Thursday 18 August 2016

What I Learnt From Workshops With David Almond and Chris Riddell

Last month I attended two workshops by two people who are amazing at what they do; David Almond and Chris Riddell and I want to share with you what I learned from them about the craft of writing and drawing.  

David Almond is one of the most unique children’s book authors around, whose work is difficult to categorise, it is very personal and whimsical, magical realism is probably the closest genre he could be labelled as.  Skellig is probably his most famous book. He is local to the North East, so he writes about some familiar-to-me places and I had the pleasure of meeting him a few times when I worked as a Fundraising Assistant for Seven Stories back in the early 2000s, he was and still is a Patron for them and he captures their early days so well in this Guardian article for their tenth birthday. 

Chris Riddell is an Illustrator, Author, political Cartoonist and he is the current Children’s Laureate in the UK. He has illustrated novels by Neil Gaiman and Paul Stewart as well as his own novels and picture books.  He is a compulsive, prolific and accomplished drawer which he demonstrates on Instagram and Tumblr. As part of his laureate work he champions drawing as an activity for everyone!

At the Wild Writing workshop at The Live Theatre on Newcastle’s Quayside, David Almond shared his thoughts on writing, his philosophy and his techniques and got the group to do some of their own writing.  From that description you may think ‘oh so it was just another writing workshop then?’ but no this is David Almond we’re talking about, his highly individual books come out of his highly individual approach. As I commented to a friend afterwards; he rewrites the books on how to write; he does not plot and plan, he revises as he goes along and when writing longhand, he doesn’t even write in a neat line!

David Almond with one of his A3 notebooks

He started the session appropriately with childhood and and talked about how wonderful learning to write at primary school is; how we start by listening to the teacher sound a letter out, her showing us how write it, then copying her marks and sounding the sound back to her.  He said that for his writing he draws on his own childhood in Felling, and suggests we often deny the extraordinariness of our own lives.  He talked about imagination, that it is us, it is the history of storytelling.  He illustrated it in a great way, he asked us to hold our heads in our hands then bring them in front of us to see how small in size our heads are, he then asked us to compare that size with size of our imagination.  He talked about how writing is about the exploration of possibility and that you often don’t know what you want to write until you discover it by the act of writing itself.  He wrote Skellig without planning!  

David Almond’s process is to initially write longhand in A3 notebooks from Newcastle’s Details. He accepts imperfection, embraces it even, his longhand notebooks are fantastic to behold, he writes anywhere on the page, not always on horizontal lines, obliterating the white space. Then when he takes to the computer he creates a title page with the title in a big, bold font as that gives the work a sense of importance.  Then he gets typing, he writes short chapters and uses huge line spacing to trick himself that he has written loads and when he prints the manuscript out for more revision he bull dog clips the pages together so it looks like an object, like a real manuscript.

I have seen Chris Riddell before at the Hartlepool Festival of Illustration and though I’d heard some of his stories then I still very much enjoyed this Ink and Drink session at Seven Stories.  There was a good atmosphere in the crowd where we sat at tables drawing together while Chris talked and drew with an overhead camera projecting his drawings behind him.

I got to take this Chris Riddell drawing home!

He is very funny and had the room in stitches with laughter.  He started with the beginnings of his career,  how he was taught by Raymond Briggs (The Snowman, Fungus The Bogeyman, etc)  at Brighton and how Briggs filled him (and every other student as it turns out) with hope with his stock refrain of ‘Marvellous’.  Chris found talking about Raymond Briggs quite poignant as he had just decorated a Snow Dog for Seven Stories. He then gave us a great exercise to generate a drawing with a story, the three Ws exercise; drawing something then write the Who? Where? What? of it. When we all had finished, he shared our drawings on the screen.  There were differing levels of art on display and I expected that he was about to do the standard drawing critique on proportion, perspective, anatomy etc but instead he read our three Ws out and made us laugh at our own stories without mocking the quality or skills on show.  In fact it was a demonstration of how picture books work; there was a picture juxtaposed with words read out loud by a reader culminating in generating a response. Great stuff!

Chris Riddell talking about my drawing projected on the screen behind him

So as a writer I learnt that it is okay to have a non-conventional approach to writing and to value and use my imagination.  As an illustrator I learnt a new little exercise to generate stories to go with my sketches that can elevate them from just a sketch.  As a teacher (though I am not currently teaching) I learnt about how wonderful it is to be in a workshop with someone who is at the top of their game, oozing their craft and being fluently articulate about it. From Chris Riddell, in particular I learnt a new approach to talking about other people's drawings. To witness the speed and quality of his own drawings on the screen was so inspiring, in fact it prompted me to run a caricature stall for the first time (which I look forward to sharing my experience of in a future blogspost).  Have you attended any inspiring workshops by these two or other people? Please leave a comment, I'd love to hear.


  1. I have workshop envy! I really wanted to see Chris Riddell again. Lucy you getting a sketch :)

  2. Yeah he's great isn't he! I'll be envious of you if you're at the SCBWI Conference again this year, I can't go.

  3. What a great post! I've been to two workshops with David Almond - and also interviewed him for SCBWI's Words & Pictures - but much of this is new to me, particularly the bit about making the manuscript an object with weight & significance. One thing he said before that I found especially useful: embrace the freedom of knowing your limitations, i.e. identify the parameters within which your stories will develop and flourish. Thank you for sharing these latest comments.

    1. Thanks Rowena, knowing your limitations is great advice too, I think that's what I like about writing picture books; aim for 500 words or less, 32 pages, etc it really helps focus.

  4. Lovely article, Claire.
    I have had the great privilege of working with David Almond twice (and dancing with his daughter at a ceilidh!). What I found both enchanting and freeing was his ability to release the child inside the writer.

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting Philippa. You've worked with him, wow! And you're spot on about the child inside.