Tag Archives: children’s books

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.

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?


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.


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.



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.


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.



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!


Reasons for Writing an Illustrated Children’s Book #1

book-books-background-backgrounds-sheet-page-writingI have a great idea.

This is an excellent starting point. I applaud you for already putting your imagination to work. It’s exciting isn’t it, that feeling when you have a little kernel of gold in your mind that you feel sure will turn into something wonderful?

I’m afraid having the idea is the easy part. Building that idea into something takes work. But you’re prepared for that, right?

GSIWAICBNinety-nine time out of a hundred, an idea will wither on the vine, not because it’s a bad idea, but because the writer doesn’t know how to nurture it. When the first flush of excitement passes, you can’t see where it goes next. You struggle to visualise the span of your book. You can’t make your characters sound the way you want, or look the way you imagined. Your story only stretches to one page and you don’t know how to fatten it up. This is as true for experienced writers as it is for those just starting out. I would hazard a guess that every published author in the field of children’s books has a drawer full of unfinished stories and half-sketched ideas that simply didn’t go anywhere. You are in good company.

Get Started in Writing an Illustrated Children’s BookOut now!