August 23, 2013

Getting the Picture

This one goes out to all you authors who’ve had to send PR photos or copies of your book covers in for a brochure, poster or a print publication of any kind – and stopped to wonder if the picture was big enough, high enough resolution or how you even judge these things.

And it seems that a lot of people are still wondering about this stuff.

I still take on the odd design job from time to time, and having just finished a festival brochure that required images from every performer involved, I thought I’d fill you in on the kind of thing that drives designers and printers BANANAS. I say this, not just for the sake of stressed designers everywhere, but because while there are some who will chase you for a decent image if you haven’t provided one, there are many more who won’t, because that’s time they don’t get paid for.

And this could be your face or your book cover we’re talking about here.

Let’s look at it from a purely self-serving perspective first. Like it or not, we’re in the publicity game, people. That image might be the first time anyone sets eyes on you or your work, so you want to make a good impression. Your author photo should make you look interesting and approachable, you should be recognizable from your photo . . . you should be in focus. If it’s a book cover, it should be clear, readable and striking – assuming your cover designer did their job right.

Assuming that you have decent images of yourself and your book, let’s proceed to what kind of file you send out for what purpose. For a start, I want to talk about the difference between size and resolution.

This can be complicated stuff (at least, I find it complicated), but the basics are straightforward enough.

 

Resolution: Dots Per Inch – The Level of Detail

Digital images on screen and in print are not solid swathes of colour, they’re made up of tiny dots. The key difference between images shown on a screen and images in print is the nature of the dots that make up that picture. On the screen, they are glowing points of light in a grid – pixels. The typical density of these dots on a screen is 72 dpi (dots per inch). Lean in closer to your screen and have a look those sweet little cuties. So if you want to look at a picture at actual size on a screen, 72 dpi is fine. The fact that they’re made of light makes them all blend together smoothly.

Strictly speaking, this ‘dpi’ should be ‘ppi’ (pixels per inch), but we were already using dots in printing when the process went digital and things were confusing enough for everybody, so now we all just use dpi. And the sooner we’re free of inches and feet, the better.

However, the dots used to print an image are a different type and they’re a lot smaller. Because they don’t glow – they’re just ink, after all – our eyes can see the individual dots easier, so they need to be much smaller to create the illusion of a solid colour. That size and number can vary depending on the type of printing and the paper, the ink etc.

So, to recap, the pictures on your screen are made up of dots. And anything that’s printed is also made up of dots.

The bad news is, they are not the same types of dots – you have to treat the two types differently.

The good news is, unless you work in the print business, this is not your problem.

The images you provide to other people are made up of pixels. That’s what you need to know. The dots with which they’ll be printed are the printer’s problem (whether that’s the device or the profession).

This dpi business onscreen is referred to as ‘resolution’. It’s crucial when it comes to referring to the quality of an image.

If a printing process used only 72 dots per inch, the dots would be clearly visible. It would look like a pointillist picture. Even your simple desktop printer prints at a much higher quality than this. Ever noticed how an image off the web looks okay on screen, but prints out looking like blurred mush? The reason for that is that you’ve taken one load of dots, and tried to recreate it with another, completely different set of dots.

The way you can compensate for this is to have your original image in a much denser, finer, more detailed form before you take it to print. It has to be a higher resolution.

In the print business, we generally look for images that have a resolution of 300 dpi. Getting the Picture-1Most illustrations would be supplied at this resolution – but they can also be much higher, depending on how they’re being printed. And at 300 dpi, you have to look really, really close to see those dots. That density also means that the dots can describe much finer detail. If you have two different photos that are the same area, one saved at 72 dpi and one at 300 dpi, the 300 dpi one will be a substantially bigger file because it has much more detail – more information.

All You Need to Remember About Resolution: So when we’re talking about resolution, we mean the amount of fine detail a picture can show. There are just two types you need to remember: 72 dpi for something you only want to look at onscreen. 300 dpi for something that you’re using for print.

On a loosely related storytelling note, you know how you see in all these cop programmes where they have a digital photo and they ‘enhance the image’ to get a better look at it? This is largely bullshit. You’re looking at a grid of pixels. The computer can’t zoom in there and find more detail. There isn’t any. It’s just pixels. You used to be able to do this with film up to a point, but a digital photo is a grid of coloured squares. Once you start tweaking the picture, you’re changing the information in it, not finding more.

Anyway, let’s talk about size. Although actually there are two types of size. There’s the area of the picture, the physical measurements, and the file size, the amount of memory needed to store it.

Let’s look at area first:

 

Area: Length and Width of the Printed Picture

Your digital camera takes every photo at 72 dpi – screen resolution. But those pictures will typically be very large in area. We tend to think of digital photos as the traditional 6 x 4 inch kind of thing, when in fact a normal camera might take images that would comfortably fill an A4 page or larger. You’ll know this if you’ve ever tried to print out a photo from a digital camera, at its actual size. It’ll print fuzzy, but big.

These dimensions are the actual ‘size’ of the photo – the area it covers – as opposed to the ‘resolution’. A low resolution file saved as a large image can be printed as a smaller, higher quality image. You can condense it down. It may be low resolution, but because of its size, there’s lots of detail there.

But if you try to increase the size of the picture with image software, you don’t get any more detail – you just spread everything out. There is no ‘enhancing’ the detail. A designer will always prefer a picture that’s bigger than they need, to one that’s smaller. They can take a large 72 dpi picture and drop it into a 300 dpi file to create a small, high quality image. It doesn’t work the other way around.

Getting the Picture-2The picture here shows what happens when you drop a 72 dpi image into a 300 dpi file. Both of these images actually have the same dimensions, but the one on the left is the resolution you need to print the cover out at its actual size.

The 72 dpi image is so much smaller, because when you put them side by side in the same window, the image software shows their size according to the number of pixels each one has. So even though they would have the same dimensions if printed out, the one on the left has far more detail. See why designers get pissed off with small files?

All You Need to Remember About Area: The dimensions are the physical size, the area, of the picture, as opposed to resolution, which is the number of pixels and capacity for detail within it. Both of these elements together decide how much information is in the picture. It is the amount of information that affects the file size of your image.

 

File Size: The Amount of Memory Needed to Store Your Image

A rough idea of the quality of an image can be judged by looking at the file size. An A5 book cover at 300 dpi might be 15 or 20 megabytes. The same image at A4 might be 30 megabytes. These big sizes are heavy on memory, but a compressed file such as a jpeg – everyone uses jpegs, they’re like the MP3 of the image world – could reduce the storage size of that A5 file to 3 megabytes (it still kind of ‘unfolds’ to the full 15 or 20 megabytes when you’re using it).

However, that same image at a resolution of 72 dpi will be less than a megabyte in size – because it has less than a third of the information of the print-quality file. It’s made up of fewer dots or pixels.

And that’s just fine if you’re only putting it on the web (it might be relatively huge), but if you’re sending a book cover to a designer and it’s less than a megabyte, it’s not a file you could use to print your cover at its actual size – it has been reduced.

This is something to watch out for if you’re an author, as publishers don’t tend to send authors print quality files of their own covers. They keep a tight hold of the good stuff. Yours is most likely a reduced version, which might be fine for PR purposes, say a small inset pic in an article or brochure, but will be useless for a poster.

All You Need to Remember About File Size: The file size is dictated by the amount of information, which in turn is determined by a picture’s dimensions (area) and the amount of detail it can show (resolution). The file size is a quick, but by no means foolproof, means of judging the quality of your image. After all, it might have plenty of detail, but still be a rubbish-looking picture. But if the picture’s okay, and the file is a reasonable size, you know you’re pretty safe.

 

In a Nutshell

If you’re putting something up on the web, an image that looks okay on screen at 72 dpi probably is fine. If you’re sending something to a printed publication, a decent 300 dpi image or a big 72 dpi image is probably needed. Don’t ask a designer working on a print job to ‘just pull an image off the web’. This is lazy, unhelpful, self-defeating and is showing your ignorance.

Bear in mind that if they’re using images to make an attractive feature in their brochure/article/poster, they’ll do it with whatever high res images they have. If yours is a decent image, it’s more likely to be used to greater effect. If your image is crap quality, they might not even put it in.

Every chance to have a visual reminder of you or your work published is an opportunity to promote yourself. If someone asks you to send images for a brochure or article you’re playing a part in, send them high quality pictures, send them more than one and send them promptly.

Get the designer on your side and he or she is more likely to put your pics front and centre, where you want them to be.

 

 

 

 

July 19, 2013

‘Do It For The Publicity’

There’s been a lot of talk online about authors being asked or expected to do events for free, or virtually for free. So I figured I’d stick my oar in on this.

When I started out as an illustrator, I took crap jobs for crap money, because I figured it was the price of getting established. And it was. There was no back-up or support for illustrators, particularly in Ireland. You were on your own. I sometimes took even crapper money for good jobs, just to get those jobs to have in the portfolio. I don’t do that any more, because I’ve been at this malarky for a long time now, and I expect to be treated like a professional.

But one of the most valuable lessons I learned was that I had to sell myself as a tradesman. If you wanted my work, you had to pay me an hourly rate. If you wanted ideas, I would charge you for the amount of time I figured I could put into coming up with that idea, and what it was worth to you.

When I was first published as a writer, I had the good fortune to have a novel and a couple of young kids’ books come out in the same year, which gave me a very wide potential audience – something scGriffeen Valleyhools and libraries really appreciate. I had never done an event for children, but a few months after getting published, I knew for certain that if I didn’t push my books out there, they weren’t going to sell.

So I picked up a few tips and I started doing events. I didn’t know anything about doing an author session, so it was a steep learning curve. But I took a lot on – basically, I said yes to anyone who asked, for sessions for any age group – so I gained experience fast. And the more events you do, and if you do a half-decent job of them, the more you’ll get asked to do. I was working freelance as an illustrator, so I was able to fit my work around the events for the most part; something that’s very difficult to do if you’re employed.

As I did when I was an illustrator, I took on a lot of badly paid events, and free stuff and daft stuff, because I considered these the price of learning the ropes, getting established and getting publicity for my books. Most authors – particularly children’s authors – start off the same way.

I learned a lot. I learned how to manage a session, how to hold the attention of young kids for an hour or keep surly teenagers engaged for a two-hour workshop, how to handle the hecklers and attention-seekers and domineering teachers and adults talking at the back and people coming in late, the awkward questions and the librarian telling me the session was actually going to be half the time I thought it was. I learned how to talk while I drew a picture and I learned that audiences want to laugh, that they’re waiting to laugh.

I learned very quickly, the difference between a good events organizer and a bad one, and how often that can make a difference to who ends up in your audience.

The investment of time and effort was HUGE, but after ten years of this, I can now walk into a room and start talking from cold, and walk out an hour later leaving an audience – children or adults – smiling, stimulated, satisfied and curious about my books.

That’s not bragging. Any children’s author who’s done a lot of sessions can make the same claim. Part of my training was going and watching other authors whenever I could. Because being an entertaining speaker has become just another part of our job. I can assure you that it was never part of my plan, but it’s a fact of life if you want your books to sell.

If you’ve never done a session from scratch with a bunch of kids you’ve never met, try it and see how hard it is. And I don’t mean just reading them some well-known author’s story, because that’s somebody else’s work you’re reading, not yours, and if you think that’s all authors or illustrators do with their work, you’ve never been to a good session.

And while events are an essential part of getting publicity, if we were to do it for just the publicity, there would be almost no full-time writers, and therefore no one available to do these events, and certainly to do them to the standard that people can expect today.

Let’s say you run a festival, and you want a writer to do it for free – for the publicity. Let’s say they’re a typical mid-level, full-time author, so you’re confident you can get an audience for them: maybe fifty people. You could maybe get more in than that, but you don’t want to hire a bigger hall, in case you can’t fill it. Let’s be really generous – to keep the numbers simple – and say that the author gets one euro for every book that sells for ten euros (they often don’t) as a result of that session. If every single person in that audience bought a book, that author would get fifty quid for travelling to your event, and performing for an hour with skills and experience that take years to develop. Does that sound reasonable to you?

But of course, it’s rare for an entire audience to buy a copy of a book, and nowadays, authors are getting shafted by discounting along with most of the publishing industry. And because of the way royalties are paid in publishing, your author won’t see that fifty quid for about eighteen months. Yes, that’s the business they’re in, and they accept that. But you are in the festival business, and they are what your audiences are coming to see. The income for your festival depends on their delivery of an entertaining and stimulating session.

Granted, you might be a library running events, but you still need footfall. If you don’t get people through the door, that event is still a failure.

All the various people and organizations who build their businesses around books expect to get paid for the work they do, but it’s astonishing that writers, and to a lesser extent, illustrators, whose work is the foundation of these businesses, are expected to give their time for free, Reeve at Trinity–Me Drawingin return for royalties they may eventually earn after every other person involved in the sales chain – most of whom are employed full-time – has been paid first.

Do you work for a company or organization? Would you be willing to travel to another town or county to work for free, in the hope that you might get paid a little more somewhere down the line in return for this work . . . if you managed to excite your customers enough? Would you be happy to see someone else charge for your services, using your name and skills to attract people to your performance, but pocket the takings, telling you that you’ll get more business out of it? What? More of this kind of business?

Try taking that approach to payment with a builder, or a plumber or the washing-machine repair man next time you’re talking to them.

Yes, we are selling books, but our income is derived from that work in different ways. If you get a musician or comedian to put on a show, regardless of whether or not they have products of their own on sale, you pay them a performance fee, or a percentage of the admission fees. Because they are what people are coming to see.

If you run book events, and all you’re offering in payment is a bit of publicity, you may well get the people who are starting out, who are learning the ropes and still have to find their way. But if you want to draw audiences, you need professional authors who have proven they can deliver. And professionals get paid.

And if you’re running a big, prestigious festival that can draw audiences because it has a powerful brand, and you think you can offer little or no fee on the basis that an author should be grateful they’ve been invited, then bear in mind we’re all talking to each other a lot more these days. Word gets around fast. And the problem with brands is that once a company’s brand becomes tainted, everything they do and everything they’re associated with becomes tainted too. Negative values can become attached every bit as firmly as positive ones. There’s a lot more competition for festivals out there now, and more and more, popular authors are having to choose between events.

And those of us who’ve been around a long time, we’ve a funny attitude to all this. Because even though we came up having to do a lot of shit for free, it doesn’t mean we think others should too. Because we know what hard work it is, and we don’t like people taking liberties with other people like us.

Organizations like the Society of Authors, Poetry Ireland, Children’s Books Ireland, Booktrust and the Scottish Book Trust all offer fees that could be used as a base for events organizers to work off, and we could really do with some kind of base standard.

If you want people to bring their time and expertise to events you intend to hold, and you are counting on those people to attract audiences and make your events a success, you can’t expect them to come for free. We’re professionals. And professionals get paid.

April 28, 2013

Why Fiction Writers Are Capitalists

This has been bugging me for a while, and I found myself with some time to spare today, so I figured I’d get it down. I need to explain why I think – contrary to received wisdom – most fiction writers are at least as much capitalists as socialists, and why I think that terms such as ‘capitalist’, ‘professionalism’ and ‘good business sense’ seem to have been subverted in the media.

When I made the very deliberate decision that I wanted to be a illustrator, and then later, to be a writer too, I didn’t know quite what I was in for, but I had a fair idea. I took a risk in setting myself up in business – quite a substantial risk, given that, as I now know, there could be less than twenty people in Ireland making a full-time living from writing and/or illustrating children’s books.

I did not believe in the even distribution of wealth – though I don’t think that’s the same as a fair distribution of wealth. I did not believe that the state owed me a living. I developed my skills to the best of my ability, I took risks and promoted myself because I wanted the emotional, social and financial rewards that I hoped I would achieve as a result. You don’t become self-employed if you believe that everyone is entitled to an equal share of those rewards.

I am a businessman, and like most self-employed people – and unlike most of those working for large companies – I face the rigours of business, of capitalism, firsthand. I reap the rewards and I pay for the failures. There is no corporate structure providing me with the former, oThe Writerr protecting me from the latter.  As far as I’m concerned, that’s what it means to be in business, as opposed to working for one. And my ability to stay in business is largely decided by my professionalism; how well I do my work, whether I do what I say I will, to a sufficient quality, in the time agreed.

So when I hear the media talking about companies such as banks as if they are cornerstones of professionalism in business, I take exception to their use of definitions such as ‘business’, ‘professionalism’, and ‘the market’, and how they relate to the behaviour of people who run these banks. They use them as if these people have ownership of these terms, as if they understand them better than others, who do not run banks or sit on boards.

And what bugs me most, is the apparent awe with which our politicians treat these people, and the way the rest of us are spoken to as if we are at some lower level of business, innocent onlookers in the world of ‘the market’.

If a bank has to be underpinned by government handouts to protect society from its collapse, this is a socialist move to support a badly run, unprofessional business. If that bank and a few others like it, find themselves in a market without competition, because every other ‘professional’ running these businesses acted equally foolishly, resulting in an implosion in the industry, the government that is now propping up this near-monopoly of monolithic institutions should not allow the perpetrators of these disastrously-led business entities to dictate the definitions of ‘business’ and ‘free market’ and ‘professionalism’, as they clearly don’t understand them.

If the people who run a business are not held responsible for the decisions that led to its collapse, are not forced to pay the price of that business’s recovery, and are in fact rewarded with increases in pay for victimizing the customers of that business – if they are not made to realize the financial consequences of their actions, then they are not ‘in business’. They are living in some kind of fantasy land – a fictional world, paid for by the work and professionalism of others. And unfortunately, it is this world to which most of their subordinates aspire too. Ironically, it is a fictional world that no writer of fiction, for instance, is ever likely to inhabit.

So when I hear people in the media say that public servants should work more, and more efficiently, for less money; that there is too much waste in the public sector; that the private sector is inherently more efficient; when I hear banks offering business advice to small businesses while at the same time cutting services and becoming unreachable to their customers; when I see big businesses lobbying government for ever more advantages while accusing the public sector of bleeding the country dry; when I am told that my business must pay yet another tax to dig the country out of a hole created by huge corporate entities, it makes me utterly sick.

And when I see the same people who have made life so much harder for every business in this country, still in their jobs, still being paid the same money, still receiving fucking bonuses for running their businesses so badly that their companies had to go on the dole, I think it’s time someone gave them a good slap and explained to them what it means to be ‘in business’.

March 11, 2013

Building a Relationship with a Community that Can’t Pay

If you’ve had any interest in all the developments in the publishing world over the last ten years – and if you’re in the publishing business, it’s pretty unavoidable – you may already have watched Amanda Palmer’s recent talk on TED about how she built an audience, a community of fans. And then asked them to voluntarily pay for her music, both live and recorded, instead of enforcing a price.

It’s a challenging and inspiring talk, and one that everybody in any entertainment business should check out. It’s all about creating a connection with fans, building trust – a trust that your fans will value your art enough to want to pay for it, without being forced to. Some people, particularly businesses who live off artists and the rights to their work, might find this hard to swallow, but Palmer has most definitely demonstrated that it can be made to work, though it takes serious personal investment from the artist. If you want to look at this from a publishing point of view, you can check out a good article by Publishthings here.

But I need to make a point from my position as a children’s writer and illustrator, and from the point of view of others in the same position. Because those of us who produce work for children face a unique problem.

Most of our audience can’t pay, even if they want to.

Children’s writers put more work into creating a link with our audience than any other area of literature. Most of the professional children’s writers I know are constantly on the road, doing events, or working to build their profile online. It’s not enough to write – you have to effectively become a children’s entertainer. We’re more akin to musicians in that, for some, nearly as many kids will hear us speak live as read our books. If there’s one huge barrier people in my profession are constantly trying to overcome, it’s our reliance on the gatekeepers – not just the reviewers, teachers, librarians and booksellers, but also the parents of the children we’re trying to reach.

This is something I twigged to when I first considered trying something like a Kickstarter project.

For younger kids, they will never buy a book without a parent’s or other responsible adult’s input and assistance. With older kids, they can buy those things in a shop, and may not want an adult’s input, but they cannot contribute directly to a writer using any online system, because they don’t have credit or debit cards. And speaking as a parent, my kids aren’t going to be doing any online transactions, alone, any time soon.

So we find ourselves, as ever, in a position where the people whose emotional involvement we seek – so vital in creating that connection that convinces your community to support you – are not the same ones who are paying for our work. Instead, we’re back to trying to appeal to the adults who are not so emotionally invested in our work, and in many cases, may not like, understand or even approve of it. And bizarrely, they seem to exercise their judgement in relation to books, far more than they do with television, film or games. Or maybe it’s just the parents who actually buy books regularly who do this. Which is worrying for a whole other reason.

Anyway, I believe that this community-driven approach to the arts represents the future for many artists who can’t or won’t reach for the dizzy heights of corporate representation. Frankly, I think it’s foolish to rely completely on any publisher for your income, and the vast majority of writers can’t make a living that way anyway.

But how do you build an income based on community involvement, if your community can’t pay?

It’s not actually a new question. Making a living solely as a writer of fiction has always been tough, even from the time that people were able to do it, which isn’t that far back. In fact, it might well be an act of arrogance to assume that it’s possible in all but the most favourable of circumstances. And yet some of us do persist at it.

What it comes down to for kids’ writers, I think, is to face something I’ve been convinced of for a long time. We must not think of ourselves as children’s writers, but as universal storytellers, able to appeal to a range of ages, in a range of ways. Children’s films have been doing this for some time. We can provide something that is becoming increasingly precious; a link between parent and child at any age. From reading a story with your young child, to having a conversation about a YA novel with your older kid, we are capable of producing work that parents and children can enjoy together. Books like ‘Harry Potter’, ‘The Hunger Games’ and ‘Twilight’ weren’t huge because kids read them. They were huge because EVERYONE read them.

I’m not suggesting we try and write every story for everyone. That would, of course, be an exercise in pointlessness and frustration. We have to write the stuff we know we can write.  I think, instead, we need to recognize that different types of audience will access our work in different ways. And not all of those ways will involve reading . . . and not all of them will involve paying. I don’t believe in using quotes very often, but this one from Cory Doctorow gets to the heart of the matter:

‘I don’t need to get paid by everyone who reads – I need to get read by everyone who pays.’

A while back, I suggested to the publishers of my novels in the UK, Random House, that we release ‘Rat Runners’ in installments, free online. The entire book. My idea was that, while plenty of people might get to read it for free in these episodes, it could create an audience for a potential series – a new audience, some of whom might prefer to read it in print. Random had actually tried this themselves with a romance story. They attracted a readership in its millions, but then they couldn’t figure out how to sell it online. My take on it was, they shouldn’t have bothered. Anybody who wanted to read it online, already could. But a proportion of those readers might have preferred to buy the book. Even if it was only one in hundred, it would still be a bestseller. Yes, you’d have given it away for free, but you’d also have gained sales you’d never otherwise have, and could have been well on the way to building the kind of fan base that can provide that lovely profit.

Needless to say, ‘Rat Runners’ did not get released for free, and I can fully understand their reasons. It simply doesn’t fit the model of selling the publishing industry has always had, and seems to threaten the precious copyright that makes reproduction of art a workable business. But with electronic formats, the attempts to enforce copyright on every piece of text you produce is pointless. We have to sell to those who will pay, to trust that they will – because those who can take it will anyway. We have to do away with Digital Rights Management, but also anything else that stands in the way of readers getting access to our books.

Libraries are based on this principle, and pretty much every writer supports them, right? And some of the payback is that we get paid to come to libraries to do events which promote our work.

We have to offer the most loyal members of our audience access that is enhanced or more personal, so that some of those readers will choose to pay for it – the ones we really need, who can provide the artist with an income.

But publishers can only do part of this, and then have to let go. After that, it’s up to the writer to get out there and make that connection with the audience, as so many children’s writers already do. We have to go to our audience, rather than hoping they’ll come to us – both online and in the shape of events. We have to offer our stories up in different ways, appeal to our varied audiences in different ways, but most importantly, for children’s writers, we need to provide ways to empower kids to find and access our work without adult help, without doing it in a way that parents find threatening. And that means accepting that kids can’t pay for stuff online without supervision, so we have to work on the assumption that they can’t pay at all.

We can’t rely on others to do this for us. Our publishers can’t and won’t do it – though they could help – our audience will only come looking for us once we’ve developed that loyalty and shown we will reward it by getting involved with them in a way that means more than just telling them stories. It was never how I thought it would be when I set out in this career, but this is where I find myself. And yet, as I’ve found over the years, creating this connection can be as enjoyable as it is rewarding. The work outside the books becomes a fun and rewarding experience in its own right.

Yes, I want to make my living writing and illustrating stories. But I’ve had to redefine that ‘living’ a bit slightly. And it keeps changing on me. It’s still an experience I’m relishing.

March 7, 2013

Never Forget

This wasn’t the picture I was going to put up. To mark the publication day for ‘Rat Runners’, I was going to post the cover again, but I’ve done that a few times so I’m going to give it a rest for the moment.

Instead, I’m putting up this. When I finish the manuscript for a novel, I draw up a black and white cover for it. This was the one for ‘Rat Runners’. Like the others, this was not intended as a concept for the final cover, or even an internal illustration. I draw these for a few reasons, but mainly, they’re to remind me of something.

When I was a kid, I used to fill copybooks (that’s ‘exercise books’ for you folks in the UK) with stories and pictures. I fantasized about being a writer and illustrator. Sure, I wanted to be loads of other things, but it was always really this thing. I never really felt like I had a choice in the matter.

So here I am, twenty-five books later. This is the dream. But people who aren’t in the business must sometimes be surprised at how cynical full-time children’s writers can become, and I’m no exception. I can be quite the belligerent fecker at times. To people who are still waiting for their shot, this attitude must seem churlish and even ungrateful considering we’re doing what we dreamed of doing.

We don’t mean to be negative about it, and deep down, I think most of us feel really privileged. But making it in this job can be a REALLY hard slog, unless you’re exceptionally lucky – it can lead you to be frustrated, stressed and downright exhausted from constantly trying to break through, and then you start making a living from it, and you find there’s rarely any let up, unless you reach that tiny, TINY golden percentage at the very top.

But I do not consider myself a ‘struggling writer’. I am not a tortured soul, writing to fill a god-shaped hole, or to overcome my neuroses. I am not oppressed by the demands of my muse. I write and illustrate stories to make sense of the world, to connect to something greater than myself, but when you get right down to it, I’m still just the kid making stories with pencils and markers in his copybooks.

And that’s why I draw pictures on the the fronts of my manuscripts.

I hope you’ll check out ‘Rat Runners’, and I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

February 19, 2013

The Wrong Kind of Attention

This is something a lot of writers must wonder about from time to time, particularly those who write crime, thrillers, horror, dystopian science fiction or other variously dark, violent, paranoid or unpleasant stories.

I am always a little curious, when doing one of my many online searches, about what kinds of flags I’m raising in the hypersensitive, communications-monitoring headquarters of the world. To give you a flavour, research for my stories has included: terrorists; a wide variety of experimental weapons; more conventional weapons such as guns, bombs and knives; instruments of torture; pathology; crime scene forensics; aviation engineering; surveillance techniques; hacking; radioactive material; police procedures; confidence tricks; and details about a whole selection of violent injuries. On the other hand, I have actually pulled short of looking for sites that show you how to make a bomb, even though it would have been useful in a couple of my books. That just seemed like a tiny step too far.

If you were to believe some films, this blog post alone would be enough to get me black-bagged and carted away in an unmarked SUV with tinted windows. Hang on, what’s that outside? Wait a minute . . .

No, it was nothing.

Colin Wratten, producer of the BBC series, Waking the Dead (one of my favourite shows, like, ever) covers this topic in one of his blog posts. I also learned from his post that there is such a job as a fly and maggot wrangler. I’ll be Googling that before too long. But it was nice to know that I wasn’t the only one indulging in a bit of idle paranoia.

My new book, ‘Rat Runners’, is set in a near-future surveillance state, so I did a lot of reading on that kind of stuff. What I discovered is that much of what a science-fiction writer might dream up to feature in the kind of state apparatus run by WatchWorld is actually already in operation somewhere in the world. The kind of stuff that the East German’s Stasi’s wet dreams were made of. The more I read, the more I started thinking about what I was typing into that little Google box.

In the end, I actually had to simplify some of the stuff I was putting into ‘Rat Runners’, because the real technology being used in surveillance was so pervasive and so sophisticated, that showing the ways of beating it would take pages to explain – not good for storytelling. And besides, I’m no Cory Doctorow. If you want to see proper anti-police-state hacking, check out his novel, Little Brother. It’s technical, but excellent. Doctorow knows what he’s talking about, and is passionate about the subject. He’s probably on some of those intelligence lists for real, the trouble-making sod.

Anyway, I didn’t want to write an entire story based on hackers, even if hacking was a necessary part of the storyline. It’s extremely hard to make a guy sitting at a computer sound dramatic, even if it can be in real life. It’ll only appeal to people who are into that stuff – people who most likely have heard a lot of it already.

So, there I was, researching surveillance so that I could write a story about a surveillance state, while becoming increasingly aware of how much surveillance I was under every day, and how much more could be applied to my life, without me knowing, if I attracted the wrong kind of attention. Observing something changes it. Observing the means of observing something – and realizing you could be the ‘something’, changes you a bit too.

Now, what exactly is a ‘dirty bomb’?

Let me Google that . . .

January 24, 2013

The Long Goodbye

It was time to say goodbye. I’d finally decided to scrap my old Audi A6. It was a hard decision to make – it’s served me so well. I do a lot of driving and it worked both as a mobile office (you wouldn’t believe how much storage space it had), but was also a genuine pleasure to drive. I’m not a real petrol-head, but I do love driving, and though I’ve tried out a lot of cars over the years, I’ve only ever owned three. I tend to hang on to something when I like it.

The A6 was a perfect mix of practical and a smooth, powerful ride. Unfortunately, with a 2.5 litre turbodiesel engine, it was also thirsty, and expensive to maintain. And it had some odd quirks of engineering, despite the famed German quality.

The electrical system was unique. After one bad night of torrential rain, the windows started opening spontaneously and the doors would unlock while it was standing parked. I discovered this was because the computer that controlled the complicated electrical system was in the floor of the passenger seat. A section of the engine compartment got blocked up with leaves and the rainwater flowed into the passenger cabin, shorting out the computer (very expensive) and turning my car into Stephen King’s ‘Christine’.

On the other hand, there was the time I put petrol in instead of diesel – my wife and I were swapping cars a lot at the time, and hers was petrol. The car started up and got me nearly forty miles back home before it quit.

The car got me to book events all over Ireland, through two long family driving holidays abroad, took the big freeze over 2010 and 2011 in its stride, driving through snow, ice and floods, it’s taken me up steep, narrow mountain roads and made endless motorways enjoyable.

It picked up my two newborn children from the hospital.

It was a surly old beast at times, but it never let me down and I loved driving it. In the end though, it was starting to rack up the maintenance bills. It had been sitting idle in the driveway for nearly two months and with Maedhbh unable to drive for the next few months because of the chemo, we just couldn’t justify spending a packet to fix up a car that was so expensive to run, when we were really only using one car anyway.

On Tuesday, I called the auto recyclers and they sent over a truck to pick it up. I’m generally not very sentimental about things, but this was like handing over an elderly horse to a butcher. I’ll pick up another car in a while, maybe one that’s more sensible and economical . . . we’ll see.

For now, here’s a salute to my old Audi. So long, and thanks for all the miles.

January 9, 2013

The Making of an Icon (39 of Them, In Fact)

This is a post about the small ‘icon’ illustrations I’ve done for the heads of the chapters in my latest book, ‘Rat Runners’. I do pics like this for all my novels – or at least the novels I haven’t been commissioned to do by somebody. Partly because I want the inside of the book to look distinctive as well as the outside (quite difficult with a novel) and partly because some things are best described with a picture . . . and partly because I just like pictures.

I start this process in the first read-through of the galley proofs – where the pages are first laid out as they’d be in the printed book. As I read, I note down the kinds of snapshots of images that would make a good icon for each chapter. The trick is to choose something in each chapter that will be eye-catching, distinctive, different from the other chapters and helps describe something in the story. You also have to be able to tell what each one is when it’s very small – these illustrations are only couple of centimetres squared when they’re printed, and I draw them at about five centimetres squared, so they’ve got to be clearly recognisable.

The first drawings are little more than scribbles, ‘thumbnails’ as they’re called in the trade. I do these on the proof pages themselves normally, trying to figure out what will work and what won’t. Then I move on to the proper pencil drawing. I have a standard template I work into when I start, which suits the head of a chapter; a wide rectangle marks the absolute margin for the picture, but the circle is the main frame, allowing for a bit of breaking out of that frame in most of the pictures.

I’ll use photographic references for some of these pictures – you can only find appropriate pictures about half the time, and even then, there’s a lot of adapting and simplifying.

For the Wildenstern books, I used an old-fashioned style with a lot of linework and cross-hatching. Because of the modern setting for ‘Rat Runners’, I changed the look just a little bit, using a lot more solid black with some linear pen shading, more like the very blocky black style I used in my earlier novels.

Each picture represents an image from that chapter – sometimes just a object that features, one that may not be vitally important, but gives a flavour of the text.

There are frames on these icons, though I haven’t used frames for the last few books. I do up a single frame separately (which, in this case, suggests a camera lens) then place it over each picture in Photoshop, once the drawings are scanned. Then they’re ready to send to the editor.

This is often the last piece of work I do for any book, bar the odd little text revision, and makes for a nice sign-off. It marks the end of the book and time to start on the next which, incidentally, is well underway.

November 29, 2012

If You’ve Nothing to Hide, You’ve Nothing to Fear

So I recently finished the copy edits for the next novel, ‘Rat-Runners’. I’m starting on the icon illustrations today – those little pictures I do for the chapter headings for every novel. I’ll post a few when I’ve got them done. The cover is finished, but I’m not allowed show it yet . . . although they never said anything about showing pieces of the cover, so I’m sticking a couple up here – part of the front and the WatchWorld logo from the back. It’s the story of four very different young criminals working in a surveillance state, run by this organization called WatchWorld. The story is set in London in the near future. Their strapline: ‘If you’ve nothing to hide, you’ve nothing to fear.’

The kids are given a task by a scheming gangster, which rapidly goes sour, leaving them caught in a dangerous power struggle between two powerful enemies, each trying to get hold of a case belonging to a murdered scientist.

I’ve been letting people have sneak peeks of the cover – and later the proof copy – at my sessions, but we’ve a few different promotional ideas to bring into play before the release date in March, including a short prequel we’ll be releasing online, so keep your eyes peeled. And remember, if you’ve nothing to hide . . .

November 15, 2012

And . . . . Breeeeathe!

Okay, so October’s over and I’m winding down events in November, so I thought I’d run over what I’ve been up to and where I’ve been, along with a few other bits of news.

Children’s Book Festival brought its usual hectic schedule. I’ll keep just to that month, where I did (deep breath): an Ideas Shop event with Sarah Webb and Judi Curtin in Tallaght library, then four different libraries in Meath, Skerries Community College, I interviewed Anthony Horowitz in the Solstice Theatre in Navan, had to miss the Octocon convention in Dublin, four different libraries in Kildare, two more Ideas Shop events in Tipperary, St Molaga’s NS in Balbriggan, Bailieborough and Cootehill libraries in Cavan, St Colmcille’s Junior School in Knocklyon and Kishogue Travellers’ Community Centre for South Dublin libraries, Loreto College in Foxrock . . . and finally, two sessions (one with Derek Landy and Will Hill) in Smock Alley Theatre in Dublin for the Bram Stoker Festival.

So, I was thoroughly knackered by the beginning of November. Add in the fact Maedhbh’s been very ill, and the kids have been conspiring to ensure we never get a full night’s sleep, and my brain has been in danger of losing its higher functions.

I’ve also just wrapped up a night course I was teaching in a local college, and did a weekend course for the Irish Writers’ Centre at the end of September. I did a talk for Irish PEN on YA fantasy last week, with Celine Kiernan and Conor Kostick, I was in Tallaght again today with Sarah Webb, and tomorrow I’m in St Michael’s College in D4, talking to the first years. On Sunday, I’ll be back in Smock Alley with the ubiquitous David Maybury (author of ‘Frankenkids’) doing a Nightmare Club Event. That’ll be it, for the moment . . . I think.

October also marked the launch of my book for Little Island’s Nightmare Club series, ‘Wolfling’s Bite’, and my sister Erika’s excellent new book, ‘The Demon Notebook’. Like my other sister, Kunak, Erika seems to have knocked out a cracking read just to prove to their big brother that this publishing lark is a piece of piss, really.

I’m going to post a bit about my upcoming book, ‘Rat-Runners’ when I get a chance, but I’ve also started work on a TOP SECRET PROJECT that I can’t talk about (yet), except to say that it’s going to keep me busy writing for the next few months. The deadline’s ridiculously tight, which actually suits me for the moment – I do love the events, but a bit of enforced sitting-down-and-writing will be nice. And the dog will start getting proper walks again. Oh, and the painting I was meant to do for Maedhbh’s birthday is REALLY late, so I need to get that finished too.

Right, I’m off to bed. Wake me at the end of the month.