miraculousness of the ordinary.

NAUGHTY FAIRIES legitimised my love of scrutinising the small things and then rushing inside to write about them. The bloom on a wet pebble. The smell of a beetle’s wings. How furry a bumblebee actually is. Writers don’t need mass world events to produce good material. Here’s a challenge for you. Sit in front of a flower for five minutes and look. Note colours, smells, textures, insect activity. Observe the fairy thumbing its nose at you from the tiny leaf near the base of the plant. Thumb your nose back. Write it down. Ta-da. A book.

4. Lock different characters/elements in a room and tell them to get on.

There is something pleasingly totalitarian about this. “Just TALK to each other! How hard can it be? You went to Hogwarts, he went to Hogwarts…”

5. Remember there is no such thing as nonsense.

Bionic hamsters notwithstanding.

6. Bear in mind Oscar Wilde’s dictum that “only mediocrities develop” – and ­challenge it.

I can’t decide if this means the Poet Laureate feels mediocre himself, or if he thinks we can all be geniuses if we work at it, or both. A bit obfuscatory I feel.

7. Let your work stand before deciding whether or not to serve.

I like the implication that my books are, in fact, a case of fine wine. Another glass of silly jokes and peculiar metaphors, Vicar?

8. Think big and stay particular.

This sounds terrifically guru-ish, if a bit smug. I have no idea how to put it into practice but I’d like to try.

9. Write for tomorrow, not for today.

I believe one has to be rich in order to think like this. There’s no shame in approaching your writing commercially if you have bills to pay, not to mention men in dark suits standing at lonely crossroads with weaponry, receipts and long memories. The perfect approach is a mixture of both. Write for 11.59pm – 12.01am. Bingo.

10. Work hard.

You’re meant to be a poet, man! I am sure this dull little truism was SUPPOSED to read: “Chase those words around like sheep, with hours to go before you sleep.”

Which brings Sir Andrew Motion’s total to an arbitrary 6/10. Don’t ask me how I reach these figures, people. Call it artistic licence. All together now: There once was a poet called Motion…

When approached for this 10 rules thing, Philip Pullman wisely declared: “My main rule is to say no to things like this, which tempt me away from my proper work.” So it’s back to penguins for me tomorrow.

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.