Thursday 9 July 2015

The World’s Most Awful Picture Book Writer by Kathryn Evans (Guest Blogger)

I have a secret ambition. I would LOVE to get a picture book published. My very first submission was a picture book - 15 years ago. It was rubbish. No really. It was terrible. To prove it, the script is reproduced in full below. I can’t actually believe I am showing you this, the levels of cringe rippling through me are probably registering on the Richter scale somewhere. Deep breath…oh god, even the ‘quirky’ font is making me feel faintly sick and the pictures? Forgive me illustrators for ever even thinking it…

The truth about witches

(Intro page) I know what you think about witches. For some strange reason all children do. But you are actually, quite wrong. I shall tell you the truth and then you can tell all your friends. And if they don’t believe you, show them this book. I am a very learned and wise person and know about stuff. Which is why I’m allowed to put it in books. Like this one.

Here is a witch.
She is very old and a bit stiff.
It has taken her a long time at witch school to learn all her spells.

She earns her living by making people who think they are ugly think that they are beautiful.
And greedy people rich (picture of stockbroker witch)
And sad people happy (therapy witch)
And sick people well (doctor witch)
She has many talents and is often, offered money to turn mean people into frogs,
I am sorry to say she can't really do this,
She can only make people think that they are frogs
And she only does that to very mean people indeed.
This witch has a little house in a wood,
You and I might call it a hovel,
It is a bit untidy
With cobwebs dangling from the ceiling
And washing up in the sink
And mouldy rubbish falling out of the bin
A big black cat called skittle
And big black dog called Guinness
Five black rats called pot, lot, dot, spot and snot
A whole tank of tadpoles (she has a pond in the garden of course)
And a spider called Morris (which is why she leaves the cobwebs up)
She has a very cosy armchair,
A fridge full of her favourite food (tommyfartoes and gruesomebur salad, snaked beans, leeches and scream and – most delicious of all – charmite sandwiches)
A telly with her favourite programmes on (The Witch O Clock News and The Antique Wand Show)
And a soft warm bed, with a fluffy quilt and two hot water bottles (one for each stiff old knee).
Tell me
What on earth she'd be doing, trying to squish her poor old body into your bedroom cupboard, or behind your door where last week's stinky socks are, or even under your bed in all that dust and mess?
Of course you can’t, because, quite clearly she would not. So you can happily go to sleep in your bed and she can go to sleep in hers. Except I haven’t yet written the book about why witches shouldn’t be afraid of children, then again, perhaps they should...
(Illustrations show children fishing in witch's pond, raiding her fridge, waving wands at the cat, etc...)

I do now want to die of shame. But you see what I mean? Pretty poor. Fifteen years on and I can see what’s wrong with it. Apart from the terrible pictures:
1.     There is no story.
2.     There is no characterisation.
3.     There is no consideration to the page turns/construction of a picture book.
4.     There is no story.
5.     Quirky fonts do not make up for lack of story.
6.     There is no story.
7.     It’s basically a list of stuff about a witch.
8.     There is no story.
9.     And on and on and on…

But this script was the start of something for me – I sent it to Natascha Biebow who was then an editor at Random House  (oh god, I actually sent this out, I really did, though thankfully even I recognised the pictures were truly awful and kept those to myself). To her endless credit, Natascha didn’t laugh in my face. She suggested I join SCBWI and learn how to write a story. I did exactly that. Over fifteen years I must have put in over 10,000 hours of practice (the bare minimum); I attended workshops and classes and I read and I wrote and finally, finally, I got a deal. But it wasn’t for a picture book. It was for a 70,000 word YA novel. Don’t get me wrong, I am thrilled about this. I love my publisher and I love my book and I am so so excited about getting it into the hands of children BUT I still want to write that break-through picture book and I am STILL finding it really hard.

I have structure, I have story, I have character but what I don’t have, what I’m still struggling with, is making every single one of the very few words you need for a picture book, count. I worked it out, if my text is 700 words, each one of those words is carrying the weight of 100 words compared to my novel. That’s a lot of weight. Writing picture books is hard. Really, really hard.

I have a plan though. I’m going back to Natascha. Now a freelance editor Natascha has set up Blue Elephant Story Shaping and she’s offered to work with me on my current attempt at a picture book. I’m going to crack it, I am! Just give me another fifteen years…

Kathryn Evans is the author of More of Me, due to be published by Usborne in February 2016. She blogs about writing at Her agent is


Jane Clarke said...

Thanks for being our guest and making us laugh x

Jane Clarke said...

Oops, pressed send before I could say congratulations on the upcoming publication of More of Me, it sounds amazing, and very good luck with the picture book writing :-)

Moira Butterfield said...

Good luck! You're not correct by the way. The worst picture books are deathly dull things indeed, with awful doggerel rhyme. I reckon I produced some of those back in the day! You may not have known all that much back then but you were having a lot of fun. Perhaps your witch was in fact trying to tell you 'I'm the beginning of the first draft of a novel for 4-7s'.

Olivia Levez said...

I want a charmite sandwich! Once treated myself to a short course for pic book/illo at Chelsea Art College, run by the venerable Caroline Dinan. Learnt about story, pic book format etc. She was ace! Don't know if she still runs them...

K.M.Lockwood said...

I agree with Moira BTW.

Enid Richemont said...

I need that witch big time. Send her to me NOW!

Kathryn Evans said...

Thank you - I am still cringing at this but yeas, it is quite funny...

Kathryn Evans said...

Ha! Maybe - she's not seen the light of day for many years!

Kathryn Evans said...

I honestly find them SO HARD - migth have to give up...

Kathryn Evans said...

Enid, she's all yours!

Jon Burgess Design said...

Have you tried thinking of your pic book idea more visually? Or in terms of how the 'action' would divide into spreads? You can only go so far with text alone I think, if it's not gelling. Draw rubbish pictures to help work out the dynamics. Nobody is going to see them. My thumbnail roughs are pretty much indecipherable to anybody else ;-) Good luck with it all, and congrats on the YA novel.

Natascha Biebow said...

Kathy this is a brave post, bare bones and all - thanks for sharing! The witch sounds like a really intriguing character and, now that you are older and wiser, I bet you could write her story. Can't wait to read it on the shelves. The names of her five black rats made me laugh. Do you know the US classic Make Way for Ducklings? The ducklings are called Jack, Kack, Lack, Mack, Nack, Ouack, Pack and Quack. We love reading those! Keep writing!

Jonathan Emmett said...

Hi Kathryn! Thanks for guesting.

I had no difficulty writing two unpublished children's novels before getting my first chapter book published. I returned to novel-writing about ten years later (after writing nothing but picture books and chapter fiction in the interim), but found it far more difficult to keep the momentum going. I've been working on the same novel, off and on, since 2007!

I think my brain has adapted to writing shorter stories and rhyme, but I'm hoping that if I stick with it for long enough, my brain can switch back into novel mode. If you stick with your picture book, you might find your brain will switch to picture book mode!

Kathryn Evans said...

I hope so - thank you!

Kathryn Evans said...

I don't know that story - I'll look it out. You continue to be an inspiration to me - you are a star Natascha x

Kathryn Evans said...

PS Have just sent reworked rabbit script to my agent - we shall see!

Kathryn Evans said...

Thank you - yes I do this now - I print off a dummy so I can see where the page turns will sit, it helps a lot!