Monday 29 October 2018

'The Less Said The Better' by Lou Carter

This week, author, Lou Carter, has taken the Picture Book Den reins and is talking to us about minimal word count picture books. Lou is the author of 'Pirate Stew', illustrated by Nikki Dyson, and also 'There Is No Dragon In This Story', illustrated by Deborah Allwright, which has now been translated into a phenomenal 18 languages!!  'Oscar The Hungry Unicorn' is Lou and Nikki's next offering and we're lucky to have a sneak peek of it today! Thank you, Lou.

'When my agent suggested that I try to write a minimal word count picture book I immediately thought, no way. Surely that would be territory reserved only for author-illustrators. And would a publisher not think I was just downright lazy? But then I got to work…

When I run picture book writing workshops in schools, one of the most important things I try to get across is that you must let the pictures tell some of the story. This sounds obvious I know, but I think it is all too easy to write too much in the text and then have an illustration showing the same information.

For example;
TEXT: One bright, sunny morning Rabbit put on her favourite red hat and hopped off to the Carrot Cafe for breakfast.
ILLUSTRATION: A rabbit in a red hat hopping towards Carrot Cafe, the sun shining in the sky.

In this example the text tells you everything you need to know without the picture. Similarly the picture tells you everything you need to know without the text. You would not glean any extra information from either the words or the illustrations. Ideally, with this illustration the only text needed would be something that Rabbit thinks or feels i.e. something we cannot SEE.
For example;
TEXT: Rabbit was hungry!
TEXT: Rabbit couldn't wait for breakfast!

This skill is important for any length picture book but is essential for minimal word texts.

In my opinion, Jon Klassen is the king of this genre, my favourites being This Is Not My Hat and  I Want My Hat Back. In both stories the illustrations and text come together perfectly to tell simple yet highly amusing stories.

So when I came to write Oscar The Hungry Unicorn I tried to focus on these key principles;
1) story simplicity
(The Oscar storyline is that of a unicorn who eats everything, including his stable, and simply tries to find somewhere else to live.)
2) punchline pictures
(where the text will set up the joke for the illustration to answer)
For instance, on this page neither the text nor the illustration would be complete on their own. But together the text sets up the joke by explaining that the ship has a hole in it and the picture provides the punchline - Oscar has bitten the hole in it. 

My first drafts of Oscar were in excess of 400 words (around half that of my other picture books.) And although I was pleased with the early versions I felt they could be funnier still. 

It was my daughter in the end who suggested that I “cut way more words”. Once I halved the word count again to just under 200 words the story suddenly felt right and packed more of a punch.

Less is more, as they say.'

'Oscar the Hungry Unicorn' by Lou Carter and Nikki Dyson is out now and can be found in all good book shops and online! 


Monday 22 October 2018

Finding and Finessing a Folktale by Chitra Soundar

I’ve started teaching a course on picture books and as I break down the basics to other writers, I realised that I’m articulating my own understanding. My writing, especially in the medium of picture books, comes from my lifelong love of picture books, from this moment, I was handed this book when I was 7.

I read picture books and comics as much as I can, growing up, and when I started writing way back in 2003. I still read way too many picture books and often most ideas present themselves to me in 12 spreads.

Along with this love for picture books, I’m also a storyteller. I think I told stories even when I was four and the love for oral storytelling never really left me even when I was working in the corporate world.

Here is my process of how I search, find and finesse a folktale for a modern audience.

Finding a story: I usually choose a story from my own culture or a trickster tale. I read quite a few stories from collections I’ve accumulated over the years to identify which story connects with me. I need to get the “theme” of the story and I want to be able to see the story in scenes, rather than a quick joke.

If I do choose a story that is not from a culture I’m familiar with, I would check if there are enough independent “first-hand” sources I can rely on for accuracy of representation. I’d want to know if this story has been retold or adapted or written about by people who are native to that culture and what do they think of it. Often folktales have hidden allegory and meaning that will work at a different level than the “story” itself and I might inadvertently cause hurt or offence to people by re-telling this story.

Check out a research paper on this here

My search takes me into libraries, Internet archives of ancient texts and research notes because modern retellings or “collections” might be derivative and I would try and find as many “native” sources I can.

Evaluating for a Modern Audience: There are many funny stories in Aesop fables or Panchatantra or our epics that might not be suitable for today’s children. Many of these stories are true to their time and geography. So a story about “girls knowing their place” or “a cruel stepmother” or "old women are witches" are not only inappropriate but also harmful for today’s child.

So I read and understand the underlying concepts of each of these folktales and think about whether the protagonist and the events of the story are telling a tale suitable for today and beyond. While we can’t go back and erase our past, or justify some of the notions, the least we could do is not to propagate unhelpful stereotypes – whether it’s about gender, age, sexual orientation or cultures.

Adapting the Story: Now comes the techniques of writing a picture book. I need to know enough about the story to be able to adapt it. As I said before, I would try and find as many variants of the story I can. I’ll try and find archives with original text or translations.

Having absorbed the story, these are my techniques to adapt the story:

a)    Understanding its spine – what’s the story really about? What’s the message and essence of the story? In this, oral storytelling and adapting have the same goal. I normally break down a story into 10 simple scenes or sentences. Or 5 things I need to remember and then distill it into “a message”. Once I know this, I can then adapt the story and still be able to keep the essence.

b)    Who are the characters? Especially when I’m working with trickster tales, the characters in the story are crucial for the logic of the story to work. Like Stork and the Fox in Aesop Fables, or the Crocodile and the Monkey in Panchatantra. The characteristics and the “character” – who is evil, who is tricking whom, who is symbolised as clever – all of that will need to be worked out. Often keeping the same characters as per the original story is sufficient. Sometimes I’d want to change it. When changing the characters, I’ve to make sure that the “symbolic” nature of their characters will still work.          

It’s important to know the cultural archetypes here. In some cultures some animals and birds are clever / evil / cunning and if I need to credit the culture, then using an alternate one or the wrong one will take away the authenticity.

c)     What’s the punch line and how do I get there? I’ll need to understand what are the relevant scenes that need to have happened for the punch line to work. But at the same time, we need 12 scenes in the picture book that are different from each other.

Here’s where research pays off – knowing the geography of the story, knowing the other characters will help.

Also as a storyteller, the embellishing happens here – adding more scenes to show the allegory or the true nature of the characters will help a child reader understand the punch line better.

d)    Word count and other practical considerations: Most modern picture books are under 400 words with exceptions of course. I need to be able to tell the 12 scenes with enough happening between the scenes and still keeping the word count down.

The other thing I’ll think about is viewpoint – which character is telling the story? Am I going to use the voice of a storyteller? Is my language going to be modern or folktale-ish? Is this story going to be billed as a re-telling or an adaptation?

e)    Adapting vs Retelling – Whether it’s the Gruffalo or the True story of the Three Little Pigs, or my own A Jar of Picklesand a Pinch of Justice or Pattan’s Pumpkin – the story can be hidden under a completely new setting, cast of characters and a modern retelling. 

         Whether or not the reader knows the underlying story, it will still be fun for them. Of course,               in all of my adaptations, I’ve made it clear that I’ve adapted traditional tales. Sometimes a story            is in folk-legend widely that you might not need to mention it.

For those who are starting out to write picture books and grappling with “where do I get ideas?”, adapting folktales can be a wonderful exercise in research, structure and plotting. Folk tales have plots that have worked for hundreds of years and can be useful in showing us how to construct a regaling tale.

If you enjoyed reading this post, do share your favourite folktale adaptations in the comments.

Chitra Soundar is the author of many picture books and retellings. Her latest book is an original story of two polar bear cubs discovering the world. Find out more about You’re Snug with Me, illustrated by Poonam Mistry and published by Lantana Publishing here.

Monday 15 October 2018

Your Procrastination Shield –What is it actually protecting you from, and how do you lay it down so you can get on with your writing? by Juliet Clare Bell.

Do you ever put off writing? Can you find really plausible excuses not to sit down and get on with it? I suspect if we pooled all our excuses for putting off writing (and, of course, many other things) there’d be a lot of overlap, but I also suspect there are some excuses that are more specific and personal to each of us, the ones that we’ve managed to craft carefully, often unconsciously, to fool ourselves as best we can… After all, say Jane Burka and Lenora Yuen (authors of the book, below), “it’s your procrastination” and we can each find our own special ways of making those excuses, the ones that will work best on the person it needs to work on: us.

I was always a terrible procrastinator, but I’ve actually found a book that has had quite a remarkable impact on me and I feel that if it can work for me, then there may be hope for other procrastinating writers out there, too. And here’s the book:

Procrastination. Why You Do It, What To Do About It NOW by Jane Buerka and Leonora Yuen (2008). 

It’s not a new book (it was fully revised and updated for its 25th anniversary –ten years ago, but it’s new to me and I have a feeling that it would help a LOT of writers (and everyone else). So I’m going to write about it and describe a week-long writing experiment I did based on the book, and how I wrote more in that week than I had written in the three months before it, in the hopes that it might be of some use to other writers.

I’ve known for a long time that I’ve procrastinated and I’ve kind of described myself as badly organised and thinking I need to get better at time management, and I’ve enjoyed reading books about managing time more effectively (probably as a way of procrastinating and not doing what I should have been doing). I guess I’ve not felt too bad seeing myself as someone who isn’t great with time management… but this book doesn’t see procrastination as a problem with time management as much as with emotion management...

                                                                (Me being fearful)

 And that is harder –for me, at least (though I suspect, many of us)- to feel ok about. As a writer (and former psychologist!), I like to see myself as being pretty self-aware, so this book was challenging for me, and it may be challenging for you, too, should you choose to read it, but I think it’s a challenge well worth undertaking.
Jane Burka and Lenora Yuen talk about procrastination as a shield:

“In one sense, procrastination has served you well. It has protected you from what may be some unpleasant realisations about yourself. It has helped you to avoid uncomfortable and perhaps frightening feelings. It has provided you with a convenient excuse for not taking action in a direction that is upsetting in some way, (p137).

“For procrastinators, avoidance is the king of defences, because when you avoid the task, you are also avoiding the many thoughts, feelings, and memories associated with it,” (p93).  

So this book encourages you to be honest with yourself about things that you may not have thought about for a long time in order to recognise what is happening to you when you reach what they call a ‘choice point’ –the point at which you are coming up with excuses not to sit down and write (in our case), where you need to decide whether to go with the excuse, or carry on with the activity (writing) anyway.
At least, then, if you still conclude “…therefore, I’ll do it later”, you’re being more consciously aware of your procrastination. But once you’re aware, you may well choose to over-ride the desire to put it off, and do it anyway.

The authors talk about physiological fear responses, and how for example, if you’re touched unexpectedly, that fear response (and the body’s reaction) will occur before you even feel the touch. 

                                                       Goosebumps / goose pimples

And they relate it back to procrastinating: 

"By the time you think about doing a task you’ve been avoiding…, your body has already reacted with fear. No wonder you put it off,” (p92).

And so the book encourages us to identify (with useful lists) what triggers our own task avoidance and for us to observe our reaction kindly and without judgement as a step towards overcoming those physiological reactions we may feel when confronting ourselves with something we’re trying to put off.

So what’s holding you back from writing that story? Could it be

Fear of failure?

Did people praise you for writing as a child? Was that part of your identity? Does it feel dangerous risking people’s (or your own) perceptions of yourself in case you don’t get that publishing deal or the story isn’t as good as you thought it would be? Is it safer not to do it?

                                         A tiny proportion of my picture book rejection letters

Procrastinating leads us to do things last minute, where we can avoid testing our true potential (and risking our sense of self by what we might find) –so the final piece of writing is not a reflection of your true ability but what you can do under last-minute pressure. Are you so frightened of discovering that you’re not what you think you are/want to be, that you’re willing to slow down so much and be last minute in order to avoid your best work being judged?
Procrastination allows you to believe that your ability is greater than your performance indicates –you never have to confront the real limits of your ability.


Perhaps people didn’t have confidence in your writing when you were younger (or people don’t now) –and if you did write something, might you be worried that those people may be proved right?
Or could what’s holding you back be a

Fear of success?

This may seem less obvious but the authors talk about this:

·       Do you sometimes slow down on a project that’s going well?
·       Do you feel anxious when you receive a lot of recognition?
·       Are you uncomfortable with compliments?
·       Do you worry about losing your connection with relatives if you’re successful?

And perhaps…

·       You fear/believe success in writing will demand more of you than you’re willing/able to give (many of us know successful writers who are now extremely pressed for time in the writing and personal lives).
·       You’ll turn into a workaholic; people will become obstacles –success will mean loss of control and loss of choice in your life
·       You may be considered selfish or full of yourself
·       You may get hurt –do you really want to be judged by your readers/reviewers? –bad reviews/low sales figures can be extremely demoralising.

There are lots of reasons explored in the book, and identifying your own personal reasons will help you take practical steps towards writing and stopping putting things off.

The book also helps you identify your own procrastination style

Mine (when I should be writing)? -reading emails, surfing the web, looking on Facebook, working on something less important, sitting and staring, going to sleep

Your own physical feelings when you’re meant to be starting something but are considering procrastinating:

Mine? –a feeling in my chest and tummy; feeling light-headed

And your own excuses?

Mine? I’ve got to get organised first; I don’t have everything I need; I don’t have time to do it all so there’s no point in starting; it might not be good enough; I’ll wait until I’m inspired; I don’t feel well; I’m too tired right now; I’m not in the mood; I’ve done the worst part of it; the final bit won’t take much time so I can do it later.

And the book encourages you to monitor what’s happening for a week and try an experiment… which is what I did.


The authors recommend that you

·       Select a single goal –with a desire to learn from both success and failure (think like a researcher gathering data rather than a critic passing judgement) –I used to be a researcher so this appealed to me and made it seem like it was less personal;

·       List the steps (and do a reality check –can all those things be done in the time you have?) It was going to be full-on, but yes, it was realistic –if I didn’t procrastinate;

·       What’s the very first step? –write it down; should be small and easy;

·       Get feedback from others –perhaps other writers- about the achievability of the goal;

·       Consider the feelings you have now you’ve got your goal –excited and scared;

·       Could visualise your progress; optimise chances (where you work and when, etc) –this one is never going to work for me as I don’t visualise, but it could help other people;

·       Stick to the time limit;

·       Don’t wait until you feel like it –this was going to be a challenge, as not feeling like I’m in quite the right mood for writing is one of my biggest excuses.

And this is what they suggested you do during the week:
          Watch out for your excuses –an excuse means you’re at a choice point: you can procrastinate or you can act (so go from ‘I’ll do it later’ to ‘I’ll just to fifteen minutes…’ (and think –how do I feel?) –I kept a journal for the week, writing at the beginning and the end of each day, saying how I felt before I started, and then commenting on the day at the end of each day.

·       One step at a time (not the whole picture book/novel) –I had a list of exactly what I needed to do each day.

·       Work around obstacles

·       Reward yourself after progress

·       Be prepared to be flexible if necessary

·       It doesn’t have to be perfect

At the end of the week, assess your progress

·       Examine your feelings

·       Review your choice points (at least you’ll have procrastinated more consciously)

I     Identify what you've learned.

Now I chose a really big goal as my children were going to be away for a whole week and I really wanted to finish the novel I was working on, even though I had about 30,000 words left to write. It really doesn’t have to be that big at all (and it was only possible because I was going to have a whole week without any responsibilities, so I was in an unusual position).
I went through the list of scenes I had left to write and calculated how long I thought each scene would take, realistically if I didn’t procrastinate at all, and then worked out how many I’d have to write each day in order to finish the book. This worked out at about six hours per day –IF I didn’t procrastinate at all but just wrote.

And then I kept a journal for that week and just did exactly what I had said I’d do, thinking of myself like a dispassionate researcher, monitoring how I felt and what I did when I felt like I really didn’t want to write a certain part (or any part).


    (Shame that I accidentally forgot to colour in three of the scenes on the final day but I did finish them. Honest)

I finished! I wrote more than 30,000 in a single week!

I had never written anything like the amount I wrote that week. And I am convinced that I wouldn’t have been able to do it without the procrastination book. But the most interesting thing to come out of it for me was that the excuse I’ve used so much as a writer:

I’m not in the right mood

was irrelevant to what I wrote. When I feel like I’m not in the mood (or when I use that excuse), I often find some other work to do instead of writing. But this time, I didn’t. I just monitored how I was feeling, acknowledged it, and then did it anyway. And what I found from my notes on the experiment was that the times when I did it when I wasn’t in the mood, I was just as productive as the times when I did feel in the mood, and having read all those scenes now (as part of the whole book), there is no difference in how good those scenes were. This is probably the most important thing I’ve learned from the whole process: I did genuinely think that there were times when I was going to write better and times when I was going to write less well (or not at all) because of my mood –but it really didn’t make a difference –

as long as I made myself do it.

I have had to abandon my romantic notion of the muse being present. It really was –for me- just a case of showing up and doing it. And I genuinely didn’t quite believe that –until I did the experiment.
I should just point out that this related to writing ‘up’ the novel once I’d done all the creative plotting, which I couldn’t work on in this way of a certain number of hours a day for a week, at all –not yet, anyway… But once I’ve worked out a structure for a picture book or a novel, I know now that any excuse that I am just not in the mood, is exactly that: an excuse.

There’s a lot more useful stuff in the book, which I can’t go into now as there’s no time, which includes suggested techniques to reduce your procrastination, like: using little bits of time (check out their unscheduled on page 198); have an accountability partner (I have for writing, and it’s great); work together (for example, like we do in our local SCBWI group, weekly, where we write alongside each other); say no to e-addictions/have a low information diet; do more exercise, and take exercise breaks; be realistic about time; just get started; use the next fifteen minutes, watch for your excuses and use your procrastination as a signal. In the end, it’s your choice:

You can delay or you can write

 -and you can write even though you’re uncomfortable.

I really couldn’t recommend this book highly enough -for picture book writers, novel writers, everyone. And if I can identify why I’m coming up with excuses and learn to put those thoughts and feelings aside and write anyway, then you can do it, too.
Huge thanks to my wonderful friend and former partner-in-procrastination Caroline Keenan for recommending this book to me. You know me well!

Do you have any tips for beating procrastination? Have you read this book, and if so, how helpful did you find it? Please do reply in the comments, below…

Thank you –and happy writing –even if, or especially if, it’s uncomfortable!