Monday 29 August 2022

Drawing games to spark a narrative - Garry Parsons

Visual drawing games can be a great way to spark new ideas and unleash unexpected narratives. 

Best done in groups of four or more, here are a few drawing games I've tried and tested. So invite a few friends over or gather your family to release some visual poetry and collective creativity.

Exquisite Corpse collective drawing 1927 - Max Morise, Man Ray, Yves Tanguy & Joan Miro

Pencils and paper at the ready, we're going to start with a favourite of the Surrealists, 'The Exquisite Corpse' or more widely known as 'Consequences'. I'm sure everyone has played this at some point but it never fails to amuse and also gives your pencil a warm up. I will explain the rules of the original game and  then offer a version I practised on delegates at a picture book conference earlier this summer which has a slight difference in approach.

'The Exquisite Corpse' or  'Consequences'

Each participant needs a pencil and a sheet of paper. Everyone starts by drawing a head, it can be anything, animal, human whatever, but leaving off at the neck. Making sure each player's drawing is concealed from the others, players simply fold the paper over to hide the drawing but leaving the two lines of the 'neck' visible. Each sheet is passed to the next player at the same time where they continue with the torso, concealing it with a fold again once the torso is complete and passing it on until everyone has drawn a head, a torso, a waist with legs and then the ankles with feet. Pass the still folded sheets around again and take it in turns to unfold the paper for the reveal, ta dah!

The alternative version to this I mentioned is orientated around a landscape rather than a body and is inspired by the endpapers of Rupert Annuals by illustrator Alfred Bestall.

Rupert Annual - Alfred Bestall

In his landscapes you will see the sky with a distant horizon, a middle ground, a foreground and something in close-up. So in this version of consequences everyone starts with a sky and distant horizon, passes the paper around to continue with a middle ground and so on. At any point you can add a character or hint of a character. Once the drawings are revealed challenge each player to suggest a narrative that might come from the image. Try this large scale on A3 or A2 paper for more impactful results.

Automatic Drawing or Drawing a Story from a Line.

Another visual game from the Surrealists is Automatic Drawing. Pioneered by French painter Andre Masson, the idea is to draw without thinking, trying to avoid conscious control over the picture, a kind of unconscious doodling. Try keeping your pencil in contact with the paper for some unpredictable effects. 

Andre Masson - automatic drawing

Always with an eye on leading into a narrative, I use a version of this in the classroom with primary school children with the aim of turning a simple line into a story that they can develop into a piece of writing to illustrate. In a classroom I like to stand behind a flip chart and reach around with a pen to draw a wobbly line. The children can see that I'm not looking at what I'm drawing and my intention is to not make anything recognisable. I then ask them to tell me what they see or that they feel they might be able to turn the line into. The variety of things that are suggested is always astounding. We then choose one idea to develop and keep asking 'what happens next' until a narrative starts to form. A collective story emerges, often pretty wild but a story nonetheless!

So start by closing your eyes and making a mark on the paper, keeping it as simple as possible but with a little variety, not just a straight line. Take a moment to see what the line suggests to you and add to your line to develop it. You can turn your paper anyway you wish to get started. Then simply keep drawing or writing to develop the narrative. In the classroom, we often end up with a few sheets of drawings that have stemmed from the first,  becoming like page turns in a picture book or a comic. As the story unfolds we give it a working title and even make a plan for the look of the cover. Using this 'line' method works well with people who might feel inhibited or reluctant to draw.

Challenge the Illustrator

The next drawing game came form a conversation with author Josh Lacey on a train travelling to a school event we were attending together. During the conversation I nonchalantly announced that "I can draw anything".  Thinking this a little arrogant,  Josh asked the pupils at the school to come up with impossibly difficult things for me to draw as a challenge to the illustrator.  We discovered that this was not only very funny but also a great way to begin a story narrative and set the pupils thinking about writing. This proved such good fun that we incorporated it into our school events and added a few rules...

Ask people in your group to think up an animal, a mode of transport and a scene or setting. Consider a few suggestions and settle on one idea for each topic. Combine each element into one drawing (as best you can!) and then continue to explore the narrative from the drawing by considering 'what happens next' and 'what might have happened before' and write down what you come up with. 

Drawing from collective suggested topics - Tapir, a tractor and Earth's orbit.


Re-Assembling Reality or sticking together cut-out images!

The Surrealist Max Ernst invented this method of pasting together different 'cut-out' images which have a similar look or quality, principally taken from printed publications, magazines or books, and re-assembled  into new pictures. These new 'illustrations' were often dream-like or erring on the comical or grotesque. 

Max Ernst 'Women reveling violently and waving in menacing air' 1929

Collage took on lots of forms for the Surrealists but can also be good visual way to spark story narratives. I recently took part in a 're-assembly' exercise with a group of authors and illustrators who were given a pile of magazines to sift through and a pair of scissors and a sick of glue. I came up with this..

These exercises may not turn into fully a formed picture book but they are a fun and invigorating way to start the creative process and shake things up. Consider them more as creative yoga or visual warm up exercises for the creative mind!


Garry Parsons is an illustrator of children's books and a lover of Surrealism.

You can follow Garry @icandrawdinos

Monday 22 August 2022

Surviving difficult projects - advice by Moira Butterfield

Film adaptions are famously long-winded and difficult. There’s even a phrase for it – development hell. According to Douglas Adams: 

“The Hollywood Process is like trying to grill a steak by having a succession of people coming into the room and breathing on it.” 

For writers it’s notoriously soul-destroying. The processes in children’s book publishing aren’t that bad, thank goodness, but it may not all be plain-sailing from contract-signing to publication and it can be difficult to maintain enthusiasm for a writing project when it goes through difficult times. After the initial joy of having a book accepted, there may be many rocks to navigate and perhaps some becalming, too. 


Examples of reversals a writer might encounter


* An editor wanting you to rewrite parts of your content, perhaps even more that once.  

* An editor leaving and your project going into temporary limbo. 

* New staff arriving and wanting to shift the focus of the project. 

* Changes from an international publisher wanting to buy rights, but only if you play ball. 

* Delays while an artist is found. 

* Delays you just don’t grasp due to lack of communication.  


I am giving you a list of worse scenarios here to show you that all these things can occur to all writers at some point, and if they happen to you – well, you are not alone. Many of your fellow writers will recognise the situations and sympathise. 


My suggestions 


Redevelopment – Get it clear in your mind what the editor is saying they want. If it’s not clear then ask them to make it clearer. Discussing it with them face-to-face will greatly help here. 


Be flexible and open-minded. Think around the suggestions being made. Are they a good idea? Is there another solution you think might work better and that you could both think about? Be as positive as is possible. You’re working together to make the work great. 


A good thing here is to rewrite your brief for yourself. What was your initial idea? What were its strengths. What were you writing it for? Reconfirm these things to yourself to reinforce your confidence in your decision.  


Keep all emails so you have a development trail of what’s been asked of you. If things change a great deal over and over again (Yes – actual development hell occurs) you are perfectly justified, and it’s professionally acceptable, to ask for more money. 


If it comes to the point where you think ‘no this is not what I want’, then say so calmly and logically along with your reasons. Your editor might agree with your points after thinking about it. If not, then it’s time to move the project to someone else. That is a positive thing to do for your project. It’s not your failure. Shut the door on development hell


There’s not much to be done about delays but don’t be hesitant to communicate with your editor and ask them what’s going on


Difficult projects can really take a toll so take care of your mental health. That means remembering that you are creative, for example, by taking time out to play and by working on other things. 

Do what you need to do to look after your head. (pic: my friend John Miles
found someone meditating on the top of Glastonbury Tor last week)  

 Also please, please remember that you are not alone and even the most famous writers have setbacks. Reach out to your friends in the writing community. They will understand your feelings better than anyone. 


Writing is hard and sometimes the process of publishing makes it harder. That’s the simple truth of it. Be ready but be positive, be open-minded and be true to what you are aiming for.   


Moira Butterfield is an internationally-published author whose Nosy Crow book Welcome To Our World has just been translated into its 15th language. Her newest book – Sometimes I’m a Baby Bear, Sometimes I’m a Snail (|Welbeck) aims to give young children tools to express their feelings. 


Moira Butterfield
twitter @moiraworld 
instagram @moirabutterfieldauthor

Monday 15 August 2022


I am constantly finding new and useful picture book resources online, as well as websites that help me navigate life as a children’s writer. Sometimes it’s hard to keep of track of the plethora of advice, tips and book recommendations, many of which are free.

So, today’s Picture Book Den post comes to you from a picture book lover and children’s author looking for one place to keep the resources she likes and uses the most.


Without further ado, in no particular order…



1.       STORY STORM:


Previously PiBoIdMo, Storystorm has an incredible number of helpful posts featuring cover reveals, inspirations, author-illustrator processes and more! Each January, founder Tara Lazaar heads up a challenge that encourages picture book creators to come up with 30 new ideas in January. To get the creativity flowing, she invites published authors and illustrators to share prompts, exercises and posts each day of the month. I’ve yet to manage 30 new ideas but I always come away with a few new projects and the blog posts are there whenever you need a boost.  


(Lou Treleaven)


Lou Treleaven is a talented writer of books for a range of ages. In addition to running courses and offering paid critiques, she has a list of agents and publishers on her website that are accepting submissions. A useful place for those looking to query their texts.


(Amy Sparkes)


AmySparkes is truly magical. Not only is she a fantastic author, scriptwriter (..and more, I can't keep up!), she also finds time to mentor aspiring writers and runs courses for those looking to learn more. If you don’t follow Amy on social media, you should! She regularly offers free critiques, courses, mentorships in return for donations to charity. If that wasn’t enough, Amy offers free writing tips every Wednesday on Twitter – just follow the hashtags #WednesdayWritingTips.



If you’re ready to take your stories into schools, The Society of Authors has some useful advice for those looking to arrange visits, including how much to charge. If you have a contract that needs vetting, the Society of Authors also offers a free contract-checking service to its members. You can get liability insurance for an additional cost, too.  


Regarding visits and workshops, you can find useful advice on the World Book Day website. If you’re a step ahead and have already got an event booked, you could signpost people to this Book Trust article and this post from Sarah McIntyre with tips for getting the most from an author or illustrator visit.   


8 - 10.       RHYME ZONE


If I’m writing a rhyming text, I have Rhyme Zone permanently open. Other online rhyming dictionaries are available, but what I like about this one, is that you can easily search for synonyms and definitions in the event that your rhyme needs a rethink.


Rhymers might also like these resources from Catherine Emmett and Lyrical Language Lab helpful, especially if you’re unsure about meter and want to learn more about scansion.


11 - 22.      BOOK BLOGGERS


Since we’re all picture book fans here, I’m assuming – like me – you love keeping abreast of new releases. I hear about most new titles on social media (mainly Instagram and Twitter) It would be worth following your favourite bloggers to stay up to date with what’s being published. It’ll help you get a sense of the market and publishers’ tastes, but also identify the strong hooks of the books that ‘make it.’


Some bloggers also have websites that host featured authors, illustrators and cover reveals. Here are a few to get you going:



















BookBrunch and The Bookseller are other great places to stay on top of all the brilliant new titles being published and the latest big deals.

There are also teachers, librarian and lecturers sharing their passion for picture books. These sites are a must see:




(Mathew Tobin)

(Simon Smith)

23 - 27.      BOOKS FOR TOPICS

Another helpful thing to do when writing picture books is to scope out titles on a given subject to see what’s already been published and to make sure you are doing something different or something in a different way. Sites such as Books ForTopics do this brilliantly.


You could also look at Children’s Book Ireland, Little Parachutes, Booktrust, ReadingWell and who all group books by theme.


(Books That Help)



I hope it’s ok to shout out my new initiative, Books That Help Books That Help is another place you can search for books on a particular topic, particularly those that help children navigate difficult times and big changes in their lives. There will be some opportunities for teachers and writers soon, too. Keep your eyes peeled for more!


(Josh Funks)

     29.    JOSH FUNKS


If you’re looking to perfect the writing of picture books, there are some free ‘lessons’ from US author Josh Funks, covering everything from 'word counts' to 'story arcs' to 'showing not telling.' All quick reads if you’re looking to brush up on the basics in your own time.


(Jane Porter)


30.       JANE PORTER


Author-illustrator Jane Porter has some fantastic videos on her YouTube channel looking at beautiful picture books. Some videos feature Jane talking through books she loves, but most are interviews with picture book creatives including Momoko Abe, Dapo Adeola, Rebecca Cobb, Diane Ewen and many more! 



WriteMentor is a fantastic and affordable resource for writers, offering community, conferences, courses, mentorship and more. There are also some free resources available. Here are some links to blogs I write on picture books. There are more! 






Picture book builders is a site run by a group of picture books creators who post articles on everything from what goes into a picture book, to how to hook a reader, to interviews with their favourite creatives and cover reveals.



Natascha Biebow (MBE) is an experienced editor, coach and mentor, picture book expert, author and Regional Advisor for the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators in the British Isles - she really knows her stuff! On her Blue Elephant Storyshaping website there are over six years' worth of free resources on picture book craft. Definitely well worth a look!  

34.        ARDEN JONES


Arden is a newly agented writer of rhyming picture books. She is starting a You Tube channel with live and pre-recorded rhyming picture book critiques - helpful videos about how to write in rhyme, how to understand meter and the do's and don'ts of rhyme. 

Writers have the opportunity to get their work critiqued anonymously by submitting to  Do follow the submission guidelines. Sign up here! 

35.         PICTURE BOOK DEN


And last but not least, our very own Picture Book Den! A place for picture book fans to learn from writers and illustrators and to delve a little deeper in topics from accountability partners, plotting techniques, endpapers, illustration processes... there really is so much material to peruse. But of course, you knew about us already!



So there you have it!


A mega list of websites and resources for picture book creators.


I’ve almost certainly forgotten some – and no doubt there are many more I’ve yet to discover – so please do share your top websites too!


BIO: Clare is children’s writer from Devon. She writes for a wide range of ages about a wide range of themes and has over 50 published titles. She founded the #BooksThatHelp initiative that aims to create honest emotional spaces for children through a love of reading and books.  


Tuesday 9 August 2022

The gift that keeps on giving: how to keep a picture book retreat going at home and in your head when it’s over… by Juliet Clare Bell

 Last month, I went on a picture book retreat 


Spot the five Picture Book Denners! -Pippa Goodhart (back left) and Garry Parsons (second from right, second row) -who led the sessions; Clare Helen Welsh (third from left, second row), who co-organised it; Natascha Biebow, joint Regional Advisor of SBCWI British Isles (second left, third row) and me (with red hair behind Natashca's shoulder) (c) Tito Berredo.

After a long pandemic break (the previous one had been in 2019), I was keen to try and stretch the benefit as long as possible beyond the actual retreat. Whilst the place looks lovely


                                                   (c) Clare Helen Welsh

                                                                                      (c) Clare Helen Welsh

as someone who doesn’t picture things, I don’t get to close my eyes and relive the lovely gardens or misshapen old rooms like some people (I’ll take their word for it) do. My three big takeaways from the weekend (other people will have come away with other ones, I know) which I was keen to smuggle home so I could incorporate the retreat life into my own were:



                                               TUNING INTO YOU



PLAY -I was already trying to get into the play mindset before I left for the retreat and even packed my Michael Rosen Play book to get me in the mood:


                                                                                      (c) Michael Rosen

And there was plenty of it there. It was particularly relevant in the Picture Book Den’s very own Pippa Goodhart’s sessions on different forms of picture book. We discussed concept books, interesting use of flaps, holes, books where the pictures are doing something quite different from the text (my favourite kind)… And we spent time playing around with ideas of our own.

I’ve always loved picture books that do things a bit differently, especially wordless books and those with few words. And I feel like I’ve been given permission (or given myself permission) to go back to a form I’ve always loved reading and writing. Pippa’s examples of different books that played with form, or where pictures play a particularly crucial role -and crucially, which publishers might be interested in them- really sparked ideas… including going back to old manuscripts of mine that I’d abandoned because they were a hard sell…

                               Books bought for research post retreat for potential new projects!

            Books from home that fit with the themes/concept/style I got excited about at the retreat

                                              And more.... Who doesn't love a retreat that gets 
                                              you excited about your own bookshelves again?


and Pippa's and Nick Sharratt's You Choose, one of my all-time favourites. I've lost two copies so far (the first, my children loved so much that one of them cut it up to use the individual pictures) and the second, I've used in schools so much with reluctant readers that I've mislaid it and need to get a third copy... I would encourage everyone who knows children between the ages of one and seven (though my children used it way beyond seven) to have a copy of this book...


I’m not great with yoga. I find it really hard to do the breathing at the same time as moving, and I find following any kinds of instructions pretty difficult so it’s usually a frustrating experience for me. But we had our resident yoga instructor/fellow author/illustrator, Gary Fabbri, there and for those of us who wanted to (and I did want to give it a go) we started our days with yoga before breakfast. 

                                                                                      (c) Imogen Foxwell

Whilst I struggled doing the actual movements and breathing the first day, I loved that we were doing something outside and communal, but quiet, to start our day. The second day, Gary went for a simpler session, particularly useful for writers and illustrators who sit for long periods of time. And I loved it! In the evening, we did a yoga meditation (yoga nidra) where we set an intention, a question we’d like to ask ourselves relating to our writing/creating or our lives. Whilst I couldn’t do the imagery side of the meditation, I entered into the spirit of it, got hugely relaxed with the gongs, and allowed my unconscious mind to do what it wanted. The outcome? A semi-interesting answer to my own question to myself (about my current work in progress) but something else, too. It brought to mind a manuscript I’d written paying homage to another book many years ago but that couldn’t be published at the time (for copyright reasons), so I’d changed it and changed it until it was hardly recognisable. But now, seven years later, I suddenly remembered that I’m free to go back to my original one! And I’d completely forgotten its original form until that session!

 Keen to build on the ‘trusting your own mind and body’ and allowing your mind some time and space to flourish, and bearing in mind that I had really enjoyed the early morning yoga, I decided to start doing something I’d not done for years when I got home: waking up at six o’clock to write. It’s absolutely the best time of the day for me to write (but I’d somehow managed to ignore that) and I enjoy it way more than I enjoy writing at other times of the day (I ignored that, too). It turns out that my inner critic prefers a lie-in and just doesn’t show up at that time of day. I don’t get out of bed, I’m often not 100 percent awake, I sometimes don’t even put on my glasses so it’s not even in focus, and I’m just happy to be creative and let it flow.

The final take home was about ACCOUNTABILITY. I already have an accountability partner with whom I meet once a week on skype -and this year she was at the retreat, too. When it came to writing our postcards to ourselves for six months’ time at the end (we all write down on a self-addressed postcard what we hope we’ll have done on the writing/illustrating front in six months’ time and then the organisers -which included Picture Book Den’s Clare Helen Welsh!- collect them in and send them to us in six months),  we addressed them to each other rather than ourselves so that the other person will hold us accountable to what we’ve said we’ll do by that time.  But the accountability didn’t stop there. On the way to the station, I was chatting with a few retreatees and we were talking about experimenting, playing and being less precious about our work and how we should just get more written, quickly. And we decided that we’d each commit to writing (and in some cases, illustrating) two really rough stories per month with a monthly deadline and online meeting the next day. They would have to be new stories each month (no editing and resubmitting the same one) and we wouldn’t critique them but we’d all have a quick read before we met and say one nice thing about them -but no critiquing). The idea is that if we get less precious about our writing/illustrating and our ideas then we’ll free ourselves up and write/sketch quicker and that at least some of our new ideas will be ok. We’re not thinking we’re going to create 24 good stories in a year -but there might well be some good ones in there that may never have happened were it not for this new process.

 And keen to merge this new (or re-remembered) trust with play, I’ve been committing my morning writing slot to new story ideas whenever I have them so that I am being playful every day first thing in the morning. If I actively want to work on my current (serious) work in progress at 6am, then that’s fine but priority goes to being playful with new ideas. What it means is that I’m no longer feeling like I have to finish X before I can even think about any other projects, which takes away some of the positivity about the current work in progress. Now I’ve created what feels like magic free time (six till seven), I can do whatever creative projects I feel like in that time and I’m feeling more enthusiastic about all my projects because I’m feeling creatively fulfilled by playing every morning!

I even did some (relatively) early morning outside writing on holiday in Orkney just recently, including sitting on my mum’s grave


overlooking Scapa beach

 and at the beach

          where I came up with an idea which will be one of my 'two a month' rough stories I'll try out

                                                                            at Scapa

                                                        at Weyland Bay at the end of my mum and dad's old road

After getting a little nervous last week that I was losing my taste for the early mornings before discovering I actually had covid and my body just needed a lot of rest, I’m excited to start back again in a couple of days’ time. Although I’m better with quiet than I was before the retreat (which means I’m having more interesting thoughts and ideas, too), I still play birdsong as I write, but that all feeds back into recreating the retreat early morning soundscape anyway.   

It's a retreat I'll remember for a long time (huge thanks to organiser Paul Morton, who spent months preparing. It was great to meet fellow 'Denner, Garry Parsons at last, and it was great to be in the company of loads of lovely and interesting creative people). I know everyone will have come away with different 'take homes' but here's to listening to ourselves, being accountable and having fun!

If you have any tips or stories about being more creative, getting more done or trusting yourself in your creative practice, please do share them below in the comments section. Thank you!

Clare is a children’s author of more than 35 books and is now on a mission to have a playful year of writing…