Monday 30 September 2019

Creative Process • by Natascha Biebow

I recently had an epiphany about the creative process.

Here’s how it goes:

Imagine you walk into a building.

You look around, take in the place - its atmosphere, the furnishings, the knick-knacks (or the lack there-of), the smell . . . you start to make a story in your head about the house and the people who live there.

So, there’s a story right there.

But what if you dig a little deeper? What if you look in the attic, under the floorboards, or in the historical records about the place and its owners?

This crocodile - a gift from a WW1 veteran - was uncovered beneath
the floorboards of a Welsh Primary - what surprising items
will be beneath the 'floorboards' of the story you're crafting?

A new story slowly emerges . . .

Some of it is unfamiliar, strange, even.

So, now you’ve got to sit with the unfamiliar, the blank page. What next? Is THIS the story you ask? Sit with it for a moment.

But sitting with that blank page is scary. What if the story doesn’t come? What if it isn’t good enough? What if nobody likes it?

The fear grows. EMPTINESS. The story stops.

But hang on a minute.

Get out of your way! Look FEAR in the eye. TRUST the process.

Fear is your friend. Look harder at the story, for the story.

Ask it what’s at its heart. What is the feeling of the story?

What is it telling you, telling the world?

What would a child really like about this story?

Now, I give myself permission to be inspired by other things. I leaf through magazines. I go to galleries, parks, playgrounds, writing events or whatever lends itself to the theme at hand. Completely unconnected things are often the best way to kick-start the writing process in new, exciting directions.

Recently, I heard author M. T. Anderson said speak:

"Don't just live in the place you live." Authors need to embrace the unfamiliar, he said. "Open up the floors and see what's there. Explore the strange and the new, and make it your own . . .  that is where the sublime happens."

How can you make it your own?

Only you can look for the story inside, in the pockets of life that you carry around with you.

But if you’re brave enough . . . What might you uncover? Something unexpected, something exciting – just waiting to be discovered!


And so your story, those words on the page, they start to take shape, to have more depth, and maybe now they also have more resonance too.

Because they are bigger, wider. They reach into the world into place other people, your readers, can also connect with. When they visit, maybe they’ll see other things, perhaps even things you never even saw in the original story.

And so . . . they will find in it their spirit, their connection, too. 

And this is a process of creating story. It isn’t ever the same, but perhaps we can all share something in this experience?


Natascha Biebow,
MBE, Author, Editor and Mentor
Natascha is the author of The Crayon Man: The True Story of the Invention of Crayola Crayons, illustrated by Steven Salerno, Elephants Never Forget and Is This My Nose?, editor of numerous award-winning children’s books, and Co-Regional Advisor (Co-Chair) of SCBWI British Isles. She is currently working on more non-fiction and a series of young fiction. She runs Blue Elephant Storyshaping, an editing, coaching and mentoring service aimed at empowering writers and illustrators to fine-tune their work pre-submission. Find her at

Monday 23 September 2019

Snerting Your Picture Book Text, by Pippa Goodhart

‘Snerting’ is a family word that has proved useful when thinking about writing. ‘Snerting’ is a sort of cross between ‘sneering’ and ‘editing’, appreciating nice things but also pointing out errors and possibly making suggestions for changes. My husband is often the first ‘snerter’ of my stories after I’ve done all I can. My daughters have been paid snerters for me in the past. And I’m lucky enough to have a patient and inspired agent who is a very expert, professional and kind snerter. 
But a writer must always critique their own work too, so I’ve put together some key points to consider when you are snerting your own picture book texts before sending them off to agents or editors.
Does my story or book game address the right age and interests for the picture book audience? Do the emotional issues in it resonate with the limited life experiences of young children? Is that emotional core of the story about something young children care about with a passion? 
-   Is my story balanced, starting by ‘asking’ and finishing by ‘answering’ the central story question? Does the middle part of my story rise to a crisis, perhaps just over half way through, before resolving?
   Do my characters come alive in my story? Would a reader feel that these characters have a fictional life beyond what is seen here? It’s only if characters are ‘believable’ and relatable (even if they are an animated potato) that we’ll care enough to mind what happens to them.
  If my picture book isn’t telling a story, but is instead presenting a game to share with the book audience, does that game actively involve the child audience enough?
  Does my text read aloud easily and pleasingly? That may involve rhythm, perhaps even some rhyme, but, first and foremost, it must mean that the story is clearly conveyed in sentences that don’t trip the reader up. Always read out loud to test it. Better still, get somebody else to read it out loud to you. 
  Is there something worthy of a new illustration after every page turn? Am I using page turns to best dramatic effect?
  Does every word in my text earn the space it is taking away from potential illustration? If I cut a line, a paragraph, a word, will it improve the read without losing anything vital from the story? If so, do it. 
  Is there a clear marketing opportunity for my story, and, if so, does the story work in the best way it can to suit that opportunity? 
 Have I laid out my story in such a way that an editor can choose to easily read just the story text, or can read story text along with any necessary picture notes?
  Do I love my story? If not, it’s unlikely others will!

Happy snerting!

Monday 16 September 2019

Getting Side Tracked • Lynne Garner

A week or so ago I came across a video taken by a guy who regularly sets up a trail camera in woods near to where he lives. As I watched I knew I wanted to use it as a basis for a new picture book story. As I watched I took notes but knew I also needed to do a little research. 

A gift a few years ago - fab little book
As my new story will feature animals I know little about, they were my starting point. Although my animals will talk, I believe their lives should bear some resemblance to the real ones. Unfortunately, the issue is when I  research I get side tracked. As per usual I found a couple of facts I needed plus a few I didn’t. For example, did you know a baby racoon is called a kit or a cub? Also, female racoon with her young is called a nursery – I do like collective nouns.

Of course, this side tracked me and I had to find out if nursery was used as a collective noun for other animals. After a while I discovered a nursery is also used for a group of Coati. Happy with this I forced myself back on track and continued to research the topic in hand. 

Fact: a hedge is just bushes, whilst a
hedgerow is a mix of bushes and trees.
Once I’d researched the animals, I needed to research the types of trees my characters would encounter. This was when I stumbled on something very dear to my heart, supporting our environment. Somehow and I have no idea how I moved from trees of the US to the UK. This is when I discovered there are two places you can obtain free trees and hedging kits. Coincidentally I'm 'into' hedges and hedgerows at the moment due the book I’m reading A Natural History of the Hedgerow. 

The first organisation giving away free tree and hedging packs is The Woodlands Trust (click here for more information).  Schools and community groups can apply for their free packs. 
So, if you’re connected to either why not let them know about this great initiative and encourage them to apply.

Also, the government have £10 million put aside to fund the planting of 130,000 trees as part of their Urban Tree Challenge Fund. They are now accepting applications of interest from individuals (like minded neighbours who want to improve their street or local park), local authorities, charities and NGOs for trees to be planted 2020/2021. The scheme is being administered by the Forestry Commission (click here for more information).

Even after allowing myself to be side tracked I managed to find the information I needed. And I’m pleased to say my latest picture book story is in its third draft. Just a little more tweaking and my next task will be to research a suitable publisher. With fingers crossed I’ll get less side tracked, but I doubt it.   

Blatant plug time

Love a short story? 

Then check out my short story collections - available in paperback and ebooks versions (most ebooks are available at the low price of 99p/99¢ each):

Hedgehog of Moon Meadow Farm (10 stories)

Fox of Moon Meadow Farm (10 stories)

Ten Tales of Coyote  (10 stories)

Anansi The Trickster Spider (ebook £1.49/$1.49 - 16 stories) 

Monday 9 September 2019

Making It Personal: Harvesting Picture Books From Real Experiences by Clare Helen Welsh

We all know that finding an original picture book idea is tough. Extremely tough. But one way of being unique, is to make your writing personal. There is only one you, after all!

Twenty authors could all write stories about bears, but what would make yours different from everyone else’s is what you bring; your experience, your style, what you notice, know and believe to be important about bears. No-one can replicate you and that’s what will help your text stand out to publishers.

So how do we cultivate our ‘You-ness’ ?  - a term I first heard author, Catherine Johnson, use at the SCBWIBI Conference in Winchester - and how do we turn it into picture book gold?

Try writing down all the experiences, people, memories, interactions that are important to you. Choose one and consider:
-                     Is it interesting to others?
-                     Is it helpful to others?
-                     Is it (or can it be) told from a child’s perspective?

This last point is particularly important. You will need to craft your emotion into something accessible for the age group you are writing for. Remember that just because something resonates with us as adults, doesn’t necessarily mean it will touch or entertain a child in the same way. Emotion is hugely important in picture books, but your text still needs excitement and tension to make children want to come back to it again and again.

It’s perhaps helpful to expand your mindset when working in this way. Your final text might not actually be the whole of the thing you experienced. Once you have taken the nub of the idea/memory/emotion and sculpted it into something children will enjoy, it might only be a snippet of your original experience; a phrase, a character or an idea that you can use as a springboard for something else.

As an example, my most recent picture book, The Tide (illustrated by Ashling Lindsey and published by Little Tiger), started life as a phrase that my children kept repeating whilst on a day trip to the beach; ‘The tide is coming in! The tide is coming in!’ I wrote whilst they played. It was very special to sit back and watch them. It was also the first time they learned about tides.

On the beach at Perran Sands, Cornwall (April 2015)

Ronnie Spry, who lived with dementia, with two of her grandchildren.

Six months later, this memory had very much stayed with me, and so I used it as inspiration for a book about dementia, told from a child’s point of view. There were already some very good books for children on the subject. I know because my children’s Grandma lived with dementia towards the end of her life. Their Grandma wasn’t with us on our beach trip. No-one even mentioned or talked about dementia on that day. In fact, the final text doesn’t bear much resemblance to our trip at all. But the emotion is there. And a few little details that make the text feel fully-rounded; my children did play in the rock pools. They did build forts and castles and they did laugh in and shower in the salty spray. Their song, ‘The tide is coming in! The tide is coming in!’ also features, as a refrain in the book. Using the tide as a metaphor for memories that come and go, was unique and original to me. It was my way in to a subject written about many times before.

                                              (c) Ashling Lindsay (2019)

                                                (c) Ashling Lindsay (2019)

Perhaps you also like working this way? It would be great to find out if you do.
If not, perhaps give it a try …and let us know if you find picture book gold!

Clare is a children's writer and primary school teacher from Devon. She writes fiction and non-fiction picture book texts - sometimes funny and sometimes lyrical. Her first book was published in 2015, and she currently has books in development with Little Tiger Press, Quarto, Andersen, Nosy Crow and MacMillan. You can find out more about her at her website or on Twitter @ClareHelenWelsh .

Monday 2 September 2019

Digging through it by Jane Clarke

On Saturday, I helped excavate a small test pit with my local archaeology group. It occurred to me that editing the first draft of a picture book text is a bit like being on a dig. 
  1. At the start, it's hard to see what's there. You begin to strip away at it.

2.  Layers are essential, but some layers just need removing, like this corrugated iron sheet. 

If something’s blocking the flow of your text, cut it out - even if it is easier to leave it in there and walk away!

3.You don’t want to miss anything, so sieve through it carefully. 

4. You are likely to discover many broken things. 

Can anything be pieced together?  Discard a lot. Keep some. Either way, preserve a record. You might want to look at things again sometime.
5.  Remember it all started with the bedrock. Which in the case of our dig was waterlogged clay, but in a picture book is the theme of your text. Don’t lose sight of it.
6. It's hard work, but it's fun, especially if your join in with others who share the madness.

If you're looking for like-minded and helpful people, check out the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators

Jane was once an archaeologist, but is now a full time writer. Her latest picture book is Leap Frog, illustrated by Britta Teckentrup. For those who are interested, the test pit revealed a lot of rubbish - but also 3 shards of fifteenth century earthenware, 2 of late Anglo- Saxon pottery and a worked flint (probably Mesolithic). There was no sign of any structure. The dig was carefully recorded on a University of Leicester data base.