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...

Monday, December 01, 2014

Editing - the Big Questions

I've given a draft of my work-in-progress to a trusted brain to read. This will be the first time anybody but me has read any of this story.

I started planning it more than two years ago. I started writing the first draft on January 7th, 2014. I finished the first draft on November 20th and since then I've done some extensive re-writing, but nowhere near enough to be finished.

There's still several weeks of editing and rewriting to be done, but to carry on productively, I need a trusted brain to tell me the answers to some big questions. For example:

Does it make sense?
When you've been working on one story for so long it's very easy to lose sight of what will be clear or obvious to the first time reader and what needs elaboration. But of course, everybody who reads the book will be a first time reader once. So it has to make sense, sentence by sentence and also on a larger scale across the whole plot.

Is it exciting?
I think this applies no matter what genre you write. Every page should be enticing, gripping or make you want to read on. So I'm not just talking about action sequences and twists in thrillers. Even scenes in which nobody moves a muscle should be exciting. (Don't mistake movement for 'action' or motion for emotion.) In other words, I'm asking where the tension slackens. Are there bits where you can do anything other than grip the book in your fists and devour it because you just have to know what happens next?

At any point, does any of the characters act like an idiot?
This is a huge one. Forget whether your characters are 'likeable' or 'relate-able' or any nonsense like that. What you don't want is any point in the story where your reader says something that begins, "Why doesn't he just...?"
Or, even worse: "What?! Well if he thinks that's a good idea, he deserves everything coming to him."
If you haven't thought of the thing the character should be doing, you need to know your readers will think of it and so your character should too. If there's a good reason why your character doesn't do that thing, you need to show that.
The one thing that switches a reader off more than anything else is a character acting like an idiot when there's an obvious, or even moderately intelligent, course of action that they either haven't thought of, or they've dismissed for a shaky reason. This goes for EVERY character, not just your hero or heroine. Good guys, bad guys, little guys... EVERYBODY.

I'll get lots of other feedback, I know. But the first time somebody else reads through a complete draft of my book, these are the three main questions I need answered for every page.

If you're working on something and you've reached the point of sharing it with someone else for the first time, I recommend you ask these questions too.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Email to Joe Craig. Response from tired Joe Craig avoiding the washing up

Dear Mr Craig,

I teach at a specialist dyslexic school and one of my students loves your books especially the Jimmy Coates series. As part of his homework he had to write five questions to ask you about the book he was reading. He was so excited over this homework that I thought it would be a good idea to write to you. We spent a lesson looking at your website and constructing an email to you.

I typed what L wanted to say. I only hope that you have time to reply to him as this would be so inspiring. I have used my personal email in the hope that we receive a reply.
Many Many thanks Mrs C, one to one teacher of L
Hello my name is L I am nearly 11 years old (six more days!).
I have written because I want to find out more about the Jimmy Coates books. I have finished reading Jimmy Coates Killer and Jimmy Coates Target and I have almost finished reading Revenge. My favourite character is Jimmy because he is pretty clever and he is really good at fighting. Here are a few questions I would like to ask you if you have time I would appreciate a reply.
1. What encouraged you to write the Jimmy Coates books?
2. What’s your favourite book?
3. Who is your favourite character in the Jimmy Coates books and why?
4. What age is Viggo?
5. Are you going to write more Jimmy Coates books in the future?
6. Do you write any other books other than Jimmy Coates?
I would appreciate it if you were able to send me a reply. Thank you for your time. L

Dear L and Mrs C,
Thanks for getting in touch. I really enjoyed your lovely email. It’s put a big smile on my face to hear that you’ve been enjoying my books. I’m not so sure I like being part of someone’s homework, but I suppose if you HAVE to do homework then it’s probably a good thing that it’s all about me. Maybe suggest to your school that all homework is about me from now on. That will make things far simpler for everybody.
A very happy birthday for when the day comes, L. I hope your 11th birthday is better than mine. I spent my 11th birthday in prison in Cuba for a crime I didn’t commit. Well, I did commit it, but hardly with much enthusiasm so they shouldn’t really have blamed me. I expect you’d rather I just got on with answering your questions now. So...
1. What encouraged you to write the Jimmy Coates books?
Usually when I answer this question I lie. I say something like, “Oh, I just wanted to write an exciting story.” But the honest truth is that it was a lot of little things that all combined and I can’t remember all of them. I was reading a lot of books at the time – that helps. I was also watching a lot of movies – also a great help. Harry Potter was already hugely successful but it annoyed me that everybody thought its success was because people loved witches and wizards. I can’t stand witches and wizards. I had a bad experience with a wizard in that Cuban prison. I liked Harry Potter because of the mystery, adventure and good twists. Not the magic. So I decided to come up with a story that had no magic in it, but even more mystery, adventures, suspense, action and loads more twists.
2. What’s your favourite book?
My favourite of the books that I’ve written is Jimmy Coates: Blackout. To me, it’s clearly the best in the series. I think each book I’ve written has been a bit better than the one before it because I’ve been learning a lot about writing as I go. It’s more fun that way, and also I can’t stand all those series that start off well but then get worse and worse. It’s so lazy. No excuse.
My favourite book by another author is probably Bend Sinister by Nabokov. Or The Sneetches & Other Stories by Dr Seuss. Both mind-blowingly good in different ways.
3. Who is your favourite character in the Jimmy Coates books and why?
It’s very hard to have favourite characters in my own books. Some have more interesting plotlines than others, but a lot of the interest for me is in knowing where they’re all going to end up and who’s going to die. That kind of thing. So some of my favourites are Miss Bennett, Eva Doren, Paduk (oh by the way, Paduk’s name came straight out of that book by Nabokov, Bend Sinister) and Saffron Walden.
4. What age is Viggo?
I could go back and check this in my notebooks but I honestly can’t remember. He has to be old enough to have worked in the secret service 12 years before the books are set and probably have been in the army before that. Maybe. But he has to be young enough to make women’s hearts go all wibbly. His name is a pretty obvious nod to Viggo Mortensen, the actor, who is in his mid-fifties now, I think, but must have been in his early forties when I started writing the books and created the character of Christopher Viggo.
5. Are you going to write more Jimmy Coates books in the future?
I’ve written 7 and there’s going to be one more – Jimmy Coates: Genesis. That will be the final one, which will bring the whole series to a big, exciting, surprising, twisty ending. I haven’t written it yet but the plot is all planned out in detail (I came up with the ending and the final twists when I was plotting the very first book in the series over 10 years ago). I will finish writing it at some point but there are a couple of other things I’m working on first, so don’t hold your breath. Also, as you can probably tell from some of my answers here, when I do sit down to finish writing it I’ll have to re-read the rest of the series first and all of my notes to get everything fresh in my head again.
6. Do you write any other books other than Jimmy Coates?
So far I’ve written one non-Jimmy Coates book, which is a short thriller called Lifters. I’m really proud of it. I hope you get the chance to check it out and that you enjoy it. I’ve also written three other short thrillers, which are all coming out in e-book stores in the next few weeks, so keep an eye out for those. They’re called

 I hope that answers all your questions. Yes, ALL your questions, about EVERYTHING. I don’t just answer questions about Jimmy Coates, you know. I am full of WISDOM and KNOWLEDGE that stretches across all time, all space and any kind of surface (not vinyl).
Have an excellent day, a moderate evening, a great night, then a better-than-average morning and then a surprising afternoon. Follow that with a strange evening, a fun night, a superb morning, a messy afternoon, a shocking evening and a restful night. You can change the order of those around if you want to, but not too much. I don’t like it when people monkey around with the order of mornings and afternoons and such things.
OK, I have to go now. Someone’s knocked on the door. It’s their house. I probably shouldn’t be hanging around outside a stranger’s front door.
Best wishes,
@joecraiguk & @joecraig

Monday, September 29, 2014

Anglesey Adventure - Jimmy Coates in Wales

Turns out I was in two newspapers on Sunday. Not for some kind of scandal (again) but for reasons of adventure.

My missus wrote an excellent piece in the Telegraph about a canoeing trip. I featured as a bit-part in the background, clutching the star of the show, the hound.

Meanwhile, a piece I wrote for the Independent over the Summer popped up in their pages. And it's online too. So you can read all about why I'm 'quivering, podgy superman'.

It's basically about whether I, a mere human writer, can take on the trials that I make Jimmy Coates face in the books. Hope you like it.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Best Non-fiction Books

I am not in line to the throne of the Solomon Islands. Sorry. But between the ages of 13 and 15 I convinced my classmates that I was. (This was, obviously, pre-internet.) It became 'that kooky thing about Joe', alongside my fear of bananas (true) and my ability to hypnotise people (false at the time - I learned later).

So my relationship with the truth is like that between a vulnerable, young hero in a Hitchcock movie and the mysterious stranger who comes to stay, claiming to be an uncle who's been 'travelling' for the last few years. It might start with the thrill of a new friendship but it usually ends in murder.

Well handled truth can become, for me, like any other good story. So I love great non-fiction books. In writing fiction I can make up whatever I like. Non-fiction authors can only deal with what the world has given them, yet some of them still manage to put it all together to create a thriller.

Eventually the world threw up a picture of the people of the Solomon Islands. Someone in my class noticed that I was not black and my regal lineage withered.

Here are my top 8 non-fiction books so far:

The Prize, by Daniel Yergin
It turns out the story of the oil industry is the real story of 20th century - and it's a twist-packed gut-wrencher.

Quantum, by Manjit Kumar
The battles between the greatest brains over the nature of the very tiniest particles in existence. Fascinating, complex and mind-bending stuff made human and relatable.

Agent Zigzag, by Ben Macintrye
If you made this up, you'd be called insane. A dodgy character stumbles into WWII, double-crosses everybody and comes out a hero. Probably.

Rubicon, by Tom Holland
Nobody spills the guts and glory of Ancient Rome like Tom Holland.

Monte Cassino, by Matthew Parker
The drama and heartbreak of the bloodiest battle of WWII.

The Education of a Poker Player, by Herbert O. Yardley
Everything you need to know about poker is everything you need to know about life - whether you play or not.

The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov, by Andrea Pitzer
A Russian genius escapes European tyranny (twice), encodes his nation's calamities and his indictment of American society in great novels - but nobody notices until 30 years after he dies. You'll love it.

Stealing the Mystic Lamb, by Noah Charney
400 years of European power-struggles boiled down to a series of audacious art-heists, with a riveting unsolved mystery at its heart.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Writing Exciting Action Thrillers - tips and discussion from twitter chat

Last night I was 'guest host' of a twitter chat all about writing exciting action thrillers for kids. If you're on twitter, take a look at the hashtag #ukmgchat - there's a fresh discussion every couple of weeks (the last Wednesday of the month and the second Wednesday of the month). The 'mg' stands for 'middle grade', which is the American term for the kind of books I write - anything for ages 8 to 13ish.

If you're not on twitter, here are a few of the main things that came up. It was pretty intense trying to hammer out answers in such a short format with no time to think about it before more comments and questions came flying in. So this is all pretty raw, but I'll stand by anything I said...

Do you know how you want an action/fight scene play out before you write it?
-I know what the outcome needs to be & story elements that need to happen. Beyond that is a fair bit of improv then edit.
-Punchy verbs make it easier to FEEL what's happening. Hit the guts harder. Adjectives get in the way.

Obsessed w language. Anglo Saxon better than Latinate, short chunky sound-bitey words?
-Agreed. Balancing word-length, sentence-length & pace/timing is the constant concern when editing action.

Hi Joe. How do you choreograph your fight scenes? Do you act them out?
-I have toys or use pens as people to slo-mo choreograph fights, action etc on my desk. Then I need to write precisely.

Picked up a good tip last night - you can control speed of reading as a minute a sentence level.
-I like to monkey about with that. One model for writing action is the Iliad, for its long similes at unexpected moments, holding back the pay-off til it's almost insufferable.

How gory/visceral can MG action scenes be? About to write a key (medieval) battle scene and not sure how far to go!
-I'm fairly ungory in disposition so I usually go one step beyond my own taste. It's instinct more than rules.
Worth testing on kids of that age. They will invariably tell you to ramp up the gore.
-Not always wise to listen to kids. You are the writer. Do it your way.

What are your favourite thrillers? Best action scenes? What gets your heart pumping??
-My models for action writing are Robert Ludlum and The Iliad.

How do you sustain action in your stories? Do you follow a method or let the characters dictate?
-Story first. Action serves story. Plot all planned out in advance. Sometimes I find unplanned action moments but rarely.

What for you is the most challenging aspect of writing thrillers for kids?
-Main challenge is maintaining a 'real' feel to it when kids are doing crazy action stuff. Could get silly v easily.

Are your books popular with girls and boys? Did you write specifically for one or the other?
-Audience for my books splits about 50/50, girl/boy. I don't consider audience at all while writing.

I don’t write action if I can help it. Usually have tons of characters and it's rock hard keeping track of them all in actiony bits.
-Action with any more than 2/3 characters is tough. Like juggling. I try to separate spatially into discrete scenes.

What is the best advice you can give to other MG writers looking to get published/ represented?
-Ignore trends, just write. Learn to cook well. Only share work as late as possible in the process.

Do you think action scenes are the way to get reluctant readers into books?
-Up to a point. Dull action scenes as bad as dull anything else. What matters: GRIPPING STORY. Tension not action.

How long do you think action scenes should be to keep them exciting?
-1 or 2 exchanges then move on. Or one major reversal. Stop just BEFORE you think it's done. Then cut half of it. Build the structure of action like a mini-story, with acts & climaxes. Sustains tension.

What do you read for inspiration?
-Ludlum, Lawrence Block, Nabokov.

In fight scenes how do you judge how much is too much? And have you ever been told that you got it wrong?
-Helicopter chase in my 1st book was about 10 times longer in 1st draft. I cut & cut & cut til it was good enough.
-In a fight scene, too much = anything more than the minimum. IMPACT more important than length. Boil it down. INTENSITY.
So do you often write more action then you need and cut or does it pan out mostly how you would like it?
-Usually 1st draft has more than I need. I rewrite action scenes & cut a lot in the edits.

Any tips for writing thrillers?
-Thrillers rely on rigorous plotting, clarity of hero's aims & intensity/originality of villain & his/her plans.

Any action no-no's to watch out for? Other than, "Don't confuse the reader."
-Mistaking movement for action, motion for emotion, volume for impact.

There was a lot more, with some recommendations of books to check out as well as tips from other writers getting involved too. If you want the full whack type #ukmgchat into twitter.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Does Playing Make You More Creative? Not If You're Doing It Wrong...

This afternoon I spoke at a conference run by Unilever and the ESRC called:

"Cardboard boxes, storybooks and games: Imaginative play in middle childhood"

It was only a 15 minute presentation, so I thought I'd type up what I said while it was still fresh in my mind. Here it is:

What a treat and a privilege to be here. It's been a fascinating day so far; thank you for letting me play my part.

I write books mainly for the 8-13 crowd. It means I get to play every day - with ideas, stories, possibilities... I also do a lot of work in schools talking about creativity, writing and generating ideas.

I suppose I'm a case study of what happens when instead of a toy or a console you give a child...

...a box.

I grew up with lots of boxes. I think my parents realised pretty quickly that a box is cheaper than a toy. My sisters and I had so many cardboard boxes that we needed a bigger box to put the boxes in, and then that got full so we found the biggest box in the world and put all the boxes into it and we called it the Box Box.

Our other way of playing was to act out stories that we made up as we went along. Epic adventures. Rich and complex worlds in which we would be completely immersed for hours. Thrilling dramas with twists that were later used for a show called 'Game of Thrones'. If you've heard of that, well... that was us.

I saw my role as rearranging the furniture as much as possible. My older sister saw her role as organising me as much as possible. She was very good at it.

We sometimes played with such dedication to realism that we didn't break to go to the loo. There was one Amazon adventure when I really needed to go. But we would never disrupt the world we'd created or the story. So, "It's OK," I said. "Don't worry, Wandering Chieftan. I'll be right back. I'm just going to... make arrows."

That is still the euphemism we use in my family for going to toilet. "Excuse me a moment, I'm going to make arrows," or "It's a long drive - have you made arrows?"

My younger sister had a very special role in the games. Well, one of two roles. She created them both and she chose which character she was going to be in that particular game. On special occasions she combined them. One was 'Yaps the Dog'. That was when she wanted to be a dog. The other was a kidnap victim or some kind of hostage.

Either part could appear at any moment, no matter what the context. We could be digging for stolen space-jewels on Saturn and suddenly: "It's OK, Commander Wandering Chieftan - Yaps the Dog is here!"

Her being taken hostage would always lead to an elaborate, swashbuckling rescue from a cage I built around her. Then when we finally released her from captivity she'd always - every single time - say, "Umm, no not yet. I'm still kidnapped."

By the way, my older sister is now a top business strategist & consultant. An actual, real-life wandering chieftan. She made it. And my younger sister is a hostage.

No, it's OK, she's a writer.

These games - the boxes, the adventures - trained 2 things into me that I rely on every day in any creative projects.

The first is that to create anything you need to be wrong most of the time. You need to seek out new ways to be wrong. Spectacular ways. Pursue them. Explore them. See how wrong you can go.

There was no problem with going on the 'wrong' track with our childhood games because the game - and the fun - would always continue. We could try things out and carry on. There are so many games where you can't do that. If you try something different or go 'wrong', the game ends. Fun over.

I see it in schools too, especially secondary schools. When I'm getting kids to come up with ideas, they have such a strong sense of some contributions being 'right' and some 'wrong'. It stops them saying anything that isn't dull or at least predictable. I've even seen teachers tell certain pupils to put their hands down because it's time for "sensible ideas only please". That's no way to come up with anything. A writer needs to go through a hundred silly, outrageous, ridiculous, unworkable ideas to get to the one gem.

The second tool I developed was this:

Coming up with something out of nothing. The blank slate. Overcoming the inertia of that first creative step - the beginnings of an idea where there was only a void. I will sit at my desk tomorrow and I will turn to the next page in my notebook and it will be blank. I will have to fill it. With something - anything. I will face a blank page every day for the rest of my working life.

Creating something from nothing relies on a muscle that needs training. Very few forms of play develop that. And I don't think schools teach it, either. How often are students given the task, "Write something." - with no guide, or prompt, or framework?

I worry about that dying even in toys. My Lego had no picture on the box of what I was 'supposed' to make. Or if it did, I ignored it. I made whatever I wanted. Or I experimented without knowing what I was making. I went wrong a thousand ways, each one more fun than the last.

I didn't limit myself to the Lego, either. I incorporated blu-tak, string, cutlery and once (only once) my dad's reading glasses. (That was for a yacht. It didn't float.)

And, of course, the box went into Box Box.

The unstructured, unsupervised play was the perfect training for a creative life. And the time to play in that way led directly to me writing my first songs, my first musical and then, eventually, my first book.

Which is why I'm still playing every day. Now go and make up something ridiculous.