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Gifts for writers Practical tips Writing Life

Finishing touches

1. For the launch party: book cakes

eatyourphoto.co.uk

No book launch party these days is complete without book cakes. These personalised vanilla sponges were just perfect. They arrived bang on time, tasted great and added a splash of colour to the snack table. EatYourPhoto deliver quickly too (which was a huge relief after the first company I tried let me down).

Customised vanilla cupcakes from EatYourPhoto.co.uk

2. For your author ID: book necklace

NewLeaf on Etsy

Lovely necklace from NewLeaf

I’ve been wearing my book necklace everywhere – especially when I know I’ll be dropping into a bookshop and asking to sign copies of Small! I’m not entirely sure what the booksellers make of me when I walk in madly pointing at my neck saying, ‘I wrote this! Honest! Can I sign it?’ But no one’s arrested me yet and, on the whole, it’s been a pretty good icebreaker.

If a writer in your life has a book out soon, and you can get your hands on the cover artwork, I’m sure a gift from NewLeaf (whether you choose the necklace, earrings or pin badge) will go down well.

3. For signings: book stamps

getstamped.co.uk

Another thing that’s all the rage for authors on Instagram is book stamping. So, naturally, I gave it a try – creating a simple reward stamp that could have come straight from one of the teachers at Madame Bogbrush’s School for Gifted Giants.

And (as long as I keep the book VERY steady as I stamp) it’s worked well.* I’ve also noticed booksellers really like it. Lots have commented that children aren’t always interested in a signature squiggle, but they do like seeing the stamps.

I designed mine on Canva then loaded the design to getstamped.co.uk.

*Apologies if you’re the person who picked up my one smudged copy from Waterstones in Salisbury on my first day of stamping…

What are your favourite bookish accessories or launch day treats? Share your ideas in the replies.
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Inspiration KidLit Practical tips

Happytown Must Be Destroyed

1. Funny words

The schnozzdongle

You don’t need to know what the schnozzdongle does to enjoy the word immensely (although if you read the book, you’ll certainly find out). I giggled every time it appeared. And that was definitely a tip I took away: if you know a an object’s going to crop up a lot in your story, give it a good name so it’s delighting, not boring.

It also got me thinking about Richard Wiseman’s research with the Laugh Lab to find the world’s funniest joke. It was the first time I’d read about the ‘comedy k’ sound (Hard ‘c’ or ‘k’ sounds are supposedly the funniest of them all). I reckon one easy way to tell if the words you’ve chosen are funny is to try them on Word’s ‘read aloud’ tool. If they sound daft in a dull robot voice, you’re probably onto a winner.

2. Funny places

The Dangles

When I’m writing, I normally struggle moving characters from one place to another. (And whenever I can, I cheat, and jump locations between chapters.) But in Happytown Must Be Destroyed, James has made a comedic feature out of moving through the setting of Owt.

The mournful chimes of the ice cream van led us along the Woofy Wynd, round the Three Sided Square and up The Dangles.

Beginning of Chapter 20

The daft place names that pop up throughout the book made me chuckle almost as much as the Snozzdongle. Because they so beautifully mirror the way locals talk about their home towns, they also made the story of alien invasion seem so much more believable. It was a really clever way of getting me to buy into the setting. It also reminded me that little details can make a big difference to a story. You don’t need to describe every inch of your world. In this case, cracking local dialect brings the whole thing to life.

3. Existential musings on the nature of happiness

Yes, this book is packed with gags galore, but there’s a big message about what it means to be happy running through the story, too. Is jumping around in a yellow tracksuit looking happy, the same as actual happiness? Spoiler: probably not.

I love a comedy contrast and this book is full of them. We’ve got ice cream vans with guns. We’ve got Leeza, the indecisive allergy-sufferer who’s somehow been tasked with saving the town. And we’ve got the entire story: a comedy romp that genuinely makes you think about what it means to be happy. It’s yet another example that funny isn’t the opposite of serious. Amidst all the fun, there are big messages to take away … along with even bigger smiles.

Happytown Must Be Destroyed is published by Hachette Children’s Group and it’s out now.

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Practical tips

Building a website #2

1. Updates

When you update pages, update your menus

Just after Small!’s cover reveal, I changed my homepage. I thought I’d been really clever by duplicating the page rather than starting from scratch. My plan was to redesign the copy in the background, then do a grand switcheroo on Cover Reveal Day. And it would have worked wonderfully, if I’d remembered to update my menus.

But I didn’t. So if you clicked ‘home’ in the top navigation from another page, you ended up back on my old homepage instead. On the plus side, my site doesn’t get many visitors yet, so I’m not sure anyone noticed 😂

2. Pre-orders

I’d seen other authors putting all their pre-order links on a Linktree page and assumed I needed one, too. But, thanks to a free WordPress webinar, I learned about the Link in Bio template. It looks just like a Linktree page but doesn’t take traffic away from your website. Now that’s the page I’m linking to on my Twitter profile – in the hope that anyone ordering a book (fingers crossed) might stick around to read the odd blog or invite me to a literary festival…🤞🏻

My Link in Bio page

3. Get the look you want

Avoid my design mistakes with a ‘Full Site Editing’ template

WordPress have just launched a new suite of templates that look much easier to edit than this one. With the older templates, there are some things I just can’t seem to change (like the vast amounts of white space between my content blocks). With Full site editing you can control everything – dragging boxes to make them the size you want. As soon as I can bring myself to do it, I’ll make the move to a new template. Full site editing is still in beta at the moment, so it might be worth waiting a little while for WordPress to iron out any kinks. But from what I’ve seen in the demo, it looks really user-friendly, even for beginners like me. It works on WordPress.com and .org but since I still haven’t made the move to .org, the new templates could well keep me where I am for a bit longer.

I’m still learning so much about web design, and this site is far from perfect. But WordPress webinars have been really helpful. If you’re with them, I recommend signing up to get a few extra tips. (You can also take a look at this blog from me.) Good luck!

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Writing Life

Behind the cover reveal

Small! cover (mocked up with help from diybookcovers.com)

1. The illustrator

Rory Walker

Rory is an absolute marvel. I’m convinced most illustrators would have heard the brief, ‘can you draw me a friendly undead elephant with a visible skeleton and shimmery shadow memory of its former body’ and run a mile.

Not Rory.

His madcap cartoonist style couldn’t be a more perfect fit for Small! I was in love the moment my editor, Mikka, shared Rory’s first rough sketches last summer. And the final designs bring so much fun to the story – I hope young (and old) readers will giggle as much as me when they see them.

All the illustrations on the cover appear in black and white inside the book. And if you take a look at Rory’s website, you might get a sneak peek of a few more, including every author’s dream – a map!

2. The cover designer

Holly Ovenden

Sometimes your illustrator will be your cover designer too, but not always. (After all, they’re very different skills – I wouldn’t ask a pastry chef to whip me up a bouillabaisse.)

Holly’s a superstar of the book design world. She was named a Bookseller Rising Star in 2021 and shortlisted for Designer of the Year at the British Book Awards. (Take a look at the work on her website and you’ll see why.) So I’m totally honoured she agreed to work on my cover.

The colour, the lettering and the layout of the Small! cover were all Holly’s vision. I don’t think it’s easy working with someone else’s illustrations to create something new – but Holly’s design really pops. I totally LOVE it, and I hope you do, too.

3. The cover revealer

Jo Clarke aka BookloverJo

Not every book has an official ‘cover reveal’, but adding one to your publishing calendar is a fun way to keep the excitement going between your book announcement and the actual launch. And it helps people recognise your book when it lands in the shops.

My cover reveal happened on Twitter this afternoon, courtesy of the lovely BookloverJo. Jo is a school librarian, kidlit book blogger and soon-to-be debut author herself. Jo’s first book, Libby and the Parisian Puzzle publishes on 3rd March with Firefly press and you can pre-order now in all good bookshops.

Jo is an expert cover revealer, having done many a reveal before mine. And why do so many authors like me call on her? Well, as a librarian and blogger, Jo definitely has ‘kidlit influencer’ status. By revealing the cover, Jo’s not just making the moment feel even more special, she’s also helping lots more people see it. Thank you, Jo!

Disclaimer: In the spirit of my ‘three things’ format, I’ve stuck to describing three people who’ve had a big impact on the cover. But of course, huge thanks go to my publisher for teaming me up with such talent, and my agent for sharing her advice and artistic wisdom along the way, too. Publishing a book really is a team sport…

I’ve loved learning about cover design over the last few months. Do you have a favourite illustrator, cover designer or cover? Tell me about them in the replies.
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Practical tips Writing Life

Writing resolutions

Give guilt the boot

When we’re still filled with festive cheer and the stress of the day job is a distant memory, it’s easy to set rigid writing goals. Sticking to them when reality bites is a whole different matter.

So, in 2022, I’ve decided NOT to set a daily word-count goal, or even to commit to writing daily. The chances are, I’ll still write most days because 1) I love it, 2) I feel genuinely sad when I’m not writing. But if work or life gets in the way sometimes, I won’t be beating myself up about it.

Instead, I’ll write my socks off whenever I can, and I’ll stay focused on big overall goals (like writing a sequel and pitching a non-fiction book). Then I’ll get there in whatever way I can, no matter how scrappily.

Fill your notebooks

Notebooks are there to be written in. (Yes, even the ones with the fancy hardback covers and gold sprayed edges.) This year, I refuse to be intimidated by the beauty of a notebook, and neither should you. It’s your words that make notebooks valuable. Fill them. Fill them. Fill them.

A few of the notebooks I plan to fill this year

Be the writer only you can be

In 2022, I’m going to try really, really hard not to compare myself to other writers, or read their books and come away thinking things like, ‘Their words are so beautiful, I wish I could write lyric poetry…’

Instead, I’ll cheer and champion every writer’s brilliance (something I try and do already). Then I’ll get back to being the chaotic, daft and generally bonkers writer I already am.

It’s easy to dismiss your own writing style, especially if it comes easily to you. For ages, I thought ‘well anyone could write like this, everyone else must be choosing not to.’ It’s only really since early reviews have come in for my debut middle grade book, Small! that I’m starting to think that my particular brand of storytelling might actually be my strength.

Whatever your writing style, I hope you embrace it in 2022. I’ll be right here to cheer you on.

Good luck.

(PS if you fancy reading a bit of bonkers MG, you can pre-order Small! with the lovely Rocketship bookshop.)

What are your writing resolutions? Share them in the replies
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Inspiration KidLit Practical tips

Loki: A Bad God’s Guide to Being Good

Proof copy for Loki: A Bad God’s Guide to Being Good

1. It’s a diary, done differently

Play with form

Who doesn’t love a diary? They’re the perfect place to enjoy the comedy antics of unreliable or naive narrators. (Emer Stamp’s, The Unbelievable Top Secret Diary of Pig is another of my all-time comedy favourites for that reason.) But what’s so smart about Loki’s diary is that he’s not allowed to lie. Every time he tries, the diary ‘helpfully’ writes back with its own corrections. It’s a brilliant device. And it’s a great reminder that no matter how familiar your format, there’s always a way to twist it and make it your own.

2. It’s funny because it’s true

Find the funny in front of you

As an outsider to the modern world, Loki is the perfect observational comedian. He’s constantly questioning the absurdity in the everyday, giving us his views on everything from work, school and shopping to crisps and – my favourite – museums. Loki can’t believe how boldly museums display their stolen goods (he’s far too sneaky to make his own wrongdoings so obvious).

Loki’s insights into life cracked me up and got me thinking. Mostly, they reminded me of the GK Chesterton quote that funny doesn’t have to be the opposite of serious. Loki’s comedy definitely has a serious side.

Funny is the opposite of not funny, and nothing else.

GK Chesterton

3. It brings new life to old stories

Build on what we know

We get a few specific nods to the original Norse myths, but Louie mostly uses them as a springboard for fresh silliness. I especially enjoyed Thor (who’s on Earth as Loki’s brother to keep an eye on him) wanting to spend his weekends admiring hammers in the DIY shops.

Using things we already know (or learn in the first couple of pages) sets the stakes high from the start. Will Loki, the misbehaving trickster god, ever manage to live a virtuous life? Or will Odin punish him to an eternity in a chamber filled with snakes?

This isn’t a retelling of the myths. It’s dropping familiar characters into new settings and asking the question that gets all the best stories going: ‘What if..?’ It’s also a brilliant way to go from a blank page to a fresh, funny and completely original new story.

I was rooting for Loki from the start. I’m sure everyone else will, too.

Loki: A Bad God’s Guide to Being Good publishes with Walker Books in February 2022. Pre-order yours now. (That’s my Bookshop.org page, but I’m sure you can order it in your local indie, too.) #BeLessLoki

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Writing Life

In praise of pantsing

Pantser (n) someone who writes by making things up as they go along (or flying by the seat of their pants)

The winner’s badge on the NaNoWriMo website

1. It takes the pressure off

I’m writing a sequel at the moment. Which basically means, I’m filled with ‘second album syndrome’ fear, and piling the pressure on myself. Or, I was. Then I signed up for NaNoWriMo and swapped screen fright for scribbling.

National Novel Writing Month was made for pantsers – how else can you scramble your way to 50,000 words in a month? It’s a glorious, community-driven, slightly sleep-depriving way to write. But it’s also bags of fun. By Tuesday night, when I finally crossed the finish line, I had loads more words than I needed (my sequel won’t be more than 30,000). I was also bursting with ideas for the next draft.

2. It gives your brain room to roam

That’s the joy of pantsing. When you’re not following a carefully plotted plan, there’s nothing stopping you taking your story in any direction you like. I started November with a vague idea of what might happen. But almost all my favourite scenes now are things I’d never even considered a month ago. When I’m going for quantity, not quality, I can pull all sorts of weird (and hopefully wonderful) ideas from the depths of my brain.

Pantising is taking the scenic route rather than powering down a motorway. It’s not the fastest way through a book, but the view’s so much better.

3. It gives you something to edit

Nothing beats fear of the blank page like a quick and dirty first draft. The sooner you get some words down, the sooner you can knock them into shape.

A month of pantsing has been absolutely brilliant. Now I’m (just about) ready for the proper plotting begin.

Are you a plotter or a pantser? Let me know in the replies.
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Inspiration

Punctuation inspiration

1. Punctuation as art

Full Stop Slipstream, Fiona Banner

Full Stop sculpture, More London

Ahh, the full stop. It’s taken a lot of stick lately for being aggressive – making most of us drop it from the end of instant messages.

But thanks to Fiona Banner’s sculpture series in More London, here’s a very concrete (well, bronze) reminder of this simple punctuation mark in all its glory.

This one’s in an italicised font called Slipstream. (But I took a terrible photo, so you can see it looking much nicer, and facing the right way on Fiona’s Instagram page.)

2. Forgotten punctuation

The interrobang

Interrobang. I loved this word for the ?! combo the moment I heard it. But I hadn’t realised it originally came with its own symbol, too (which I’ve attempted to draw).

Martin Speckter suggested creating the single punctuation mark as a symbol of incredulity back in 1963, but by the 1970s it had fallen out of fashion. And it’s not the only new punctuation people have suggested.

My drawing of an interrobang (a question mark wrapped around an exclamation mark)

According to Mental Floss, printers, authors and philosophers have championed punctuation marks for irony, rhetorical questions and even love.

Although those new punctuation marks didn’t take off either, I reckon they paved the way for today’s emojis, which pretty much cover every emotion from 😂 to 😡. I even found a romantic exclamation ❣️ (or the lovebang, if you will).

3. Only the punctuation

Just-the-punctuation.glitch.me

The punctuation in the first half of my upcoming debut, Small!

Since a friend shared the link to this word-stripping website, I’ve become slightly obsessed with it. Type in whatever you’re working on to see how your WIP would look without any words.

Here’s the first half of my upcoming debut, Small! With exclamation marks and full stops galore (although no true interrobangs, sadly) you can probably guess the reading age just by looking at it.

And for all my wafflings about the end of full stops and the rise of emojis, good old-fashioned punctuation will be welcome in my stories any day.

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Practical tips

Announcing your debut

1.Your first book might not be ‘the one’

Always have another project on the go

I thought signing with an agent would make getting published plain sailing. Alas, when the book that bagged my agent didn’t bag a publisher, I learned things don’t always work that way.

Luckily, by the time the rejections came through, I was totally immersed in the new project that became SMALL! So although the ‘no’s were disappointing, I was having enough fun in my new giant world to keep my chin up. That’s the big thing I’d recommend to anyone going on submission: always have another project on the go.

2. There’s probably a long wait ahead

Find a debut community

The next thing I hadn’t realised was how long you have to stay quiet about your book deal once you’ve signed it. (It was about eight months for me, but when telling the world about your book deal is the most exciting thing to have happened to you in the history of the world ever, those months feel like years.)

To handle the wait, find other writers who are waiting, too. I joined a Twitter group for 2022 debuts and it’s been the best place to quietly chat about the ups and downs of the publishing journey.You can see what the group’s up to (when we’re allowed to share news) by following @2022Debut on Twitter and Instagram.

3. Enjoy the moment…when it comes

Seriously, enjoy it

I love telling stories. But that doesn’t mean the rejections that paved the way to publication – whether getting a (constructive) battering in a crit group, a form rejection from an agent or a ‘no’ from a publisher – didn’t sting.

My debut was announced to the world yesterday. And, for now at least I’m allowing myself time to grin widely, skip wildly and check Twitter ever so slightly obsessively (I’ve been overwhelmed by the love and excitement people are showing SMALL! on social media. The kidlit writing community really is the best).

There are tough days in this writing game, but boy are the good days glorious.

Categories
Inspiration

Inspiration from art

The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition opens to the public next week. I was lucky enough to sneak in early and pick up some word wrangling inspiration.

There were over 1,300 pieces on display. Here are three that might help you crack your next story.

1. Opening image

Divinity, Lola Flash

Struan Murray says he started Orphans of the Tide with one strong image in mind: a whale stranded on a chapel rooftop.

Exhibitions are always packed with visual story starters. And, for me, Lola Flash’s photo of a mysterious praying figure against an upturned boat has the hallmarks of a cracking opening image.

  • Who are they?
  • What do they want?
  • Where have they come from?

I can’t look at it without wanting to reach for a pen to find answers.

Lola Flash’s Divinity

2. Setting

Green Kitchen, Bogotá, Caroline Peña-Bray

Green Kitchen, Bogotá, Caroline Peña-Bray

I have a dreadful habit of writing first drafts in a vacuum – with characters doing things in spaces that are impossible to picture.

But getting the setting right makes telling the rest of the story so much easier. That’s where a good gallery can help.

Look at the personality bursting from Caroline Peña-Bray’s ramshackle kitchen. It’s hard to imagine any scene set here not being full of noise and life, too.

What do your settings – from the colours on the walls to the amount of clutter crammed onto the shelves (or not) – say about your characters? If your settings aren’t saying much, perhaps they’re not working hard enough.

For more world-building inspiration, make a beeline for the RA’s architecture room, where full models of buildings and cities are laid out in front of you. They’re such a help if, like me, you’re not great at visualising the places in your book.

3. Character

I Bite & Sting: Mosquito and Jellyfish, Stephen Chambers

I Bite & Sting: Mosquito and Jellyfish, Stephen Chambers

Have you ever seen a more terrifying, ready-made villain than Stephen Chambers’ jellyfish? This etching gives me the creeps, and also gets me wondering what evil sting plot is going on behind those very big eyes…

Galleries are great places to find your next characters – heroes, pets, sidekicks and evil jellyfish overlords alike.

The RA Summer Exhibition is on from 22nd Sept-2nd January 2022. Tickets are £20-£22 (and if you buy anything, you get a free ticket the following year). If you make it along, tell me about your favourite pieces in the replies. #RASummer