Monday 24 May 2021

Making It Up As You Go Along by Paddy Donnelly

This week we invited guest author-illustrator Paddy Donnelly to talk to us about creating his new picture book The Vanishing Lake, published by Yeehoo Press.

I’m always fascinated to hear how other authors and illustrators’ put the pieces of their picture books together. There can be a variety of methods each person implements, and each process differs wildly. No matter how many interviews I listen to, or articles I read, every creator seems to follow a different path towards their goal. There is one thing they all have in common though. They made that process up, and are still making it up.

There’s no such thing as a perfect ‘process’ and no two picture book projects follow the exact same set of steps to completion. Writing and illustrating are quite unpredictable tasks - filled with floods of inspiration as well as creative droughts. Challenges appear, feedback can be surprising and you can most definitely find yourself painted into a corner. What’s important to remember is that everyone, no matter how successful they are, also experience all of these things on each project. It’s how you react to them that spurs you towards success.

When starting out in this industry, I would view people who were successful as those who’d ‘figured it out’. They’d discovered the magic formula for putting together a bestseller. However the longer I worked as an illustrator and author, the more I discovered the common truths that link everyone together. Everyone is full of doubts. Everyone has made many mistakes. Everyone has been surprised when something became a ‘hit’. And everyone has a dream story idea that nobody has picked up (yet!). It was reassuring to hear that successful authors and illustrators also took very rambling paths towards where they are today. Nobody in fact has really figured ‘it’ out. And there’s not really an ‘it’ to figure out. Realising this, and combining it with some advice from my old university lecturer - ‘Just say yes and figure it out later’, has definitely brought many enjoyable opportunities my way.

I first got into children’s publishing in 2018, and in the beginning I had no clue how all the different parts of the publishing machine worked, what publishers like to see in a portfolio, what an agent does or how to create an effective page turn. I tried to soak up as much knowledge as I could, and while there are many ‘guidelines’ to working in picture books, they are simply that - ‘guidelines’. All these ‘rules’ can be broken. There’s always a first time for everything. And you can absolutely change your way of working, or completely switch up your illustration style, or write in another genre. Nothing is set in stone.

My debut author illustrated picture book,
The Vanishing Lake, was published in April 2021 and was such an enjoyable experience. This is my eighth picture book to be published, but the first where I was gelling the two halves together.


The Vanishing Lake is about a little girl called Meara who visits her Grandad who lives by a mysterious lake which disappears and reappears for no apparent reason. She constantly asks her Grandad why it happens and each time he has a more extravagant and unbelievable reason for her. Meara doesn’t believe any of his stories about mermaids, giants or narwhals, but with a little imagination she may discover the ‘real’ reason.

The story is actually based on a real place, close to where I grew up in Ballycastle in Ireland. It’s a lake called Loughareema which actually does disappear and reappear every few days, depending on the weather!

Storytelling is a huge part of life in Ireland, so I was surrounded by myths and legends from a young age and I think that’s had a big influence on me and my work. Rough seas, rugged coastlines, islands and mountains are all things I absolutely love to illustrate. That definitely comes from growing up surrounded by stunning scenery. It’s something I’ve come to appreciate so much more after moving away.

When you grow up with a wonder like this on your doorstep, you definitely take it for granted, and I hadn’t really thought about it for years. I was brainstorming a few different story ideas and it somehow popped into my head one day. I thought the title itself was intriguing and then I set off to build a story around that. I thought the mystery of ‘why’ the lake would disappear and reappear could be interesting to drive the story, and then setting the character up to be unwilling to believe each reason, spurred me on to come up with crazier and crazier ones.


I created the little girl of Meara for kids to relate to, and then I needed a wiser character who could tell her these tales. A grandparent made the most sense here as there’s something special about the relationship between grandparent and grandchild. They’re at such different points in their lives, but there’s often a really direct connection that kids don’t have with their parents. And grandparents are often full of wild tales. Playing on that familiar situation of a child asking ‘why?’ something is the way it is, and a parent/ grandparent trying to give an explanation was something I thought both the reading parent and child could relate to.

Meara couldn’t live by the lake herself, otherwise she’d be like me and probably think it was quite normal for it to disappear and reappear. The setting had to be familiar and at the same time strange and mysterious, so that was another reason to make it a grandparent who lived by the lake.

As most picture books have a standard number of pages, I knew how much I had to work with. I laid out some super rough thumbnails, plotting in the main set pieces - introduction to the lake, having it disappear and reappear, a few spreads of Grandad’s wild tales and then a few resolution spreads.

Once I had that really rough outline, I made slightly more detailed roughs. Then I finally moved on to the words. I’d learned a little from my characters from the sketching process, so I could now start writing in their ‘voices’. For example, I knew the Grandad would be really casually telling these magical stories of giants and mermaids, brushing them off as completely normal. Of course mermaids pulled the plug out!

I wrote and rewrote, all the while keeping the visuals in mind. 

Trying not to show and tell, but have both the words and illustrations work together in harmony, as two halves of the same puzzle. 

As I wrote, that would lead me to new ideas for illustrations, and as I would work on the final illustrations, I would be tweaking the words. I bounced back and forth, back and forth all the way until the end.

This was very different to my previous book projects, where I was illustrating someone else’s story. Usually in that situation, the manuscript has already been through an editing process and comes to you fully formed. So you don’t really have an affect on the actual words as you add the illustrations. I don’t really want to mess with the author’s words either, and I find that process really fascinating too. You get a huge flood of images in your head as soon as you read through a really well-formed piece of writing, and the best manuscripts already get me sketching after the first read.

I wanted to have the natural world shine through in the artwork, using a lot of vibrant colour schemes. I would take a lot of inspiration from the Irish landscape, but also with a little bit of fantasy world built in. The mix between imaginary worlds and the real world is a key element in this story, however it’s very difficult to see where one begins and one ends. 

The lines are blurred, and I left plenty of space for the child reading it to decide what’s real and what’s not.

Maybe you’ll be able to pull some interesting insights out of how I worked on this picture book. Some things might work for you, some things totally won’t. Take bits and pieces from it, try it backwards, take a sledgehammer to it! Remember though, that this was my path for this one particular book, and I can already see that it’s not the same for my second author illustrated picture book. This next one is an entirely different kind of story and is presenting both new challenges and firsts for me as an author and illustrator. All really exciting though!

‘Process’ is, and should be, a constantly evolving thing as you grow as an author or illustrator. 

Take comfort in the fast that everyone else is making it up as they go too. Don’t be afraid to get messy in your process. Try out something wild, new and scary and see what happens!

What does your current ‘process’ look like? Do you visualise images first when you’re writing a story? Do the characters already have a voice and you feel like you’re just writing down what they say. Do you have no idea what your characters will look like until the illustrator sends the first artwork? Or if you both write and illustrate, how does one fit with the other? 

Watch trailer of the book here!

Watch Paddy's short interview here. 


Paddy Donnelly is an Irish illustrator and author of picture books, and also creates middle grade book covers. He wishes Pluto was still a planet. Follow him on Twitter @paddydonnelly and on Instagram at  @paddy



Monday 17 May 2021

What a waste! by Laura Mucha

When I began writing for children, I was determined to illustrate my work myself. So I did numerous courses in topics ranging from painting to Photoshop, drawing to collage, and anything specifically on children’s book illustration. 

I came to the slow, painful realisation that I wasn’t going to be good enough to illustrate picture books without a few more years of life drawing, so decided to give up on illustration and focus on my writing.

When people hear this, they often say, ‘You spent HOW MUCH!?’ or ‘How FRUSTRATING!’ and ‘What a WASTE!’ However spending a small fortune on studying illustration was anything but. It was invaluable – not just for my understanding of children’s book illustration and the creative process more generally, but also for my writing.

Here are some of the lessons I learned along the way. 

Make a mess (The Slade)

Day one of a painting course at The Slade, I remember spending an inordinate amount of time trying to get the nice, neat lines in place so that I could make something nice and… er… neat. 

But my nice and neat work was BORING because my textures were bland and there was no feeling or energy in there as I spent all my time worrying about line. 

The tutor came over and told me to stop what I was doing. She laid large plastic sheets on the floor and instructed me to make a mess. 

Encouraged by fellow students, I did. I ruined some clothes and shoes in the process, but it was worth it. I threw, squelched and smooshed the paint, then did the same the next week and the week after, before eventually stepping back to look at what I had and think about how I could tidy it up (with those beloved lines). 

Tidied up walrus

I wasted months, possibly years, doing the equivalent in writing for adults and children – perfecting the detail before ensuring that the content was interesting and feeling-full. It doesn’t matter whether the full stops are perfect if the sentence is tedious and unnecessary… 

Now I have a strict policy of throwing, squelching and smooshing words, before doing any sort of tidying. Only after my shoes and clothes are decimated will I even consider shaping them into lines. 

Get it on the page (Central Saint Martins)

I was very busy staring at a blank piece of paper at Central Saint Martins when my tutor spotted me. He watched for a while before shuffling over and saying, ‘Don’t keep it in your head, you’ll only know if it works when you get it on the page’. 

My first reaction was 


But, as he was the tutor and therefore knew everything, I took his advice. And I’m glad I did. What I could have spent another hour (or five) mulling over became very clear as soon as ink hit paper. I’ve found it’s the same with writing. 

Writers disagree on how much you should think before getting your pens out. RL Stine, for example, plots the whole story before writing the chapters, whereas Stephen King doesn’t plot at all and instead begins with a situation (and some bland characters). I think I’m a mix of the two. I spend plenty of time thinking, but some of the most important creative work happens when I’m trying things out on the page. 

Seeing something on the white space, seeing how many words there are, where the page breaks will be, and what the font size is helps clarify things. It also helps generate ideas and leads to those delicious ‘ooooooh’ and ‘ahhhhhh’ moments that make creativity worthwhile. 

Pacing (House of Illustration)

I spent a very long time studying the visual pacing of picture books and quickly learned I didn’t want them to be uniform in terms of size or angle on each page. I wanted some close ups, some zooming out, some double spreads, some smaller images. But it’s not just the images that need pacing – so do the words. 

A story shouldn’t be like a uniform set of steps. Some parts should be smoother, then suddenly steep, then you should face a terrible drop and wonder how on earth you’re going to escape, only for there to be a way down (or up) that you hadn’t thought of. 

Creating a story where you find yourself stuck at the top of a cliff wondering how the hell you’re going to get down can obviously be a bit stressful… But I think it gets easier with time because you have more and more faith that you’ll figure it out. (Either that or you just start to carry a parachute with you.) 

Steps that make for a boring story

Slightly more interesting story steps

Hmm...maybe a bit too-ooo non-linear

My studying wasn’t a waste. Not only did I learn about how to make books, I learnt about myself. I didn’t like not being good at something, but I had to suck it up while I learnt. I didn’t like making a mess, but I had to get to grips with that if I wanted to create something I could be proud of. I didn’t like not knowing how to resolve a story problem, but I had to sit with that if I wanted to write compelling tales. 

Studying how to draw, paint, collage, and illustrate was time and money well spent. And I highly recommend it to anyone, even if they have absolutely no intention of illustrating themselves. 

Laura Mucha is an award-winning poet and author. Her latest book is Rita’s Rabbit illustrated by Hannah Peck (Faber) and you can read /listen to her work at @lauramucha

Monday 10 May 2021

Long Ago? by Pippa Goodhart


‘Long ago and far away’ is the setting for so many picture book stories, and yet historically realistic ‘long ago’ is rarely found. Why?

This question came to me as I’ve been compiling a virtual summer course for Cambridge University’s ICE (Institute for Continuing Education) on ‘Writing Historical Fiction for Children’. I had hoped to include picture books, early reader illustrated chapter books, middle grade novels, and young adult fiction. I do include all those, but very little on picture books because picture book historical fiction is scarce.

There is a current boom in picture books about famous people from the past, tapping into national curriculum topics for Key Stage 1 such as ‘the first aeroplane flight’ and ‘lives of significant individuals’ ranging from Mary Anning to Alan Turing. Those topics ensure book sales to schools.  

But why not use historical settings for stories, as background, with no link to a great historical character or event? 

            Surely nobody thinks that a picture book story setting from the past would be off-putting to young children for whom everything is new? We rightly offer young children stories set in geographical places and in cultures very different from their own. They also happily accept characters who are peas and carrots and robots and cacti! Children are naturally ready to imagine and play. And they happily enjoy the very few picture books which do have a setting which we can see is from a past time. 



I wonder, did publishers in 1981 feel doubtful about Janet and Alan Ahlberg’s ‘Peepo!’ being set amid World War Two family life, a bombed building and air-raid warden visible? If they did, they needn’t have worried. Many, perhaps most, small children enjoy that book for its ‘peepo’ game, with the baby and adult family members they can relate to. Some might look at picture detail, ask questions, and have an interesting discussion about the differences in that home from their own with the adult who reads the book to them. But all children exposed to the book, will, I suspect, have absorbed a feel for that time and place. When they come to learning about the Second World War, and life on the Home Front, something of it will already be within their existing knowledge, thanks to ‘Peepo!’. 

But, earnest educational value aside, life is simply richer and more interesting the more we know of it. So, let’s enjoy the diversity of story setting that the past offers us, and offer it to young children too! 

            Why aren’t there more picture book stories with historical settings? Is it for fear of ‘getting it wrong’? With prehistory, so little is known that there’s a freedom to use a sort of generic visual shorthand for how things looked in Stone Age times; people in fur knickers, waving spears at woolly mammoths. There are quite a number of picture book stories set in prehistorical times. 

But for historical times about which we know more, there will always be those ready to point out mistakes, just as they do for historical films. I’ve been an ‘extra’ when the ITV murder mystery ‘Grantchester’ series has been filmed in my home village, and, yes, they hung prop tights rather than stockings on a washing line set in the 1950s. Wrong! But the tights were background, and not pertinent to the story. If we mind too much about accuracy, we restrict ourselves for the sake of academic safety. That’s a waste. Children think in bigger ways than that. 

Children love ‘long ago’, and illustrators and publishers are confident when using a ‘long ago’ setting that is clearly fictional, so can’t be ‘wrong’. Fairy tales, and the many newly created picture book stories featuring knights and princes and princesses, tend to be set in vaguely ‘long ago’ times of long dresses and carriages and page boys. It’s the same unspecified ‘long ago’ sort of setting that pantomime sets and costumes go for. But let’s use the picture book opportunity to introduce children to more realistic other times. 

David Roberts shows children lush 1930s Art Deco wonders in his version of Cinderella (written by Lynn Roberts Maloney). 

I think there’s an opportunity here for more beautiful and interesting extra visual riches to be brought into some picture book fiction. I wonder if any publishers and illustrators agree?!

Monday 3 May 2021

How I am Writing My New Books Every Minute Even When I'm Not • by Natascha Biebow

Writing is something I do. But most of the time, I am not writing.


While I am supposed to be writing, but really I am not writing, I am:


- Juggling: if you have work, family, volunteer commitments, and life in general like me, chances are you are also juggling. This is useful for writing because it means you are living. And living is what is at the heart of writing. So, I make lists, do the school run, hoover the house, check in on my mum, keep wishing dinner will cook itself, help run SCBWI-BI to pay it forward to other writers and illustrators, edit books, and breathe . . .  because one day these experiences will be in my books.


- Reading Other People’s Writing (Books): each day, I indulge in a bit of R-E-A-D-I-N-G. Very often, this is not a children’s book, but if you pay attention while you are reading, you can glean quite a few useful things while you are not writing: inspiration how to write good (or bad) dialogue, techniques for storytelling, ideas for formats, insights into the competition, an awareness of the marketplace. If it’s a book that hooks, or a funny book, or an artfully written one, you can bask in good language like a shark basking in the sun and dream of one day writing a book like that too.

Some books I've been reading


And picture books and nonfiction research

- Walking the Dog: this is an excellent way to pound out plot problems and other writing niggles. Plus observing people in the park means you might get the odd ideas for characters. Importantly, it makes you go out so you are not entirely a hermit in front of a computer staring at a blank screen or typing wondering where this book is going . . . You might even find out what is actually going on in the world and meet a person. And it's exercise so it helps you stay fit. (NB: If you don’t have a dog, you can walk yourself.)


My dog Luna lives for watching
then unsuccessfully chasing squirrels.

- Reading Aloud to a Child (Or a Pet): reading A-L-O-U-D is an excellent way to get an ear for the sounds and structure of writing. When reading aloud, I get completely and totally immersed in the story and it is oh, so rhythmical in a way that reading silently just isn’t. (Sometimes I read my stories A-L-O-U-D to the walls – thankfully, they don’t voice their opinion).

- Cooking, cleaning, washing and Taking Care of Other Chores that always seem to need doing on repeat: see juggling (above).

- Listening to Craft Webinars or Reading Craft Books: mostly listening to other authors speak is a comforting language of threads of a shared experience in the life of writing; it is also great procrastination “Hey, I’m learning HOW to do it, yes, really” instead of bum on seat. Bonus is you can do it at the same time as Walking the Dog . . . and get in the zone.

- Watching Children be Children: if you are lucky to meet a child on your walk or pass a playground or even have family with children or children of your own, you can do something very important while practising not writing: watching and listening.


- Sleeping. A surprising amount of writing can be done in that subconscious state before you fall asleep. This is a great time to noodle around with ideas and story problems. Plus it's necessary.


-Eating Chocolate (Shhh!) definitely helps you keep going.


In other words, I Am BUSY Living, So A Piece of Me Can Find Its Way Into My Books:

All this living is collecting material for writing. One day you’ll see it in my books. I am working on a new nonfiction project; while I’ve done some research and there is much more to do . . . as I’m ‘writing through living’, I’m figuring out HOW TO TELL THIS STORY to make it compelling for a child to read. Every book I write is written because of some living I did. A piece of me is in there, and it is this that I am hoping will connect with readers big and small to make the story resonate with them also. 


Nonfiction picture books are 100% TRUE STORIES. 


To figure out and collect the ‘true’ bit, I need to do a lot of outreach and research. I've decided my topic has ‘legs’ – e.g. it hasn’t already been done by someone else and it has a strong enough hook – so I am busy uncovering more of the required facts. Eventually, it will be time to weed out what should go in the book, and what should be parked up (what is not relevant to the story can possibly go in the backmatter).


Fueled by curiosity and a love of my new topic, my quest is to discover the inner truth, the passion that makes THIS story tick, the child-centred angle, something that will elicit an emotional response from my young readers so they, too, can connect with the spark that led me to write this book.


When I sell my idea to a publisher, you'll be the first to know how the living has made it become a real book. As I told a group of school children on a virtual author visit recently, it can take years to make a book, sometimes as long as they have been alive.  It's about trusting the process.


 For this, I need much time LIVING.


Natascha Biebow, MBE, Author, Editor and Mentor

Natascha is the author of the award-winning The Crayon Man: The True Story of the Invention of Crayola Crayons, illustrated by Steven Salerno, winner of the Irma Black Award for Excellence in Children's Books, and selected as a best STEM Book 2020. Editor of numerous prize-winning books, she runs Blue Elephant Storyshaping, an editing, coaching and mentoring service aimed at empowering writers and illustrators to fine-tune their work pre-submission, and is the Editorial Director for Five Quills. She is Co-Regional Advisor (Co-Chair) of SCBWI British Isles. Find her at