Carrie Fisher

2016 has claimed some wonderfully gifted people but the loss of Carrie Fisher has struck me hard.

Like so many millions of kids born in the late 60s early 70s Star Wars went a long way to defining who I am in terms of my creative style and vision. The fairy tale set in space with its iconic characters and breath-taking audio / visual stamped a love of storytelling on me that has never faded.

Princess Leia was my first screen love at the tender age of 7. I wanted to be Luke. I wanted to fight like a Jedi and rescue the princess. I wanted so much to craft my own Star Wars adventure and model it around Luke’s quest to save the beautiful Leia from the evil Empire.

Carrie Fisher was, of course, far more than just a Star Wars princess. A hugely gifted lady who had considerable success away from the camera as much as she did in front of it. A talented writer and keen activist she would not stand by so easily in the face of injustice – particularly injustice toward women.

I sketched the image within hours of learning of Carrie Fisher’s death. My own tribute to a beautiful and gifted lady who stood out amongst the Hollywood rabble in so many ways.

 

 

Combining traditional books with digital content

By far the most challenging aspect of being a ‘creative’ is trying to convince others that your creativity is worth purchasing. For me this amounts to writing and art.

I’ve never been overly bothered about selling art. It’s something that I do that I enjoy enormously and feel privileged and honoured when somebody requests a print.
With my writing I’m always looking to the market.

Currently I write and self-publish via Amazon’s CreateSpace. I’ve used Lulu but was less comfortable with it. The book’s quality was fine but I found the process irritating.

The books that I create are children’s books with a few (picture books) aimed at 0 – 4 years and a couple aimed at 5+ in the form of early chapter books.

I’ve always found it a challenge promoting my work without coming over as a one track broken record. Truth be told I’m not very good at it and not at all interested in the process. A large part of me wants to simply enjoy writing and then push my work to an established market. The process right now is of course very different in that I write without a market and once complete have to go in search of it.

A publisher would solve this, but attracting a publisher is painful. I’ll not give up on it but if my stress levels are already high then the process of obtaining a publisher is pretty much going to have me blow a fuse.

The perfect scenario would be to establish something of a pipeline from initial idea to marketplace such that the entire process is enjoyable.

So how do you develop a market? How do you break into an established market?

Yes, these are the questions we all want answering. These are indeed the questions that nobody has clear answers to so they write books on the subject in order to become an authority. The best we can hope for is some insider knowledge, an educated heads up on the painful process of becoming recognised and earning money from our creativity.

Social media helps us enormously. It’s free to talk amongst your acquaintances and free to have them share your news.

But social media is crowded with people and noise and distraction. What on earth would make my creativity stand out against the plethora of cat videos and political infographics?

Social media intrigues me greatly. There is generally a shift in activity on Facebook depending on the season, current affairs, sporting events and the sense of national unity. But something that seems to be commonplace now is the consumption of visuals. Words work to a point but there’s nothing quite like a strong photograph or video to capture somebody’s interest.

Videos inparticular are powerful. Concise and relevant videos are incredibly powerful and are soon being shared amongst millions of unacquainted people.

So how is this relevant to somebody trying to sell their writing?

I took a step back and analysed social media a short while ago. It occurred to me that the way in which we consume information has changed enormously in the last 10 years. The way in which we communicate with our acquaintances and the way in which we discover and respond to news is entirely different to the methods used just 10 or 15 years ago.

Every activity is now encouraged to be a social affair.

Gaming has more of a multiplayer / social aspect to it now than it’s ever had. Web based social media platforms have become far more visual. Epitomised by the popularity of Pinterest and Tumblr but also reflected in the changes made to the two kings of the genre; Twitter and Facebook. Only last year Twitter allowed the posting of visual material without eating up any of your 140 character post limit.

But reading has changed very little by comparison. We view stories in much the same way as we have for centuries. Significantly, I suppose, we now read ‘on the go’ via Kindle and similar services but ultimately it’s the same process of turning the page and consuming the written word.

Long may that last!

But I’m looking at how to make a dent into a marketplace. How to create a marketplace that I can push my hard work into. It strikes me that there’s scope for how a writer presents their story and consequently there’s room for changing how we consume stories.

Enhanced digital presentation of stories is the obvious route. Furthermore it’s probably going to work best in the children’s market. Some form of interaction where the child is met with a sense of play as they read would no doubt be a winner. Of course there’s an enormous market focused on this but it’s an exciting concept and something that must present gaps to the creative minded writer / illustrator.

Taking a story in traditional format and continuing it online is something that I’ve often been intrigued by but there’s just one thing that prevents me from exploring it, and that’s the fact that I’d be selling a potentially incomplete item.

It’d be an assumption that the reader has consistent access to the internet. How might that affect somebody who wants to take their paperback on holiday and lie on a beach?
None the less that seems to be the exception rather than the rule. The idea of placing QR codes throughout a book still intrigues me. QR codes that link to an image or an animation. Maybe even a video. The possibilities appear limitless and I’m already thinking back to the Choose your own Adventures of my youth. The QR codes could lead to a randomiser which guides the reader along a different path in the story. Complex but achievable. The challenge would of course be in making sure it wasn’t an utterly messy experience.
It’d be something that may help my work to stand out from the crowd and possibly give me an edge in a competitive market.

This post, as I’m sure you’ve ascertained, is something of a brain dump. All feedback is welcomed.

 

 

Illustrating classic children’s stories with ink and watercolour

I’ve enjoyed some fairly relaxed drawing this past few days. With an ink pen and some light watercolour I created a few scenes from some of my favourite children’s stories.

The tea party

The tea party

The family Bucket

The family Bucket

Pinocchio and the whale

Pinocchio and the whale

My intention was to tell the story of the text with just the lines but as I created each piece I felt that there was a real need for shading. I didn’t want to just use a pencil so I applied some light watercolour.

I enjoyed drawing these very much and they’ll form a key part in my portfolio for submission to illustration agents.

Howard McWilliam illustration

Every once in a while I love just looking around at what’s being published in the Children’s market.

Earlier I looked at Scholastic’s collection and was struck by a number of beautifully illustrated book covers.

One of which was Dinosaur Christmas.

Dinosaur Christmas beautifully illustrated by Howard McWilliam

Dinosaur Christmas beautifully illustrated by Howard McWilliam

I’d not heard of the illustrator, Howard McWilliam, so went in search of his work.

Wow! Such beautiful and expressive artwork with a wonderful sense of cartoon fun. The colours and composition are hugely inspiring to a budding character illustrator.

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What I’m really struck by here is the viewpoint from which we observe the action. The ‘camera’, if I can call it that, is positioned to give us not just a great view of the action but the best possible angle from which to view it.

These images could easily be glossy storyboards for an animated movie.

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And then there is the use of light and colour. The image of the monster in the bedroom is funny yet at the same time warm and cosy. That everything stems from the bedside lamp and throws the far corner into shadow is key. The monster itself is beautifully cast in light. I love this piece. It’s so far removed from my own style but I can see so much in there to borrow. Not least the solidity and composition.

You can check more of Howard’s children’s illustration here.

The frustrations of attracting an illustration agent

Attracting an illustration agent is a little frustrating just now. I’ve tried for so long but consistently receive the polite rejections.

I have many styles that I enjoy using as an artist but no way of knowing what is currently required by agencies and their clients. If only I could find out!

One of the real joys of being an illustrator is that I draw upon numerous influences. Over the years I’ve tried countless styles and techniques and many of them remain in what I may call my ‘signature style’.
But I can adapt to most styles and enjoy them all.

Following yet another rejection email I decided to take a much closer look at the market. Make no mistake, I analyse the market in some detail before submitting my work to potential agencies. To the point where I am selective with my submissions.

Something that I’ve often pondered is whether or not it’s actually worthwhile submitting my work to an agency with artists in a similar genre. I’m not sure it’s beneficial to have my work displayed alongside similar artists in the portfolio. But then, what if those other artists are in demand and that demand cannot be met?

I’ve tried to change my style to be more niche. But that then limits me and almost pigeon-holes me. Something that I’ve always tried to avoid.

Having said that, when I look at the illustrators that I truly admire -Quentin Blake, Gris Grimly to name just two – I see that they have a clear and distinct style. Agents will naturally look to attach these guys to specific projects based on knowing exactly what they’re going to get from them.
But I always figured that having a range of styles would make me more attractive as an illustrator and present more opportunities.
Is this the wrong approach?

What is my signature style?

I’ve asked this question a number of times recently. Perhaps the style of art that I’m producing and submitting is simply not relevant to today’s market.

cookiejar pig duckfeed3 arcadephantom-1

I always draw with ink. Whether it’s digitally or using traditional media I start with a pencil and complete with ink. My style is akin to cartooning but I always try to add texture with the pen.
I’m a huge fan of bold expression with my characters. I like to see a character’s actions exaggerated a little and have their mood reflected with fun facial expressions.
I am also a big fan of colour in my work and often use a cartoonist’s approach in that I ‘colour in’ my inked outlines.

It’s interesting to note that looking around the portfolios of numerous UK based agents there is a fair amount of work in a similar style.

I’ve never been much of an environment artist. I use a minimal amount of the background when illustrating.

For example, if a character is in the kitchen I’d generally only draw the immediate surroundings rather than the entire kitchen suite, table, sink, kettle and oven.

To this end my work tends to sit neatly on a clear white background. This is something that I rather like as I think it helps the characters to stand out.

Which market am I trying to reach out to?

The sort of authors that I want to work with are chapter book authors that target 7 – 11 year olds. Authors that create rich and ridiculous characters are the kind of authors that I’ve always enjoyed reading. I think my style suits their work in that I enjoy creating those characters myself.

David Walliams is the obvious high profile author in that genre right now but he’s really one of many.

Another illustrator whom I greatly admire is Chris Riddell. Again for his strong sense of character and expression. His ink work is an enormous inspiration to me and he’s obviously used that to great effect with some fun and adventurous chapter books.

It would be my dream to work with authors such as Paul Stewart who co-created a number of stories with Chris Riddell.

Just how clogged is that market right now? Are there enough new authors out there in that genre to warrant yet another character illustrator?

Which is the largest genre in children’s book publishing?

Are picture books always going to be the most popular? Just looking around the bookshops in town and online I can see a wealth of picture books on the shelves. Is this my way in to the hugely competitive children’s illustration market?

Do I need to offer something really unique like Oliver Jeffers did with his first book How to Catch a Star ?

I buy the Children’s Writers and Artists yearbook each year and pore over it to learn of new trends. I enjoy reading there and online the views of established illustrators and how they suggest approaching agencies. It’s all good and I’m always buoyed by what I read.

I guess in some respects I’d love to actually sit down with a panel of agents and ask them these specific questions. Or just the one question What style of art do you really need and will never go out of fashion?

Presenting my illustrations in a mock paperback format

I draw so much that I sometimes find it hard to maintain a particular style. So many different styles resonate with me and I often enjoy turning my hand to them to see how they work.

As an illustrator in search of an agent I’m always looking at different ways to present my work. So I crafted a paperback spread using Photoshop and applied some of my more recent drawings.

paperback-spread

Paperback spread created with Photoshop (click to view / download)

The drawings I wanted to present are from a collection I’ve been working on that involve a young boy and his dog in a fantasy realm. Here’s an example. It’s a linear style that I enjoy using when creating some interesting textures, such as wood or a gravelly floor.

barter for the bird

Here’s another one. This drawing was created using Mischief. It’s a much looser style and perhaps a bit more fun.

dremlin

I took a couple of images using each style and placed them onto the paper background.

paperback-mockup2

Line art on a paperback background

paperback-mockup1

Loose cartoon style on a paperback background

I honestly like both styles. Which to present?
Or both, even!

To create the desired effect I used Multiply from the layer blends in Photoshop. It renders neatly against the paper backdrop.

The type is Georgia.

A fun day at Weston Primary School, Crewe

I was thrilled to take my Cartoon Academy along to Weston Primary School in Crewe today.
The children had written a story between them. That’s 257 children contributing to a fantastic story about a hero, magic soup and a mystical farmyard.

I worked with selected groups of children throughout the day to turn their words into pictures. It really was such a fantastic experience. So many of the children had their own wonderful ideas and we had so much fun bringing their ideas to life with cartoons.
I’m not sure there is such a fine sight as a room full of creative young minds drawing and contributing their ideas.

I will now take their drawings, scan them into the Mac and assemble a book that they will ultimately be able to hold in their hands.

Magical.

Creating interesting characters and defining the ‘golden thread’

The wonderful thing about being a writer and an illustrator is that you get to play with ideas in a very visual sense before you commit to anything with the keyboard.

As an illustrator I love to create characters. Characters that have a story within themselves are the most interesting characters to create and lend themselves to the most interesting stories.

I love to see a strong character curve. For example, a young farm hand dreams of adventure but feels like there is no escape until one day is hand is forced; imperial troops destroy his homestead and murder his family.

I tend to enjoy the concept of immediately placing my protagonist on the back foot. Perhaps they are painfully shy, unadventurous or even disabled. Something for them to overcome themselves before they can entertain achieving their goals and ambitions.

It’s often fun to hurl a character into a scenario and have them deal with it. But this is an approach that I feel you have to be careful with. Whilst it can be exciting to explore as your protagonist explores it can also lead to issues with crafting deeper challenges or tying up loose ends. You just have to be organised and think several steps ahead.

For me it’s far more efficient to establish a few of the protagonist’s goals before they pass through that Inciting Incident.
That way I can plan a good deal more and importantly place those plans into the mind of the reader. It presents a thread (a golden thread, if you will) to the reader which they can follow and will hopefully keep them tuned into the story. Everything that happens in the story hearts back to this golden thread.

the golden thread

The Golden Story Thread

In the diagram you can see that my golden thread is consistent. This is my protagonist’s primary goal.
The black line is the protagonist’s journey toward that goal.
Finally, the red line is what I call the visibility line. The closer the black line (the hero’s journey) gets to the red line, the less visible the golden thread becomes.

You can see that the journey starts off with good visibility and then around a third the way through something happens. Something that places the hero right on track to achieve his goal.

In screen writing terms this is often referred to as the Inciting Incident. That one moment that takes my hero out of his normal life and thrusts them into new and unchartered territory. Literally, in most cases.

You can see that the hero has clear sight of his goal but around half way he suffers a setback. Something pulls him away from his goal and he loses that clarity of the thread. He’s been tested!
A little while later when it looks as though he’s getting back on track he’s tested again. At this point it takes iron will to get over the line.

I often think of the questions that readers may ask themselves.

Why am I still reading this?
What is the point?
Who am I rooting for?

These are great questions to ponder when you’re reading a book or even watching a film. It really helps to have that thread that you keep a hold of throughout the story. No matter where the story takes you, you still have that golden thread which is essentially pulling you through the adventure and you know will lead you to the finale.
Everything in the story is designed to lead you back to that thread.
Clever writers (far more clever than me) are able to wander so far off the path that the thread completely disappears from view for some time, and then, with cleverly crafted prose, you’re right back holding onto that thread.

Yeah, yeah. But what is this golden thread, I hear you ask?
I guess for me it’s the protagonist’s primary goal. It’s what she really wants to achieve, what she’s always wanted to achieve and what we the reader are rooting for her to achieve. We want her to succeed but dramatic structure dictates that she must first be challenged. We cannot simply hand her her goals on a plate.
There will be times when that thread appears to break or vanish completely. We assume all is lost. But then, somehow, she picks that thread up again and motors on.

I want to focus a little more in future posts on stepping outside of my comfort zone as a writer. I’ll be looking at fiction for 8 – 11 year olds specifically and trying to figure out some useful techniques for crafting rich stories that never lose sight of that thread.

Doom monster concept art

I am a huge fan of the Doom computer games. Back in the early 90s as a young and disillusioned twenty something, the arrival of Doom on PC helped me a great deal. Not just in playing the game but in the rich visual style that the game used. The wonderful hybrid of tech and hell inspired me no end.
I recently bought DOOM for the XBox One and am thoroughly enjoying playing through it. It’s tough but challenging enough for me to pursue it. Better yet it’s helped once again to ignite my love for the visual style.

So I fired up Painter and sketched out my own bad guy. The first sketch is a simple pencil sketch. I then used my beloved ink pen to illustrate something in my developing ink style. The shading is achieved using a marker and pastel.
doomed1a doomed1b doomed1c

Me reading a story on TV

A video of my time on television recently where I was fortunate enough to read from one of my own stories – My Hairy, Scary Best Friend.

If the video doesn’t automatically start at my spot you can zoom to 11 mins 30 seconds :-)