Chez l'abeille

Culture. Travel. Writing. My world in words and pictures


Leave a comment

What a character!

“Actions, looks, words and steps form the alphabet by which you may spell character.”     Johann Kasper Lavater

Much of my day job is spent tuning into young children and trying to understand their motivations and desires. Following a curious infant, hell bent on discovering where a forbidden object has gone certainly helps you see their investigative ingenuity in full force. A few weeks ago I heard a child development expert describe a typical two year old. “Their job,” she said, “is to find out how everything in the world works.”

This observation came back to me in a different guise as I listened to Natascha Biebow at a recent SCBWI masterclass on developing characters. “Observe the world around you,” she said, “and think about what motivates children to do what they are doing”. The world of children is mostly determined by what is happening to them “in the moment” and if we watch we can often find great starting points for writing a really satisfying story.

Just WHO is your character?

In any story a credible character is the most important element. They are what makes a story intriguing enough for readers to keep turning those pages. If the author knows exactly what it is that drives their character then they are on the right track to making their story come alive. Carefully considering a character’s backstory and the world they live in can really help us understand what drives them, what they want, need, love or fear. Knowing this we can start to ask ourselves, “what if?” What if they want to make a surprise birthday cake? What if they need to make friends but don’t know how? What is it, in that moment, that makes them act in a way that is true to them?

One of the magical things about stories is that your characters can live in any world you choose. Yet this doesn’t mean that just anything can happen to them. As Natascha describes it, “we need to write from a place of knowing.” Clarity about the setting they live in will means we can avoid gaps and inconsistencies in the internal logic of the story. We can make decisions about our characters’ behaviour that our readers will believe, leaving no horrid plot gaps. Natascha shared several picture books where the internal logic is so well thought through that the reader simply does not question banana eating crocodiles or  ducks trying to make friends with all the animals in the zoo!

What’s the worst that can happen?

Once your character is thoroughly understood, the next key ingredient is their dilemma; the thing that creates a problem for them. As Mo O’Hara recently commented, “What’s the worst thing that can happen to your characters? Make it happen!”  Natascha took this one step further. Any plot problem is intrinsically linked to the characters motivation. We need to ask ourselves, is our character also going on an emotional journey to solve their problem? A character’s traits can also be used to create conflict, which in turn creates an emotional situation for them to deal with. We need to feel that at the end of any story a character has changed or grown as a result of the journey they have been on.

Masterclass March 2017

Discussing characters and what makes them tick

As part of the workshop we were asked to bring along a favourite character in a book and I had brought along an old classic, Burglar Bill. I’ve probably read this story aloud several hundred times, but as I talked through Bill’s tale of villainy and redemption it became immediately apparent that this was exactly what we had been discussing! Burglar Bill is motivated to steal things and it is this characteristic that compels him to steal a baby by accident. Bill really does go on an emotional journey, learning to be responsible and look after people rather than stealing. As a reader we do care about him and the consequences of his actions are important to us. Bingo! Bill is a character that matters to the reader and by the end of his story we are more than ready to go ahhhh! Deeply satisfying on all counts. No wonder Bill is a classic character!

When characters go wrong!

When you don’t take time to get to know your character well enough this can quickly become evident in your writing in several ways:

  • You end up telling not showing!
  • You lose your characters point of view
  • Your character doesn’t come across as authentic
  • The plot is either too much of a list of events or is not about the character’s motivational problem

I’d already been scratching around with a new idea and the time we had to discuss and apply strategies we had discussed to our own projects was very productive. I discovered that by thinking more about my main character’s motivation, I could actually chuck out huge bits of my imagined story which suddenly became totally unecessary! We were also able to get some written notes on a presubmitted story and my own feedback was a casebook study in the things that can go wrong list. No matter! After this brilliant session I am more than motivated.

©Chez l’abeille  2017


1 Comment

The streets of London: Ghost Signs #3. Bermondsey and Borough

This post is a bit of a mash-up really. It combines two of my favourite things here at Chez L’abeille: walking around London and spotting ghost signs.

What, I hear you ask, actually IS a ghost sign? Well let me tell you. According to Mr Ghost Signs himself, Sam Roberts, it is a “painted sign, fading on walls.” Should you wish to read Sam’s academic research and argument for this definition look here. I’m happy to accept the word of someone who has done an immense amount of research and what’s more is very happy to walk you round and show you. I’ve followed Sam and his work on ghost signs for quite a while, more recently on twitter and through contributions to an earlier crowd sourced flickr album, where ghost sign hunters around the planet shared their passion. He also leads walks in London so a few weeks ago I signed up to follow him in real life and headed over to Bermondsey Street to meet up outside No 55.

Chadwick Road ghost signI’ve actually got a couple of ghost signs near me. The best one is the marvellous Cutts and Co. Printing Office sign on the corner of Chadwick Road, but there’s also a completely washed out expanse of white paint high up on another wall in Bellenden Road. I’d not given this one much attention but after spending a few hours walking around Borough and Bermondsey with Sam I’d learned a thing or two. This seemingly pointless expanse of whitewash has scalloped corners. This means it was once a sign! There’s nothing left but white paint so I can go no further with it but wherever you look around London those fading painted signs are lurking, sometimes where you least expect them.

It was a pretty grim day with a cold easterly wind so walking was quite a good idea and stopping for a long time was freezing which meant our small band of hunters went a quite a pace. Having spent years working in and around the Borough I thought I knew most of the signs, but it turned out there were some surprises in store. I’m not sure how I ever missed the Bermondsey Wire Works but there it was, as big as a Victorian warehouse facade!

Continue reading


Leave a comment

A brand new look…

“It is easily overlooked that what is now called vintage was once brand new.”

                                                                                 Tony Visconti
The cover of January’s “Which” magazine was asking a rather big question recently: “Which brands stand the test of time?”
I guess we only have to open the kitchen cupboards to answer this. A quick survey of my kitchen reveals Birds custard, Tabasco Sauce and Bournville cocoa powder, all longstanding familiar brands from childhood to today. However the best place for a stroll through your own sensational history is definitely the Museum of Brands.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Museum of Brands –  Ladbroke Grove

There’s something rather fabulous about stepping back into your own past. To walk through the “Time Tunnel”, where the museum’s extensive collection is displayed, is also a walk down the collective memory lane.
My main reason for going to the museum was to see the collection of jigsaw puzzles, but in fact I was totally absorbed by the retro packaging and designs. As I moved into the sixties and onwards, sensations were continuously triggered. Memories of sweet tastes or vile ones, good times or bad; the objects created a shared cultural experience that got visitors talking and swopping personal stories. I had a hilarious shared moment with some Australian visitors over the Sixties food packets and memorabilia on display.
The museum has two main parts – the Time Tunnel which walks you through design and branding by decades, from the 1800s to the present day and an exhibition of designs which traces the evolution of very well-known packaging.

Continue reading


2 Comments

“To ignite their interest”: 10 tips for visiting authors in the early years.

What could be better than this?

“Children must be given access to a wide range of reading materials (books, poems, and other written materials) to ignite their interest.”

The statutory framework for the early years foundation stage

Not much! For young children their interest in the world around them often starts with the books we share and read with them. To meet someone who actually writes or illustrates books can be a truly inspirational experience. However, for many adults, authors included, being asked to engage a group of three, four or five year olds for any length of time can be the most daunting experience they could think of.

Having worked with under fives for many years, as a teacher and early years consultant, I have experienced those tumbleweed moments when small children simply vote with their feet! Here then are my top tips for planning and delivering a successful author visit to any early years classroom.

Part one: Telling stories.

#1. Location, location, location. Nursery age children in particular are most comfortable in a space they are used to being in. Take them out of their familiar surroundings and other exciting new things will soon eclipse your attempts to command attention! Try to meet the children in their own classrooms to minimise other attention grabbing goings-on.

#2. Attention spans. There are many rules of thumb for determining children’s attention spans. Most typically it is the child’s age plus 1, or the child’s age x 4. Whichever way you consider it, young children do not have long attention spans so if you are reading your story to them don’t expect to be doing it for more than around 15 minutes for a nursery group or 20 minutes for a reception group. After that they will probably start to fidget.They are also remarkably capable of simply  wandering off, no matter how exciting you think you are being!

#3. Bring your character to life. Young children are immensely skilled at willingly suspending their disbelief and they love a puppet or character to engage with. Where they can be shy of unknown adults, a puppet gives them someone non-threatening to talk and listen to. Puppets can also gain their initial interest and help them understand the themes or emotions within a story. If you can illustrate, then drawing your characters will also be a great starting point. Children see being good at drawing as a highly prized skill.

#4. Keep it interactive. Songs, rhymes, chants, actions, sound effects, using other languages…all these engage young children and keep them involved in the story. There are many song tunes which children will know from an early age to which you can put your own words – try teaching new lyrics to twinkle, twinkle little star and see how easy it is!

#5. Question time! Ask any early years child a question and the responses can range from a detailed description of their new shoes to the more varied random thoughts that enter their heads; “How old are you?” and “Do you have a mum?” would be fairly standard fare. Instead, try asking them open-ended questions about their views on your characters’ behaviour or experiences. Older children may have prepared questions to ask you –  try throwing questions back to them to so it is a more interactive experience.

You’ve made it alive this far! Continue reading


Leave a comment

Love of the common language

It is often commented that America and Britain are two countries separated by a common language. The most recent Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) London Industry Insider event proved that we may have more in common than we think, especially when it comes to children’s publishing. The guests for the evening were Clelia Gore, Head of Children’s and Young Adult books with Martin Literary Management, based in Seattle and Amber Caravéo from Skylark Literary. Clelia was in town for a visit and had very generously enquired if there was any SCBWI activity she could join in with. Her proactive engagement with SCBWI was a recurring theme in the discussions – more of that later!

Having settled down with a very welcome post-work aperitif, I was treated to an in-depth Q and A session. We began with an overview of what Clelia and Amber would be looking for. This is always good to know and both had very specific likes and dislikes. Amber is definitely “looking for the gem” in Children’s or YA to add to the phenomenal talent on her current list, but, she added “if it was an amazing picture book I wouldn’t rule it out.” Clelia helpfully includes a list of all the things she wants on her website. Thus began the tale of the kraken. Having tweeted her desire for a kraken story, an editor tweeted their agreement. Clelia then approached the SCBWI group in Washington to see if anyone had one, resulting in a successful submission! So listen up picture book writers; Clelia says, “Okapis are my favourite animal. I’d love to do a quirky, funny book about an okapi!”

When asked about how an author should submit if they write for a wide range of ages both agents were in complete agreement; always submit your very best work. As Amber commented, if she connects with one piece it’s odds on that she will like your other work too. Equally she talked about a submission where the story didn’t hook her, but the quality of the author’s voice shone through. This resulted in a request for any other work and a second manuscript became the published book. Voice and writing talent will show but plot can always be worked on.

Read the submissions guidelines was the evergreen guidance but both Amber and Clelia work hard to ensure successful submissions are responded to in a timely way – something I’d appreciate as I wait for a response to several submissions going back a few months now. What was surprising was the lead in time in America, where books which will hit the shelves in 2019 and even 2020 are being sold to publishers! Typically in the UK publication can be around a year, but wherever you publish, I’ll assume it’s going to be a slow process.

The difference between American and UK Young Adult writing was another fascinating question. It was felt that current innovation in YA literature is coming from America and maybe UK YA writers are not quite capturing the zeitgeist. however there was complete agreement that there should be, “No more dead or alcoholic parents!” There was also some variation in the age ranges and word counts that might be expected. I was very excited to hear both Amber and Clelia suggest 1000 words for a picture book, being a champion for the longer story but in my later discussions with Clelia, she felt that most books would be much lower than that. Back to the editing for me.

The audience also wondered why a British writer might want an American agent. Clelia felt that for YA, Middle Grade and Picture Book writers (yay!) the market is very strong. She has clients across the globe but even in America much of the work is done remotely anyway. Transatlantic promotion might be a bit tricky, unless you or your publisher can afford long road trips so being a social media savant would be very handy.

The evening ended with mingling and meeting new and known SCBWI members and for some members a little light pitching. Now I hate pitching, so for anyone who shares that feeling, here’s a great piece of advice from Amber. “In the end they want to see the writing. Nothing in your pitch will change the impact of your actual submission. Nothing you say will spoil your chances.”I am going to keep that as my preparing to pitch mantra.

So there we have it – maybe we are separated by our common language, but in the world of writers maybe we are also joined by our common love of language.


Leave a comment

The Balkan Trilogy Part 3: Macedonia

As I navigated Macedonia Square in the Macedonian capital, I couldn’t help but be reminded of old hollywood movies – you know, the ones where someone wanders around a back lot amongst the left over scenery from Ben Hur or Cleopatra. As a result of “Skopje 2014”, a project implemented by the Government, Skopje’s main square and surrounding area is crammed with warriors and marble clad museums. As day fell to night, the main pedestrian zone became a fabulous wonderland of faux history. I loved it!

In the preceding weeks to my visit there had been demonstrations and protests, so many of the main buildings had been paint bombed. Somehow this added to the carnival feel of this rather surreal city.

Outside of Skopje, the other main Macedonian attraction is Lake Orhid, one of Europe’s deepest and oldest lakes. Depending on who you talk to, it is alternately a Macedonian lake with a bit taken away by Alabania or an Albanian Lake which Macedonia has usurped. Either way it is a vast fresh-water ecosystem, littered with monasteries and reed beds.

Heading into the countryside around the lake, something rather eerie lurked in the kitchen gardens and small holdings. Like many cultures the evil eye is feared here and the use of an effigy protects both home and family. These two were the best I saw!

There is so much more to this ancient country than oversized statutes and lakeside tourist attractions but for the casual tourist it felt hard to scratch the surface. The Macedonian leg of the trip was also short and sweet – time was speeding up in the way it does when a holiday is nearly over. Too soon, Tirana was calling. With a last, lingering look across the lake, we crossed the border and said goodbye to this fascinating country.

 

 


4 Comments

8 Essentials For A Successful Blog (or 8 Things I Wish I’d Known Before I Started).

As Chez l’abeille headed towards its third anniversary I found myself musing on where it might go. You know – beyond a readership that is primarily family, friends and a few like-minded unknown followers to something that is recognised by name alone. Around the same time I was heading home one day, idly reading a discarded copy of The Guardian, when the words “How to create a successful blog” caught my eye. It was an advert for a masterclass with Niamh Shields of eat like a girl and Julie Falconer of a lady in london. Successful! Blog! Masterclass! I signed up immediately.

Niamh and Julie were fascinating as they talked about their journey from starting a blog to making it a platform for their full-time occupations. Although both had a different tale to tell, each shared common themes that are key in making a blog stand out from the rest.

So here are the 8 top tips I gleaned (in no particular order) for creating a successful blog. Apparently this is a listicle and a v. good thing. More on that later.

1. WHAT’S YOUR HOOK?

Aha! I know all about hooks, so this is a good place for me to start. Your hook is the thing that defines your blog and sums it up in a few well-chosen words. Think elevator pitch. Having tried to define the hook for each and every one of my, as yet, unpublished picture books I can tell you this is NOT EASY!! I didn’t really think about this when I started blogging – it was more of a vague “I’ll write about the things I do”. Now Chez l’abeille is about culture, travel and writing. It says so in my title. Although there’s a bit of London too…and maybe art…

Chez l’abeille success rating: 7/10

2. NAMING YOUR BLOG.

All blogs have a name. However, it’s important to think of a name that will work in the long-term and will grow with you. “My blog about things I did on Monday 12th December” is clearly not going to deliver on that. It’s also a good idea to check you haven’t thought up the best ever name that is actually already in use elsewhere; whilst it might bring you loads of unforeseen traffic, someone else is going to be very cross indeed.

I searched for Chez l’abeille when I got home. Phew! It’s all mine. But does it fit my  target audience? Hmmm. Firstly, it’s in French. Clearly I’m not French, bien sûr. Secondly, hands up all the beekeepers out there? On the other hand it does reflect a bee (me!) returning home with tales for the hive. It’s staying.

Chez l’abeille success rating: 6/10

3. YOUR DOMAIN.

When I started my blog I hadn’t got a clue and my domain has been an irritation ever since. Let’s be clear – all the best blogs have their own domain. There are all sorts of domains now; .com, .co.uk, .london, .blog…I on the other hand have a crazy mashup of my email address and WordPress. This will have to change.

Chez l’abeille success rating: 2/10

4. BRAND CONSISTENCY.

Social media is very useful as you build your traffic and can be used to create interest in your blog. Curiously, as I was heading towards the masterclass I was hit by a moment of clarity; why were my blog, Twitter and Instagram all named differently? Eagle eyed followers might have spotted the sudden alignment across platforms. Your brand is the thing that makes readers remember you and also helps take you to the top of your “category”. Who do you think of when you think of a food blogger or a travel blogger? And if you don’t say Chez l’abeille when you think of your top 10 culture, travel and writing blogs I shall be very upset.

Chez l’abeille success rating: 7/10  

5. BLOG MUST HAVES.

Firstly a theme. Blog platforms will let you have these off the peg with various levels of personalisation available. You can have your own imagery developed but whatever you do, make sure your blog reflects you. Very big banner headers are a bit passé apparently.

Secondly, some key pages help. An “About” page is essential, as your readers are curious and will want to know a bit about you. A contact page is also a useful thing for when those offers of affiliation start flooding in.

Thirdly, use images. A blog is a visual thing and images help – make them as high quality and as big as you can! It is very important to check out copyright and permissions if you intend to use an image that is not yours. I failed to take any pictures at the masterclass, so here’s a rather jolly phone pic of one of the Guardian’s colour coordinated christmas trees as a seasonal bonus.

Chez l’abeille success rating: 8/10

20161211_095803-2

Christmas at The Guardian

6. CONTENT

Edit, edit and edit again. Spell check and then do a bit more editing.

Consider your “evergreen” posts; those that stand up to the test of time and won’t fade into obsolescence like a listicle, where you share your top tips for example! It can also be useful to return to and update an old post as this is where all things Google creep in. Traffic to evergreen posts helps build your search rating and what do ratings mean? That’s right, visibilty! However, whatever you write, you are aiming to inspire your readers. Remember every reader is important and they must trust in you and your authenticity which means being transparent when you are working with a brand and not compromising your content. Quality is everything. Which probably means not having random images of Christmas trees. We shall see.

Chez l’abeille success rating: 6/10 (until this listicle hits evergreen status and I’ll bump it up to 8)

7. TIME.

I try to publish something twice a month; that’s not enough according to the pros. Again the googly tentacles that push you higher in the ratings need to see you are alive and publishing. I find making time to write so hard but it’s true, the more you do, the better you get and the more will happen. There’s also quite a bit of time involved in getting out there and meeting other bloggers, reading other blogs, keeping up with social media and just making yourself visible. One way to manage this is to keep anything from a little list to a full editorial calendar. Readers, I promise I will do better.

Chez l’abeille success rating: 4/10  

8. BE BUSINESS MINDED.

Because your work is worth it. When those offers of affiliation, co-working and general excitement start to flood through your “contact me” page you will need to organise yourself to manage their demands. Work out your costs and rates. Don’t do something you are not happy being associated with – does the offer fit with your blog ethos? So far I’ve had the grand total of one query which bagged me a bottle of champagne, but who knows? Better to be ready!

Chez l’abeille success rating: 1/10  and that’s pushing it

So there you have it. 8 top tips from 2 of the top bloggers around! Start writing those evergreens.