Saturday, April 15, 2017

Should you plan a story or just see where it takes you?

Someone I know wanted to start writing her book before she'd worked out what would happen at the end. She had the first half of the story, but nothing in the second half. Should she start writing? She seemed confident that by the time she got to the middle she'd be able to muddle her way through. She'd find out what happened in the rest of the story as she went along, she said.

I know some people do this. Some of them are even pretty successful. But it's a terrible idea. If you do this, no matter how successful you are, you're not writing the best version of your story.

Here's what I said in my reply to that writer:

The best-case senario is that you manage to muddle your way through and find where the story should go, but that version won't be the best the story can be. That'll be the version of the story that the reader could've worked out for themselves, or the version of the story they expect. You need to be a step ahead. You want to know you've thought through every possibility and found the BEST story possible.

So... try accelerating the process. Go through the first half of the story as if you're writing it, but without having to write it. Sketch it out on cards or speak it aloud, following your notes. Then see if you can feel your way through one version of the second half of the story. Record it and make notes on what you said later. You'll come across the sticking points. Write them down.

Write down some questions for yourself. Then do branching possibilities. Either this or that. Do some what-if questions. Find what-if's that surprise you. Even if they don't make sense with the first half of the story as you have it - at this point you can still go back and change your plan for the first half.

Improvising or feeling your way through will mean much more work in the long run. Or it'll mean you settling for a version of your story that's OK, but not great. An obvious story. Challenge yourself. Do better. Explore every corner of your story and wring from it the full potential.

Get a strong visual sense of a single moment at the end of your story. Work backwards from that to work out what you need in the story to make that moment as powerful as it can be.

Remember, stories are change. So: what do you want to be different at the end of your story form the beginning? Different for the characters... different for the world you've created... different for your readers. Make lists in each category. Make those differences more extreme. Make them more meaningful. That's how you work out where you've got to and it might change your thoughts on where you have to start. That's how you build your story.

Your story is you telling the world how you think life is. So spend every waking moment thinking about what you want to tell the world about life. It's fine if you want to improvise it. But don't subject the reader to your improvisations, your muddling through. Give them the best, the most powerful version of your story.

Friday, November 04, 2016

Advice For Life - and How To Remember Names

As part of a charity auction, I promised someone a letter containing all my advice for life. I should have known at the time that this was folly - "The wise man knows he knows nothing."

Setting yourself up as an authority on anything, let alone anything as broad as 'life', isn't for anyone who wants to avoid being a target - of incredulity, of jokes, of whispers behind your back. Fortunately I don't care about any of those things (which is one of my first pieces of advice) so I'm ploughing on and writing the letter. In fact, I'm loving it.

Lots of my 'advice' is on seemingly frivolous subjects like honey and umbrellas. Also, most of the really fundamental style advice (for men, at least) has already been written in this book, which I highly recommend. (Though there is room in my letter for my own extra thoughts on style, of course, and to disagree with a couple of things in that wonderful little book.)

But meanwhile, I thought you might like me to share the odd thing or two from my letter. Tips that could be genuinely useful to you. In fact, I have one of the most useful tips you'll ever get. You'll use it a lot, it really works, and it could change your life: HOW TO REMEMBER NAMES.

Parties, networking events, meetings... remove all the awkwardness and anxiety by simply knowing how to remember someone's name first time. How great would that be? Here's how:

The first time you hear someone's name, try to work out what it is backwards. (You don't need to do this aloud, just in your head.)

It works for common names, unusual names, all names. I haven't interrogated exactly how it works, but I've been doing it for years, since I started it as a joke in my teens. And it does work. My guess is that it's something to do with planting the name in a different part of your brain.

I quickly realised my 'party trick' wasn't entertaining enough to be worthy of that name, but I found myself doing it in my head anyway and never forgetting a name. So I've used this trick ever since. At speaking events in schools I've remembered the names of a whole class of kids while the register was being taken. That's taking it a bit far, but it's good practice and it's fun freaking them out when I know everyone's name.

Give it a go. And if you'd like me to help you or your company with conversation, networking, public speaking, or any aspect of spoken or written word, I'm available. Get in touch.

More life tips coming soon. Possibly about honey and umbrellas.

Feel free to leave your own thoughts in the comments.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016


Guess where I've been...

No, not in a tiny toyland of magical, multicoloured onions, but Moscow.

These are some of the faces of Moscow, where I was visiting the Cambridge International School to talk about my books, writing and being creative.

There were a lot of highlights, but my favourite story ideas came from Years 3 and 4, who came up with some book ideas that I'd love to read, including:

3 Fat Kings
The Giant Dino Hotel
and, of course,
Dangerous Horse Holes

Dwayne Johnson has already been in touch to buy the movie rights to all three. He's the only actor with the range to pull off the action, drama and comedy required for all three.

I was a little surprised, but delighted, to discover that Russian schoolchildren are keen on spontaneous group hugs. I didn't have much say in any of these hugs, and only a handful of children were crushed against my ever-growing belly.

Speaking of which: hachapuri. London needs a hachapuri cafe.

And while I tucked into my hachapuri, I had some good books to read...

I took my favourite Dr Seuss book with me to share with some of the younger groups: Yertle the Turtle. I had some admiring looks from confused babushkas while re-reading it on the Moscow metro.

For adult readers I recommend a couple of other books that kept me entertained...

Sinker, by Jason Johnson, zings on every page & brings you the cleverly imagined extreme sport of professional drinking. It's plotted like a fine wine, but hides its art at the bottom of a puddle of cider. But in a good way.

Back to Moscow, by Guillermo Erades, rips and roars through modern Russian life. Reading this while in Russia made me examine the world around me a lot more carefully, which is surely the mark of an excellent book.

Finally, who wants to join my Institute for Trying and Seeing...?

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,