Monday, 16 May 2022

Character Driven versus Plot Driven, by Cath Jones

When you’re writing a picture book, have you ever considered whether your story is ‘plot driven’ or ‘character driven’? It’s quite possible that you’ve never really thought about this. Perhaps you’re not even one hundred percent sure what these terms mean. Decades ago, when I first started writing stories for children, I had not even heard of ‘Plot driven’ or ‘character driven’. I just wrote instinctively.


This is how I now define the two concepts:

  • If you tend to focus on events, then the chances are your story is ‘plot driven’.
  • But if your character changes or develops during the story, or they come to a greater understanding of themselves, then your story is probably ‘character driven’. Ask yourself, is the personality of my character moving the story forward? 



When I came to write this blog post, I realised I had no idea whether I was a plot driven or character driven writer! So I thought about some of my own stories.

My next picture book, ‘Slug Love’ (publishing June 2022) follows a pretty classic plot structure so does that mean I am plot driven? Not necessarily! 

The plot may follow a pretty classic structure of problem to be solved, situation worsening, all is lost moment and a twist ending but all the action is driven by the optimism and determination of Slug. So that sounds like my story is definitely character driven.

What clinched the answer for me was the realisation that, when people asked me what my story was about, I always answered:

“Oh it’s about an optimistic slug,”


Rather than describing the plot or the problem, I always described Slug, the central character. And from the moment I started writing ‘Slug Love’, Slug was the star of the story, not the plot! In fact, I really struggled to get the plot to work. It took me literally years to reach the final draft.



‘Bonkers About Beetroot was my first traditionally published picture book.’ When I set out, it was definitely plot driven. There was a problem to be solved and that was the plot. Simple.

However, what really makes this picture book (apart from Chris Jevon’s stunning illustrations of course) are the two main characters. At the heart of the story is an optimistic and determined Zebra and a pessimistic, rather grumpy penguin. If I had not populated a classic plot structure with two larger than life characters, the story would have been pretty uninspiring. And I will admit that the original germ of an idea for this story was a purple zebra and the title. The plot definitely came later.


But let’s see what other picture book authors think about character versus plot. I asked a few to consider their own books and writing style. Did they think they were plot driven or character driven?




Frances Tosdevin, author of the 2021 picture book THE BEAR AND HER BOOK (illustrated by Sophia O’Connor) said:

“The Bear and her Book started off as plot-driven because I wanted to have lots of interesting visual possibilities in the text. But I do feel that the bear's character drove the plot, too— her kindness came out the more I got to know her. The creatures she meets (hopefully) all have their own personalities, too. 

However, in general, I do try to have a mix of both plot and character in my stories, as I think they are quite interdependent, and also somewhat necessary!”




I’m sure many of you will relate to what picture book author Emily Ann Davison said:

“I do sometimes try to plot a story that is one or the other but most stories just fall out of my brain.” 




Jill Atkins, author of the 2021 picture book ‘Raccoon and the Hot Air Balloon’ and over 150 other books explained:

“In Raccoon’s case I began by wanting to write a story about a raccoon who was adventurous but kind. Then the plot fell into place... But sometimes the plot just comes to me and the characters develop from that.” 



Lou Treleaven author of eight picture books, said:

“I think I'm probably plot driven but I find that in picture books the plot is so bound up with the character that you can't really separate them. The character IS the plot! For example in the Snugglewump the fact that the Snugglewump is just a piece of fabric compared to the other toys means it's going to feel inferior and unloved, so it had to be that character to make the plot work. But I've just realised that in my last few books I have started with the title and worked from there, and the title is a microcosm of the book, eg The Knight Who Might was a title that came to me when I was playing around with words, and that of course invokes the idea of a clumsy knight, and then the knight needs a challenge to see if he can get over his clumsiness. The fact that he believes he is the Knight Who Might against all the odds shows his self belief and determination. Again, the character is the plot. So maybe it would be better to say my writing is concept-driven!” 


Personally, I think on the whole, you need BOTH a clear plot and brilliant characters. If the reader doesn’t care about what happens to the characters, it doesn’t matter how amazing the plot is. To write a brilliant picture book, I think you need to be a master of both plot and character. To create a great story one needs to find a balance between plot and character. 


So, now you know! Do you set out with a great plot or some brilliant characters? Are you plot driven or character driven? I’d love to hear your thoughts.




Cath is the author of scores of early readers, junior and middle grade fiction and a couple of quirky picture books. She’s passionate about diversity and strong female characters. She’s particularly proud of The Best Wedding Gift, a story featuring a child with two mums. Her life is dominated by vegetable growing, picking up litter and swimming in the sea. Cath lives in Kent with her wife and a spoilt rescue cat. 


Monday, 9 May 2022

What Do You Mean? by Pippa Goodhart

How much does it matter that children understand every word that we write in picture books?

 

One quick answer is that of course picture book readings are a wonderful way for children to learn language as it's used in context. For that reason we wouldn’t ever restrict texts to only the language that children already know. But what if none of the text makes sense to them?

 

When I was a child our family picture books were Phyllis Krasilovsky’s 'The Cow That Fell Into The Canal', Robert McCloskey’s ‘Make Way for Ducklings’, and the Brian Wildsmith ‘Alphabet’. But my mother’s Swiss cousins also sent us some beautiful Swiss picture books with Swiss-German texts. I loved them! Here is one called ‘Knirps’, by Max Bollinger and Klaus Brunner. 

 

 

 

I understood the name ‘Peter’ amongst the writing, but that was the single word in the whole text that I understood. However, I understood enough of the story to be captivated by it. 

 

 

 Look at some sad opening images, which surely any child could understand –





 

 

Then comes lush colourful nature. I don’t know what is happening to Peter at these points (he's not in the pictures), but I filled those gaps with my own ideas –

 





 Before we end, returning to less lush colours, but this time a distinctly happy ending mood –

 

 


What is it that Peter has written on the blackboard? I still don't know.

 

My children grew-up loving ‘Pingu’ as tiny five minute television adventures about penguin Pingu, friends and family. Rather as The Clangers spoke in breathy hoots, Pingu and company speak in expressive musical notes. We perfectly understand what they are saying to each other, at least in terms of emotions.

 

Carson Ellis’ much more recent ‘Du Iz Tak?’ picture book similarly uses invented word sounds, but a good reader out loud of this picture book makes it totally accessible to young readers. They understand what is being communicated between the insect-human characters.

 




 

 

And of course young children are much more used to not understanding than we adults are. Language is new to them anyway, its sounds just beginning to have meaning, and finally enabling us to use those words to express things for ourselves. 

 

There are many wordless picture books which let the pictures do all the communicating. But do you know of others where words are there, but in non-standard text ways that still speak to children? 

 

 

Monday, 2 May 2022

SUCCESSFUL QUERY LETTERS AND ROUTES TO PUBLICATION by Clare Helen Welsh and friends

Following a recent Twitter thread, I decided to dedicate this post to successful query letters, in order to help aspiring creatives craft submissions that grab an industry professional’s attention. I contacted a few writer and illustrator friends to ask if they’d be happy to share the letters that helped get their  publishing break.

Generally, the advice is that as long as you are professional, polite and your letter is well-written, a query letter won’t stand in the way of a fantastic submission. It’s a good idea to include a little about your book, about you and about why you’re submitting to a particular individual. For those about to embark on the submission process, I’m delighted to be able to share two successful query letters that led to their owners’ picture book careers. Thanks so much to the generosity of the two writers!

 QUERY LETTER ONE: Thank you anonymous writer!


Dear [agent’s name],

 

I am seeking representation and really hope you might consider me. I very much respect you as an agent and admire the authors on your list – in fact, I’ve been inspired to get in touch seeing all the new talent you’ve added recently (and their backgrounds and styles). I think my style could sit well alongside these clients, but also offer my own unique tone.

  

As per your submission guidelines, I am attaching three full 32-page picture book manuscripts. The first two are around 600 words long and aimed at ages 2-4 (but of course hoping to appeal to adults too!), while the third is a short-and-sweet 100-word rhyme for ages 1-3:

 

[3 picture book titles and synopses here]

 

Finally, I have also attached a short board book text for you to see as a sample of my board book writing (published in 2017). I am interested in both picture book and board book writing and would feel comfortable offering my own ideas or writing to a brief for both of these.

 

I have previously published the picture book [title and publisher]. It was the first of that publisher’s books to be read on CBeebies Bedtime Stories, and the iBooks version reached the top 10 in the iTunes free bookstore. I hold an Honours BA in English: Professional Writing and an MA in Creative Writing.

I would really appreciate your consideration of my work and I’ll keep my fingers crossed that something appeals to you. I’d be happy to discuss my submissions and other ideas I have at your convenience. 

 

Thank you very much for your time, and I hope to hear from you soon.


QUERY LETTER TWO: Thank you, Simon Philip!


Dear Sallyanne,

Picture Book Submission

I am seeking an agent for my first children’s picture books:  I Really Want The Cake and I Don’t Know What To Call My Cat!  Given your experience and passion for working with debut authors, I would love that agent to be you.

 The manuscripts I’m submitting (exclusively) are silly, short and simple.  They contain lots of rhyme and repetition, and are aimed at the 3-6 age range.  I think they distinguish themselves through their simplicity, perspective and humour, though I suppose they are influenced to some extent by three of my favourite picture books:

Bear’s Big Bottom, Don’t Let The Pigeon Drive The Bus, and I Want My Hat Back.

 Written in the first person, I Really Want The Cake (249 words) is about temptation, willpower and, of course, cake.  Very simply, there’s a cake, and the narrator wants it.  The story follows the narrator’s psychological, physical and emotional reaction to the cake, and although forbidden from doing so, the narrator eventually gives in and eats the cake.

You’d have thought it would be easy to name a cat.  It’s not.  I Don’t Know What To Call My Cat! (259 words) makes this abundantly clear.  Also written in the first person, it opens with the narrator’s plea to the listener for help with naming their cat.  It describes the cat’s personality, and its reaction to various names (Trevor, Sir, Big Bad Boss, Tubbs McWhiskerson, etc…), all of which were just no good.  Maybe the listener can come up with something the cat will like…

Although I started writing children’s stories relatively recently, I’ve since done much to try to become a better writer.  I’ve read lots of picture books, volunteered at my local library to see what kids are reading, and have written numerous manuscripts, subjecting my family (the more intelligent members, anyway…), several teachers, numerous parents of small children, some real-life children, and the members of an online writing group, to all of them.  I guess I’m trying to get across that I’m serious about writing picture books.  Because I’m mean (and passionate), I even made someone suffering from viral tonsillitis read my stories, and even she laughed, so I’m hoping that the humour has a wide-enough appeal. 

Thank you very much for considering my submission.  I look forward to hearing from you.

Yours sincerely,

Simon Philip


After I’d begun chatting about successful query letters with picture book pals, this post took an unexpected turn. What became apparent is that many of us, me included, didn’t get our first deals through the traditional submission route, and some did but had found considerable success before, which they mentioned when querying. Others found ways to make their submissions personal, giving them the best chance. 

Here are some anecdotes and pieces of advice from a selection of picture book writers and illustrators who talk about the journey to their first deal.


 KAREN SWANN – COMPETITIONS


Karen is the author of The Tale and the Whale, illustrated by Padmacandra. Karen won the Writing Magazine Picture Book Prize with the story. She also came runner up in the Stratford Salariya Prize with a different story, which she mentioned in her successful publisher letters and in her agent query letter.

“Writing competitions can be a great way to gain feedback from industry professionals on your path to publication. They can be a boost to confidence if placed and give you something extra to put on your query letter to agents or publishers.”


 KATE THOMPSON – OPPORTUNITIES ON SOCIAL MEDIA

Kate is the author of Superheroes Don’t get Scared, illustrated by Clare Elsom, published with Trigger Publishing (now Welbeck Kids). She signed with Jo Williamson of Antony Harwood Ltd after placing second in a SCBWI Slushpile contest for chapter book and middle-grade texts. Kate’s advice is:  

"Keep an eye out on social media for announcements from publishers and agents with details of manuscript wish lists and/or open submission windows. Tailoring your submissions and sending them to the right person at the right time can make all the difference. I secured my publishing contract for Superheroes Don't Get Scared while I was still unagented, and it was all thanks to seeing a tweet announcing that a brand-new mental health children's publisher was looking for picture book submissions."


FIONA BARKER – SMALL PRESSES

 

Fiona is the author of the picture books Danny The Dream Dog and Setsuko and the Song of the Sea, both illustrated by Howard Gray, published with Tiny Tree Children's Books. She also has two new picture books in the works with Scholastic and Quarto both due out in October. Fiona reflected on her journey to publication and shared her thoughts with me on submitting to and working with smaller, independent publishers :  

 

“Don’t dismiss small presses. I hear lots of people say ‘hold out for a bigger publisher’ or ‘it will put a big publisher off if you’re already self-published or published with a small press’. My experience is that’s not the case. Small presses can be wonderful. They’re often very hands on with each text and really supportive as they’re usually only bringing out a small number of titles per year. If you later get to pitch something to a bigger publisher, if they like it and it fits on their list, they won’t care if you’re already published. Obviously, the caveat to that is that whatever you bring out, whoever it’s with, it should be the best it can be so do your homework on making the text sing and due diligence on the publisher but otherwise, I’d say definitely don’t dismiss the smaller presses because of some perceived snobbery that the bigger publishers with think you're somehow ‘tainted’. That’s nonsense.” 

   

 From an author-illustrator perspective, Emma Reynold’s agent - Thao Le - found her through Twitter. Thao DM’d Emma because she liked her work! Thao is an agent based in the US and Emma in the UK.

My journey wasn’t via traditional routes either, after winning a scholarship to attend the SCBWI conference in Winchester, I saved up and bought my own ticket and a 1:1 the following year. Back then, you didn’t know who your 1:1 would be with, or even if it was an agent or editor. Thankfully, it worked out brilliantly for me. I was assigned a 1:1 with agent Alice Williams, who read and fed back on a picture book text. She felt my story was a bit on the dark side (!) but asked me to re-resubmit with additional texts… and the rest is history!

If you’re worried about the cost of competitions and 1:1s and conferences, do look out for free or subsidised opportunities. Write Mentor, SCWBI and I Am in Print offer scholarships to events and courses, and the SCWBI offers grants for WIPS. There are also free and subsidised competitions. 

Penguin’s WriteNow scheme might also be of interest. Some publishers, such as Nosy Crow, are open to unsolicited submissions if you identify with an under-represented group. And if you don’t follow Amy Sparkes (aka The Story Godmother) on Twitter, you definitely should! She regularly offers free (and very reasonable priced) support for writers, which I can personally recommend.

 But please don’t be disheartened. Authors and illustrators DO get their breakthroughs submitting query letters alongside texts and by following the guidelines. 

- Lu Fraser, author of The Littlest Yak (Kate Hindley), One Camel Called Doug (Sarah Warbuton) and The Witchling’s Wish (Sarah Massini), found her agent by submitting to the slushpile.

- David Crosby, author of Which Nose for Witch? (Carolina Coroa) and Pirates VS Monsters (Lee Cosgrove) submitted directly to Maverick Books Publishing who gave him his first break. He wrote a Twitter thread about it. More details here: https://twitter.com/david_r_crosby/status/1360247222613528577?s=21

 - Paddy Donnelly, author and illustrator of books including The Vanishing Lake and Dodo’s Are Not Extinct got his agent through the traditional route, too, by following their submission guidelines and having an impressive portfolio.

 - Laura Baker, author of The Colour Happy (Angie Rozelaar) and My Friend Sleep (Hannah Peck) had this nugget of advice to add about query letters.  “I waited until I felt completely sure I was ready to submit before contacting anyone. I went straight to Jodie Hodges. I looked at recent signings to get an idea of what she was looking for and made sure I felt my texts were similar but different.”

 If you’re on submission or plan to be soon (and even if you’re not!) I thought it might be fun to end this post with some advice about how NOT to submit your work. Please enjoy my mock up query letter of what not to do and say when submitting your picture books. 

I hope it makes you laugh – and good luck if you’re on submission!


Dear Mr Clair Welsh,

According to your agency’s website you’re actively seeking picture book submissions, so I thought I’d send you my middle grade novel.

Even though your manuscript wish list says you’re looking for commercial texts starring children as main characters, this text is about a very specific species of woodworm that reside in my writing desk.

Even though I have no previous writing experience, this novel won me an honourable mention from my kids at bedtime, so I am sure this story will make us both very rich!

It is complete at 3, 400, 001 words and is comparable to Where the Wild Things Are and will probably sell more books than the Bible and The Hungry Caterpillar combined.

Since you care deeply about animal main characters and middle grade novels, we are clearly a perfect fit. Therefore, even though you ask for submissions to be 1000 words maximum, I have included the first ten pages and look forward to hearing from you.

I can send you the other eight books in the series on request.

Yours sincerely,

Your future best-selling client

 

P.S. Julia Donaldson is my best friend! 

 

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 picture book, publishing on 3rd May 2022 is 'How Messy!' - the third in the Dot and Duck series, illustrated by Olivier Tallec. You can find out more about Clare at her website www.clarehelenwelsh.com or on Twitter @ClareHelenWelsh.