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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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


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


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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


The art of collaboration.

What do you get if you mix up a traditional tale, the instruction to retell it in rhyme and a group of writers who have never met, at a workshop? Well, actually you get a pretty good piece of writing, but not without some serious head scratching along the way.

I recently attended a Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators picture books master class where author Pippa Goodhart (she actually writes Winnie the Witch!) set us a workshop challenge. She explained that, in her opinion, the well-loved tale “The Gingerbread Man” is long overdue a makeover. She gave us 3 workshop choices: to retell the story in dialogue and sound only, in narrative or finally, in rhyme (cue groans all around). Now at this point, an opening stanza spontaneously came to me fully formed, so I quickly scribbled it down and in a completely unplanned move, joined the rhyme group.

Generously we initially swapped all the wisdom we had acquired about writing in rhyme. The main rules seem to be: the story needs to work in prose too and don’t do it unless you actually ARE Julia Donaldson or have a background in song writing. Undaunted by these facts, I tentatively shared my initial verse, which was enthusiastically seized upon by the group as a way forward. Rhyming! So far, so easy…

At this point we collectively ground to a complete halt! There were lots of very imaginative “this could happen” suggestions, but as we started to get excitedly carried away with even wilder ideas, someone would bring us all back down to earth with the words, “that sounds great, but how do we say that, in rhyme?” Continue reading