The period I'm covering this week is the one in which I started writing for children, but I'm going to restrain myself from dumping a 300 page unpublished manuscript on here for you to read! One of the things I dislike about writing novels is that you often have nothing easily digestible to show friends and family - in many ways a book doesn't really exist until you get it published. Compare that with my wife, who's an artist - she can finish a beautiful picture in the morning and have it up on Facebook attracting likes before the day is out (sigh). Accordingly, I've tried to select my more visual side projects for your viewing pleasure.
Philosophy is Fun!
I used to make such amazing presents: mix tapes; books; mix tapes and books (with each page telling the incredibly untrue story of a different track on the tape). The most elaborate present I ever attempted was the Existential Distress Kit.
Existential Distress Kit (2002) - Click to enlarge
This box of goodies was an attempt to cheer up my best friend Stefan, who was at the time stuck working a job in construction that he hated. By subverting the ideas of the very best philosophers, I hoped that I could pull my friend from his existential funk. In the kit, you could find:
Existential Door Hanger (2002) - Click to enlarge
Then there was a t-shirt that I can't imagine anyone wearing unless they wanted to get into a fight:
Existential T-Shirt (2002) - Click to enlarge
We were mad keen on collectable card games at the time, so I designed some cards of my very own, printed them out on proper cardstock and wrapped them in a foil envelope - all designed to look like an actual booster pack you might buy in a games shop.
Moral Vacuum Collectable Card Game (2002) - Click to open in new tab
Pride of place in the Existential Distress Kit was my first (and so far only) finished picture book. It was inspired by a children's Star Wars book about C-3PO called I Am a Droid, but my version took a very different approach. The PDF here doesn't really do justice to the original artefact, as I painstakingly glued the pages onto thick cardboard, so the whole thing looked and felt like a board book.
I Am an Existentialist (2002) - Click to open in new tab
Wow, I did like loads of different fonts, didn't I? Even if they were occasionally unreadable...
Was the Existential Distress Kit a success? Well, I think Stefan was a little nonplussed when I originally gave him the present, but since then, he's gone back to university to get an MA, then a PhD and is now a full-time lecturer. Coincidence? I think not!
A Richly Imagined History
In 2004, we decided to move from Guildford to Abingdon, Oxfordshire. We exchanged a character Victorian cottage (which was actually a creaking money pit that would have bankrupted us) for a boring but solidly-built 1970s suburban residence. Tasked with producing an invite for our housewarming party, I was struggling to find anything notable about the house, apart from the slightly pretentious name fixed to the porch: "Dalmore." Suddenly, I came upon a perfectly simple solution - if the house needed a history, then I could just invent one!
Years of poking around stately homes had prepared me well for this task. The finished invite was designed to look as if it had been torn from the pages of the National Trust guidebook:
Dalmore House Invitation (2004) - Click to open in new tab
As if organising a party for fifty people was not enough work, I also "researched" the history of the site and recounted it in loving detail. I put these information boards on the walls of each room, so our housewarming guests could discover the whole amazing story as they toured the house.
Dalmore House - A History (2004) - Click to open in new tab
Writing children's books was not a task I fell into particularly gracefully. Stubbornly self-taught, I refused to associate with other writers or even read books about how to write for my first five years. Instead, I took whatever I was dealing with each day in my own life and worked it into a scene featuring my characters. After a couple of years of writing this way in longhand, I had filled numerous notebooks and typed none of it up. A sensible person would have junked the whole project at this point and started again with something more structured. Never mistake me for a sensible person - I took it upon myself to wrangle the 150,000 words into a coherent narrative.
The result was The New Janice Powley, a YA comedy/drama/satire that was as unfocused as those multiple slashes suggest. The premise was a simple one: What if you became the next J.K. Rowling? I invented a thinly-veiled J.K. analogue called Janice Powley and her boy wizard Tom Farley, both of whom my teenage protagonist David hates with a vengeance. In an act of retaliation, David begins to write his own book spoofing Tom Farley, while weaving in elements of his own life. His book finds its way into the hands of a washed-up writer who smells gold, and David is suddenly catapulted into the literary stratosphere.
Yes, there was more than a little wish-fulfilment at work here. I was writing a book inspired by my own life about a character writing a book inspired by his own life, and we had both been inspired by the success of J.K. Rowling. I think I'd seen Adaptation one too many times and fancied myself as the Charlie Kaufman of the children's publishing world. When sending the book to agents, I decided to run with the concept a bit further and create a rather unique query letter:
New Janice Powley Agent Letter (2007) - Click to open in new tab
Despite (or because of) this letter, I managed to secure a couple of full manuscript reads from agents, which in retrospect was an amazing achievement for a first novel. Of course, I didn't see it that way, because the book didn't make it any further and I was crushed. But it's been five years since I put the book to bed, and I can see that the whole thing was too scattershot to work, no matter how much professional editing it might have received. But there are still moments of rough charm, and I wanted to pick out my very favourite scene for you here. Sex, Shakespeare and school subversion - what more could you ask for?
New Janice Powley Extract (2007) - 1,800 words - Click to open in new tab
Most of you reading this know that I didn't avoid other writers forever. In fact, I joined the SCBWI a few years back and discovered a wonderful community that's helped me through some tough times. For several years now, I've entered the SCBWI conference badge competition, and somehow I still haven't won first prize! But true to my pigheaded nature, I keep entering in the hope that maybe all the illustrators will lose their crayons one year or something. Here is a small tableau of all the badge designs I've produced so far, some of them winners, but many of them sadly neglected. Sob.
SCBWI Badge Designs (2010-2012) - Click to enlarge
And that's all from The Museum of Me. I hoped you've enjoyed this rummage through the archives, as much as I've enjoyed revisiting the artefacts from my past. It's a process that's reminded me how much more comfortable I am with words than pictures nowadays, how moving pixels around in Photoshop feels more like work than pleasure. But never say never - perhaps there is some amazing graphical Transmedia app project around the corner, just waiting for my dubious design skills and mastery of clip art. Until then, I guess I'll keep on writing books for children. Because I'm stubborn like that.