Sunday 27 September 2015

Illustration Notes? by Natascha Biebow

At the SCBWI picture book retreat this summer, we had a debate about illustration notes. 

Some quite well-established authors and illustrators argued that we should be allowed to include these to communicate clearly to the editor how the book should work. How else would we explain everything?!

We put the question to one of the editors who came to speak. "Definitely not!" she said.

Hmm... So illustration notes are a big no, no...

Oh dear, we all wailed. As authors who don’t draw, this is so hard! However will we communicate everything we’re imagining in our heads?  How will we be sure the editor “gets” our stories?

OK, deep breath.  Remember two things:  

1. Picture book editors know how to imagine the pictures. It's their job.

When you add illustrator notes, you are interrupting the flow of the words as the editor is reading your story. It is distracting and highly annoying.

Editors are skilled at reading picture book texts and imagining the pictures. They instinctively know how to match a really good story with just the right illustrator to add an extra level of detail, humour and excitement.

2. The pictures are the illustrator’s job
They don’t want to be told how to do their job . . .

When you add detailed illustrator notes, it is as if you are trying to micro-manage the illustrator. Picture book illustrators are skilled at imagining stories and scenes when they read a story. They don’t want to be told how it should look. Chances are, they will add layers to your story that you never even imagined. This is why picture books are so exciting to work on – they evolve.

Remember, too, that once a book is commissioned, editors will offer authors the opportunity to share their vision and comment on the roughs and artwork.

But, how, oh how, will you be able to get across your story clearly without illustration notes?

First, take them ALL out.  

Eek, I know, it's hard. Now, pretend you are all cosy on the story carpet, ready to hear a story read aloud to you. Read the story out loud. It should be attention-grabbing!

You should be able to hear it flow without the need for any explanation. The story has to be strong enough to stand alone. If it doesn’t make sense, you’ll need to add more context, more specific scenes, more vivid dialogue.

But what about the word count, I hear you wail! 

Yes, this is a challenge. You will need to add more words to get it all in, and then cut, cut, cut, so that each word works extra hard. If you polish your ‘show, don’t tell’ skills, and create vivid scenes so we can be there in the moment, you don’t need too many words.

Make up a small dummy book and read it aloud, looking at how the page turns work. This is a great way to check the pacing of your story, but also to see where you can cut unnecessary explanations and words.


So can I never include illustration notes? Are there any exceptions to this rule?

One technique you can try is to include any really important notes concerning the story in the cover letter to the editor. This is where, for instance, you can explain that your main character is a particular animal or that at the end of the story, there is an unexpected visual twist.

Visual irony: if your story relies on visual irony, for example, with the text saying one thing, and the illustrations showing the reality, you can include a very brief illustration note.

Page turn surprise: sometimes, surprises are revealed when a page is turned, in which case a short, bracketed note will be enough. 

Visual twist or wordless page: if your story relies on a visual joke or there is a wordless page, you can include a brief note to this effect.

Novelty books: in the case of novelty books, you can consider mocking up your idea simply in order to convey how the narrative works. 

One author who came from a marketing background, used to send me stick figure drawings as part of his manuscript – one for his idea of the cover and one for the visual twist. It was simple and effective, and it didn’t interfere with reading and enjoying the story. But, generally speaking, if your story is strong enough, you shouldn't need to send any stick figures, gimmicks or chocolates. Your voice should speak for itself!

Do you have any illuminating or frustrating experiences with illustration notes that you'd like to share?

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.

Tuesday 22 September 2015

How to write a bestseller – Unintentionally! By Mary Hoffman

Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman,
illus by Caroline Binch
(25th Anniversary Edition, Frances Lincoln)
We're delighted that this month our guest blogger is award-winning author, Mary Hoffman. Mary's getting ready to celebrate something she never imagined would happen...

I am having a silver anniversary this month – no, not with my husband, but a whole slew of other people. My publishers, Frances Lincoln, are bringing out the 25th anniversary edition of my picture book Amazing Grace.

That little book has been one of the most successful titles I have ever written. It led to three more picture books (Grace and Family, Princess Grace and Grace at Christmas), three story books (Starring Grace, Encore, Grace! and Bravo, Grace!), two plays at the Minneapolis Children’s Theatre, an opera in San Francisco and currently is optioned for a TV series.

The thing is: it was just another text when I wrote it. A 32-page picture book which, as I knew well by then, means 12 “spreads” (double page openings) in which to tell a story, beginning on page 6/7 and ending on page 29 or 30. In fact I wrote the first drafts of two other picture book texts the same day, back in April 1989. One was published, one was bottom-drawered and one was Amazing Grace.

I had a precious day away from the demands of three small children, the household and the constant interruptions that are the life of anyone who works from home. I had just been for a swim and, wrapped in a towel, I wrote, “Grace was a girl who loved stories …” 

Grace, illus by Caroline Binch

Not quite as momentous as “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit…” but almost! The story flowed quite easily and I had always known that Grace would be Black. It was partly because I wanted to show her overcoming all sorts of obstacles and I thought, quite wrongly as it turned out, that sexism would not be as rife in in the 1990s as it was when I was growing up. So I added race as another level of challenge for Grace doing what she wanted to do.

When I had written the first draft – by hand on a lined pad, I took it home and typed it up and sent it to my agent, Pat White. I asked her to send it to my editor at Methuen, Janetta Otter-Barry, who had published several of my picture books and chapter books. But Methuen had just been taken over by Octopus and Janetta had left to be Children’s Publisher at Frances Lincoln.

Introduction to anniversary edition, with early Grace manuscript
She was looking for books to publish on their first children’s list and was pleased to receive my little text. So that was literary agent and editor on board; the next decision was about the illustrator.

Caroline Binch had painted the cover of my anthology Ip, Dip, Sky Blue (HarperCollins) and I knew she could portray ethnic minority characters. But would she undertake a picture book? Thank goodness, she said yes, she would like to try. After at meeting at Frances Lincoln’s offices in Kentish Town, Caroline set about finding a family to pose for the detailed photos she uses to base her paintings on.

I had put a baby brother in my first draft but the people Caroline found were a perfect three-generation, all female family, with no father on the scene. In retrospect, that was a gift. I wrote baby Benjamin out of the story (writers are great killers as well as creators).

Illus by Caroline Binch

Many other people on the team at Frances Lincoln contributed to the book’s success: Frances herself, who became a very good friend and whose sudden unexpected death in 2001 was a great blow, Judith Escreet, the Art Director, who has designed all my books for that publisher to date, Nicky Potter, who did the publicity then and is still doing it now for the anniversary edition, twenty-five years later. 

Amazing Grace became a huge hit in the US and was soon in the New York Times’ Bestseller list, something that was a great satisfaction to Frances with her first children’s list and to the rest of us.

But if you ask me how I did it, I can’t really tell you. I think that might be true of all bestsellers: that you don’t know when you are writing one. Only time will tell. The only advice I can give is to treat it like the Lottery and take the “if you’re not in, you can’t win,” approach. The odds against writing a picture book as successful as The Very Hungry Caterpillar or Guess How Much I Love You or The Gruffalo are enormous.

The one sure thing is that you won’t write a successful picture book unless you write something! The other ingredient I would add is a passion for what you are writing about and a belief in the characters and their story.
And who knows – you too might have a group silver anniversary in twenty-five years time. I hope so.
Illus by Caroline Binch

Mary Hoffman is the author of over a hundred books for children and teenagers. As well as Amazing Grace (which, with its sequels has sold a million and a half copies), she has written many picture books, including The Colour of Home and The Great Big Book of… series, with Ros Asquith. (All Frances Lincoln). She lives in a converted barn in Oxfordshire, with an Aga and three Burmese cats. Also her husband, with whom she has three grown-up daughters, three grandchildren and one grandcat.

Thursday 17 September 2015

What's your favourite children's book? • Jonathan Allen

One of the things that authors get asked on a fairly regular basis, usually while taking questions at school or bookshop visits, is "What's your favourite children's book?". This is a tricky question for a lot of authors and/or illustrators, but I have always had a clear favourite. And the winner is. . . (Cue the traditional 'Great British Bake Off' ten second annoying pause. . .) The Magic Pudding by Norman Lindsay.

I was bought this book as a child, at the age where I was reading by myself, can't remember what age that was but I'm guessing 7-8 ish. . . Anyway, the copy I got was a paperback re-issue from the 1960's. Those of you anywhere near my age will no doubt remember the dubious quality of children's paperbacks of that era. The cheaper ones anyway. The pages would begin to fall out owing to the glue used in the binding being rubbish. Armada books were a prime culprit, Enid Blyton and Biggles books etc. But I digress. The copy I had suffered the same deterioration as the aforementioned paperbacks, with the addition of the pages going prematurely yellow. But despite this, The Magic Pudding enchanted me.

Now, a bit of history and biography etc. -

"The Magic Pudding is said to have been written to settle an argument: a friend of Lindsay's said that children like to read about fairies, while Lindsay asserted that they would rather read about food and fighting."

A wise man ;-)

And a significant artist of his time. Which was around 1900 onwards. At this point I would be expected to show examples of his work and wax lyrical about his artistic abilities, but as his subject matter was unashamedly and unremittingly erotic in nature, this isn't the place to do that. Google him when the kids are in bed or something.
He was a superb draughtsman. His line work was kind of Beardsley meets Vargas, with Beardsley being the line and Vargas the subject matter. His painting style was looser for the most part and his subject matter exotic in a sort of Theda Bara, Hollywood vamp, faux persian, fantasy style if that makes sense.

He was Australian, and lived in an interesting and scandalous domestic situation somewhere in the outback with several artist's models. See the film 'Sirens' for further information ;-) (and if you like Elle McPherson. . .)

Though his work was almost exclusively About the female form etc, he did do several recruitment posters in World War One. I can share a couple of those.

The bottom one is a good link to his illustrations for The Magic Pudding, featuring, as it does, various indigenous Australian wildlife.

So what's it about? - Briefly, in case any of you are unfortunate enough not to have come across this book and want a quick précis. Though, like most books, what it's about is so much more than the plot and characters doing this and that. . .
The Magic Pudding in the title is just that. A cut-and-come-again pudding that can take several pudding flavours and has the ability to reconstitute itself completely no matter how many slices are consumed. It's name is Albert, it can talk, and has serious attitude. A neatly attired koala, name of Bunyip Bluegum meets Albert and his co-owners Bill Barnacle - a bewhiskered sailor, and Sam Sawnoff - a penguin, on his travels in the bush and joins up with them. There are two rascally puddin' thieves lurking around, continually scheming to purloin the pudding. There is much singing, puddin' thief conflict and general rumbustuousness along the way. . .

There is also, social satire, acute observation and great dialogue. And best of all, wonderful drawings, done in that totally assured style that only someone absolutely at ease with figure drawing can achieve.

I'm going to cheat and paste my review from the Goodeads website, as it sums up what I love about this book, and it would be silly to just rephrase it to pretend I'd only just written it. And I'm lazy.

"I love this book. It was my favourite when I was a kid and it is still my favourite kid's book. I didn't know it was Australian when I was six or whenever it was I first read it, although the animals were all Australian and it was set in Australia. I didn't locate it anywhere geographically. It was book. The rules are different ;-) Books happen in 'Bookspace'. But now, I have to mentally transpose the dialogue into an Aussie accent, which is fun, and gives such bits of dialogue as "I'll take and bounce a gibber off yer crust!" a reason for being so exotic sounding. I find Bunyip Bluegum's restraint and verbose pomposity ( in a nice way ) so English that he has to have an English accent. Sorry. The drawings are superb. The malevolent pudding, the self important windbag of a rooster, the devious Puddin' Thieves, the bandicoot, ( "Take me melon, but spare me life!" ), Great Uncle Wattleberry bounding and plunging, ah. . . a brilliant artist enjoying himself! He dismissed his book as "Just a bit of piffle" which is disingenuous to put it mildly. Sorry mate, but it was the best thing you ever did. You disagree? Well be careful, don't speak too loud or I might just take and bounce a gibber off yer crust."

It is regarded as a classic in Australia, and I assume the rest of the English speaking World at least, though reviewers on Amazon tut-tut at the violence. . . But then they would, wouldn't they?

More recently -

"An animated feature-length film adaption was released in 2000, with John Cleese voicing the title role, Hugo Weaving as Bill, Geoffrey Rush as Bunyip, and Sam Neill as Sam. It deviated heavily from Lindsay's book, was critically derided, and was not a financial success."

I refuse to post a picture of the film poster or of any still from same as it is loathsome and just wrong. Though of course I haven't seen it. . . ;-)

Thanks for indulging me in this hastily written and not entirely picture book related digression.
What's your favourite children's book?

Saturday 12 September 2015

Little niggles in manuscripts – Paeony Lewis

Sending out a new-born manuscript can be a bit scary. The person who reads the story will have his or her own likes and dislikes. These preferences might be major and there are even editors who don’t like animal characters in picture books or don’t like rhyme.

Perhaps very occasionally a dislike of
animals and rhyme could be justified?

There might be things a particular editor sees too much of, such as cute alliteration, stories about worms, or even stories that include the word ‘moon’ in the title (when I heard this complaint I gulped because I’ve written a story that contains the ‘m’ word!).

Then there are the smaller niggles. I cringe when I read the word ‘special’. A lovely editor once reprimanded me for having a mature character say ‘Oh dear’ – it was one of her niggles. She felt it was a stereotypical, ageist phrase that writers only use with older females. Yikes, I say ‘Oh dear’ in everyday life which is why my character said it. Well I suppose I’m an older female…

Finally we have little niggles and they tend to be grammar. I know I’m not perfect when it comes to grammar. Despite this, when I critique picture book manuscripts there are often little grammatical errors that bug me. I won’t discuss the use of apostrophes – those have been done to death. For me it’s muddled capitalisation that bounces around on the page. Why should this matter? Surely if your manuscript is accepted for publication an editor will tidy the grammar?

I spotted this opposite the University of Hull.
It made me smile, though if apostrophes was
one of my niggles then it might drive me nuts.

It’s all about appearing professional and ensuring an editor focuses on your story and not little niggles. Of course a wonderful story will be accepted for publication, even if it’s splattered with grammatical errors. However, if an editor is in a grumpy mood and wants to get through a pile of manuscripts, the wonderfulness of your story might be missed.

I hate to admit that nowadays the walls of primary schools include posters of grammatical terms that are alien to me. It’s embarrassing! My education is from the era when grammatical rules weren’t taught in primary or high school (we learnt by reading and knowing what ‘felt’ correct). Therefore, although I’ll try to explain how to fix my little grammar niggle, I won’t use grammatical terms and instead I’ll show you by example. So here’s my number one little niggle:

Yup, I’m pathetically petty.)
Capitalisation of ‘Mum’ and ‘Dad’ often catches people out when they first start writing for children. I solve this by telling myself that ‘Mum’, ‘Dad’, ‘Grandpa’, ‘Grandma’, etc., are capitalised when the word is being used as a 'name'. The examples below illustrate this (imagine if substituting a name would work grammatically):

He stared at what Dad had done to the dog.

He noticed his mum watching him.

“I wish my mum would stop watching me.”

“I wish Mum would stop nagging me to eat cauliflower.”

“Hurry up, Dad, it’s time to wash the dog,” said Holly.

“Will you remind your grandpa about the snail race?” asked Joe.

“Will you remind Grandpa about the snail race?” asked Sam.

Just occasionally this rule can make a sentence look a little peculiar, as can be seen in this excerpt from the glorious The Whales’ Song (an old favourite in our family):

“People used to eat them and boil them down for oil!” grumbled Lilly’s uncle Frederick.

If the Lilly was removed it would read …grumbled Uncle Frederick, though we wouldn’t know he was Lilly’s uncle.

So now you know how to avoid my pathetic little niggle. Though that’s not all. Here’s another little niggle…

ELLIPSES are often used in picture books and an ellipsis is only three dots. Not five dots..… Not seven dots……. It’s three dots…

I do have some other little niggles, but I think that’s enough or you’ll start to think I’m neurotic. So go on, tell us your writing niggles. We all have them and we hope we don’t accidentally include an editor's niggle in our manuscript. Perhaps one of your writing niggles is in this blog post? I know my grammar is far from perfect!

Of course, an incredible story is what matters most. 

Happy niggles, happy writing.

Paeony Lewis

Monday 7 September 2015

Animating The Inanimate, by Pippa Goodhart

For years I have taught people wanting to write books for children, and offered a critiquing service, most particularly picture books, and I’ve tended to be fairly dogmatic in saying that writing about characters who are inanimate objects doesn’t work for those books. 
But now I’ve changed my mind.
Why was I so anti the Olly the Oak Tree, Larry the Lamp Post, and Bronwen Broccoli sorts of characters? 

They tend to inhabit a particular kind of story; stories designed to carry a factual lesson for small children.  I’ve read dozens of stories about fruit and vegetable characters which are supposed to encourage children to eat their ‘five a day’.  I’ve read numerous stories about oak trees who experience the ecological life cycle of a tree and the seasons.  Or they are making a stand against wicked developers who want to chop the tree down.  The problem with both those basic story ideas is that they muddle fact and fiction.  If you meet and get fond of a cuddly character called Bronwen Broccoli, you probably don’t warm to the idea of boiling and eating her!  If the ultimate baddy is somebody who chops down a tree, then what are you doing, reading about it in a book that is made from the pulp of a chopped down tree?!  Even following the natural life cycle of a tree will inevitably end in death, and these stories tend to fudge that uncomfortable truth.  To me, the issues of healthy eating and the ecology and life cycle of a tree are best treated honestly, in beautiful imaginative books about reality, ie non-fiction. 
As to the inanimate object characters themselves, Larry the Lamp Post, Penny the Post Box, Willy the Washing Machine etc, are static, and that makes for a very static story, however lively the action around them, and that isn't good visually ... 

… Unless you are wholehearted in your turning of an inanimate object into a human substitute, and animate them more fully, giving not just faces but limbs too.  Two recent brilliant picture books have shown what can be done. 

Hug Me is written and illustrated by Simona Ciraolo.  The story is about Felipe (hooray, his name doesn’t alliterate with ‘cactus’!) whose cactus family like to behave ‘properly’ and ‘never trespass into another’s personal space’.  Look at their prickles, and that message is clear.  But little Felipe longs for someone to ‘put their arms around him’ and ‘give him a hug’.   A new character comes along, but he’s a balloon.  The inevitable happens when balloon and prickly cactus get close, and that makes Felipe feel even worse.  So he lives a lonely, solitary life … until he finds another lonely unhappy character, this time a stone. 

Stone and cactus characters can hug and make each other feel happy without a problem.  It’s the beautiful logic of the story that really pleases.  Hug Me is a first book by artist/writer Simona Ciraolo, and published by very new publisher Flying Eye Books.

Much higher profile is prize-winning The Day The Crayons Quit illustrated by Oliver Jeffers and written by Drew Daywalt (whose more usual work, interestingly, has been in film).  In this story, the crayons have revolted against their child owner, Duncan.  They all have complaints about being used too much, or not enough, or always for the same old things, and they’ve written him letters to express those feelings. 
Duncan's response is to produce a stunning picture that makes full, and unobvious, use of all those colours. 


Children's imaginations make them happily leap into ‘believing’ that a cactus or a crayon can have human feelings and legs and arms.  Maybe the secret to writing wonderful picture book stories about inanimate objects is simply to ignore the fact that in real life they are inanimate?  Animate them into being almost-humans, but still living lives we recognise from their object existence.  Then those characters become engaging and funny, and so do their stories. 
Or does that only work with inanimate objects which start with the letter ‘c’?! 
Are there other examples of really good picture books featuring characters which are things? 

PS  What is that instinct to make names of children’s book characters alliterative all about?
Pippa Goodhart

Wednesday 2 September 2015

Is Winnie the Pooh in jail (and how did Roo escape)? Moira Butterfield

I’ve been writing some children’s city guides for Lonely Planet, and while doing so I discovered the whereabouts of the real Winnie-the-Pooh. He left the Hundred Acre Wood behind long ago and, along with his friends Eeyore, Piglet, Kanga and Tigger, he’s been living in New York, along with David Bowie (that‘s two of my biggest heroes in the Big Apple now).

Pooh and his crew are living on 42nd Street, in the Children’s Center of the New York Public Library, and not everyone is happy about it.

The UK Times pointed out that “Winnie the Pooh is not just a reference to a fictional bear, but to a national concept of a childhood Eden." Ironically (I expect) echoing Greece’s demands for the return of the Elgin Marbles from the British Museum, the thundering editorial called for this “plundered piece of history” to be returned to live in a purpose-built museum in the Ashdown Forest in East Sussex (the inspiration for the Hundred Acre Wood).

Meanwhile America’s Newsweek described the toys as “being in prison” (they are in a bulletproof glass case), and called Winnie “the Elvis of stuffed toys”.  The Library denies any possible emotional toy trauma issues, saying the world-famous stuffed stars “are as happy as when they lived in the Hundred Acre Wood.”  All pressure has been resisted to repatriate the “Furry Five”, even after PM Tony Blair apparently discussed it with President Bill Clinton back in the day.

The story goes that Winnie was bought from Harrods in London, along with his stuffed friends, and given to Christopher-Robin Milne as a young boy. He played with them up the age of nine or so, during which time his journalist father A. A. Milne created imaginary stories about them. In 1947 the US publisher of the books visited the home of the Milnes and saw the toys. Smelling a commercial opportunity he asked for the toys, and soon they were winging their way to the offices of US Publishers E. P. Dutton & Co, eventually to be donated to the New York Public Library in 1987.

Any thoughts of a crying bereft boy would be wrong, however. Christoper-Robin Milne apparently readily agreed to them leaving, saying he was an adult now and had left childhood behind. Now that's sad. 

Little Roo, perhaps sensing the upcoming rejection, is not with the others because he was “lost” in an apple orchard in the 1930s. I expect he hopped off while he still could. I wonder what he's up to these days...

The New York Public Library assure us that Winnie and friends are looked after very well in their new home. They get vacuumed and repaired regularly. During a recent repair (the library said they were ‘going for spa treatment’) they were replaced on display by…Wait a minute! What’s this? They were replaced by the original umbrella and carpet bag that inspired Mary Poppins, once owned by author P.L. Travers. The Library have that, too! Call the PM immediately!

I wonder if any of you have found writing inspiration from an object that you or your children/young relatives own. If so, tell us about it, and please, please take care of it!

Moira has a series of new history books, Britain in the Past, for ages 6-8, published by Franklin Watts. Somewhere in her Dad's loft there are some Roman coins picked up in childhood.