Monday, 3 August 2015

Three Ways Authors Can Get the Most Out of their Computers • Jonathan Emmett

I don't think I'd have made it as a professional author without a computer's help

A question children often ask me on school visits is “do you write with pen and paper or on a computer?”. I know there are some authors who swear by pen and paper, particularly for the first draft, and say that a computer would get between them and the story. For me it’s the other way around. I’m mildly dyslexic and doubt that I’d be able to make a living as a writer without a computer helping me to set-down, shape and polish my stories.

I’ve just gone without my computer for a week, while a faulty hard-drive was replaced. This absence reminded me how much I’ve come to depend on my computer and prompted me to write this post.

Here are three ways authors can get the most out of their computers. My own computer is an Apple Mac, and I’ve included some detailed instructions for other Mac users, but these tips also apply to Windows PCs.

First and foremost …

1: Learn to touch-type

If you’re still pecking away at your keyboard with two fingers, you’re getting your ideas down on the page at a fraction of the rate you could be. Having been born in the dark ages, before computers were in every home, I taught myself to touch type on a mechanical typewriter using a Pitman typing book. These days, you can learn far more easily using typing-tutor software (you can find some recent reviews of some here. It’s never too late to learn. Touch-typing is an invaluable skill for anyone that uses a keyboard and I’ve never understood why it’s not routinely taught at an early age in UK schools.

Use ten not two! Touch typing is an invaluable skill for any author and it's never too late too learn.

2: Have your computer read aloud to you

It’s good practice for any writer to read their work aloud, but it’s essential for picture book authors, as picture books are often read aloud to children by adults. Although I still read text aloud, I use my computer to do this most of the time. I'm not sure if this is linked to my dyslexia, but when I read something I've written aloud, my brain often glosses over errors and I read what I'd meant to type instead of what I've actually typed. However when I listen to the computer reading the same passage, the errors are far more conspicuous.

Having your computer read aloud is particularly useful when writing rhyming texts. Reading aloud is the only way to check that a rhyming text scans well, but if you’ve written the text yourself, you will have preconceptions as to the rhythm of a line and which words need emphasis. Someone reading the text for the first time won't share these preconceptions so you want to make sure that a rhyming text will still read well without them. One way around this is to ask someone else to read your text back to you, but their patience may begin to wear thin if you keep asking them to re-read the same lines, with minor variations, again and again. And after a few readings they'll begin to develop preconceptions of their own. A computer has infinite patience and is incapable of forming such preconceptions. It will give consistently impartial readings with even rhythm and emphasis, putting in appropriate pauses for commas and other punctuation. Standard computer speech used to be very flat and American sounding, but has come on in leaps and bounds in recent years. Macs now come with a range of English Language voices pre-installed with yet more available as free downloads (go to System Preferences>Dictations and Speech>Text to Speech and click “customise” to find them). You can find further instructions on how to use a Mac’s Text to Speech function here.

Macs can speak English in a variety of voices and accents, including Australian, Indian, Irish, Scottish and South African.

It’s worth taking the time to choose a voice you like and to adjust the speed. My favourite is “Serena”, who speaks with an English accent. You can use the player below to hear what she sounds like reading the opening lines of The Silver Serpent Cup. The software makes the occasional mistake, (its pronunciation of 'noisy' in the passage below is slightly out) and it can slip up with homonyms. However it can cope surprisingly well with made-up words and generally does a remarkably good job.
Today the town of Furryville’s a very noisy place,
Crammed with crowds of creatures getting ready for a race.
The air is filled with honking horns and engines revving up,
As racers take their places for THE SILVER SERPENT CUP.

3. Use software that suits the way you work

Most of the publishers I work with expect manuscripts to be sent to them as Microsoft Word files and when I first became a writer, I used to write directly into Word. However as the years have gone by, Word has become increasingly unwieldy to use, with half of it’s functions hidden away in a bewildering array of sub menus. There are now lots of cheaper applications available, some of which are far better suited to writing a book. About 9 years ago I started using Scrivener, an application designed specifically for authors. It provides a far cleaner, simpler interface than Word and allows authors to access and organise the myriad files, documents and web pages relating to their project through a single window instead of cluttering up the screen with half a dozen windows from various applications. And once you’ve finished a project, you can export it as a MS Word file to send to your publisher.

The Silver Serpent Cup in Scrivener. Scrivener allows you to open multiple text documents, pdfs, web pages and
images within a single application window. One of Ed Eaves' concept sketches is shown on the right.

I hope the tips above have proved useful. If you have any other computer tips for writers (perhaps you can tell Windows users how to get their computer reading aloud), please post them in the comments box below.

Jonathan Emmett's latest computer-assisted picture book is Fast and Furry Racers: The Silver Serpent Cup illustrated by Ed Eaves and published by Oxford University Press.

Find out more about Jonathan and his books at his Scribble Street web site or his blogYou can also follow Jonathan on twitter @scribblestreet.

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Creative Crafts from Books by Abie Longstaff

I love the idea of books being cross-curricular, with 'We're going on a bear hunt' used to look at landscapes and nature, or 'The Very Hungry Caterpillar' to discuss life-cycles. My favourite way of playing with the ideas in books is to make crafts. I think it brings the stories alive.

Some bloggers do this very well (see So do some schools. My daughter's class recently had to make the garage from David Almond's Skellig out of a shoebox, a project my eleven year-old loved.

When I write, I like to play around with different creative tools like paint, pencil and fabric. I find it helps me connect with the story and it creates a strong foundation to take to schools and lit fests later. Children love hearing about what has inspired the books and they have a lot of fun recreating or playing with the objects.

For Fairytale Hairdresser, of course, I have long-haired dolls for the children to style.

I like to have a range of dolls, representing the different fairy tale characters, even if it means having to source a mermaid tail, or dye a doll's hair to find the right shade of purple to become the Sugar Plum Fairy.

Tail made by Sally Channon (Salstuff)

Rapunzel, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty

Hair dyed with sharpie ink

There are lots of craft projects you can make with children based on their favourite books, and some schools have come up with wonderful ideas. Grow House Forest School in Switzerland had a Fairytale Hairdresser craft day, with activities including building the Three Pigs' houses (and testing their strength using a hairdryer!)


Children can do drawings of their favourite characters (see Lauren Beard's 'How to Draw a Singing Mermaid' in the Guardian here

They can make maps tracking journeys across the book

Map from The Magic Potions Shop, illus by Lauren Beard
or buckets of potions

and there's ultimate tribute: dressing up as your favourite book character!

Kittie Laceys on World Book Day

For my Magic Potions Shop series, I've been busy making teeny potions bottles.

At events, we've been imagining our favourite potion (Flying Potion? Invisible Potion? Exploding Powder?) and drawing it or making it with glitter or feathers.

Let me know your craft ideas - I'm always looking for more projects! :)

(You can find lots of crafts, including activity sheets to download, on my website

Friday, 24 July 2015

Picture Book People - 1: Laurence Anholt

This is the first in an occasional series of blogs about their lives by some of the people whose work we here at the Den very much like and admire.  We're delighted to welcome super-talented Laurence Anholt, whose work has been published all over the globe. He's written us a fascinating piece about his life story, which is one of great creativity and commitment, very influenced by fine art through the years. He's also sharing with us his surprising and intriguing new direction. 

Here he is! Laurence Anholt with hat - Copyright: Julia Mear

Im generally a cheerful person so Id like to think I didnt make too much fuss when I was born on 4th August 1959 in Barnet. In theory that makes me a Norf Lundnerbut its a bit more complicated than that because my dad was a Dutchman with family roots stretching all the way back to Persia.
My siblings and I spent our early years in Holland and we went to little Dutch schools. Sadly I lost the language but what I retained is that celebrated Dutch liberalism along with a passion for Dutch art, especially van Gogh.

Me in my little Dutch Montessori School aged about 5

Our family returned to the UK in time for part two of my education which became increasingly shambolic. I went to a mixed outward bound school where - so it seemed to me - you could choose whether you went to lessons or notI chose not! I left school at 16 with almost no qualifications and a general sense of bewilderment.

My father had many good qualities but he was haunted by some devastating wartime experiences. To give some idea, he was amongst the group that liberated Bergen Belsen - not something you get over in a hurry. Perhaps it was understandable that he wasnt a great mentor; but growing boys need male mentors and when they dont have them they tend to drift into little gangs of other disaffected boys - I must admit I went a little wild in my teenage years and there are gaps in my CV where even Im not sure what happened! I travelled; I worked in factories and kitchens and I had many fine adventures along the way. My most bizarre job was working as a bricky on a model village in Southern France. I laid tiny bricks and I think the wages were minuscule too! My main interests had always been English and Art and eventually I stumbled into the Foundation Course at Epsom School of Art where I grew my hair and threw some paint around.

At 19 I was passing through Oxford when I met a beautiful Irish girl, who became my best friend and partner for the next 35 years. Cathy was one of eight siblings; a student nurse who dreamed of becoming an artist. We had heard about the legendary Degree course at Falmouth School of Art, so the two of us assembled portfolios and hitchhiked to Cornwall. This was the late 1970s and there were only 175 students in that hothouse of creativity. It was an amazing opportunity for self-discovery.

When we qualified we moved to London to take our Masters. Cathy went to the Royal College of Art and I studied Fine Art for three years in the scruffy splendour of the Royal Academy. 
'Houses on Haverstock Hill' - an example of the paintings I was doing at the Royal Academy.

We had not a penny between us, but I discovered a knack for carpentry and spent weekends and holidays building kitchens all over London. Around this time, my parents had settled in Dorset and whenever we visited, Cathy and I felt rejuvenated by the woods and the hills. It was the start of a love affair with the Westcountry - the Blue Lias of the Jurassic Coast gets right under your fingernails!

When our first daughter, Claire was born in 1984 I was over the moon. But I wanted to be a different kind of dad and began to think of ways in which I could work from home. Thats when we started looking at those lovely things called childrens books. Perhaps this could be a way of combining my passions - writing, drawing and inspiring kids.

My lovely wife Cathy with our daughter Claire, on Charmouth Beach.

At the time I was working as an art teacher and I entertained my class with stories about maverick characters such as Picasso, Cézanne and Matisse. This led me to write and illustrate Camille and the Sunflowers, a picture book about the friendship between Van Gogh and Camille Roulin, son of the famously bearded postmaster in Arles.

It was the first in what eventually became the Anholts Artists series published by Frances Lincoln in the UK and Barrons in the U.S. In the last 25 years my series has translated into many languages and sold several million copies around the world.

These books are a first introduction to great artists, seen from the perspective of a real child.  They are fascinating to work on and I have met many relatives and acquaintances of the artists, such as Sylvette David, Picassos iconic Girl With A Ponytail in the 1950s who has become a family friend.

Sylvette David by Picasso portrait. Copyright: collection of Sylvette David

 Im currently putting the final touches to the tenth story in the series, about that great feminist icon, Frida Kahlo and another real child. My working title is Frida Kahlo and the Bravest Girl in the World.

Two watercolour illustrations of Frida Kahlo. Copyright: Laurence Anholt. 

 In 1987 our beautiful twins, Tom and Maddy were born. Here they are face to face in their pram -

 And it was at this time that we discovered our Willy Wonka ticketin the countryside near Lyme Regis, we stumbled upon a rambling semi-derelict house with acres of tangled jungle, various crumbling outbuildings, a walled swimming pool filled with something resembling vegetable soup, and breathtaking views across the valley to the sea. The place was like a dream or a magical fairy tale (although the mortgage felt real enough!) Old Woodhouse had been long abandoned and it took years to put it straight - I lost count of the evenings I spent on the roof with a hammer, but for sixteen happy years this was our family home.

Making a living as an author or illustrator requires huge tenacity, but slowly our business grew. Weve always worked without an agent - negotiating directly with publishers and with the wonderful Society of Authors at our side. Being agentless wasnt a plan, weve just never made that connection, although its something I would consider for the future. One way or another, we were unbelievably fortunate to be working in the late 80s and early 90s. That was a Golden Time in childrens publishing, when the UK led the world with an astonishing range of imaginative picture books. It was possible to make a really good living by sitting in your studio, listening to Van Morrison and dreaming up weird and wonderful ideas for childrens stories. It felt like it would go on forever and barely a day went by without another Foreign Rights deal or an exciting offer from a publisher. Alongside my artist series I wrote the Seriously Silly Stories (illustrated by my good friend, Arthur Robins), Chimp and Zee and eventually more than 200 childrens titles, many illustrated by Cathy.

 Our books were translated into 30 or more languages and they won several big awards. Here I am with Arthur Robins receiving the Smarties Gold Award with Konnie Huq from Blue Peter and two authors called Julia Donaldson and J.K. Rowlingwhatever happened to them!

 I took part in book events in Indonesia, Singapore and all around the world. Once Cathy and I travelled to South Korea to launch a full-scale stage musical of my Van Gogh book.

The Korean stage musical of Camille and the sunflowers. Copyright: Laurence Anholt

 In those days, editors had the authority to accept a manuscript on the spot, but with the advent of Amazon and e-books, the threat to independent bookshops and the appalling cuts to public libraries, there has been an earthquake in childrens publishing. Now it feels as if publishing houses have erected forcefields around themselves armed by accountants! I know that many editors, authors and illustrators feel very sad about the commercialisation of this lovely industry and it must be horribly difficult to be starting out as an author or illustrator in 2015.

But back to that Golden timeIve always liked a little project and in 2005 I spotted a small shop for sale in Lyme Regis. Together with a group of friends, we constructed Chimp and Zee Bookshop by the Sea.

Chimp and Zee, Bookshop by the Sea. Copyright: Laurence Anholt

It was a little wonderland for children with a full-sized copper-leaved oak tree inside and a monkey (called Mumkey) who rode her bicycle endlessly around the window. This was the UKs first author-owned bookshop and it was even shortlisted for an HSBC Small Business Award. Chimp and Zee was a magical place, but what we liked less were the nuts and bolts of retail and when the UK fell into recession, we sold the shop and set Mumkey free!

I am embarrassingly proud of the kind, funny and courageous adults that our kids have become. Claire graduated from Cambridge and works at a senior level in the UN Secretariat in New York. She does amazing work with climate change, Human Rights, and campaigning against child soldiers. Her lovely French husband, Adrien works in Disaster Relief.

Claire and me 

Maddy is an actor, writer and radio presenter who has taken her one-woman show, Maddys Many Mouthsto the Edinburgh Fringe.

Maddy and me. There's a link to Maddy's website below. 

Tom is an artist working in Berlin and his gorgeous paintings sell as fast as he can produce them, in galleries in Germany, Denmark, Italy and America.

My son Tom. There's a link to Tom's website below. 

The downside of being a home-parent is how much you miss them when they are gone. The solution is usually a little project, and in recent years Cathy and I have restored another neglected gem of a house. This haven of peace and creativity has light-filled studios overlooking the shimmering Axe Estuary near Colyton in Devon. We have wildflower meadows and beehives and we feel incredibly blessed to live in this magical place.

At the bottom of the blog there's a link to an article about our renovation of Sunflower House. 

My mother, Joan Pickford, was a wise and wonderful woman who died too young. Joan was a teacher of English Literature, especially Hardy and Wordsworth and although she was a Christian, she was fascinated by Eastern philosophy. It must have influenced me because I became a member of the friendly Buddhist community in this area. If I had more pages I would gleefully expound on the benefits of mindfulness and meditation (such a wonderful tool for writing), but one central concept of Buddhism is that our thoughts become our reality - a person who thinks negative or prejudiced thoughts creates a dark claustrophobic world for themselves; conversely those who train themselves to be positive and open-hearted find the world opening around them. Life is challenging, but life is beautiful too. We are profoundly privileged to walk briefly on this extraordinary blue-green planet, revolving slowly in space.

A couple of years ago, something wonderful happened - Ive always been an avid reader of fiction and I cherish that hour before sleep when one can explore another country or another mind from the comfort of ones bed. Ive always longed to write full-length fiction and I decided to take a year out to write two novels: The Hypnotistand Love Letters. If picture books are hard, a novel is like building a house single-handed! But to my amazement, both books were accepted by the newly merged Penguin Random House. Its been an incredible privilege to work with the legendary publisher, Annie Eaton and editor, Ruth Knowles - their enthusiasm for my work has been heartwarming. So here I am at 55 launching on a new adventure as a novelist. The Hypnotist is about prejudice and tolerance - In essence I have transposed DickensGreat Expectations to the Deep South of America in 1963. My protagonist is a young black orphan making his way against the background of Segregation and the dreaded Ku Klux Klan; (sadly, more topical than ever.) Because Ive got a funny old brain, the book is a little stranger than a straightforward historical drama - all the events are seen through the very strange eyes of an outsider: an Irish hypnotist, Dr Jack Morrow, who has started work at a new university. Theres a slice of history, a sprinkle of magic realism and a twist of humour. The Hypnotist created a bit of a buzz at Bologna, although US publishers seem nervous of the subject matter! Im so excited about this project and Im already thinking about a third novelI do like a little project, you know! The Hypnotist will be published by Penguin Random House in March 2016.

The cover of The Hypnotist

If youd like to chat about bees, books or Buddhism say hello on the Twit 

Visit the Anholt website:
Paintings by Catherine Anholt:
See our old shop here
Maddy's site: 

Catherine and Laurence Anholt in studio. Copyright: Alun Callender/Psychologies Magazine