Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Writing stories fast and to order. How to avoid doing it badly.

Moira Butterfield 
www.moirabutterfield.com
@moiraworld

After last week’s detailed description of a one-off picture book’s journey to press, I thought I would write about another much faster type of picture book story-writing. I mean writing to fit a detailed brief for a book that is paper-engineered and could be described as toy-related. Some blog-readers may get the opportunity to do this, and it requires a different way of thinking.
Here’s an example. A couple of weeks ago I got an urgent email. Such projects are almost always on a short schedule and if you don’t like working fast, never take them on. Be aware that such projects are fee-based and do not carry royalties, so do not consider the work if this is an issue for you.
The project was to write stories for two carousel books. These are books with a story joined to a section that folds around to create a kind of dollshouse scene (I’ll attach a picture showing a carousel book. It’s not mine but it shows the concept).
The books I was commissioned to write already had subjects – a princess castle and a tropical fairy garden. The paper-engineered carousel part of the project was already being designed, and the story part of the book was already laid out in sections, with a rough word count. There were four spreads, and there could be no more or less.
Added to this, each story had to have six characters that could be made into pressout play figures, along with scope for smaller characters and objects that could be added to the carousel scene.
Where to start?
There is a basic vital principle I always bear in mind. This kind of book is going to be played with. The child who gets it is going to use it to create imaginary stories of their own. It’s my job to help them – to prompt them into doing exactly that.
I sit in a quiet room and clear my head of everything. Then I concentrate and start to ‘see’ characters in my head and I watch them interacting and doing whatever it is they seem to want to do. This sounds quite mad, but I am effectively mentally ‘playing’ as a child would do.
A narrative emerges. It must have movement, action and speech. It must be a scenario a child will want to play.
I would approach a text the same way in something as tightly-controlled as a sound book. This type of book has to have a certain number of sounds, which are varied enough to make playing fun. The stories must work hard. They must give lots of opportunity to push the sound buttons, and I would really feel I’d done my job properly if I created characters that a child could take and use in their own imaginary stories, using the sounds in their own way. For this to happen the characters must be quite simple but have something fun about them – a name, a repeated speech phrase or a particular feature perhaps.
Ok, this type of work is not poetry or high art. But that doesn’t mean sentences should not be well-constructed, that there should be good story pace. The story must be well-formed and work if read out loud. It must always work well out loud, which means paying close attention to the rhythm of the sentences (necessarily assuming common speech patterns).
A lot of this type of work is now being done in-house by editors, and all too often it’s being done badly because it’s not just a question of ‘putting down words’ to fill a space. It’s about visualizing the child using the book before you put a single word down on paper. Then it’s about reading out loud to get the sentences right.
Just because such a text might never be up for a literary prize, and just because it takes days not years, it does not mean it should not be the best possible use of words.

19 comments:

  1. Moira - it's so interesting to hear about this type of work. I should imagine it takes a different skill set from that of the 'normal' writer. I have never approached books from that angle and it must be fun to think about sound, movement and 3D shapes. Does it make you a better writer in your own picture books?

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  2. On the one hand yes, because the reader is uppermost in my mind. On the other hand, no, because I find I work too fast on everything. I've recently learnt, through reading others on this blog, to mull over a picture book much more! What I'm talking about here is a different type of writing, more akin to working in a team.

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  3. It's so interesting to read about the creation of picturebooks from the point of view of the author.The well-thought-out design of a book, and the quality of writing, are so helpful to inspiring the best illustrations!

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  4. Thanks Cathy! I hope that, overall, Picture Book Den, is helpful to illustrators as well as authors. It certainly has a good variety of blogs on it, which we've been aiming for!

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  5. Thanks, Moira, that's fascinating. I'd love to do these kind of projects as well as writing picture books that aren't written to a brief. I did a slightly similar project this year with a theatre programme publisher, where I wrote a story incorporating lots of pantomime characters. It was great fun trying to do the absolute best you can from a brief and make sure the choice of words feels as good as it can -and very quickly! I'd love to do more. But as you said, a lot is done in-house (if you ever can't make a deadline and are able to pass the work on to someone else who can work to a short deadline...!). I think the thing they have in common is a pride in trying to get each word/sentence as good as it can be given the limitations. I think as long as you treat each project with complete respect and do it as well as you can -within the limitations, of which time is a bigger one with these as opposed to straight picture books, then you can produce something that is worthy of being read/played by children. Thanks.

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  6. Hear, hear! Thought MUST go into making something good enough for the children who will read it, whatever the project might be. Unfortunately, I think that, with text done in-house, this does not always happen.

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  7. Fascinating! This kind of writing has much in common with writing the kinds of early reader books that can only use certain words or language patterns. It can be a fight to achieve a worthwhile story under such restrictions, but it is SO important when those are the books that will make children into readers or repell them from it. Thanks, Moira.

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    1. I agree completely. I love the challenge of being set parameters, too. The fifty word early readers are loads of fun to write as you're trying to tell an exciting story that has to be told mostly through the pictures. I remember Alan Ahlberg talking about making Each Peach Pear Plum or Peepo with Janet Ahlberg. He talked about how they treated each book they were creating as if it were as important as War and Peace (but he put it more eloquently). Even when something has to be done quickly, you can still treat it with the utmost respect and that's what you and other good writers-to-order are doing.

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  8. Yes, and some of those early reader books boring! Just my opinion, though. Back to paper-engineered books, I saw a text this week that purported to help children to count, but I couldn't for the life of me see how it was going to help them - Only get them confused. It makes me angry!

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  9. Interesting blog, Moira. I've enjoyed writing early reading scheme books because with so many restrictions it's a bit like doing an imaginative word puzzle.

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  10. Good comparison! I did my usual typo earlier, but I mean to say that some early reading scheme books are great fun, whereas some are a bit of a yawn. The good ones take account of the reader, I think, and give them liveliness. What do others think in this respect?

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  11. Oh I can relate so well to what all of you are saying. I love the challenge of being given a tight brief and then feeling the satisfaction when you have that moment where the rhythm works and the pieces fall into place. Unfortunately (fortunately?) the market in which I write (South African) is mostly commission-based and so often our stories have to be moulded to fit the brief. Thank you Picture Book Den...I look fwd to yr blogs.

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  12. Nice to hear from you, Kerry. I'm glad that you recognize aspects of the blog. Increasing numbers of children's picture book writers will, I think, find themselves doing commission-based work to make ends meet.

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  13. Moira interesting read.

    I've written to a tight brief for non-fiction but never fiction. I love working to a structure, which I think is one reason why I like to write picture books (the restriction of the page count). This type of writing must be a pleasure when you look at a completed manuscript and can say you've produced the best you can within the framework set. Perhaps one day I'll be lucky enough to get the chance to give it a go.

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    1. Give it a go, Lynn! Contact publishers with your picture book pedigree and I'm sure you will get commissions. Pricing up the work is another matter, though. I decide privately how long it is going to take me and have my own hourly rate that I will not go under. Again, I don't divulge to the publisher what this is but it helps me guage whether the fee they suggest is fair or not.

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  14. Fascinating blog, Moira. I hate it when I pick up a book that has obviously been written just to fill in words on a page, rather than to excite and capture the interest of the young reader.

    I have written early readers and it is a real challenge, but so important and also a lot of fun to create stories within a brief that is for a small number of words, within specific ability levels and also to a tight timescale. These books are sometimes the first books a child will read and they MUST be engaging so that they will create a love of books and reading from the start.

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  15. Exactly, Linda. They're going to be reading them with their parents, too, and we don't want parents to be out off sharing books, either.

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  16. Put off, I mean. I must try to type more slowly as well as write more slowly!

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  17. A really interesting post. Thanks, Moira.

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