My Next Big Thing

I've been seeing a lot of  'My Next Big Thing' blogs around lately, but I'd somehow assumed this relay or cascade of blogs was for new authors, who could legitimately claim to have a chance of being the Next Big Thing - that's not me; I was just a medium-sized thing, ten years ago.

But it turns out that the titular NBT doesn't refer to the author but just to the book they're working on, so established writers get to have a go as well, and I'm very grateful to Andy Robb for 'tagging' me at the end of his NBT blog.  I met Andy earlier this year; he's a lovely chap, and his book Geekhood is a treat, though slightly cringe-making if, like me, you were of a geeky persuasion when young. (The hero of Geekhood is much like I was as a teenager, only he meets an ACTUAL GIRL.)

Anyway, enough about him, I have important questions about ME to answer...

What is the working title of your next book?

 Well, I have a whole bunch of things in the pipeline. There's the McIntyre-tastic illustrated adventure Oliver and the Seawigs, there's its outer-space based follow up, and at the moment I'm busy with my Massive Untitled Space Opera.  But the next one of my books to actually hit the shops will be Goblins vs Dwarves, and that's its actual title, not a working title. It's the sequel to Goblins, it will be published in April, and it's going to look like this:

(Artwork by the brilliant Dave Semple, as before.)

Where did the idea for the book come from?

Goblins was pretty obviously inspired by The Lord of the Rings; I read it to my son a few years back and it made me think a)This is still the best fantasy world ever, and b)Why are all the orcs and goblins EVIL?  Aren't there any nice ones? Maybe they're just getting a bad press...  So I set out to write a fantasy where goblins were the heroes, and Goblins vs Dwarves continues to explore the same theme.  And just as everybody knows that goblins are bad, everybody knows that dwarves are good, right?  Well, not exactly...

Also, when I started pondering sequels for Goblins I thought of the well-worn plot of The Seven Samurai (remade as The Magnificent Seven, Hawk the Slayer, Battle Beyond The Stars, etc...) in which the inhabitants of a beleaguered settlement have to go off and find some heroes to help defend them from the bad guys. So I started writing a Clovenstone-based version of that. It quickly escaped and found its own path, but that was the seed of it.

What genre does your book fall under?

It's a fantasy adventure (but I hope it's a funny fantasy adventure).

How long did it take you to write the first draft?

This was quite a quick book to write. All the world-building had been done in the first book, and I knew what I was after, so I sat down to start work in the first week of January and was finished in mid March. Most of my books take a LOT longer.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

I can't always think of actors I'd match to particular characters. I have no idea who would play my fresh-faced and accident-prone hero Henwyn, though I think Jenny Agutter would be a good Princess Ned.  As for the goblins and other creatures, they were partly inspired by 1970s illustrations by Brian Froud (right) who went on to design the films Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, and there's definitely something quite muppet-y about them.  (At the moment the movie rights for Goblins are with LAIKA, makers of Coraline and ParaNorman, so if that goes ahead all the parts will end up being played by stop-motion puppets anyway. Which is fine by me!)

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Goblins vs Dwarves! (The clue is in the title.)

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

As with most of my books to date, it will be published by Scholastic.

What other books would you compare this story to in your genre?

It's about goblins vs dwarves, so I suppose there's a clear comparison with The Hobbit, though it features no giant spiders and 100% less golf.

What else about your book might pique the reader's interest?

I don't want to give away too much but there is an oracular bathtub, and some giant moles, and ghosts. WHAT MORE COULD YOU POSSIBLY WANT?

So there you have it, and it only remains for me to tag some other writers who can tell us about their Next Big Thing. I nominate...

...Gary Northfield, whose Gary's Garden strip in The Phoenix is always a highlight of the week here, and who I happen to know has a fantastic looking book on the way...

...and Natasha Ngan, who may well be the actual Next Big Thing.

A Boy and a Bear in a Boat


I'm very pleased to see that Dave Shelton's A Boy and a Bear in a Bear in a Boat is one of the titles on the shortlist for this year's Costa Book Award!  This seems like a good excuse to dig out my review of it, which I posted earlier this year on my other blog, The Solitary Bee.

This is probably the most original cover I've seen on a children's book in recent years, and, happily enough, it's wrapped around one of the most original children's books I've ever read.

Dave Shelton is already familiar to readers of the DFC and The Phoenix Comic as the creator of the ongoing canine-noir detective series Good Dog, Bad Dog and several fine stand-alone strips. A Boy and a Bear in a Boat contains a number of his beautiful illustrations, but it's his first story in prose, and it's a remarkably assured debut.

This is not a book where very much happens.  The title pretty much says it all.  There is this Boy.  And this Bear.  And they're in this Boat.  That's pretty much it.  Where have they come from? Where are they going? We never find out.  Why? Again, we are never told.  The Bear is the captain of the boat, but his slightly pompous confidence in his own navigational skills seems misplaced; they are quickly lost, and the only map on board is the one on the cover - a pretty unhelpful expanse of plain blue sea.

Of course, events do punctuate the voyage.  There are storms (beautifully illustrated storms, at that). A landing upon an abandoned, drifting ship.  A sea monster.  And a very funny sandwich.  It's all described in clear, spare language, and in precise detail: reading it aloud to Sam, I almost wondered if it had started out as an idea for an animated movie. It's a bit like watching a cartoon in your head.

Sam (who's 10) enjoyed it largely for its humour.  There are plenty of good slapstick sequences, and the loveable but often incompetent Bear appealed to him, as did the Boy's resourcefulness, and the growing friendship between the two.  He thought it was a funny book, and he's right.  But reading it as an adult, I sensed something darker going on.  Where has this boy come from?  He has a family; they are mentioned from time to time.  Why has he had to leave them?  What is this voyage he is setting out on?  And at the end - and I don't think is a spoiler - there really isn't an end: boy and bear sail on hopefully towards the next horizon and the next, but the reader senses that they will never arrive, and that their futile journey will go on for ever.

Are they, I began to wonder, dead?  The set-up is instantly reminiscent of  Charon the ferryman rowing the spirits of the departed across the Styx and Acheron.  Is the boy in Limbo, or some Existentialist afterlife?  Is it just a funny story about a boy and a bear in a boat, or is the whole thing an absurd parable about the meaninglessness of life in a Godless universe?

The book drops few hints.  It's extraordinarily self-disciplined, resisting any temptation to expand the world of the story beyond its three basic elements.  In some ways, it's powerfully depressing.  But only for grown-ups.  And in a good way!  Read it, and see for yourself.

A Boy and a Bear in a Boat is published by David Fickling Books, and is available at good bookshops, or HERE.

A New School Library...


Like most of the writers I know, I spent improbable amounts of time in the library when I was at school, and it's saddening that school libraries seem under threat these days just as much as public ones. (There's an Early Day Motion going through parliament about them, which you might like to ask your MP to sign - I've tried e-mailing mine, Mel Stride, but as yet have had no response - I'll let you know if I hear from him.)*

Anyway, given all this gloom, it's nice to hear of a school which has refurbished its library.  Joseph Hammett goes to The Boswells School in Chelmsford, Essex, and he asked me to come and officially open it. I've never officially opened anything before, so I hope I did all right ... Here's Joseph's own account of the day from The Boswells Bulletin. 

While I was in Chelmsford I also got the chance to visit Nikki Gamble's brilliant children's bookshop Just Imagine, and had tea with some keen Mortal Engines readers - as usual, Sarah McIntyre has beaten me to blogging about that, and she also has a blog about the Goblins triumphant defeat at the Roald Dahl Funny Prize (congratulations to the winner, Jamie Thompson, and his illustrator Freya Hartas).  I didn't really mind losing because there was CAKE (thank you, Scholastic), and while I was in London I got to meet comics artist Lucy Knisley and Ash Mistry author Sarwat Chadda, so I still felt like a WINNER.

*EDIT: I have now had a letter from Mel Stride. Unfortunately as a Parliamentary Private Secretary he 'does not, by convention, sign any Early Day Motions, as doing so is likely to breach the Ministerial Code's rules on collective responsibility.'  He also says that 'while  the Government has said that it would like to see all schools have a well-stocked library and all secondary schools employ an information professional... this should be a local decision, not one mandated by Government.'

This last part seems slightly weaselly to me - I'm all for localism, and no fan of extra laws, but the Government already dictates on far less important aspects of the educational system than libraries.  However, I'm grateful to Mr Stride for his reply, and I hope it won't discourage anyone else from writing to their MP about this.  Yours may turn out not to be a PPS or a Government loyalist. 

Sci Fi Day in Falmouth

I've been busy writing recently, and there hasn't been much time for blog posts - even the delights of BristolCon had to pass unblogged, although nearly everybody who else who was there seems to have blogged about it, so hopefully mine won't be missed.  It was an excellent day as always, and I suppose I should take this chance to announce that one of the Guests of Honour next year will be (ahem) ME, which is very flattering and a bit unexpected. More on this, and on the thriving Bristol SF scene, in future posts.

There were further Science Fictional goings on yesterday at University College Falmouth in Penryn, where Rupert Loydell, the senior lecturer in Creative Writing, and some of his colleagues had organised a one day Science Fiction conference. I gave a presentation about how I came to create the world of Mortal Engines. Oh, and there was a visualiser handy, so I did a quick drawing of one of the evil Gollarks from Murderous Maths, too...

I also got to sit in on talks by film studies lecturer Kingsley Marshall on the role of robots in SF cinema and by Chrisy Dennis on space opera - both very interesting, and potentially quite useful, since the main thing I'm busy writing at the moment is a mammoth space opera with a robot as one of the central characters.  Chrisy's talk was partly illustrated with excerpts from the David Lynch film of Frank Herbert's Dune, which took me back a bit. Released in 1984, Dune is possibly the worst film I've ever foolishly paid actual money to see at a cinema (and I've seen Prometheus), but it does have some extraordinary futurist/Ruritanian production design, which had a bit of an influence on Mortal Engines.

As well as a lot of the students from Falmouth's highly regarded creative writing courses the conference was attended by some of the members of Writing Squad Kernow, a group of talented young writers aged from 13 to 19 from right across Cornwall. One of them, Alice Vickery, came dressed as Hester Shaw...

...but without the hideous facial disfigurement:

After my talk I signed a lot of books. While I was at it, wrter and 'iphoneographer' Benamon Tame took this picture of me and did mysterious filtery things to it on his phone to create this image...

Many thanks to Rupert, Sam, Kingsley and their colleagues, and to everyone I met in Penryn.

Oh, and I cam home to find a copy of The Phoenix waiting, featuring Jinks & O'Hare - Funfair Repair, the comic I drew with Sarah McIntyre. Sarah's colours look fantastic!

While I was in Cornwall, Sarah was at a party in London to celebrate The Phoenix, and she met a young comics fan there who has already done his own Jinks & O'Hare sequel. I wish I could work that fast!

The Phoenix

If you live in the UK and you like comics you may already be of The Phoenix, a new weekly story comic which rose from the ashes of the late lamented DFC (or 'David Fickling Comic').  Like its predecessor, The Phoenix is packed with great strips , and has a nice mix of the funny and the thrilling, as a proper comic should.

My good friend and seawig illustrator Sarah McIntyre was a stalwart of the old DFC. Unfortunately she's too busy illustrating books (some of them MINE) to draw a strip for The Phoenix, but we agreed that she should write a strip for me to draw, and the result is JINKS and O'HARE - FUNFAIR REPAIR, a tale of rum doings at an outer-space fairground. I drew and inked it and Sarah did the colouring, and you can see the results for yourself TOMORROW (Friday 2nd November) when Issue 43 goes on sale. I believe you can pick up a copy at branches of Waitrose supermarket, or from all good comics shops (such as my local one, Gnash Comics in Ashburton). Or you can order it direct from The Phoenix website. And while you're there, why not try a taster subscription?