Wednesday 26 September 2012

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

Moira Butterfield

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.

Wednesday 19 September 2012

Whose story is it anyway? Collaboration in Life, Launches and Books (or Question: How do you get from a song about roller skates to The Kite Princess? Answer: With help) -by Juliet Clare Bell

The Kite Princess has finally come out, three-and-a-bit years after it began its life.

It’s been a long process and I want to talk about the collaborative nature of writing –not because I’m going to do a Gwyneth Paltrow Oscar speech...

"...and I'd like to thank my granny and my cat and the milk man.... and... who wants me to stop talking and get on with reading the book...?

"...Oh ok, then..."

but because I think it’s important to appreciate how we arrive at things. It’s great to acknowledge all the people involved. It’s also useful to debunk the myth that we do it on our own, as it then frees us up to make the most of everything and everyone surrounding us.

Ok, perhaps that doesn't extend to STEALING your daughter's own picture book (but it is very good...)

First the bit about the book. Then the launch.

People are often surprised to find that writing can involve a lot of people. It's not always the lone writer, scribbling away in isolation. For me, at least, it involves/is influenced by, lots of people (including the sleeping four-year-old with his feet on my legs as I write this in bed in the early morning...).

The characters in the story behind The Kite Princess story…

It started with a name… I got an advert through the door for a local card company. On one side in fancy writing it said Cinnamon Aitch. I (mis)read it immediately as Cinnamon Stitch and had that frustrating moment when I realised that someone else had got there first. Cinnamon Stitch would have been a great character –I instantly loved the name, but I couldn’t possibly steal it from a local company. I read it again. It was Aitch, not Stitch! I could have Cinnamon Stitch for a character! (Thank you Cinnamon Aitch for using that font. And the connection between the two Cinnamons is even sweeter now that I’ve discovered I know Sarah –co-founder of the company- as a mum at my children’s school.)

Cinnamon Aitch with Cinnamon Stitch...

So Cinnamon was born. And she already had an emerging character, but no story –yet.

Enter Addy Farmer, friend and SCBWI member extraordinaire, who’d arranged a series of talks/workshops with people in the writing industry. (Have I ever mentioned SCBWI before? Hmmmn. Note for anyone wanting to write or illustrate: join it.)
(Addy's the dead glam one, third from the right, along with her fellow Notes from the Slushpilers)

I immediately signed up to one with Tessa Strickland, co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of Barefoot Books, in June 2009. Towards the end of the talk, someone asked her if there was anything that she was particularly looking for at the moment. Tessa responded really specifically (thank you, Tessa –and note to writers, it is well worth asking this question):

She would really love a companion book for Portside Pirates (which was sung to a vaguely familiar tune)- an exciting story, to a song, about a princess.

I quickly dismissed the idea (I couldn’t imagine writing a princess story and anyway, whilst we were chatting, I'd just agreed to send her something else). But over the next few days I thought some more. Why not write one with a difference -where the feisty young heroine wanted to free herself from all the constraints of being a princess? At this point, Cinnamon Stitch came to mind –she’d be feisty –and stitching her way out of her situation…? The name fit…. And setting the story to just the right song (it would have to be in the public domain; shouldn’t be too well-known but still recognisable)? What a great challenge...

I loved going through loads of songs to decide which might work best (I’d done something similar for our wedding, where I’d put old poems that I’d always loved to various songs that were now used as hymns). I pored over nursery rhymes, traditional songs, including the ones my Irish father used to sing to me at bedtime as a child. I’d considered and dismissed ‘A Frog He Would a Wooing Go’, along with countless others, but a friend suggested it independently as we chatted with our small children crawling around the floor (thanks, Nicola Smith), so I reconsidered and decided that this was the one, and I got writing, a week after the meeting.

Cinnamon Stitch became a song about roller skates to the tune of A Frog He Would a Wooing Go:
(I love the internet: I put in 'roller skates' and 'frog' and found a picture to copy. Badly. The proper one is (c)Julos)

It was such a jingly jangly frock (‘Hey, ho’ says Roly), It was such a jingly jangly frock,
But if they’d known why, they’d have had such a shock! (With a roly poly gammon and spinach, ‘Hey ho!’ says Anthony Roly.
She joined all her friends at the great Palace Gates/ They all worked together and made... roller skates!
This really was such a magnificent scene, /Until they were spied by the King and the Queen,
Poor Cinnamon knew that they’d make such a fuss, /Instead, they asked “Please could you make some for us?”
They’re all happy now and they’re less stuffy, too,/They went for a skate and their world grew and grew…

(An extract from the original manuscript I sent to Barefoot)

I sent it to Tessa in July and she got back to me in August, saying she liked the story but that two things needed to change (only two?). First, the refrain needed to be made personal to the song. So:
With a roly, poly gammon and spinach,
‘Hey ho!’ Says Anthony Roly.

From her royal bows to the tips of her toes,
Hey ho! She longed for freedom.

Not too hard, but what about ditching the roller skates (which Cinnamon had made sneakily under everyone’s noses, with tools sewn into her dresses) for something more dramatic?

I had fun trying out other possibilities – making a sail for a boat? galloping into the wind? floating off in a home-made hot air balloon…? It was the balloon that made most sense to me... I’d briefly considered a kite but had just as quickly dismissed it on the grounds of health and safety (would they let me have a child floating off on a kite?) and a vague memory of an old Iain Banks novel. But then:

Mark knew a good idea when he’d had one, and soon I’d turned it into my idea (it’s hard to incorporate new ideas until they feel like your own) and began the rewrite.
I rewrote and sent the manuscript to my great critique group and critique partners (who are always part of the collaboration. Fortunately I had American, as well as English, critiquers, who could help me with cross-continental rhyming issues, since it would need to be suitable for both markets –

which ones rhyme for you?

I removed the plait (I had wanted her to snip it off and use it for a kite string), made some more changes and sent it back. Barefoot liked the story/song and in January, 2010, I signed my first ever book contract for what was now called The Kite Princess (and thanks to my newly found agents, Celia and James Catchpole who were also now part of the mix).

My children posting off my first ever book contract.

Yippee! (as Cinnamon would say). I started to learn the song on my guitar –I’m an almost complete beginner so it was taking a while...
(and no one but a dog with a tennis ball for a foot could bear to listen)...
but I wanted to be able to sing it in schools…

Anyone who has read The Kite Princess will know that it is not a song. A few months after signing, it was decided that there’d be more possibility for sequels if it weren’t a song, so it was back to expanding, rewriting and resending to my critique partners.

The bit that most readers of picture books think is the truly collaborative part is probably the least. As Malachy Doyle said in a recent Picture Book Den post, authors and illustrators very rarely work together and everything goes through the editor or art director. So without ever having had any contact with her, Laura-Kate Chapman started work on turning my manuscript into our book.

Early sketches of Cinnamon (c)Laura-Kate Chapman

(c) Laura-Kate Chapman

(c) Laura-Kate Chapman

(c) Laura-Kate Chapman

When a picture book is done well, it ought to feel like it’s been a collaboration between author and illustrator –and I hope ours does. It is, of course, also the work of many people at Barefoot, including Sarah Morris, so huge thanks to everyone involved there. And an enormous ‘YIPPEE!’ to Oscar-nominated, multi-award-winning Imelda Staunton, who narrates the story in the accompanying CD. It’s fantastic to have her read this alongside her recordings of The Gruffalo, her performances in Harry Potter (scary Professor Umbridge) and numerous other films and plays.
Imelda Staunton recording The Kite Princess for the accompanying CD.

But of course the involvement in a book also includes the readers/potential readers. If it gets read lots, borrowed lots from libraries and bought lots from shops, online and real, then everyone who buys and borrows it will be collaborating in Cinnamon’s fate.

Who knows, we might yet get to write/illustrate/read about her new adventures currently playing about in my head but desperate to pour onto the page to be brought to life beautifully by Laura-Kate Chapman.

Is the excitement or feeling of achievement dampened in any way by knowing that lots of other people played a part in it? Does it feel less like my story because other writers had suggestions about it that I took on board? Do I feel like a fraud because my husband was the one who came up with the idea of it being a kite –which is of course so central to the story now? Absolutely NOT. As a writer, you get ideas from everywhere and you’re the one who sifts and considers and decides what goes in and stays out. And crucially, you’re the one who writes it. I love life and that we are inherently social creatures and that we affect and are affected by other people, all the time, in millions of ways. And having other people influence -in whatever way- how I tell a story (and vice versa when I critique other writers’ stories), just means that when something works out and gets published, there’s an even bigger cause for celebration. And more people to celebrate with.

(c) Laura-Kate Chapman.

So onto the celebrations!

Huge thank yous to the people involved: the fantastic staff from Waterstone’s in Birmingham, particularly Chris, the deputy manager, provided the venue, set everything up, stayed way beyond closing time to sell more books, were extremely helpful and lovely and cleared everything up at the end. Crucially, for me and for my SCBWI critique group, they also provide us with space every six weeks for our critique group to meet -so they’ve played a significant role in my first two picture books, both of which were critiqued in the very space where the launch was held!

Half of my body appears to have disappeared... (half of) the man who made it happen. Chris, deputy manager, hidden in the background.

Lauren Guthrie of Guthrie and Ghani, a local and online haberdasher’s in South Birmingham, made a wonderful cloth kite with the children.

This will be flying high in the children’s department next week alongside copies of the book, thanks to Ben (head of the children’s section).

Laura-Kate Chapman, the book’s illustrator, whom I’d never met until the launch itself, drew beautiful pictures with the children of people, kites, owls, monkeys and all sorts of other weird and wonderful things.

‘She looks so fancy!’ said one of my children, in awe, after she'd met Laura-Kate. They are not used to seeing their mother looking young, glamorous or ‘fancy’.

And not forgetting a certain small, wonderful six-year-old who took the bold step of reading the book in front of everyone. And who better to read the book than my very own Cinnamon Stitch who loves to get dirty...

and climb... (Warning: don't try this at home... Unless you're a spider)

(Now I know why my children insisted on my wearing ‘the dress that you can hide under’ as opposed to the one that I'd actually bought for the launch...)

Sadly the video of Esther reading the book didn't come out -it was a fantastic reading- but I'll post a new video of her reading it when we've made it.

And of course, a launch wouldn’t be anything without the amazing people who come to it. Everyone who turned up brought something special, unique to the event, and everyone gave up doing something else in order to be there.

It was a wonderful night and one that I’ll always remember. And many hands made light work…

Thank you -for reading and to everyone who was involved in the book and the launch, including those who stepped up and took photos when the two photographers weren't able to come (Candy Gourlay, Donna Vann, Margaret Bell, Joolz Richards, Mike Safo). Huge thanks to Rebecca Colby -my long time critique buddy, and to my Birmingham critique group. I'm going to stop before I start blubbing... I love you all....

Click on the links for tips on how (not) to write a rhyming picture book; editing your manuscript and making the most of feedback. I'm also doing a picture book writing workshop as part of Birmingham Book Festival on Saturday 13th October.

Tuesday 11 September 2012

Do Picture Books Have To Tell A Story? By Pippa Goodhart

My most successful picture book so far is a book called You Choose, illustrated by Nick Sharratt.  It is a picture book that sits on the fiction shelves, and yet it doesn't tell a story.  It was because it didn't tell a story that nine publishers rejected it before Random House took it on.  But must a picture book always tell a story?

When a text has been rejected nine times, and when the publishers all agree on the perceived problem with the text, and your agent agrees with them, it is usually time to put that text aside, and move on.  But I believed in the idea of this book too much to do that.  Having watched three daughters and their friends looking through catalogues and happily choosing things that they knew they'd never actually get, I knew that at least those children loved the game of choosing.  And, since the point of the choosing didn't seem to be necessarily then acquiring whatever was chosen, I felt sure there was fun to be had in offering choices that were totally fictional.  So a child can choose to live in a pink fairy tale palace, or a tree house, or a mushroom, or any of the thirty-two different kinds of home on offer.  They can have Santa or a wizard or a Viking, or any number of other kinds of people (many of them ordinary) as their father.  They can choose twins, an alien, a giant, or all sorts of others as siblings or friends.  Pets, places, clothes, jobs, foods, and so on; there is a mass to choose from.  And over the eight years that You Choose has been around its sales have risen and risen, and it's even winning prizes, which is lovely.

Now Nick has again spent literally years in illustrating a new book along a similar theme.  Just Imagine came out ten days ago. 

This time, instead of choosing things, you choose to change yourself.  What if you were made of jelly or cheese or were a balloon or a ghost or a robot?  Now we're getting into really imaginative territory.

Nick's pictures are full to bursting with ideas.  What would you like this machine to be doing or making?

Neither of these books tells a story, but it is clear from the reactions I've had to both of them that they are fich with story potential, and that all sorts of stories - serious ones, funny ones, sad ones, exciting ones, nonsense ones - come out of them.  Not my stories, but the children's own stories.  I find that exciting.  With over a million copies of You Choose out there, being shared and chatted over, I hope that well over a million stories have brewed in children's minds from the ingredients it offers. 

What particularly excites me about Just Imagine is that the protagonist in the stories that come out of this new book will almost certainly be the children themselves. 

Friday 7 September 2012

Using The Five Senses To Inspire Your Writing - Lynne Garner

A few months ago I was asked to create a new course for WOW (Women On Writing) as a follow on for my beginners course 'How To Write A Picture Book And Get Published.' It was decided we'd set a challenge for our students, to write five books in five weeks basing each one on one of the five senses.

In order to help support the students I started researching the five senses. Also as part of that research I asked my writing friends how they'd used the five senses in their stories. These are just a couple of the replies I received:   

A story inspired by sight: 

Written by Pippa Goodhart and illustrated by Andy Rowlands.

The story as described by the author:

"Little Nelly's Big Book plays on the lack of any pictures in her big book. Little Nelly is an elephant, but the description in her book of a mouse being grey, having big ears, and having a skinny tail, leads her to the conclusion that she is a mouse. So she tries to make herself at home with a family of mice. When her friend Micky, who really is a mouse, reads the description of an elephant (exactly the same attributes as the other one) he concludes that he's an elephant, but they decide they can still be friends, even though they are different.

Quote kindly supplied by Pippa Goodhart (visit Pippa's website).

A story inspired by sound:

Written by Jane Clarke and illustrated by Chrystyan Fox.

The inspiration behind the story as described by the author:  

"Creaky Castle was inspired by a childhood sleepover in a creaky old house. My friend and I stayed up all night, terrifying each other by suggesting what the noises we heard in the house could be. The text began with ideas for lots of spooky noises, and what could be making them, and developed from there into a funny rhyming picture book."

Quote kindly supplied by author Jane Clarke (visit Jane's Website)

A story inspired by smell:

Written by me and illustrated by Mike Brownlow

This story was inspired by the many dogs I've shared my life with, the occasional smell the create, mixed with the words our family will utter when this happens, "Sorry, the dog did it!"

So next time you're stuck for an idea why not use touch, taste, smell, sound and sight to inspire you. You never know where it'll lead you.

If you're a writer and have a book inspired by the five senses I'd love to hear about it. And with your permission I'd include in the reading list of my course.

Lynne Garner

Unashamed plug for my distance learning writing eCourses that start 6th October 2012
How To Write A Picture Book (six week course)