Tuesday 30 May 2023

Your procrastination shield - What is it actually protecting you from and how do you lay it down so you can get on with writing? by Juliet Clare Bell


Are you ever put off writing? 

Can you find really plausible excuses not to sit down and get on with it? I suspect if we pooled all our excuses for putting off writing (and, of course, many other things) there’d be a lot of overlap, but I also suspect there are some excuses that are more specific and personal to each of us, the ones that we’ve managed to craft carefully, often unconsciously, to fool ourselves as best we can… After all, say Jane Burka and Lenora Yuen (authors of the book, below), “it’s your procrastination” and we can each find our own special ways of making those excuses, the ones that will work best on the person it needs to work on: us.

I was always a terrible procrastinator, but I’ve actually found a book that has had quite a remarkable impact on me and I feel that if it can work for me, then there may be hope for other procrastinating writers out there, too. And here’s the book:

Procrastination. Why You Do It, What To Do About It NOW by Jane Buerka and Leonora Yuen (2008). 

It’s not a new book (it was fully revised and updated for its 25th anniversary –ten years ago, but it’s new to me and I have a feeling that it would help a LOT of writers (and everyone else). So I’m going to write about it and describe a week-long writing experiment I did based on the book, and how I wrote more in that week than I had written in the three months before it, in the hopes that it might be of some use to other writers.

I’ve known for a long time that I’ve procrastinated and I’ve kind of described myself as badly organised and thinking I need to get better at time management, and I’ve enjoyed reading books about managing time more effectively (probably as a way of procrastinating and not doing what I should have been doing). I guess I’ve not felt too bad seeing myself as someone who isn’t great with time management… but this book doesn’t see procrastination as a problem with time management as much as with emotion management...

                                                                (Me being fearful)

 And that is harder –for me, at least (though I suspect, many of us)- to feel ok about. As a writer (and former psychologist!), I like to see myself as being pretty self-aware, so this book was challenging for me, and it may be challenging for you, too, should you choose to read it, but I think it’s a challenge well worth undertaking.
Jane Burka and Lenora Yuen talk about procrastination as a shield: 

“In one sense, procrastination has served you well. It has protected you from what may be some unpleasant realisations about yourself. It has helped you to avoid uncomfortable and perhaps frightening feelings. It has provided you with a convenient excuse for not taking action in a direction that is upsetting in some way, (p137).

“For procrastinators, avoidance is the king of defences, because when you avoid the task, you are also avoiding the many thoughts, feelings, and memories associated with it,” (p93).   

So this book encourages you to be honest with yourself about things that you may not have thought about for a long time in order to recognise what is happening to you when you reach what they call a ‘choice point’ –the point at which you are coming up with excuses not to sit down and write (in our case), where you need to decide whether to go with the excuse, or carry on with the activity (writing) anyway.
At least, then, if you still conclude “…therefore, I’ll do it later”, you’re being more consciously aware of your procrastination. But once you’re aware, you may well choose to over-ride the desire to put it off, and do it anyway.

The authors talk about physiological fear responses, and how for example, if you’re touched unexpectedly, that fear response (and the body’s reaction) will occur before you even feel the touch. 

                                                       Goosebumps / goose pimples

And they relate it back to procrastinating: 

"By the time you think about doing a task you’ve been avoiding…, your body has already reacted with fear. No wonder you put it off,” (p92).

And so the book encourages us to identify (with useful lists) what triggers our own task avoidance and for us to observe our reaction kindly and without judgement as a step towards overcoming those physiological reactions we may feel when confronting ourselves with something we’re trying to put off.

So what’s holding you back from writing that story? Could it be

Fear of failure?

Did people praise you for writing as a child? Was that part of your identity? Does it feel dangerous risking people’s (or your own) perceptions of yourself in case you don’t get that publishing deal or the story isn’t as good as you thought it would be? Is it safer not to do it?

                                         A tiny proportion of my picture book rejection letters

Procrastinating leads us to do things last minute, where we can avoid testing our true potential (and risking our sense of self by what we might find) –so the final piece of writing is not a reflection of your true ability but what you can do under last-minute pressure. Are you so frightened of discovering that you’re not what you think you are/want to be, that you’re willing to slow down so much and be last minute in order to avoid your best work being judged?
Procrastination allows you to believe that your ability is greater than your performance indicates –you never have to confront the real limits of your ability.


Perhaps people didn’t have confidence in your writing when you were younger (or people don’t now) –and if you did write something, might you be worried that those people may be proved right?
Or could what’s holding you back be a 

Fear of success? 

This may seem less obvious but the authors talk about this:

·       Do you sometimes slow down on a project that’s going well?
·       Do you feel anxious when you receive a lot of recognition?
·       Are you uncomfortable with compliments?
·       Do you worry about losing your connection with relatives if you’re successful?

And perhaps…

·       You fear/believe success in writing will demand more of you than you’re willing/able to give (many of us know successful writers who are now extremely pressed for time in the writing and personal lives).
·       You’ll turn into a workaholic; people will become obstacles –success will mean loss of control and loss of choice in your life
·       You may be considered selfish or full of yourself
·       You may get hurt –do you really want to be judged by your readers/reviewers? –bad reviews/low sales figures can be extremely demoralising.

There are lots of reasons explored in the book, and identifying your own personal reasons will help you take practical steps towards writing and stopping putting things off.

The book also helps you identify your own procrastination style

Mine (when I should be writing)? -reading emails, surfing the web, looking on Facebook, working on something less important, sitting and staring, going to sleep 

Your own physical feelings when you’re meant to be starting something but are considering procrastinating:

Mine? –a feeling in my chest and tummy; feeling light-headed

And your own excuses?

Mine? I’ve got to get organised first; I don’t have everything I need; I don’t have time to do it all so there’s no point in starting; it might not be good enough; I’ll wait until I’m inspired; I don’t feel well; I’m too tired right now; I’m not in the mood; I’ve done the worst part of it; the final bit won’t take much time so I can do it later.

And the book encourages you to monitor what’s happening for a week and try an experiment… which is what I did.


The authors recommend that you

·       Select a single goal –with a desire to learn from both success and failure (think like a researcher gathering data rather than a critic passing judgement) –I used to be a researcher so this appealed to me and made it seem like it was less personal;

·       List the steps (and do a reality check –can all those things be done in the time you have?) It was going to be full-on, but yes, it was realistic –if I didn’t procrastinate;

·       What’s the very first step? –write it down; should be small and easy;

·       Get feedback from others –perhaps other writers- about the achievability of the goal;

·       Consider the feelings you have now you’ve got your goal –excited and scared;

·       Could visualise your progress; optimise chances (where you work and when, etc) –this one is never going to work for me as I don’t visualise, but it could help other people;

·       Stick to the time limit;

·       Don’t wait until you feel like it –this was going to be a challenge, as not feeling like I’m in quite the right mood for writing is one of my biggest excuses.

And this is what they suggested you do during the week:
          Watch out for your excuses –an excuse means you’re at a choice point: you can procrastinate or you can act (so go from ‘I’ll do it later’ to ‘I’ll just to fifteen minutes…’ (and think –how do I feel?) –I kept a journal for the week, writing at the beginning and the end of each day, saying how I felt before I started, and then commenting on the day at the end of each day.

·       One step at a time (not the whole picture book/novel) –I had a list of exactly what I needed to do each day.

·       Work around obstacles

·       Reward yourself after progress

·       Be prepared to be flexible if necessary

·       It doesn’t have to be perfect

At the end of the week, assess your progress

·       Examine your feelings

·       Review your choice points (at least you’ll have procrastinated more consciously)

I     Identify what you've learned.

Now I chose a really big goal as my children were going to be away for a whole week and I really wanted to finish the novel I was working on, even though I had about 30,000 words left to write. It really doesn’t have to be that big at all (and it was only possible because I was going to have a whole week without any responsibilities, so I was in an unusual position).
I went through the list of scenes I had left to write and calculated how long I thought each scene would take, realistically if I didn’t procrastinate at all, and then worked out how many I’d have to write each day in order to finish the book. This worked out at about six hours per day –IF I didn’t procrastinate at all but just wrote.

And then I kept a journal for that week and just did exactly what I had said I’d do, thinking of myself like a dispassionate researcher, monitoring how I felt and what I did when I felt like I really didn’t want to write a certain part (or any part).


    (Shame that I accidentally forgot to colour in three of the scenes on the final day but I did finish them. Honest)

I finished! I wrote more than 30,000 in a single week!

I had never written anything like the amount I wrote that week. And I am convinced that I wouldn’t have been able to do it without the procrastination book. But the most interesting thing to come out of it for me was that the excuse I’ve used so much as a writer:

I’m not in the right mood

was irrelevant to what I wrote. When I feel like I’m not in the mood (or when I use that excuse), I often find some other work to do instead of writing. But this time, I didn’t. I just monitored how I was feeling, acknowledged it, and then did it anyway. And what I found from my notes on the experiment was that the times when I did it when I wasn’t in the mood, I was just as productive as the times when I did feel in the mood, and having read all those scenes now (as part of the whole book), there is no difference in how good those scenes were. This is probably the most important thing I’ve learned from the whole process: I did genuinely think that there were times when I was going to write better and times when I was going to write less well (or not at all) because of my mood –but it really didn’t make a difference –

as long as I made myself do it. 

I have had to abandon my romantic notion of the muse being present. It really was –for me- just a case of showing up and doing it. And I genuinely didn’t quite believe that –until I did the experiment.
I should just point out that this related to writing ‘up’ the novel once I’d done all the creative plotting, which I couldn’t work on in this way of a certain number of hours a day for a week, at all –not yet, anyway… But once I’ve worked out a structure for a picture book or a novel, I know now that any excuse that I am just not in the mood, is exactly that: an excuse.

There’s a lot more useful stuff in the book, which I can’t go into now as there’s no time, which includes suggested techniques to reduce your procrastination, like: using little bits of time (check out their unscheduled on page 198); have an accountability partner (I have for writing, and it’s great); work together (for example, like we do in our local SCBWI group, weekly, where we write alongside each other); say no to e-addictions/have a low information diet; do more exercise, and take exercise breaks; be realistic about time; just get started; use the next fifteen minutes, watch for your excuses and use your procrastination as a signal. In the end, it’s your choice:

You can delay or you can write

 -and you can write even though you’re uncomfortable.

I really couldn’t recommend this book highly enough -for picture book writers, novel writers, everyone. And if I can identify why I’m coming up with excuses and learn to put those thoughts and feelings aside and write anyway, then you can do it, too.
Huge thanks to my wonderful friend and former partner-in-procrastination Caroline Keenan for recommending this book to me. You know me well!

Do you have any tips for beating procrastination? Have you read this book, and if so, how helpful did you find it? Please do reply in the comments, below…

Thank you –and happy writing –even if, or especially if, it’s uncomfortable!


Monday 22 May 2023

Who has read your picture book? By Chitra Soundar

It’s a somewhat misleading stereotype to say writers work in isolation. When you work in isolation – you write, write, and write some more, put away your writing, then read it and edit what you’ve written. And the first person who sees your text is your agent or your editor. 

Is that healthy? And even if it, is it practical? Many writers don’t have agents or long-standing relationship with editors – so if they write a text in isolation – how do they know it’s good enough to be sent out to the world? To a publisher or agent?

Writers especially picture book writers will always benefit from feedback. The words available to tell a story are limited. And when you write in isolation, you cut and cut and cut and perhaps lose the meaning of the story. Or you’ve overwritten and you can’t see it. 

Then, what kind of feedback should writers seek and where will this feedback come from? In early stages of our writing careers, it’s perhaps ok to share a text with a non-writing friend or a partner or our parents and ask, “What do you think?”

The response to that question often can be, “this is great!” It actually means, we love you, but we have no clue whether we like it or not. Or it can be – an elaborate discussion about how war and peace was written and you feel the feedback doesn’t actually fit the medium you’re working on.

Listen to Neil Gaiman's experience of his first workshop group!

Picture book writers (like all other writers) must find a tribe – like-minded writers and illustrators who are immersed in the craft of telling stories to young children. From this tribe, you kind of form a workshop group or critique group – this could be a group of friends who are all writing picture books and want to improve their craft. 

Often you will form a tribe and meet such friends either by doing a course formally in an institute or university or meeting them in writer gatherings within organisations like SCBWI

When I started writing at first, even Google had been invented (oops, you know I’m really old now), but the Internet was and I found a group online. Slowly I gathered people around me and formed a group of writers who met in person. 

My current group formed organically by being part of a writers’ group and slowly gravitating towards people who want to write picture books and are also looking for a group. Friends first, workshop group second! 

Let’s assume you’ve found two or three people (five in a group is maximum I would think), here are some pointers on how to get your work critiqued and how to harness the power of feedback.

1. Meet regularly – that doesn’t have to be weekly, but monthly is a great way to be on top of your writing and giving yourself an achievable deadline. 

2. Write regularly something new that can be discussed in the group. That doesn’t mean each meeting you should bring a new piece of work – but if over 12 months you’re writing the same picture book, either that story needs isn’t working or it needs to be put away for a bit for everyone to gain perspective. It’s a good idea to alternate 2-3 picture books through the meetings – that way within a year you have 2-3 finished picture books you can then share with an agent or publisher. 

3. Take the meetings seriously and prepare for it. Proofread your text, don’t take it too early to your group – write it a few times, see how far you can take it on your own and then take it to your group. 

4. Ask for specific feedback – tell your group what you’re looking for – like I can’t seem to make the ending work or something’s wrong in the rhyme sequence – it is good to ask for specific help along with the overall feedback your group will provide. 

5. Listen when feedback is given. Don’t get defensive, don’t get upset. Often the feedback points to the symptoms and not to the root cause. Listen, take notes, take down everyone’s suggestions. Then when you go back to your desk the next day, think through what everyone said and understand the “note” under the note. Follow each feedback like a thread in the maze – it might lead you to the actual problem in the text. 

Having a good workshop / critique group will make your work stronger. Sharing with like-minded people who are immersed in the craft will elevate your work.

A common myth
about workshop is the fear that someone will steal your idea. This is why you first get to know the group, be part of a community before you form a workshop group. Creatives respect work by others. Secondly no one can that easily copy an idea and make it their own. And often someone possibly is also working on a similar idea before you even met them.

But if you find someone is doing this a lot or always jumping on someone’s idea (and yes, it has happened to me, once or twice), report to your moderator or leader of the group. If that doesn’t work or not possible, leave the group politely. Once trust is lost, it’s hard to be open and creative. But by and large, most groups are fun, supportive and are your co-travellers on the journey. They will come to your book launch when your book is published and they will cheer your success. 

Apart from critique groups, here are some other ways of getting feedback on your text:

1. Ask a writer friend to read it as a one-off (and return the favour when they need a reader). 

2. Seek out a professional editor / mentor who can give feedback. Usually there will be a fee involved. 

3. Take your story into a school for read-aloud – local school or your kids’ school etc – but remember this feedback is not as reliable – but you will be able to gauge the interest level of the children listening to the story – are they fidgeting, are they interested, did they ask you to read it again? 

4. Seek out professional readers / agents / editors during conferences – usually there is a fee involved for this too.  And these are usually very short conversations. But you will get invaluable feedback on the commercial potential of your story too. 

5. Join a course – run by a reputed organisation or writer – usually courses involve some feedback sessions for the stories you write on the course. Also, it gives you an opportunity to establish a workshop group with the people you’ve met on the course. 

Are you in a workshop/critique group? What works and what doesn't? Share your tips in the comments section! 

Chitra Soundar is an internationally published, award-winning author of children’s books and an oral storyteller. Chitra regularly visits schools, libraries and presents at national and international literary festivals. She is also the creator of The Colourful Bookshelf, a curated place for books for children by British authors and illustrators.  

 Find out more at http://www.chitrasoundar.com/ and follow her on twitter here and Instagram here.

Monday 15 May 2023

Let’s talk about authenticity by Nadine Kaadan

The annual CLPE survey, which is funded by Arts Council England, launched in 2017 with the key focus of determining the extent and quality of ethnic minority characters featured within Picturebooks, Fiction and Non-Fiction for ages 3–11 published in the UK. The fifth Reflecting Realities report was published in November 2022. Annual reporting shows an increase in the number of children’s books published featuring a minority ethnic character from 4% in 2017 to 20% in 2021.

The percentage of books published with a main character from a racially minoritised background has risen year on year but remains extremely low at 9% in 2021.

We invited Nadine Kaadan to reflect on championing inclusive representation in the UK based on her own experiences. 

When I moved to London in 2013, we thought it would be for around a year. My husband said to me “When the conflict ends in Syria we will come back” and we both truly believed that. We never imagined the life that we would build here, and here we are, 10 years and two children later. 

I was told, to my dismay, that publishing a children’s book would be almost impossible here. There were only 3% of children’s books published that featured BAME characters. I thought my chances were close to zero, but I wanted to try. I feel so grateful that Lantana Publishing picked my stories, and my journey started with them.
As sad as it was to be forced to leave my country, writing and illustrating children’s books was my way to process what was happening, and still is. It’s the thing that has helped me the most in directing my grief and anger at what was happening in Syria.

I’ve been lucky enough to write books about my experiences, both through my own eyes, and the eyes of the children I knew. 

‘Tomorrow’ is based on my life during the war in Syria, watching how children reacted (including my niece) and seeing the confusion in their eyes. I really felt the need to bring that story to life. 

Most recently, I’ve been able to collaborate with other writers and illustrators: Ada Jusic, Ramzee, Sonya Zhurenko, and Marie Bamyani to tell our real life stories to help children understand our experiences. 

During my 10 years in London, I have watched the children’s book industry grow and mature, especially when it comes to diversity and inclusivity. It is wonderful to see more and more authors of colour getting published, with so much more awareness of the importance of more inclusive children’s books.

However, it’s sad to still see such a lack of authenticity within the children’s book market, and so much cultural appropriation. The subjects of Syria, war and seeking refuge particularly tug on my heart strings.

I wonder why authenticity isn’t at the forefront of the industry’s minds? Why aren’t we seeing more writing of people’s own stories? Why are there stories by authors that are not part of the culture they’re writing about? Stories about things they have not experienced, such as war? It is great that there is more exposure and awareness being sought.. but isn’t it important that what’s being read is authentic… coming from real life experience?

Editors and publishing houses seem to be trying to solve the issue of diversity by simply hiring an author of colour, but we are not a monolith. Our cultures and experiences can be so vastly different and they are not interchangeable. I also do not believe that hiring sensitivity readers solves this issue either. In fact, I think it adds further to it.

I really feel that where there is a story about war, cultural diversity, or disability, we really need authenticity - people telling their own stories in their own voices. No matter how much research has been done, our own voices bring real depth and truth to any story; because only we can bring real life memories and cultural identity to the characters and the plot.
That being said, I have also read some wonderful books, that are truly authentic, which I have found extremely inspiring and empowering. My son’s bookshelf is full of these books! Three of our favourites are:

‘That’s not my name’ written and illustrated by Anoosha Syed
 A story that comes from the author’s own experience of people mispronouncing her name.

‘Wonderfully Wired Brains’ written by Louise Gooding and illustrated by Ruth Burrows
A wonderful book about the world of neurodiversity, coming from the author’s own life.

‘Chicken in the Kitchen’  written Nnedi Okorafo illustrated by Mehrdokht Amini
Nnedi brings her beautiful Nigerian culture in this fun filled adventure of an Anayago during the yam festival.

Nadine Kaadan is from Damascus, Syria, now living in London where she completed her Masters in Communication Design in Kingston University, and a Masters in Art and Politics at Goldsmiths University. Nadine is passionate about championing empowered and inclusive representation in children’s books. Her work with young refugees was featured in a BBC short film under the title ‘Writer Nadine Kaadan Helps Syrian Children Understand War’, and CNN Connect the World  program among others. 
She is the 2019 winner of the Arab British Centre Award for Culture, and was nominated for the Asian Women Of Achievement Award 2020. Find out more at https://www.nadinekaadan.com/ 

What's your experience of inclusive and representative books for children in the UK? Do you have books you would like to recommend to other readers? Share with us.

Monday 8 May 2023

The Joy of Visual Sub-Plots, by Pippa Goodhart


I’ve read many many picture books over the years, both for my own enjoyment and with the ‘professional’ excuse that this is essential research to keep me up to date with my industry. And I read and show my own picture books to children in schools when doing author visits. But it had been a long time since I'd done that slow, fully-engaged and fully-absorbed, kind of sharing of picture books with a particular child, as I had done in years gone by with my own children. Now, with a two-year-old grandson, I’m happily doing that again … and discovering things. 


Wonderful ‘Stuck In The Mud’, written by ex-Picture Book Denner Jane Clarke and illustrated by current picture book denner Garry Parsons, is a joyous rhyming story about mud and foolishness and farm animals, delivering a funny twist at the end. 

But, what is little Samuel’s favourite part of that book? Not that main story at all, but watching the top barn door for chicken appearances and disappearances! 



Garry, Samuel and I have imagined that chicken watching the farmyard drama, then hurrying downstairs in order to bring her best friend chicken to come up and join her with the best view of the drama down below. I wonder, how consciously did you add or remove chickens from that window when you were illustrating this book? 


An old favourite picture book from my children’s childhoods is ‘Goodnight Gorilla’ by Peggy Rathman. 

At first glance it’s a very simple story, but there are such riches to be found in the illustrations if you really look. Those colours of keys matching cages, the toys in each animal’s cage, the escaping pink balloon. But it’s the mouse with the banana that Samuel loves best of all, never mind the naughty gorilla main character. Here’s just some of the sub-plot of mouse and banana. 


I’ve just read Ed Vere’s wonderful brand new picture book, The Artist, reviewing it for ABBA, and I was noticing so many extra joys, beyond the depiction of the main story, to be found in the pictures. Aren’t these characters familiar ones if you’ve read Ed’s other books?


And just look at all the intense tiny stories going on in this crowd scene. 



So, a big Thank You to the illustrators who give us more than we might realise unless we slow down and really, really look! And Thank You, Samuel, for reminding me how to more fully appreciate the riches of picture books.