The week of the PUNCH cover reveal has finally arrived: On Friday 25th August, the wonderful Paisley Piranhas are going to throw the image out into the big bad world. It had to feel classic and timeless at the same time: the perpetual challenge for historical fiction, and particularly so with children’s books.
THE MARKET’s on FIRE. FIRE! FIRE! The BOY DID IT!’
Smoke belches out through the market entrance.
I turn and run.
When 12 year-old Phineas is accused of a terrible crime, his only option is to flee. In the unlikely company of an escaped prisoner and a group of travelling entertainers, he enters a new world of Punch and Judy shows and dancing bears. But will Phineas clear his name? And what can he do when memories of a darker, more terrible crime begin to haunt him?
What do you think the cover of this type of story should feature?
I’ll give you wee hint: it shares a colour scheme (and theme) with this:
Recording a book trailer in a single day was always ambitious.
Recording a book trailer in a single day when it rains solidly for about eight hours – now that might be a problem.
I picked up film guru Ross in the morning, and hopefully we headed off north to Strathpeffer – not only a lovely Victorian-looking place, but crucially, with a drier forecast. Alas, not with much luck. The buildings were grand, right enough, but not close enough together to create the impression of 1889 Inverness. On top of that, my previously willing talent had become a little self-conscious about walking and running around in the Victorian gear we’d borrowed from the theatre. We did many u-turns, reversed our way out of corners, drove along this street and that, before finally admitting the game was a bogey. Back to Inverness we went without a single shot in the can.
To our dismay, it still rained enthusiastically in my home town and the setting of the book’s opening chapters. Time for a reboot. The talent (my son) got changed into less conspicuous gear and we headed out for lunch. Amazing what a bowl of soup can do for the dejected spirit – by the time we left for the museum at 2pm, the whole thing seemed tight, but almost possible again. We arrived early. The talent got changed and emerged a little reluctantly into the tourist-path between Inverness Castle and the town. Twenty minutes of scrambling up castle hill through long grass in boots way too big for him yielded our first usable footage. Ross the camera guru was beginning to smile.
Into the museum for our appointment with the Victorian Punch and Judy puppets it was. I felt a Tony Blair quote coming on (oh dear!): I feel the hand up history upon my shoulder…
Handling and filming the very puppets with which the Morrison family had entertained Highland audiences for over a hundred years (from Victorian times), now that’s a privilege you don’t get every day. I had a fan-girl moment. I apologise for the completely unhinged grin in this picture. I have no excuse, I was carried away by the moment.
We emerged, feeling the need to celebrate with hot chocolate and churros. That done, we took a trip to my house which wasn’t far away: We needed my main character to witness a huge fire from the top of a tree.
My bright idea of playing flames footage on a laptop and holding it in front of his face was only partially successful. We even tried to film this in our tiny bathroom, the only room which we could black out completely. The talent was trying to look terrified, with me holding the laptop screen above his head so the flames would dance on his face, Ross crouching below to film and daughter 2 holding a branch of fir tree and waving it in the actor’s face as if moving with a breeze. After all that effort, Ross scrutinised the screen: ‘No – too dark.’ We tried again outside and in the kitchen. It would have to do. On to daughter 2’s dancing feet, and some lovely landscape shots of Loch Ness.
The rain had cleared up by then, leaving behind a moody layer of cloud and mist. Oh well. Some fiddle-scraping in a flowery field might give the summery impression we were after. Worth a try, anyway. As evening fell and the town emptied, the talent became a little more relaxed, and we were able to get some running shots in the old town, up and down the tiny patch of cobbles we had found in a lane and over an old Victorian footbridge. Good enough, Ross reckoned, and that was good enough for me. With the husband home from work and our stomachs full of pizzas, we headed for our final stop. What are the chances – the beautiful staircase in Eden Court’s Bishop Palace, normally accessible round the clock, was being used for a wedding! Noooo! I needed a nice old stair for my murder victim!
And no, we could not return the next day – we had today, and only today, before Ross-with-the-camera was off to Glasgow again!
The husband, reluctantly supportive, seemed relieved. ‘Oh well,’ he sighed, grinning out his relief and steering towards home.
‘No wait. One more try!’ I had heard of the beautiful staircase in the Royal Highland Hotel, although I had never seen it. ‘You’ll never get permission at this short notice,’ the husband argued, but he must have felt confident he was right – he pulled in by the station and I tried my charm offensive with the receptionist. I need’t have worried. No problem at all, apparently. Film away!
My husband’s grin quickly turned to a grimace when I told him that yes, I expected him to lie down, upside down, on a staircase in a tourist-crowded hotel lobby on a Friday night, and play dead. I still can’t help laughing pretty hysterically when I look back on it! The only thing still missing was a little footage of an old clock which Ross and I sneaked in on the way home just after 11 pm. A long, long day. Will it work? Who knows.
Learning more, learning faster, learning better. I am engulfed in the second lot of edits with Punch, rephrasing, rewording and re-thinking the manuscript after six weeks away. Unlike a lot of my writer friends, I actually enjoy this process more and more. It reassures me that someone else (in this case Cranachan editor Anne Glennie) has cast a beady eye over my words. I don’t mind being told that I overuse ‘just’ and ‘lapping’ and and ‘stumbling’ – I am genuinely grateful that somebody would point this out before I can publicly disgrace myself!
And multi-tasking with the best of them, I am also turning my attention to the Punch book trailer. I loved making the book trailer for Fir for Luck (find it here if you haven’t seen it!). LOVED it!
Maybe it is the varied nature of it: a small-scale project. Writing a screen-play for a mere minute of Youtube output, sourcing props and costumes and music, making the whole thing work. I absolutely adore the whole process.
Like last time, I approached family friend Ross with my request. I can sort of film and sort of edit, but he can do both, without the ‘sort of’ – and he does it really, really well. Sadly, I can’t afford a king’s ransom, but he is going out with my niece now, so asking him to do the trailer for a small fee became easier :). ‘Sure’, he said, ‘I’ll happily do that if you can produce it!’
I had never thought of my all-rounding as ‘producing’ before, but if that’s what he wants to call it…
I dived deep into the costume cupboard to find vaguely Victorian stuff for my 12-year-old to wear as he sprints across old bridges and over cobbled stones. And, while there was some running in the trailer script, we also needed at least a little bit of puppetry, especially given the title of the novel. I hunted for wooden Punch and Judy puppets on Ebay (with only limited success). I asked around and eventually succeeded in borrowing a giant-sized Punch puppet head from my research expert. Would it do? Not sure – as it had to be a functioning puppet… I reached for the sewing machine. But hang on, I had seen some images of actual Victorian puppets in my research, credited to Inverness Museum. I wonder…
Worth a go, don’t you think?
I popped along to the museum in my Sunday best, only to find that the person I needed to impress wasn’t actually there. I politely asked for her email address and sent my begging letter that night.
The wonderful reply came back today: Not only will they allow us to film in the Museum this Friday, but they will bring the puppets up from their depot an hour south of here especially! I feel like dancing. Mr Punch may only make a brief appearance in the trailer, but I’m sure for me he’ll be the star of the show!
See ya! I’m off to buy some stripy fabric to use in the shots.
I am trying to begin beating the promotional drum for Punch, which after all isn’t out until October, so I need to think creatively: how can I weave Punch into what I am already doing?
There is a cautionary tale of failure here. Bear with me.
Take the fantastic opportunity that was XpoNorth this last week. I was invited to be on one of the panels, discussing publishing and writing in the Highlands and Islands – a great honour, considering I’d been in the audience for similar events for years – always looking yearningly at the performers and wondering what it must be like living the dream as a published author. And now I was on the other side.
It was exciting, and there was a huge buzz about Eden Court. I attended a very helpful event on breaking into screen writing, after which I had only a few minutes until my XpoNorth Live interview – a television station set up to give trainees a taste of production. It all seemed very professional.
Now, I’d given this a little thought. Blue is an ok colour on me, and I had a lovely blue scarf – that should go ok with a plain blue top. You probably won’t see the bottom half, so I put on comfy jeans and headed out. I’ve never been one for much make-up. I didn’t even really think about it. Shame on me!
I arrived on set and took my seat – not just one camera, no: several, including one which slid sideways to pan across the scene – my jeans and my plain top were going to be in plain view! As well as all that was in them. Deep breath!
What followed can only be described as an undignified wrestle between me, my top, my scarf and the microphone, which had to be threaded through from the inside. ‘Be easier if you took the scarf off,’ the friendly man suggested. ‘I’ll keep it for you.’
And so it came to pass that I sat answering questions from the perfectly made up, glam interviewer – me in a plain blue t-shirt, with no make-up on, shiny faced and looking as if I’d made no effort whatsoever. And you know what else? I didn’t mention Punch once!
My lovely SCBWI group online said lots of lovely things after I wailed to them about this, and I know, I know, I know… they are right. There was a little coherence in what I said, and mostly, what came out of my mouth consisted of words and sentences vaguely related to the question.
But in the unlikely event that you are ever asked to appear on camera, take it from me:
Have your bucket of make-up ready
Don’t even think about wearing a scarf, and most importantly…
I clicked save for the last time and sighed deeply. Instead of almost 44000 words, my manuscript now weighs an athletic 40500 words. Ready to take on the world. All right, all right, I hoped to lose a little bit more, but here’s the thing: I’m not sure that I am entirely in charge here.
Oh, that’s funny, is it?
After all, I’m the writer; I get it. And I can make the characters do whatever they want, you’re right about that, too. But sometimes, a plot strand does just emerge and take over. Take a look at the draft blurb for Punch.
‘You had me at ‘dancing bear’, my clever illustrator friend said.
‘I was just really intrigued by the dancing bear’ said my pal.
‘More about the dancing bear!’ requested my editor.
All right then!
But as soon as I started to dig, the waters became muddied. Far from being a majestic spectacle, many dancing bears were being mistreated: a nose ring cruelly inserted through their nose, the most sensitive body part. This was attached to a heavy metal chain. In addition, the bear was often also prodded with a long stick to force it one way or the other. More research showed that the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was just founded decades before my story, and Queen Victoria herself was patron. Wow – there was an interesting story-line here, slap bang in the no-man’s land of changing attitudes. I was hooked.
I exercised that particular muscle of the novel quite a bit over this rewrite, set as it is twenty years or so before bear-leading is actually made illegal. I didn’t want to write a story about animal cruelty; that had been done before.
But many questions about our relationship with animals are now raised through the plot. Were all bear-tamers monsters who didn’t care about the suffering of their creatures? Was it possible to own a performing bear, and care deeply about its welfare at the same time? How did Victorians perceive such entertainment?
One thing is certain: This version of Punch is quite a different book that the one I submitted first time round. In essence, there is still a lot that is upbeat and good in it. But at the same time, if it’s gained a bit of depth, provokes a bit of thought I’m not upset. Let the dancing bear be in charge for a while!
In other news:
Work has got underway on the cover and I am so excited! I’m lucky enough to be consulted by my publishers, and it’s such a buzz!
I look forward to appearing on an XPO North panel on writing and publishing in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland on 8th June.
Punch will be launched at Waterstones Inverness on 26th October, so save the date!
It’s springtime. Birds sing, trees sway, rivers tinkle gently by, and every magazine cover in every newsagent bears its own version of this:
I make derisory remarks to anyone who will listen: my friends and family are well aware of my perpetual outrage with the magazine industry and its obsession with external beauty.
But when it comes to being on the Ride to publication again, it seems that I have no option but to concern myself with these weighty matters. Punch is due to be published in October, and I am near the end of the first round of consultation and edits.
By this I don’t mean reading over my own, rough manuscript – no. I mean the process when you have made your manuscript as good as you can make it, then show it to the publishers. They like it. They take it on and commit to it and spend time reading it properly, taking notes, engaging with the text.
And in the resulting discussion it turns out: apart from some passages which need a little work, my manuscript in general is a little flabby. It would be healthier and leaner and fitter for purpose if it shifted all the bits that aren’t strictly necessary. In my case, this amounts to around 4000-5000 words which I must try to shave off the length of this book.
It’s HARD, this; and just like any diet worth its salt, it hurts!
But wait, there is an additional complication – not only am I asked to reduce the length. There is a particular aspect of the story which, according to the editor, is interesting enough to elaborate on: ‘More about the dancing bear, please. Kids will love the dancing bear!’
And so it came to pass that, while ruthlessly slicing away my favourite passages, I now began gathering new material again: replacing the junkfood of cliches and lazy phrases with the carrot sticks of additional research, to build up the muscle my story needed.
I have good days and bad days. But like the holiday panic diet, there is a deadline. That plane will leave.
So, is it working?
Too early to tell for certain.
I guess it’ll be up to the readers to judge whether Punch is in great shape when he finally gets out there.