Back to School Poem

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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 Why is it that some picture book writers are able to publish stories of 600 -800 words, yet unpublished newbies are constantly being told to use less and less?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?

To rhyme or not to rhyme? That is the question!

I love rhyming picture books – they are what got me so fascinated with picture books in the first place. There is something particularly satisfying in the way a good rhyming story flows off the tongue! A good rhythm is soothing and fun to read and a clever rhyming couplet will always bring a cheesy grin to my face. On the other hand, I find a badly-rhymed story that doesn’t scan well to be both frustrating and irritating.

 
It took a lot of practice to get my rhyming at the level it is today, and I have to confess I’m quite proud of where it’s at.  I now find myself in the position where I’m getting positive comments from people within the industry on my rhyming ability, and this makes me very happy. But there is another thing I’ve been hearing a lot lately too…..

 
This is the suggestion that I should drop the rhyme and focus on prose.

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Now part of me wants to resist this idea at all costs – why should I when rhyming stories sell so well? I heard recently according to someone from Waterstones, rhyming stories are still the bestsellers. Most authors and parents I know seem to prefer rhyming stories, and it goes without saying that kids love them. Yes – we all know about the limited potential rhyming stories have for co-editions, but I have also been told by a successful children’s publisher that this necessarily isn’t a problem. If an international buyer likes a book enough, they will happily translate it.

 
Yet, a rhyming story needs to stand up on its own without the rhyme. Apparently the legend that is Julia Donaldson, submits all her rhyming stories along with a non-rhyming version. I have been told many times by agents and editors that I should try writing some of my rhyming stories in prose, in order to get the structure correct. So far I’ve managed to get these stories working without resorting to putting them into prose, but yesterday something happened that’s thrown me.

 
I was fortunate enough to attend a picture book meet and critique in London, run by the Children’s Book Circle. There I met with the children’s editor of a very well-known publishing house and had feedback on two of my stories.  This lovely editor seemed to like both stories – she said the structure was great, and all the necessary elements were present and correct. However – she felt both stories were strong enough without the rhyme, and although the rhyming was very good, she personally found it distracted from the story!

 

Now I know in some of my stories, as previously mentioned, the rhyming was preventing the structure of the story from gelling. I’ve also been told several times now to avoid writing in rhyme because of the limited co-edition potential. But I’ve never been told my stories didn’t need the rhyme, or that my rhyming distracted the reader! Yet, I believe I know where this editor is coming from. Recently I’ve found the picture book market to be saturated with rhyming stories. As much as I love rhyme, some of these stories leave me cold because although very well written, it feels like the rhyme doesn’t add anything to the story. I’ve also entered a few recent competitions where the organisers commented on the unusually high amount of rhyming stories submitted. So it seems almost everybody is writing – or trying to write – in rhyme.

 

I don’t want to write a rhyming picture book that, although well written, is instantly forgettable. I still remember the first time I read, ‘Room on the Broom’ – ideally, I’d like my stories to have that same sort of memorable impact. But do I fall into the category of writing in rhyme for the sake of it? The last few agents who’ve given me personal responses to my submissions both suggested I drop the rhyme and write in prose. But I personally don’t think my prose stories are as strong as my rhyming ones. My story ideas either come as a rhyming story, or a prose – I can’t seem to force them any differently. I also often find a rhyming story writes itself, whereas a prose one is much harder to make work. I recently spoke with a very talented debut author who only writes in rhyme, and has eleven books either already published or in the pipeline, (I repeat – ELEVEN!), and she said exactly the same thing.  Or do I think my rhyming stories are stronger simply because I have a personal preference for rhyme?

 

So what do I do next? My friends and peers all say they really like my rhyming stories. But I’m not sure if I can go by their opinions alone because I know they are all people who – like me – really enjoy rhyming picture books! Perhaps it’s time to take on board the professional advice to focus more on prose. Lately I have actually been writing more in prose. My four most recent stories have all been prose, and I honestly believe that if I want to be truly successful – which I do – then I need to be able to write well in both formats. I’m guessing what I’ll be working on next will likely be prose versions of my rhyming stories. I can’t imagine it’s going to be easy, but perhaps it’s a necessary step forward.

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How much editing do you really need?

 

I’ve had a pretty good month. 

 

Firstly, I discovered that four of my stories got longlisted for the Oh Zoe rising talent award.  Considering that Oh Zoe were looking for books that could be personalised and my stories only kind of fit this criteria at best – I only entered at the urging of my critique group – it was a bit of a surprise.   Apparently they liked my style….

 

Secondly, I was runner up in the latest SCBWI Slushpile Challenge.  Again this came as a surprise – I started my month’s mentoring with a children’s book editor right after the competition entry date closed, and that particular story has since been edited considerably.  I was convinced the older version that I’d entered into the competition wouldn’t place anywhere.

 

So, before you roll your eyes at my crowing about my ‘successes’, I’m going to move right along on to my point.  Which is – how edited does a story need to be before submitting it?  I know I’ve discussed this before – edit, edit, edit again, get feedback, edit, be one hundred percent sure your story is ready before you submit.  But what I’ve found is no matter how perfect you think something is there is always room for improvement.

 

My month’s mentoring was fabulous.  I chose to go with Natascha Biebow of Blue Elephant Story-shaping as she was recommended to me by an agent, and I’d also attended a SCBWI workshop with her which had included feedback on one of my stories.  After the initial shock of seeing she didn’t love my story as much as I thought she would (if at all!), once I’d considered her comments a while I could see everything she said was spot on.  So I signed up and sent off my three strongest rhyming stories and my latest prose story which I thought it was still a bit weak.  Turns out the only story she seemed to like was the prose!

 

Receiving critique on your work is never easy, and I will confess that I was crushed when I read Natascha’s first lot of comments.  Not original enough was the main issue, but the real knife in heart was the comment that ‘you shouldn’t write in rhyme unless you’re really good at it’.  (Errr, hang on! What?  I AM good at it!!!)  There were tears…. but, once I’d got past my ego and sat and processed her comments, I could see what she was trying to say.  Taking her comments and using them resulted in significantly better stories.  She is the experienced one after all, and really knows her stuff.

 

So great, right? I should feel confident submitting these stories knowing that they are now definitely in tip top shape!  Except I’m even more nervous now.  Those stories were the ones I’d been told were my best.  They’d previously caught the eye of both editors and agents.  They were supposed to be ‘close’, yet they weren’t.  So what if someone likes my work and asks to see more, but everything else I’ve got is still far from ready?

 

What is important to keep in mind is even the most recognised names in the business go through the process of editing.  The story that is published is probably far removed from the version originally sent to agents and publishers.  A well-known children’s author told me she often feels like crying and throwing her stories in the bin when the first lot of notes come back from the editor!  I guess this means I shouldn’t be afraid.  Having the determination to succeed, being open to suggestion, and being willing to work on your manuscripts to improve them are all very important things. 

I think it is harder for those of us without agents and who are still unpublished.  Agents don’t really need new clients most of the time, so to stand out from the pile it is worth having something perfectly polished to submit.  An experienced editor will see things you won’t see on your own, and they should be able to steer you and push you into producing something even better than what you started with.  My time with Natascha not only helped me produce much better work, but she also showed me things I can use going forward.  Hopefully my standard of work will have jumped a few notches when I write something new.

 

I’m shouting, but where is my voice?

 

So what exactly is voice?  I’ve been hearing this term a lot lately and I wasn’t entirely sure what it meant.  I thought I had a voice.  If you gave me a pile of unnamed stories that were written by members of my critique group, then asked who wrote what, I would probably be able to tell you.  People have distinctive ways of writing, and I always thought I was one of them.

 

If you read this blog, you will know I’ve had a lot of ups and downs on my writing journey so far.  I recently made the decision to work with an editor as a way of trying to figure out why my stories are not quite hitting the mark, and the topic of voice came up again.  And I think I get it now….

 

Voice isn’t just your unique way of writing as an author.  Your characters need to have voice – and by this I don’t mean just in the words they speak.  Voice can be so much more – is your protagonist a bit fussy?  Are they bossy?  Mean?  How can you show these things without actually saying it in words?  For example, instead of saying, ‘Amelia was very bossy’, you could show she is bossy by the things she is doing, or in the way she speaks.   This also comes back to another phrase we picture book writers hear a lot – ‘show, don’t tell’.  SHOW your reader that Dad is scared of the dark, not just by his reaction in the illustrations, but by giving him a quiver in his voice, or with an action such as biting his nails, or pulling at his shirt. 

 

Picture books need to say an awful lot in very few words.  There are lots of clever ways you can give background and life to your characters by adding subtle layers of ‘voice’ to your text.  ‘Olivia’ by author-illustrator Ian Falconer, is a perfect example of a character who has a whole lot of personality and voice, all of which is shown very clearly – but at the same time almost subtlety – through actions and behaviour, and very few words.  And wonderful illustrations of course…

 

Secondly, does your character’s voice fit your character?  This was a big ‘aha!’ moment for me.  I love writing in rhyme, and nothing makes me happier than coming up with a clever couplet or a witty joke, written in perfect metre.  But if your narrator is a five-year old boy, are the words you’ve chosen the type of words that a five year old boy would typically use?  If not, then your story is not going to work.  I have a trio of stories which revolve around a very clever idea, but the narrative voice up until now has been very adult sounding, when the narrator is actually meant to be a child.  So no wonder I’ve been getting nowhere with them.

 

So have a look at some successful picture books.  How has the author relayed to the reader clues about characters, without actually saying what type of personalities they are meant to have?   A story needs a strong voice for the reader to relate to, and also to make to stand out from the pile.

 

 

 

My political protest – not sure how to end it though….

Cockroach Catastrophe

 

The garden was bursting with fruit that was ripe,

And all bugs were welcome, no matter their type.

And though they were different, they still got along,

But, sadly, this peace didn’t last very long.

 

“The garden’s in trouble!”  A cockroach declared,

“And all of you bugs should be worried and scared. 

The threat of invasion is horribly real,

For all that we have, other bugs want to steal!”

 

“Outside of this garden, those other bugs dream,

Of having all this, so they plot and they scheme.

But no need to panic, I know what to do –

Let me be the cockroach who’ll fix it for you!”

 

He spoke with such gusto, such vigour and vim,

That everyone shouted, “We must follow him!

He has no credentials; he’s new to the job,

But he’s still our man,” cried the gullible mob.   

 

“But hang on,” an elderly grasshopper cried,

“We don’t need this leader!  Who else has applied?

There’s plenty for all, so where is the big threat?

If he has some proof, he’s not shown us it yet!”

 

But nobody listened to Grasshopper’s plea.

They lapped up the cockroaches’ words with great glee.

And soon they were chanting his catchy refrain,

“Let’s all make our garden a great place again!”

 

And, not even stopping to ponder their fate,

They made him the leader of garden and state.

Then sitting up high on the very best flower,

That Cockroach knew now he had absolute power.

 

He looked down below with a hideous grin,

“I still can’t believe those fools voted me in!” 

Then called for his team – quite a sinister bunch –

Of cockroaches, wasps, and a rat eating lunch.

 

They swarmed through the garden, they stole every seat.

They swiped every morsel, took all they could eat.

And now with his army put firmly in place,

The Cockroach stood up with a smirk on his face.

 

“So now I decree – no outsiders at all!

To keep them all out, I will build a big wall.

Along every inch, I shall station a guard,

Then no one can pass, it will be much too hard.”

 

Though some of the garden folk listened with dread,

“He’s building a wall?  Is he out of his head?”

Still, more of the others approved this great plan,

“Put up a big wall?  Well, you know that we can!”

 

Old grasshopper cried, “This is not what we need!

This bug only thinks of himself and his greed!”

But Cockroach declared, “I don’t care for your views,

Whatever you say- I’ll just call it fake news.”

 

The guards on the wall looked below and said, “Hello!

We’ll only take those who are brown, black and yellow.

Now no need to argue, please don’t make a fuss!

You’re fine to come in, if you look just like us.”

 

The bugs at the border cried, “Please let us in,

They’ve cut down our grass; put our homes in the bin!

Our children are hungry, our cupboards are bare.”

But cockroach just said, “And I simply don’t care!”

 

The beautiful garden now looked like a bin.

The rat had moved all of his family in.

The wasps had erected an oversized nest.

The great cockroach army were acting the pest.

 

And if any insect should dare to complain,

The poor soul was not seen, or heard from again.

The cockroach, he sneered, “I don’t care how it ends,

As long as it works out for me and my friends.”

 

“Now listen to me, what I say must be done.

And here are my rules – you’ll obey every one!

And should you dare question what I have to say,

I’ll order my army to take you away!”

 

“All ladybird boys must be gone at first light,

They don’t fit their name, and that cannot be right.

And as for those snails who are both girl and boy –

This kind of weird thing, well, it’s best to destroy.”

 

“The old and the injured are no use at all,

And past contributions won’t cushion their fall.

The weak and the poor cannot benefit me –

As everyone knows, I give nothing for free.”

 

Now more of the insects began to feel scared,

And spoke in a hush, ‘This is worse than we feared!

It seems his agenda is hate, fear and greed.

It’s perfectly clear he’s a bad bug indeed.”

 

“We can’t let him rule, we must think of a way –

A bug is a bug, at the end of the day!

No matter what colour, what size, shape or form,

We all have a right to live here on the lawn”.

 

“We don’t want his hate, and we don’t want his greed,

 We will respect others, and help those in need!

Let’s look to the future – our garden’s at stake!

He needs some reminding it’s not his to take.”

 

They gathered together, to march on the flower.

“Let’s show him who really has absolute power!

If he wants a war, then a war we will give him.

Its war on his hatred, and we’ll never give in!”

So you think you’re ready to submit? Think again….

How do you know your work is ready for submission?  If only I knew the answer to this question…  

We’ve all heard it many times – don’t submit until you are absolutely sure it’s as good as it possibly can be.  Edit, leave it in drawer for a while, come back to it and edit some more, leave it alone, get a few people to read it aloud, edit it again etc etc.  But how many times have I honestly believed something was ready, submitted it, and realised later on  – sometimes even at the very instant I pressed ‘submit’ – that it wasn’t ready by any stretch of the imagination. 

Most writers I know are an eager bunch – keen to get a second opinion, but then secretly crushed when that second opinion doesn’t come back with glowing, ‘thumbs ups’, and ‘send it out immediately,’ comments.  Then there are the other kind of writers, those who are such perfectionists they sit on things and never send anything out.  I, unfortunately, fall into the first category.  In some ways it’s a good thing – if you never try, you never know right?  It’s because of these hasty submissions that I’ve had, on occasion, some positive feedback – which for the unpublished is a really big deal.  But, it also has some major downfalls….

I have one particular story which has caught the eye of more than one agent now, though unfortunately not enough for an offer of representation.  This same story has had no response whatsoever from the few publishers I’ve sent it to.  Its been edited countless times, tightened up to a point that it reads seamlessly, and everyone whom I’ve shown it to have loved it.  I honestly thought this story could be polished no further.  Yet, just the other week I showed it to a writer friend of mine, who is quite familiar with editors and the kinds of comments they make.  She made a suggestion, which when acted on, improved the story immensely.  Only now, is it possibly submission ready.  Problem is I’ve already submitted it…. to a number of people.  D’oh!

So can I submit the same story twice?  Well, I could argue there is a very good chance it was vetoed before it even got to the agent or editor it was intended for, so therefore they may have never seen it in the first place.  But, unless you’ve been specifically asked to resubmit, this is generally a very big no-no.

I absolutely believe a critique group is an invaluable source of feedback, and crucial to development as a writer.  But I’m starting to see that a critique group made up of your peers can only get you so far.  This past week I was fortunate enough to have had both an experienced editor and a very successful children’s author, give me feedback on two of what I had considered to be my ‘stronger’ stories.  Both stories had received very positive feedback from people who already read them, and little had been offered in the way of suggestions for their improvement, so I was feeling confident they were in good shape.  However, both the editor and the author indicated these stories needed a lot of work on their structure.  The comments made were very different from comments I’d had previously – clearly a professional eye is going to notice issues that a non-professional won’t see.  But this has thrown me – now I feel like I don’t know anything!  Are any of my stories actually good enough?  And how can I find out?

I’ll keep you posted….

Slumming it in the Slushpile

Ever get the feeling no one is paying any attention to you?  That the words you say are going unheard, unnoticed, unloved?  I get this all the time – I’m a parent!  But what I’m talking about right now is the good old slushpile – that mound of unsolicited manuscripts that gather in inboxes, or occasionally on desks, of the people we undiscovered writers desperately want to sit up and take notice of us.  Agents, publishers – they all say the slushpile is an untapped source of potentially dynamite material.  But how much of the slushpile actually gets read?  Does it even make it to the person its been sent to, or is it read by an assistant who’s job it is to wade through the pile and pick out the good from the bad?

Unfortunately, a lot of the time it’s true your work might not even make it to the person it was intended for.  Lets be honest – an awful lot of the slushpile is utter rubbish.  And how do I know this, you ask?  I know, because I am guilty myself of sending work which was far from ready. In fact, it was pretty much crap.  But, the eager, egotistic writer I used to be, honestly believed what I’d written was great.  Now I hope I know better of course, and cringe at the memory of what I sent, (although I take comfort in knowing they probably never read past my awful cover letter!).

A friend of mine recently attended a writers event in London where she got to speak to some of the other hopefuls there.  There was the heavily pregnant lady, who thought  she’d try turning stories she wrote as a child into picture books in order to make some money while she was at home with the baby.  There was the woman who’d written a book with her husband, and had only come to ‘pick’ her agent.  If only it were that simple!  These are the people who are sitting in that slushpile along with you.  Is it therefore unlikely your submission might somehow get overlooked? Perhaps not.

What can you do to stand out?  Get a clue!!!  Don’t be like these uniformed hopefuls who think all they need to do is ‘pick’ what agent they want to represent them. Sorry mate, its not often you get to ‘pick’ your agent –  you need to have written something totally outstanding to be in that position!  Know what you are doing.  Know  your audience.  Research other books on the market.  READ!  EDIT!  Make damn sure you have actually written something decent!

Be passionate!  Are you writing because it’s what your soul yearns to do?  Do you live and breathe your latest manuscript?  Is your head constantly thinking of plot twists, or potential rhyming couplets?  Yes, a lot of successful authors still have a ‘day job’ to pay their bills, but you can bet they’d write full time if they could.  They aren’t just doing it to ‘make a bit of money’ while they’re in-between jobs, or on maternity leave.  (Incidentally, I do know of a few authors that used their maternity leave as a chance to get really get started on their writing career.  But, lets be clear – it wasn’t just a fleeting hobby.  They had passion, and drive – and talent!)

Get your face and name out there!  Be active on social media.  Go to every agent one-to-one you can.  A publisher you like is doing an event?  Get there! An author  you admire is having a book launch?  Go! A recognisable face or name, is far more likely to get you noticed.  Not that its done me any good yet, but hey, there’s still time.

And consider that there are many reasons why someone might not pick you.  Yes, it might be that what you’ve written is rubbish, and you aren’t as good as you think you are.  Or – it could be that the agent in question already has a very full list.  Maybe they don’t think what you’ve written -although good- has current market potential.  Perhaps they don’t need another author of your genre.  Or it might be that its simply not to their personal taste.  The same goes for publishers – they’ve already published something similar, it may not be the ‘type’ of story they publish, perhaps the story’s theme has been overdone recently.  There are many, many reasons why the answer might be no.

What about the long response times – if any response at all?  Yes, it totally sucks when you don’t know if you should wait, or if you should just assume they aren’t going to reply.  But that slushpile – it must be humongous!  I can understand why they don’t always bother.  It can be particularly frustrating if you know your cover letter is most likely okay, and that the stories you are sending aren’t complete rubbish.  A short response seems the least they could do in this case.  But I’ve met agents face to face and had lovely conversations with them, even good feedback on my work, but yet still not had a response from them later on.  So I don’t know what to say about this really….

Lastly, remember agents, (and publishers!), don’t always get it right.  I was told a story I wrote about a spider wouldn’t be published because children are scared of spiders, (which was my reason for writing it!).  I saw recently a ‘celebrity’ author is having her PB about a spider published, and which happens to be a very similar theme as my own story.  Maybe its because she’s a ‘celebrity’… I dunno.  A Christmas story I wrote had interest from a publisher, which in turn meant an agent was also immediately interested. But the agent then suggested I make the story about a birthday instead, which to do so would have meant writing an entirely different story altogether, and, errr…. did she not understand the part about a publisher already being interested?!

So what is my point exactly?  Keep trying.  Don’t give up!  Be the best you can be, and if its not working for you, then find out why.  Look for a solution.  That’s what I’m planning on doing…

The Author-Illustrator question…

Lately I’m getting the distinct impression that agents only want to sign picture book authors who also illustrate.  Am I just being paranoid?  With current world politics the way they are, and my Twitter and Facebook feeds awash with conspiracies and real-life events so crazy they seem like a bad dream, maybe I’m just feeling a bit persecuted.  But I don’t know….

Yes, I’ve heard it said many times you don’t need to illustrate in order to write picture books.  I have been holding on hopefully to this fact for years now.  When friends say perhaps I should just give it a go, surely my drawings aren’t that bad, I like to reply with, ‘my stories deserve better’.  Let me break it down for you – a friend recently saw some drawings on my table and began praising my three year old son’s amazing artwork.  When I explained they were mine (drawn for him), there was a momentary silence. “Oh.  You suck!” my friend said.  And she wasn’t wrong.

The thing about picture book authors is that we are apparently poor cousins to all other authors.  I was genuinely surprised to learn this.  A really amazing agent told me a while back she was reluctant to take on anymore picture book authors because PB’s are actually quite hard to sell, and even the most experienced authors always need help with their texts.   And picture books obviously cost a lot more to print, so the profit margins are less.  Then split those profits with an illustrator, suddenly the return from an agent’s point of view isn’t looking all that attractive….

My near miss after the SCBWI Agents party was because the agent in question already had a full list.  I see that agent has since signed an author-illustrator.  Some agents and publishers even specify they are only interested in author-illustrators.  Okay, its business at the end of the day, and I get this.  Obviously the profit margins are higher if your client both writes and illustrates.  It probably makes things easier as well.  And like I’ve said before, most agents don’t actually need new clients so they can afford to be picky.

But I can’t help feeling frustrated.  If you can’t draw, you can’t draw.  Yes, I could enroll in a class, I could get myself one of those fancy artist’s tablets, I could ‘give it a go’.  But I personally think that with illustration, you either have it, or you don’t.  I know if I really tried, then I might possibly be able to draw something passible.  But could I draw those same characters doing different things, with different facial expressions?  No – I can’t do continuity  of character.  I know virtually nothing about aspect or viewpoint.  I doubt I could even come up with the right colour palette!  And my drawings are rubbish.

An illustrator has more hope of being able to write, than a writer has of being able to draw.  If they are already familiar with illustrating picture books, then they will know how to fit their story into spreads. An illustrator will automatically think visually, and they will likely tell part of their story through their illustrations.  We all know there are some absolutely amazing author-illustrators, who produce some wonderful books.  But I honestly think, were an author to present some of those stories as texts on their own – without the illustrations – they would be rejected on the grounds that they are too simple.

And yes, there is nothing wrong with a simple story.  Picture books, after all, need to work for their intended audience, and so can’t be too complicated.  But as someone who has worked with preschoolers for many years, I believe there are three types of picture books – for babies, for toddlers, and for three years and older.  Simple stories are great for babies and toddlers with short attention spans, but the three years plus group actually want longer stories! A story with only a few words on each page means shorter reading time, and quicker page turns.  This age group WANT to look closer at the illustrations!  They WANT that special reading time with their respective adult!  So why such a big thing about short, simple texts all the time?  I really don’t understand it – most parents I know think stories these days are too short.

This trend for author-illustrators, though I see the logic behind it, I also believe it means automatically by-passing  a huge mass of amazing stories simply for simplicity’s sake.  Imagine if Julia Donaldson had been passed over because she doesn’t illustrate!   We shouldn’t just assume preschoolers want short, simple stories – we still need picture book authors who write more complex, longer texts.  And lets not forget that some of the very best picture books have benefitted from having being a collaboration between an author and an illustrator.  Both an author and an illustrator can bring something to the table when it comes to creating a wonderful picture book.  It shouldn’t be an exclusive club just for those lucky people who can do both.

That’s what I think anyway.

Waiting….

I know I should be more active on here, the past month has been a whirlwind of end-of-school-and-nursery-events/Christmas parties/ Christmas/ a milestone birthday for myself (which involved a LEGENDARY party, if I do say so myself!), and relatives visiting from NZ and Hungary, etc.  And to be honest, I often think to myself, what DO I write about?  I’ve got no real pearls of wisdom to share with the wider world that haven’t already been said on some other writer’s blog, and so far all I’ve been doing lately is WAITING!

Waiting for what, you say?  Well, to be discovered of course!  And yes, I’m doing all the things a pre-published writer should be doing.  There is this blog of course, (which I shall endeavor to spend more time on), I’m active on Twitter, I’m a member of two writer’s critique groups, I’m a member of SCBWI, I’m an active reader of what’s current in my genre, I attend writer’s events whenever I can, I network with other writers, I’m submitting to both agents and publishers, and most of all I AM WRITING!  I’m writing new, I’m editing old, I’m brainstorming new ideas (Storystorm anyone?).  And I’m still waiting for that one response that will take me to the next level.  And this waiting thing is taking forever!

I know I must be patient.  Both agents and publishers receive thousands of submissions every year, it probably takes an eternity to sift through these to pluck out the good from the bad.  And of course, looking through the slushpile is not the only thing  agents and publishers have to do.  In fact, I’d imagine wading through the slushpile is the least important job on their list.  So the undiscovered author such as myself, can only wait.

What about chasing up that submission that’s been awaiting a response for several months?  Well, firstly it depends on what the individual agent/publisher’s webpage says – I’ve seen everything from four weeks to six months response time.  Usually this ends up being longer.  I recently chased up a submission I made over six months ago, and had a lovely email conversation with the agent in question who promised a response by Christmas.  Didn’t happen.

I discussed chasing things up with my SCBWI critique group recently, and we came to the conclusion that doing this almost always ends in a ‘no thanks’.  Perhaps for the agent already inundated with hundreds of other submissions,being pressured for a reply simply makes the writer look like they might be a pain in the nether-region, so therefore ‘no’ is the best response.  I also had a conversation just this week, with an about to be published author who told me her first PB has taken THREE YEARS in the making!  And this is not the writing of it we are talking about, this is THREE YEARS since the offer of publication!  So maybe, chasing up a submission after only a few months is an indication to the powers that be that you are not patient enough for this industry.  Who knows?  But I, for one, am wary of chasing things up now.  And what is the other option?  Wait.

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How many submissions should you have out there at any one time?  Hmmm, this is a hard one.  With such long response times (if any!), it would be crazy to submit only one at a time.  But yet you don’t want to submit to every agent/publisher in town either.  I have been working on having a few submissions out at any one time, and every month or so, sending out another.  I strategized it this way so I could therefore expect to be getting responses regularly, but my plan has never lived up to expectations.  I also worry about getting a positive response from someone lower down on my list of preferred agents, because what if the top of my list comes in afterwards with a yes?  Again, this has yet to happen, and is probably highly unlikely to.  Sigh!

And which story to submit?  Research your agent and publisher well beforehand, and you might get an inkling of which of your stories they’d like best – but the fact is, you will never really know.  There is no way of telling what is going to rock someone’s boat.  And if one particular story doesn’t, wait a while, then try again with something else.  I think persistence is the key here.  If you really believe you have what it takes, if you really have the passion and dedication for your craft, then just keep at it.  We’ve all heard how JK Rowling was rejected multiple times before she was signed.  She’s far from the only successful author to have been in the same position.  Perseverance and passion is key.

And in the meantime, I’ll be waiting.