Chez l'abeille

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


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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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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.


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


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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


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Picture books and the power of poo!

SCBWI workshop 2015 Jude EvansJust what makes a picture book exceptional? The  illustrators and authors who gathered together at the most recent SCBWI picture book workshop were all very keen to find out. Fortunately we had Jude Evans, Associate Publisher, of Little Tiger Press on hand to share her accumulated wisdom and industry insider knowledge about what makes a picture book stand out from the crowd.

Jude gave us a very detailed overview of the UK picture book market today. In the current top fifty titles Julia Donaldson accounts for a whopping eighteen of them, books with licensed characters such as Disney films took up eight spots and the classics or discounted titles had a further six titles apiece.  It was very clear from this industry list that the market place for debut authors, or even just the less well-known, is very, very crowded indeed. Jude also included what she grouped as “scatological books” in the top fifty. Apparently you still can’t beat dinosaurs, aliens, pants and poo!

So just how do you get someone to even look at your masterwork? Examining the current trends and fashions of children’s publishing can be a good starting point. As more and more agents and publishers use social media, this can be a great way to find out what they are all getting excited about. Even observing what booksellers are making a song and dance about can tune you in to what’s hot and what’s not in the picture book world. Currently illustrated non-fiction is flying off the shelves, after the publication of books such as Shackleton’s Journey. Alternatively you could opt to focus on the perennial themes that just seem to run and run. Yup. You guessed it: dinosaurs, aliens, pants and poo. Continue reading


I went to a marvellous party…

Foyles signThere is an annual event in the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) calendar, which seems to bring on equal measures of excitement and trepidation utter fear – the SCBWI Agents’ Party.

Last year I went along to this event in a state of sheer panic. I remember feeling overawed by the agents and the idea of “the pitch”; summarising the essence of my picture book ideas into a few words. I wrote it all out, I rehearsed, I went, I was incapable of speaking! (I hid in the toilets.)

Since then it has been a year of learning. After my explorations at Arvon and the SCBWI retreat I felt a lot more confident in my own ideas and writing, so the Agents’ Party 2015 was a far more enjoyable experience.

agents panel in actionThe event is made up of two parts, the panel discussions and then the mix/mingle/chat/drink part. There were 8 panel agents, so the discussions were split into two groups both orchestrated fabulously by Candy Gourlay. The discussions give the agents an opportunity to talk about what they like, what they are looking for and what just presses all the wrong buttons!

There was some useful discussion on submissions. Gill McLay of Bath Literary talked about getting the agent’s name right as she recalled a submission where hers was spelt differently three times. As she reflected, this is actually quite hard when there are only four letters and two are the same! Read the submission guidelines is a useful reminder to all, along with treating a submission like a job application: present your best work and make it professional. Yet as Fiz Osborne from Plum Literary added, let your voice and personality shine through in your email too. Continue reading


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100 years of Ladybird books!

Ladybird book of the weather coverOne of my most prized books is my copy of “The Ladybird Book of The Weather”, purchased on 21st November 1970 for 2/6d. I know this because my mum has carefully inked most of this information into the frontispiece. From this much loved book I learnt how to use the Beaufort scale, the inner secrets of a Stevenson Screen and many other marvellous weather related facts besides.

So how exciting was it to discover an exhibition, currently on at the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill, featuring many original artworks from what is probably the golden age of Ladybird, between the late 50’s and 70’s. In fact – my Ladybird reading era.

Fortunately, the day I chose to travel down to the coat was the sunniest day this week – a perfect day to be beside the seaside. Bexhill itself seems to be made up of quite a few charity shops, but the Pavilion is definitely worth a visit. Standing on the seafront in full sunshine the building positively glows. The result of a national architectural competition, the Pavilion was opened in 1935. It has had many uses over the decades, but was extensively restored and regenerated in 2005 as a contemporary art gallery.

The exhibition of Ladybird art works was fascinating. First produced in an era of paper rationing, they were cleverly designed to fit precisely on one sheet of paper when printed. Aimed primarily at educating and informing children and their parents, many skilled and talented commercial artists were commissioned to create the images which fill their 24 picture pages. The focus on good design and detail in the illustrations was very important to the overall look of the books and I would argue that this was a significant factor in their success.

As I walked around the exhibits, there was a very strong sense of being “at home” . These books formed such a large part of my childhood and being amongst them brought a sense of comfort and well-being that was hard to explain. They do reflect a world that is very different to today; one that was measured and orderly, where gender roles were more precise and where the society they depicted reflected the British sense of Empire and it’s place in the social order. Yet the quality of the artists work is hard to fault.

The exhibition video is worth a watch and explores this in more detail.

More of the glorious images on display in the exhibition can be found here.

The exhibition runs  from Sat 24 Jan 2015- Sun 10 May 2015 and best of all, it’s free!

 

©Chez l’abeille 2015