Monday, 17 October 2016

SINGING OFF by Malachy Doyle

OK. After five years of blogging on the Den, this is me singing off. Lah de dah.

Nothing like bowing out at the top.


(Here's me on Everest, a couple of weeks ago. Well, at Base Camp, but I'm telling you...)

I may come back and do the occasional guest blog, if they'll let me, but it's time to move on. 

Thanks for tuning in to my witterings over the years. We've had over half a million page views to the Den, since we started, which is very gratifying. 

And thanks, all of you, for playing your part in the wonderful world of picture books. No better place.

Monday, 10 October 2016

Feeling a bit of a fraud - Lynne Garner

For the last few months, well to be honest most of 2016 I've felt a bit of a fraud by calling myself a picture book writer. I'd not written a story for at least six months if not longer and I've had any fiction published for an absolute age. Although I've had a minimum of two non-fiction features published every month.

However that recently changed, well the writing side of things at least.

I think my main issue had been my non-fiction writing had chased my picture book writing muse away. However over the last couple of weeks he or she has started to give me ideas again. Many of these ideas have come to me whilst looking at a photograph I had taken or whilst actually taking it.

For example last month whilst visiting Wellington Arch in London something must have clicked whilst reading some of the information boards. Because as I took the photograph below a little voice said, "what about.....?" The story idea generated already has a title and a very loose plot has made it to the 'yellow sticky note' stage. This is when I know a story has enough body for me to start writing it but I still have a few blanks to fill in.

Wellington Arch - London
During the same week I took the photograph below at a local visitor attraction. It not only gave me a few ideas for some non-fiction features it's also given me a idea for a new picture book story. This doesn't have a title and hasn't even made it to the 'yellow sticky note' stage yet but it's definitely keeping at least one brain cell busy.

Reflections of clouds in a very still stream -
didn't stay still for long as Tasha (my four legged friend) went paddling 
This last image shows Tasha with her summer collection of footballs (all found during July and August). Whilst taking this photograph a tiny, tiny seed of an idea planted itself. It's still waiting just under the soil but there is definitely movement and I expect germination to take place any time now.

The Tasha Collection  - Summer 2016 
Last but not least I've sketched out a story and even come up with a few sentences for some of the spreads. I can't include a picture because although there is one I don't own the copyright. Also I think it'll give to much about. And as Michelle Robinson wrote on the Picture Book Den just a couple of weeks ago, this story is not ready for sharing.

So thankfully as I write this post I no longer feel a fraud when I say I'm a picture book writer. My muse has returned and is now providing me with lots of ideas to work with.



Monday, 3 October 2016

The Balloon Analogy: When to share new work?

by Michelle Robinson

I was struggling with a new story recently. In a moment (or two... or maybe five) of pathetic insecurity, I said as much to my agent. I suppose I just needed him to say, “Keep writing. You can do this.” What he actually said was, “Send it my way, perhaps I can help.”

Disney know how to plot. I don't.

It was too early to share. The draft was too draughty. Showing it to my agent might have put the kibosh on it. Not that his advice wouldn't be good. It always is, even when it's not necessarily what I want to hear. But experience tells me it would have been counterproductive to share my work at such a fledgling stage. Here's why.

I was having enough trouble with the voices in my own head. My own internal critic was already throwing enough opinions around. My characters were also muscling in on the act. I didn't need to add another critical voice into the mix, no matter how astute. 

I needed to work through some issues with plot. The problems were all of my own making. The solutions also needed to come from me - otherwise what would that do to my confidence? Letting someone else solve my problems denies me the satisfaction of solving them through elbow grease and perseverance. 

I would have totally wasted his time. That early draft has since been binned, as have several subsequent ones. In fact the idea has entirely metamorphosed and what I'm now working on bears no resemblance to the draft my agent would have seen. 

The long, arduous, frustrating writing process is just that: process. My agent doesn't need to suffer with me. Besides, even when I present him with a highly polished text there will still be plenty of suffering ahead (sorry, James.) Several drafts later, I’m starting to think my new story is almost ready to share. I just need to tie a knot in it first, a la the tried and trusted...

...Robinson Balloon Analogy

Deflated sense of self.
Share a story or an idea too early, and it’s like making a hole in the balloon before you’ve even started blowing it up. Doubts are voiced. Different ideas are put forward. Your original thought peters out - poof - like so much hot air. 

Blow some air into the balloon first - and tie a knot. If you don’t, your story can go whizzing off out of your control. Sure, it’ll make a triumphant fart sound along the way, but ultimately it’ll fall flat. Firm it up as well as you can before sharing.

So: blow it up and tie the knot. If you want to be extra sure, cover it in papier mâché and wait for the glue to set. Now you’re ready to share. Your agent or your editor will help you decorate it just right - but it will be much less likely to go POP!

That's what I think, anyway. How about you? Does impatience make you want to shout your ideas from the rooftops, or do you prefer to keep your ideas a closely guarded secret? Perhaps sharing an early idea has led to collaborative triumph? Share, if you dare, in the comments below. Thanks for reading!

Michelle Robinson’s latest picture book, Goodnight Spaceman, is now available with a CD of Tim Peake reading it in space. Yeah baby. Michelle has a silly amount of books out in 2017 and is sure to blow up lots of balloons by way of celebration.

Find out more about Michelle and her books at

Monday, 26 September 2016

Picture Books: Theatres of the Imagination By Timothy Knapman

Unlike many people in my line of work, I didn’t grow up wanting to write for children.  Don’t get me wrong – I love my job and I love my readers – but I started writing picture books only after years of doing other kinds of writing.  I mention this partly because there are times when I feel like the woman in the song – who wanted to go to Birmingham but they’ve taken her on to Crewe – and partly because some of the things I learned on the long and winding path to where I am now have proved very useful to me and might be a help to others.

The theatre (especially the musical theatre) was my first love and I often think of picture books as little toy theatres.  Open one up, and it’s like the performance is about to start.  There’s a sense of anticipation: you’ll have to concentrate, but you know you’re going to have fun – and anything can happen.  Remember Max in his bedroom as the forest grows in Where The Wild Things Are (my favourite picture book of all time)? It always looks to me like something that’s happening on a stage.

The forest grows in Max’s bedroom in Where The Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak
Tintin – another great love of my childhood that has endured to this day – is different.  A bit more sophisticated perhaps, for slightly older readers and certainly faster.  Think of the mixture of angles, points of view – the wide shots and close-ups – on a page of a Tintin book, the fast cutting, the snappy dialogue: that’s not theatre, it’s cinema. 

A page from King Ottakar’s Sceptre by Hergé
Though in some ways, it’s true, writing a picture book can be like writing a movie.  As with a movie, the writer is the first person on a project.  He or she has often had the original idea and works up the script alone, or with the help of an editor, but it’s the people who join the project later – the illustrator especially – whose work is most immediately apparent to the public.  They are the movie stars, they are the ones who attract the audience, who give the story its face.  Julia Donaldson apart, most people would be hard pressed to name a picture book writer; it’s the illustrator’s style that most often makes them take a book down from the shelf.  Who wrote Casablanca? I know, because I’m a writer.  It was Julius and Philip Epstein, with Howard Koch.  All dead now and none of them exactly household names even when they were alive because people remember Bogart and Bergman instead and that’s as it should be.  It means they were enraptured by the story; it means the writers did their job well.

Two thirds of the writers of Casablanca
Because in all forms of drama – and I’m including picture books in that category – story is king.  Of course you should have an eye-catching premise, interesting locations and vividly-drawn and entertaining characters.  But if they aren’t all serving a story that grips your audience from the beginning to the end, you will be punished in the theatre with coughing, programme rustling and that strange squeaky noise you get when restless bottoms shift in tip-up seats.  Picture book stories are shorter than most plays – the works of Samuel Beckett excepted – but children are even harder to please than theatre audiences, and not wont to mince their words when they’re bored.

So take note: the secret of a good story is telling your audience the right things in the right order at the right speed.  Tell them too much or too little and they’re lost.  Tell them things before or after they need to know them, and they’re confused.  Tell them too slowly, and they’re bored; too quickly and they’re dazed.

How do you know if you’ve told your story successfully? I hope you get better with practice, but – again, as in the theatre – your last collaborator is the audience.  We have previews so we can try a show out in front of an audience, and if there are things the audience doesn’t like or can’t understand, we change them.  So try your story out – with children of the right age, ideally – and listen to the advice and feedback from your editor.  It’s their job to let you know if the story you’re telling is coming across or not. 

But how do you come up with a good story in the first place? I get my ideas in all kinds of ways.  My first book, Mungo and the Picture Book Pirates (illustrated, like its successors, by Adam Stower), was inspired by my reading a bedtime story for some kids, and them asking me to read it “Again!” each time I finished.  After five or six readings, I found myself wondering how much more tired than me the characters in the story must be.  After all, I’d just been sitting in a chair, saying words; they’d been living the story – battling pirates and fighting sharks and all sorts.  So what would happen if a boy read his favourite book so many times that its hero became exhausted and went on holiday for a bit?

Mungo and the Picture Book Pirates by Timothy Knapman and Adam Stower
If that seems odd, I got the idea for my book Dinosaurs in the Supermarket when I was watching a gory Stephen King horror movie called The Mist.  That’s about a bunch of monsters that come out of a mysterious mist to devour some small town Americans in a supermarket.  It’s not, perhaps, a situation that many people would associate with entertainment for small children but I loved the way it mixed the extraordinary with the everyday – and that is a staple of picture books.  So my monsters visit the supermarket too, but with mischief, not massacres, on their minds.

Spot the difference? Dinosaurs in the Supermarket by Timothy Knapman and Sarah Warburton, and The Mist movie poster
There’s another way in which picture books are like the theatre: they’re written to be read aloud, to be performed That doesn’t mean you should go overboard with oratorical flourishes and Shakespearean fireworks.  Most mums and dads reading your books to their kids won’t be buddng Oliviers.  But, providing it’s doesn’t get in the way of the clear telling of the story, a rich verbal texture can be great fun so treat yourself to the occasional tongue-twister sentence, or poetic image.

And there are other theatrical tricks you can borrow which will enliven your tale.  The premise of Dinosaurs in the Supermarket is that a boy is the only person who can see a mischievous gang of dinosaurs that’s making a mess in a supermarket.  Every time the grown-ups turn round to look, the dinosaurs hide.  But Sarah Warburton, the brilliant illustrator, leaves lots of little clues in the pictures so that the children reading the book can see what the grown-ups in the story cannot. 

The result? The readers end up pointing to these clues and crying out “It’s behind you!” They’re reading a book, but they might as well be at the panto.

Dinosaurs in the Supermarket by Timothy Knapman and Sarah Warburton
How many Stephen King inspired dinosaurs can you spot?
I hope this is a new way of thinking about picture books, and I hope it helps next time you start to write.  Of course, writing picture books can also be like many other kinds of writing - writing jokes, writing songs, writing poems…

But that – as they used to say on Jackanory – is a story for another time.

Monday, 19 September 2016

How to Createspace a Picture Book - Susan Price

This month Carnegie Medal winning author Susan Price shares the knowledge she gained from turning her picture book manuscript into a POD book using Createspace.   

After hours of work with much cursing and teeth-gnashing my latest picture book The Three Billy Goats Gruff is at last available on Amazon, both as a paperback and ebook. The following is what illustrator Andrew and I have learned about the process.

I’ll start with the paperback, published through Amazon’s Createspace. If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. After going to the mat with Createspace, producing the Kindle will be a piece of cake. But don’t let me put you off. Lash out a couple of quid on 'How To Format Your Picturebook For Kindle Without The Frustration,' by A. Olsen and get stuck in. We found Olsen’s book invaluable, but worked out a few wrinkles ourselves too.

Graphics Programme
You will need to use a graphics programme, such as Photoshop or the free Open Source programme, Gimp. There are others, such as Canva and PicMonkey, which struck me as a more user-friendly PhotoShop.

If you don’t know how to use any graphics programme and can’t face learning, then bribe, trap, marry or otherwise acquire someone who can. I'm lucky in my brothers, Andrew and Adam, both of whom can use more than one graphics programme. Andrew has even taught me some of the basics.

Before You Even Start
There are things to consider before you even start formatting your Createspace paperback.
For one, Createspace won’t upload any book that’s less than 26 pages, so forget the traditional picturebook format of 24 pages, excluding front and back matter.

This gives more freedom in telling the story but if you’re formatting an out-of-print (OOP) book you may need to add dedications, title pages and end pieces to reach the page-number.

Cost is another consideration. Amazon charges only pennies for electronic delivery of Kindle ebooks, so a Kindle can be any length you like. Cost of production is irrelevant. But Createspace  produces an actual book, which you can drop on the floor with a thump. This means costs for materials, storage and delivery. Createspace sets a minimal price: their cost of production plus their profit. Your price must be higher than this, allowing for your profit. The more pages, the higher the price.

Createspace Hates Spreads
One of the great appeals of a picture book for an illustrator is the creation of a beautiful, story-telling double-page spread. But Createspace was designed to produce books for adults, with separate pages of text to the left and right, and a gutter down the middle. The automated process doesn’t lend itself readily to edge-to-edge, double-page images. Createspace’s digital previewer marks such pages as a mistake. The challenge is to publish such a book despite Createspace.

What Size?
You need to decide on your book’s size. Createspace offers you several. Some are almost square, most rectangular. You can customise the size by entering your own numbers into Createspace but these custom sizes aren’t made available to bookshops as the standard ones are. They can be sold only through Amazon and your own website. For Three Billy Goats Gruff, Andrew and I chose the largest standard size Amazon offers: 11 inches high x 8 inches wide (27.9 cm x 20.3 cm).  Amazon always works in inches.

How Do You Get The Book Into The Computer?
You’ve decided on your layout and page number. You’ve decided the size of your book. But how do you get it into your computer and Createspace?

First, in your graphics programme you will make a blank canvas or background. Your book’s pages will be inserted onto this canvas. When edited to your satisfaction, you’ll save them as picture files. We used the jpeg format.

But, before you know how big to make your ‘canvas’, you have to consider ‘bleed’ and ‘gutter.’

You’re creating a paperback, which will be printed on real paper and chopped to size.

You need to allow an area around your image for 'bleed.' Anything which falls within the bleed may be cropped during the book’s production.

Createspace suggest that you add 0.125 inches to the width, and 0.25 inches to the height. So, if each of your single pages is 11 x 8 inches, then this has to become 11.25 x 8.125 inches. Olsen suggests playing safe and making the bleed a half-inch. So: 11.50 x 9.

Gutter or Spine Width
Createspace provides a formula for calculating spine width. So in short, for a colour interior, you multiply page number by 0.002347 inches. Three Billy Goats Gruff had 48 pages, so its spine width was 0.112656. Or, rounded up, 0.113 inches.

When calculating page dimensions, this is halved, as one half is on one side of the gutter and the other half on the other.

The dimensions for a single page width is then, in inches:

Bleed              Page width               Bleed          Half Gutter
            0.25       +              8               +         0.25     +         0.06          =   8.56 inches

For double page-spreads, if your book is to be 11 x 8, you need to create a blank canvas of 11.5 inches high by 17.12 inches. You will need to mark the bleed and gutter areas with guidelines. Your graphics programme should allow you to do this.

So you’ve done all your hard sums and now you can set up your blank canvas? Wrong. Now you have to supersize.

Don’t make your page the size of your book, not even with added bleeds and gutter.

Andrew, with his graphics background, made our canvas four times bigger: 45 inches high and 34.24 inches wide. (Miraculously, this fits easily within the computer screen.)

Set a resolution too. Andrew says, make it at least 300 dpi (dots per inch: also known as ppi, pixels per inch.) He never works at less than 300 dpi.

Why such huge files? Two reasons, Andrew says: to enable you to create original artwork, and to keep your images sharp when reproduced.

'When creating original artwork,' Andrew explains, 'You need to magnify your image to do fine detail. If your image is a mere 11 x 8, it will blur as you move in close. Make your file four to six times larger than you need and you can zoom in and work very finely.'

Then, looking ahead, 'What if you want to use your image for small postcards or a big poster? If we made our images 12 x 9, they would pixelate and look terrible when shrunk or blown up. Huge files give you very high resolution. Shrinking files to the requirements of Kindle and Createspace means losing pixels, but if resolution is high, the image stays sharp.'

Guide Lines
On your supersized blank canvas, put guide lines, to show where your page edges will be. The bleed of 0.25 at top and bottom becomes a supersized inch, so the horizontal guides lines are set an inch from the top and 42 inches from the top.

The vertical guide lines are set at an inch from the left-hand edge, at 33 inches from the left. You can place guides to mark the gutter too.

So, you have your huge blank canvas set up, and your guide-lines in place. Now you’re going to bring your pages into the computer and place them on this canvas.

An OOP Book
You have an OOP book you want to republish. You either own the rights in both text and artwork, or own one and have the permission of the rights-holder in the other.
If your scanner has a large bed, capable of producing high-quality scans, then scan your book, page by page, and save the scans to your computer as picture files. We saved as jpegs but you may prefer another format. The pages must lie flat on the scanner’s bed, to prevent  outside light spoiling the image. You may have to tear your book apart to achieve this.

Create a folder for these jpegs, so you can find them easily. Label each file alphabetically, ie: ‘aGoats01 – bGoats02…  Back up that folder!

You may prefer to take your book to a high-street printer. They will supply you with high quality scans on a CD or USB stick.

Once the scans are in your computer, you can open and edit them in your graphics programme. Copy them, one by one, onto your supersized 'canvas.' Resize them. Use Save As to save them as humungeous jpegs.

Make another blank canvas, this time the size your book will be. Copy your humungous jpegs onto the book-sized canvas and shrink them to fit. The image will stay sharp. Put the book-sized ones in their own folder. Name them alphabetically.

An Original Book

What if you want to create an original picture-book?

You can make your sketches or paintings on paper and scan them into your computer, saving them as jpegs. Or you can use a graphic tablet, such as a Wacom bamboo, to draw directly into your graphics programme. Or combine the two methods: scan in drawings then use your graphic tablet to rework them.

Layer It
Take full advantage of your graphics programme’s layers. Put every element of your work on a different layer.

Think of 'layers' as a series of transparencies piled on top of one another, just as pre-digital animation used layers of transparent cells.

The background was painted on the bottom layer. An important feature, such as a large tree, would be on the next layer. Characters on layers above that. The layers underneath could be seen through those on top, and formed a complete picture for the onlooker. However, details on the upper layers could be changed, without altering underlying layers.

The layers in graphics programmes work in the same way. Different programmes may call the layers by different names, but I think most have something similar.

Put your background drawing, in black and white outline, on one layer. Add colour to it on another layer. Name each layer clearly, so you know what is on each one.

Put the outline drawings of characters on a separate, clearly named layer. Add their colour on another layer.

The text will have its own layer. Indeed, every sentence can have a layer to itself.

The multiplying layers can become difficult to manage. So, why bother?

Well, say you want to change a tree but Goldilocks is standing in front of it. You don’t want to change her. Switch off her layer. She vanishes and you can change the tree as much as you like. When you’re happy, switch on Goldilock’s layer and there she is, in front of the tree, untouched.

You can experiment with text, trying different fonts, colours, positions, sizes without changing anything except the text. You can use a background or character several times, by copying it from one 'canvas' to another.

People used to brushes and pencils often find graphics programmes cumbersome at first but being able to change and refine quickly without redoing whole pages is wonderful.

Save and Back Up!
When you’re happy with a page, save it first in your graphics programme, with all its separate layers. Again, label files alphabetically. Put them in a Graphics Folder of their own. Back them up to an external-drive or a usb. You will be grateful you did this later.

Open each image again and ‘flatten’ its layers. This amalgamates all the layers into one image. You have to do this before they can be saved as picture files and uploaded to Createspace, but once flattened, you can no longer make changes to them. But you will almost certainly have to make adjustments before you publish.

This is why it’s important to first save your images as graphic files. When you need to make changes, you return to these graphics files, open them in your graphics programmes and edit them.

Use the Save As tool to save the 'flattened' images as jpegs or another format acceptable to Createspace. Put them in their own folder, named alphabetically.

Back them up!

These jpegs are huge! They are four times bigger than you need them to be. You need to resize them to the actual dimensions of your book. The way you do this will depend on the graphics programme you use.

Save your new, book-sized graphics file as a jpeg. Put it into its own clearly labelled folder. But keep your supersized files. They are your master-copies.

Next, loading them up to Createspace and making a book.

Faff and More Faff
We used Microsoft Word — eventually.

If you have Word, or a programme such as Open Office where you can save a document as Word, I suggest you do the same.

When Andrew and I researched making a picture-book, every source we found advised making a PDF, using Adobe Pro, an expensive programme which will create a PDF file as well as read one.

We signed up for the 30 day free trial, agreeing that, if it worked, we would each sell a kidney and buy it.

Readers, it did not work. We followed instructions to the letter. We hopefully loaded our PDF to Createspace’s previewer countless times — and saw tiny thumbnails crammed into one corner.

We re-read the best advice by the best people, checked and re-checked our work, changed dimensions, sacrificed to Odin… Nothing worked.

While Andrew howled at the moon, I read further into Olsen’s book. There was a chapter on using Microsoft Word. Here’s how:

First, create a Word file at the actual size of your book, plus bleeds and gutter. I refer you to Olsen’s book, where she tells you exactly what to do.

We learned that it’s best to add more blank pages than you’ll need to the Word file before you 'insert' pictures, as it’s much easier to 'insert' a picture file into an empty Word page than to 'add a page' after you’ve inserted a picture.

When your blank Word file is ready, go through and insert all your book sized jpegs. Here is where the alphabetical labelling pays off. Instead of hunting through rows of thumbnails in the folder, searching for the one you want, they are all in neat alphabetical order.

Click on the one you want, click insert, and it will appear in your Word file. Click on 'Picture Tools' on your tool bar, go to 'position' and click the central icon, the one that will centre your image exactly on the page. You may need to drag at the picture’s corner to fit it precisely.

Your double spreads will have to be cropped into single pages. Word will only accept single pages.
They won’t necessarily look as if they join up, but if you have your measurements correct, they will.

The first time we loaded a Word file up to Createspace was thrilling because it worked! It wasn’t perfect but it was at the correct size. The pictures filled the digital book from edge to edge.

The pages were out of order, and we had to add an extra title page to bump the pages along so that the double-spreads were next to each other.

Look through the whole book in Createspace’s digital previewer. You may spot typos or other changes you want to make. If so, return to your original supersized graphics files, make the changes, save as a Huge Jpeg, resize to a book-sized jpeg and put it into your Word file in the correct place.

When you’re ready to publish a proof-copy, Createspace’s proofer will put big red warning signs all over your work. There are live elements in the bleed areas! If the book looks as you want it to, ignore these warnings and click on the button that allows you to go ahead despite them.

We advise coughing up for a paper proof, because the on-line previewer, though very good, is not perfect. When our paper proof arrived in the post, we saw lines of text much closer to the edge of the page than they had seemed on-line and Andrew spotted places in the pictures which he wanted to improve. We still had all our master-files, so were able to edit.

We also turned Three Billy Goats Gruff into a Kindle ebook, which is somewhat easier and which seems to selling in America.

This first attempt was a lot of hard work, but we’ve learned a lot and are confident that our second picture book, The Bremen Town Musicians, will be produced much more quickly and with less grief.

I hope that's helped and good luck.

Susan Price  

Please note this post originally appeared on Authors Electric 25th August 2016