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