A self-published children’s picture book about a frog

Wow, it’s two years since I self-published my first picture book for children about a frog named Bob. The book was indeed titled A Frog Named Bob.

A Frog Named Bob

A Frog Named Bob

I remember vividly sitting in my local cafe (and second home) and coming up with the idea of drawing a series of pictures about a frog who had no idea what sound he should make. His name was Bob and he’d be the most miserable frog that ever lived.

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Sat sketching in the cafe

All that Bob wanted was to be able to make his own sound. The birds chirped, the owl twit-wooed, the bear growled, the mice squeaked, the cows mooed, so on and so forth. But Bob, well he had no clue what sound he should make. So he set forth to discover.

 

When I came up with the idea I knew that the words in the story would need to present me with an opportunity to create some fun and colourful cartoons.

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I looked around at popular children’s picture books and found that rhyming was a key feature.
Julia Donaldson’s Gruffalo was obviously riding high in the charts for children’s picture books so I pored over it and took some notes.
Sure enough the rhyming was cool and great to read aloud.

I made the decision right there to create a rhyming picture book that would be colourful and fun. I’d also aim it at very young readers who enjoy a fun story before bed.

At the time I was using an iPad with the wonderful Procreate app installed. I also had a Wacom Intuos Stylus so creating cool concept sketches whilst enjoying a coffee in town was pretty straight forward.

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With a bit of research into writing for children I found that 32 pages and around 600 – 700 words was the ideal for a picture book. So I set to work.

At home I have a Wacom Cintiq 22HD Touch running with an iMac. A dream combo and coupled with Corel’s Painter X3 I was able to transfer sketches produced in Procreate to the iMac to create something a little more polished.

Before long I had a manuscript and a bunch of rough sketches.
A week or so later (and several nights of little sleep) I had a complete portfolio of artwork for the book.

I self-published using Amazon’s Createspace service. Within a week or two of placing the order I had a box of brand new picture books that I could distribute around the local book stores.

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Proudly holding my first two picture books

I’ve had several reviews about A Frog Named Bob that have all thus far been very positive. From reluctant young talkers finding their voice to hyperactive children settling down for a good giggle right before bed.

The success of A Frog Named Bob encouraged me to continue writing, drawing and self-publishing. Something that I’ve been doing ever since.

You can see my list of books on my dedicated page – my picture books for children.

Enjoying David Walliams’ children’s books

As a long time fan of Roald Dahl it made sense that I should at some point read one of David Walliams’ children’s books. Though I didn’t know anything about them I’d read that they were written in a similar style to Dahl.

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So I picked up Billionaire Boy. Purely because it was the first one I saw on the shelf.

Flicking quickly through the contents of the book I noticed some curiously named chapters. Chapter 2 – ‘Bum Boy’ :)

Reading the story was fun. A really well written little story with short sentences and some fantastic, punchy dialogue. Perfect for the target age group.

I wasn’t necessarily reminded of Dahl. Walliams seemed to borrow from him but not simply copy him. What was apparent was that both writers have their own style but the publishers are obviously keen to market them in the same breath.

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Little surprise that Tony Ross should illustrate the story with a Quentin Blake style of loose ink line and watercolour. Beautifully illustrated and the perfect way to bring the writing to life.

I heartily recommend the story (and Walliams’ other stories) to anybody with an interest in writing for the modern children’s market.

Writing and illustrating a picture book – playing with a visual concept in Corel Painter

For a little while I have had this idea for a picture book aimed at 5 – 7 year olds. Key stage 1 here in the UK.
It is the story of a lonely lunar repair droid called Floyd.

This morning I fired up Corel Painter and placed a few sketches down to try and establish a visual style.
The story is written and spans 32 pages in my rough layout. Pretty much the only thing that I have in my mind for the layout is that I want a clean typeset against a largely white background. I also want to present the art in a kind of pseudo comic format.

The picture book will be 8″ x 8″. The art will be 4″ x 4″ and in the main placed centrally within the page.

So I created a Painter document: 4″ x 4″ x 300dpi and started sketching.

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Artist’s canvas

The paper that I used is an artist’s canvas. I like the grain that it provides. I also set the colour of the paper to a very light beige. Floyd is sketched here using a soft 6B pencil. I just want to establish his form as a silhouette and place him such that I can represent the moon’s landscape. In something of a homage to Bill Watterson I’ve opted for the monument valley style of alien world.

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On a second layer I wanted to ink the shapes with a simple flat color pen. The variation in the line works beautifully and captures something of a comic book feel. I don’t particularly want to add too much detail as I’ll let the paint add texture and interest to the finished piece.
I work fairly quickly to avoid the temptation of precision. Something I’m not a huge fan of.

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Using a wet oily impasto brush I apply some colour. The brush is set to have a high grain such that the canvas shows through a fair bit. I also opt for a fairly large brush. I like the texture that it provides. You can see some of that impasto effect around Floyd’s head. I rather like it but am conscious not to over-do it.

To help smooth out some of the strokes I use an oily blender from the Blenders palette. It  helps to bring out some of that wonderfully textured canvas.

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I gave some consideration to the book’s palette here. I do love that purple through to yellow graduation. I think it suggests something ‘other worldly’ and helps to make the piece look visually intriguing.

Floyd needs to stand out. I’d played around with him being made of copper and all the rich colours that come with that. But ultimately there was just a little too much clash with my preferred backdrop. So I picked some of the better colours and stuck with them.
I like that he is bright against a fairly subdued backdrop. This will be particularly useful on some of the more distant images. i.e. where Floyd appears quite small and in the distance.

Blocking in the foreground and distant vista with a relatively thick and opaque paint helped to emphasise the canvas texture that I’d laid down for the sky.

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Using a blank layer to create a textured sun

For the bright sun I use a simple smudge blender against a new layer that sits above the main colour layer. This just presented the grainy circle without the use of colour! A neat trick.
The stars were added with the round tipped pen set to white. Simple stuff.

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The detail above shows how the brushes can be used against the artist’s canvas to create an interesting texture. I do think that art needs to look a little ‘imperfect’ and textured to be of interest to a younger reader.
To that end I deliberately didn’t want to be precise with the ink. Far better, I think, to have the squiggly lines rather than precise comic book lines.

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And finally…
Here is my layout concept for the book sans page numbering.
It’s clean and readable yet retains some of that wonderful comic styling.

My workflow for this book will see me use Corel Painter to create the art. I’ll save the source files in native .rif format and then export to Photoshop to enhance the colours. The files will then be further exported to .tif and assembled into a book using InDesign.

From there it’s a PDF to send for print.

Three teen fiction topics that need more attention

I’ve been watching a number of teen movies lately. They are, to my taste, average despite the underlying story being quite intriguing. My understanding is that they are all adaptations of novels.

I’ve nothing against vampires and werewolves et al, but I do wonder whether or not the entire vampire / werewolf scene has been milked dry.

I love everyday life being a bit different. I love that theme in any story, and that is of course the crux of many of these tales. Somebody has a normal life until something far from normal happens or befriends them. Or, as popularised by stories such as The Hunger Games, life is ordinary but set in a grim, dystopian world of constant struggle.

For a long time films have been as important to me as books. Good film adaptations such as Stephanie Meyer’s Hunger Games trilogy, are compelling. Not least because they are well acted and well produced. Jennifer Lawrence cannot, for me, put a foot wrong. But I’m becoming disillusioned by the glossing of the movie scene. I’m tempted to call it over-production but I really don’t know enough about film production to offer that kind of a criticism.

I do feel that films / stories in the mainstream could be a lot grittier and dispense with the Hollywood gloss.
Kes, for example, has no gloss. It’s an old story and very much of its time, but it’s also a very real tale of a young boy in a working class setting. I do class the book as a teen book and I remember with some fondness reading it in school.
Lad: A Yorkshire Story offers similar vibes and is superbly acted.
I also remember reading Orwell’s 1984 in school. There were some parallels between the two stories for me that centred around oppression but of course in almost every respect they were quite different. I think these stories are wonderful for young adults to read. There are many more.

Some concepts could be really well handled by some good young acting talent in today’s films. To that end there are some intriguing concepts that I think need exploring a little further. Here are just a few.

  • Stories that scare but are not necessarily horror and don’t necessarily involve monsters
  • Stories that centre on the real life struggle with poverty and prejudice
  • Stories that involve serious adult issues such as domestic violence and alcoholism

I’m not suggesting that story time should be transformed into a lesson in morals and standards. I just think that there is an appetite for this level of grit in teen fiction that borrows directly from real life.

I am by no means an oracle when it comes to teen and young adult fiction so I would be keen to hear from anybody who can pick out stories that focus on the things I’ve listed.

How to write for children and get published – three simple questions

I’m currently reading the book that shares this post’s title. It’s a good read and contains many useful bits of information for the budding children’s writer.

Though I’ve written and published six books to date, they are all self-published. It is, of course, my dream to have a story published in the mainstream and available in bookstores the world over.

Of particular interest to me is the section in the book dedicated to plot and structure. I’ve read books before that are, I think, a little too concerned with formula. I tend to get a tad bored by reading somebody’s views on how all prose can be boiled down to some kind of a boiler plate from which we can all write fantastic fiction.

Louise Jordan dispenses with this notion in the main but does offer a number of exceptions worth noting. One interesting section discusses the power of the three word – three step overview.

For example:

  1. Boy meets girl
  2. Boy loses girl
  3. Boy gets girl

What I see there are essentially three acts.

  1. Boy meets girl: ACT I – SETUP
  2. Boy loses girl: ACT II – CONFLICT
  3. Boy gets girl: ACT III – RESOLUTION

An example from popular fiction is this from The Pied Piper.

  1. Man lures rats
  2. Town won’t pay
  3. Man takes children

It’s a neat way to look at your story from a great height.

Essentially:

  • What’s it about?
  • What’s the problem?
  • What happens?

This is very much in keeping with a previous article that I’d written about The Golden Thread that pulls the reader through a story. As the story evolves and we get to know the characters, we shift through each of the three questions.

I had a play with the most popular of all children’s books Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.

  1. What’s it about? A boy who doesn’t realise he is destined to be a wizard
  2. What’s the problem? Plenty of people don’t want that to happen
  3. What happens? The boy becomes a wizard

Is that a fair appraisal? Of course en route to becoming the wizard the young boy first confronts numerous challenges and hundreds of pages of text! But certainly if you were to stand before a Hollywood studio and read those three lines you’d leave the exec in no doubt that you’re referring to Harry Potter. I’m sure that the same could be said for a commissioning editor.

For me this simple three step approach is very attractive. I can daydream all day long about the what’s it aboutquestion.

Here’s an example from my own notebook.

Invisible 

  • A shy child who just wants to be seen (accepted) and have friends
  • He’s ‘different’ to the other kids (disabled)
  • The boy has a remarkable talent and wins the support of the good guys

There’s threads to this story that involve bullying and his parent’s constant struggle to get the best for their child. The disaster occurs during the conflict of Act II when his parents separate and his mother abandons her son.

It’s only when the boy appears on national TV with his rare talent that the family tries again. This is of course a personal statement as to the superficial, fickle nature of people in today’s media obsessed world.

I recommend Louise Jordan’s book which has been revised from its 1998 initial release to include information about self publishing.

Creating a school storybook at Weston Primary School

I really do have to pinch myself sometimes.

Next week I am thrilled to be attending Weston Primary School where I will be working with the children to illustrate a story that they’ve written.

This is a story that the entire school has contributed to and it’s a real privilege to be invited to spend time with them.

The way that the day will pan out is that, following a quick introduction during assembly, I generally meet with various children from key stage 1 in the morning and key stage 2 in the afternoon.
We work together in sketching out some visual ideas for their story and defining the characters.
Of course the children have their own thoughts and ideas as to how their story should look and this is perfect.

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Wacom Cintiq Companion 2

I always take my full technical kit with me.
This is a Mac Mini with a Wacom Companion plugged into it. I project from there through an Epson projector onto a large screen in the school hall. My drawing app of choice is always Mischief.

The children sit with pencil and paper and we all have a huge amount of fun bashing out ideas. It’s essentially a storyboarding session and I enjoy getting the children excited about sketching.

What’s essential to this process is that the children cannot make a mistake. It’s just ideas. There’s no such thing as a bad idea. All ideas are welcomed and all contributions explored.

I have a range of coffee table books that focus on story development and conceptual art and I will always take those with me.
Books such as PIXAR’s FUNNY! which I heartily recommend to anybody with an interest in storyboarding.

What falls out of the bottom of the process is a series of sketches that the children can then go away and work with during class time.

I’ll sit with children individually to help them where they need it. I love listening to the children’s ideas and I love to see them expressing themselves visually.

Following what will probably be an extremely productive few days or weeks in class I will take all of their artwork and assemble the book using InDesign. The PDF book is handed back to the school for review and then it’s uploaded to an online publisher (usually Amazon’s CreateSpace) and a book is produced.

If you are involved with schools and this sounds interesting to you there is much more information available over at my Cartoon Academy website.

7 steps to writing great adventure stories for children

I’m currently looking for a new writing project and I’m intrigued by teen fiction. Nothing as elaborate as Harry Potter and nothing as intense as The Hunger Games trilogy. I love adventure in writing and I love to write dialogue and action.

As most writing tutors would say ‘write about what you know and what you love’.

So I’m thinking of a fantasy adventure possibly set in outer space, possibly set in a Dragon-infested realm. I have no problem with using cliches as they are popular amongst young readers for a reason. Better still, it’s the kind of thing I like to read myself.

As most writing tutors would say ‘write about what you know and what you love’. And there’s a lot to be said for that. Write about what you know, you love and you feel should be written.

So here I present my own 7 stages to crafting an adventure story for children. I like to have each of these covered before I begin writing.

1 The Predicament

Before I think of any characters, protagonists, bad guys I always think of a predicament. A situation that seems pretty much impossible to overcome.

For example – a comet is on a collision course with Earth. There’s just two days before impact and the result is almost certainly destruction of the planet.

Pretty extreme isn’t it? But how cool that something so intense is looming. What on Earth (excuse the pun) is going to be able to reverse the effects of such a cataclysmic event?

I love this. The impossible task. That one thing that is surely out of reach to a mere mortal.

2 The Hero

It’s at this point that I consider the protagonist. That one character who we will view the story through. Everything that they see, we see. In order to make that as interesting as possible to the reader what must I do to define this character?

This is where I start to play with juxtapositions.

Taking the armageddon scenario I used in my example, what sort of a character would be most unlikely to reverse or overcome the predicament.

Well that’s a pretty cool question to ask. I know exactly the sort of character that would be most likely to overcome that situation; a super hero. A Superman character that could probably just fly the circumference of the Earth a few times and reverse time or even kick the comet back to where it came from. Boring.

What a predicament like this really needs is a completely unlikely hero – a nerdish kid with a fear of pretty much everything.

The beauty of this is that we are thrown into this character right from the outset. The moment we learn of Earth’s impending doom we’re instantly looking over the shoulder of this scrawny, potentially useless kid.

As a reader we’re thinking why the hell am I sat with this geeky kid when the world is about to end?

This, for me, creates a second layer of interest for the reader. 1 – the world is about to end and 2 – it seems that the geek is about to solve all of that.

3 The Challenge

I know what you’re thinking. It’s pretty obvious what the challenge is, right? Well, yes. It’s certainly the challenge to end all challenges – saving the world from disaster. But if the story played out as just one kid preventing the end of the world it’d be pretty dull, as cool as that challenge might sound.

The real challenge here is for our nerdish hero to convince everybody that he has a good idea.

At this point I like to inject a few problems into the mix.

A good place to start is in the hero him (or her) self. What might such a character have to overcome within themselves to achieve their broader goals?

Perhaps my hero is extremely shy. Perhaps he is extremely clever and has found something that the world’s finest scientists have missed. Perhaps he is trapped in his home by an evil aunt! Perhaps he is disabled in some way that prevents him from getting about.

A neat trick here is to think about the most unlikely turn of events that could solve the predicament.

In the case of the comet colliding with Earth it could be that something so simple, so trivial could save mankind. Something like switching all the power off on the light side of the planet! Ridiculous yes but in terms of fiction you could make a case for it having enough of an effect to divert a stray comet!

The real challenge here is for our nerdish hero to convince everybody that he has a good idea.

Layering your challenges is a cool way to develop a character. Fundamentally my hero is a scientific kid who is less than popular and probably sneered at by his contemporaries. Maybe even the teachers think he’s useless. But then, by applying himself to something he astonishes his science teacher and those in his class. Using that as his foundation he then convinces his teacher that his ‘lights out’ idea might just have some credence.

This leads me neatly into the next step…

4 The Mentor

I love to give my lead characters a mentor. An older, father figure type character that helps the hero along by offering advice and steering them through the minefield to achieving their goals.

Think Obi Wan or Mr Miyagi. That wonderful sage-like character that we’d all love to have as Grandad.

In my scenario I’d probably place the kid’s science teacher in this role. Somebody that sees the potential in the hero’s crazy idea. He himself may know that they have an uphill struggle in convincing the powers that be in its effectiveness, but he’s willing to put his own reputation on the line to achieve it.

So now the battle is being fought by two people.
We the reader can see that those two characters are serious. We can also see that there’s probably something in it as not only does the hero believe in it but he’s managed to convince somebody that we trust.

We now want the hero to succeed. We want him to achieve his goal whereas previously we probably thought he was nuts to even entertain the idea.

Everything’s going swimmingly which leads me neatly into the next step…

5 The Setback

Oh yes, make no mistake that not everything will continue to go to plan. In order for things to be really and truly rewarding to us we must first drop our hero off a cliff.

Not literally, although in some cases that may work! No, by dropping them from a cliff edge I simply mean putting them back a LONG way. A setback so big that they’d need superhuman will and determination to continue.

How many times have we seen this in cinema? That one moment when it looks as though all is lost, only for the protagonist to muster up something out of nothing to get across the line.

This is a fantastic thing to use in an action / adventure story. It keeps the pace up as we are now at the convergence of all of the previous points.

The predicament is looming, the hero is beaten, the challenges have the better of him, the mentor can offer no solutions. Surely a setback like this cannot be overcome. Surely our hero is beaten?

6 The Showdown

This is it. This is the bit we’ve been waiting for.

With the world waiting with baited breath, the nerdy kid’s incredible yet balmy idea is thrust into action…

Our hero is up against it. His setback has beaten him yet somehow, somehow he has the strength for one last battle.

Planet Earth is poised on the brink of disaster. After billions of years and countless wars and natural disasters it is a comet the size of London that is about to end it all.

Our hero’s solution is the only solution that mankind has. The only thing standing in the way of disaster is our hero’s half-baked idea.

Everyone is sweating. The mentor is on the verge of a meltdown. He believes in his young apprentice but is terrified. Not about his reputation, that won’t matter one jot if the plan fails, but about just that – failure.

With the world waiting with baited breath, the nerdy kid’s incredible yet balmy idea is thrust into action…

7 The Payoff

It works. Of course it works. Our hero is the world’s hero. His mentor is a very relieved and proud man. His parents who laughed him out of town are proud. His contemporaries, even those that bullied him mercilessly, owe him a debt of gratitude. In fact, everyone owes him that debt.

This kid is incredible. He’s overcome absolutely everything, even The Setback to achieve his goal. He believed in it, believed in himself and pulled out all of the stops to make it happen.

Payoffs work best when there is enough mystery, anticipation and surprise to play with.

I love to create all three of these things. A good story, certainly a story that I like to read, has dollops of mystery right up to the final whistle. I love to be surprised as late as possible in a story.

A good surprise, or a good twist is a fantastic way of cementing a story in our memory.

And that’s pretty much it.

Of course not every story will revolve around such an intense theme as the end of the world. The predicament in the story may be something more ‘normal’ such as winning at sports or climbing a mountain.

Above all I set out to have huge amounts of fun with every stage of the writing. I enjoy crafting characters and scenarios that are as fun to write as they are to read.

Kyle Comet and The Secret of Planet X

BookSo thrilled to be able to promote my new children’s book. I’ve been writing this for almost 40 years, if I’m honest. Ever since I first saw Star Wars as a boy I’d wanted to create a story about a bunch of school friends who explore space.

Despite my love of Star Wars the premise of this series is probably more closely aligned to Star Trek. I always loved how the crew of the Enterprise seemed like good friends first and starpilots second.
That’s exactly what I wanted to convey with this story.

Kyle Jones is prone to day-dreaming in class. When he drifts off he becomes Kyle Comet, hero of Star Command. Along with his close friends, Biff and Anya, he sets out to explore new worlds.

Their first adventure The Secret of Planet X is a story set on a mysterious alien world. Kyle and friends soon discover that there is more to the planet than just sand and hostile alien space bugs.

I wrote the story for children aged 6 – 9 years. I think it makes for a wonderful first chapter book and is possibly more a boy’s adventure than girls. But I don’t know. I intentionally created a strong girl character for that reason. I wanted each of the characters to appeal and be something that children with fantastic imaginations might aspire to.

The book is currently available to buy from Lulu.com.

http://www.lulu.com/shop/mark-wilcox/the-secret-of-planet-x/paperback/product-22353615.html