Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Whose story is it anyway? Collaboration in Life, Launches and Books (or Question: How do you get from a song about roller skates to The Kite Princess? Answer: With help) -by Juliet Clare Bell


The Kite Princess has finally come out, three-and-a-bit years after it began its life.

It’s been a long process and I want to talk about the collaborative nature of writing –not because I’m going to do a Gwyneth Paltrow Oscar speech...

"...and I'd like to thank my granny and my cat and the milk man.... and... who wants me to stop talking and get on with reading the book...?


"...Oh ok, then..."

but because I think it’s important to appreciate how we arrive at things. It’s great to acknowledge all the people involved. It’s also useful to debunk the myth that we do it on our own, as it then frees us up to make the most of everything and everyone surrounding us.

Ok, perhaps that doesn't extend to STEALING your daughter's own picture book (but it is very good...)

First the bit about the book. Then the launch.

People are often surprised to find that writing can involve a lot of people. It's not always the lone writer, scribbling away in isolation. For me, at least, it involves/is influenced by, lots of people (including the sleeping four-year-old with his feet on my legs as I write this in bed in the early morning...).

The characters in the story behind The Kite Princess story…

It started with a name… I got an advert through the door for a local card company. On one side in fancy writing it said Cinnamon Aitch. I (mis)read it immediately as Cinnamon Stitch and had that frustrating moment when I realised that someone else had got there first. Cinnamon Stitch would have been a great character –I instantly loved the name, but I couldn’t possibly steal it from a local company. I read it again. It was Aitch, not Stitch! I could have Cinnamon Stitch for a character! (Thank you Cinnamon Aitch for using that font. And the connection between the two Cinnamons is even sweeter now that I’ve discovered I know Sarah –co-founder of the company- as a mum at my children’s school.)

Cinnamon Aitch with Cinnamon Stitch...


So Cinnamon was born. And she already had an emerging character, but no story –yet.

Enter Addy Farmer, friend and SCBWI member extraordinaire, who’d arranged a series of talks/workshops with people in the writing industry. (Have I ever mentioned SCBWI before? Hmmmn. Note for anyone wanting to write or illustrate: join it.)
(Addy's the dead glam one, third from the right, along with her fellow Notes from the Slushpilers)

I immediately signed up to one with Tessa Strickland, co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of Barefoot Books, in June 2009. Towards the end of the talk, someone asked her if there was anything that she was particularly looking for at the moment. Tessa responded really specifically (thank you, Tessa –and note to writers, it is well worth asking this question):


She would really love a companion book for Portside Pirates (which was sung to a vaguely familiar tune)- an exciting story, to a song, about a princess.

I quickly dismissed the idea (I couldn’t imagine writing a princess story and anyway, whilst we were chatting, I'd just agreed to send her something else). But over the next few days I thought some more. Why not write one with a difference -where the feisty young heroine wanted to free herself from all the constraints of being a princess? At this point, Cinnamon Stitch came to mind –she’d be feisty –and stitching her way out of her situation…? The name fit…. And setting the story to just the right song (it would have to be in the public domain; shouldn’t be too well-known but still recognisable)? What a great challenge...

I loved going through loads of songs to decide which might work best (I’d done something similar for our wedding, where I’d put old poems that I’d always loved to various songs that were now used as hymns). I pored over nursery rhymes, traditional songs, including the ones my Irish father used to sing to me at bedtime as a child. I’d considered and dismissed ‘A Frog He Would a Wooing Go’, along with countless others, but a friend suggested it independently as we chatted with our small children crawling around the floor (thanks, Nicola Smith), so I reconsidered and decided that this was the one, and I got writing, a week after the meeting.

Cinnamon Stitch became a song about roller skates to the tune of A Frog He Would a Wooing Go:
(I love the internet: I put in 'roller skates' and 'frog' and found a picture to copy. Badly. The proper one is (c)Julos)

It was such a jingly jangly frock (‘Hey, ho’ says Roly), It was such a jingly jangly frock,
But if they’d known why, they’d have had such a shock! (With a roly poly gammon and spinach, ‘Hey ho!’ says Anthony Roly.
She joined all her friends at the great Palace Gates/ They all worked together and made... roller skates!
This really was such a magnificent scene, /Until they were spied by the King and the Queen,
Poor Cinnamon knew that they’d make such a fuss, /Instead, they asked “Please could you make some for us?”
They’re all happy now and they’re less stuffy, too,/They went for a skate and their world grew and grew…

(An extract from the original manuscript I sent to Barefoot)

I sent it to Tessa in July and she got back to me in August, saying she liked the story but that two things needed to change (only two?). First, the refrain needed to be made personal to the song. So:
With a roly, poly gammon and spinach,
‘Hey ho!’ Says Anthony Roly.

Became
From her royal bows to the tips of her toes,
Hey ho! She longed for freedom.


Not too hard, but what about ditching the roller skates (which Cinnamon had made sneakily under everyone’s noses, with tools sewn into her dresses) for something more dramatic?

I had fun trying out other possibilities – making a sail for a boat? galloping into the wind? floating off in a home-made hot air balloon…? It was the balloon that made most sense to me... I’d briefly considered a kite but had just as quickly dismissed it on the grounds of health and safety (would they let me have a child floating off on a kite?) and a vague memory of an old Iain Banks novel. But then:





Mark knew a good idea when he’d had one, and soon I’d turned it into my idea (it’s hard to incorporate new ideas until they feel like your own) and began the rewrite.
I rewrote and sent the manuscript to my great critique group and critique partners (who are always part of the collaboration. Fortunately I had American, as well as English, critiquers, who could help me with cross-continental rhyming issues, since it would need to be suitable for both markets –

which ones rhyme for you?

I removed the plait (I had wanted her to snip it off and use it for a kite string), made some more changes and sent it back. Barefoot liked the story/song and in January, 2010, I signed my first ever book contract for what was now called The Kite Princess (and thanks to my newly found agents, Celia and James Catchpole who were also now part of the mix).

My children posting off my first ever book contract.

Yippee! (as Cinnamon would say). I started to learn the song on my guitar –I’m an almost complete beginner so it was taking a while...
(and no one but a dog with a tennis ball for a foot could bear to listen)...
but I wanted to be able to sing it in schools…

Anyone who has read The Kite Princess will know that it is not a song. A few months after signing, it was decided that there’d be more possibility for sequels if it weren’t a song, so it was back to expanding, rewriting and resending to my critique partners.

The bit that most readers of picture books think is the truly collaborative part is probably the least. As Malachy Doyle said in a recent Picture Book Den post, authors and illustrators very rarely work together and everything goes through the editor or art director. So without ever having had any contact with her, Laura-Kate Chapman started work on turning my manuscript into our book.

Early sketches of Cinnamon (c)Laura-Kate Chapman

(c) Laura-Kate Chapman

(c) Laura-Kate Chapman

(c) Laura-Kate Chapman

When a picture book is done well, it ought to feel like it’s been a collaboration between author and illustrator –and I hope ours does. It is, of course, also the work of many people at Barefoot, including Sarah Morris, so huge thanks to everyone involved there. And an enormous ‘YIPPEE!’ to Oscar-nominated, multi-award-winning Imelda Staunton, who narrates the story in the accompanying CD. It’s fantastic to have her read this alongside her recordings of The Gruffalo, her performances in Harry Potter (scary Professor Umbridge) and numerous other films and plays.
Imelda Staunton recording The Kite Princess for the accompanying CD.

But of course the involvement in a book also includes the readers/potential readers. If it gets read lots, borrowed lots from libraries and bought lots from shops, online and real, then everyone who buys and borrows it will be collaborating in Cinnamon’s fate.


Who knows, we might yet get to write/illustrate/read about her new adventures currently playing about in my head but desperate to pour onto the page to be brought to life beautifully by Laura-Kate Chapman.


Is the excitement or feeling of achievement dampened in any way by knowing that lots of other people played a part in it? Does it feel less like my story because other writers had suggestions about it that I took on board? Do I feel like a fraud because my husband was the one who came up with the idea of it being a kite –which is of course so central to the story now? Absolutely NOT. As a writer, you get ideas from everywhere and you’re the one who sifts and considers and decides what goes in and stays out. And crucially, you’re the one who writes it. I love life and that we are inherently social creatures and that we affect and are affected by other people, all the time, in millions of ways. And having other people influence -in whatever way- how I tell a story (and vice versa when I critique other writers’ stories), just means that when something works out and gets published, there’s an even bigger cause for celebration. And more people to celebrate with.

(c) Laura-Kate Chapman.

So onto the celebrations!

Huge thank yous to the people involved: the fantastic staff from Waterstone’s in Birmingham, particularly Chris, the deputy manager, provided the venue, set everything up, stayed way beyond closing time to sell more books, were extremely helpful and lovely and cleared everything up at the end. Crucially, for me and for my SCBWI critique group, they also provide us with space every six weeks for our critique group to meet -so they’ve played a significant role in my first two picture books, both of which were critiqued in the very space where the launch was held!

Half of my body appears to have disappeared... (half of) the man who made it happen. Chris, deputy manager, hidden in the background.

Lauren Guthrie of Guthrie and Ghani, a local and online haberdasher’s in South Birmingham, made a wonderful cloth kite with the children.

This will be flying high in the children’s department next week alongside copies of the book, thanks to Ben (head of the children’s section).

Laura-Kate Chapman, the book’s illustrator, whom I’d never met until the launch itself, drew beautiful pictures with the children of people, kites, owls, monkeys and all sorts of other weird and wonderful things.


‘She looks so fancy!’ said one of my children, in awe, after she'd met Laura-Kate. They are not used to seeing their mother looking young, glamorous or ‘fancy’.

And not forgetting a certain small, wonderful six-year-old who took the bold step of reading the book in front of everyone. And who better to read the book than my very own Cinnamon Stitch who loves to get dirty...

and climb... (Warning: don't try this at home... Unless you're a spider)


(Now I know why my children insisted on my wearing ‘the dress that you can hide under’ as opposed to the one that I'd actually bought for the launch...)

Sadly the video of Esther reading the book didn't come out -it was a fantastic reading- but I'll post a new video of her reading it when we've made it.


And of course, a launch wouldn’t be anything without the amazing people who come to it. Everyone who turned up brought something special, unique to the event, and everyone gave up doing something else in order to be there.





It was a wonderful night and one that I’ll always remember. And many hands made light work…

Thank you -for reading and to everyone who was involved in the book and the launch, including those who stepped up and took photos when the two photographers weren't able to come (Candy Gourlay, Donna Vann, Margaret Bell, Joolz Richards, Mike Safo). Huge thanks to Rebecca Colby -my long time critique buddy, and to my Birmingham critique group. I'm going to stop before I start blubbing... I love you all....

Click on the links for tips on how (not) to write a rhyming picture book; editing your manuscript and making the most of feedback. I'm also doing a picture book writing workshop as part of Birmingham Book Festival on Saturday 13th October. www.julietclarebell.com

43 comments:

  1. Aw! Love this post, Clare. I too love the collaboration that goes into a picture book in particular. It's lovely to see how The Kite Princess came into being and the steps along the way. It looks a lovely book. Hope it does humungously well!

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    1. Thank you, Abi. I feel hugely grateful to lots of people, especially SCBWIers and it does make it sweeter when a book comes out as there are loads of people who've all had some small part to play in it (or larger).

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  2. What a great post, Clare! It's been so fun, going through a lot of this journey with you. Here's to many more princesses with kites or skates or tockwork chariots...

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    1. Ooooh, now there's an idea... Thanks so much, Donna -you've been there almost from the beginning of any of my writing for children. I can't think how many manuscripts of mine you've critiqued but it's probably dozens... and thanks again for taking the pictures (phew!)

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    2. That would be a crossover worth reading - I'm sure Laura-Kate could draw a beautiful bearded princess ;)
      Great post Clare - really interesting to read how much of a journey the story took from initial idea to publication.

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    3. Thanks, Julienne. Perhaps we should collaborate on this?!

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  3. Great post Clare. It's good to hear that someone else gets ideas from thier hubby - mine is a constant source of help for working out that final plot/character detail. I've always felt a little guilty, but now I don't feel I need to any more - THANK YOU! (PS. He still maintains he wants a cut of any proceeds!)

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    1. No need to feel guilty -just more fun for him when it works out! I'm sure it works the other way round all the time, too. It's the nature of relationships. Thanks, Julie.

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  4. Really interesting, Clare - congratulations. And I have to say, that video of Spider-Child is absolutely brilliant! How on earth ...?

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    1. Thanks, Lesley. As for spider-child... she did this a couple of days before the launch. I recorded the first time I saw her do it (she told me she had something funny to show me), then she did it again, went higher, and I caught her. A week later and she can't do it any more... It was pretty bonkers to witness...

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  5. Congrats again ... and yes very interesting to hear the journey of this one. I do have a video of the reading of the book but the reader was faced away the entire time, boo. I can send you the sound though. And I think Mark should get a substantial cut of proceeds for thinking of the kite.

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    1. I'd LOVE you to send me the sound if you can(dy). Thanks. I can then have a go at putting some pictures over the top of it (I've got to start some time). I'd still love to see it. And I'm sure Mark will appreciate your support on this. Thank you so much for coming. I know you're very deep into your final edits.

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  6. This is so true. I can't tell you how many good ideas my SCBWI crit group came up with just the other day for my book, and I do feel a little bad for taking them. But they're such good ideas!

    I think it's the successful (and sane) writer who accepts their limitations and welcomes the input of the right people into their work. We can't all be genius auteurs!

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    1. I think it's an important lesson to learn -that it's ok to accept feedback and make changes based on it, AND that it's still your work. If someone freely gives you ideas -as happens all the time in a critique group- then those ideas are some of the ingredients that go into making that final piece. You are still the author and as long as your voice remains true, then it's something that no one else could have written. I don't think you should feel at all bad about taking them. What would your fellow critiquers have done with those ideas? Nothing. You're turning them into something that will have your hallmark stamped all over them. It'll just make it sweeter for them when good things come from it.

      I do think that part of the skill of being a writer is learning how to ignore some things, take on board others and to use feedback in a way that makes it *feel* like it was always your idea.

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    2. I think the key phrase for me there is "freely given" and you're right that in those circumstances people actively want you to take their ideas and run with them. So I guess I shouldn't disappoint them :-)

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  7. Loved your post, Clare! And would love to see more posts like this that detail how an author (or author/illustrator) has created their book from initial idea to finished product, and the collaboration involved. And might I add the finished product is fantastic!

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    1. Thank you, Rebecca. Much appreciated. I always like reading how things come about with other people's work. I think it works well with children too (in school visits etc), where they can see how they can create things from seemingly unconnected bits of their life. And that *their* life is part of what will make their story different from anyone else's.

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  8. In your comment reply to Nick, this was brilliant:
    "I do think that part of the skill of being a writer is learning how to ignore some things, take on board others and to use feedback in a way that makes it *feel* like it was always your idea."

    Thank you!

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    1. Thanks, Cathy, and the more we do it, the easier it will get...

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  9. Great post. Loved to hear about the process.
    Congratulations on the launch!
    -Darshana

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  10. Clare~This was fabulous! I loved hearing all the details in your process. The photos are great. Huge, huge congrats....keep on basking!!! It's a wonderful book! And...ok...I thought I was through, but I have more...I love the way you came up with the book from just a name for a character! It's like the book grew and has a life! Cinnamon Stitch just had to be in this world!

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    1. Thanks, Penny. I hope she'll get the chance to be in a sequel one day, too!

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  11. Excellent post, Claire. It's funny how characters and ideas come together from so many sources until one day they are all there in the right place at the right time and you have your story. Have a big well done from me. And - we're ALL glamorous on the Slushpile! How did you not notice that!

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    1. I didn't mean to underplay the glamorousness of the Slushpilers, Maureen. Perish the thought. Like you, I love it how things come together to become the right mix of ingredients at the right time.

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  12. This was wonderful! Thank you for giving us such a detailed (and superbly entertaining) look at how your book came into being. All the best for The Kite Princess's success! (Now I'm going to share this post with our Children's Book Hub Facebook Group.)

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    1. Thank you, Beth. I've always like reading other people's stories behind the stories. And thank you for sharing it with the Children's Book Hub Facebook Group!

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  13. Congratulations and thanks for detailing so much of the process! I am really, really pleased for you and can't wait to be reading The Kite Princess to my kids. :)

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    1. Thank you. I really hope you enjoy reading the story as much as I enjoyed writing it.

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  14. Loved hearing about the breakdown Juliet. I wishing you much success with your new book! Thanks for sharing

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  15. What a spectacular, inspiring and motivational post! Fascinating too! I love Barefoot Books in general and can't wait to get the Kite Princess.

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    1. Thanks so much, Julie. Glad you enjoyed it. When I get my act together I'm going to try and sort out doing a bit of a US blog tour as it's much easier to promote here in the UK than in the US. I might have to ask for your advice! Thanks again.

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  16. A really lovely and informative post about the creative process and all that is involved in making a story come to life - well done Juliet!

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  17. Your post feels like a visit to the home of a friend, where we get to sit with a cup of hot milk 'n honey and pour over family pictures and catch up on the details of a writer's life. You truly have a natural approach to presentation Claire! I may be late for work, but I wouldn't miss chiming in with the rest of the gang in your 'living room', or that hilarious video! All the best-

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  18. Thank you very much, Julie! You can come round for milk 'n honey any day (though I believe you're in the States so it might be a bit of a trek...). I'm very glad you chimed in and I hope you weren't too late for work.

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  19. What a brilliant launch, Clare. Great photos. Spider Daughter is an utter delight. I know what you mean about sometimes finding it hard to get your head around ideas/changes from others, but when you manage to add something of yourself then the idea becomes your own.
    Looking forward to reading The Kite Princess.

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  20. What a fantastic story and post! Congrats on the launch of a book that looks absolutely fabulous! Can't wait to read it! :)

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  21. Thank you Susanna. Hope you enjoy it when you do.

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  22. Love the pics of the launch and your kids! Reminds me of how helpful it was to have a captive audience and creative collaboration at home. Wish kids wouldn't grow up so fast! And at risk of sounding like a wet squib, I'm not sure that the more you do the easier it gets. Anyway, here's to a big success for your book and I'll nip into my local library and make sure it's face out on the shelf, for as many to share as poss, and for you to get that PLR bonus!

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    1. Thanks, Bridget. I haven't had my PLR statement from the end of 2011 yet -have you? You never sound like a damp squib -I was only referring to it getting easier to work with other people's feedback and turn new leads into your own. Not anything else... I'll try to stop the children growing so fast but I'll enjoy my precious time with them whilst they're making books/writing fab stories etc. (and living life) just in case I can't stop them growing...

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