Chez l'abeille

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


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In retreat again.

I first went on a writing retreat in 2015. At that time I found it all rather overwhelming and I remember how I was utterly in awe of the other writers and illustrators I was meeting. My overwhelming memory was of being a bit lost and brimful of doubt. I was also feeling like a real imposter. It was surprising then to hear all these feelings and more  shared by everyone at this year’s SCBWI Picture Book Retreat.

During his session on writing Picture Books, Author/Illustrator David Lucas asked us to write down a personal fear; something we felt could be an emotional problem for a character. One by one we anonymously bared our souls as each slip of paper was pulled from the bag: fear of failure, feeling the grass is always greener, wanting to please others… it turns out all picture book writers and illustrators are a fairly neurotic bunch!

“A really good book is a mystical whole.”

David had a pretty good reason for putting us all in therapy for an hour or two. He wanted us to consider those emotions that are universally understood. Through mining the seams of our own psyches we were able to explore the interplay between the particular and the universal. Shared human emotions such as feeling lost, lonely or stuck  are coloured in differently by each of us and we can use these personal experiences to create that universally appealing story. Sometimes the thing that is missing from your umpteenth draft is not the strength of your idea (The Head) or your skill in constructing the story (The Hand) but the emotion or Heart. Without this emotional connection the reader simply won’t care about your character. As David said so passionately, look to your real world and your characters can come alive.

“The real world is more amazing than we know”

We were lucky to also have a session led by Adam Stower, author/illustrator of many successful picture books but most recently the rather marvellous “King Coo”. If you’ve not yet seen this book you really are missing out! (Especially if, like me, you are a secret Molesworth fan.)

Adam took us through his own creative process and shared his fabulous sketchbook archive where we got to see his later characters emerging from earlier observations and ideas.Adam Stower We also explored in some detail the relationship between words and pictures by analysing his book “Silly Doggy”; it is only from the illustrations that the reader knows that Lily’s doggy is in fact, a bear! This empowers the reader but also means the narrator doesn’t have to lie to their audience. His use of a poster to give key narrative information was a lightbulb moment for me in solving a problem with one of my texts so thanks, Adam!

Alongside Adam we also had the benefit of Zoe Tucker’s long experience as an art director. Zoe treated us to examples of fabulously illustrated submissions and correspondence from several well-known picture book illustrators. Social media is fast becoming a key way for art directors to spot new talent. Her top tip was to be an avid user of tools like Instagram, as a way for illustrators to create an instant portfolio but also for writers as a jumping off point for possible stories.

There were many interesting discussions during the weekend, but often we returned to the knotty issue of word counts. Amongst my critique group we have recently been discussing requests from editors to cut out at least 150 words from an already skeletal text and the perceived target word count seems to tumble with every conversation. Peter Marley, Commissioning Editor of children’s picture books at Oxford University Press gave us an encouraging range of  500 – 700 words in his discussion about structure – yet he still urged removal of unnecessary text. Maybe what’s important is not the word count but making every word count!

“Picture Books are like a building – words can be scaffolding which are gradually removed”

Peter outlined his template for seeing quite quickly if a story is going to essentially “work”. He  broke down the traditional 12 spread layout even further to illustrate how the first three spreads will set up the problem and typically send our hero off on a quest to solve it. The mid-section will give the hero space to solve the problem with the twist or “kink in the road” somewhere around spreads ten or eleven, before their safe return home. I was particularly interested in this “circular structure” which in traditional fairy tales is often described as the “There and back again” model; think of Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Snow Queen” where Gerda goes on her mission to rescue Kai and bring him home. Both are changed by this journey and the reader’s satisfaction lies in what David Lucas described as the “multiple possibilities” they have as a result of their experiences.

Dummy book

During the weekend every speaker emphasised the importance of making dummy books, so for book making newbies here’s my personal favourite; The “snip and fold quick book” method which I often use to layout my own stories. When making a dummy Peter also suggested including the cover and imprint pages – in fact mock-up the whole book so you can read it through in exactly the way your future readers will experience it.

This time, for me, the weekend passed by far too quickly in a heady mix of writing, drawing and good company. Time out to reflect and review is always time well spent and this retreat certainly provided for my head, my hands and my heart.

 

©Chez l’abeille  2017

 

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Sometimes you win…

I don’t really consider myself as someone who wins things. True there was the under 11s photographic competition highly recommended back in 1971, a Puffin Book Club prize for something completely forgotten and some near misses with school raffles, but being the actual winner? Nah. Not something that happens that often.

By January 2017 I’d also been languishing in what felt like complete avoidance from all the agents and publishers I’d submitted to. Rejection is one thing but nothing? I’d not heard a peep from any of them and was seriously doubting myself and my capabilities as a writer. So when a flurry of excitement about a picture book challenge appeared online I was at first rather reluctant to join in.

The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators regularly hosts a Slush-Pile Challenge. Unpublished and un-agented writers (i.e. ME!) can submit a piece of work which might get selected to be read by a real life proper agent who knows what’s what. The brief set by Jodie Hodges of United Agents was fairly straightforward. She was after a picture book text that featured a human child at its heart (so, no animal protagonists). A story that young children and their parents could read together that would make them laugh or cuddle, or both. Surely I would be able to find something suitable?

Having written nothing new for several months I looked back into my archive. Picture book challenges don’t come along every month so I felt I had to submit, but which one? The tortoise one? Not human enough. The space one? Not ready enough.  I did have one though which seemed to fit the bill.

Where's that tiger“Where’s That Tiger?” started life in 2015 as an exercise at the Arvon picture Book retreat. During a workshop on rhyming structures I’d scribbled some frankly painful couplets, but the kernel of an idea was there. Almost a year later I was at a SCBWI masterclass with Ellie Brough, which brought it back to mind so I’d worked on it again. I don’t usually write in rhyme but it was finished and in reasonable shape. One click later it had gone.

May 2nd 2017: Hope dashed. Part of the challenge is also to be one of the randomly selected manuscripts. My story wasn’t one of the 25 that went to Jodie. I tried hard to be philosophical about this and console myself with feeling positive I’d entered in the first place.

May 11th 2017: Hope rises again. More stories are going forward! Mine is one of them…I was just a teensy bit excited.

June 3rd 2017: “I’m delighted to inform you that you’ve won”.  And breathe. I sat in bed and read Jodie’s comments over and over again.

“This entry had a fabulous, commercial, appealing central concept, a really strong rhyming voice, a great page turn moment from spreads 6 to 7 and the clever added bonus of the narrative slowly taking the protagonist and reader to bed. I always like a text to end with a twist, a cuddle or in bed!’”

An actual literary agent had said that? About my story? I was elated.

There followed a really hard 24 hours of radio silence in which I had to ignore my critique group who were busy chatting about their “sorry you didn’t win” emails and wondering who had, then a flurry of congratulations and finally the prize itself: a meeting with Jodie to discuss my work. In advance she had asked if I wanted to share a couple of additional texts so I had sent her the tortoise one and the space one as a follow up. She was able to meet with me quite quickly so I arranged time off work and underlined it in my diary in triplicate. With stars.

On the day  of the meeting I was, as ever, ridiculously early which turned out to be a good thing as finding United Agents was a bit tricky. I wandered up and down the street for a while looking rather out of place amongst the Soho hipsters but eventually I located the secret doorbell and was settled into Jodie’s book lined office with a nice cup of tea, feeling like a real fraud! Jodie was a great host however and we spent nearly two hours discussing writing and the whims of the publishing world. One of the things I struggle with is finding a killer title and she helpfully talked through the titles of her successful books and how they take the reader straight to the heart of the story itself. The rise of illustrated non-fiction was also something we explored in relation to some of my ideas. She was very encouraging about my own stories and offered great insights on how they can be developed to increase their commercial appeal. I came away from the meeting with a head full of ideas and a real sense of positivity and encouragement to keep writing.

So I’ve wiped the slate clean and decided to move on from all those unanswered submissions. You’ve got to stay in it to win it.

©Chez l’abeille  2017


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The Streets of London: Pullens Yards

It started with a tweet by a publisher I follow. A mention of Pullens Yards, an open studios and a postcode intrigued me; I like to think I know many of the studios around my area but this was new to me. I had a few hours to spare before an afternoon of volunteering at a local theatre and as I had to pass through SE17 on the way I thought, “why not?”

I already knew that behind the Walworth Road in SE London there are many Victorian streets, full of original housing stock, but discovering some beautiful Victorian artisan workshops was a complete surprise.

Pullens Centre Sign

Pullens Centre Sign

The yards sit within the Pullens Estate. This was built between 1870 and 1901 by local builders, James Pullen and Son. Included in the estate design were four yards, of which three remain, Iliffe Yard, Clements Yard and Peacock Yard. The Yards were purpose-built workspaces, designed originally as a work/live spaces, something that is still seen today in several locations around Southwark.

It was a great day to visit – the sun was out and London was basking in a kind of post-election lethargy. As it was quite quiet when I arrived many of the artists were happy to chat. I spent some time in the studio of David Cowley, who seeks to capture his responses to music and literature in his paintings. His work was fascinating and I could have spent all morning chatting with him about art and synaesthesia, but there were three yards to get round so I had to move on.

The yards are a celebration of everything you know about Victorian building. From the wrought iron gates and the cobbled roadway, to the worn out staircases and arched doorways they are the epitome of the attention to detail that the builder brought to a project. Today they continue to house a wide range of artists, from Royal Academicians to lute makers, photographers, jewellers, potters…the list is endless.

I was keen to visit Tiny Owl Publishers who are based in Peacock Yard. This publishing house focuses on books which aim to bridge cultural experiences, creating the most beautiful books about love, friendship or freedoms. I had a lovely conversation with co-founder Karim, who took time to show me their latest publications and the themes they focus on. If you are a fan of picture books that really say something then have a look at their titles. You won’t be disappointed.

Back in the 1970s the workshops and surrounding flats were heading for demolition. Thanks to the far-sighted campaigners who saved them in the face of bailiffs and police, the area was saved and is now a sought after place to live. As we see the shape of the Walworth Road and the Elephant and Castle changing on an almost daily basis, I hope these small-scale spaces remain as a creative hub, continuing to bring a little beauty to our lives.

Peacock Yard

Peacock Yard

The Yards host an Open Studios event twice a year in the Summer and at Christmas. Details can be found via their website http://www.pullensyards.co.uk/

©Chez l’abeille  2017


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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 confident 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


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.