Chez l'abeille

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


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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 Unpublished and un-agented writers (i.e. ME!)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


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