Monday, 17 July 2017

Can you teach people how to write a good picture book? • Pippa Goodhart

         No and yes.

         No, in that there are no clear rules that can be learnt and followed that would fit all good picture books.  If you set rules for picture book writing they might include …

Rule 1) Remember that pictures are the key feature of any picture book.  That’s why they are called picture books.  But then you’d never get a brilliant and successful book such as this –
The Book With No Pictures - Paperback - 9780141361796 - BJ Novak 
Rule 2) When writing for young children you must always supply a happy ending.  But then you’d never get an important honest books such as this –
Missing Mummy - Paperback - 9780230749511 - Rebecca Cobb 

Rule 3)  When writing for such a young audience, you must make clear exactly what is happening in the story.  And then we’d miss out on genius such as this –

I Want My Hat Back - Paperback - 9781406338539 - Jon Klassen 

So, no, you can’t neatly teach picture book writing in that didactic sort of way.  But you certainly can equip people with necessary knowledge for writing picture books, and also nurture their skills at working with pictures and the book format to convey stories suited to both target audience and market place. 
I’ve just finished teaching another run of the four week online course in picture book writing that I do via the Writers’ Workshop.  On that course, I take students back to thinking about what life was like when they were of the 2-5 year old core picture book audience age themselves. What mattered to them?  What did they find funny?  I tell them a bit about the often international market for picture books.  We think about what a story is, and how best to play it between words and pictures and page turns.  We think about writing style, how the text must read out loud pleasingly, the potential pitfalls of writing in rhyme, how dialogue can bring pictures to life, and so on. 
I asked the participants on the recent course what they thought about that course, and perhaps the most telling comment was this –
‘I learned a lot through doing (making mistakes, your comments, having another shot at it).’
It’s that having a go, actually doing, and then discussing the results, that develop writing skills far more than teaching 'rules' ever could.  It’s what I get from group of writing friends I belong to where we meet regularly, bounce ideas around, read out work and critique it, but the course provides that supportive yet critical community virtually.  I love it.
Still no guarantee that it will result in a publishing contract and book sales, though! 

            Do any of you have experiences of courses in picture book writing?  
            Can you think of any other books that clearly disobey the sorts of rules that might be thought to apply to the writing of picture books?

Monday, 10 July 2017

This post has no pictures by Juliet Clare Bell

I'm trying a new way of writing. Without writing.

I have a temporary problem with my arms and hands which makes writing and typing very difficult. Fortunately it is only temporary, and I am trying to learn what I can from this enforced difference in the way that I try to write.

As anyone who knows me can testify, I talk a lot. My answer phone messages are always too long and I can take a lot longer to say something than I need. Which is why writing picture books has been a really interesting challenge for me over the years.  

I'm a really messy thinker. So for me, I always need to start by brainstorming ideas messily onto a piece of paper. And when I start structuring my picture book, I leave out the vast majority of the original thoughts that I had. But I do need to get them down on paper before I start refining my thoughts. I think best by writing things or typing things down. 

Soon I'll be able to write and type things again properly. By the end of the summer, things should be back to normal. And I will be very happy when that happens. But in spite of the frustration of not being able to do what I want to do, it has also been an interesting learning experience.

Here are some things I have learnt.

So much of my thought processes are crystallised by writing things down. I discover what I'm really trying to say by writing it down. Voice recognition software on the phone has been brilliant, but even making to do lists by speaking rather than writing is massively less efficient for me. It's not just that it's slower, it's that I still haven't learnt to think that way. So I miss out loads of things I should be doing. 

Writing helps me remember what I'm trying to remember in a way that speaking does not.

Someone told me the other day how my text messages now are like my old answer phone messages! But in fact, text messages and emails are the easiest things to do with voice recognition software if they're just about something practical. And actually, when everything is completely better again soon, I will still use voice recognition software for those kinds of texts and emails- because it is really quick.

Some people are very quick writers. They can say what they want to say really concisely from the start. I, on the other hand, am very slow. And without being able to brainstorm first so I can see what my ideas are in order to structure what I write, I am going to be slower than ever over the next few months...

Brought to you by voice recognition softer with minimal editing and no brainstorming so no structuring. 

If you've ever tried new ways of writing, physically, because of an injury or condition, how much has it actually affected what you write?

And has anyone come up with a way of brainstorming without having to use your hands?

Monday, 3 July 2017

Ask a Question, Write a Story! • Natascha Biebow

From Curious George Visits the Library by H.A. Ray

Children often think grown-ups know everything. But I like to think grown-ups know a lot, but still have a lot to learn . . .

Like the eponymous children's book character, Curious George, children are full of wonder and bursting with curiosity. Their enquiring minds are a seemingly bottomless pit of questions that lead to new knowledge and discoveries about the world. Importantly, children are often coming fresh to things so they question WHY things are the way they are. But most adults accept the world as a matter of course. I wonder: do we sometimes get so wrapped up in the business of everyday life, doing stuff, that we pass up the opportunity to STOP, look and learn?

Do we forget to ask questions and stay ahead of the ever-changing world? Are we missing out on the fun of the ‘WHAT IF?’ game, taking a leaf out of the book of children’s curiosity?

From Ada Twist Scientist by Andrea Beaty and David Roberts
I like to think that I learn something new every day. My seven year-old says, “Really, Mommy?”

YES, really! The world is so big and full of the unknown, surely it is possible to learn something new – even if it's just a small thing – every day?!

So, for instance, yesterday I learned that the new self-driving cars being developed by Volvo can detect a whole range of wildlife hazards, but bouncy kangaroos are eluding them. Hmmm. Random. But a story is forming. What if . . . ? 

And did you know that we are born to lie, that lying is innately part of human development, like walking and talking? 

Or that there is a tomato fight in Spain every year?

Or that Henry Ford and Thomas Edison were best friends?
Of course, living with a young person in your house helps. Children are always asking “WHY?” and “HOW COME?” and “WHAT IF?” and saying, “DID YOU KNOW . . .?” 

"Oooh a worm - what does it do?"

Sometimes the questions are quite difficult to unpick:

WHO tells your brain what to do – who is the boss?
WHAT is the universe made of?
WHEN can we get a robot to do our chores?
WHY can’t we have cars that go on tram tracks? (Perfect for not using so much petrol!)
HOW COME cigarettes don't cost a million pounds each if they cause cancer?
WHY hasn't anyone invented a flying car yet?!
Cover of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Flies Again illus by Joe Berger

These day when you want to find out something, the first recourse is often to “Ask Google”. Oooh, look, quick answers, facts at the end of your fingertips. What wonder! Hmm, but though the internet may be ‘clever’, it is only as good as the person asking and thinking through the answer.

What does all this have to do with picture books, I hear you ask?

Well, the truth is often stranger than fiction. And this kind of curiosity is a great start for STORY and a fabulous resource for writers.

Non-fiction picture books are a fantastic launching point for our quest to learn about the world and pursue our questions, but facts can also be so much fun when you fictionalize them to knit the story in between. Like in this book:

Because story is one of the most powerful ways we can find out about the world, 

introducing us to ideas and facts that we had perhaps never even considered,

. . . and some stories are so delightfully complex or ambiguous that we just want to keep asking and delving deeper.



In fact, I'd wager that some of the best stories leave us with more questions than answers . . . 

If we all keep on asking WHY the world goes and WHAT makes it go – whether or not the answer can be found on Google or inside a picture book near you – oh, the wonder of the stories we can create!

What will you learn today?!


Natascha Biebow
Author, Editor and Mentor

Blue Elephant Storyshaping is an editing, coaching and mentoring service aimed at empowering writers and illustrators to fine-tune their work pre-submission.  Check out my small-group coaching Cook Up a Picture Book coursesNatascha is also the author of The Crayon Man (coming in 2019!), Elephants Never Forget and Is This My Nose?, editor of numerous award-winning children’s books, and Regional Advisor (Chair) of SCBWI British Isles.