Monday, November 16, 2015

How to Win a Creative Writing Competition

9 tips for every young writer, or the traps that they all seem to fall into.

Plus one golden rule.

I wrote it all up for National Short Story Week and it's gone up on the Guardian website.

I'm judging the short story competition, so click here to read how to win.

(See also: Tips for Writing Action Scenes)

While I'm here, there's also a new interview with me I didn't post about because it came so soon after the previous interview with me. But it's a fun one, so take a look if you're interested. I was asked some questions by a Year 9 student called Syzmon and I got a bit care-free with my answers. (In other words, I sound a bit of a twonk, but that happens sometimes.)

Syzmon's interview with me is here.

Friday, October 09, 2015

New Joe Craig Interview

For those of you who think you already know everything about me - or as much as you'd ever want to know - here's a new interview that sheds some light into the darkest corners of my soul.

Who was each character in my books written for?
What do I do with coffee instead of drinking it?
What subjects have I promised to never write about?
What's the deal with radishes?

And much more.

It's all at Mr Ripley's Enchanted Books Blog. Click here.

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Opinions of a Nobody

In the first week of September every year, the first question in the first English lesson of the year was always, "What did you read over the Summer?"

I dreaded that lesson, and that question. I wasn't a great reader. In fact I didn't consider myself a 'reader' at all. I'd bought into the myth that some reading 'counted' and some didn't. The fantasy stuff some of my friends read, the worthy drivel we were supposed to read for homework, the old, dusty books my sisters read - that all 'counted'. Not my cricket books and film magazines. I never considered it any other way.

When I was 13 I made an effort and actually picked up one of the books my parents were constantly pouring into my bedroom. I think my sister had casually said I might like it and I trusted her judgement. I was right to. I don't remember much about the book, except that I finished it. It was Diary of a Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith.

So I was ready for that question. My English teacher asked me, as expected, and, trying to hide my pride, I told her. Straight away, she said:

"Can't you read a proper book?"

My reaction was to not read another novel for about 4 years. Why bother? I'd been judged. I'd been shamed. I had better things to do than open myself up to that. I'd tried what I thought was 'proper' reading - reading that 'counted' - and I'd failed at it.

This week this article popped up:

The gist is: "I've never read any Terry Pratchett and I don't plan to. He was a mediocre author, at best, and there's something wrong with our culture when we celebrate his work above the writing of, say, Marquez, or any true literary genius."

I hope the journalist, Jonathan Jones, doesn't mind me nutshelling his piece like that. I've tried to sum it up fairly. Do click on it and read the whole thing for yourself if you want to.

I've never read any Terry Pratchett either. When I was a teenager his books didn't look like my cup of tea because I thought the covers looked silly. (Also because the books looked like, well, books, and, as you know, I'd sworn off those things, thanks to my English teacher.)

Since then I've been told by trusted tastemakers to ignore the silly covers and give Pratchett a go. So I'm planning to, and looking forward to it.

But I don't really want to talk about Terry Pratchett, whose books might be amazing or might be awful or might be both, depending on who you ask. I don't even want to talk about what an enormity it is to bite chunks off an author whose books you haven't read.

I just want to offer my story as a warning of what can happen when you unthinkingly hurl judgement at someone else's reading choices. Especially a child's reading choices. Especially a boy's reading choices.

I see it happen all the time. Kids who would never consider themselves 'readers' find a Wimpy Kid book, a Horrid Henry book, a comic book, a graphic novel, an instruction manual, a book by David Walliams or a footballer. Or they might even discover one of my books. And that's what gets them reading. But they get judged.

"Can't you read a proper book?" comes in many forms. Watch out for it.

The fact that I remember that moment in my English lesson so clearly, when I've forgotten every other moment in every other English lesson, tells me something. I think it might even be part of why I write. In particular, why I write books like the Jimmy Coates series. They don't have high literary aspirations. They exist to entertain. To get someone reading - perhaps someone who wouldn't otherwise be reading, who wouldn't read anything else, perhaps at all, perhaps ever.

For a broader response to the article I can't do better than to point you towards the tweets of @Leilah_makes.

She's among the best booksellers in the country, working tirelessly to get books under the eyes of everybody who passes her way. (Her 'way', and it's worth a trip, is the Doncaster branch of Waterstones. Pop in and she'll sort you out with a book to suit you. She's the kind of bookseller that bookshops can't do without, and who reminds you why we can't do without bookshops.)

Across 7 tweets, Leilah said:

1) It may not be your cup of tea, but dissing someone's work publicly (especially when you've not read it) makes you look like a tit.

2) Reading is reading. Simple. If you love books, be for reading. Snobbery is the poison that makes people not want to even dip in a toe.
3) When you judge someone for what they enjoy, and how they enjoy it, you are a shamer. If it's legal, let it be.
4) FUN FACT, book snobs: It's not your 'cultured classics' that sustain bricks and mortar bookshops. It's the EL James' of this world.
5) I don't want to have to reassure another customer that they don't have to justify their reading choices at the counter.
6) Sometimes you want a gourmet meal. Sometimes you want a greasy take-out. There are infinite pleasures in both, you know?
7) Read whatever you like, however you like. Though if you accidentally read ridiculous articles, balance it with a bookshop purchase.

Not much I can add to that. I'll finish with the best response to criticism I read this week:

"If you don't like my peaches, don't shake my tree."

This September, if you see someone reading a book you don't like, or you think is beneath you, or you haven't even read but you're pretty sure is beneath you...

...don't cut down some kid's peach tree.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Best Explosions in Kids' Books, Children's Books Classics, me live ChipLitFest & some instagram pics from Madrid

I have excellent explosions. You've known this for a while, I know, but the Guardian is at last catching on. Well, the brilliant Rachel Hamilton is, anyway. She kindly included a BOOM from Jimmy Coates: Power in her list of the 'Top Ten Explosions in Children's Books'. Click the link for the full list and to see which particular explosion she chose.

And as if that weren't enough love from the Guardian, it came just a couple of days after the Jimmy Coates series nabbed a mention alongside some literary heavy-hitters as a potential 'children's classic' of the future. An apt way to celebrate 10 years of the existence of the Jimmy Coates series in the kids' books world. (And I really need to update that Jimmy Coates website, don't I? It's looking a little beyond 'classic'. Hmm. I'll get to that once I've finished my next book.)

Help me celebrate all this gleeful nonsense at ChipLitFest this weekend. I'm thinking up all new nonsense to peddle, some fresh dance moves that are going to blow the Cotswolds wide open and at least one true story you won't believe is possible or even legal, let alone true.

To entice you to click this link and come see me in Chipping Norton here are some sunny, friendly faces from my trip to Madrid this week. You too could look like this on Saturday afternoon if you pout hard enough and wish yourself to Chipping Norton.

First, the pouty selfie-faces:

Then the happy, relaxed faces:

Which was all a lovely contrast from how the trip started, with me looking exhausted at the airport, unsure what time or day it was, where I was going or why. How things can pick up in 24 hours:
And aren't we all eternally grateful for the existence of instagram filters?

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Could I Have a Free Book Please? A Free Jimmy Coates Book...?

Authors are asked for free books all the time. I even get asked for free copies of books I didn't write. Not sure what the reasoning behind that is, but it happens. Today I answered two questions that came in via facebook. One of them was a short, easy one and the other was also a slightly less short, but still pretty easy one, to which I ended up giving a long, not-so-easy answer.

Question One was:
Hi Joe What Are You Doing? Do you Play Clash Of Clans? And Good Night

I replied:
Hi T, I'm at my desk and supposed to be writing at the moment. What about you? I don't play clash of clans or anything like that. I play board games.

That was easy. I sat back feeling like I'd done a good hour's work. I had a cup of tea and an excellent biscuit (shortbread - always). Then I went back to my desk and answered Question Two:

Hi Joe.
I feel cheeky to ask , however is it possible for a free copy of Jimmy Coates Killer.

i have already read this (and great book by the way) but my little brother aged 9 , would LOVE to read this , and i handed my Jimmy coates books down to a charity. 

He keeps asking me to ask you if this could happen. 

Regards, J

Here's my reply, slightly tweaked to remove personal info:

Hi J,

I don't mind you asking at all. But I hope you don't mind me having to say that I can't send you a free book :( I'm sorry. I get asked to send free books out quite a lot and though I would really love to get a book to your brother so he can enjoy the series as much as you did, I have to buy my own books from the publisher. It would cost me quite a lot of money (probably more money than I have) to buy a book and send it to everybody who asks for one for free.

Also, you CAN get my books for free from a library. I know that's not quite the same because obviously you have to take the book back, but it's still free for you and your brother gets to read the book. There's even a system called PLR ('Public Lending Right') that means the government pays an author 6.6p every time his book is borrowed from a public library. Yes, that is just over 6 and a half PENCE, not £6.60 or anything like that. Don't get excited. It's 6.6p at the moment. Last year it was around 6.2p, I think. There's also a maximum, which I think is around £6,600 - so no matter how many times your books are borrowed from a public library in the UK, an author can't earn more than that from library loans. So even JK Rowling and Jacqueline Wilson can't get more than the maximum, though their books are borrowed from libraries a lot. Probably millions of times, I don't know.

By the way, that system doesn't apply to school libraries. I don't get any money when my books are borrowed in school libraries, so a lot of children's authors miss out that way. I don't think most of us mind about that because we want kids to be reading. Although there IS a problem when the government shuts down public libraries or sneakily gets round having to support a public library by moving the public library services into a school library. That way they can say that library services are still available, it's just that they don't really have to provide the same kind of service as they did before because they shut down all the extra stuff, the really good stuff, that libraries do, like book groups, events, supporting local people and services for the community. That kind of thing. And of course, once the 'public' library service is shunted into the school library, what happens to the author's 6.6p? It disappears. Cheeky, right?

So I would dearly love to be able to distribute my books for free to people who want to read them. Especially as I write a series, so if I gave my first book away for free, most people would then go on to buy the rest of the series and I'd make money from that. Unfortunately the numbers don't quite work. I'd have to pay the publisher to get the books I handed out for free, then I wouldn't get quite a big enough cut of the sale of each book after that to make it worthwhile overall. The publisher takes a big chunk of the sale price of a book. And that makes sense, if you think about, because the publisher takes all the risk when they publish a book and they're the ones spending money on editing, designing, printing, storing, distributing, publicising and marketing the books.

That system only falls down when a publisher stops taking risks on new authors or daring ideas and stops supporting the books they already have out there. When that happens, the author ends up doing all the work of supporting the books, including spending a lot of time travelling around the UK (and the world) to promote their books instead of spending that time writing another book! And of course, no matter how much promotion the author does himself, he still only gets a very small cut of the price of the book when someone buys it (usually around 10 per cent).

But still, there's 6.6p every time someone discovers one of my books at a library (as long as it still is a real public library and as long as the number of library loans doesn't go over the maximum allowance and also as long as it isn't a loan of an e-book, because there are still different rules about the loan of e-books, even though we live in an amazing, technologically miraculous world).

So do say hi to your brother for me. And a HUGE thank you to you for the amazing support in spreading the word about my books. Without people like you suggesting to their brothers that they read my books, who would promote my books?! So maybe YOU deserve a cut of the price of each book for doing great promotion work. Maybe.

Actually, maybe, if you've managed to read through this whole ramble I've dribbled out of my fingers onto the computer screen and sent to you, if you've managed to get through all this and maybe understand a bit of it, and maybe because you took the time to contact me and made the effort to ask so nicely and maybe because you're only after a free book so you can spread the word to the next generation of readers... maybe you DO deserve a free book. I have one here on my desk. It's the US edition - I hope that's OK - but you can have it for your brother. Will you do me a favour, though? To cover the price of the postage, please put about 3 quid in a charity collection tin next time you see one. I don't mind if you do this all in one go or bit by bit.

Let me know your address and who to sign the book to (you or your brother or both) and what your brother's name is. Thanks for reading all this J. Hope you're having a great school holiday.

Stay awesome,

Thursday, April 02, 2015

"How Do I Encourage My Son To Read More?"

I was in Jordan in March to visit some schools and run some writing workshops. What a great week in a terrific country. In preparation for my visit I was directed to this pertinent question posted online by a Jordanian parent to see if I could offer some help:

How Do I Encourage My Son To Read More?

He's 11, and refuses to read, no matter how much I encourage him. He is full of energy, but his time is consumed either with sports or electronics. He does well in school, and is generally well behaved. Wondering if anyone out there has ideas on how I can get him excited to read.

You can see the original question and my full answer on the forum here, but this, or some variation on it, is such a common question I thought I'd offer a lightly tidied-up version of my answer for you here...

It seems that 11 is the age at which there’s the biggest drop-off in reading, especially among boys. (Then there are all the boys who weren't really all that into reading in the first place - don't forget about them.)
It’s no good just presenting your son with a book, or even a small choice of books, no matter how right you think your choice will be for him or how highly it's been recommended by 'experts'. He has to have ownership of the process. So:
Does he have the chance to choose things to read himself?
You’ll need to make a huge amount of reading material available to him – really huge. And reading material of all different kinds. Broaden the range of what you might think of as ‘reading’. It doesn’t have to be the classics, or even a book. Find magazines, instruction manuals, listings of sports statistics... anything like that. Much of it he will ignore, but eventually he will choose to pick up something that piques his interest. That’s the first step – he’s not going to become a bookworm overnight, but stick at it. For sports and electronics fans, magazines and manuals are brilliant gateways. But don’t rush him.
The right material is important, of course, but it’s only part of the answer. There’s a lot else you can do that might seem small but in the long run will make a huge impact.
Does he have a reading light by his bed? Think about when and where you’re expecting him to read. It’s not going to happen unless he has a quiet space with a light and books or magazines within arms’ reach. And his schedule is probably packed with school activities and homework, so make sure he knows he can stay up as late as he likes if he wants to read a magazine.
Do you have the sports pages of newspapers spread out in the kitchen when he comes down for breakfast every morning? You don’t need to make a big deal out of it, just let him find them and discover the most interesting writers on the sports he likes. (You might have to research who those are for yourself first.) Or it might be relevant, engaging blogs open on the ipad, just there, casually in front of his nose when he sits down to eat.
Does he ever hear you discussing what you’re reading? Not necessarily with him, but with your friends or with the rest of the family? Make books and reading part of everyday talk around him. Argue about stories or about an article you read. If he hasn’t read that story or that article the discussion might seem to go over his head, but if it keeps happening he won’t let it go on indefinitely, he’ll do something about it.
Does he ever see you reading? For an 11 year-old boy it can make a huge impact to see his father reading, or other male role models. You don’t need to point it out, just make sure it happens, consistently and for a long time.
As with all these things, it will take time to turn him into a reader but if you’re persistent he won’t be able to resist.
Find someone else who can recommend reading material to him. Again, not just books, but magazines, websites and manuals as well. If there’s an older sibling or some other teenager in his life that influences him, get that person on your side, even if they don’t realise that’s what you’re doing, and put interesting reading material in their way. It can filter through to your son second-hand.
I refused to read when I was 11. But one of my strongest memories from that time is helping my dad drill the reading light into the wall by my bed and wire it up. (Again – being involved in the process. If he likes electronics let him fix up his own reading light or ask him to fix a new one for you and everybody else in the family.)
There were nightly family discussions – often heated – about books I’d never heard of. They were like public performances for my benefit. On an errand with my sister she suggested I pick out a film magazine. (I read it cover to cover, and every issue of that magazine for the next ten years. It’s basically how I learned to write.) Eventually it was my sister who was able to pick out books that would grab my attention.
My father used to set up two books on the table in front of the TV, alongside the evening paper. (He invented and built a device that enabled him to keep both books open at once while keeping his hands free to eat.) He read both books and the paper at the same time, in front of me, while calling out the right answer to every single question on every single TV quiz show. Eventually, any 11 year-old makes the connections himself. It will take time, but it will happen.
Make it a tide that’s impossible to resist. Make it demonstrative and daily. You must be patient and flexible. He won’t want to read the same things as you, or even the same things as many other 11 year-old boys. He won’t suddenly go from not reading at all to picking up a dusty, leather tome. He may never pick up dusty, leather tomes – I still don’t. But I did become a huge reader, eventually.
Without that, of course, I would never have become a writer. But it was also my impatience with reading, and not liking the kinds of books I was 'supposed' to like, or that everybody else seemed to like, that led me to the kind of writing that I do. I started writing the Jimmy Coates books to grab the attention of readers like the 11 year-old me, readers like your son. The path to writing those books began with film magazines, sports articles and statistics and the ostentatious displays of reading from my family.
It's a lot more than just picking out books that are 'popular' with his peers, or that you liked when you were his age, or that you think he should like for any other reason. But don't give up. It'll happen, and it's worth it.

Monday, February 02, 2015

Tips for Authors for World Book Day

Authors all over the UK are about to dive into the crazy/brilliant time of year when schools need speakers to entertain, inform and inspire students to want to read. World Book Day is coming up. Between now and the first week of March (and probably for at least a couple of weeks beyond that) every author you know has been asked to make more appearances in schools than they could ever want or possibly fit into the diary.

It's been getting crazier every year for the last decade. Some authors are doing all this for the first time and a friend of a friend got in touch to ask whether I had any advice for her to prepare her for her first ever school visits as an author.

I bashed out a list of tips and I hope it might be useful to somebody. There are obviously some basics to public speaking that I'll try not to cover here - we can talk about those another day, if anybody is interested. So below are just a few things that strike me as being particular to being an author speaking to a school audience. Other authors reading this: please do add your own in the comments, tell us which ones you already do or tell me the ones I've got wrong!

Ask the teachers to get the kids to file in from the front. If they start at the back there'll be random odd chairs at the front, which makes your job much harder from from the very beginning. Don't accept empty rows or empty seats. They sit in every chair, starting at the front. If they refuse to sit in the front row and the teachers aren't sharp enough to do anything about it, wait until they've all sat down in the second row, then remove the first row of empty chairs. Better - remove one of the empty chairs, then ask one specific student and one specific teacher to take away the others.
Obviously don't start til everyone is settled. The manner in which the students come into the hall or the library, or wherever, sets the tone for the whole thing. Sounds strict, but it makes it so much easier to have as much fun as you like for the hour that follows.

An odd one, this, and some experienced authors I know disagree. Nonetheless, I suggest you start at your very quietest and build up from there. Loud noises and loud voices are among the things that set off disruptive behaviour in students who have certain kinds of issues. So draw everybody in. If there's a microphone, start without it.

In the first minute, thank the students for having you. The key word to emphasise is 'guest'. For example, "Thanks for having me as your GUEST today. It's pretty special for me blah blah..."
The word 'guest', especially in close proximity to 'special', triggers 'guest behaviour'. Teachers have droned on at them for years about how they should behave for guests. Help them out with a not-so-subtle mental kick to engage that behaviour for you, now.

Stand, don't sit, and never behind a table or lectern or anything else. If you've been put up on a stage, come down off it unless there's a really, really good reason for you to be so far away from your audience.

Don't rely on powerpoint or projections or any other kind of tech. It will only work in about one in five schools. In the one-in-five schools where it works, only one-in-five students will absorb what you're shoving in their faces up on the screen. Be better than that. In the absence of powerpoint and the like, YOU must be interesting to look at. Think about how and when you move as much as what you're saying. Move around, stand still, vary the pace, go to the corners and speak from there for a bit, use your gestures. With more space and time we could go into the best way to do this, but if you're starting out, it's enough just to make sure you give this thought. YOU are the visuals. Be dynamic.

Don't let them. It won't be the librarian or teacher who booked you, but somebody else in the hall thinks they're getting a free period. If someone is chatting, marking, moving
around or anything like that, stop immediately. Stare at them if necessary, but wait for
them to give you their full attention. The staff have to set the example. Don't let them get away with anything else. Hopefully you'll be entertaining enough once you get going that they won't be able to take their eyes off you, but until then, keep the staff in line.

You need to signal early on that the students aren't just there to sit and 'listen' to you ramble on for an hour. You're going to engage them, get them involved, ask them stuff and go to them for input and ideas. (At least, I hope you are.) This is much easier if in the first few minutes you've asked for a simple show of hands for something. (Anything that isn't
patronising like, 'who likes reading' - I saw an author do that once. It was

Have a couple of books to give away. Give one away early-ish to someone who answers a question well. It'll switch the others on for the rest of the session.

If you're going to do Q&A at the end, tell them that (preferably twice) near
the beginning so their brains, consciously or not, have thought up some questions by the time you get to that bit.

Unlike with adult audiences, don't repeat yourself or labour any points. (I know I've said repeat a couple of things, but apart from them). Kids get stuff first time, quickly. So say it once and move on. Don't wait for a reaction or for anything to sink in. They've got the point and they're getting bored unless you've moved on. Be a step ahead, or several, if you can.

Ignore everything else, but follow this one. If you do, nothing else really matters. This goes for all kinds of public speaking, but never more so than as an author presenting to an audience in a school. It's big:


That applies to every word you say. Shape it into a story. Even if that means embellishing stuff or just making it up. It's why you're there, it's your strength, your unique set of skills.

Have fun, everybody. Wishing you all some great World Book Day events.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Three New Short Story Thrillers for your E-book Device, Kindle, iPad, Phone, Etchasketch or Whatever You Read Stuff On These Days

A few years ago I put out a very short book called Lifters, about a brother-sister pickpocket team who get caught up in a conspiracy of organised crimed, snipers, free-running and betrayal. It was only 3,000 words long (about the length of a chapter in a Jimmy Coates book) and it did better than I ever thought it would, showing that there was more demand than anyone expected for stories that were very short, but had all the action and suspense of a full thriller.

I've written 3 new short thrillers and they're available as e-books from today.

I'll be blogging a little about each story in turn between now and Christmas but for now, admire the amazing covers designed for me by Uberpup:

Save the Human
Alien invasion and extreme storms threaten the human race. Jay and Emma are fighting their way to the safety of a bunker. But it’s too late. The Zorbs are coming. 

Head Strong
Jed finds an ancient helmet embedded in the earth. The original owner wants it back – even when time and space are in the way.

The Mendack Affair
Judd wants more from life than being a window cleaner, like his dad. On his last job, he looks through the wrong window and glimpses something he’s not meant to see. A secret somebody is prepared to kill for.

The stories are loosely linked, but only by their general themes and outlook on life. So you can read them in any order. I hope you like them. If you do, feel free to leave a review and, of course, spread the word...