Chez l'abeille

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


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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? Continue reading


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“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


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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.


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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

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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.


Editors – Just what DO they want?

Well that’s a pretty big question! Anyone who aspires to publication spends quite some time second guessing the desires of those legendary gatekeepers, Agent and Editor. In our never-ending quest we tirelessly seek out the breadcrumb trails of informed rumour and whisper. Collectively, the great unpublished try to work out how to unlock the door to the magical kingdom of publishing. And for every scrap of knowledge there is an equal and opposite alternate reality.

Hurrah then for SCBWI and their always brilliant masterclasses. This is the fast track route to the knowledge and Rachel Wade, Children’s Book Editor with Hachette Children’s Group gave us a full insight into what editors do and want.

Rachel Wade

Rachel Wade helping us write our pitch!

Rachel started out by asking what we knew of  imprints – cue a bit of head scratching. Publishing houses will often have different imprints and each one will focus on a particular style or genre of book, so within Hachette Children’s Group you can find various imprints such as Hodder Children’s Books or Orchard. The mention of Orchard took me straight back to the many “Orchard book of…” titles that used to grace the book shelves of my classrooms and my perennial favourite “Five Little Ducks”!

With that cleared up we looked at the role an editor plays in the journey from “The Idea” to “The Book”. Once they fall in love with your idea, it is your editor who creates that essential buzz within the publishing house and gets the initial text to the point where everyone involved is happy. From here external agencies may be involved in the copy editing and proof reading process until finally off it goes to print. With the editor as midwife, a new book is finally born.

So how do you improve your chances of getting your masterwork pounced on by an editor?

Top tips from Rachel include:

  • Be serious. Successful authors see their work as a career. Use your networks to build your own profile as a writer.
  • Remember feedback is just an opinion – write your story and only edit if you think it is the right thing to do.
  • Talk to trusted readers – critical friends or other writers.
  • With picture books, just focus on your book. Editors might look to a series if the first book sells well.
  • Is your angle different?
  • Experiment with the form of your book – is it in the right genre, from the right perspective or point of view?
  • Make sure every word is working for you – does it hook your reader in from the start?

“Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”

Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

Prior to the workshop Rachel asked us to bring along a favourite opening paragraph. It’s an interesting exercise: go back to your favourites and ask yourself, “why did I want to keep reading?”

As any seasoned submitter will know, “the pitch,” that introduction to you and your writing, is so difficult to get right. There was much sighing and crossing out as we all tried to pull a pitch together simply to share with a colleague! Rachel helped us think in more depth about what we can do to make our submissions as professional as possible:

  • Understand the books they agent – are you a good match for them?
  • Know who your intended audience is.
  • Include a bit about yourself: successes, related first hand experiences and things of relevance (being a teacher is good!)
  • Include your pitch letter at the start of your manuscript – this can help a busy editor on their eReader recall who you are!
  • Keep your submission letter to one side of A4 and your book pitch to two or three sentences.

To finish up we had a go at editing ourselves, something I enjoyed greatly. I was straight home to wield the axe on those darling little adverbs I had so carefully selected. I’m making every word count. I’m closer to the door.

©Chez l’abeille  2016


Find your funny…

One of my favourite TV comedies is W1A. For those who haven’t come across this gem here’s the gist: Ian Fletcher and his team are tasked with clarifying and defining the BBC’s core purpose. It’s an important role and Ian Fletcher is an important man.

In preparation for the latest SCBWI workshop we were asked to think about our favourite comedy and this was mine. But what actually makes it funny?  As Mo O’Hara, author of the “My big fat zombie goldfish” series has worked with funny for quite a while, we were unpicking comedy gold with a real insider.

So what better place to start than with a banana skin, because… well, it’s a banana skin!

To get to the funny side of a banana skin for children, we had to think about who slipped on it (character), where they were (setting) and when it happened (timing). Now a favourite aunt slipping on a stray banana in the kitchen would probably be a domestic disaster (and not funny). The evil headteacher who has dodged several potential bananas, only to slip up in front of the entire school…well that might just get to green on the funny-o-meter. The key insight I gained from Mo when considering characters, was the idea of status and how this creates humour. Many really funny characters on TV have an assumed status, which brings me back to Ian Fletcher, the man in charge at W1A. Watch the clip carefully and you can see how the clever use of his assumed status is what makes this work; Ian Fletcher really has no control! Mo also got us thinking how to make our characters more multi-faceted by identifying their hopes and fears and thus avoid clichés.

“What’s the worst thing that can happen to your characters? Make it happen!”

A contained world, where the characters are stuck together with no escape is frequently the “where” element of successful comedy. Think of the cells in “Porridge” or the Craggy Island of “Father Ted” as good examples. They are also places where new characters can come and go and this is what provides much of the comic potential. However to make this work for children, any  world we set our characters in needs to be one that is grounded in their reality. Equally, the use of incongruity or taking our characters out of their “normal” can  bring in rich comedy opportunities. Mo referenced Eddie Izzard’s “Death Star Canteen” and if you’ve not seen it – go watch. You’ll get the point!

“Keep saying YES! Be extreme but within the boundaries of your world”

When we listen to really funny things it is often the timing that brings out the funny. Mo encouraged us to use dialogue in the same ways as an orator would. Repetition, emphasis, silence, pauses…all help to create the patterns of speech that will make us laugh. In W1A watch how hapless Will responds to the coffee order. For picture book writers it’s also important that the adults get something from the humour too – after all they’ll be the ones hopefully buying, reading and re-reading. This means re-reading our own work out loud to others is crucial and doing what Mo described as “punching up the script” to make it as funny as you can and upping the humour quotient.

So here’s a question:

Q: What would you call two bananas?

mo-ohara

A: A pair of slippers

See. Banana skins. They’re everywhere. Go find that funny!

©Chez l’abeille  2016


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From paper to published: How to stand out in the slush pile!

Getting your carefully crafted manuscript into the hands of a welcoming publisher is the dream of all picture book writers so this SCBWI workshop was just the ticket! Led by Ellie Brough, Assistant Editor at Maverick, we worked through the many pitfalls and pratfalls of submitting and how to get out of the slush pile.

Maverick is one of those wonderful publishers in the world of children’s books who actually accept unsolicited manuscripts, thus getting us swiftly over hurdle number one – where to send your story. However, as Ellie reminded us, there are still many hurdles; writers with agents already, the time of year or just simply the 3-4k submissions Maverick receive each year!

Still, undaunted by the long odds we considered what would make our submissions stand out and sometimes even jump the queue. Rather marvellously, Maverick read all submissions in order of arrival but sometimes a title will just scream “Read Me!” and get noticed sooner. Ellie gave the wonderful “Strictly No Crocs” by Heather Pindar as a good example. As Steve Bicknell, the founder of Maverick says, “Title is king”. Titles are my downfall so I’m going to have to work on this!

Ellie Brough from Maverick

So what do we need to do? Continue reading