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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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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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

David Roberts drawing from a description in the Stinky Fingers series


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In which I retreat again (but this time I’m heading in the right direction).

In deepest Devon not too far from the moors there is a place called Sheepwash.

Not far from Sheepwash there is a place called Totleigh Barton.

In Totleigh Barton something magical happens…

I didn’t plan to head to Devon. I figured I’d just dip my toe into the world of writing retreats this summer with a long weekend (near the River Avon). But somehow Totleigh Barton beckoned and I wound up immersed for a whole week at an Arvon residential (near the River Torridge).

It’s a funny old place; though as it’s been there in some form or another since the 11th century that is hardly a surprise. It’s also one of those places which simply has a name marking its spot on an ordnance survey map, which gives you some idea of the isolation it might provide. Continue reading


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In which I retreat (to go forwards)

I find making time to do more of anything is often a bit of a challenge, so the picture book retreat for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) British Isles branch came along at just the right time, i.e. one week into the school summer break. I’ve been stalling a bit on the writing front of late and in need of a shove to get motivated again, so I decided to jump in and see what it was all about.

As this is a British Isles affair people travelled from all over the country, in what could only be described as the worst  weather of the summer. Yet the unrelenting rain just couldn’t diminish the loveliness of Holland house in Cropthorne. It has a warmly welcoming and calming atmosphere, just right for some reflection, learning and unlocking undiscovered abilities. It also has an imaginative brigade in the kitchen and a rather well stocked wine fridge which all adds to the sense of relaxed well-being that slowly dispels the worries of work, travel and other day-to-day irritations.

Over the course of the weekend I had a chance to meet and talk with just about everyone – all passionate writers and illustrators, some published but many not yet. It’s only a matter of time though; there are some amazing ideas out there, probably being written as you read this! I found the opportunities to discuss ideas with Alexis Deacon and Lynne Chapman particularly useful in analysing what is working and what is just plain wrong in some of my current ideas. The sharing of work around the whole group was a distinct challenge for me though – everyone else is just SO good!!

My first illustrated character - the dogI’ve learned a lot in the course of a few days, not least that I can create some reasonably passable drawings. Please welcome the demon dog of Peckham, who has currently stolen his sister’s teddy bear.

Making more use of drawing will definitely be my way forward as I map out some of the ideas the weekend generated. A new box of watercolour pencils awaits.

Thinking big, bringing out the jeopardy characters face, not being too episodic with the story structure, not being be too “quiet” in the telling, bringing out the dishonesty in the characters and putting down the watercolour on the paper before adding the lines were all explored over the course of the weekend and have given me new insights which I hope will take my ideas further along the route to publication one day.

What else? The getting to know you game we played on the first night asked us to capture our partner’s responses to questions in writing or pictures. Question number 1: How did your first pet die?

For this round I was paired with Sue, who described in great detail the death of her pet spider. Don’t believe everything the writer tells you is also probably a good life lesson.

©Chez l’abeille 2015


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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