Book People Are The Best!

Well, I have to say that the decision to use International Book Giving Day as a platform to get books for my children’s not-very-well-stocked school library is one of the best ideas I’ve ever had!

The response has been incredible! I started off with around 120 books on my wish-list, and because the response has been so great I’ve now added 24 recent picture book titles. (And this was being extremely conservative as there are SO MANY amazing picture books the school library doesn’t have!) So far I have over 100 donated and pledged books, which is outstanding!

I made a wish-list on The Book Depository, as I read it wrong and was under the impression that if someone bought a book from the list then the book would come off the list. This seemed like a fool-proof plan to stop everyone buying the same books, but however when people started purchasing them I quickly realised it didn’t work like a wedding register, and I had to manually keep updating the list myself. This is also when I realised not everyone bothers to read the posts I put on the parent Facebook page because, although I quickly requested for parents to check before they buy and to let me know if they bought a book off the list, quite a few people didn’t so there are a few double ups on some titles. But never mind – they’re all wonderful books, and hopefully they’ll be popular enough to warrant having two copies! There have been a lot of very generous donations – some people buying two, three and four books at a time. There are people I didn’t expect to buy books who did, and others whom I thought would buy, who haven’t bothered – all very interesting! The result, however, is there are now over 100 fantastic new books going into the school library and I really hope the children will enjoy reading them.

img_3602Here are the books that have been collected so far, with more on the way!

But it isn’t just families from school who have donated books. I posted about what I’ve been doing on Twitter simply to get the word out about International Book Giving day, and I’ve had some incredible members of the Twitter writing community get in touch with me. Master book blogger @bookloverJo has not only given advice on both sorting out the library and on appropriate titles for the wish-list – she has now donated books as part of her own International Book Giving day! Blogger/author, Brindy Wilcox, has very generously donated several books with a view to continuing to do so. Successful authors Elli Woollard, Jennifer Killick and Gary Sheppard have pledged to send books, and The Catchpole Agency have kindly offered to look through their shelves for spare copies as well – all of which is completely amazing and totally unexpected! And my writer friends have also gotten in on the action – the very lovely Bonnie Bridgman and Frances Tosdevin have both donated books, as have members of my SCBWI critique group.  As we aren’t meeting this month, Fiona Barker and Kate Poels West have bought books in lieu of buying drinks and nibbles at the bar where we usually meet. Fiona even rallied her daughter Amelie to the cause – wonderful Amelie generously clearing her bookshelves of a pile of books to pass on!

Yes, it’s a shame that a school has to rely on donations to fund its library. It’s a shame that the only librarian they have is an unqualified volunteer who just happens to be passionate about reading and books. But if we don’t encourage our children to read, if we don’t do everything we can to introduce them to wonderful stories by brilliant authors, then I really believe one day we will look back and realise it was a mistake. Theatre, film and television all have their places and shouldn’t be scoffed at – but without writers they wouldn’t exist.  And books are where imagination really has to work, where we have to think and use our minds-eye to envision the things we are reading. Reading broadens and opens minds, it really does! And if you don’t start reading when you’re young, I think it’s something – more often than not – that people won’t do when they’re adults either.

Check out https://bookgivingday.com/ for more information on International Book Giving Day!

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Wishlist

I’ve had a request for the wish-list I created for my children’s school library and International Book Giving Day.  I’ve focused on titles for early reader and lower Key Stage 2 fiction, as our school only currently goes up to Year Four and seriously lacks books for these ages groups.  As the school grows I would hope to get more upper middle grade titles for them.  It would also be great to get some recent picture books, as everything they have are older titles – none of the fantastic titles from the past 3-5 years!

The books in green are the titles that people have already pledged to donate!

Charvil Piggott Primary School library wish-list 2018

Watership Down – Richard Adams
Amelia Fang and the Barbaric Ball – Laura Ellen Anderson
The Secret Diary of John Drawbridge – Phillip Ardargh
The Secret Diary of Jane Pinney – Phillip Ardargh
Sputniks Guide to Life on Earth – Frank Cottrell Boyce
Pugley Bakes a Cake – Pamela Butchart
Pugley On Ice – Pamela Butchart
Pugley Solves a Crime – Pamela Butchart
Wigglesbottom Primary ‘Shark in the Pool – Pamela Butchart
Wigglesbottom Primary ‘The Toilet Ghost – Pamela Butchart
Wigglesbottom Primary –‘Superdog’ – Pamela Butchart
Wigglesbottom Primary ‘The Magic Hamster – Pamela Butchart
Cogheart – Peter Bunzl
Moonlocket- Pete Bunzl
A Little Princess – Frances Hodgson Burnett
Shifty McGifty and Slippery Sam, The Spooky School – Tracey Corderoy
Shifty McGifty and Slippery Sam, Up, Up and Away – Tracey Corderoy
Shifty McGifty and Slippery Sam, Jingle Bells – Tracey Corderoy
Hubble Bubble, The Glorious Granny Bakeoff – Tracey Corderoy
Hubble Bubble, The Pesky Pirate Prank – Tracey Corderoy
Hubble Bubble, The Super Spooky Fright Night – Tracey Corderoy
Hubble Bubble, The Messy Monkey – Tracey Corderoy
Hubble Bubble, The Wacky Winter – Tracey Corderoy
How to Train your Dragon series – Cressida Cowell
How to Train your Dragon
How to Be a Pirate
How to Cheat a Dragon’s curse
– How to Speak Dragonese
The Wizards of Once – Cressida Cowell
A Place Called Perfect – Helena Duggan
Little Bits of Sky – S.E Durrant
Who Let the Gods Out? – Maz Evans
Simply the Quest – Maz Evans
The Neverending Story – Michael Ende
The Many Worlds of Albie Bright – Christopher Edge
The Jamie Drake Equation – Christopher Edge
The Night Spinner – Abi Elphinstone
The Shadowkeeper – Abi Elphinstone
The Dreamsnatcher – Abi Elphinstone
Sky Song- Abi Elphinstone
Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls – Elena Favilli
Coraline – Neil Gaiman
Sweet Pizza – Giancarlo Gemin
Mold and the Poison Plot – Lorraine Gregory
The Thirteen Storey Treehouse – Andy Griffins
The Twenty-Six Storey Treehouse – Andy Griffins
The Thirty-Nine Storey Treehouse – Andy Griffins
The Fifty-Two Storey Treehouse – Andy Griffins
The Sixty-Five Storey Treehouse – Andy Griffins
The Seventy- Eight Storey Treehouse – Andy Griffins
Dave Pigeon – Swapna Haddow
Dave Pigeon (Nuggets!) – Swapna Haddow
Dave Pigeon (Racer!) – Swapna Haddow
The Invincibles, The Piglet Pickle – Caryl Hart
The Invincibles, The Beast of Bramble Wood – Caryl Hart
The Invincibles, The Hamster Rescue – Caryl Hart
A Boy Called Christmas – Matt Haig
The Girl Who Saved Christmas – Matt Haig
Father Christmas and Me – Matt Haig
Piggy Handsome – Pip Jones
The Thornthwaite Inheritance – Gareth P Jones
The Thornthwaite Betrayal – Gareth P Jones
The Considine Curse – Gareth P Jones
Attack of the Alien Dung – Gareth P Jones
Escape from Planet Bogey – Gareth P Jones
Beards from Outer Space – Gareth P Jones
Podkin One-Ear – Kieran Larwood
Beetle Boy – M. G Leonard
Beetle Queen – M. G Leonard
The Chronicles of Narnia (series) – CS Lewis
The Magician’s Nephew
– The Lion, the witch and the wardrobe
– Prince Caspian
– The voyage of the Dawn Treader
– The Silver Chair
– The Horse and his Boy
The Last Battle
You can’t make me go to Witch School – Em Lynas
Knighthood for Beginners – Elys Dolan
The Railway Children – E Nesbitt
Five Children and It – E Nesbitt
The Borrowers – Mary Norton
Evie’s Ghost – Helen Peters
Bridge to Terabithia – Katherine Paterson
Pax – Sara Pennypacker
The Wolf Wilder – Katherine Rundell
The Girl Savage – Katherine Rundell
The Explorer – Katherine Rundell
Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief– Rick Riordan
Percy Jackson and the Sea of Monsters – Rick Riordan
Percy Jackson and the Titan’s Curse– Rick Riordan
Percy Jackson and the Battle of the Labyrinth– Rick Riordan
Percy Jackson and the Last Olympian– Rick Riordan
Pugs of the Frozen North – Phillip Reeve
Jinks and O’hare, Fun-Fair Repair – Phillip Reeve
Cakes in Space – Phillip Reeve
Holes – Louis Sachar
A Series of Unfortunate Events (collection) – Lemony Snickett
The Big Fat Totally Bonkers Diary of Pig – Emer Stamp
The Unbelievable Top Secret Diary of Pig – Emer Stamp
The Seriously Extraordinary Diary of Pig – Emer Stamp
The Super Amazing Diary of Pig – Emer Stamp
Murder Most Unladylike – Robin Stevens
Arsenic for Tea- Robin Stevens
First Class Murder – Robin Stevens
Mistletoe and Murder- Robin Stevens
Jolly Foul Play – Robin Stevens
My Brother is a Superhero – David Solomons
My Evil Twin is a Super Villain – David Solomons
My Gym Teacher is an Alien Overlord – David Solomons
Nevermoor ( The Trials of Morrigan Crow) – Jessica Townsend
The Hobbit – Tolkien
Time Travelling with a Hamster – Ross Welford
Charlotte’s Web – E. B White
The Big Book of Bugs – Yuval Zommer
The Big Book of Beasts – Yuval Zommer

The Scarlett Files – Tamsin Cooke
Witch Wars – Sibeal Pounder
Witch Switch- Sibeal Pounder
Alex Sparrow and the Really Big Stink – Jennifer Killick
The Accidental Prime Minister – Tom McLaughlin

Picture Books
Ada Twist, Scientist – Andrea Beaty
Rosie Revere, Engineer – Andrea Beaty
Iggy Peck, Architect – Andrea Beaty
The Lumberjack’s Beard – Duncan Beedie
Odd Dog Out – Rob Biddulph
Ten Little Pirates – Mike Brownlow
Ten Little Princesses – Mike Brownlow
Nothing Can Frighten a Bear – Elizabeth Dale
The Ugly Five – Julia Donaldson
The Everywhere Bear – Julia Donaldson
The Detective Dog – Julia Donaldson
Oi Frog – Kes Gray
Oi Dog – Kes Gray
Oi Cat – Kes Gray
How Many Legs – Kes Gray
A Bottle of Happiness – Pippa Goodhart
Can I Join Your Club – John Kelly
Snowboy and the Last Tree Standing – Hiawym Oram
Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the World – Kate Pankhurst
You Must Bring a Hat – Simon Phillip
And Tango Makes Three – Justin Richardson
My Colourful Chameleon – Leonie Roberts
Little Red Reading Hood – Lucy Rowland 

 

Charvil Primary School, Park Lane, Charvil, Reading RG109TR, Berkshire

Give a hoot – give a book!

I didn’t ask to be a librarian.

In fact, I’m not a librarian, and never have been. But when I volunteered to do library help with my son’s foundation class, I simply couldn’t help myself. That library was a mess. An unloved space with apparently no system for filing books other than one area of shelving for information/resource books, (all of which were NOT in nice Dewey-Decimal order). Yes, there were signs claiming shelves were for picture books, and for Atlases, but the sad truth was books went wherever someone dumped them. I’ll admit it – I’m a little OCD. I simply couldn’t stand it! How on earth could anyone find anything with the library in such a state? How was this a nice place for children to come and hopefully develop a love of reading? I volunteered to sort it all out. And that’s how I’ve ended up as the unofficial librarian.

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My children’s school is a relatively new one. It opened its doors in September 2013 with only one classroom of children, and has gained another class every year since. Understandably, there is no librarian, as there isn’t enough work for even a part-time role. The librarian from the high school used to come over and sort things out, but budget cuts meant they were reduced to part-time hours, which in turn left no time for our little school. As you’ve probably heard, the government doesn’t appear to see the value in libraries any more. Public libraries all over the country are facing closure, and school libraries are in serious trouble. My children’s school has no budget for library books. The people who work at the school have no time to spend in the library, or on raising money to buy new books. All the books are donated, or paid for by parent fund-raising.

This means that our library currently has a large selection of second-hand picture books, and not very much else. (Considering how few books it has, it still took me a surprisingly long time to re-organise it – massive thanks to @bookloverJo for giving me pointers and sending photographs of her lovely school library as examples!) As the school grows, so do the ages of the pupils, and they need books that match their age and reading level.  We try to raise money for new books by working with The Book People and Usborne Books – both of whom have been wonderful – but it does limit the titles we can purchase. There are also an awful lot of books that have clearly been given to the school for free because they haven’t sold elsewhere – the type of books that don’t actually state the author, and say ‘Book of the Film’ in place of a title on the spine. And it’s the children who are missing out.

Then I saw something wonderful on Twitter. The talented @_EmmaPerry has been running something called ‘International Book Giving Day’, which this year falls on February 14th. I realized it was the perfect opportunity to ask people to donate a book to the school library. When I approached the school they were at first stunned that someone actually wanted to volunteer their own time to help them get more books, but then they were 100% on-board with the idea. They printed out the free downloadable posters, designed this year by fabulous author/illustrator @ElysDolan, and I created a wish-list of books for parents to look at.  This is where Twitter came in handy, for although I currently don’t get to read much in the way of early readers or middle-grade, I do know what recent titles have been recommended and are popular! Then I posted about International Book Giving Day on the school Facebook page.    (I created and shared the wishlist via the Book Depository – parents don’t necessarily buy the books from there, but they have been letting me know when they purchase one of the titles so I can then remove it from the list and hopefully avoid people buying the same books)

The response so far has been outstanding. I have taken nearly thirty books off my rather large wishlist in a matter of only three days, and I’m still expecting quite a few more families will get on board. And even if they don’t, the school PTA have since pledged £300 towards new books for the library! It seems no one actually realised there was no budget for library books until I told them. And one of the school office ladies has designed a beautiful book plate to go inside the books to say which child it was donated by, so there will be a lasting memory of pupils past for library users of the future.

I have to be honest and say I don’t know if I would have thought of doing this myself if I hadn’t seen Emma’s amazing initiative. I hadn’t even thought about asking the PTA to contribute funds for buying books! What a great idea to have a day for gifting books! And why not do the same as I did, and use this as a chance to support your school library? God knows they need all the help they can get.

Check out https://bookgivingday.com/ for more information on International Book Giving Day!

Rhyming – it’s not as easy as it looks!

I’ve said it many times before – I love rhyme! But while working on a new rhyming picture book text this week, I was reminded that no matter how good you think you are at rhyming, there are still things that can trip you up.

With a rhyming text it is imperative to set the rhythmic metre right from the outset. The very first verse should set the tone so that the reader knows what’s coming – if you stray from this first set metre, you’ll trip your reader up. I used to think it was okay to occasionally vary the syllable count of a rhyming text. Now some of my critique group probably think I’m a syllable count Nazi because of how I always point out where their counts change! I’ve learnt over time that sticking to the same rhythmic metre line to line meant my stories were easier to read. Now I don’t vary the count – if I can’t say what I want to in the set number of syllables, I’ll rethink the whole stanza. There are some cases where you can get away with an extra syllable, but it usually depends on the word.

And some words are tricky. There are words that are quite commonly pronounced with one less syllable than they actually have. Take the word ‘being’, for instance. My latest text used this word several times until my friend pointed out that I was saying it with one syllable instead of two. (This is not the first time I’ve made the same mistake with that very same word, so I’ll hang my head in shame!). Another word was ‘towel’. This set off a debate amongst a few of us – some of us say ‘towl’, but officially it is pronounced ‘tow-wel’. I contemplated substituting ‘bath-sheet’ for towel, but soon came to my senses! I had to conclude it was one of those words that is kind of more like one and a half syllables, and probably best avoided.  I also make a point of avoiding the word ‘family’ in my rhyming texts, as it is often said as ‘fam-lee’, not ‘fam-mi-lee’.

And what about those words our American friends pronounce differently? Tomato for example – they might rhyme this with potato, but it won’t work elsewhere. The same goes for the word ‘again’ – you can’t rhyme it with rain or pain if you want to crack the American market. Local dialect can also throw things out – one of my friends was adamant she could rhyme ‘mud’ with ‘could’ – but that doesn’t work for most people. I often come across the pairing of ‘gone’ and ‘one’. Technically this is actually a rhyme, but it always stops me in my tracks when I find it in a rhyming text, because to my ears it doesn’t rhyme at all. My kiwi accent often throws me. I tried to rhyme  ‘tears’ (crying) with ‘shares’ and ‘cares’ until someone told me I was saying it wrong!

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And let’s talk about ‘diplodocus’. I’ve looked this up – apparently it can be pronounced either ‘dip-PLO-do-cus’, OR, ‘dip-PLOD-di-cus’. I’ve seen rhymes in published books for both pronunciations. But I don’t think I’ll ever try writing a rhyming text starring this particular dinosaur…

It’s very easy to accidently force your metre without realising it. Recently one of my talented friends decided to have a go at writing in rhyme for the first time. This first effort wasn’t bad, but it was fairly typical of a newbie rhymer. Someone else gave her a lesson on the merits of stressed/non-stressed syllables and rhythmic metre, and my friend immediately ‘got’ the concept. This in itself is impressive because I’m not even sure I’ve ‘got’ the concept yet, and I’ve been writing in rhyme for years! My friend then very kindly gave me some feedback on my new story and pointed out a few places where she thought my stresses fell on the wrong syllable. I told her she was being a bit too text book about it – she probably was, and I still think the stresses would have worked in both places. But yet looking at my edits since, I have changed every line she pointed out. Clearly she has a bit of a ear for this kind of thing! Not everyone does, however. And when you read something over and over to yourself it’s a common mistake to unconsciously stress words to fit your rhythm. This is why it is necessary to put things away for a while and not look at them, and also to get other people to read your work.

But rhyming is totally satisfying when you get it right! That’s why so many of us love it so much.

One small step… one giant leap!

So it finally happened – I now have a literary agent! It feels like I’ve been waiting for this forever, but in all honesty this is probably the first time I’ve actually been ready for this point in my writing career.

I started writing picture books seriously only about four years ago. I have always written – over a decade ago I actually wrote a novel which I worked very hard on. Sadly, it wasn’t any good and I put writing aside! But four years ago the urge to write a picture book text came to me strongly, and I have to say that I honestly became obsessed. I have thought about very little else ever since. The drive and need to succeed at this burns inside of me, and I’ve realised with absolute certainty that this is what I want to do and I won’t be satisfied until I’ve successfully made it happen.

Having an agent is a huge step closer to this becoming a reality. I have seen recently through other people just how much quicker a writer’s work gets noticed when it has gone through an agent. For the newbie writer trying to get noticed in the slushpile, it seems like your work has to be perfect for it to stand out. I’m not sure that’s actually the case – it should be good, yes, but publishers seem to be willing to work on ideas they like, even if the execution of the story isn’t quite there yet. I have yet to see if this is the case with my own stories, but I feel confident that after having already worked with an editor, they are reasonably polished and might give me a bit of a head start. Only time will tell….

At this year’s SCBWI conference, the reality of the slushpile was hammered home. Agents can receive literally hundreds of submissions every week – the truth is they may only ever read a few lines of your cover letter and no more. I can fully imagine an agent who has just read twenty shoddy rhyming picture book texts automatically saying ‘pass’ to the next rhyming picture book in their inbox. The odds aren’t good, and that’s the reality. I’ve always said this is why you need to get out and network – meet agents at events, chat with them on twitter, do whatever you can to get your face and name out there. I do think it helps.

I don’t think it was the reason I signed with my agent however. She found me in the slushpile, and I somehow stood out. And all those near-misses I had make sense to me now. I’m a big believer in things happening for a reason – I wanted an agent who had the same passion and enthusiasm for my stories as I did, and who ‘got’ me. And she does.

So, I’m sure you can imagine how thrilled I am! I’m excited and impatient for the next stage to begin, but I know I need to keep on being patient. I’ve worked hard to get where I am, and I expect to continue to work hard. But I’m doing what I love and couldn’t be happier that I’m now that little bit closer to achieving my dream!

 

They stole my idea – or did they?

John Lewis and Moshi the Monster have recently been all over the news, and not for a good reason.  I haven’t had the pleasure of reading Chris Riddell’s, ‘Mr Underbed’ as yet, so I can’t comment on how similar the two are, although surely Mr Riddell has very good reason for believing there are significant similarities between the two.  But it got me thinking – are there actually any original stories or are we all simply drawing from the same pool of ideas?

This concept is something I’ve heard before – especially for picture books- and certainly there are many authors who’ve discovered a story they wrote is unfortunately similar to something else.  It’s easy to cry plagiarism, but more often than not it’s simply coincidental.  Just this morning a friend of mine was lamenting over another Christmas advert that seems eerily similar to a picture book text she has recently been working on.

 

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When I started my mentoring with Natascha Biebow of Blue Elephant Storyshaping, one of the first things she said was that what I thought was one of my ‘stronger’ stories had already been ‘done’ several times – and in much better ways!   Another story – which has caught the eye of a few people in the industry – we discovered FOUR published books of a similar idea with almost identical titles! (And Natascha has since flagged a fifth one to me – d’oh!)  A third story, an agent pointed out a self-published book on Amazon which has exactly the same title.  I was honestly not aware of any of these stories when I wrote my own.

Obviously the first reaction to these revelations was to cry!  But Natascha told me similarity isn’t necessarily a problem – the trick is to make sure your story has enough of a point of difference to make it somewhat unique.  Because we ARE all drawing from the same pool of ideas!  How many picture books have you read that are about sharing, or being yourself?  How many about the unexpected visitor who causes havoc, the animal who uses wit and wiles to save themself or their babies from a hungry predator, or even the monster who lives under the bed?  Happily once I actually looked into these other stories, I was satisfied that although the titles were similar and the core idea was kind of the same, my own stories DO have a point of difference, and in some cases aren’t the same at all.

What can you do if you suspect someone has stolen your idea?  I believe its a hard one to prove.  Take the case of author Dan Brown and his court battle with the writers of ‘Holy Blood, Holy Grail,’ Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln.  I have read both books, and I was very surprised the court ruled in Mr Brown’s favour.  One thing you can try when you have a new idea is to do an internet search to see if there is anything similar out there already.  If you’ve unfortunately discovered there is – then what can you change to make your story different?

At the end of the day, there are millions of people in this world.  They say we all have a doppelgänger somewhere, so its not unlikely someone else might have had the same bright idea as you.  Try your best to be original, and don’t deliberately lift ideas from someone else is my advice!

Celebrity Bashing

I know we writerly folk have been hearing a lot about celebrity authors recently. The latest news that eight out of eleven World Book Day books have been written by celebrity authors seems to have really brought the issue out into the open. Some people say it’s just sour grapes, and that career-authors are whinging unfairly. I know there is good reason for publishers to want to publish a celebrity author. I know it’s profitable, and publishers want to make money at the end of the day. I also don’t necessarily agree with the argument that celebrity penned books are grossly inferior to those by career authors. A story doesn’t always need to have a deep moral message or be particularly lofty or idealised; a story can just be fun. I think the reason people are upset is that it actually is somewhat unfair.

I know of authors who’ve been previously published and made enough profits for their publishers to warrant being published again. But when these authors have a new book out, there can sometimes be little or no publicity promoting it. The author themselves does the necessary things to get publicity – they’re active on social media, they do school and library visits, go along to literary festivals etc. They normally have day jobs because what they make from writing isn’t enough to make it a full-time occupation. It must be incredibly frustrating seeing the ‘celebrity author’ and their books being publicised heavily everywhere you look. It must also grate to hear of the advances the celebrity author apparently gets…

I heard recently from a reliable source how one celebrity author got her book published. Her publicist rung around to say the celebrity in question had an idea for a book. And the doors opened wide. Did she write this book completely on her own? No – of course she had lots and lots of editorial help.  I know this apparently isn’t the case with all celebrity authors, but seriously- how many people could suddenly decide they’re going to write a book and immediately write something that’s of a publishable standard?  Most first time books have been a long time in the making…

So now look at it from the as-yet unpublished authors view. It’s not easy as a newcomer trying to break into the market. I know lots of hopeful authors who have great ideas, and great writing skills. We have near-misses where we’re told our idea is great, that we write well, but sadly our story ‘isn’t quite there yet’. No one offers to work with us on getting those promising stories right, apparently no one in the publishing industry has time for that. But they make time for the celebrity author – enough time in some cases to all but write the book for them!

And what makes celebrities want to write children’s books anyway? Is it the money, the added exposure, or simply pandering to their ego?  I know I’m not the only one who can’t help but be impressed  when they hear someone has published a book with a legitimate publishing house.  Do celebrities think by having a book published it then gives them a bit more credibility?  If so, then why do we never see them writing crime novels, suspenseful thrillers or even chick-lit?

I feel all this simply adds to the assumption that writing for children is easy.  Those who take it seriously know that it’s anything but, yet the slush content of any literary agents email account will testify just how many people out there think childrens books are a piece of cake.  And celebrity authors clearly have it easy when they decide to write a book – so why wouldn’t people assume anyone can do it?

What is the solution to this? Perhaps if the general public could stop buying into the whole celebrity worship thing, and buy books because they are good books, not because of who wrote them, then that would be a start. And perhaps celebrities could think about do something charitable if they want more credibility?  I dunno…

Pitch Perfect

Another year, another SCBWI agent’s party. Last year I was nervous. This year I wasn’t. And why was that, you ask? Well, this year I decided not to pitch.

Left to right – Sara Grant hosts a panel of experts, Vicki Willden-Lebrecht from Bright Literary Agency, Yasmin Standen from Standen Literary Agency, Mark Mills from Plum Pudding Illustration, and Caroline Sheldon from Caroline Sheldon Literary Agency.  (photo credit to Kerry Trickett)

 

The whole point of the SCBWI Agents party is that it’s an opportunity to pitch your work to literary agents actively looking to build their lists. It is an amazing chance, and last year I came away from it with a supposed ‘near-miss’ from one very sought after agent. But I found pitching a bit awkward. Because I have so many picture book texts, I had chosen to give a brief overview of some of my stories by memorising a little speech. It was a pretty good little speech if I do say so myself, but I felt wooden reciting it. I didn’t feel like I made much of a connection with the agents as a result.

So this year I decided to try a new approach. I decided to just talk to the agents. Say hello, get my face and name out there, and hopefully be memorable. The truth is those agents meet so many people by the end of the night faces and pitches become one big blurry mess. The quality of your submission is as important as it ever was because that is still what it comes down to in the end.

And as far as submissions go, I’m feeling a lot more confidant. The mentoring work I did earlier this year with Natascha Biebow of ‘Blue Elephant Storyshaping’ was possibly the best investment I have made so far for my writing career. I knew I had a couple of really great stories – I’d had interest in them from both agents and publishers – but for some reason they weren’t right, and having worked on them for so long I couldn’t see why they were lacking. But after working with Natascha I was able to pinpoint where they were going wrong, fix the problems, and then polish, buff and tweak the stories into ones that are now truly submission ready. I’ve already had interest and some very positive feedback on these edited stories. But the best thing of all is I honestly feel the quality of my writing has gone up a few notches. The stories I’ve written since are coming together much quicker, I can spot where they aren’t completely working myself, and I often ‘hear’ Natascha’s voice critiquing them in my head!

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Here I am, selfie-queen, with some of my very talented critique group – Frances Tosdevin, Fiona Barker and Rachel Lovatt

So, off I went to the party, which was an absolutely fabulous evening. The volunteers from SCBWI do an outstanding job organising this event – it’s an awful lot of time and effort on their behalf, so thank you guys!  Some very ‘big cheeses,’ (as one person put it!), from the agenting world were present, all of whom were absolutely lovely and full of wisdom (check out #scbwichat for tidbits of what was said on the night).

But as well as the agents it was also a great chance to meet with fellow writers.  I am fortunate to have an amazing online critique group and that night EIGHT of us made it to the party! For some of us, it was the first time meeting in the flesh.  And another lovely lady from my local SCBWI group was there too, not to mention many wonderful people I’ve ‘met’ on Twitter, AND my hilarious mate Al, whom I met last year. If I hadn’t been so preoccupied with chatting to the agents it possibly would have ended up as a rather inebriated train journey home….

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More of my very talented critique group – Catherine Emmett, and soon-to-be published Leonie Roberts

I think my game-plan worked. I didn’t feel nervous speaking with the agents; I think I had a bit of a rapport going on with two of them, (one gave me a double kiss when I said goodbye, which could mean either she liked me or she’d had a few glasses of wine), and I was able to really enjoy myself.  I actually did end up pitching – one agent wanted to know more about my stories and it was the simplest way to tell her what they were about.  Unlike most people, I don’t mind writing my PB pitches/one sentence hooks, and luckily I know most of them off the top of my head.  I wouldn’t say I recited them perfectly, but the agent seemed to like them, so good enough!

Arabella Stein from Bright Literary Agency listens intently to a pitch by Frances Tosdevin (photo credit to Kerry Trickett)

So, my advice? Make sure you’re confident your submission is in absolute tip-top shape. I would recommend getting some professional input if you can afford it. Then get yourself out there – do what you can to meet agents and editors face to face, so they can put a face to a name. But try to relax. Don’t give them the hard sell – you shouldn’t have to if your manuscript is in great shape. Agents are people too. As well as looking for stories they love and that they’ll be passionate about representing, they also want to find someone they’ll enjoy working with on a personal level.

How short is too short?

I’ll admit it – I’m feeling pretty frustrated this week. It’s all down to word count. Why is it that some picture book writers are able to publish stories of 600 -800 words, yet unpublished newbies are constantly being told to use less and less? Some publishers specify a maximum of 600 words, I’ve seen agents who want 500 or less (one particular agent specified a maximum of 200 words!) I have critique group friends who’ve been told to cut their 500 word texts in half, but yet at the same time some of my work has been seen by both editors and agents who made no comment on their word counts of 600-700.

When did picture books suddenly become so short, and who decided they had to be? I agree there are some books which unnecessarily go on and on. There are a few fairly recent picture books by a very well-known and much loved author that I personally think waffle on, and which I strenuously avoid reading to my children! But – and I know I’ve said this before – a lot of the shorter texts are too short. With only a few words on every page, the page turn comes too quickly and the child doesn’t have time to absorb the story or the illustrations.

There were several things I heard a lot during the mentoring I undertook with Natascha Biebow of ‘Blue Elephant Storyshaping’. A story needs a character that has both personality and some kind of motivation – there’s a ‘need’ or a ‘want’ that drives the story forward. They must go on an emotional journey. There should be a strong story arc. The ending needs to be satisfying and preferably ‘bookend’ with the beginning. The reader needs to know what the story’s message is. Natascha also said a story should make sense when being read aloud without seeing the illustrations. She wanted virtually no illustration notes – only when absolutely necessary, like when the illustration needs to show something that differs from the text. By trying to make my stories contain all of the above points, my word counts jumped – and in the case of my shorter, illustration-note heavy texts, jumped quite significantly.

This week I was told by a lovely agent who had asked to see some of my prose texts, that what I was writing were early readers, not picture book texts. They told me I was ‘saying’ things that should be said via the illustrations and that the text should be ‘captions for the illustrations’. Okay – this makes perfect sense, but it’s also pretty much the opposite from what Natascha said about the story needing to be clear without the illustrations. The stories I sent were between 600-700 words, and this agent suggested I rewrite one of the stories and aim for 100 words. I’m having a go at doing this, taking out everything Natascha had told me to put in and more, (and putting back all the illustration notes – and more!)  So far I’ve only managed to get down to 318 words, and I feel like the story has lost its personality.  I guess I could write a completely new story altogether, but I actually liked my original idea.

I know there are some successful picture book authors who can write an extremely short text which still has voice and personality. But I think these types of people are the minority. They are also, apparently, often ex-marketing professionals already skilled at saying a lot in few words. I would also like to suggest that some of these very short stories aren’t actually narratives, but more poems or concepts.

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But my point is something else. Why do we all need to fit into this particular super-short text box? Obviously there is room for writers who write longer narratives, because many people do. The majority of modern day classics beloved by both children and parents alike fall into the 500-700 word bracket. So why are new authors expected to write stories containing motivation, personality, and emotional journey all in 100-200 words? Is this the result of some head-honcho in marketing insisting that what works for advertising also works for children’s stories?

Why should children be forced to accept stories of less than 200 words – doesn’t this only reinforce the ‘instant gratification’ lifestyle of today’s world? Parents, teachers, librarians and child-carers WANT longer texts to read their children! Yes – no one likes a story that unnecessarily waffles on and on, but we’d still like some that take more than a minute to read. This seems to be the clear public opinion, but yet for some reason writers are still being told to write less. Children are bombarded with television, tablets, apps, online this and that – all instantaneous, quick, fast information. Wouldn’t they actually benefit from longer stories of 500-700 words, as opposed to 100-200?

Publishers and agents say they are looking for new ideas and new voices – by insisting new authors fit into a specific word count, aren’t they then narrowing the pool of new potential? Perhaps one day I will have an idea for a story with all the necessary elements that I can tell in 100 words. But right now this is simply not my style, and when I have written something totally pared back I’ve been told to add more to it! And at the end of the day, there are some stories that cannot be told in 100 words.

I believe there is a place for both longer narrative stories, and for short concept or poem-like books. But I wish there was more open-mindedness for new authors. Not all of us are writing complete slush – some people are writing stories that if they already had a name for themselves, might actually have a chance of being published. Why make us fit into a particular box? How about considering what we have to offer on its own merit?