Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Competition winner - but is it ready for publication?

I was recently asked to look at a picture book text that had won a prize in a competition.

1st Prize
 The problem was that when it was sent out to editors it just came bouncing back, again and again.  The writer was understandably concerned.

So what was wrong with it?  I said I would look at it and see if there was an obvious problem, but I couldn't promise anything.

One of the problems with competitions is that they can raise expectations in unrealistic ways, often unintentionally.  This might happen when the entrants and the judges are making widely differing assumptions about the end result.

e.g. Imagine you enter a competition that says 'Write a story for under 5 year olds in 750 words.'
  1.   Does that mean it is always a picture book text?
    • If the rules do not specify this, then it could be a story in a different format, a poem, or a short story, and not necessarily a picture book. 
  2.  Does it mean that the story is ready and fit for publication?
    •  This is not necessarily the same thing as whether or not it is a well written or enjoyable story.  As presented for the competition it may not have an obvious route to publication.  The problem is whether the entrants understand that publication is a commercial decision based on a variety of factors i.e. in the right format, the right length and original enough, not solely on the merits of the actual story/writing.
  3.  Does it mean the story is likely to be published?
    • This is the tricky one. There is never a guarantee of publication for any story and for the reasons above it may not be right for publication. But, difficult as it is to admit, it might depend on the overall standard of entries to the competition, and whether the adjudicator has had to choose a winner out of the entries that were presented.
It is an achievement to win a competition but, however wonderful, it is not a sure road to publication.

It is often easier looking at someone else's writing to spot the problems as it makes you analyse what makes a book work, and also what can go wrong.  But I am always aware of how difficult it is to have someone read your work and tell you things are not right with it!
When I looked at this story I immediately saw that although it was an interesting idea and nicely written, there were several things that I felt were not working as a picture book. It felt more like a poem and I could see it was going to take quite a bit of (painful?) editing to make it work as a picture book.

Why was that?
Hamish McHaggis © Sally J Collins
If you read over some of the previous posts on Picturebook Den you will see how often people talk about the images, the importance of understanding how the words and the pictures work together over the 12 or 14 double page spreads.  Even if you are not an illustrator, and most picture book authors are not, you need to visualise the story.

I found I had no sense of how this story would be told over the different spreads. This is not to say that I was looking to have it marked as 'spread 1' and 'spread 2' etc.  But reading the text I felt that the writer had not 'seen' the story unfolding in her mind's eye. When I tried to imagine how it would look on the page I realised that too much of what was happening in the text would be the same visually, time after time.

The story was a lot of fun and had many different elements to it. There was counting, colours and lots of characters and in fact that was one of the problems. It had too much going on and most of it was repeated too often.

Repetition featured strongly in the actual words used, phrase by phrase, but each time it was almost exactly the same. In picture books every single word has to earn its place and repetition can work really well but it needs some variation within it, making it more interesting to read out loud.  Or perhaps with a catch phrase that is repeated.  Children love it when they can anticipate what is coming and can say it along with the person reading to them.

There were lots of characters (contributing to the counting and the colours) but they were all the same, no quirks or interesting features that would make me care about them, or what was happening to them.

The story was in rhyme and, as sometimes happens, it felt as if the story was being shaped by the rhyme rather than the rhyme enhancing the story.  It is one reason why it is often better to try and avoid rhyme and concentrate on the rhythm.

The ending- This is such a crucial part of any picture book and often the most difficult part to get right. It sometimes helps to think about how you would describe the book to someone else. The writer needs to be able to say what the story is about. 
If you are writing a novel you are sometimes asked to describe, in one or two sentences, the main theme of the novel. I think this can be applied to a picture book, too. By this I don't mean saying 'This is a counting book, or a book about colours.'  It's about the emotional journey, what do the main character(s) learn in the book, what makes me care about them and does the story end in a satisfying manner?

e.g. in the Gruffalo- A clever little mouse outwits the animals who want to eat him by persuading them he has a fearsome (imaginary?) friend. When the Gruffalo appears the mouse tricks him too, so that the Gruffalo ends up believing that the little mouse is truly the ' scariest creature in the woods'.

A picture book takes a child on a journey with the characters but there needs to be some kind of resolution that makes is feel there was a reason for the story to be told in the first place.

Reading all the changes I suggest, you might be led to think the original story was needing too much work. But I felt that it was a lovely idea that needed a bit of reshaping and a lot more visualisation before it could work as a picture book.  The difficulty for the writer might be letting go of the original and taking a fresh look at it with  images in mind.

There is never just one way to tell a story.  Nothing is every wasted, it is amazing how often a story or idea can be changed, shuffled about and reshaped into something new, often even better.

Competitions are great for writers, in fact I got my first encouragement to start writing when I won a local library short story competition.  Competitions give you a deadline and a challenge, and although they may not lead directly to publication they can help to take you another step closer.

Linda Strachan is the award winning author of over 60 books for all ages, from picture books to teen novels, and writing handbook Writing For Children.

Website   www.lindastrachan.com


Candy Gourlay said...

Thank you so much. I've been shopping picture books recently and needed exactly this advice!

Moira Butterfield said...

An outstandingly good blog, Linda. Such good points. Picture Books are not easy. Repeat..Picture books are not easy!

Nicola Morgan said...

Brilliant, Linda! I'm going to recommend that writers who approach my consultancy with picture book texts read this!

Linda Strachan said...

Thanks, Candy, glad it was useful.

Linda Strachan said...

Thanks, Moira.
Seems no matter how often we say it people tend to think that because picture books have a small number of words and are for young children, they imagine that they must be simple to write!

Linda Strachan said...

Thanks, Nicola!

Penny Dolan said...

Wise points about the story needing to be seen. Some folk tales have a cumulative pattern so don't offer enough variety in the scenes & images, or the restrictions of the book's pages mean that a long cumulative effect(eg Chicken Licken)would be cut and lose impact.

However, while The Gruffalo has a sort of cumulative pattern, the mouse is actually on a walk so the scenery itself offers a range of "wood illustration" opportunities.

Thanks, Linda.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post! Picture books are one of the hardest things to write. The bit about scene variation is a key distinction, I think, between magazine piece and picture book.You must tell a whole story with an economy of words. Every word must count and feel fresh and somehow move the story along. Thanks for expressing the essence of picture book writing so well.

Abie Longstaff said...

Thanks Linda - that's a really useful summary of the necessary elements of picture book texts. There are a lot of competitions around and, as you point out, the winning books aren't necessarily ready for publication. Competitions can be fun to enter, though, and they motivate you to get in the habit of writing and presenting work. Like you I was encouraged to write by doing very well in a competition (it's also how I attracted the attention of an agent). Funnily enough, that story that did well all those years ago has never been published as a picture book! The text read well but didn't work with image - reflecting just what you have been saying.

Linda Strachan said...

That's right, Penny. Not every story is right for a picture book, at least not in the original form. I wonder if this is the same as the way that not all books make great films unless changed and viewed differently for that medium.

Linda Strachan said...

Thank you, Laura.

Talking of competitions, I think you are the same Laura S. who won a copy of my book What Colour is Love? in Portuguese, in our giveaway in October last year. See the comments below the post


You have not claimed your copy so please get in touch using the contact button on the header, at the top of the page and I can get it organised for you!

Linda Strachan said...

I agree that competitions are a good way to motivate you as long as you understand the limitations and adjust your expectations.

I also wanted to mention that the writer, whose story I talked about in this post, responded very positively to my comments and has taken a very professional attitude in that she is prepared to work on the story revising it again and again, until it is right for publication.

Anonymous said...

Yes, that is me! I'll pop over and try to push the right button! Thanks!

Juliet Clare Bell said...

I agree on the competition front. They're great for making you get something done to a deadline. But I think people should be wary about making assumptions about what doors it may open if they win (unless it specifically states a contract etc).

Jane Clarke said...

Just like, Abie, doing well in a competition motivated me to carry on writing - and that story was never published, either. Very helpful post, Linda.

Linda Strachan said...

Thanks, Jane.

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