Monday 28 March 2022

Ten ways to kickstart your writing if you’re stuck by Juliet Clare Bell

In case you're in need of a boost to your creativity at the moment (I have been!) here's a list of ten things you could try...


1 Be kind to yourself and seek out good company. If you’re anything like me you may still not be seeing as many people as you did pre-covid. We haven’t started back with our in-person once a month local SCBWI picture book group yet or our once a week writing together sessions we did for some time. I feel very lucky to have been able to go away for two weekends very recently with writer friends

                                          SCBWI Writing Retreat 2022 (masks off for eating)

I used to use retreats as a time to write but these weekends were a time to reflect and think,  and most of all, be in really good company, talking about writing and being honest about how we’ve all been finding life and writing after the last two years… I am rejuvenated (and without meaning to, came up with a great idea for a picture book). f you’re not able to go away, try and connect in a different way -on a walk (in person with someone, or failing that, on a call to a friend elsewhere) or on zoom if you can still face it!

2 Be kind to yourself and read -either somewhere super nice and cosy

or in bed (with electric blanket underneath and weighted blanket on top -in my case) whether that’s with a physical book (for me, in my chair) or an audio book in bed…

And don’t feel like it can’t be as fun if you schedule it. I do fifteen minutes in my cosy chair after I’ve got completely ready for bed, with lovely lighting and bird song on spotify, and I frequently read at scheduled times with one of my teenagers in cosy silence. I will forget to do it if I don't have a reminder but it's lovely when I do it.

Try picture books and other books. They can all help you find your way back, even if they don’t seem connected to what you’re writing initially. I’m currently listening to Brene Brown’s  The Gifts of Imperfection 

-I'd highly recommend it...  I’ve also been listening to Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic

I don’t necessarily share her opinions about the universe deliberately putting positive things in your way but it doesn’t make any difference to how much I get out of the book and how it encourages me back into creativity.

3 Be kind to yourself and have a little book of small successes (for writing and writing-related successes) and write in it every day. My small successes are often very small (like sitting at my desk for fifteen minutes and doing a task I didn’t feel inclined to do but did anyway) and I am only allowed to write wholly positive things in there. 

I do this at the end of the day, before bed, so I’m finishing on a high note and I do it at my desk with lovely calm lighting so it feels like a treat.

 If I ever choose to read it, it is wholly positive, whether the success I’m reading is finishing a book or doing half an hour of taxes in one sitting…

4 Be kind to yourself and surround yourself with plants. I nicked this idea straight off my middle daughter and it’s been very lovely indeed.

5 Be kind to yourself and get a good working area if possible. Until I carved out my good working area earlier this year in my bedroom and bought my desk (some months after I’d done a huge clear-out), my good working area was my bed. It wasn’t actually very good but I did make sure it was a happy area by covering it with a lovely yellow blanket. I love my desk so much and it makes it way easier to get down to work.

6 Be kind to yourself and try and find ways to work less on computer and more on paper. I have to remind myself of this a lot as I’m wont to forget things quickly, but you can actually have your computer screen closed quite a lot of the time when you’re working on a picture book and it gives your working environment a very different (and often nicer) feel.

7 Be kind to yourself and look after your body -eat the right foods and exercise. For me (a perimenopausal woman with ADHD) that means religiously eating lots of flaxseed every breakfast without fail with yogurt, chia seeds, apple, toasted flaked almonds and a bit of honey, and it means cutting out almost all refined sugar. Two years ago I would never have dreamt of eating that and ate Coco Pops or cornflakes or another sugary cereal for breakfast, and lots of chocolate. But I borrowed the idea off other women of a similar age and it’s made a huge difference -as has HRT- helping my memory and reducing brain fog (very useful for writing!)   And do whatever exercise works for you. For me, it’s jogging gently on the spot at home at regular times throughout the day and it does wonders for my concentration.

8 Be kind to yourself and embrace whatever works for you. It doesn’t matter if anyone else thinks it’s weird. You do you -whether that means dancing around the kitchen to seriously uncool music or jogging super-slowly in tiny steps up and down your not-so-large kitchen whilst you wait for the kettle to boil… 

If you jog with tiny enough steps the kitchen seems pretty big (and it's great to get concentration back if you're losing it)...

or putting on slippery socks so you can slide around on your floor, or playing tig at the park with your teenage children, or watching Brokenwood with a child whilst finishing a blogpost 

     Seeking out good company at home, too, for writing, reading or just good old hanging out...

or learning to play the ukelele just for fun...

or using an actual sticker chart to motivate you to do all the helpful things that help things along…

     It may seem childish, but I don't care. I nicked the idea off one of my children and it works for me! 

9 And then be kind to yourself and think really carefully: is what you really want to be doing? If it is (and it’s fine if it isn’t) then plan your days (after years and years of trying different productivity journals and numerous variations on to do lists, I’ve finally found a way that works: a simple brightly coloured book (so I love using it and I can’t lose it -at least not as easily as less colourful books) with half the day’s page taken up with a random brain dump of absolutely everything I need to do and the other half a schedule based on the brain dump. All done the night before so I know exactly what I'm doing at the beginning of each day -magic! And I get to use a highlighter once I’ve completed something...

        It's very yellow and I lose it way less than anything else -and who doesn't love a highlighter?

 and then be kind to yourself and…

10 be authentic, take your inspiration and strength from everywhere and allow your re-invigorated mind to write what moves you.

These are things that have made a big difference to me recently and I'm getting more writing done and having more fun doing it! Let's all remember to be kind to ourselves (and of course, each other). What are your top tips for feeding your soul and being in a better place to write? I'd love to hear them in the comments below...

Clare is the author of around 40 books (picture books and early readers) and is editing her first young adult novel. She's recently questioned whether she wants to be moving on to older books now her children are much older but once she let herself imagine not writing more picture books she realised how much she actively wants to write picture books and it's really helped her focus.




Sunday 20 March 2022


If I had to pin down some of my all-time favourite picture book characters, Burglar Bill (Janet and Allan Ahlberg) and the girl from Rebecca Patterson’s My Big Shouting Day would be up there.

I think what I’m drawn to is the darkness and danger in Burglar Bill. He's certainly interesting and someone I want to read more about. Plus, he has a fantastic refrain that I used to love joining in with as a child - ‘I’ll ‘av that!


In My Big Shouting Day it’s the authenticity of the character that appeals to me. She's so well cast and familiar that I feel like I know her (Perhaps I do!) This spread in particular is fantastic and full of humour. Again I love the voice ‘I CAN'T EAT THAT EGG!’



In more modern examples, I thought Yoyo from Emily Davison and Deborah Allwright’s Every Bunny is A Yoga Bunny was excellent – a fidgety, bouncy, can’t-sit-still-ever sort of bunny will be relatable to many young readers, making Yoyo's story easy to empathise with. 


And it’s impossible not to fall in love with Gertie, the littlest yak! (Lu Fraser, Kate Hindley.) She may be small but she has a big dream. It's the contrast between her tiny physical size and her ambition that make us root for her even more. Also, the weather and dangerous setting heighten the stakes, increasing the tension and how much we care.


Whilst the advice is usually to make your characters relatable, Catherine Emmett breaks the mould showing us how to make the reader care about unlikeable characters in her cautionary tale, The Pet, with David Tazzyman. In this story about spoilt Digby David who doesn't look after or respect his animals, we keep reading to see if the main character is going to learn his lesson... or not. (Perhaps he is a bit relatable too! Shhh!) 

LIke most of the books above, picture book creators are often advised to create child characters or characters that are child-like. But Catherine Emmett demonstrates that not all picture book main characters have to be children. In King of The Swamp, McDarkly is a grown-up monster character living alone in a swamp, but he has a clear plight that we can get behind and is very much likeable



Whilst it depends on the story and the idea, on balance I consider myself more of a plot-driven writer than a character-driven one. I get swept away by funny starters, escalatory ideas for middles, devastating crisis points, climatic endings, or by theme, and then I choose the character to star in my story afterwards.


For that reason, I have to work a little harder to create strong characters. Here are three tips I’ve gathered since I started writing which might help you with your characterisation too. 




-     1. Quiz your characters: 

I knew in Sunshine at Bedtime I wanted the main character to be a human child. In the story, Miki’s external goal was to learn about the Sun and all the ways its light works. To develop her internal traits, it helped to imagine Miki in my mind’s eye and to ask her what questions she had and to find out how the extra sunlight was affecting her everyday life. It quickly became apparent there was NO WAY Miki was going to go to bed when it was still sunny, which became the opening of the book. Interviewing your character might throw up some interesting ideas to explore. 

-      2. Base them on someone you know or a celebrity :

In the Dot and Duck series, I’ve very much taken inspiration from my life. How Rude came from imagining my children at their worst. How Selfish was inspired by my time in Early Years environments. The third adventure, How Messy, was more specifically inspired by my marriage! Not that one or other of us is Dot or Duck – we have our moments as both characters – but it helped to imagine incidents and real life examples and to plough those details and emotions into the story.  Can you base your character on someone you know, or know of? Even if just in part? It makes them easier to visualise and makes it easier to predict how they will react in certain situations. 



-      3. Take the theme of your texts and cast the character/s that will cause the most conflict

In the Lenny series, I chose the characters that would provide the most 'story'. Who were the smelliest, yuckiest, slimiest animals on the planet?! These were the creatures I knew Lenny needed to meet. The smellier, yuckier and slimier the animals, the higher the stakes for the character and the more potential there was for conflict and humour. Have you got the worst combination of character and conflict in your story? An uncoordinated giraffe that wants to dance? An owl who is afraid of the dark?


I think it’s also worth considering that sometimes it’s ok if your character is just a child. If your text deals with a big theme or has a hard hitting conflict, you might not need such an outwardly unique character. For example, in The Tide (Ashling Lindsay) and The Perfect Shelter (Asa Gilland), the main characters are just children – one who loves the beach and one who loves building dens. Written in first person they are intentionally quite generic, which I think works. There’s enough conflict going on in the world around them. One girl is learning to accept her grandparent's dementia and the other her sister's critical illness. The plot points and emotional themes are the hooks for the story,  not the uniqueness of the character.

Remember though, that even if you decide your human characters don’t need to be that distinctive, they still need to be clear. You could try cementing their personality in the early pages, with a line or two that tells us exactly all we need to know.

The good news is that where picture books are concerned, it’s not all about the words! Illustrations bring characters alive in a physical sense, of course, which for me is like meeting them for the first time! I don't ever imagine my characters in that much detail. But they also add to the characterisation in untold, magical ways. Like when Laura Barrett illustrated Scissorella and hid animals mentioned in the original fairy tale like lizards, mice and a cat adding to Lotte’s kind and caring persona. So if your characters feel a little flat, that might not be a bad thing - it could leave space for the perfect illustrator to breathe life into them and bring them into their own. 


I wonder if you have any top tips for creating clearinteresting, relatable, authentic, distinctive, like-able characters that we care about. Would you consider yourself a character-led writer or plot-led writer or both?!


Feel free to let us know in the comments below.

BIO: Clare is a children's writer from Devon. She writes fiction and non-fiction picture book texts - sometimes funny, sometimes lyrical and everything in between. Her first book was published in 2015, and she currently has books in development with Little Tiger Press, Quarto, Nosy Crow and MacMillan. Her next narrative non-fiction picture book, 'Sunshine at Bedtime,' comes out in just a few weeks with Storyhouse Publishing and has been illustrated by Sally Soweol Han. It's a magical but educational adventure explaining why the sun sets later in the summer. You can find out more about Clare at her website or on Twitter @ClareHelenWelsh.

Monday 14 March 2022

War and Peace in Picture Books by Chitra Soundar

While I begin writing this, the war of terror by a nuclear power over its neighbour looms large in my mind. Like me, many of us I’m sure are either ignoring the news or obsessively consuming it. (If you want to help, here are some ways.)

But are children aware of the war? Are they talking about it? Are the grown-ups having a meaningful conversation with them about it?

I was in a school recently, talking about climate crisis (related to my books) and the students offered up war as one of the things destroying the planet. It’s on their minds. They are hearing the news. They are listening to the grown-ups discuss the topics. They might even be refugees of a previous war afraid of this new one. 

That made me wondering, how do we talk about war (and peace) to children? How do we explain why one big bully attacks another? How do we explain displacement, refugees and bombs to the youngest of our readers?

Perhaps we already do. Perhaps we don't continue to do it when they grow up.

From the time children go to nursery to socialise with other children, we teach them to take turns, to say please and thank you, to help each other, respecting a No, not grabbing and to share. 

How are these different to international rules of playing together nicely in the nuclear sand-pit? We often forget that these rules had never changed from the nursery to the United Nations. 

We take turns to be leaders at the United Nations. 

We help each other albeit in randomly unfair ways.

We must accept and move on when someone says No, to re-joining an empire

We must not at any time grab what’s not ours 

We must share our goodies, our vaccines, our expertise with other nations.

The nursery is not perfect. There are tantrums, fights, throw-downs and toy-grabs. The children are still learning these skills for the first time and their brains are still developing. But if we do not show them how to play nice with others at this age, if we do not build in the values of respecting every life equally now, we will be in a cycle of war that will destroy the planet in drastic ways. 

To be honest, United Nations is not perfect either. Neither is the world order. Perfection is a dream. We have an imperfect world and world order and however imperfect, we hope peace and humanity wins over greed and ego. 

In my opinion, picture-books for younger and older children, have the power to start conversations about such difficult topics. Books can help showcase the people who are displaced, the children who are traumatised and the everyday life that is affected when someone far away decides to act on their greed and ego. They also remind us of the good that exists amidst the chaos. 

The courage and bravery of those who defend their right against the war. 

The kindness of strangers and neighbours. 

The lessons we learn and pass on to the next generation. 

Conversely, picture books about sharing, about not biting your friend because they won’t give up their toy or taking turns at the slide without pushing each other out of the way are also important. These stories are the foundations on which our values are built.

The picture book listener has a fertile mind. They laugh at weird sounds, they love repetition, they love snuggly animals. But they are also taking in the underlying thread without the grown-up reader having to elaborate much.  If not, the next day at the nursery or school, eventually the child can correlate to the story to what they are saying.

Often they see it in others first. “Tommy didn’t share today.”

“It was my turn but Lucy pushed me down.”

“I didn’t want to give my train but Arun grabbed it anyway.”

Then they will see it in themselves. Then it turns into empathy. It turns into a life-long value they will hopefully retain and turn into generous and kind citizens and leaders. 

So, there is a place for both types of stories – the ones that talk about the fundamentals of how we aspire to be and the ones that talk about the immediate plight of the people affected by war. 

Which one will you write?

Here are more books Love My Books have put together that talks about the perils of war. 

Here are some books that talk about sharing. There are plenty more about not being rude, taking turns and being kind. 

Can you recommend other books that directly or indirectly talk about peace or the futility or the cost of war or simply those universal values of love, sharing and being kind? Share with us in the comments.