All posts by Lucy Courtenay

Getting Along Famously

There’s been a lot of talk about celebrity books in the media lately, since the list of World Book Day 2018 titles was announced. As someone who has been ghost-writing books, celeb and otherwise, for almost ten years, I feel honour-bound to weigh in. Knowledge is power, after all. SO.

Professional writers aren’t in the business of pushing ourselves forward, but of writing good stories. You want to get famous? Audition for X-Factor. You want to make up stuff for the fun of making up stuff, because you can’t help inventing worlds, characters, plots? Here’s how it works.

Your agent says, ‘Would you like to pitch for this celebrity book? Here is the brief.’ You give it a go. You get the job. You might meet the celebrity, you might not. The celebrity might want to be involved in the writing process or they might not. You get paid a reasonable advance, which means you keep earning if the book sells well, or a reasonable flat fee, which means you don’t. You work hard on bringing the characters and situations to life. You talk to your editor and redraft as many times as required. The celebrity approves what you have written, or changes it, or adds to it. The book comes out and you probably don’t get invited to the launch. The celebrity may work hard to promote it, or they may not. You retweet everything the celebrity says about the book. You enjoy the press coverage. You have written the best book you can with the material you have been given. The rest is out of your hands.

‘Ghostwritten’. So what?

Not long ago, I ghost-wrote two books with the singer and model Tallia Storm, called POP GIRL and POP GIRL: SIGNED WITH A KISS. Tallia was discovered by Elton John aged 13, when she approached David Furnish at a hotel with a demo CD. Elton called her and she opened his gig in Glasgow. Thirteen years old. You couldn’t make it up. But you COULD turn it into wish-fulfilment fiction. Why wouldn’t you? The characters were strong, the jokes were fun. The storylines were full of Moments. I was proud of them. The editors, designers and production teams were proud of them too.

Both books received a one-star review on Amazon, followed by the word ‘ghostwritten’. As if all those people involved in the process were phantoms. No effort expended. No pride taken. The books had apparated with the click of celeb fingers and were worth no one’s time. For the second book, POP GIRL: SIGNED WITH A KISS, the review was posted before the book had even been published. That feels like spite to me. If you read and disliked the books, fine. But I’m prepared to bet a large cheese sandwich that you would have enjoyed them if you’d allowed yourself to read them.

Name check on the cover. Progress!

This kind of backlash began with Zoella’s ghost-written GIRL ONLINE in 2014. Readers felt that neither the celebrity nor the publisher was being honest with them. The dishonesty served no one’s interest. Writers like me were caught in the shadows, wondering how much to say about the novel they were wrestling with which wasn’t supposed to be their novel. Publishers are starting to rectify this now, and not before time.

Michael Rosen once made the point that we get too hung up on who wrote books instead of considering them a team effort. The writers tend to put in more work than everyone else, on the whole, but I understand what he’s getting at. A book is a product, like it or not. Like face cream, socks or staplers, it requires a team to take it from an amorphous idea to a physical, saleable item. Having both edited and written books, I understand the time and effort that goes into them. A book is not just a name on a cover. It is much more.

Me again. Thanks for the review, Coleen!

That said, I do have some issues with celebrity publishing. When books are rushed through because a celebrity is ‘hot’, knocking other books off the schedule and leaving too little time to wrangle a poor jumble of ideas into a coherent book which won’t leave said celebrity blushing. When review space is hogged by famous faces. When publishers spell the ghost-writer’s name wrong (you know who you are). When celebrities pretend to have written the books. When writers are asked to appear at festivals for free as if it were a privilege, while celebrities are courted. When celebrities take the money and run, failing to promote the books that everyone has worked so hard to produce on their behalf. When professional writers work like stink on school visits, or to protest library closures, or to build literacy awareness, only to be swept aside on a tidal wave of veneered teeth and platitudes about journeys. When celebrities make it look easy to write a children’s book and perpetuate the myth that anyone can do it. I don’t like any of these things.

He’s quite good really.

The World Book Day 2018 titles are all written by the celebrities themselves, not by writers like me. They have been picked by people in the industry who know the difference between decent books and famous-name books. I hope that they will be judged as all books should be judged: not by the cover or the name, but by the content. I hope their authors enjoy the fun of publication, but keep in mind that this is a craft and not a hobby. I hope they squeeze in a few school visits, and support libraries, and do what they can to promote literacy beyond that one day in March 2018.

I hope, in short, that they join in.

Choose your Wheels

The Algarve book (title TBC) is finished and I’m drifting about today like a jellyfish on a gently undulating wave of idleness. The sea continues to preoccupy me even though I pressed SEND yesterday.

This post isn’t actually about the sea. It’s about two vehicles driven by my three main characters Precious, Harry and Nathan. Two vehicles which couldn’t be more different.

First, the Porsche Boxster. White, of course. Spanish number plates. It belongs to Nathan’s dad, but Nathan is borrowing it to impress Precious. Are you impressed? I’m impressed.

‘Take the car. Girls like good cars.’

I feel a rush of wonder. My father is going to let me drive his car? He hardly lets me touch his car.

‘Treat it well,’ Dad says mildly.

The second vehicle is Green Doris, the Piaggio Ape. Ah, Green Doris. Who isn’t green. She looks like this. At first, anyway.

‘But it’s blue,’ says Harry.

‘It smells green. And it’s old. And it’s kind of funny because it’s blue. So Green Dor– forget it.’

Two guys, a girl and the big blue sea. Two vehicles, one cool and one not so cool. If you had to choose just one set of wheels in which to buzz around the Algarve, which would it be?

Be careful what you wish for.

‘Eternal tourists of ourselves, there is no landscape but what we are.’

Fernando Pessoa


 

 

 

Serendipitous Sebastian

Nice ruff. Hipster beard.

I love how important a country Portugal once was, and how little of that importance remains. When you think that one-third of the world speaks Portuguese, and then you think of Portugal as it is today, it’s a pretty graphic demonstration of its decline.

I’m setting my next contemporary YA romance in the wilds and not-so-wilds of the south-west Algarve. Rather like the wind and waves around that coastline, the story has never let me pin it down. Instead I have been led by the characters and the landscape on a strictly need-to-know basis, following blindly in the hope that someone knows where we’re going.

Some idiot broke this last year while taking a selfie.

And now I’ve been led by a ghost to a place I didn’t even know existed, a place where I am going to set my final and most dramatic scene.

Oddly, my ghost already plays an important part in the story. I thought he was just a background character, drifting across the view in a whiff of seawater and shiny armour. But it turns out that he’s been pulling my strings all along.

King Sebastian of Portugal, heirless and dead at 24 along with most of Portugal’s nobility in a crazy-eyed crusade in North Africa in 1578. The only thing Sebastian achieved was to give his country to Spain, waiting like a dog under the table for an inexorably rolling sausage.

Worst. Statue. Ever.

Sebastian’s father died before he was born. His mother abandoned him when he was three. He was brought up by priests and became madly devout, hence the crusade. He may have been sexually abused as a child, and might also have been homosexual. The few portraits that exist show a sensitive young man with a strawberry-blond crewcut and a heady line in ruffs and armour.

He apparently expired on a bloodsoaked field in Morocco. I say apparently, because his body was never found. A bit like Anastasia of Russia, he came back a few times to haunt the Spanish claim to the throne. The Portuguese cult of Sebastianismo anticipates his return to this day, rather like King Arthur, or Elvis.

Nice dog.

The Fortaleza of Belixe on the south-western tip of Portugal, the place I hadn’t even heard of until this morning, has his shield set into one crumbling wall. And that’s where everything is going to come together. Now, if only I could make Sebastian physically write this book as well as move me around like a chess piece, then everything would be dandy.

I’m off to the Algarve on Monday for research purposes. Also custard tarts and vinho verde. Expect updates.

Mind Your Language

 

Johnny ran down the road.

Johnny ran like a crazy weasel down the road. 

Johnny sprinted like an insane hippopotamus down the road.

 

Do these opening lines all say the same thing? Yes.

Do they say it in the same way? No.

Which sentence would best suit a picture book?

The first sentence is dull. The words show no imagination at all. But it’s for a picture book, so does that matter? Won’t the pictures make it more interesting?

The second sentence conjures a more specific image in the reader’s head. An image that could be reinforced by the pictures. So far, so good. But what if Johnny IS a weasel? The words and pictures would be doing the same job. You don’t need to show he’s a weasel and say he’s a weasel at the same time.

The third sentence uses more exciting language. Perhaps too exciting? Would the audience understand the word ‘insane’ or would that be better shown via the pictures?

There is an element of alchemy to illustrated fiction which is difficult to judge. Much of it comes with practice, with ‘feeling’ your way. Certain things are worth remembering, though. Never write dull text and assume the pictures will carry you along. Don’t be overly complex either. Instead, when you are writing, focus on those elements which the pictures might not be so good at conveying. How is Johnny feeling? Excited? Scared? Excited AND scared? Complex emotions are often better conveyed in words than pictures. How fast is he moving? Short snappy sentences can often build speed and momentum more effectively than static pictures. Back stories, characterisation, relationships: these are all areas where the words can offer more than the pictures.

And of course, don’t forget that hook. Why IS Johnny running?

Learn more on my course GET STARTED IN WRITING AN ILLUSTRATED CHILDREN’S BOOK in Farnham, Surrey 20-21 March 2017. Early bird tickets only available until 28 February!

 

How to Edit

Finish your masterpiece. It’s perfect in every detail. You wouldn’t change a thing. Except maybe the kangaroo paragraph. Realise the whole thing rests on the kangaroo paragraph. If the kangaroo paragraph is wrong, is the whole thing wrong?

Hyperventilate.

Remind yourself that you’ve already edited it ten times. It’s as good as it’s going to be. You’ll send it off tomorrow.

Go to bed. Fail to sleep.

Get up and turn on your computer. Pace while you consider an alternative to the kangaroo paragraph. Tread on a cold pile of mouse guts. Suddenly you can’t face editing anything, apart from the cat.

Return to bed, having washed your feet.

Feel bad about evil cat thoughts.

Fail to sleep.

Return to your computer. The cat is asleep on the keys. The cat has rewritten your kangaroo paragraph for you, as well as the beginning, middle and end of your entire book.

Fresh evil cat thoughts.

Cry. Make toast. Eat toast.

Consider how best to rewrite wese;lisgyt?<*  Have a thunderous epiphany about the entire plot. Realise you didn’t need the kangaroo after all. Realise how much bigger and better the whole thing is going to be now that you understand this.

Finish your masterpiece. It’s perfect in every detail. You wouldn’t change a thing…

 

Find out how to edit (without a cat) on my writing course 20-21 March 2017. Tickets still available!

 

What’s your problem?


A mouse went to a shop. He bought some cheese. And he went home again.

This is a story, in so far as it has a beginning, a middle and an end. But that’s about all that you can say for it. Mouse groceries: big wow.

What is the mouse’s problem?

All stories need problems. A problem works like a hook. It feels your collar, it coaxes you onwards. A problem creates conflict, which creates drive, which takes you to the next page, and the page after that.

Introduce an interesting problem. The mouse can’t be late BECAUSE… He can’t buy the cheese BECAUSE… Don’t forget the crucial part the pictures can play. What if a cat is following him the whole way?

Tug, tug, tug. Can you feel the hook?

Learn more on my introductory writing course 20-21 March 2017, GET STARTED IN WRITING AN ILLUSTRATED CHILDREN’S BOOK. Tickets still available!

 

 

Forget about the pictures!

Here is a secret. One of the biggest. One of the most important if you want to write illustrated children’s books for the traditional publishing market. And I say ‘write’ here. If you are an illustrator, then this won’t be relevant. Or at least, it won’t be relevant until that person you know down the road asks you to illustrate their book. And then you’ll know.

I don’t know why this fundamental rule of traditional children’s publishing is such a secret. But it clearly is, or you would all know it already.

Are you listening, writers? I don’t want to say this twice.

FORGET ABOUT THE PICTURES.

Time and again, first-time writers worry about this. Who will draw the pictures? Who can I find who will bring my story to life? Perhaps the lady who did the posters for the school play can help me. Maybe I should run an advert on social media. I must fix this or no one will publish me.

No.

NO NO NO.

Publishers don’t want illustrated stories. They just want stories. Good ones, sad ones, funny ones. No amount of illustration will disguise a piece of rubbish. If your story is good enough, publishers will spot it. And then they’ll find an illustrator for you. They have banks of illustrators they already want to use. What they don’t have are the texts.

Save yourself effort, money and time. Focus on crafting the perfect text that will ignite a publisher’s imagination purely through the power of your words.

Learn more on my course 20-21 March 2017, GET STARTED IN WRITING AN ILLUSTRATED CHILDREN’S BOOK. Early bird tickets available until 28 February.

 

OId Flames

It was a good idea. I got a long way into it: world building, characters, plot. Then I dropped it.

Why?

Revisiting old ideas isn’t always great. Some ideas stay ideas for a reason: too thin, too odd, too vague. Sometimes you can trace your own development from a poor idea to a much better one further down the line: familiar characters, a joke too good to lose, a villainous name. So not all of your work was wasted. It’s arguable that no written work is ever wasted. Every bit of it sharpens your pen, focuses your thoughts. An idea doesn’t have to end in a finished book to have been worth your while.

The old idea that I have been revisiting doesn’t seem to have cast a shadow on later books or concepts. I think because it was an idea complete in itself. Re-reading it four years on has excited me. The concept is good. Solid. Worth saving, I think. But what it lacks – something I couldn’t see four years ago when I was blinded by my own overinflated sense of genius – is heart.

Heart lies with character. Pull that apart, rebuild it from the heart upwards. If it is rooted inside a structure that you think still works, you could rekindle an old flame.

GET STARTED IN WRITING AN ILLUSTRATED CHILDREN’S BOOK: out now.

 

Reasons for Writing an Illustrated Children’s Book #3

224020567294My story has the potential for a series and merchandising.

 

A series is good. Publishers like to think long-term, and if they see you as someone with more than one book in them, that is a positive. However, limit your series ambitions to three or four titles. Publishers won’t be thinking THAT long-term. And you still need to start with the basics: a good story, well told, with characters that children can identify with.

But merchandising? GSIWAICBWHOA. Why would anyone turn an unknown story into a range of lunchboxes? We have Gruffalo pencils because The Gruffalo has sold in excess of ten million copies in fifteen years. Reign in your ambitions. It’s great to dream, but never approach a project with merchandising in mind.

Personally I think Ernie the Line-Dancing Earthworm would work well as a pencil. They share certain characteristics. But we are still some way from turning him into stationery.

For more, see Get Started in Writing an Illustrated Children’s Book, out now.

Reasons for Writing an Illustrated Children’s Book #2

wormMy idea hasn’t been done before.

This feels different from ‘I have a great idea’. It implies that you’ve studied the market very hard and have found a space on the bookshelves which you intend to fill or die in the attempt. Your story is called Ernie the Line-Dancing Earthworm. Scissor kicks, invertebrates: this baby has it all! You haven’t thought about the writing or illustrating part yet, but you feel confident that these are secondary to the originality of your concept.

You’re on dangerous ground. There are only a finite number of plots, and they’ve all been done. Anything that remains, generally remains unwritten for a good reason.

GSIWAICBGeorges Polti states that there are thirty-six plots in his book, Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations (1916). Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots (2004) claims, unsurprisingly, only seven. Other theorists have declared that there are just two stories: going on a journey, and a stranger coming to town. Which you could argue is the same plot really, just seen from the opposite direction. Anne Fine, prize-winning author and Children’s Laureate 2001-2003, has said that “plots are overrated,” and she may have a point.

Great children’s books can be about nothing at all, and yet everything at the same time. The story that will succeed is not the madly original idea; it’s the brilliantly well-constructed one.

Get Started in Writing an Illustrated Children’s Book. Out now!