Lads, This is Our Fight Too

I’m conscious that children visit my website, so be warned, this post is not suitable for children. If you’re a child, don’t read it. And I’m not just saying that to make you want to read it – seriously, go and do something else.

The rest of you lads, take a seat and get comfortable; we need to talk about women. A lot of guys might be thinking they’re either going to vote against the repeal of the 8th Amendment on the 25th of May, or just choose not to vote. Here are some of the reasons for these decisions:

  1. You believe life is sacred, and you don’t think women should be allowed to have abortions under any circumstances.
  2. You’re uncomfortable with the idea of abortion, you might support it in some circumstances, but this could be a slippery slope, and where will it all end? Allow them sometimes, and before you know it, they could be performing abortions in Mass.
  3. You can’t be arsed either way, and what’s it got to do with you anyway, sure aren’t you a man?
  4. You would vote to repeal it, but you have other things to do that day. The whole day. All of it.
  5. You would vote to repeal it, but you don’t want the lads to think the feminists have cut your balls off.
  6. You would vote to repeal it, but this is a woman’s issue, and really, they should decide it amongst themselves.
  7. You would vote to repeal it, but you don’t want women to think you only support feminism in order to get laid.
  8. You don’t want to vote because you’re confused about it all, mainly because you’ve grown up with conflicting signals from society about how masculinity should be defined, everybody’s so angry, you just don’t know what to think, and isn’t it an ugly business altogether?

Make no mistake, whether you vote yes, no or choose not to vote at all, every man entitled to vote will be part of the final numbers on the 25th of May. If you intend to vote no, or if you plan to just seek cover for the day and not stick your head out until the polls close, this post is for you, but it’s also for all the young guys who are maybe still trying to figure out what the world wants from them, and what they want from the world. Because the same thinking that would have us believe that women cannot be trusted with their own bodies, also tries to convince us that men are lacking some fundamental human qualities.

Let’s look at the root cause of all this hassle: At some point in the distant past, someone convinced us that neither a man nor a woman could be a complete human being on their own, that they were two halves of a whole, not just biologically, but intellectually and emotionally too. And to this day, part of us still believes this, that each of us is one of two things. And they’re not even equal halves. We’ve had decades of changing attitudes towards women and while we’re finally starting to recognise them as, y’know, equal human beings, and we’re developing a legal structure to support those attitudes, we still haven’t overcome a few thousand of years of social programming.

If you think women have equality already and that they should stop being pissed off with us now, bear in mind that this is Ireland, and when we were negotiating for independence back in the day, it would have been like England saying to us: ‘What’s your problem? Okay, so we took your land, your rights and your money for a few hundred years, but sure you’ve got most of your country back, and didn’t we give you roads and plumbing?’ Nearly a hundred years later and we’re still holding a grudge about that, and it’s only taken one Brexit-inspired border dispute to turn us all into raving Republicans again. Every fibre of our civilisation has been influenced by the attitudes of the past – including our idea of what it means to be a man. So I want to talk about male identity, and how it has a bearing on the issue of abortion.

We are making fundamental changes to the way humans live with each other, and this transition between the programming of the past and the expectations of the future has created a perceived limbo for masculinity. It can be a confusing time to be a young man, still trying to find his own identity. Most guys want things to be equal, so many are wondering why women are still pissed off with them. And yes, part of it is the past we had no hand in, one that still has a huge influence on our perception of masculinity. We have been indoctrinated into believing that men who lived centuries ago, in simpler times, lived a more fundamental life, and knew more about being a man than we do. And we are committed to living up to their expectations.

One of the last and biggest obstacles to gender equality is the deep-seated idea that women’s rights are a threat to men, and indeed, the very definition of what a man is. This stems from a concept of male identity that is drilled into us from birth onwards . . . that male is defined as the opposite of being female. These opposing identities are accepted as a natural law because our understanding of the differences between men and women was formed some time in the distant past and because that concept is very old, it must therefore be ‘natural’.

Tradition has us believing that we identify entirely by our genitals, that life is binary, and what is considered male is ‘naturally’ the opposite of what is female. Like penis and vagina, like sperm and egg, we serve different purposes in life. These physical differences were extended outwards as society developed: the man initiates sex and the woman accepts. In life, he gives and she receives. We have an image of the woman as the one to be protected, as she nurtures the children and cooks the food, while the man is the provider, dominant because of his physical strength and his duty to protect, able to kill a wolf with his hands and teeth if required.

It might sound simplistic, but modern attitudes are still essentially shaped by the belief (whose origin can’t actually be proven) that there was a time in our development when things were right, as nature intended, and we’ll all be happier if we hark back to that time, and stop resisting our natural instincts.

However, our hunter-gatherer days are long gone and most of the beliefs that may have seemed reasonable, even practical, back then, like the world being flat or that your mind was located in your heart, are completely irrelevant in the new existence we’ve shaped for ourselves.

We have cast off most of what we thought of as ‘natural’, and with good reason. There was no point in the past when humans were more enlightened than we are now, where we had things better than we have them now. We don’t have to follow the example of more primitive people. Neanderthals were not smarter or wiser than we are. If you think there was a time when men were more ‘real’ than they are today, ask yourself which bit of that real masculinity you’d be nostalgic for: The bit without modern transport? Without technology? Without democracy and human rights? Without modern medicine or dentistry? And even if it was natural, that doesn’t mean it’s automatically better. Dying of cancer is completely natural, that doesn’t mean we have to make a belief system out of it. And I don’t know about you, but I haven’t had to kill a wolf with my hands and teeth in a long time. Besides, I like wolves.

When a young man asks himself what it is that makes him a man, instead of asking himself what makes him a grown-up, it can often be interpreted as, ‘What makes me different from a woman?’ This idea that the masculine character is, by definition, not feminine, is inculcated in us almost from birth. We are opposite poles. The yin to each other’s yang. Two opposing halves of the same whole. They are the soft natures to our hard ones. The opposite sex. You have to be one or the other, it’s how we identify . . . and to our great misfortune, neither of us can possess a fully rounded character – there has to be something missing that the other sex provides.

And even with well-meaning parents who might try to counter this influence on young children in order to try and raise a whole human being, there is so much in society that forces this idea onto us. The dregs of these ancient beliefs persist in our education, our entertainment and our culture – they’re almost impossible to avoid. Let me be clear; I’m not saying that men and women are not different from each other – hormones and genitals play their part – I’m just saying they are not the opposite of each other. What’s even weirder, is the idea that we had to divide up personality traits between us, because there evidently weren’t enough for everyone.

Think about the traditional view of male identity, the things we tend to admire in other men: to be physically and mentally strong, ambitious, brave, daring, decisive, rational, protective, competitive and, of course, get lots of sex. These are good, strong male traits – this is what it means to be a real man, right? So women are the opposite of all that? Really? Try saying that to your mother, your sister, your girlfriend or your wife. I fuckin’ dare you. And if you have beliefs that you’re afraid to express out loud in front of a woman – and I don’t mean from an anonymous Twitter account – then you seriously need to ask yourself why that is.

And as society becomes more open, and it turns out not everyone considers themselves exclusively masculine or feminine, when some women might possess every one of these ‘male’ qualities and still have a vagina, the pressure of tradition for a man to be what a woman is not is fucking up young men’s perception of what it is to be a grown-up.

It’s not that these traits aren’t good things to have – of course they are. But who decided these were male traits? It must have happened a very long time ago, in what was a very different kind of world – so why do we still have to believe it now? Look at what traditional society regards as female traits: empathy, gentleness, sensitivity, compassion, tolerance, the innate need to nurture your children. But hang on a second . . . don’t guys need those too? What kind of asshole has no tolerance? What kind of a shit father would you be if you couldn’t be gentle or compassionate or nurture your children? Why are these only seen as female traits? Maybe it’s because they could be viewed as passive, even submissive qualities, conflicting with the image of the man’s man, the one who brings strength to the partnership, who kills wolves and fucks like a buffalo.

And empathy? Do we seriously not value empathy in men – the capacity to experience and share other people’s emotions? This perception, more than any other, is fucking up our concept of modern masculinity. Imagine the horror if half the entire human race lacked empathy, if they were essentially psychopaths. Empathy is the root of cooperation of every kind, the basis of every partnership, the reason the players on a football team can anticipate each other’s moves, it is foundation of family life. It is the reason soldiers are willing to give their lives for each other. Empathy is the basis of civilisation itself. How about we don’t just leave that to the women?

If men are expected to be strong and women are the opposite of men, then it follows that women must be weak, and the qualities we think of as passive or submissive must be feminine traits. A man who demonstrates these too often is seen as effeminate – and because of our ‘either/or’ mentality, when a man is compared to a woman, that comparison is invariably a negative one. He is less of a man, and less worthy of respect.

When did these traits get divided up and shared out between us? At what point did someone decide that neither gender was capable of having the full range of positive qualities? Because those assholes didn’t stop there; we had to divide up the emotions between us too – because no human being can have the full range of those either. Naturally, women got most of the passive, submissive ones: sadness, contentment, anxiety, etc. while the men got rage, lust and triumph, among others, stuff you could roar about with the lads while you were cooking your wild hog over the fire. To experience – and worse, express – softer emotions was to be like a woman. And we didn’t do that. After all, that’s what we had women for, to have those feelings for us. They were the soft, caring bit we added on when we needed it. They completed us . . . and crucially, we completed them. But on our terms, of course, because we were the stronger ones.

There is one aspect of our genders that we can say for certain is required for the success of our species: we need a sperm and an egg to procreate, and a womb to bear children. And if you don’t have a womb, then you sure as hell need someone who does, if your genes are to be passed on, one of our most primitive drives. So, because men lacked this one basic requirement, and because we had the advantage of strength, for most of our civilisation, a woman’s worth to society was based, not on her abilities or her character, but on the fertility of her womb. She became identified by the one thing that a man did not have.

Men didn’t feel the need to dominate women because women were inferior, but because they had something we didn’t, something we needed, but could never take from them. Control was the next best thing, contriving to ensure that a woman was not an individual, a complete human being in her own right . . . she was a resource, a step along the way to other humans. She was a means to an end.

All of this because men saw women as opposites, the other side, the opposition, the weaker sex, who could not be trusted with something that was so important to our species: The womb. And here we are, in our modern, enlightened age, still trying to pull the same old medieval shit, as if we’ve learned nothing at all.

There was no time or place when human relationships were more ‘normal’ than they are now, because such a normality has never existed, it has been in a state of continual change, as humans have. This is our normal now. We live in a world which is more enlightened than it has ever been, and yet we still allow our lives to be shaped by the beliefs of less developed people, who inhabited a far more primitive and less enlightened world. In terms of how men and women relate to each other, only one thing has stayed constant: We get one body and one mind to get through life and that’s it; it’s everything we’re born with and everything we die with. Your body is the only thing that is unarguably yours. And though we might all need social contact and love, we are not half-formed, with an incomplete quota of traits and emotions. We emerge from the womb a complete human being.

Because a lot happens during the nine months we spend in there.

Abortion is an uncomfortable subject, and the debate about it is an ugly one, with extreme voices on either side. I am not in favour of abortion in any circumstances, I think the closer a foetus gets to being able to survive outside the womb, the muddier this issue becomes. But it will never be a decision I have to make, and I believe every human being is entitled to control over their own body, and should not be condemned as a criminal for exercising that control, nor should others be condemned for helping them to exercise it. I have known women who had abortions, and I know how seriously each one took that decision. I also understand that some people believe that that early cluster of cells is a life in its own right, even when it is incapable of surviving without the mother’s body, and they must defend this life on principle. And yet it is a strange thing to believe that that bunch of cells can be considered a human being, when the voices of the past tell us that even fully grown humans are fundamentally incomplete.

Beyond the biological imperatives that are needed to keep us alive and healthy, and to propagate our species, everything about our lives has been, and can continue to be, shaped however we choose. There were no humans before us who had a more rightful claim on how humans should be defined. We are not bound by the obsolete wisdom of dead men, by the voices that claim a man’s self-esteem has to be based on the inadequacies of women. We are not bound by the beliefs that state a two-centimetre foetus is entitled to the rights of a fully formed human, but a grown woman does not have the right to make decisions about her own body.

Some time in the future, there may come a perfect time when the ugly act of abortion is unnecessary, when young people don’t make mistakes; when condoms don’t burst and the pill does not fail; when young girls and women are not raped; when families are not driven to the point where they can’t cope; when men do not desert women after getting them pregnant; when illness, injury or mutation will not prevent a foetus from growing into a child.

But the Eighth Amendment does not recognise any of these realities. It is a woefully blunt instrument that actively obstructs reason and compassion.

Women need us; our sisters and our friends, our girlfriends and wives and mothers. They need us to be strong and decisive and to take action to support them, not because they are weak or they are incomplete without us, but because that’s what a man should do for his fellow human beings, no matter who they are. It is not enough to sit back and say that men today can’t be blamed for what history has done to women, because that insidious influence still pervades our culture and our behaviour. We have to actively take a stand against that influence, against the extinct, less developed cultures that demand we obey their dogma, that are still trying to decide our society’s future for us. That is not their right – it is ours.

There are too many guys whose beliefs are still dictated to them by a long line of dead men from a distant past, and you can be sure they’ll be getting out to vote. We have to make our numbers count against them. I’ll be out on the 25th of May to vote for repealing the Eighth Amendment.

I hope you’ll be there too.

 

How an Illustrator Chooses Their Style

People who take an interest in children’s books and comics learn to recognise individual illustrators by their distinct styles, but not many outside of the trade itself realise that illustrators can and do often work in more than one style. Nor do they understand how an illustrator chooses the styles they use most often – and how those choices can affect their career. You might assume that the style they’re known for is one they chose at the beginning of their career, developed deliberately, and that they fully intended to end up where they are. If so, you’d be amazed at the random things that can influence an artist’s path.

Illustrators rarely achieve the same kind of recognition as writers in children’s books, though creative credit is far more evenly balanced in comics. If you want to become recognisable as an artist, to have a brand, it’s best to have a single distinct style that will become tied in to your professional identity. This style will, in turn, dictate the kind of work that’s offered to you, which will affect how much money you can earn and the recognition you might receive. It can also mean that you can be in fashion as an illustrator . . . so you can also fall out of fashion.

There’s also the matter of what you want spend your time drawing or painting. The subject of your art might well be a major element in the enjoyment of the work, whether it’s caricatures, animals, machines, superheroes, architecture or whatever. Part of loving the making of art is the passion you have for your subject.

Unless you’re lucky enough to make a living from one style in your chosen subject early on in your career, however, you’re going to end up taking on a range of different jobs to get established . . . and those early jobs will have a serious influence on your development, and on the future of your career. And though I’d say technology is changing the nature of that development more than ever, art has always been influenced by the technology of the age.

Many illustrators can and do work in a variety of styles, either because they never settled on one they wanted to concentrate on, or because the opportunity to specialise never presented itself. For me, it was a bit of both. Some who do have an established style will also feel the need to branch out from time to time, either to take on more varied kinds of jobs, or just for the sake of doing something different. We learn early on that persistence and pure chance are as important to illustrators as they are to writers.

Changing drawing styles is much more common in animation, where every artist has to work within whatever style is being used for each production. Individuality has less of a chance to express itself, because unless you’re making your own film, you’ve a specific part to play in a bigger operation. You have model sheets to stick to, to ensure a unified look to the visuals. Corporate comics companies like Marvel or DC take a similar approach; if you want to work for them, you have to conform to their style first, though you’re expected to find ways to give it your own distinct flavour.

Imagine yourself at the start of your illustration career: the biggest influences will be the artists you love, the ones whose techniques you copy over and over again, though they may be a wide and varied bunch. To pick some at random, let’s say your favourites include Norman Rockwell, Beatrix Potter, Charles M Schulz and Jim Fitzpatrick; four very different illustrators. Which aspects of their work do you choose to emulate? Perhaps you decide you want to have two or three styles you can concentrate on.

When I was starting out, nobody I knew drew on computer, though digital art was starting to find its feet. Even if you did just settle on two or three styles, the tangible materials you chose to work in would affect the look of your work. Pencil gives a different line to a brush; dip pen, felt tip or technical pen will be different again. Your hand physically moves across the paper in a different way for each of these tools; most people are more comfortable with one rather than another. Does your black and white shading style lend itself to pencil, charcoal, ink or paint? Each one has a distinct finish. If you are providing what we used to call ‘camera-ready’ artwork for someone to scan – which was almost always the case for an illustrator, back in the day – necessity will guide your decisions. Materials like charcoal, chalk or oil pastel aren’t practical, being easily smudged or scuffed during transport or scanning.

Your choice of paint is a factor too: do you work in thin washes, as you would with water colour or ink, or do you go for thicker layers, like acrylic or heavy gouache? You normally wouldn’t use oil paints because they are too slow to dry. There’s all of this consider, even before you decide how you draw noses and eyes and all that stuff. When you do settle on a style, choosing a different material to finish it can be enough to introduce some variety.

Then there’s the time you need to think about. If the job’s not paying much, or if you’re working to tight deadlines (or both), this affects your choice of techniques. Black and white is faster than colour, line and wash is faster than fully painted work. Simple cartoons are faster than realistic drawings. Expressionistic, gestural art can be faster than a tight, neat finish – though not always. Even small tweaks one way or the other are already influencing the style that will, through repetition and habit, become a natural technique for you.

Or maybe you’re working in Photoshop, or one of the many painting apps available these days. As styluses and slates have improved, more and more artists are drawing straight onto computer, able to switch ‘drawing tools’ at the click of an icon. In which case, your style is being influenced directly by the technology and what it can do – and also what you can afford. Most of the artists working today however, started off using physical materials and many still rely on them for some stages, despite providing the digital finished product that’s expected by publishers these days. Their drawing and painting styles will reflect this.

Even working digitally, things like detail, perspective and the need for reference images all add time, which means extra cost, which either the client has to pay for, or else you have to put in that additional time and effort at your own expense – which you might well do if it’s the type of commission you want more of. Because it’s not just how you’re drawing or painting, what you’re creating is important to your career too. Being able to work fast does mean the ability to make more money, but only if the money’s there to be made. Normally, if a job doesn’t pay much, you get it done quickly and move on to the next one. The client won’t suddenly offer to pay you more for doing nicer work. Cost will dictate other factors too; for instance, if a book’s internal pages are printed in black and white or colour . . . and all of this will affect what the illustrator has to show to a client for the next job they pitch for.

A professional illustrator’s portfolio should be made up primarily of paid work. Prospective clients don’t want to see you doing it as a hobby – you have to prove you can produce quality art to a brief and a deadline.  They’ll judge you on what they see in front of them, so your past work is the single biggest factor in what future jobs you can get. The nature of paying work available to you, the opportunities you’ve been offered, start to shape what kind of artist you are.

Starting out, you may want to concentrate on a style for which there isn’t much work available in Ireland or the UK, say fully painted fantasy book covers or some funky collage work. In the meantime, you need to get established and make a living, so you take any paying work you can get, so you let the demands of the work steer your style, because you want more of the stuff that pays, so you can keep making a living. And all the time, you’re trying to work your way closer to the jobs you want to do, often by doing your own pictures on the side. Not only do you need to show other people this kind of stuff, you also need practise doing it, so you’ll be able for it when you get the chance.

Talk to most book illustrators, and you’ll find out they had a long and varied road to the work they do now – and chances are, they’re still taking on other types of jobs.

My background is more mixed up than most, which has been incredibly frustrating at times, though it’s ended up serving me well. I wanted to do that fully painted sci-fi and fantasy work. And the wacky cartoons. And the expressionistic stuff. And the Marvel-comic-style stuff. And the . . . Actually, what I really wanted was to be able to illustrate whatever story I wrote, and in an appropriate style. For me, there were so many different kinds of career I wanted, but telling my stories took priority over getting recognition for a single style of art. The only problem was, that meant getting published as a writer as well as an illustrator. Talk about making life hard for yourself.

For a long time, I took any job I could that paid. I did cartoons and graphic design and illustrated children’s books and school books. It didn’t pay much, so I learned to draw fast, so that I could make the time worth the money. I was a background layout designer for an animation company. I did paintings on commission on anything from paper to walls, motorbike helmets to leather jackets. Ireland was a small market and it was almost impossible to get enough work to make a living in just one style, and back then, working for clients abroad inevitably meant having to move abroad.

I don’t know if I’d have been able to keep working if I’d stayed in Ireland, but there’s no question my illustration style would have been influenced by the decision – perhaps I’d have stopped trying to make a living from varying my style, got another job and concentrated on honing one or two styles and then sought out commissions from publishers in the UK or the US. There just wasn’t enough work to be had in Ireland back then, despite the fact that there were very few full-time commercial artists in the country. Most of the work didn’t pay well and the use of cheap stock photos was just starting to eat into our commissions. I was seeing one person after another dropping out of the trade, so eventually, like so many before me, I made the move to London.

At a meeting with a couple of people from the Association of Illustrators, I was advised to have a maximum of three styles of art in my portfolio to avoid confusing potential clients. I imagine they’d offer the same advice now – I would. I ended up spending nearly a year working night-shifts in security as I tried finding illustration work, the meagre pay supplemented with regular cartoons for a local newspaper. Any hope of a clearly defined path into London’s illustration market was undone when I got a job as an art director in a small advertising firm, where I expanded into copy writing. Having an illustrator on staff was very useful to a small company with limited in-house resources. Weirdly, we ended up illustrating a higher proportion of our ads than a company like this normally would. Once again, I found myself responding to the demands of the jobs, rather than my own tastes, working in whatever style and whatever medium got the message across.

The key point here is that, not only was I not working in a specific style, but the subject matter of each illustration was out of my control. Commercial artists don’t get to choose what they create. I had to draw everything from engineering parts to Santa Claus for corporate Christmas cards; cartoon gags about computer telephony to the Photoshopping of product photos. It was enjoyable, and sharpened my skills further, but – ironically, considering the nature of the business – I was no further along the road in terms of developing a ‘brand’.

For me, this wasn’t such a bad thing, because the books were always going to come first anyway, but as I’ve already said, look into the past of any illustrator, and you’ll probably find stories like this. I came back to Ireland and found that publishing was changing. Illustration was being taken more seriously, and the technology meant there were more opportunities to work for clients abroad, while staying at home.

As the nature of the business has changed, the opportunities, but also the demands, on illustrators have been changing too. Illustration and design was going digital even as I was starting to learn my trade in the nineties. Physical artwork is in decline; working on paper has its advantages, and its pleasures, but it’s slower, because it needs drying time and scanning, steps we can now cut out of the process. I still love working with traditional materials, but they’re harder to fix and change, either for yourself or at the request of the client. The range of tools and effects available in art apps now is extraordinary, though the fundamental drawing and painting skills still apply. It will be interesting to see what happens as the influence of those physical materials fades and younger artists form new kinds of habits from scratch, some of whom might never get their hands dirty on charcoal or paint. We can already see new habits forming based on effects, short-cuts and trendy techniques that didn’t exist ten or fifteen years ago – just as my generation would have developed ours. And are still developing ours.

So next time you find yourself admiring an illustrator’s work, maybe go and have a look at their website or wherever you might find their gallery or portfolio, and see what else they have there. You could be surprised by what other kinds of things they do. And you might wonder what random happenings helped bring them to this point in their career, and where they might still want to go from there. There’s always a lot more than what you see on the page.

 

 

 

 

Never Knowing

I want to talk about uncertainty, and how it is both a blessing and a curse for artists. It is the cause of our doubt, our frustration and insecurity, but it is also the abyss we choose to venture into, that we mine for treasures and attempt to fill with our art. Without that open space, we couldn’t do what we do. It is something most people try to avoid at all costs – hell, the fear of it is the basis for every religion – and yet artists have to spend much of their time seeking it out in order to explore it. I think it’s the biggest factor in people steering clear of artistic careers, or giving up on them after they’ve tested the waters.

There is a mistaken perception of an association between creative people and mental illness, where it’s assumed that, at the very least, you must be an eccentric or a prima donna to be a good artist. There’s little evidence to back this up, and in my experience, professional artists tend to be pretty well balanced, mentally healthy people, at least in part because of what they do – though we are all somewhere on the same mental health spectrum, and it is certainly the case that creative work can help people with mental health problems, so they can well be drawn to it for that reason. One of the main reasons creative people’s behaviour can often be perceived as odd is simply the extent to which they are compelled to explore areas with no clear paths or boundaries. They must deliberately seek out uncertainty on a daily basis. Of course, life itself is full of uncertainty, everyone faces it to some degree or other, it’s just that for most people, they do so reluctantly. People tend to crave security, or at the very least, narrowly defined risk. There is no clear career path for a professional artist, no obvious ladder to climb, so they have to be enthusiastic about their future, while never knowing what’s ahead. This is rarely regarded as ‘normal’ behaviour.

I’m a writer and illustrator, so these are my terms of reference, though I think most artists will recognise the states I’m going to describe. Let’s talk about the uncertain nature of an artist’s work first. As a writer, I stare at a blank page and think about how to fill it with words that will a) make people want to read them, and b) have something worth saying. As an illustrator, even if I have a brief from someone else of what to draw, I have to choose where to put the pencil to paper for that first stroke and how I’m going to create a picture, in what style, with what materials. When I worked in advertising, our creative director – a man who matched the stereotype of an artist; chaotic to deal with, though he had a brilliant mind – once said that he thought the most creative thinking was to be found in advertising agencies, because of the range of areas they often had to produce ideas for, on subjects they didn’t get to choose. Working in that industry had never been my ambition, and I fundamentally disagreed with him, making one simple argument: Every ad has a starting point with the product it has to sell. Art has no clear starting point at all. When I’m setting off on a book, I look at a blank page and there’s no obvious place to begin, no clear objective to achieve.

Every word you write for a story has meaning; each new word you add to the text is a variable that can change the direction and meaning of the narration – it’s an option that, in turn, leads to a range of almost limitless other options that can lead you in an infinite number of directions. And in every word you write, is the hope that people will find something that appeals, that it will make them want to read it, and to keep reading. It’s all questions with no right answers. It is the contemplation of this gaping abyss of potential that scares the shit out of inexperienced writers taking on their first novel, even as it might excite them.

This is the kind of uncertainty that I haven’t feared in a long time. I enjoy it now, I look forward to it. I savour the anticipation of the special moment when I write the first line. It’s a treat. I learned long ago to plan ahead, how to prepare for it and how to tackle each new question as it’s asked. Even so, the nerves are always tingling a bit when I’m setting off.

Drawing or painting has a different flavour of uncertainty. These are practical skills that demand the manipulation of physical materials – your ability to convey your thoughts is limited to what you are capable of showing directly, leaving less to the viewer’s imagination. The clearer the picture, the less open it is to interpretation, but it’s also more accessible, as it is not constrained by the limits of language. Anyone, whether they can read or not, can understand a picture if you’re communicating clearly – visual art is the only truly universal language we have. But you don’t automatically begin at the top of the page in the left-hand corner, so where on the page do you choose to start, and how? Which direction do you move the pencil? And where next? And where after that? Leaning heavier or lighter changes the quality of the line. I can use a harder or softer pencil. What if I use a brush, or dip-pen, or charcoal or a technical pen? What if I do it on screen, rather than on paper? And these are only the most basic questions. A different shape of eye or mouth, the slightest tilt of an eyebrow can change an expression, change the meaning. More blue than red in the depths of a shadow can suggest a different atmosphere. Again, decades of doing this has made this a pretty normal experience for me, and yet there’s still so much I can’t predict at the outset. You either embrace this uncertainty, learn to craft within it and love it for what it is, or you’ll run a mile from it.

I like to use stories to explore ideas, particularly big meaty ideas I have lots of questions about; I have a need to pull them apart, and particularly in my novels. But the bigger the idea, the harder it is for people to get emotionally engaged with it, so making a gripping story out of that involves an extra dimension of difficulty. It adds to the uncertainty, but I enjoy the challenge. However, the point of art is to get something that’s in your head into someone else’s head in such a way that they willingly accept it. They have to invest themselves in the experience. No matter how good you are, that other person’s interpretation of what you’ve made is completely beyond your control. You do your best to make yourself clear, but this is a different mind, that sees the world in ways you can’t anticipate – which is why every writer needs an editor to tell you if you’re making any sense to outside of your head.

This is another level of uncertainty and unlike your piece of art, there’s nothing you can do about it, you just have to let go and accept it – much easier said than done. You can never know what’s going to happen to your creation once it’s absorbed into someone else’s imagination, mixed in with all the other stuff going on in there. Now their opinion of your work – and, inevitably, of you as a person – is being influenced by their own views and experiences. You are subject to subjectivity. And in the age of social media, anyone can publish their opinion of you and your work.

Just about everyone’s job is subject to the opinions of others, where there can be differing views over even the most straightforward task. In art however, every goddamn stroke you draw or paint, every word you type, can be argued and debated over, with no clear resolution. Every mind has a different view of that work’s effect, of its quality. Two equally expert critics can judge your work, one considering it nonsense, the other a masterpiece. It’s impossible to have a clear right answer in art. In fact, even reaching the point where people actually will discuss and argue about your work can be a major struggle. Being the subject of an argument can seem a strange thing to which one should aspire. And how, in the end, do we judge that quality? By sales? By critical acclaim and awards? Weirdly, in publishing, one is often seen as an alternative to the other. Go figure. Me, I want both.

Moving outwards again, let’s look at the very nature of a creative career, which is prompting the thoughts I’ve been having lately, because this kind of career seems to be getting increasingly difficult – and certainly harder for new writers and illustrators to establish an lasting career. Art is valued less while being spread further; artists, paradoxically, are doing ever more work for free in the hope that they might be valued more. Publishing is a prime example of this occupational uncertainty, because though self-publishing is becoming an ever more realistic alternative, most writers and illustrators seek access to their audiences through the distribution provided by traditional publishers, believing they’re not ‘proper’ writers until they’ve found this, often arbitrary, approval. Few of those hopeful souls realise how insecure and unstable a life still lies beyond that approval, if you choose to devote yourself full-time to writing, and how many new skills you will need to become the kind of entrepreneur you must be to make this art your career. And it starts with not knowing, surrendering control of your career entirely to someone else’s judgement, with you pitching your book and waiting, pitching and waiting, pitching and waiting . . . that’s only the earliest stage of the uncertainty that begins with the completion of a manuscript.

If, as an illustrator, you find a single style that provides you with a reliable supply of work for the duration of your career (I haven’t), if as a writer you achieve the kind of wealth from sales of a particular book or series that means you’ll never have to worry about money again (I haven’t), then you’re one of a tiny few (I’m not). To be fair, I probably haven’t done myself any favours on either front; I’ve always wanted to publish a wide variety of books for different ages, and illustrate in a range of styles and as a result, perhaps I’ve spread myself very thin. But still . . . I’m having a good time.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that having doubts about your life or your future makes you a better artist, or somehow stimulates creativity. Frankly, having to worry about where the next mortgage payment comes from or paying the electricity bill is not good for your head and I need my head in good working order to get stuff done. I’m creative enough without having mundane shit to worry about, thanks very much.

But for most professional artists, uncertainty is a constant companion, one we have to learn to accept. On the negative side, it is a destructive force. It undermines your confidence, demanding huge self-belief to keep going. It often means financial insecurity and the stress that accompanies it; despite your best efforts, you can appear unreliable and both antisocial and attention-seeking. What are often characterised as the eccentricities of a creative professional are merely the visible manifestations of the demands of your work. It takes extraordinary discipline to keep at something that might take months to complete with little immediate reward – or possibly no reward at all – working your ass off in a way that can mean thinking for hours at a time, while wondering what the hell you’re doing with your day. Doubts about your future can get under your skin and eat away at you like acid. It’s hard to find your ‘Off’ switch, because there’s almost never a point where you can say, ‘Right, that’s me sorted for the next year or two’. It’s hard to relax. You don’t like taking days off work, or taking holidays – like any self-employed person, if you go away on holiday, you’re paying twice, once for the holiday and once for the work you’re missing. You only take a sick day if you physically can’t get out of bed.

More than anything else, it can be exhausting, not knowing what’s ahead, what’s best to work on next or constantly trying to come up with ideas for which there is no clear objective, no easy standard to measure it by, or set criteria to be met. Never knowing wears you out. There have been a few periods in my life when I had a job where I earned regular wages, and while there were downsides, it made structuring every other area of my life much easier, even when there was my own work to do on the side. Working as a self-employed artist is quite different.

There’s no such thing as a normal day, a normal number of hours to work, a normal amount of money to charge or to expect. There’s no such thing as ‘normal‘ at all – nothing to measure your career against, to say ‘This is where I should be at this stage, what I should be doing. This is what it takes to be a success’. A book could be worth everything to a publisher or nothing at all. Nobody’s sure about anything at the outset. Even the most successful artists can suffer bad luck, their careers can run out, or they can just produce a turkey. Publishers and agents will often talk about what they’re looking for in a fresh new book, what’s going to be the next big thing, what the year’s trends will be, but the longer I work in this industry, the more ridiculous and self-aggrandizing these predictions sound. The truth is that nobody knows. Nobody knows what readers will seize upon, so much depends on the environment of reading, as much as the material itself . . . and by the time they do know, it’ll be something else before they can reproduce that success.

I always find myself sighing with resignation when I have to fill out an official form. It is hard to find a place for us in the official structures of society. Banks, public services, institutions, utility companies . . . in fact, any organisation that deals with large numbers of people, demand certainty. They can make little accommodation for the lack of it. They base their decisions upon, and operate upon, the assumption that people earn weekly or monthly, that they earn the same every year, have completely predictable work costs, that their careers have established paths, that they work set hours, drive set distances . . . None of these things are true for an artist. Nor are there any universally recognised certificates or professional qualifications to establish your expertise or state what level your career is at. I don’t have a third level qualification and not once in nearly thirty years have I ever been asked for one when looking for work. Official forms often fail to provide us with boxes we can fill out with any real assurance. And if you can’t, you are given extra hoops to jump through, often costing added time and/or expense. To get a mortgage years ago, I had to pay an accountant to go through three years of my accounts, to assure the bank that I earned as much as I claimed. Which would be fair enough – except this was the same bank I’d had my accounts with since I’d finished school. They had twenty years of records they could check; my income was just too varied for them to make a judgement for themselves. Now I have an accountant do my tax return every year, which, after fuel for the car, is often my single biggest business expense.

The phenomenon of uncertainty affects how you look at the future. Ironically, having loosened up enough to acknowledge the hard fact of never knowing for certain, you can become conservative in your choices, scared to take chances. If you don’t know what money you’re going to make next year (or next month), you don’t just avoid spending money, you avoid situations that might put you in a position where might have to spend money – resisting social pressure on this can take excruciating effort. Paradoxically, you can also end up trying to avoid starting things that might provide new opportunities, but will definitely cost you time, effort, money and possibly some of the good will of those around you. It might drop you in embarrassing situations, as risk so often does. This is when your career can really start to tighten in about you, constricting you, where you’re limiting your choices rather than expanding them. Sometimes this is necessary for survival, the occupational equivalent of battening down the hatches in a storm, and I’ve found myself in this position any number of times, but it takes real strength of will to stop it getting to you and deciding to just leave those hatches shut for good and going off and finding some other way to make a living. Sometimes, having a vivid imagination isn’t such a great thing, when you’re staring into that storm.

But here’s the thing about having a job this weird, this uncertain. Mingled in with all that uncertainty in this nutty career, is tantalising possibility, just as there is in the art we produce. Never knowing what’s there can be a good thing, as well as a bad thing. Take up a more reliable career and you’ll find a clearer path, but that also means a path with less potential for the unexpected. For the extraordinary. No matter who you are in life, what path you choose, there is the chance to explore if you’re that way inclined. Choosing to make art your daily occupation however, to commit yourself to a career in it, means you’re allowing that exploration to shape your life, to shape you as a person. You will retain that sense of wonder many people lose as they grow out of childhood. It means embracing that uncertainty and all the shit and thrills that come with it. Like believing in a religion, (or completely rejecting it), you have to surrender to a certain amount of acceptance – of the insecurity, of the things you can never know, of your lack of control over how your work is perceived, and of the future itself. It’s uncomfortable and unsettling and it can threaten ruin and promise glory and make you look really bloody bonkers at some times, and be embarrassing or hugely frustrating at others, but it makes for a passionate life. I know very few people who’ve thrown themselves into it and regretted the experience, and many more who’ve never taken the risk and constantly regret it.

Some people are lucky enough to have careers where they can get to do what they’re passionate about as a normal, reliable job. Art is rarely that kind of career. My question would always be: What’s it worth to you, to be able to spend your time doing what you love? We have one life, and apart from death, the only certainty is uncertainty. I think we should get stuck in and make the most of it.

 

 

Want to Make a Living? Let’s Stop Undermining Our Own Profession

I was approached recently by a reputable company who asked me to contribute a piece for an anthology of contemporary Irish writers. There was to be no fee. They expected me to to provide the work for free, because of who they were and, presumably, the exposure I’d get for it. They were a commercial business, not a charity, though they said any profits would go towards supporting emerging writers – as if established writers don’t need ‘support’.

I said no, because I don’t work for free, but I gather enough other people have said yes for the project to go ahead. I don’t want to name and shame this company, because I do have a lot of respect for them (which is probably why others have said yes), I’ve done things with them in the past and probably will again. But it highlights a problem that’s as much to do with writers themselves, as it is the businesses they work with.

While writing as a career has become increasingly professional, with writers taking on more and more of the promotion of the work, we are also expected to pitch far more finished products to publishers, put up with smaller advances, less thorough editing, shorter shelf lives and income from our books eaten into by discounting in an online race to the bottom. Alienate 1-New RulesWe have to live with the fact that experience and expertise are valued less than a fresh face or a social media presence, that celebrity deals will put money in the pockets of people who, most of the time, do not write, and consider books sideline merchandise, depriving other books of marketing budgets and professional writers of income.

In the midst of all this, writers are allowing our expectations of what our industry owes us to be lowered, instead of raised, as the demands on us increase. Because people think it’s okay to ask a writer for free, we assume we have to accept this as normal. Do try this on any other profession whose services you pay fees for.

If you are a newly published writer, and you’re asked to write for free, I know how keen you might be for a chance to show what you can do, but I’ve been there, I’ve been doing this for a long time, and I can assure you, publishing works on a ‘if you don’t ask, you don’t get’ basis. If you work for free, you’ll just end up getting more jobs that pay the same amount – not a great foundation on which to base a career. It simply isn’t worth it in the long run. If you want to be taken seriously, take yourself seriously.

If you’re a well established, even an A-list author, please think about the environment you’re helping create and sustain for other writers. If you do work for free for a commercial business, because you caStealing Books-Printing Pressn afford to make the grand gesture, you undermine the ability of others to earn money from their work. If you don’t take a stand on this kind of thing, nobody else will and nothing will change.

I’m not anti-tech or against all the progress publishing has made, nor do I think there was some golden age when art was universally respected and considered a rational career. But even as writing becomes increasingly commodified and distributed with greater ease and less cost, the money made from it is being drawn away from the people who create it. Look at everyone else who works in the book industry: Editors get paid. Designers get paid. PR people and admin people and marketing people and receptionists get paid. Printers get paid. Distributors get paid. Booksellers get paid. Librarians get paid. None of these people would have anything to work with, if not for the those who create the stuff in the first place. Writers (and to a lesser extent, illustrators) are the only ones who can’t realistically expect to make a living in publishing.

Please, please, please, I’m asking you this not just for yourself, but for our profession, PLEASE DON’T WORK FOR FREE. If we don’t value our own work, how can we expect anyone else to?

The Language You Didn’t Know You’d Learned

Pictures are the language you learned without realising it. From before you were born, they have been influencing, informing and enriching your life. They were the illustrations in the books about babies your parents read with nervous anticipation as they waited for you to emerge from the womb. They were the health promotion posters on the walls of the hospital on the day you arrived. They were the diagrams on the instructions your parents followed to put the car seat in, to put together the baby gear and the toys that would promote development.

They were the illustrations on those toys, on the play-mat and your high-chair tray, your plastic plate and your bib. They were the images on the cloth books and board books that you chewed as your mum and dad gazed down at you with love. They were the cartoons you watched as you grew. As your parents and teachers first taught you to read, a systematic process laid out in the school curriculum, they used pictures to help you understand the meaning of words. But there was no systematic process to teach you how to read the lines, shapes and colours that made two-dimensional symbols on paper. Easy Option-Book BlastIt was taken for granted that you would understand these without being taught.

Even as you mastered reading words, you continued to read illustrations, because they made the early struggles easier, and still they showed you things that would contort words into knots to achieve the same meaning. These two languages were two aspects of the same thing, human expression, each as valuable as the other, though you wouldn’t know that from the way the world treats them. As ‘reading books with pictures’ became an idiom for ignorance and stupidity, as illustrators were sidelined, given a lower status than writers in publishing lists and book awards, you still looked at pictures in newspapers, magazines, adverts, adult cartoons, instruction manuals and road signs. You graduated from comics and cartoon strips, ‘growing up’, but it was still okay to look at political cartoons that could convey more meaning with one image than many of the news articles you read. Imagine the worldwide web without pictures. Imagine if the only images we had were the ones that could be photographed.

And now, as a new generation of parents around the world sit down to read picture books to their children – without explaining to them how to read pictures – remember what it was like when you were that age. Remember that you were able to learn this language of illustration so effortlessly, so instinctively, because someone else put in the time, hard work, imagination, passion and expertise to understand how a change in the curve of this line can be the difference between showing contentment and regret; how this shadow can give the illusion of depth to a two-dimensional image, how adding this colour will change the entire feeling of this picture.

You can read this language because an illustrator uses it so skilfully and expresses themselves so clearly. It is the language we use to learn other languages and it is the only universal language the world has.

We could do more to show our appreciation for that.

Mind Your Language

It was a typical evening in our home. Our fifteen-year-old boy had just finished chasing his two little sisters around the house to get them good and wound up before bedtime. I was in the middle of explaining to our five-year-old why she couldn’t sleep in the cat’s bed, when our six-and-a-half-year-old (that half is very important), asked me:

‘When you stick up your middle finger, does that mean the F-word?’

If you’ve got kids, you’ll know that tricky questions can come at you out of nowhere. I suppressed the urge to laugh, partly because I didn’t want to make a big thing of this, but also because I want my kids to feel comfortable asking me questions and swearing is a serious business which everyone should learn to do properly. Apparently, she’d brought it up because it was the subject of some serious conversation in school. She goes to a small country school, where first and second class are in one room together, meaning you can have kids of six to nine all learning together, which is a pretty big gap in development. And not every lesson is being delivered by the teacher. WT9-The PosseParticularly when the older ones have older brothers or sisters they’re learning from and then passing that knowledge on.

Swearing is a life skill, and when my girls grow up, I want to be sure they’re doing it with some fluency. As my father once solemnly told me, you have to save up your swearing for when you really need it, so it has the greatest effect. And he was a psychologist, so he knew what he was talking about. That said, I don’t feel swearing is a life skill that a six-and-a-half-year-old necessarily needs, so I didn’t try to explain that, at least when I was growing up, two fingers meant ‘Fuck Off’, while flipping the finger up at someone meant ‘Up Yours’ (a phrase that sadly seems to have fallen out of favour in recent times) and, in our area at least, we were pretty specific about the differences. This distinction is open to interpretation in various places around the world, but I settled for telling her that ‘No, it doesn’t normally mean the F-word, it means another rude word.’

‘What word?’

‘I’m not going to start teaching you how to swear yet, honey.’

I only realized after I’d said it, that I’d included the word ‘yet’. She remembers stuff like that.

‘The S-word is only a bit rude,’ our five-year-old added helpfully, as she continued to eye up the cat’s bed.

‘It is still pretty rude,’ I told her. ‘And I don’t want you using it.’

I was a bit late on this one, as she’d already used it a couple of times in the past (that I knew of), casually and in proper context. Fuck knows where they pick this shit up, but then having a little kid can be like having a walking voice recorder following you around. One that can play back key phrases when you’re all out in public. EH22-Giving OutAnyway, there was our six-and-a-half-year-old in school, having conversations about swearing and it got me thinking about books (it doesn’t take much to get me thinking about books, but sometimes it’s actually relevant).

For a writer, dialogue is a vital way of defining your character. Each one should be distinctive and so, as in real life, they should speak in distinctive ways. When your characters cannot be permitted to swear, you’re hobbled in the ways you can have your characters expressing themselves, and it means it’s harder to reflect how people speak in real life.

If you work in children’s books, this is a restraint you accept. It comes with the job.

Sometimes, though, it feels like we’re applying just a bit too much restraint. This recent discussion with my daughter was further evidence of the fact that children’s books are perpetually behind the development of children when it comes to any area where parents’ inhibitions create an awkwardness and result in prohibition. We’re embarrassed to talk about it, so we ban any discussion of it. This, in turn, drives the child to seek their information on personal issues from other sources. Sources which can often be less than reliable.

Most of us teach our young kids not to swear. This is very natural, as we want them to use language appropriately and swearing can be unpleasant, disrespectful and, at times, very hurtful. We want to teach them to speak properly, to communicate well, before they venture into the murky world of foul language. If you write children’s books, this is one of the thorniest areas to navigate – the restraints are tight enough in Ireland and the UK, but look towards the US market and you have to cut back even further.

I write for different age groups and with different publishers, and standards vary slightly from company to company, even from editor to editor, but it is largely decided by what is considered acceptable in schools. And schools can tolerate very little in the way of bad language. For books aimed at primary school level, you’d be lucky to get away with terms like: ‘bloody’, ‘flippin”, ‘crap’, ‘damn’ or even the mildest blasphemy. WT12-Talking In ClassWhat can be accepted in the classroom comes down to an individual teacher’s judgement and they regard it as a practical issue; feature this language in books used in school and it’s feared the kids will start using it in class. And nobody wants kids swearing at teachers – that way lies educational armageddon. And children’s publishers want to sell into schools, ‘cos that’s a big part of their market. So the writers who work with those publishers willingly conform to those expectations.

However.

I’d be delighted if books were the biggest influence on a child’s language. As with any subject that we are reluctant to broach with our kids, like nudity and sex, for example (which I’ve already written about), when we fail to provide the necessary information, children go looking for it elsewhere. They’re going to pick up stuff from other kids around them, and from us, their parents, of course, in those moments when we fail to censor our own language, but it doesn’t stop there. Even with the best filters in the world (which we normally fail to apply), kids will pick up words on the web that would have us wincing in social anguish. Which is fair enough – I mean, hardly any of us learned our meatiest obscenities from reputable sources.

But their range of sources is infinitely wider than when most of us were young and what’s more, the stakes are far higher. Because once they get involved in social networks, they’re not just talking, they’re publishing. WT14-Twins UpsetEverything they say is accessible to a potentially huge audience and could cause much greater hurt, offence or misunderstanding. And could be permanently on display.

The range of influences on teenagers’ language, for instance, is enormous – and I think it’s making them more sophisticated as a result, both in terms of vocabulary and comprehension. They are more aware of the nuances of language, more conscious of how they use it, because they are exposed to so many people who use it well. But in terms of understanding the potential consequences of what they might say, most of them are way behind where they need to be. And given that media-savvy celebrities, politicians and other public figures are constantly being caught out and made to suffer for it, we can’t hope to train young people not to say stupid things online. I’m a forty-two-year-old professional writer, more conscious than most of the meaning of words, and I still spew more verbal shite than I’d like to admit.

Not here, obviously. These are pearls, I’m giving you here. Pearls, I tell ya.

Speech is still our primary form of expression, of communicating ideas – most of us still talk more than we read – though written words are now giving speech a run for its money, and our ever-present phones are blurring the difference between the two. The advantage of the written word used to be that we tended to think a bit more before we wrote. Now, with texts and social networks? Not so much. Those fingers can dump you in it every bit as fast as your mouth can. And those words can hang there, reaching one person after the next, long after we’ve stopped thinking about them. Unlike speech, they don’t evaporate the moment they’re created.

Which is why kids need to start learning, and learning early, the difference between expressive but relatively harmless swearwords, potentially hurtful insults and the kind of language that borders on a hate crime. And because this is often just a matter of degrees, of nuance and the character of the people who might hear or read it, it should be part of their education in communication. WT17-Jason's NightmareThe best we can hope for, is that we give them decent foundations to work from, which is what the education system tries to do.

In fiction, we should be able to go a bit further. I have had a discussion with an editor about whether an unpleasant character should utter a racist comment. She had misgivings because . . . then there’d be a racist comment in the book – and this was in a novel, with ‘Unsuitable for Younger Readers’ printed on the back. The same has happened with a homophobic comment. It was only reflective of how that teenager would speak, but I had to argue to have it in. Never mind that that is the kind of language that a child will encounter in real life. Let’s be clear about this, I wasn’t using these terms as my voice in the narration; these were uttered by characters in scenes I was depicting, scenes that I wanted to make as realistic as possible. But we had to mull over whether they could be permitted or not.

In books for children in primary school, I can’t use language that any kid will hear yelled out at a football match. I can’t use the correct anatomical terms for intimate body parts most human beings have. I recently had to take the word ‘pee’ out of a story because it was feared it would cause a disruptively riotous case of the giggles if it was read out in class. Well, no wonder, if they’re never allowed say it. And yet every school has toilets that the students are using every day. But we have to be careful about mentioning what actually happens in these tiled sanctums. In another story, I had to remove a very inoffensive reference to reindeer shit too, for the same reason. Referring to doing a poo or a pee is most definitely not swearing, but it is put in the same category of language.

Even with older readers, those who are reading novels, but don’t quite count as ‘young adults’ yet, if we want to create a situation that illustrates what’s wrong with using the word ‘gay’ as an insult, as a synonym for ‘stupid’, ‘weak’, ‘pathetic’ or ‘uncool’ – as it is so often used – it sometimes feels like we have to sell it as a social issues story, not . . . y’know . . . just a story. This justifies the reference to it in a book. To feature the derogatory uses of the word, even while making it clear why they’re unpleasant, the story almost has to be about being gay.

We could, instead, just show the effect of this kind of abuse on a character our reader has developed some empathy for, as part of a story that’s about something else entirely.  The same goes for terms that are racist, sexist, insulting to someone’s religion or bigoted and hurtful in other ways. But writers can’t differentiate between these harsh terms and comparatively harmless swearwords if we can’t use any of them in our stories.

We need to start making these distinctions as early as possible, using language that’s appropriate to the age of the child, rather than the conventions of the school system. By lumping this vast variety of terms into the same category, and banning the whole damn lot of them, we are giving up most of the influence we can have over how they’re used . . . and, a crucial point for the publishing industry, we’re making books seem less relevant to young people’s lives.

And yet it’s in books where this can be handled best. Books are quiet, private and deliberately exact in their language. They have time to be thoughtful, to offer context and can be digested at the reader’s own pace. They also have the advantage of only being accessible to a reader of the intended level or above. Reading is a natural form of filtering or certification. You can’t access the material inside if you’re not able to read it.

But by the time the kids are reading stories where we can explore these issues, they’ll have been wondering for years why nobody swears in books. And they will unconsciously attribute this absence to the suspicious relationship publishing has with the education system.

Fortunately, they don’t need books for this kind of thing, because they are busy surfing the web, as well as writing to and for each other, and they can take delight in being as colourful, expressive and offensive as they like – using terms they can learn and share across ever-expanding networks.

Language is as powerful as it is delicate. It can soothe an upset child or it can convince a nation to go to war. Where swearing is concerned, I think children’s books need to take the gloves off earlier, to play and examine and explore foul language. To relish the imaginative insult and wallow in lyrical profanity. But because of the nature of the beast, it also must be dealt with in context, handled with sensitivity and tact. It can’t be a matter of just throwing more swearwords into books – the usual problems will immediately limit our audience: the books won’t get distribution because publishers will be concerned about the reaction of schools and libraries. Schools and libraries will be concerned about the reactions of parents.

It is not the professionals in the book world who need the most convincing. In my experience, the vast majority of these people are pretty open-minded, liberal types, who just want to see kids reading books. When dealing with children, the pace of change is often set by the most reactionary parent, the one who will express outrage and threaten consequences for those who have tainted the soul of their child. You can’t be seen to be leading people’s kids astray.

And much as I’d like to say ‘Ah, fuck ’em!’, it doesn’t work like that.

Publishers run on tight margins. Even if you were to say we’d only try and sell it through shops, and let each parent decide what they’ll let their kids read, that’s too big a cut in potential sales for most publishers to take.

Short of running a massive advertising campaign aimed at convincing parents to let us use more offensive language in children’s books, it’s hard to see what to do. It’s all to easy to fall back onto bland words that lack impact and sound unconvincing. WT30-Nobody's PerfectBut as writers, we can start pushing more, stretching those elastic boundaries, consciously searching out spiky terms, earthier language, entertaining insults and killer put-downs. If we can’t get some established term past the filters, find another one, a great sounding one, that does the same job. It’s the kind of thing writers do anyway. And we need to start early.

We can make bad language a topic of conversation, as well as just an embellishment, so that it’s harder to remove it in the editing process. We can use dialogue with deliberate intent; have our characters interrogate meaning – like my six-and-half-year-old is already doing in school with her friends – argue about swearwords, make jokes about them, ask questions about them, wonder why weak ones don’t work, why misplaced ones are funny, what ones you can or can’t use in front of parents or teachers. Demonstrate how a child’s language changes when there is no authority figure around, because it does. Make fun of the contortions parents go into trying not to swear in front of their children. Make us laugh at the innocent questions young kids ask about what they hear.

Pose the questions in stories that we want children to ask themselves about the language they use and how they use it. About what it means, how it sounds. About the effects it can have. This is a tricky thing to do, and it’s important and expressive and it’s fun and those are the best reasons to write anything.

In conclusion, we need to start sneaking more bad language in children’s books. Spread the word.

Terrorism and the Art of Not Explaining Things

After September the 11th, the subsequent invasion of Iraq and all the crap that went on around it, I decided to sit down and write my second novel (which ended up being the first published), set in an alternate world to explain to everyone what was going on. Gods CoverI soon realized two things:

1) Writing a story so you can explain things makes for a crap story.

2) I knew feck all about Islamic extremism, the Middle East or the mind-set of the people there (Was Iraq even in the Middle East? Which countries make up the Middle East?).

I knew a bit about the circumstances that had created the conflict in Northern Ireland, and had watched Western extremism with some bemusement for years, but I had to face facts: I was in no position to explain anything. And besides, I was more interested in writing a thriller than a political statement.

But I am curious by nature and I did have a lot of questions, and questions are a good way to start a story. And when you write stories, you tend to write about the stuff that’s affecting you at the time.

So I wrote a tale about old men who could use young men and women to harness the power of ghosts. Those young people could take the violence of one unjust death and use that energy as a supernatural – and suicidal – weapon to cause other deaths (I wanted something that offered more variety than bombs), martyring themselves, so that one death constantly led to another. German 'Gods' CoverI created a world where one culture, a kind of a mix of the Middle East and the American Old West, was fighting a guerilla war with a more advanced, domineering culture, whose technology (and world view) was about the level of 1940’s Europe or America.

Years later in the real world, and the same stuff is still happening. And there still don’t seem to be any better answers to what’s going on except maybe for people to stop killing each other long enough for them to get a taste for life again, which is basically what happened in Northern Ireland. This solution, of course, was way too lacking in drama to serve as the ending for my novel, and you have to have drama for that all-important climax.

Over the weekend, I was at the Rolling Sun Festival in Westport, where Robert Fisk spoke about the recent events in Beirut and Paris. Gods US CoverHere was a man who actually could explain things, in an incredibly articulate and passionate way. And despite all the obscene violence he’d witnessed, he still seemed to have hope that we can some day stop creating the circumstances that create terrorism.

I wish he wrote for children and young adults – that’s surely where his message would have the greatest effect.

If you want to broach this twisty subject with young readers, The Gods and Their Machines doesn’t promise any easy resolutions, but I hope it can offer some questions.

And I figure a few questions is a good start.

Make Them Feel It

In 500 words, how to make a story, essay or article compelling. This was originally commissioned, along with another, longer piece, for the Irish Independent. Both pieces were intended for students preparing for the Leaving Cert. This one didn’t get published due to a lack of room (though they still paid in full for it), so I’m posting it here.

You haven’t much time. You have a story to write, perhaps an essay or an article. Your reader will have many, many of these to read. They’ll be checking that you’ve ticked the right boxes and then they’ll just move on to the next one. This is a person you’ll never meet and as far as they’re concerned, your piece is probably going to be nothing special. You’ve got to convince them they’re wrong – make them remember you . . . and the clock is ticking.

10: First, don’t write. Stop and think. Easy Option-Book BlastWhere do you need to end up? What’s the last thing you’ll say? Your ending doesn’t have to be set in stone, but you need a direction to head off in.

9: Get their attention. What’s the situation you’re describing? Present a problem in need of a solution. Pose a question in the reader’s mind: How is this going to work out? It’s the key to suspense: Ask a question . . . make them wait for an answer.

8: You have a problem to be solved, but why should your reader care? What’s the strongest negative emotion it can provoke? Provoke it by describing how bad the situation could be. If this is a story, dump your main character right in the middle of the problem. If it’s an essay or article, make a strong statement, then tease the reader towards your justification for making it.

7: If there are no characters, if it’s an essay, remember that emotion is as strong a persuader as logic. Passion can be convincing. What do you feel strongly about? What can you argue passionately for? Why?

6: Write it as if you’re feeling it. Make your reader feel it too. Write in the present tense, or moment by moment in the past tense. You’re emotionally affected by this and your reader should be there with you. First person or third? Or maybe even the second person, throwing the emphasis back on the reader.

5: Characters need to be believable individuals, different from each other. Each has a distinctive job to do in the story. Sometimes the clash between the different characters is the whole story. Often, it’s how they fail that keeps us reading, how their personality is ill-suited to the task at hand. Maybe they caused the problem. We’ll cheer for them all the more if the cause seems hopeless, but they don’t give up.

4: Reinforce that question hanging in the reader’s mind. Start offering up solutions, but then knocking them down. Create suspense through failed attempts at success.

3: Things have to be at their worst right before the end; the tensest moment, the most threatening event, the worst element of the issue. All is about to be lost.

2: The punch-line, the pay-off, the climax. You deliver the goods.

1: Wrap it up and be quick about it. Drawn-out endings are boring and you haven’t got time.

Now let it go and move on. You’ve got other things to do.

A Lesson for Irish Children’s Publishers

Back in 2003, the O’Brien Press suffered a major cut in Arts Council funding – a huge blow to one of the country’s top publishers, and unquestionably our most successful and influential native children’s publisher. I responded by writing a letter to the council, appealing for that decision to be reversed. I was only one of many, and the following year, most of the funding was reinstated. Once again, OBP have been hit with a bizarre and undermining cut and it is likely to affect their ability to publish children’s books and to maintain their expert and full-time staff at its present levels.

As a writer, illustrator and designer, I have learned firsthand over more than twenty years, that publishing in Ireland is run on a shoestring. The margins are disturbingly narrow.

This is particularly true of children’s books, with the extra expense of attractive and inventive formats and time-consuming illustration work, while having to charge comparatively lower prices. As well as this, they have to compete with the far greater resources, mainstream marketing and much bigger print runs from publishers in the U.K. who represent the tiny percentage of names who dominate the market.

We live in an increasingly global world and it is right that our publishers should face tough competition, it keeps them on their toes.  But we pay taxes to a government which is supposed to represent our interests and promote our culture, and as with so many things, that representation should start with the nation’s children.

There is no doubt in anybody’s mind that Ireland’s writers have a tremendous wealth of ability to offer their country, but they can and do offer it to foreign publishers if there is nobody here who can pay them.

Children need to see their own country featuring in stories, they need to see their neighbourhoods, their people and their culture in the books they read. They need to hear their slang, laugh at their humour and empathise with characters with whom they can identify.

We are swamped by books from the U.K. and the U.S. and they provide children with access to a fantastic range of stories, but that range has to include some of Irish origin, or the next generation of children will grow up dreaming of a bright future . . . set in Britain or America.

Being a kid is hard. Every day is a learning experience, you always have to do what you’re told, grown-ups control everything and they rarely want to do what you want to do. And don’t even talk about school. Whoever said that schooldays were the best days of our lives didn’t go to any school I ever heard of – and I can look back and be thankful that my primary and secondary schools were as good as I could have asked for. Adults – particularly those who set policy and funding for schools but don’t work in them – are so concerned with cramming your head with the knowledge they think might be useful, promoting the development of the imagination can end up getting shoved right to the bottom of the list of priorities.

But it’s your imagination that gets you through childhood. Knowledge helps you grow up to be a capable adult, but your dreams are what you grow up for. They give you purpose. Algebra and geometry might be able to put a man or woman into space, but it doesn’t happen unless someone dreams of going into space themselves – only then does that knowledge equip them to do it.

Fiction throws aside enough of the rules to let us imagine what could be, to empathise, to put ourselves in other people’s shoes, to imagine other possible lives. And books exercise that imagination far more than films or television, or computer games – the process is more potent because the entertainment is not simply shown to you, or responding to levers and buttons, it demands that you take part in the act of creation. Your imagination has to do some of the work.

If we are to produce bright, inventive and productive adults, we have to get our children to read. And to make them want to read and to relate those stories to real life, we must produce books that make them feel stories could happen to them, not just to others. Play is as important as education to a child, it is crucial to the development of a healthy mind. It is not enough that our children have Irish-made textbooks to inform them; they need Irish-made fiction to inspire them.

Given that OBP is Ireland’s foremost publisher of children’s books, a decision on their part to stop production of children’s titles would be a death knell for the industry’s efforts to provide indigenous works for the nation’s kids. There has long been a trend among most other Irish publishers to avoid children’s books because of the sheer cost of producing them, mainly because they are unable to compete with imported titles. If the leading native publisher gave up, what message would that send to those who have had an even tougher time in the market?

Even now, authors are forced to look abroad for publishers if they hope to make a living, exacerbating the drain of culture from our country. It’s a simple, financial truth: Our market is so small, you could have a bestseller in Ireland every year and never make a living from your writing.

Without Irish stories to frame their ambitions, children will grow up with little expectation of achieving their ambitions in Ireland, having been saturated with media from other countries. The backdrop for their dreams will be decided by what they read in books and see on television and in films. And with a few exceptions, television and film portraying Irish life hasn’t exactly been holding the kids riveted lately, particularly in proportion to the funding those industries receive.

It would be a poor reflection on the Arts Council if our country could not provide a wealth of Irish culture to where it is most needed and would have greatest effect – the nation’s children. Providing grants for our young after their perceptions have already been shaped by other countries’ literature and media would seem a bit redundant, assuming they haven’t already left for those far away hills they’ve been hearing about ever since they learned to read.

When I first started sending my books around, over fifteen years ago, I didn’t even bother approaching Irish publishers – I went straight for agents in Britain. I didn’t see a market for my types of books in Ireland. I was confident that there was a place for them in the international market . . . so why not Ireland? Well, because I originally thought of the Irish market as a stifling place, where the only books I saw from native publishers were history books, textbooks, Irish language texts, local interest material and the carefully packaged glossed culture we sell to tourists. These seemed to be the only areas where Irish publishers could compete with their British counterparts, simply because the U.K. publishers didn’t want them.

I’ve since learned a lot more about what Irish publishers can do – and there have also been huge changes in that time, but these publishers have to continue serving a narrow market to survive, even when they want to expand into other areas. Every plunge into mainstream publishing, targeting popular markets dominated by foreign publishers, is a major risk for native companies and many have stopped taking that risk. So for a writer who wants to make his or her mark in the children’s book market, approaching Irish publishers is not an obvious choice. I would not have sent my books to OBP if I had not already talked to them about illustration work – at that time, they had produced very few books for the audience I was trying to reach. I was contacted by a British agency the week after O’Brien made me an offer for my novels, and it was only the clear commitment and enthusiasm of the people at OBP that kept me from going over to the agency. I now have an agent and have been published by dozens of different companies in different countries, but having been involved in the Irish children’s books community for over a decade, I can appreciate all that our industry has achieved. At the beginning, however, and from the outside, I found it hard to see what Irish publishers could offer aspiring writers.

As for the illustration and design work that was my trade for more than ten years before I was published as a writer, I had to emigrate to London because of the then miserable rates of pay for illustration in Irish publishing. Every illustrator I have met who has tried to make his living solely from book illustration in this country has ended up having to look for work abroad, turning to advertising work (normally an illustrator’s second choice), or giving up altogether. Designers, too, can find better paid work almost anywhere else and the result is that, for a long long time, most Irish-produced books looked second rate compared to their British counterparts. That has changed; publishing in Ireland has become far more professional, more deliberate, imaginative and expert in the work it produces for kids and it was the O’Brien Press who led that charge.

Now, instead of receiving annual funding as an organization, they are being forced to apply for individual funding for one book at a time, when they publish twenty or more children’s books a year. They endured the recession and the digital frenzy, cutting nearly a quarter of their staff in 2009 and reducing everyone else’s salaries. Since this new type of application has been introduced, they have only been successful in getting funding for a few books . . . And they are the only mainstream publisher that has been put in this position. In these applications, their staff’s salaries cannot be included as costs, so it’s as if they’re being encouraged to hire freelancers and part-timers instead of full-time staff – one of the best ways of ensuring people can’t build a long-term career in publishing and contributing to the general sense of insecurity and, ironically, the prioritizing of short-term, economic concerns over more longer-lasting cultural ones. And that’s just the people are who are employed full-time. I’m not going to start ranting on here about the scant possibility of writers making a living.

The O’Brien Press is one of the few companies who have been trying to do more than just survive, by constantly raising their standards and searching for new authors and alternative projects. But it seems as if they have been penalised by the Arts Council for showing that Irish publishing can do more than produce another retelling of the 1916 Rising, or a guide to the Aran Islands, or a local celebrity’s biography.

For OBP’s ongoing efforts to promote quality, far-reaching Irish fiction, and for endeavouring to produce brighter and better children’s books, the Arts Council have drastically reduced their funding.

Other Irish publishers will surely take this lesson to heart.

 

Writing for Children – The Easy Option

If you spent much time in the world of publishing, you might at some point start to wonder if the people who work in children’s publishing had an inferiority complex. Or if they didn’t, they must surely be on their way to developing one.

The main reason for this, in my opinion, is the perception that writing for children is the easy option. And it is fair to say, that children’s books are, in general, shorter, use simpler language, involve simpler scenarios and simpler plots and often feature less nuanced characters than books aimed at grown-up audiences.

When referring to these different audiences, I have to choose my words carefully here, as ‘adult books’ can imply something entirely different and actually, a lot of adults read children’s and especially YA books. In fact, in some cases, more adults are reading young adult fiction than the young adults themselves.

But the point about our stories having to be simpler to understand is true enough. There is also a lot of formulaic writing in children’s publishing. And though there’s plenty of it in non-children’s publishing too, it’s assumed to be worse in children’s books. Easy Option-FartEven the word ‘childish’ – to be like a child – is a negative term, referring to the things children like or the ways that they behave, as if they are automatically inferior to adults. Which begs the question, where did all these sophisticated adults come from and at what stage in their development did they become separate from, and superior to, their younger selves?

I don’t want to make any particular points about the quality of the different kinds of writing here, except to say, from over ten years experience of making a living as a writer of fiction, it’s harder to write well, simply and clearly, than to write in an obtuse and complicated way. After all, it’s not about the beauty of the language you use, or the complexity of the emotion you wish to convey, but whether your thoughts are received and understood by the reader. And the more complex or nuanced the idea, the more inventive you have to be to get it across in a focussed, understandable and emotionally engaging way.

It is communication and, in the end, it’s the effect on your reader that counts.

Now, there are people who might point out that older readers are more sophisticated, more informed, better educated, that they have years of literary reference, a more worldly perspective, that they have seen more, experienced more, have higher expectations and will recognize work that is unoriginal or clumsy or superficial. Which makes it more challenging to write for adults. And they’d be right about most of that stuff, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned that sets a children’s writer apart from others – at least one who wants to sell enough to make a living from it for any length of time – it is that they must have an awareness of, and curiosity about, a reader who by definition, is not like them.

So . . . writing for kids. The easy option, yeah? Let’s have a look at that.

You might be the most significant writer of the century, with a timeless story to tell, and profound lessons to teach the new generation, but if you can’t get them to turn the pages, it won’t count for anything. People have to put an effort into reading text. Unlike television, film or even audio-books, text requires active audience participation. Easy Option-Battery BrainA bit like bringing someone to hear an orchestra play . . . and handing them an instrument. One cannot read passively. It takes effort. It wears you out.

Now, imagine your reader isn’t very good at reading – that you can make no easy assumptions about their ability to decipher words or to comprehend them (which are two very different things). Imagine your reader has a short attention span, has tastes as arbitrary as any adult, has almost no terms of literary reference, they have an instinctive bullshit detector and are brutally honest with their opinions.

You’re also competing for these new, inexperienced and impressionable readers against films, television and games that offer visually spectacular and often well-written entertainment that’s increasingly easy to access, the like of which the book industry has never faced before. So you have to grab your reader’s interest from the start and hold onto it for dear life.

You’re trying to reach the same minds as the ‘grown-up’ market, you’re just trying to reach them earlier in their life, in a more raw, less developed state, when they’re every bit the individual they’ll be as an adult, they’re just less capable of meeting you halfway in the storytelling, so you have to work that little bit harder. Easy Option-Book BlastBut it does mean you’re reaching those minds at a stage when they’re more receptive and you’ve far greater potential to blow their minds with a book.

If you’re writing books for young readers, you’ll either need to be an illustrator yourself or put your trust in someone else to illustrate your story – to help tell it. So, having written your story, you then have to weave it together with a completely different art form in order for it to be complete. And no, it’s not just a matter of using pictures to decorate or act out your story. They are not just stabilizers for the bike of a weak reader. Done well, illustration should tell a side of your story that doesn’t appear in your words. So how do you write with that in mind?

Now imagine that your readers will always be growing up, so that once you’ve won them over, they will, in a matter of a few years, grow out of the books you’re writing for them, and you’ll have to win over a whole new audience. Your market is in a state of constant turnover.

Welcome to the life of a children’s writer.

As if that wasn’t enough of a challenge, now try getting your head around reading levels. Reading levels are often a subject of debate in the children’s books industry. The single biggest controversy I’ve experienced in my time as an author was the attempt by some UK publishers (including one of mine) to put ‘age guidance’ on the covers of their books. This sparked off a massive dispute over whether publishers should be dictating who should or shouldn’t read what books, and raised the question of what ‘reading level’ even referred to: the difficulty level of the language and story in the books, or the nature of the subject matter.

So a few of our own publishers were trying to place limits on who should be reading our books.

Most writers – and indeed, publishers – want as many people as possible to read their books, are pretty opposed to prescriptive practises and normally scathingly intolerant of censorship. The market itself tends to regulate the subject matter in books – up until our readers hit their teens, we write for kids, but we have to sell through several filters of adults. And a reader’s own ability will quickly decide if a particular book is too difficult to read. As far as I’m concerned, any kid who wants to read a book that is below their reading level should be allowed. Nobody’s going to fall in love with reading if someone’s trying to force them. I still read young kid’s books, and I can read just fine, thanks.

But if you want to be a professional children’s writer, or even if you’re pitching to a publisher and you want to show you understand the industry, you need to have an idea what level of reader you’re writing for. The publisher might disagree about your text, or you might find that during the editing process, you want to change tack, but because children’s ability and tastes change constantly, you need to be able to refer to the different stages for practical reasons.

‘Cos then it comes to marketing and selling our masterpieces.

There are thousands of children’s books published each year in Ireland and the UK. And they’re big sellers – they account for more than a fifth of the total UK book market. If you’re familiar with the literary supplements in any of the mainstream newspapers or magazines, have a look and see what proportion of their reviews are for children’s books. Do they enjoy a fifth of the media’s literary attention? Well, no. Not even close. Most newspapers don’t even have weekly reviews of children’s books.

Like other types of writers, children’s writers are expected to be the main advertisers of their books, setting up their own online presence and doing events in festivals, libraries and schools. Take note: the ability to do school groups is one of the big advantages for a children’s writer. But while other types of writers do events too, as a kids’ writer, an interview format or doing a bit of reading and taking questions doesn’t cut it these days. You’re expected to be a full on children’s entertainer because, frankly, that’s what it takes to hold kids’ attention.

For the difficulties in running a kids’ session, see the problems above when writing for them, then imagine a horde of them is sitting in front of you, waiting expectantly, with each temporarily focussed mind on the verge of wandering in a different direction to the others. Easy Option-Dodging SidewaysAll the techniques you use in your writing to grip your reader have be brought into play here too. You have to be an oral storyteller as well as just writing that stuff down.

Despite these extra skills you have to develop, I’ve heard from a number of sources (including one festival organizer) that children’s authors are sometimes paid less for festival events. They are certainly often treated with less prestige than their grown-up-market counterparts, even if their sales and audience numbers are greater. The children’s events schedule in a festival is normally a separate part of the programme and it is invariably at the back of the brochure, after the ‘main’ events.

Some events organizers will try and get you to do events for free – that is to say, work for free, for an event they’re often charging admission to – in return for the publicity and the huge numbers of sales the event will presumably generate. I’ve posted my thoughts on this already.

And while we’re on the subject of money, despite the dizzying sums you hear in the headlines (and I’m never sure how many of them are actually true), advances for writers of children’s books tend to be pretty small and certainly smaller than those for the adult market, which is surprising, until you realize your books are sold for lower prices than non-children’s books.

And finally, to impress upon you how writing for children requires more expertise, not less, than writing for adults, let’s take a look at a parallel: teaching. To teach students in college or university, it is assumed that you’re dealing with self-motivated adults, so when hiring a lecturer, the emphasis is on their qualifications in a given subject. Teaching skills are a distant second. To teach in secondary school, you specialise in a couple of subjects, but you know you’re dealing with teenagers, so a specific qualification in teaching techniques is required. You have to have studied how to get information into young brains.

By the time you reach primary school teaching, the range of subjects has become much broader, requiring greater versatility, allowing for less of that comfortable specialization and critically, the teaching itself has become the most important element. No matter what other expertise you have, the ability to communicate ideas clearly has taken priority over the subjects themselves, because without mastering the skills of teaching, none of those subjects will get taught. And if those primary teaching techniques fail, those adults-to-be will struggle through secondary school and may never even make it to third level.

Children’s writers are not teachers, but we face a similar challenge. This is why writing for children is not only as demanding as writing for adults – we have to craft more carefully what we write to communicate our stories clearly – it is actually more important, as it comes with a greater responsibility. One that many children’s writers, publishers and others in the children’s book community take very seriously.

Because if we don’t do our job right, those kids won’t read, so they won’t grow up reading, so they won’t read all those other books people are writing for when we’re ready to pass those readers on.

And that’s why writing for children is not the easy option. But if you fancy getting into it, it is a lot of fun.