Monday 24 February 2014

The SAS Conference 2014 by Abie Longstaff

This weekend I met up with forty-one other children’s authors in a secret location (ok it was Peterborough) to talk about all aspects of writing children’s books, from the initial spark of an idea, all the way through to marketing and sharing the published work.

The snowdrops were out in Peterborough! (Thanks Liz Kessler for this lovely pic)
We are all part of the Scattered Authors Society, the other SAS, which brings together published children’s authors to share information and to support one another. Writing can feel like a lonely job sometimes, scribbling away on our separate computers or bits of paper. It’s easy to forget there are others out there struggling with the same issues of plot, character and resolution.

I love meeting up with everyone, seeing old friends and hearing about all the gossip. I find it really uplifting to share my past year, the ups and the downs of writing, and to hear how other, more experienced authors have coped with similar problems or successes. 

It’s also useful to remind ourselves that it’s a bit of a crazy rollercoaster, this business of ours; and authors who last time were having a rubbish year might suddenly have been given an award, or had a fantastic new book deal. We’re all in it for the long-haul and it’s easy to lose sight of that when you’re stuck in your study on your own.

Abie Longstaff, Jane Clarke and Paeony Lewis at the SAS Conference 2014

This year the sessions included: the fabulous Malorie Blackman kindly answering all our questions, Tim Collins and Jackie Merchant talking about using humour, Nicola Morgan giving advice on writing synopses, and a panel discussion on writing about dark subject matter. At the end we all (anonymously) shared information: how much we earned, what we think of our agents and other top secret stuff!

Here are some of the best tips from the weekend:

1. Naps are allowed - 'creative naps' that is. When you are stuck for an idea or a route, the lovely Lucy Coats recommends lying down and meditating to help find your way.

2. A lot can be solved by a nice swim and a long walk with a good friend.

3. Ideas for books can come from unlikely places eg this spoof story in The Onion about a dolphin going on holiday to swim with stockbrokers.

4. When you get stuck with your writing, read a genre you don't normally read.

5. If you are having trouble developing a character, try making an 'emotional synopsis' for your book. What does the character want? What obstacles are in his/her way? What is the end of the story? How does the character change in the course of the journey?

6. 'Manuscript friends' are invaluable - find another author who understands your style and is willing to give you honest feedback.

7. Give your work space - put it aside for weeks and work on something else. 

8. If you are doing research for a picture book, never look up 'beaver' on the internet.

9. When you send a piece of work out to an agent or publisher, don't sit around moping while you wait for feedback, start working on your next new idea straight away.

10. If you have a good idea, don't tell Liz Kessler your plan ;) - see her sister post on the ABBA blog today.

Wednesday 19 February 2014

The Wonderful Rule of 3 by Natascha Biebow

All good things come in threes (and bad things, too). Why? It seems that three is the smallest number needed to create a pattern; it makes stories more satisfying and funnier. Plus everyone knows that stories must have three elements: a beginning middle and end.

From early on, children are preconditioned to expect this pattern:

The rhythm of the day has three parts – morning, noon and night –
and three meals too – breakfast, lunch and tea.
The rhythm of growing has three stages: baby, child and teen.
Most of the lullabies, songs and nursery rhymes told and sung from babyhood are built upon the rhythm of the magical number 3:

Baa, baa black sheep – three baa’s and then wool for the master, the dame and little boy in the lane 

Three little bears – with three sizes: big, middle-sized and small

Three little pigs, three billy goats gruff, and so on.
From Pat-a-Cake Nursery Rhymes by Annie Kubler

Even in the tiny story of the nursery rhyme, the rhythm of three sets up the pattern of storytelling, in which the story is set up, there are three examples and then a turning point/conclusion:

Set up the story: Pat a cake, Pat a cake, baker's man
Bake me a cake as fast as you can; 

Now, build up the story with three elements:
  1. Pat it,
  2. and prick it
  3. and mark it with a ‘B’, 
Give it an outcome: And put it in the oven for baby and me. 

When writing picture books, it is often handy to keep in mind how using the rule of three helps to deliver an exciting, page-turning plot and keep the narrative moving swiftly forward.

1.  Sometimes, the whole plot is built upon the rule of three. For example, in Duck in a Truck, when Duck’s truck gets stuck in the muck, Jez Alborough uses three instances to resolve the main problem: 

  1.   Frog hops down to help.
  2.    Sheep tries to push.
  3.   Then Goat, passing by in his motor boat, comes up with the clever plan that solves Duck’s problem:

    From Duck In a Truck by Jez Alborough

2.    The rule of three is also a great tool for advancing the plot.  

Once the author has set-up the story and its central problem, it can help to build-up suspense and work towards a clear turning point in the plot.

For instance, in That Rabbit Belongs to Emily Brown, the Queen wants Emily Brown’s much-loved rabbit Stanley in exchange for a golden teddy bear. Feisty Emily Brown tells the Chief Footman firmly that the rabbit is not for sale. So, the Queen sends: 

 1. The Army
From That Rabbit Belongs to Emily Brown by Cressida Cowell and Neal Layton

2. The Navy
From That Rabbit Belongs to Emily Brown by Cressida Cowell and Neal Layton

3. The Air Force

From That Rabbit Belongs to Emily Brown by Cressida Cowell and Neal Layton

Each time, they try to exchange ‘Bunnywunny’ for an even greater number of outlandish gifts. And, with each spread, Emily Brown’s consistent refusal builds until she is “FED UP!”

Then something must change in the pattern of the plot. So when the Queen has Stanley stolen, Emily Brown has no choice but to confront the Queen herself so she can tell her how to make the golden teddy as loveable as Stanley.

In another example, when Max is crowned King of the Wild Things in Sendak’s classic, three wordless spreads follow, adding drama and indicating the passage of time. These illustrate the wild things’ antics, building up to the turning point when Max orders the them to stop and sends them to bed. Then, realizing he’s lonely, he goes home to his supper and those who love him "best of all".

From Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak

From Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak

From Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak

Often, three consecutive examples can also help to advance a sub-section of the plot.

In the classic, Harry the Dirty Dog, when Harry comes home after having played by the railway, played tag with the other dogs and slid down the coal chute (three things!), he is no longer a white dog. His family are sure that this can't be Harry, so he:
  1.  “flip-flipped and flop-flipped”
  2. “rolled over and played dead”
  3.  “danced and sang
     From Harry the Dirty Dog by Gene Zion & Margaret Bloy Graham
    But, his family still don't recognize him . . . What follows is a moment of pause, before the story picks up again and Harry remembers to dig up the scrubbing brush he's hidden in the garden and ‘beg’ for a bath!

    3.   Sometimes, the rule of threes is even used like a mini-plot within the story, as in Olivia:
    1. Olivia admires modern art at the museum
    2. She tries it herself at home . . .
       From Olivia by Ian Falconer
    3. Then, Time to think! 

    Or as a way to introduce some information about the characters (especially useful as an illustrative device across a page or a spread).

    As in Quentin Blake’s Angelica Sprocket’s Pockets:
    1.       “There’s a pocket for mice,”
    2.       “and a pocket for cheese”
    3.       “and a pocket for hankies in case anyone feels that they’re going to sneeze”

      From Angelica Sprocket's Pockets by Quentin Blake

    In Olivia, her morning routine includes three elements:

     From Olivia by Ian Falconer
    1. “In the morning, after she gets up and moves the cat,”
    2. “and brushes her teeth and combs her ears,”
    3. “and moves the cat”
    4. Finally, the rule of three is a really useful way to give the writing a satisfying rhythm.
    Here are just two examples:

    In Jane Clarke’s Knight School, Little Knight and Little Dragon discover that  school is fun:
    From Knight School by Jane Clarke & Jane Massey
    1.   “Little Knight and Little Dragon sang funny songs.
    2. “painted fabulous pictures,”
    3. “and listened to fantastic stories.”

    In Mo Willems’ Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs, by virtue of it being a spoof of Goldilocks and the Three Little Bears, practically the whole book follows the rule of three. Here is an example of how Willems uses it at the climax of the story, giving the page a great read-aloud rhythm: 

    “Just then a loud plane flew by, which sounded pretty much like a trio of Dinosaurs yelling 
    1.   “NOW”
    2. or “CHARGE!” 
    3. or the Norwegian expression for “CHEWY-BONBON-TIME!"

    From Goldilocks and the Three Bears by Mo Willems

    The rhythm of three is everywhere in picture books! If you look for it, you will start to see how it can work wonderfully to create predictable and unpredictable rhythms in your work, too.

    Natascha Biebow
    Author, Editor and Mentor

    BlueElephant Storyshaping is an editing, coaching and mentoring service aimed at empowering writers and illustrators to fine-tune their work pre-submission. Natascha is also the author of Elephants Never Forget and Is This My Nose?, editor of numerous award-winning children’s books, and Regional Advisor (Chair) of SCBWI British Isles.

    Friday 14 February 2014

    Unleash Your Inner Rabbit by Jonathan Allen

    A few years ago, oh all right, more than a few years ago, I did a drawing workshop as part of day at Andover Library (I think it was there. . .). Anyway, it was concerned with drawing animals in a kid's book style, working from some stuffed animals the museum service had available. It was quite fun, and some nice drawings resulted. But it wasn't the results that made it interesting for me, it was the change of viewpoint it triggered. It made me look at what I do from an outsider's perspective and begin to see it as a process to be explored objectively.

    Drawing for children's books, in my particular niche at least, is about simplifying. About reducing something to its essence and expressing that in a few lines. The interesting thing about this process is, that the essence you are reducing something to has as much to do with shared preconceptions as it has to do with physical reality.

    I'll give an example of this in context. I was doing some drawing on a big flipchart while on a school visit, and as a bit of fun, I tried an experiment. Before I began to draw I asked the children to shout out as soon as they knew what animal I was drawing. I quickly drew two basic sausage shapes, sticking up vertically.

    That was all that was needed. "Rabbit!" was the immediate response. I drew a long tube, thicker at one end, with an inverted 'v' at the thin end,

    "Elephant!" came the cry almost immediately. They didn't need many visual clues at all. Some of them even got "Giraffe" straight away from one ear and the two knobbly bits on it's head, I didn't even have to draw the long neck!

    So what were they responding to? I think it was the idea of the particular animal that they were recognising. The shared concept of what a rabbit, for example, 'looks like' - what makes up a satisfactory rabbit according to our learned preconceptions. This shared concept would have been absorbed from children's books, cartoons and any other second or third hand manifestations of the collectively agreed Rabbit we carry within us, that they would have been exposed to. Some of it might have come from exposure to real rabbits, but not much.

    Current scientific thinking seems to indicate that this mental process is a basic part of how the brain copes with the complexity of the visual world, by categorising and storing information into 'templates' to hold visual input up against, and guaging the relative importance of that visual input etc.  We interpret the world on a 'need to know' basis, and our 'need to know' rabbit has -

    1 - Big, sticky-up ears.
    2 - Two prominent front teeth, though not 'fangs'.
    3 - A white fluffy tail.

    Which is why, in a Children's book, as long as a character has those attributes, it doesn't matter what shape or colour it is, what size it is, or whether it talks, wears clothes, or drives fork lift truck, everyone knows it's a Rabbit. Of course it is!

    featuring my 'inner, need-to-know fork lift truck'. . .

    Sunday 9 February 2014

    The Inspiration For My Story - Group Post Part Two

    As we had such good feed back from our previous joint blog, we've decided to do a second one on the stories behind our stories. Find out the inspiration behind three picture books. Hope you enjoy! 

    For me, the best books come out of something real. In this case, growing up in a big noisy family.  Felicity, David, Gregory, Jim, Marian, Raphael, MALACHY, and four years later, Michael. Sometimes, at the bottom end of a big family, it's hard to get yourself heard. Sometimes it all gets a bit too much, and you want to run away and hide. So you do. And do they come looking for you? No. And do you miss them? A bit. Then a lot.

    Moira Butterfield
    The inspiration for 'Smile Baby Smile' came from my experience as a first-time young parent, when I didn't really know how to solve my son's crying and I tried all sorts of things, eventually discovering that he basically needed a big burp (that gives you a clue as to what finally makes the baby smile). When my second son and my niece came along there was a sense of the whole family joining in to try to help with the new arrival, and that's what happens in the book. The sentences are short and rhythmic, like a clapping song that we might sing to babies. I was trying to create a book that the whole family could use together when a new baby came along, because it is such a shared experience.

    Paeony Lewis
    Some of my stories were inspired by my children and one of these is No More Yawning! Oh, we had such terrible trouble getting our young daughter to go to sleep. We had a set, quiet bedtime routine (after a bath, there were always lots of stories, though nothing too bouncy) and she'd assure us she was trying really hard to sleep. But by 10pm, 11pm or even midnight,  our daughter would still be adamant it wasn't her fault she hadn't fallen asleep. We tried everything (they're in the story) and the one that helped most is the one I used when I was a child, so of course it's the one that works for Florence in the story. This is one book  I couldn't have written without the experience (frustration!) of being a parent, though it's not the case for every story. 

    By the way, since writing the story I've heard (and discovered for myself) that if you get the child to join in the yawning, they'll start yawning for real and get sleepy. Yawning is infectious!

    Now we've shared what inspired us. If you're a writer we'd love to know what inspired you to write one of your books.

    Tuesday 4 February 2014

    Why do some picture books stay in print for decades? by Paeony Lewis

     Some picture books go out of print in a year, whilst others stay in print for twenty, thirty or fifty years. Is it because these perennial favourites are outstanding? Or is it because some books quickly become dated? For example, times change, and I couldn’t resist including an original illustration (by Peggy Fortnum) from the young chapter book Paddington at Large (1962). It shows Paddington smoking a cigar. He wasn't being a naughty, unhealthy Paddington in the 1960s!

    My musings about the longevity of picture books began when a friend asked me why books like Judith Kerr's The Tiger Who Came To Tea stay in print (first published 1968). My friend wondered what it was that keeps some books in print. My initial answer was to say that if a child enjoyed a book when they were young, then they’d remember and buy it to share with their children. But now I'm not so sure.

    I suspect grandparents may play a more important role in keeping picture books in print. As parents, we remember which books we enjoyed sharing with our children (these may, or may not, also be the children’s favourites). Then when the parents become grandparents, if they see the book in a shop they become nostalgic and buy the book for their grandchildren.

    By Paeony Lewis, illus by Penny Ives
    What evidence do I have to back this up? Not a lot! However, my I’ll Always Love You is now a scary 14 years old and although it's not in the same category as the classics, I've begun getting lovely emails from new grandparents telling me they’re buying the book for their grandchild because they remember reading this story of unconditional love to their child. These grandparents tend to be American as it's especially popular there and a new bookshop edition has just come out.

    Thank you grandparents, but why have I discounted my theory about parents buying picture books that they enjoyed when they were children? I'm sure there are exceptions, but my gut says there are two reasons why it's not necessarily new parents (OK, my gut isn't scientific, so feel free to disagree!).

    Firstly, do all adults remember and reminisce about the picture books they enjoyed as children? I do, but I work in the world of picture books and still have my old books, so I'm not necessarily typical. I asked my ‘children’ (21 and 19) which picture books they remembered liking, and they struggled. YES, THEY STRUGGLED! I feel miffed!

    First published 1969
    One forgetful child admitted there were so many picture books it was hard to remember (interesting, when I was a child I had just a few that were looked at continuously). The glorious The Very Hungry Caterpillar was the only one remembered by my son, but he claimed no strong emotional attachment to it.

    First published 1990
    My daughter particularly remembered one evocative book about a whale and after a discussion she agreed it was The Whale’s Song. I knew she adored that one because I read it to her over and over and over again. I also mentioned others I knew she had adored, but she had no memory of these once-favourite books. Perhaps if I’d dug them out she’d have recognised them, although she denies remembering Demon Teddy, despite being shown the damming evidence that once upon a time she liked him (see image!).

    Somebody liked Nicolas Allan's Demon Teddy!

    By George Christian
    If I have grandchildren (no pressure, my dearest children…) I know I’ll be buying them new picture books as well as books that fill me with nostalgia for the days when they were tiny and we curled up together to share books. However, I never shared or bought my children the picture books I adored as a child. Why’s that? I've decided it’s because they’re too personal, aren't necessarily great, and they are a product of their time and most aren't in print. Even so, I’ll share three with you (and perhaps more another time).

    Patch Pants the Tailor
    I'm sure nobody has heard of Patch Pants the Tailor. A strange book and inappropriate (we were embarrassingly  ignorant in the 1960s and it was first published in 1947). However, I adored this book and I think it was because Patch was unhappy and wanted more from life than patching and mending clothes, so he sailed in a boat with Salty the sailor and they were wrecked on a clich├ęd tropical island complete with 'natives' they suspected were cannibals (I told you it was embarrassing). Anyway, Patch sets up shop on the island and lives happily ever after. And why did I like it? My inner pop psychologist says it was because I was unhappy at home and wanted to escape (probably true as I did make up detailed plans for running away!).

    There's one small picture book that I did buy again (only for me), and that's because the original was lost on a trip to a garden centre. A relative wasn't sure he'd recognise a weeping willow tree, so I lent him my ancient copy of Andy Pandy and the Willow Tree. I'd always loved the images of the 'toys' having a picnic deep inside the green tent of dappled leaves. It seemed  magical and I even included a picnic under a willow tree in a story that was almost published. One day...

    My 'annotated' 1963 edition.
    By Margaret Wise Brown,
    Illus by Leonard Weisgard 
    Another book that made a visual impression was Pussy Willow. I remember enjoying the illustrations and the flowery language of Margaret Wise Brown, and I still have a soft spot for pussy willow in the spring (and cats).

    New 1997 illustrations - not for me.
    It was originally published in 1951 and my edition is 1963. I've discovered a 1997 edition with new sugary illustrations. Why did they do this? If something is an old favourite, why change the illustrations? Nobody would re-illustrate The GruffaloWhere the Wild Things Are, Owl Babies, Peepo or Madeline (oops, I've just checked and there are new illustrations for a Madeline series, sigh).

    It's about time I returned to the original topic. Why do some picture books keep on going? Are grandparents key to a book staying in print for several decades? I think so, although a book has to be popular to begin with, and stay in print (that's vital, and media tie-ins help with this). Plus I feel it needs to be the sort of book that is either utterly brilliant or has an emotional pull that evokes loving memories. So what makes a classic book that stays in print? Tricky! There are lots of wonderful books that haven't lasted decades. Any suggestions for resurrections?

    Paeony Lewis