Monthly Archives: January 2013

Storytelling in the graphic form, or why writing comics is the bomb

AdamChristopherHeadshotToday’s blog is a special guest post from Adam Christopher, a novelist and Sir Julius Vogel Award-winning editor. Adam is the author of EMPIRE STATE, SEVEN WONDERS and THE AGE ATOMIC. When not writing Adam can be found drinking tea and obsessing over comics and The Cure. You can follow him on Twitter here. We asked him to tell us a bit about what it’s like to tell a story through words AND pictures. You can read his response below and get an EXCLUSIVE, first-look at the art from his forthcoming graphic novel, THE SENTINEL.

Fair warning about what follows: I am no expert. In fact, I’m a total novice. An enthusiastic amateur, you might say.

I’m a writer, and a novelist first and foremost. I’ve got two books out with at least another three coming by 2014 from two different publishers. Novels are my job, and it’s a job I love.

But I also love comics. Comic books flip a switch somewhere in my brain that other types of writing don’t. Comics are, as they say, where it is at. But while I feel like I’ve been practicing for years and years in my head, writing comics is a totally new thing for me.

And I’m having the most fun ever.

Writing comics is a fascinating exercise. Although I’ve written the odd short story and novella, I find novels to be my preferred format – you can really get stuck into a story when you have 100,000 words to play with. Novels (and shorts and everything in between) are, most of the time, solo efforts, not counting all the editorial work that comes when you’ve got the book mostly done, which is a real team effort.

Of course, the beauty of prose fiction is that once you hand it over to the reader, what they see in their heads is totally different to what you, the writer, envisaged. And that’s the whole point. That’s why books are magical – there’s that direct person-to-person telepathy between writer and reader, as Stephen King once described it – but for everyone who reads the work, a completely new and different interpretation of the story and characters and plot and setting is created.

Comics are completely different, obviously. The combination of text and pictures works on different parts of the brain at the same time. They’re different to read, and they’re also very different to write.

When I wrote the first episode of The Sentinel, my forthcoming comic debut from VS Comics, I knew the comic script format like the back of my hand, having tinkered with various attempts in the past, more as practice than anything else, and I had worked out a detailed outline. But as I wrote, I just kept packing in the dialogue and exposition – I couldn’t help it, I’m a novelist! So the characters did a lot, and said a lot, and then usually said it again in a different way while also explaining what was going on. Again.

That first draft was long. Too long. I showed it to a friend of mine who has a long and glittering career in comics, and he kept glancing sideways at me with one eyebrow raised. Fortunately – as with my novels – I’m working with a great editor, Ned Hartley, who helped pare down the script and reminded me of the golden rule of comic writing: trust the artist.

Once I realized that I wasn’t in this alone, writing the script was an experience transformed. Comics show the reader the story in pictures and dialogue, and actually the art tells more of the story than you might realize, something that – comic fanatic as I am – didn’t really get a handle on until I started writing my own script.

See? Novice here, told you so.

So I trusted the artist – the wonderful Nadine Ashworth – and together we’ve crafted this thing, a story in words and pictures, my written script transformed into a living, breathing world filled with the characters I had imagined. As every page arrived, there was more to delight and, most importantly, surprise me. The telepathy here is going between the writer and the artist, and no matter what I put in the script or how much detail I use to describe a panel, the artist will come back with their take on it, inevitably different to what I saw in my own head when I wrote it.

The actual process is multistep. Here’s a rundown, using some panels from the first episode of The Sentinel.


From my script, Nadine did a series of page thumbnails – while I indicated the number of panels per page, the actual page layout is up to the artist (unless there is a particular need for a specific layout), laying out the panels.


Meanwhile, a couple of test panels were drawn, where the artist designed the characters and tried out the colour palette.



Once everyone was happy, the page pencils were done (although Nadine works entirely digitally), followed by inks, followed by colour, each step checked in case any changes need to be made. Dialogue balloons and captions are added later by the letterer, once all the art is complete.

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And that’s it. Repeat for every page, every episode. The first run of The Sentinel is four six-page episodes, which, for a pulpy Prohibition-era urban fantasy featuring a dead detective, a cult that worships the New York subway system, and an evil force returning from Ancient Egypt, suits the story very well.

And it’s fun. It’s a lot of fun, the most I’ve had writing. And I love writing novels, don’t get me wrong. But comics. Man, comics are it, baby.

I have much to learn and a long road to travel, but this is just the beginning.

The Sentinel, by Adam Christopher, with art by Nadine Ashworth, letters by Mike Stock, and edited by Ned Hartley, will debut in VS Comics #4, April 2013.


Alison Rattle’s ‘Next Big Thing!’

Rattle, AlisonAlison Rattle, author of THE QUIETNESS, was ‘tagged’ in an author blog hop called ‘The Next Big Thing.’ She explains the blog project and her latest work below.

I’ve been invited (tagged!) by novelist Maria McCann (historical writer extraordinaire of As Meat Loves Salt and The Wilding) to take part in the ever expanding blog ‘The Next Big Thing’.

Here’s how it works!

Every writer, poet, and creative person participating, answers the same set of questions about their current or forthcoming work before tagging other writers to do the same thing the following week.

So, as I am just coming to the end of the first draft of my second novel for young adults, I guess this is an apt moment to share.

What is the working title of your next book?
 The Dipper’s Daughter, although this is very much a working title. I’ve been mulling over an alternative which I’ve yet to suggest to my editor!

Where did the idea come from for the book?
Two things – A stunningly beautiful Victorian pier in the North Somerset town of Clevedon that totally evokes the bygone days of the Victorian seaside, and my urge to write about a teenage obsession that goes hideously wrong.

What genre does your book fall under?
Historical, psychological drama for teens.

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
Ooh err. That’s a hard one. As long as they’re not too far off the mark I wouldn’t really mind who. And they’d have to look good in period costume. Jennifer Lawrence from The Hunger games has my main character’s startling blue eyes and blonde locks. So maybe….

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?
‘A random act of friendship is misunderstood and dire consequences follow.’ Ugh. I’m sure that could have been done so much better. How about instead: ‘What’s the very worse thing that can happen when you can’t have what you want?’ Or, ‘teenage Fatal Attraction set against the backdrop of a genteel Victorian seaside.’ Oh well, I’ve cheated massively and done three sentences. Am rubbish at synopses.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
I can be very precise about this one. It took me six months to the day to write the first draft. Including the research! A tough deadline to be sure, and as a result I’ve developed a severe case of writer’s bum, a horrible, and I fear non-curable, addiction to crisp sandwiches, and have had dust bunnies lurking under cupboards and in corners for so long that my daughter has adopted one and called it Charlie..

Who or what inspired you to write this book?
My love of the sea and quirky history. I was fascinated to discover that during the Victorian era, when ‘ladies’ bathed in the sea for health purposes, a local woman, known as a dipper, would assist the bather; floating her over the waves or literally dipping her under. I loved the idea of the Victorian seaside resort, known in those days as a watering-place. So I suppose setting was my initial inspiration.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
 An unusual and feisty main character with a very dark side to her personality.

Plus, a peek back to the days before bikinis, sun tan lotion, buckets and spades and ice cream, to when stockings and bloomers were worn to merely paddle in the sea and a small dip in the ocean was said to cure everything from melancholy and tuberculosis to asthma and hysteria.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
It’ll be published by Hot Key Books in spring 2014.

Who are you passing the baton to for next week’s Next Big Thing?
Matt Whyman, a fellow Hot Key writer and author of the forthcoming novel, The Savages, plus many, many, many other wonderful things. He’ll be posting his Next Big Thing blog here too, but you can see what else he’s up to by visiting his website

Gavin Knight, best selling author of Hood Rat; Shortlisted for the prestigious Orwell Prize 2012 and the Crime Writers’ Association Non-fiction. Gavin has also written for the Guardian, Newsweek, Esquire, The Times and Prospect. (And he is a frequenter of my little tea shop in Somerset.)

The bogey man in the cupboard at the Costa Book Awards

Sarah Odedina mediumOur blog today comes from our Managing Director Sarah Odedina. Sarah attended the Costa Awards ceremony with our author Sally Gardner, whose book Maggot Moon won the Costa Children’s Award.

Last night was the Costa Book Awards party and Hilary Mantel triumphed, winning the overall prize as well as the novel award, with Sally Gardner winning the children’s award,  Francesca Segal winning the first novel award, Kathleen Jamie winning the poetry award and Mary and Bryan Talbot winning the biography award.  Each of the books is a wonderful ‘story’ waiting to be read and will be enjoyed by many people still to come.

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During the ceremony there was an interesting moment when head judge Dame Jenni Murray told the guests that because she chose to read the physical editions instead of the ebooks on her Kindle, she felt that she had proof that the digital format was a ‘second choice’ and that print editions were far superior in terms of providing true enjoyment and a more intellectual experience.  She went on to say that she would save her Kindle for light easy holiday throwaway reading…the kind of books, by implication, that are somehow less worthy of respect and possibly enjoyment.

The guests, publishers, authors, agents,  obviously all book-loving individuals, duly clapped. I didn’t. I was a bit bemused.  Why does the digital edition have to be constantly maligned by ‘real book lovers’?  What on earth is wrong with reading a book in the digital format?  Surely the point is for the book to be read, for the story to be shared, for the author’s work to be enjoyed by a reader.  If that reader chooses to prefer to read the book digitally as opposed to in a print format does that make them somehow lightweight or less of a ‘real book lover’?

I also wonder if, with this rather archaic and hierarchical attitude, many people in the book world will miss the opportunity to communicate with readers properly. When there is an implicit snobbery about form, will potential readers be deterred from ever getting to the content?  Will a sixteen-year-old young adult who comes across this attitude feel immediately alienated from the precious object being talked about?  I suspect that they will.  When will ‘real book lovers’  get over feeling that ebooks are the bogey men hiding in the cupboard and truly and properly embrace them as simply another format which allows us to link readers with authors and their stories?  I also wonder if this attitude is not helping us as an industry in our fight to maintain pricing.  Surely if we perceive the format as so inferior the lack of value attached to it culturally reflects in the value we attach to it financially.

I am sure that the time will come when these sorts of comments, and the support for them, will be harder to make.  I hope that before that time comes we don’t lose an entire generation of digitally savvy readers who don’t want to be made to feel inferior for their choices.

Books don’t have an accent

NicoleHeadShotWe are so excited to introduce you to Nicole Hein, who comes to us from our sister company Carlsen Verlag in Germany. She is spending a month at Hot Key Books through our inter-company exchange program.

Normally, she spends her days juggling projects and making lists at German children’s and YA publisher Carlsen. She can’t remember the last time she actually read a book for adults and spends most of her spare time baking, being geeky and travelling. England is the fourth English-speaking country she’s lived in…and the one that’s giving her the most trouble. 

British English stumps me. After living in the U.S., Canada and Australia, I still break out in cold sweat when a Brit starts talking to me.  Maybe it’s some deep-seated trauma from my graduation trip where I had my first encounter with actual Britons and realized studying “Oxford English” in school doesn’t prepare you for the real thing AT ALL. Or maybe it’s a congenital defect, because once my brain identifies a British accent, it just throws me a big, red sign saying “DOES NOT COMPUTE”.

So in preparation for my stint here at Hot Key I thought I needed to polish my British English listening skills a bit. How do you do that? You watch British television of course, preferably a show in which the actors don’t spend more time e-nun-ci-a-ting than acting. In my case, it was Law and Order: UK. Five seasons later, I felt exactly as prepared as I had before. Granted, I had spent more time ogling Jamie Bamber than actually paying attention to the plot, but you’d think something would have stuck. However, while I got a pretty vivid impression of all the ways people apparently get murdered on British television, I still have no idea what the characters spent a whole 45 minutes every episode talking about.

So I was understandably nervous when I boarded the plane that would bring me from Hamburg – where I usually spend my time working for Carlsen, one of Bonnier’s German children’s publishers when I’m not infiltrating interning at Hot Key Books – to London.

Now, after two weeks at the office, I still feel like people might as well speak Chinese for all I understand sometimes. When I don’t concentrate really hard on what is being said or people have conversations behind me, beside me or anywhere else that isn’t right in front of my face, I usually have no idea what’s going on. Which is kind of embarrassing.


But one thing’s been working perfectly since Day 1: Reading. I’ve read about half a dozen Hot Key Books in the past couple of weeks and I found them funny and touching and romantic and thought-provoking and sometimes even a little depressing. They had hopeful endings, endings that made me furious and endings that made we want to read MORE, but you know what they never had? An accent.

And that’s the great thing about books really, isn’t it? Whether they’re British or American or German or heck, maybe even Swedish – they might have different senses of humor and use different words for the same thing, but their essence always stays the same – no matter where THEY are from and no matter where YOU are from. A good book speaks to you on a level far beyond actual words. It brings people together who might otherwise not have a lot in common or – as in my case – don’t always completely understand each other on a more, well, literal level.

So I’ve realized it doesn’t actually matter if I don’t always “compute” every single thing that’s being said around or even to me at the office, because what brings us all together here is our love for great stories, for the written word that is universal to all of us. And whether your favorite character has an accent in your head, well, that’s totally up to you.

Urban Legends

This week is National Storytelling Week, and so I thought it would be a bit of fun to do a blog on my favourite urban legends. They’re a bit weird, but the best urban legends always are!

1) Dick Whittington and his Cat

Not just a pantomime starring failed TV stars! Richard Whittington was a real man, who really did become Mayor of London three times, but as for whether the Bow Bells really did call him back to London, or whether his cat was the basis of his fortune (it ridded a sultan’s palace of mice, apparently) is more the stuff of legend. You can see a memorial to Dick’s cat on Highgate Hill – not bad for a fictional moggy.

Photo Attributed to Julian Osley

Photo Attributed to Julian Osley

2) The Corpse on the Tube

I can’t tell you the number of times I have been told this story by someone who knows someone who knows someone who this actually happened to: the friend of a friend of a friend was on the tube late one night, and there was a person asleep opposite them. They noticed they didn’t seem to be moving much, and just as they were about to see if the person needed help, the person sat next to them stops them and says: “Listen mate, I’m a doctor, and that person’s not sleeping. They’re dead.”

But why would there be a corpse on the tube?! And why wouldn’t the doctor want to help? It makes no sense.



3) Old Mother Red Cap

This one is a particular favourite as it’s a legend local to me – Jinney Bingham, or ‘The Shrew of Kentish Town’ / ‘The Crone of Camden’ lived in a cottage where the The World’s End pub now stands in Camden. Hers is a pretty grim legend – her parents were hung as witches when she was a child, and after giving birth to an illegitimate daughter at sixteen she slipped into poverty, and, allegedly, witchcraft. If she was a witch, it didn’t do much to help her, as she was eventually found dead and so stiff that the undertakers had to break her bones to fit her into her coffin. Before she died though, she made this one prophecy: “Before the good folk of this kingdom be undone, Shall Highgate Hill stand in the midst of London.” Jinney now allegedly haunts The World’s End – which probably suits its heavy metal patrons just fine.

Photo Attributed to Duncan Harris

Photo Attributed to Duncan Harris

4) Banksy vs. King Robbo

This one puts the ‘urb’ in ‘urban’ – this is a fun legend that is best depicted here, but in a nutshell, Bristol-based graffiti artist Banksy majorly annoyed London boy King Robbo when he ‘wallpapered over’ one of Robbo’s Camden pieces. What ensued is a hilarious and witty tit-for-tat graffiti argument, but with plenty of legend along the way – it’s not known if the two artists were battling themselves or whether it was their ‘teams’, and whether or not King Robbo is even still alive is much in debate.

Photo Attributed to Matt Brown

Photo Attributed to Matt Brown

5) The Dog in the Suitcase

Similar to ‘The Corpse on the Tube’, I’ve been told this one so many times that now I just interrupt people when they try to tell me it. The legend goes thusly: a friend of a friend of a friend was asked to look after a neighbour’s beloved dog for the weekend. Unfortunately, the dog dies (exactly how is a matter of some debate). Friend panics, and rings the local vet to see if they can destroy the dog’s remains before the neighbour returns (friend plans on telling neighbour dog ran away) – vet says fine, but you’ll have to bring the dog to me. Friend has no car, and doesn’t want to get a cab (considering the next part of this story – WHY?!) so PUTS DOG IN SUITCASE and gets on the tube. Obviously, the dead dog is heavy. So, when friend gets out of the tube and is trying to heave the suitcase up the stairs, a kindly stranger offers to help. Stranger picks up suitcase – and runs off. Friend is left gawping on platform… but is presumably quite relieved, as the dead dog is gone.


Thus concludes my favourite London urban legends – and if this kind of thing is up your street, you might want to consider picking up a copy of Alison Rattle’s The Quietness when it comes out in March. Based partly on the life of notorious Victorian baby-farmer (read: baby-killer) Margaret Waters, we will be bringing out a bonus-content e-edition of the book, which will include all the facts behind the story. Also, let me know what your favourite urban legends are – and whether you’ve heard any of these ones yourself!


Help Seven Stories!


We were so disappointed to hear that Newcastle Council is considering cutting 100% of its funding to many of the cultural institutions that put that city on the map.

Seven Stories, the amazing children’s book museum, would lose 100% of its government funding by 2016 under the current proposals.

The only times I have ever been to Newcastle have been because of Seven Stories. Full stop. That’s the only reason. It brings people to the city – it celebrates the global accomplishments of Britain’s cultural influence.

If you live locally, read this and do what you can:

And if you don’t live locally, I can’t recommend enough taking a trip up there. Support it using your feet. For anyone with kids, or anyone who loves children’s books — support this amazing institution before we lose it!

Seven Stories says, “We know the City Council must make cuts and we fully expect to carry our fair share. We also know that every £1 we invest in culture attracts over £4 into the local economy.”

That looks like a pretty sound investment to me.

World, meet Jorge Amado

Sarah Odedina mediumSarah Odedina was inspired to write this blog about one of her literary heroes, Jorge Amado. On her most recent trip to Brazil, she visited the Jorge Amado Foundation House, which preserves his archives.

If we read to be introduced to the ‘other’, as well as to reflect our own stories, Jorge Amado is for me a wonderful guide and companion to another place. His place is Bahia in the North East of Brasil, and more specifically the beautiful colonial city of Salvador with his thronging population and pulsating energy. It is a city which features in most of his books and one which he clearly loved and which forms the backdrop and beating heart in most of his literature.

2012 was the centenary of Jorge Amado’s birth and his work is being celebrated around the world. Translated and published in over 50 countries Jorge Amado painted portraits of the people of Salvador in his novels. From the international hits of DONA FLOR AND HER TWO HUSBANDS and GABRIELA, CLOVE, AND CINNAMON to the less well known ‘O COMPADRE DE OGUM’ his books introduce readers to the lives of ordinary working class Brazilians generally not featured in novels – the fishermen, street hawkers, prostitutes, children, black people.

A beautiful view of the city...

A beautiful view of the city…

When he began to write in the 1930’s it was fairly exceptional that he chose these people as the subjects of his fabulous novels. And he did it with tactful and detailed brilliance. Their idiosyncrasies and eccentricities both celebrated for their uniqueness and recognized for their ordinariness. He doesn’t have heroes battling arch enemies, he has the ordinary person walking their way through their life and enjoying their relationships, ordinary people making do and working out how to survive. They are books that ennoble the ordinary person and show each small victory in life as being heroic in itself. His books remind us too that no matter our complex and different social back grounds, as people we share the same concerns about our families, and our lovers and our friends. It maybe being played out in a small broken down shelter under a bridge in Salvador or in a flat or house in London, but ultimately we are, as people, facing the same emotional challenges.

The Jorge Amado Foundation museum.

The Jorge Amado Foundation house.

In the centre of Salvador is the Fundacao de Jorge Amado which is a wonderful institution existing to celebrate the author’s  life and work. The touching detail of the exhibits, from his shirts and his typewriter and marked up manuscript pages, to the extensive displays of the jackets found on the foreign editions of his books and many prizes from around the world for his literature, remind the visitor not only of the breadth of his work but also the way in which he mingled with and lived in the city, and how very much he is revered and loved by Brazilians.  Jorge Amado is a local hero and like the characters of his book he was accessible and kind and clearly much loved.

Jorge Amado's typewriter.

Jorge Amado’s typewriter.

Milton Hatoum, one of Brazil’s most important contemporary writers, was 14 when he first read a Jorge Amado novel. Milton Hatoum was living in the city of Manaus in the Amazon. The book was Captains of the Sands, which tells the story of street children living wretched and difficult lives. Written in the 1930’s the book is as true today as it was then as it portrays gangs of street children stealing to survive, without any adult guidance or protection – a familiar sight in many cities around the world. Hatoum has said, “To me the world was Manaus, surrounded by water and forest. Suddenly I was transported to a whole different place with these street children. It was the revelation of a different social and geographical landscape in the same country. The world he created is full of lively, colourful, sensual characters. Not exotic. But then again, they may seem exotic to those who have never seen what Brazil and Bahia are like.”

Not everything he has written is available in translation but what is is so very well worthwhile reading. With the centenary of his birth there has been a lot of new interest in his work and I am sure over the next few years we will be lucky enough to be able to read more of his books in translation. His particular brand of magical fantasy which is combined with a beautiful realism and pride in the everyday-ness of peoples lives makes him an unusual and original author whose work does deserve a worldwide audience.