Monday, 16 November 2020

The Thoroughly Creative Picture Book Author by Addy Farmer

A thoroughly creative picture book author? Yes, um, that’s what we ALL are, isn’t it? I mean, it’s difficult to write a picture book text without creativity? So, I’ll begin with a definition (warning: may stray from any number of dictionaries). For me, being a “thoroughly creative author’’ is to be a writer prepared to seek out her creative opportunities. She wants to be published traditionally but is also prepared to think widely about other routes to being published.

Okay, so let me expand a little.

I am published by two traditional publishers, Walker and Random House. My picture book Siddarth and Rinki came out with Verna Wilkin’s magnificent publishing house, Tamarind (which was subsequently absorbed into the Penguin Random House group). It was wonderful to work with an editor and to have Karin Littlewood illustrate the story. My next picture book, Worlds Apart was signed to one publisher but, after an agonising length of time; one foreign rights deal, one publishing house change and three illustrators later; it was dropped when it failed to gain interest at Frankfurt. Harsh but true. It taught me a few things:

  • Never wait around for a book to be published. Always be at work on the next one. Time is precious
  • Keep up with your reader and what they like - I didn’t want to get stuck in the past with my imagined reader. The children’s market is shifting and dynamic. Keeping up with what children and their carers are reading. This does NOT interfere with artistic integrity - it is a way of informing your creativity.
  • Get organised! I went on a pre-pandemic writing retreat back in January with my excellent pals, Juliet Clare Bell and Rebecca Colby. There, I got to grips with being organised with laser-like purpose. Wahay! I set flexible goals and objectives for 2021 and it has framed my approach to this writing year! I work hard and I work smart.
  • Think creatively about who you can write for.

Okay, thinking creatively is the biggy. Yes, of course I would like to be published in a traditional way again. I love being part of a professional team; I love being edited; I love the to and fro of illustrations and edits. I also love knowing that a big publishing company has endorsed my writing. That is partly what gave me the confidence to broaden my thinking and branch out into writing for non-traditional routes.

A Bagful of Stars

My first commissioned picture book was, A Bagful of Stars with the brilliant Bridget Marzo illustrating. The story of A Bagful of Stars was one of hard work and absolute joy. The queues for signing were looooooooong! Bridget and I had a ball!

This book came about through luck and making connections and then quite frankly just asking for the job. Someone I knew from The Rotary Club of Scunthorpe approached me in my capacity of ‘the only children’s writer in town’, to help her find a children’s author who could come up with a Christmas picture book for them. I said, ‘I’ll do it!’ even before the flat fee was mentioned. Oops. So, think for a mo before you agree to anything. For me, I had a track record as a published writer and there was no reason to accept a relatively small fee. What swayed me to accept the project was my heart. What came out of the project was definitely not a personal financial success and this is something you must think about on a personal level but also perhaps to ensure that we, as a body of picture book writers, are given the professional recognition we deserve. 

Working on a A Bagful of Stars gave me a few insights into undertaking and running your own picture book project

  • Understand your worth - you are a professional writer and you are not doing anything for ‘the exposure’
  • Have a fantastic designer
  • Maximise the income with workshops
  • Create educational resources/CPD in school training
  • Maximise the book’s reach through schools by approaching relevant council education officials
  • Use the project leading experience to sell the next project
  • Make links and collaborate with creative partners e.g children’s theatre, animation, add music and songs. 

The book went on to be reprinted and is still being bought today for Christmas. And yes, I will be investigating selling through this fantastic sounding 

How did I get more work from there?

I used that experience of working with creative partners in theatre and music (all found via my local council), to suggest another more ambitious project - a picture book which could be adapted as a piece of musical children’s theatre. A Place called Home, illustrated by the wonderful Louise Gardner, was conceived and developed with the North Lincs Music Hub and Rhubarb theatre in Lincoln. This project, from 2017, was properly funded by the Arts Council and is still used by North Lincs primary schools and performed by Rhubarb Theatre.  

An exercise in thoroughly creative writing

From then on, I was already thinking about other opportunities. I examined my own hobbies and interests. Was there anything in those extra-curricular activities which might transfer into ideas for a picture book? 

I made a list!






Medieval history

Peat and the environment

The great Outdoors

I might expand the list like so …

  • Clouds. I’m a member of the Cloud Appreciation Society and I am thoroughly absorbed in the ‘inventor of clouds’ - Luke Howard. I’ve found a gap in the usual narrative and I am writing with a view to pitching to a traditional publisher 
  • Interested in space and space travel - always fascinating to me, especially now with the developments on the moon. Look for the next anniversary or big anniversary.  
  • Family history - who might become a subject for a narrative non-fiction book? I am fascinated by my own grandmother’s involvement in the war time Air Transport Auxiliary. In researching this and the history of aviators, I have found some other fascinating female aviators - this needs careful thinking about because the market already has some great aviation picture book titles. 
  • I find the depiction of cats in medieval illuminated manuscripts thoroughly absorbing  (It really is). I could try approaching an organisation like the National Trust or English Heritage. But frankly, this is too niche and would have to be broadened to attract interest 
  • Being a community builder for a replica Neolithic Trackway (this girl knows how to have fun) -  a lot of my income came through physical workshops but now I’m going virtual and creating a series of school workshops (with a picture book element) for the Isle of Axholme and Hatfield Chase Landscape Partnership (what a mouthful).  
  • Being a member of our local Crowle and Peatland Railway - I am writing a narrative non-fiction picture book story called Little Peat. This has been commissioned (at my suggestion) by this local charity in order to inform the local community about the history on their doorstep as well as engaging people in the environmental issues surrounding peat. Where the funding will most likely succeed is with the environmental thrust. 
  • Being outdoors is really important to my mental health. In happier times, I run outdoor creative workshops for families and a picture book based on this seems to be a no-brainer. There are specialist mental health publishers like Jessica Kingsley and Upside Down Press to approach.

Be thoroughly creative!

  • Think fiction and narrative non-fiction and non-fiction
  • Mine your own interests and history 
  • Expand your own knowledge with research
  • DO YOUR HOMEWORK with regards to other and similar books on the market
  • Be bold! Make contact with organisations you might write for. You never know .. 
  • Check out the funding bodies and make your own applications e.g Arts Council
  • Find help with developing funding applications. E.g. our local MP has an assistant who works two days a week sourcing funding for local projects.
  • Look for and create your own writing opportunities with local charities
  • LinkedIn - yeah, I know but I have a presence AND was paid to write a picture book story arc for a startup company. I also found work as a story app writer with an education games company.
  • Work with other creative collaborators - you never know where it will go!
  • Create workshops for education settings and families. 

Does this sound like hard work? Yep and I’m aware it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. Remember to be selective because you’ve got to enjoy it! Work hard but work smart. If you do want to find those opportunities to write differently, they are out there or with a bit of creative thinking, you can make them. 

As that jobbing writer-hero of mine, Jo Nadin says, 

“I’ve earned a living doing what I love- which is a rare privilege in itself.”

P.S. I’m working on an illustrated story with Child Bereavement UK at the moment. I will be crowdfunding it soon!



Jane Clarke said...

Thanks for your wonderfully inspiring guest post, Addy

Juliet Clare Bell said...

Thank you, Addy. It's so true about looking for opportunities in less obvious places. It's really worked for me. And in my experience, it's also worked by sharing knowledge and opportunities with an accountability partner -even if it means you're applying for the same things. Really good luck with all your fascinating projects!

Clare Helen Welsh said...

A really thought provoking post. Thank you, Addy. I like your ‘Work hard, work smart’ moto. I can definitely relate to that. It is definitely possible to find/ make opportunities and not expect them to fall in your lap! If you love it and it makes you happy, it’s worth investing in :-)

Anonymous said...

Wow! Thank you. I loved reading this post. Such a lot of great ideas and different ways to approach creativity. I feel I need to think outside the box more! Very inspiring. Lucy Rowland

Candy Gourlay said...

Thank you, Addy, that was a kick up the backside post. So much to think about ....especially the depiction of cats in illuminated books.

Addy Farmer said...

It was a pleasure!

Addy Farmer said...

Yes! Am accountability partner is a wonderful idea. I have an excellent partner in Liz Miller.

Addy Farmer said...

Yes! You have to enjoy it. I'm always inspired by new opportunity. My problem can be focusing on just one thing properly!

Addy Farmer said...

Thanks, Lucy!

Addy Farmer said...

Thanks, Candy. It's the medievalist version of checking out funny cat pics on the internet.



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