Saturday 30 May 2015

The Long and Winding Road to Publication, by Helen Dineen

Our guest blogger today is author Helen Dineen, who has recently found some picture book inspiration in running! Her tips are designed to help at those times when you perhaps feel you are flagging in your writing quest. 

In April, I enjoyed/endured (more of that later...) the fantastic ABP Half Marathon here in Southampton, UK. 5000 people pounding the streets, all for the joy of crossing the finishing line and getting that well-won medal. It got me thinking about the parallels between that race and the journey to becoming a published author. As everyone knows, it's definitely a marathon, not a sprint!  So, here's my list of 5 ways writing is like running....

1. Training - Every session counts. Even if it hurts, is painfully slow or is pouring with rain (hopefully not unless you are writing in the garden or your roof leaks), it's all adding to the final goal. Not every session will be a personal best. And everyone needs a rest day or two along the way. This month my friend Lorraine has been acting as my writing buddy, making sure I show up each day by messaging me to find out what I've achieved. I've got so much more done as a result!

2. Supporters - It's always good to have people to cheer you on. Especially when you come to that tricky hill, or are just two miles from the end. Around 9 miles of the half marathon, I got cramps and had to powerwalk most of the rest of the race. I was so disappointed, but determined to complete it. Jelly babies from those fantastic supporters really helped, as did seeing my kids' faces at the finish line.

Helen and big supporter Daniel

My SCBWI online critique group and local goal setting group spur me on through those tricky edits or the times when picking up the pen is the last thing I want to do. Most importantly, my agent - aka awesome personal trainer Anne Clark - is always ready to offer advice and support whenever I'm losing a bit of heart.

3. Banners - There were some fantastic signs along the way in Southampton and I'm sure even Paula Radcliffe loves a good banner! Feedback on your writing is also great to keep you moving forward. Whether that's comments from publishers or agents, competitions, or children who have read your stories, keep them handy for the times when you think you just can't be a writer. Don't be afraid to put them up around your PC or on the fridge.

4. Playlist - Many runners swear by a motivational playlist when the going gets tough. And so do writers. A quick poll came up with:

·       Lady Gaga - Born This Way - "when I really need ‘plugging in’ and I’m wondering why I don’t have a ‘proper job’"
·       Gun - Taking On the World - "Some days, it does feel like that."
·       Anything by Primal Scream
·       Korean Pop -  "Bouncy, catchy and because I can't understand a word I'm not distracted by the lyrics."
·       Disney - "Almost There"  from the Princess and the Frog  -(my choice) "A bit of Disney never fails to cheer you up!"

Turn up the volume on whatever will do the trick when it comes to getting your creative spirit fired up again.

And of course, the last thing you need to remember is ...

5. Nutrition - Always fuel up properly for the task ahead.   I could mention nuts, seeds, fruit, vegetables and plenty of protein, but sometimes only one fuel source will do.

So now you are all prepared to last the course. I'm still putting one foot doggedly in front of the other - hope to see you at the finish!

What's your favourite motivational song, and what else helps you on your writing journey?

Here's mine. Link to official Disney clip -

Helen Dineen is a picture book author represented by the Anne Clark Literary Agency. She also volunteers in a local school and is a part-time child-minding assistant. Find her on Twitter @aitcheldee or pounding the streets of Southampton.

Monday 25 May 2015

Two heads are better than one: The benefits of early author-illustrator collaboration • Jonathan Emmett

I mentioned in a Picture Book Den post earlier this year that, although people often assume that picture book authors and illustrators work closely together, it’s not unusual for the author and illustrator to have no direct contact, with the book’s creation being co-ordinated via the publisher.

One of my Dutch publishers told me that Dutch authors and illustrators regularly get together with the publisher during a picture book’s production to discuss how the project is progressing. However, if my own experience is anything to go by, regular meetings like this are not the norm in the UK. I’d been writing picture books for ten years before a publisher, Puffin, invited me to get together with illustrator Steve Cox to look at some of Steve’s initial concept sketches for our picture book Pigs Might Fly and discuss how it might be illustrated. Before then, I’d only met two illustrators I’d done a book with and spoken to a couple more on the phone, and this was always after the project was completed.

One reason for this lack of direct contact is that many picture book publishers like to moderate all communication between a book's author and illustrator. In the conventional UK set-up, an author gives any comments or ideas they might have regarding the illustrations to an editor, who then (if they agree with them) passes them on to the illustrator (sometimes via the book's designer). This is obviously a rather slow method of communication and misinterpretations can occur as the message is passed along the chain. Another disadvantage of the conventional set-up is that while the author has some influence over how the book is illustrated, the illustrator has relatively little influence over how the book is written, the story having been largely hammered out before they are on board.

The line of communication between author and illustrator is often indirect.
(Image taken from my "How a book is Made" school presentations)

When I first started creating picture books I'd intended to both write and illustrate and was in the habit of developing ideas simultaneously in both text and illustration. Although my illustration has largely fallen by the wayside, I still think of stories visually as much as verbally. I'll often get a story idea from looking at an image or conceive a story outline as a series of illustrations. So I've always thought that the conventional set-up, with its lack of direct interaction between author and illustrator, is less than ideal. Fortunately, I've been able to team up with several sympathetic illustrators who have been happy to exchange ideas at an early stage and several of my more recent picture books have been developed in a far more collaborative way.

After Mark Oliver had illustrated my text for Tom’s Clockwork Dragon, he and I were both keen to do another picture book together. So rather than leave it to chance, I asked Mark if there was anything he’d particularly like to illustrate. Mark sent me a list of ideas, one of which – a mechanical monster manual – became Monsters: An Owner’s Guide. We developed the idea between us and when we had a draft of the text and some concept art that we were both happy with, we offered it as a joint project to publishers. Thankfully, Macmillan accepted it and subsequently took Aliens; An Owner’s Guide as a follow-up.

Some of Mark Oliver's early concept art for Monsters: An Owner's Guide

Since then, I’ve worked on several stories where the illustrator has been involved from the initial concept stage and has often provided the initial inspiration. The Treasure of Captain Claw was written in answer to Steve Cox’s wish to illustrate a submarine story and my latest picture book, The Silver Serpent Cup, was written in response to a set of outlandish vehicle models that Ed Eaves had offered as a possible source of inspiration. 

The Silver Serpent Cup and some of the outlandish vehicle models, made by Ed Eaves, that inspired it.

Not all of the author-illustrator collaborations I’ve worked on have made it into print – I wrote two unpublished stories with the late Vanessa Cabban – but I’ve always enjoyed working with the illustrator to create them. And I suspect that, having helped shape the initial concept, the illustrators I’ve created these books with have felt a little more attached to these projects and may have been prepared to lavish a little extra care and attention on them.

Some of Vanessa Cabban's "Clara and Bertie" character sketches from an unpublished project we developed together.

There’s a synergy when text and illustration work well together in a picture book. This happens naturally when the same person is both writing and illustrating, but if the author and illustrator are two different people, such a synergy can be a lot easier to achieve if they get together early on to exchange ideas. I’d certainly recommend it!

Jonathan Emmett's latest collaborative picture book is Fast and Furry Racers: The Silver Serpent Cup illustrated by Ed Eaves and published by Oxford University Press.

Find out more about Jonathan and his books at his Scribble Street web site or his blogYou can also follow Jonathan on twitter @scribblestreet.

See all of Jonathan's posts for Picture Book Den.

Wednesday 20 May 2015

Adapting fairy tales - the Little Mermaid by Abie Longstaff

Rewriting fairy tales is always a challenge.

I like to bring the world up to date, to help children engage with the story better. This might include tackling gender, class and diversity issues, as well as making the characters dress and behave in a more contemporary style. Whatever your aims of adaptation, you still need to make sure the story retains enough of the flavour of the original to allow children to identify familiar themes and characters.

The latest Fairytale Hairdresser book - the Little Mermaid - had an added element to tackle. The original Hans Christian Anderson story is very dark and many people are not familiar with the ending. The tale is about sacrifice for love and has strong themes of moral 'goodness'. Anderson's mermaid chooses to swap her tail for legs, even though every step she takes will be like 'treading upon sharp knives'. In the end, she fails to win the heart of her prince and is given one last option to avoid becoming foam on the sea: kill the prince. The Little Mermaid refuses, and instead she throws herself into the ocean to meet her death.

Unsurprisingly, the Disney version has a different ending. In the 1989 film, Ariel and her prince fall in love and she is made a human permanently by her father, King Trident.

Like Disney, I wanted to steer clear suicidal mermaids, but I felt uncomfortable with the film's message of 'change for the one you love' so I spent a long time thinking through what I wanted to say. Why is the mermaid unhappy the way she is? Should she become a human permanently? Should the prince become a mermaid?

In my story (spoiler alert) the little mermaid finds she misses her tail. She returns to being a mermaid and she and her prince (Marino, a diving instructor) spend half of their time in her (underwater) palace:

and half the time in his:

You can read the original Little Mermaid tale here.

The Fairytale Hairdresser and the Little Mermaid is available from Amazon here or Waterstones here and also in independent shops like this one.

Friday 15 May 2015

How to Write a Vivid Picture Book: Living in the Moment by Natascha Biebow

Recently, a three year-old came to play at our house. When the time came to wash our hands for tea, she stepped up onto the little stool at the kitchen sink and I passed her a bar of soap. “What’s that?” she asked. “Soap,” I replied and showed her how, if you make it a little wet, you can get lots and lots of bubbles out of it. The delight in her face was a wonder. She had never seen soap in a bar before!

Wow, what else, will our modern children soon not recognize, I wondered. Already, talk of CDs

and chalkboards  

elicits a mystified gaze. 

“Did you have telephones, Mommy?” I am asked. Well, yes, I did. But we had to borrow our neighbour’s and making long-distance calls was a big deal

And I looked stuff up in the Encyclopedia Britannica

dusty volumes, also borrowed from our British neighbour in Rio and pored over the tiny type for various homework assignments. Now, we can search for anything we like with a quick click on Google. And plan on the weather (sort of) at a glance on our phones . . .

Recently, I’ve joined the Non-Fiction Archaelogy course run by Kristen Fulton, and recommended by fellow blogger, J Clare Bell. 
(c) Kristen Fulton
One of the first things I’ve re-discovered, is there are stories everywhere you look. This is also one of the aspects of being a writer that I enjoy the most.

So far, this week, I’ve discovered that:

• Goldie the golden eagle was a true Houdini, on the run from London zoo for 12 whole days in 1965, outwitting most adults who tried to capture him and causing a traffic jam in central London

• Another escape artist was Fu Manchu, the orangutan and late resident of the Omaha Zo, foiled zookeepers by picking the locks on his enclosure with a small piece of metal wiring that he kept hidden under his cheek.

• The average child wears down 720 crayons by their 10th birthday

• Harrods once sold an alligator as a Christmas gift for the Noel Coward

• There is a candy desk in the US Senate 
US Candy Desk as pictured on Wikipedia
And . . .

. . . some children have never seen soap!

One of our first tasks in the course has been to find a topic for a non-fiction picture book. It’s got me thinking about narrating a story that might have happened a long time ago so that it’s relevant to contemporary children.

Not only do writers need to research how things were in the past, they need to imagine themselves there so they can show, not tell. Also, importantly, writers of all picture books must capture the child living in the moment. Stories need to be told in ‘real-time’ and flashbacks are discouraged, because pre-school children can’t yet conceptualize time in the way that adults and older children can. This is because they are egocentric; their concept of time is limited to their immediate world and routine. It's only by having experiences involving familiar sequences and routines that they can gradually conceptualize events in the past and future, expanding their world view.

So, when considering their story, it’s important for writers to look around the world through a child’s eyes, with the same freshness, verve and excitement. What we need to do is really step into the main character’s shoes and live the story in the moment, to take the time to envision and describe each scene as if we were there . . .

. . . discovering the wonder of a bar of soap’s bubbles! 

This is no mean feat if you’re living some 100 or so years after the event you are researching. But capturing these little moments of wonder is the key to writing a truly great picture book story and taking today's child reader with you.

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 NEW small group coaching courses!

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.

Sunday 10 May 2015

The Fifties - Didn't we have them once already? - Jonathan Allen

Well, fashions come and go in the world of children's books. I've been only vaguely aware of it throughout my time in the business, but recently it has really become much more obvious. We are in the middle (or the end, please. . .) of a 1950s obsession, and it's starting to get depressing. it's pretty universal, not just children's books, but this is a grumpy rant about Picture Books so I won't go into fabric and interior design. . . ;-)
Not that the style in question is depressing per se, just that the unoriginality of a lot of the stuff out there is depressing. It's the law of diminishing returns, people mindlessly copying people who are copying people who are copying people who are aping particular 1950's styles like that of the wonderful Miroslav Sasek -

– and Cliff Roberts -

and Mary Blair -

and the also wonderful Margaret Bloy Graham -

And Jim Flora -

Don't get me wrong, I love those original artists, and I love the best of the current artists that are influenced by them. There is nothing wrong with being influenced by others, even copying if it leads to your own style.

But. . . . I lose the will to live when I see a style being done to death by those who really should be trying to work out their own style and their own take on the world. Why do they do it? Is it a lack of confidence, or of self respect?
I never understood unthinking fashion following in the first place so it puts me at a disadvantage I guess. Not that I'm trying to occupy some sort of moral high ground. Well, maybe I'll claim a molehill's worth of hieght. After all, we all see ourselves as paragons of discernment, however delusional that view might be, I'm no different ;-)

Is it wholly market led? It may be that the market has pushed artists in this direction. If something is doing well, publishers will want more stuff like it of course.

Is there some correlation between our times and the fifties that leads people to this abstracted, flat, design led style? To the distance these styles keep the viewer from their subject? The fifties seems to have been a time when Modern was seen as good. Now in our more pessimistic times are we nostalgic about that idea and view of The Modern?
Are things so tough and uncertain that we want to stand a safe distance from the world, especially the world we present to our kids? I'm not any kind of psychologist so I don't know the answer to these questions, but I find the idea interesting.

What I do know is that I for one am getting bored sick of it. It's the illustration world's equivalent of all those young men with big beards, shaved sides of heads and plaid/check shirts ;-) That's getting really old too.

Talking of 'old', put the word 'grumpy' and 'man' in there too and you've defined me absolutely. . .

So as a card carrying Grumpy Old Man confronted by this Fifties obsession, I will say, as I've heard Americans say, 'Stick a fork in it and turn it over, it's done!' 

Tuesday 5 May 2015

The Tiger Who We All Wish Would Come To Tea With Us, by Pippa Goodhart

Last Saturday I had a treat.  I went to hear Judith Kerr talking about her work in Cambridge Union.  Judith Kerr is a hero of mine for sharing her remarkable child refugee life with us all in her 'When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit' series of books, for her wonderful picture books, and just for being such an inspiring and nice person.  Still publishing picture books now, in her nineties, she's a role model!  But what I wanted to hear about most of all was her first, and I think, her best picture book of them all - The Tiger Who Came To Tea.

Judith and small daughter used to get ‘terribly bored’. So she made up bedtime stories. Judith felt that some of her other stories were at least as good as The Tiger One, but her daughter insisted on that Tiger One more than any other. "Talk the tiger' is what she would demand.  One can imagine how such repeated tellings honed the wording of the story to perfection.

It was only once her daughter, Tacy, and the son who came later, were both at school ‘and staying there for their dinners’ that Judith had time for her own creative work once more, and she began that with the tiger story she knew so well.  That was in 1966.

The prospective publisher liked the story, but questioned ‘how realistic’ it was that the tiger drank from a tap. Anyone with a cat knows that they do drink from taps, certainly more than they knock on front doors! And the glory of that drinking moment is that the Tiger ‘drank all the water in the tap’. I think that's the moment in the story we all remember the most. Incidentally, I couldn’t resist a little homage to that moment in one of my Winnie the Witch stories (written under the fake name of Laura Owen). When Winnie gets a new kitten, much to Wilbur’s annoyance, in a story in ‘Winnie The Bold’, it’s a tiger cub she’s got by mistake, rather than a kitten. That tiger causes havoc, eating everything in the larder and the fridge, and then, of course, drinking all the water in the tap. I’m so glad that Judith held strong and kept that tap-drinking!


The other problem perceived by the publishers was with one aspect of Judith’s artwork. ‘And they were quite right,’ said Judith. She had modelled the father figure on her husband, but he looked very different in different spreads. So she tried to get him to sit for her properly so that she could get the images right, but he was too busy … so she used an out of work actor friend instead, and, she says, that you can see that Daddy is distinctly ‘different’ on different pages. I’d never noticed that, but now I've gone back to look, I do see it!

 Michael Rosen has a theory that the tiger knocking at the door, then coming in and helping itself to everything, represents the Gestapo who were doing their worst in the Germany that the Kerr family fled as the Nazis came to full power. But Judith Kerr says that’s quite wrong. The story grew the way it did because she and her daughter got bored with just each other for company whilst ‘Daddy’ was at work. They used to long for somebody to come and visit, and so that’s why the story grew out of a visitor coming to tea. Why a tiger? Simply because they had been to the zoo together, and both fallen in love with the tiger they saw there. She says they hadn’t at all contemplated how dangerous a tiger might be; just that they were so very beautiful, and they made you want to stroke that wonderful orange fur. So to have a tiger visiting, and letting you lean against its orange fur strength and warmth wasn’t a scary prospect at all. It was wonderful. I doubt any read it as a scary story. And, besides, the tiger is so very polite, he’s not at all a nasty intruder!

But that’s one of the beauties of stories, and especially those which are simply told. They leave room for you to bring your own interpretation to them. They become your story, individual to each one of us because we each ‘read’ and complete the story in our own unique way.