Monday 28 January 2019

Trying to make it work in the age of Universal Credits: some ideas to earn more money as an author in 2019 by Juliet Clare Bell

For people on a low household income, Universal Credits (or Child Tax Credits/Working Tax Credits as they currently are for many people) can be a critical part of their family budget. If you are a writer and have school-aged children, and in particular if you are a single parent, or your partner is also low waged, you may well be on tax credits already and in various states of nervousness about what happens when you are moved onto Universal Credits. Or you may already be on Universal Credits. This post looks at ideas for how we as authors might earn more money in 2019 –whether or not you are on tax credits –but for those of us on Universal Credits or still on tax credits, earning a minimum threshold level as a freelancer has become a necessity.


At its most basic, it boils down to this (and I’m using me as an example –it might be different for you): I need to have more picture book manuscripts accepted by publishers and I need to get more school visits. This is where my income comes from. So what can I do to get more of each?


I now have a wonderful accountability partner who is on Universal Credits and also needs to earn consistently more money as an author than she has averaged in the past. We are using rough estimates of how much we need to earn a day/week/month in order to count as being freelance for Universal Credits and then deciding whether different projects are worth attempting financially and how much we have to gain from spending time on something like updating a website which doesn’t bring in money just by being there, but which we hope will attract more teachers (and more author visits) etc when it’s done. Until your youngest child turns thirteen, in order to count as being freelance for Universal Credits, you need to be working the equivalent of 25 hours per week at minimum wage, which equates to earning around £50 per day throughout the year –if you’re working five days a week (when your youngest reaches thirteen, it’s 37.5 hours per week, so you’ll have to earn quite a lot more). This is not exact but it helps when working out which projects to work on. If you’re working on something that will earn you less than £50 a day, you’ll need to be earning more on another project to make up for it. My accountability partner and I skype each other once a week and talk through our plans for the week, what we achieved the previous week, and what new opportunities we've found.


We’re working on the assumption that if we write more manuscripts (and write them well), we have a greater chance of more manuscripts being picked up by a publisher –which seems a fair enough assumption. So we have each committed to writing a picture book manuscript every month and giving it to the other to critique on the last day of the month, each month. We know that our feedback will help the other as we’ve been critique partners for well over ten years. The hit rate of manuscripts being submitted to manuscripts being accepted is quite low even for successful picture book authors, and of course, we’d love for all our manuscripts to be accepted, but writing more (as long as they’re good –and we’ll make sure we’re doing that) is still likely to increase the number of manuscripts that get picked up (we’ve also got critique groups and agents to share work with but the fact that we’ve committed to writing twelve feels like we’re properly accountable and that we’ll actually do it.)


There are some wonderful nonfiction picture books around. Two of the many that I love are:

Me... Jane by Patrick McDonnell (Little Brown, 2011)
about Jane Goodall, and

A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin by Jen Bryant and Melissa Stewart 
(Knopf, 2013)

Having taken quite a break from writing nonfiction manuscripts, this year I’ve committed to writing at least three (as part of the twelve manuscripts overall). With a massive incentive to get more manuscripts taken on by publishers this year, I’ve been practical on how I should break it down. I was commissioned to write a narrative nonfiction picture book about the Cadburys several years ago (here's a blogpost I wrote about it at the time) and it was a brilliant experience for me. I was fired up to write lots more nonfiction and wrote a Picture Book Den blog about it, with suggestions for coming up with nonfiction picture book ideas . And because of the post, I was contacted by a publisher to go and talk with them about my ideas. After what seemed like an extremely successful meeting with three members of their team, I was hopeful that I would be writing more nonfiction but it was before narrative nonfiction had taken off in the UK (it had really taken off in the US) and they decided that it wasn’t financially viable at that time. Given the time involved in researching and writing a nonfiction picture book, I didn’t pursue them much after that as other editors were saying the same –for the UK market at least.

Many editors in the UK are now saying they’re really interested in narrative nonfiction, so it seems like a properly fruitful avenue to pursue again –especially since I’ve already written one, and I used to be a research psychologist –so I love researching. Anyone out there who likes the idea of writing narrative nonfiction picture books, according to quite a lot of picture book editors I’ve spoken with/seen at events in the past six months, the time to do it is


I do a reasonable number of author visits and I really like them. And –as I’m sure many of you are- I’m good at them –because I like them. I genuinely really like children (I was a research developmental psychologist before I started writing and always did lots of babysitting when I was younger –as I’d always liked children) and I love doing assemblies to hundreds of children –and working with them in smaller groups, trying to encourage them in their creativity. Lots of writers don’t like author visits, and fair enough, but whilst I love writing at home on my own, I also love the contrast of a noisy, energetic mass of children in a school. But I don’t do enough. Even though I like the visits, I have not been good at the self-promotion and going out at getting the visits for myself.

So I have committed with my accountability partner to:

[1] Revamping my website to make it easier for teachers to find an author who wants to do school visits

[2] Making it clear what I do on them (Candy Gourlay’s advice on making your website teacher-friendly at last year’s SCBWI conference was brilliant)

[3] Increasing the types of sessions I can do. You might want to think about this, too. What is it about you and your books that means you can do something different in your sessions from other people? Try taking each of your books and thinking what specific sessions you could offer that relate to that book. I’ve had a go at doing it with some of my books, below:

                               (c) Don't Panic, Annika! (illustrated by Jennifer E Morris, 2011)

Don’t Panic, Annika! (illustrated by Jennifer E Morris) is about a child who in anxious but overcomes her fears –so I’m going to develop a specific session I can do relating to that (on top of the sessions I already do), and given my background in psychology, I feel comfortable doing this.

 Two Brothers and a Chocolate Factory: The Remarkable Story of Richard and George Cadbury (illustrated by Jess Mikhail, 2016) 

Lots of schools study local Victorians and/or chocolate. I’ve done sessions on this (I did one last week –because a teacher had my book and realised I was local and asked) but I’ve never advertised it as an option.

The Unstoppable Maggie McGee (illustrated by Dave Gray 2015) 

This is a story about resilience and the importance of imagination, and the main character has a serious disability which means that she's often in hospital. I’m hugely interested in resilience in children (especially with my background in psychology) and I’m a really keen advocate of better diversity in children’s stories. I can absolutely do sessions specifically on resilience, and would love to do more work with children with disabilities (as I did before creating the story).

The Kite Princess (illustrated by Laura-Kate Chapman; Barefoot Books, 2012) 

The Kite Princess could be the starting point for a great session talking about empowerment (Amnesty International UK even sold it) but did I offer a session on empowerment as a possibility on my website? No!

Benny's Hat (illustrated by Dave Gray, Pomelo Pip, 2016)

And Benny’s Hat (illustrated by Dave Gray) is about sibling bereavement. There won’t be many schools who’d like to do a focus on bereavement, but there absolutely might be some, and Dave and I worked with many bereaved and pre-bereaved children and with young people with life-limiting conditions when we were creating the book –and we did lots of events, too, but not in schools. And there’s nothing on my website that offers these events as an option.

I feel like I’m taking a bit of a risk here by saying this as it sounds incredibly foolish and short-sighted not to have offered specific sessions based on the subject of specific books, and  I’ve not yet updated my website (but it’s certainly a great incentive to ensure I do it before then end of February since I’ve said here I will!). But I'm hoping that it might encourage a few other people to look at their own books and consider extra sessions they could do. I love the sessions I do on a typical school visit, and they feel very relevant to children in schools and I refer at times to the different books and I read some of them in assemblies, but in terms of bespoke sessions relating to specific themes of individual books? I've not put that as an option on my website. When I’ve been asked by specific schools to do something more related to one of the other books, then I've done it, but I've just not been proactive about offering it. I look at this list and think 


Or if I’ve thought of doing it before 


I could offer so many more sessions to schools I’ve not yet been to (and those that I have) if they’re looking to do something about anxiety or worries, or resilience, illness, disability, death, empowerment (or straightforward pirates, even...).

So many authors can do wonderful visits but don’t advertise themselves well enough, or widely enough. Have you missed a trick with your author visits? Is there something you can offer that you’re not yet offering? And in terms of being shy about advertising yourself on your website, is there anyone else who gets lovely verbal feedback at their author events but feels a bit too sheepish about asking for feedback or quotes you can use on your website? Maybe we can all make this the year of being bolder and asking for some quotes that can help bring more teachers to our websites. Almost all of my author visits come via my website, and my website is currently pretty poor. But by the end of February, I will have made it much more relevant to teachers. And if it takes ten days of rewriting content and totally revamping it, well by the £50 per day figure, I won’t have to get many additional author visits for that theoretical £500 to have been well worth it.

When I’ve got my site sorted, I’ll also look for new ways to get author visits via the author organisations. But I’m being practical and getting my website content sorted out first. If you’re also interested in getting more author visits, is there something you could do with your website to help? 
Or could you work on some additional, more niche, workshops you could add to your current options?

Another advantage of an accountability partner is that you’ve got two of you looking out for writing opportunities, including grants. Check out the Society of Authors and the Arts Council who both do grants for writers. I was lucky enough to get a grant from the Arts Council a few years ago and it meant that I could do a project and create a book that would never have been taken on by a traditional publisher because it was a really difficult subject: sibling bereavement. I’m excited about applying for two new grants over the coming year (it’s part of my accountability twelve-month plan so I’ll have to do it!)

When I started doing the accountability, I got a MomentumPlanner and worked out a proper plan for the next twelve months, including what I’d do in each quarter. One thing I committed to doing was contacting a person or organisation/group/charity about any possibilities of writing-related projects or potential books. It’s something that won’t take too long to prepare for and is probably a really long shot, but that feels like it’s worth a try in case it comes off. Just before Christmas, I contacted someone in the public eye that I’ve never met nor been in touch with before but have a connection with and sent her my Cadbury book and explained why I’d love to write a book about her (given her way of thinking and compassion and generosity) and why I thought I was the right person to do it. I thought it was unlikely –but she’s got back to me and said she’s up for it! I can’t say more yet but it’s extremely exciting and it’s worth thinking about how you might be the right person to write a book about a particular person or thing, and contacting the relevant person. Think –what are you good at? What combination of factors makes you the right person for this self-styled opportunity? It could be a book or approaching an organisation about why you’d be the right person to be their writer in residence (and they may never have thought about having a writer in residence before, nor even know what one is). I know which organisation I’m contacting this quarter of the year and again, nothing may come of it, but it actually might and if so, it would be a fascinating project and one which I think I could do really well. I’ve got goals for the year, for each quarter, and for each month and rather than feeling scared about whether I’ll be able to stay being freelance once we’re moved over to Universal Credits here because of the amount of money I’ll have to be earning not only per year but each month (so you can’t have a slow month in terms of income coming in), I’m feeling excited about all the things I’m doing this year.

(my middle child also being excited -in the rain, on our favourite beach in Orkney)

The rules around Universal Credits are being revised after many complaints and obvious problems with the system (the Society of Authors went to parliament to talk about the impact they will have/are having in areaswhere it’s already rolled out) on diversity in writing, given that so many writers earn, on average, less than the minimum wage. It is desperately sad for those who have already been moved onto Universal Credits and are really suffering. Many of us have a breathing space for a year or so, whilst the government temporarily halts the roll-out for a year and tries to sort it out. I hope it is massively overhauled in a way that works for those on a low family income (or scrapped entirely). In the meantime, I am going to work hard –and in a smarter way- to try and earn enough, and enjoy my work as I go along. I have clearly not been very business-minded up until now, but we've got to do it now and with an accountability partner to help me along, it's a much less nerve-wracking business. 
If I have to get a non-freelance job in a year’s time because I’ve not earned as much as I need to be counted as a real author (woe betide any author who doesn’t manage to earn minimum wage –consistently, every month…-currently, you will have the credits reduced substantially for any month you do not earn 1/12th of the annual minimum wage), then at least I’ve given it everything I can, and enjoyed the process.

Do you have any good ideas about how to increase your income for the year as a writer? Or do you have any thoughts on generally being more productive? It would be lovely to hear from you in the comments section, below. Here's hoping that 2019 is a creative year for us all and one in which we can earn enough money to continue writing.

Juliet Clare Bell is a children’s author who loves writing, creating and doing all kinds of author visits. This will most definitely be reflected in her website by the end of February 2019.

Monday 21 January 2019

Helping young children create stories by Jane Clarke

Next week, it’s National Storytelling Week in the UK - and I’ll be out and about in local libraries and primary schools - sharing stories and helping children to create their own.

We will have a lot of fun. Of course, there are lots of ways to do this, but I like to set up a scenario appropriate to the children’s age, brainstorm it, and run with what ever they suggest, if necessary nudging it along by asking them questions and making suggestions that can be silly or surreal.


What does your teddy bear get up to when you’re not looking ?

This teddy bear snuck out in the dark to ride a shadow duck.

Think of your favourite animal. Now give it a problem…

This giraffe got marooned on a desert island, but was rescued by pirates and fell in love with a piratical parrot

What would happen if you woke up and you/your mum/dad/brother/sister/teacher had turned into or been replaced by  eg. a monster, a giant, a dragon?
or a giant bee who made everyone collect pollen for her. The school filled with pollen, it made everyone sneeze (shouts of ATCHOOO)  and the noise frightened the giant bee so she buzzed off.

What might you see… if you took a rocket into space … a submarine under the sea ….go back in the past and discover a new dinosaur?

warning - not every story will have a happy ending! 

The stories that are created won’t be at all polished, they’re likely to lack internal logic, a proper beginning or end, and they will often owe a lot to whatever cartoons the children are currently watching on TV or books they are reading. But they will be full of fizz and it’s wonderful to see how excited the children get as they think up their story.

‘it makes me happy, like I’m eating watermelon and my head is filled with rainbows’  said the illustrator :-)

And that’s a great reminder of what can get lost in the rigours of creating a story for publication. So if you’re writing picture books take a storytelling break next week - eat some watermelon, fill you head with rainbows, dump your internal censor/editor and have fun!

Jane’s latest picture book, Leap Frog, illustrated by Britta Teckentrup, will be published in the UK on February 7, 2019

Monday 14 January 2019

Draw me a hamster with an elephant's body driving a Lamborghini

Garry Parsons describes how he approaches visiting schools to talk about his work as an illustrator, gives some tips on how to do it, and asks two teachers why they feel author and illustrator visits are beneficial to pupils.

One of the surprises of working as an illustrator in children’s publishing was being asked to take part in live events. My first picture book, Billy’s Bucket by Kes Gray, won three awards during the first year of its publication and, as the illustrator, I was expected to speak publicly. Being a fairly private person, this was very daunting at first and, looking back, I’m sure in those first few years my events were probably pretty awful. But experience is a great teacher and I have learnt a lot about speaking in public and adapted my repertoire to hopefully enthuse and inspire children to pick up a pencil or read a book.

This Friday I visited a school in South London, my first of the year, and, with the thought of a busy World Book Week close on the horizon, I was keen to start the season off with a real cracker. 

Tip 1: Arrive in plenty of time.
With my mild anxiety about being late dealt with by arriving at the school half an hour early, I was greeted enthusiastically by the teacher I had been organizing the event with, and led around the school to where my workshops would be taking place during the day, and to the hall for the assembly. 

Tip 2: Set up your wares before the kids arrive.
I like to be drawing as the children are filing into the hall. You can hear the muffled chatter of excitement and murmurs of “Who?” “What?” “How?” and “Wow!” 
Children are gripped by live drawing, so I like to make the most of the flip chart paper.

Tip 3: Get everyone’s attention straight away. 
I like to do this by asking a question immediately. “Does anyone here like to draw?” I ask, and usually around 80% of hands go up.

I go on to tell them that there are three things that an illustrator needs, we quickly work out between us what these might be, and I draw these on the flip chart with fast strokes of a fat marker. Children love to interact with moans and laughter when I inform them that my pencil is in love with someone but it’s not me! 

We go through the importance of PRACTICE by unravelling a long concertina sketchbook, and the abstract notion of using your IMAGINATION by drawing a brave volunteer’s portrait. But I get it ‘wrong’ under the influence of my vivid imagination, which seemingly has a mind of its own and might add an elephant’s trunk, crazy oversized hair or giant ears to the drawing. This brings on peels of laughter.

By this point I usually feel I have the room engaged, but the time has flown by and I need to wrap it up with a five minute Q&A or, if it’s a longer assembly, I might continue with ‘Challenge the Illustrator,’ where I tell the children I can draw anything and they give me three random elements to put together in two minutes, a gorilla on a unicycle in Wembley Stadium. Either way, my intention is to have lit a fuse of enthusiasm that will carry me and the students into a series of workshops for the rest of the day.

In the workshops I explain the process of illustration, from text to final artwork, and how a picture book is made. I use examples of my work to show each of the stages and emphasise how important it is to keep the first stages fluid and not to be concerned about perfection and getting things right. That's where the romance of the pencil and the rubber comes in.

So how did the day in South London go? 
Well, it was a marvellous day with responsive children and enthusiastic and welcoming staff, it felt great and everyone seemed happy. 

This is what they said...

We had a very exciting visit from illustrator Garry Parsons. He amazed the children in an assembly with his illustration skills and quick imagination! His inspirational assembly and workshops had children in awe with a lot of spontaneous clapping.

But how do I know that schools really do get something out of author and illustrator visits? Is it worth schools spending scarce resources this way? 

I asked two experienced teachers from schools in Kent to get an inside point of view on why author and illustrator visits might be of benefit to them and their pupils and how they know a visit may have had an effect.

Mrs Bryant told me:
A visitor to your school can give pupils a fresh engagement with a subject, whether that is reading, writing or drawing, or even something less obvious like bee keeping or gymnastics. It can show children the aspect that gives education a purpose and gives them a reason for going to school. Authors and illustrators can be both inspirational and aspirational for pupils. 
Visits broaden views and often give a purposeful link to a unit of work that the pupils might be studying in class at that time or later, and we can ask questions such as “Would you like to do this as a job?” 

Miss Neech told me:
Meeting an author or illustrator in real life at your school brings in a reality, an actual person that children can directly engage with. And this is a shared experience for everyone in the school, including the teachers, and every school member can be uplifted by an inspiring speaker. When schools are required to focus on the academic, having a creative person, such as an illustrator or a writer, visiting the school is beneficial, because society is about creative thinking and problem solving. Not celebrating creativity would be a mistake!

For me, meeting the children is wonderful and I thoroughly enjoy visiting schools and having the opportunity to enthuse children about drawing and reading and about books. 

This aspect of being an illustrator has become a pleasure I had never considered when I started on the art work for Billy’s Bucket all those years ago. While the benefits of authors and illustrators visiting schools might be hard to measure from my perspective, I am convinced that they have a real impact because of the feedback from teachers, the fun that I can see the children have and, more than anything, the brilliant thank you letters I sometimes receive a few weeks later.

Garry Parsons is a children's book illustrator.

You can see more of my illustration for children's books on my website by clicking here. Get in touch to book Garry to visit your school, library or festival.

Follow me on twitter @icandrawdinos

Monday 7 January 2019

Learning from Reflecting Realities and Reading the 1% by Chitra Soundar

Based on the children's books published in 2017, CLPE researched and analysed the representation of ethnic minorities in children’s publishing. Their findings are available here

Here in this blog post I wanted to highlight the findings for picture books.

According to their first ever analysis in 2018, only 6% of picture books published in 2017 featured a child from an ethnic minority. As an aunt of mixed-race nephews I was also deeply concerned to find that only 0.2% of all books published in 2017 featured mixed-race children in the narrative.

I looked at this report as a writer and wanted to explore how as writers we could contribute to the growth of this percentage. UK is a multi-cultural society, not now, but from Roman times. Check out this article and furore over Mary Beard suggesting it was.

But whether they were fairy tales or the stories that Victorian Britain published even as an empire was hardly inclusive. But in 2018, if we are still discussing the lack of representation and not just by race, but also by ability, gender, sexual orientation, diverse types of families, then as a writer I think we do play a part in changing this.

Reading through the recommendations of the CLPE Reflecting Realities report (that sentence is weirdly alliterative), here are some of my key lessons for me as a writer, which not only applies to writing inclusively but also generally good writing.

a)                    Avoid the shorthand; Include the Specific: When portraying a child from a minority group, the details we use should be specific and authentic and should not degrade to a stereotypical two-dimensional shorthand. Isn’t that true of all stories and all children? The key to make something more universal is not making it two-dimensional, but highlighting the specific that is so authentic that the underlying truth shines through.
b)                   Well-rounded representation of characters from ethnic backgrounds – research plays a huge part in this. Understanding a culture from the inside is no mean feat – there are subtle clues, vivid details and yet so many places where mistakes can be made. But isn’t that true for all character portrayals? Perhaps it feels easier when we write about things we know intimately. But when we write about something slightly distant from us, whether it is about another race or culture or even a person with a differing ability, should we go beyond the surface?
c)                    Children love having fun. Isn’t that true? So why do children from a different race or ethnic group or even from families that are different from us just talk about their problems and issues? Should my nephews worry all the time about why their mum’s family eats different food to their dad’s side? Or should they just have fun, try different foods and do things their own way? While it’s great to showcase another culture or ethnic group, it’s important not just to portray the difference or their struggles lest the children should grow up thinking fun is for not for them.
d)                   Children identify with characters in stories. Isn’t that why we have so many character led series that are such big hits? By extending that to children from a different race, why shouldn’t they see children they can identify with, as a series lead or as the main character of a picture book? Why do they have to be sidekicks always?
e)                   First do no harm - And finally, while representing all races in important in stories, it’s also the responsibility of creators not to include characters just for the sake of it. A bad representation is worse than no representation. If a nuanced portrayal of a child from another culture or background than you is not possible either due to time or other constraints then as a writer I have to consider if I’m correct in including it anyway.

I’m from India and I often write stories set in India or Indian families. But even when I write about India, I do a lot of research to understand the region or family I’m writing about. Even though my stories would fit into the 1% that’s recorded in the survey, I still think there is a lot to think about when I choose topics to write or characters to portray. My goal is to write stories set in a mixed-race family and write about children just like my nephews, having fun, celebrating birthdays, making friends, going on vacation etc. And this report was helpful in identifying the areas I needed to focus.

CLPE are now re-launching their survey for books published in 2018. As an author or illustrator, if you think your book would qualify, read here and request your publisher to submit your book to the research.

Want to read inclusive books and don’t know where to buy them? Check out Letterbox Library.

Chitra Soundar is an Indian-born British writer, storyteller and internationally published author of children’s books, based in London, England. Chitra writes picture books, poetry and fiction for children and often visits schools, festivals and libraries to tell her stories. Find out more at Chitra also teaches a course in writing picture books. Find out more here. Follow her on Twitter @csoundar.