I was brought up in the countryside near Bristol with two sisters and a brother. We spent many hours in our dad's workshop, learning to make model planes and boats. I always enjoyed drawing inventions, and making up comic strips. I also have great childhood memories of travelling to various islands off the west coast of Scotland for big family holidays.
In my early adulthood, before and after college, I had all sorts of temporary jobs - potato picker, toilet cleaner, care worker, film extra, door-to-door salesman, pierrot, barman, viola player - but for most of my adult life prior to getting my books published, I earned most of my living as a freelance cartoonist and illustrator. My comic strips and cartoons have appeared in a wide variety of UK publications including Viz, the List, the Independent and the Herald.
I've also done quite a bit of puppet theatre work, though not much of that in recent years. These days I spend most of my time writing and drawing my children's books.
I've lived in Edinburgh since 1992.
About writer's work
My picture books tend to contain a lot of comedy, action and detail. I try to combine strong, clear design in the pictures with plenty of details for the reader to spot. I like pictures that really draw you in, with lighting effects, details, perspective etc, even though pictures like that often take absolutely ages to draw!
The illustrations in my picture books tend to carry as much of the story as the text, which I aim to pair down to the minimum words necessary, trying to avoid the words and pictures merely repeating the same information as each other. I often mix comic-strip sequences and speech balloons in with more traditional text and picture techniques. The page layouts and the way in which the words and pictures work together are, for me, the most important and interesting aspect of a picture book.
I try to write the books I'd most like to read myself - adventure novels in which a good mix of fast-paced action, humour (and the odd bit of sadness), exciting locations, amazing inventions, strange science, eccentric characters, murderous villains and big ethical questions are all woven together, ideally into a well-shaped, page-turning story. I'm very much writing with both boys and girls in mind, with equally strong male and female characters.
My novels typically seem to feature ordinary children being plunged into dangerous situations and doing their best to do the right thing with very little. Another common feature in my books is the occurence of elderly characters, with secrets and back-stories stretching back into the mid 20th century or beyond. I like writing completely contemporary stories, but with a rich sense of recent history behind them.
The novels I've written so far contain no supernatural or magical elements. Some of the science gets pretty far-fetched, but I work hard to root it in reality and to make even the most unlikely invention seem entirely believable to the reader as they're reading it!
I like to illustrate the novels with maps and diagrams, as well as pictures.
Current events and projects
General author visit sessions:
My author visit events for schools or libraries are most often either for lower-to-mid primary, focussing on my picture books, or mid-to-upper primary (and occasionally lower secondary), focussing mostly on my adventure novels. But sometimes I'll do events which span a bit of both types of book, for mid-primary, or for a whole primary school all together, or for all-age family audiences at book festivals, etc.
All my events, for any age group, are fun, interactive sessions, which are as much about the scribbly processes behind writing and illustrating books as about the finished product, with opportunities for everyone to participate in collaboratively drawing story ideas, monsters, inventions, etc. on a flipchart.
I give a lot of practical tips for writing and illustrating, encouraging the children to always write about or draw what they'd find personally exciting to read, and to never worry about having to get a story or picture right first time. I show the children my ideas notebooks, rough drafts of artwork, research material and the model vehicles and planes that I build to help me with illustrations. And in the last part of a session, I'm always happy to answer questions on any aspect of my work.
Any numbers, from single classes to a few hundred pupils, are fine for my general sessions.
Comic strip workshops:
I also occasionally do workshops that are particularly focussed on the creation of comic strips, with lots of practical and technical tips and interactive demonstration elements, and with pupils starting to produce their own individual pieces of work by the end of the session. These workshop formats tend to work better with smaller numbers (single classes or fewer).
As well as one-off events, I also quite often do longer projects, where over several sessions, I'll help pupils to produce their own picture books and/or comic books. My approach of encouraging pupils to start roughing out their ideas with illustration sketches before worrying about the words, and of encouraging pupils to go with any subject matter that excites them personally, seems to work well for pupils who don't consider themselves keen writers or readers, as well as for those who do.
Other formats and locations:
Although most of my sessions and projects have been located in schools and libraries, I've also enjoyed doing some in less usual places, such as museums, where I've encouraged pupils to sketch objects and use them as visual and imaginative starting points for stories.
I'm very flexible, and like to keep my sessions fresh by making sure each session is a bit different from previous ones, so I'm generally up for considering new angles for sessions or projects.
Although most of my author session work is for children within the main readership ages of my books, I occasionally also do events for teens/students/adults, either in the format of a highly illustrated talk on the subject of writing and illustrating books for a living, or in workshop formats. Teen and adult events I've done in recent years include a session with a secondary school writers' group, an illustrated talk for art college students, and a comic strip workshop for adults at the education wing of a prison.
A short story of mine, The Spirit of Uncle Vijay, can be found in the Tsunami charity anthology, Higher Ground (published by Chrysalis Children's Books, 2005; IBSN 1-84458-581-6).
I'll also be contributing something to The One City Children's Anthology, to be published by Polygon in autumn 2008.