Tuesday, 29 May 2012
Thursday, 24 May 2012
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Friday, 18 May 2012
At the age of 56 or 57 or whatever the heck I am these days, I might not remember where I put that damn cheque book, or car keys, or letter from the tax man. But the first ten years of my life? I remember every square foot of the house I grew up in. I remember how it felt, how it smelt, how it sounded. I remember those days with an incredible vividness, and it’s those memories, those emotions, those days of joy and discovery, that every picture book I ever write draws upon.
is still there. (That's me on the bottom right by the way, aged about 6, by the garden gate.) It’s called Kiltermon, a big old house in the quiet little seaside town of Whitehead, at the mouth of Belfast Lough, where I still go regularly. The house isn’t in the family any more, but early in my writing career I put together a photographic collage of my childhood, on the wall above my desk, to help me connect with my 3/4/5/6 year old self.
After a visit in 1995, the year after I’d taken up this writing lark, I found myself writing a poem that drew on my earliest memory – sitting on my mother’s knee, after my father had left for work, and all six of my older brothers and sisters had headed off to school. Ah, the peace and quiet! Ah, the chance to have my lovely Mammy to myself at last!
It's quiet in the morning.
There's no one else around.
I lie in bed and listen...
Not a single sound.
It's cold out on the landing,
peeping round the doors.
My Mummy's smiling back at me.
My Daddy only snores.
I clamber up his tummy
and I wiggle down the bed.
We're a cosy snuggle sandwich.
I'm the jam and they're the bread...
I sent it to Walker Books, who said they liked it, ‘but it’s a second book’. I sent it to Transworld, who liked the language, the tone and the verse, but found ‘the storyline underdeveloped’. I rewrote it with a lost teddy, but they still weren’t convinced.
I sent it to the agent Celia Catchpole, who said she loved it and wanted to represent me! Result! It went off to a load more publishers then, but without success. (Celia did manage to sell twelve other stories of mine in the next ten months, though, so I was up and running, for sure.)
In late 1996, I went on a week-long Writing for Children course at Ty Newydd. The tutors were Valerie Bloom and Kevin Crossley-Holland. I showed Valerie Quiet in the Morning and she really liked it and suggested a number of amendments, which I gratefully incorporated.
By the following spring, though, Celia was telling me that the market for rhyming picture books wasn’t great, and that we seemed to have come to the end of the line with this particular idea.
In 1999, however, Simon and Schuster got hold of it. They came ever so close to giving me a contract, but again, it didn’t work out.
And so the story disappeared, resurfacing every few years for some spit and polish, but never being seriously considered for another push.
Then, in 2010, I pulled it out, gave it a complete overhaul, and wrote to my agent.
Dear Celia, another one that I think it's a real shame we never managed to sell is Quiet in the Morning… I know this one's had its run over the years, but we've had a fair bit of success, you and I, selling older ones...
The ending at this point was:
It’s cosy in the armchair,
now my teddy’s back again.
The morning rush is over.
My favourite time is when…
It’s quiet in the morning –
with no one else around.
Me and Mummy in the kitchen.
Not another sound.
Never one to ignore good advice, that’s what I did, changing it from first to third person and adding a new punch line in the American editor’s honour. So now the ending was:
It’s quiet in the morning,
now Teddy’s back again.
The morning rush is over.
Annie's favourite time is when...
There’s only her and Momma.
No more fuss and clutter.
Now THEY’RE the snuggle sandwich,
And TED's the peanut butter!
Much better, though I say it myself!
Dial didn’t take it, but Celia's like me - she doesn't give up easily. She made some text suggestions herself - she’s a brilliant editor – and agreed to give it one more go.
Me: It'd be absolutely delightful to sell this at last. I wrote it in 1995!
Celia: And everyone saw it in 1996-7! I still have my offer card with the list. However, I do think this version is much stronger and lots of new editors have arrived since then so I will take it with me to meetings here and do my best to sell it.
Penguin UK nearly took it. ‘A Snuggle Sandwich! That’s what I do with my son!’ said the editor, but couldn’t get it past her boss.
Then, two months later, a student I’d tutored on an Arvon course - I’d gone from poacher to gamekeeper by now - sold a story (one I'd helped her with) to Andersen Press, who'd published my first picture book, The Great Castle of Marshmangle, and later Hungry! Hungry! Hungry! I've a real soft spot for Andersen and for Klaus Flugge, their charismatic top dog - they only publish books they truly believe in; they're unusually speedy in terms of making decisions, drawing up contracts and, all importantly, paying; they're very good at selling foreign rights; they keep books in print for as long as they possibly can...
So, though I hadn't worked with them for some time, I wrote:
Dear Klaus, I hope you're keeping well. Anthea Simmons sent me a copy of her lovely debut Share!, with its fulsome dedication to me. It's a delightful book and I hope it does really well for both you and her. It made me think about you for a picture book idea of mine called Snuggle Sandwich, which I attach… It would be lovely to work with you again.
I sent it, along with a new story, not mentioning of course that they’d already turned down Snuggle Sandwich fourteen years before!
Klaus got back the next day: Dear Malachy, Thanks for sending us your two stories. I love the first and hope we can do something with it (perhaps making baby a bit older??) Kind regards, Klaus
He wanted The Snuggle Sandwich! RESULT! I said yes yes yes, and two days later got the delightful one-liner:
OK, Malachy, let's do another book together (if we can afford you!) K.
Some more very helpful text suggestions from their editor, Rona Selby, and then they asked if I’d any illustrators in mind. I suggested Gwen Millward, as I’d loved The Bog Baby, which she’d done with one of their authors, Jeanne Willis. Gwen said she’d be delighted to take it on, and hasn’t she done a wonderful job!
And so, in a couple of weeks time, The Snuggle Sandwich will be published. It’s been a long long road, with input from many many people, but hopefully it still feels as fresh as a first draft, only better. And as true as a three-year-old Malachy.
A three-year-old Malachy with a long long memory.
Monday, 14 May 2012
Wednesday, 9 May 2012
Increasing the chances of your picture book story being published. A quick-ish guide to getting and interpreting feedback by Juliet Clare Bell
There’s this funny thing with writing. You’ve got to be pretty bonkers to think that you can write a book that will be picked up by a publisher. Just look at these made-up stats:
And even once you’re published, the odds are against any single picture book manuscript of yours being picked up –other picture book authors I’ve asked often say approximately 20% of their manuscripts end up being published.
So how does anyone ever get from that huge pool of green to that titchy pool of blue? Unfortunately, the very thing that gets you all the way from that green pool to that red pool –deciding you can do it and actually finishing a story- is the same thing that can easily stop you from working your finished (draft of a) story up to a point where it’s going to get published...
You’ve written your story with passion and conviction. Your confidence, tenacity, steely determination, sheer bloody mindedness has kept you going from first thinking you might be able to do this to having actually written a story that you feel is worthy of being read countless times by a parent and child together. You needed bloody mindedness to get to this point (see Malachy’s post on Persistence).
But now you’ve got to keep it in check. You may feel like you’ve done it on your own till now and you don’t need anyone’s help. But you probably aren’t the best judge of how good your story is at this point...
And this is where feedback comes in...
Feedback –what’s it for?
This post already assumes that you’ve read trillions of picture books, practised and practised and practised, joined organisations like SCBWI and are really, really serious about getting your latest manuscript published.
Here are three possible reasons for wanting to get feedback (prior to sending your work to an editor or agent) on your picture book story:
 You want someone to tell you how much they love your story.
This is understandable, especially if you’re not published and you feel like you’re fighting for ‘permission’ to be doing what you’re doing. And if it feels good to show your story to family and friends, primed to like what you’ve done because you’ve done it, then that’s fine. It might give you confidence to carry on down a path that’s really tricky. But it’s not feedback. Not really (and if you send it to an editor, never mention the reaction of friends or family to your work. Ever);
 To slow yourself down before sending it to the person that really matters.
It’s so easy to send stuff out these days, if you can do it by email and this makes it even more tempting to send things out too early. Ever emailed a manuscript to a publisher slightly sooner than you’d have sent it if you’d had to print it out and take it to the post office first? (Me too...) Sending your manuscript to someone else first really helps satisfy the feeling of ‘getting something out there’ without it actually mattering too much. It’s really good cooling off time –and you actually get feedback from it;
 Because you want it to be the very best story it can be.
Accepting that other people might be more objective about your recently finished manuscript than you and that they might see ways of improving it, is bound to improve your chances of writing the best picture book you possibly can and having it picked up by an editor.
If you’re serious about your story, after all that hard work put into your manuscript don’t have an editor’s feedback as your first feedback. It’ll almost certainly be a form rejection or worse still, the feedback of silence...
Prepare yourself for feedback. Grow an extra skin and stop thinking of your story as your ‘baby’...
reduces your likelihood of benefiting from feedback.
In my previous life working in research at a university, I felt so sick at the thought of people reading drafts of papers I was writing that it often stopped me finishing them. I was so nervous of other people’s feedback and I could never stop feeling personal about what I’d written. It was a real waste –for the study I was working on and for me. I realised when I started out trying to write children’s books that I couldn’t do that again. Either I was going to learn to accept and make use of constructive criticism or I wasn’t going to get published, in which case, I wasn’t going to start writing.
It’s not easy to feel dispassionate about your work. But it certainly helps when getting feedback. Although we might like to think that everything we write is brilliant and already ready to go to an editor immediately, we are probably wrong. This makes it particularly hard to get feedback when you’re just starting out. Because what many new writers want is to be praised for what they’ve done –and they have achieved something important: finishing a story. If you’re not ready for real feedback, then put the manuscript away for a while until you can view it less personally. Then get it out again. Can you treat it as if it has been written by someone else? Do you want it to be the best it possibly can be and can you see that others might see things in it (or missing from it) that you may have overlooked? Will you manage not to be crushed by any suggestion of how it might be improved?
If you’re still too nervous to show anyone your work, don’t feel tempted to send it to an editor (at least, don’t act on that temptation).
Picture book feedback
Before deciding who to get feedback from, do consider the following:
 Ask any picture book editor: most picture book manuscripts that land on an editor’s desk are too long. Make sure the person you show your manuscript to is familiar with picture book length and knows that with a picture book manuscript every word has to earn its place. Picture book readers but not writers will probably not realise how few words there are in a well-crafted picture book. I still remember being shocked when I started out writing and typed up Julia Donaldson stories that seemed to have plenty of plot but were only 450 words... and then promptly started reducing my 1800 word-story down by three quarters...
 Many writers (as opposed to writer-illustrators) trying to write picture books don’t allow the pictures to do enough of the work in telling the story. Many readers of well-written picture books won’t realise that they’re reading half the story from the pictures. So a picture book critiquer needs to appreciate the importance of leaving enough room for the illustrations to do some of the work, and also the role of illustration notes –when to use them and when to leave them out.
The nature of picture books means that when you’re asking for feedback, you’re asking your critique to do two things: critique your story whilst at the same time imagining pictures that you’ve not provided for them.
So who should you get feedback from?
Family, friends and children?
Think carefully why you’re asking them. Their response is not likely to reflect how publishable your story is and they are very, very biased. They may want to please you, they may feel awkward about being critical or...
And unlike older fiction, they can’t read it as if it were published, as the pictures aren’t there yet. If you’re showing it to (your) children, remember, the ones for whom it’s actually written (pre-readers) won’t be able to read it for themselves, and older children who can read it might be more attracted to the stories that are actually too old for the intended age group. From my experience, they also prefer ones that don’t require any illustration notes...
Probably not ideal.
Critique groups with other writers?
This is where many children’s writers get feedback from. The SCBWI is great for providing feedback opportunities from other writers –both in face-to-face groups/events and online. I am a huge fan of the SCBWI (without which I very much doubt I’d be published) and I’d heartily recommend it to any children’s writer. There are other online picture book critique groups or opportunities to get feedback from another writer (for example 12 by 12 in ’12). Joining a critique group or meeting can be very nerve-wracking at first but it does get easier. (For information on setting up and running a critique group, click here.)
I know that everything I’ve written (both before I was published and since) has been improved –and sometimes transformed- by feedback from my fantastic critique partners.
Things worth considering: do you want to exchange manuscripts with children’s writers in general or just other picture book writers? It’s important that non-picture book writers know the constraints of the picture book but it can be good getting feedback from (and giving feedback to) other children’s writers, too. What’s important is what feedback they give and how well they give it. My experience of critique groups (I’m currently in three) has mostly been extremely positive, although occasionally I’ve had poor feedback (see my Banana Peelin’ story). And with practise I’ve become much better at receiving feedback (as well as giving it).
It can be very time-consuming (I probably critique over ten manuscripts per month –but then I get a lot of people critiquing mine back in return);
It can take a while to find the right critique group for you and for your own group to settle into something really mutually beneficial;
The quality of critiquing can be variable (so you need to learn how to make the most of different kinds of feedback from different people; but over time you change things until you’re happy with the group/s you’re in)
If you’re all unpublished, it’s possible that you’re all perpetuating the same errors in each other’s work that’s preventing you all from getting published;
People may have their own agendas:
Paid for critiques?
Given how the book world has changed, many people who formerly worked in publishing houses or agencies now work as literary consultants, critiquing manuscripts (and some published authors and freelance writers do, too). If you’ve polished and polished your manuscript as much as you can -and had good feedback from fellow writers- and it’s still being rejected by publishers, then it may well be worthwhile paying for a critique.
Make sure you check out the freelancer first –do they know about picture books in particular? Do you like what they’ve written? Have they worked in a publishing house you know of? Do you know anyone else who’s used them and been happy with the service?
Possible disadvantages: it can be expensive;
Some freelancers will be better than others and it’s not always easy to know who to go with.
If you're in a good critique group, you may get a very similar critique free of charge.
But again, some freelance critiquers are excellent.
How to make the most of the feedback you’re given
 Try not to be defensive, and listen really, really carefully. For face-to-face critique groups, the Ursula LeGuin method means you can concentrate on listening to what others are saying rather than trying to defend yourself or your writing. It’s the same with a face-to-face editor meeting at a conference -don’t waste precious time defending your work when you’re there to hear how it might be improved.
The Ursula LeGuin method of running critique sessions (where the writer does not speak, but listens to everyone's feedback in turn) sounds scarier than it is. Honest.
 Ask. If you’re unsure about written feedback you’ve received, a fellow writer whose opinion you trust may be more objective in interpreting it (especially in the case of a personalised rejection from an editor). It’s often easier to see the negative side of feedback and overlook the positive. Recently, for example, I received some feedback from an editor. She said she really liked the title but then listed a number (quite a number) of things that didn’t work for her. I assumed that it was a straight rejection. Then she put a ‘however’... and proceeded to say how she really liked the character and that she’d be keen to see it again when I’d sorted out the things she didn’t think worked. It still felt negative but after showing it to a few people, I cut and pasted it and put all the positive things she said at the top and the negative things at the bottom and suddenly it seemed like much more positive feedback and something I could work through to provide her with a manuscript that she might really like.
 Is there consistency in your feedback from different people? You might want to dismiss parts of what people say but if a number of people are highlighting the same issues with your manuscript (or if different people pick up the same things on different manuscripts of yours), those issues probably need to be addressed.
 Learn to spot what’s important from the feedback
Some people will make suggestions as to how you can change your story. It may feel that they’re trying to rewrite it for you. This might be helpful to you or it might not, but it’s certainly very helpful to think about why they’re suggesting the change. Recently, an editor tentatively suggested I relocate my story to another part of the world. At first I thought I would and then realised why she was suggesting it –there was a problem with the story’s logic. Changing location would have sorted out that problem, but it would have changed other things in a way I wasn’t sure about. Now I’ve realised her thinking behind it, I can work out another way to sort out the story’s logic that fits with how I see my character.
 Take away different things from different people –after being in critique groups for years now, I know who’s really good at cutting my word count, or over-cutting, so I can compromise and take out half the words he’s suggesting (a word-slasher who isn’t personally attached to your favourite phrases that you’ve agonised over is invaluable to a picture book writer). I know who is good at spotting problems with structure; who is good at rhythm or tiny word changes (which can make such a difference in a picture book). You don’t have to act on all your feedback. Cherry pick the best and try and make the suggestions feel like your own.
 Don’t immediately start revising on the basis of feedback. Your initial reaction may be negative for a number of reasons –your pride might be slightly hurt; you might not like the way the feedback was presented; you might still be feeling quite defensive about your manuscript. Conversely, you might, like I often do, feel impatient to get going on a revision and initially agree with the suggestions made, especially if they come from someone you’re eager to please (like an editor or an agent). But unless you’ve given them a chance to settle, these changes may never feel like your own. Once you’ve read/had the feedback, sit on it for a while –days at least, possibly weeks, before making changes. If those suggested changes still don’t feel like your own, think carefully about whether that’s going to work. And never delete anything –you may change your mind.
It never did quite work for me, changing my little sister into a hamster (as I was asked to do by an editor). But I tried... (and didn't delete the original).
As with writing, with practise you will get better at receiving feedback. Probably better to practise with people who aren't editors or agents so when you're in a situation with an editor or agent (at a conference one-to-one, or when they're responding to your work) you can make the very best of it. You'll almost certainly have a better manuscript to discuss with them, too.
(Hmmn, “The ending was particularly satisfactory...” –a genuine quote from my first ever picture book rejection. Now what exactly did she mean by that...?)
Juliet Clare Bell writes children’s books (Don’t Panic, Annika! illustrated by Jennifer E. Morris, Piccadilly Press, UK –other publishers overseas; Pirate Picnic, an early reader with Franklin Watts, August, 2012; The Kite Princess, illustrated by Laura-Kate Chapman, Barefoot Books, September, 2012) and amongst other things, runs critique events and groups for the British Isles SCBWI Chapter. www.julietclarebell.com
Thursday, 3 May 2012
A mythical creature is the Haggis!
Some would have you believe the haggis is a three-legged creature with two long legs and one short leg, that runs around the Scottish highlands.
Others may be familiar with the dish that is served on ‘Burns night’ on 25th January, to celebrate the great Scottish bard Robert Burns, accompanied by toasts, assorted speeches, and even the odd glass of whisky!
(Although we try not to mention eating haggis in the presence of our Hamish McHaggis. He might get a little upset!)
So where would I start? Creating a character children will love is a fairly daunting remit, but we all know that what makes a great picture book is not only the wonderful mixture of words and images but also characters that endear themselves to our young readers.
It was important to have Hamish looking right but I wasn’t sure how I wanted him to look. In this instance I was lucky enough to be able to work closely with my illustrator
(Sally J.Collins) from the very start, so we were able to bounce ideas around.
We discussed what a Haggis might look like.
What you see if you go to buy a haggis in a shop is not particularly cuddly, it’s basically a mottled-brown ball.
But it occurred to me that if you buy a chicken in a supermarket it looks nothing like a hen in a farmyard, so a haggis would look quite different, too.
|First sketches © Sally J. Collins|
She came back with wonderful drawings of cartoon-like cows and sheep, which were great fun but none of them seemed quite right. (Sally has kindly allowed me to show you these first sketches.)
|Rory McHaggis © Sally J. Collins|
We settled on a more bear-like creature, after a couple of variations.
One was too babyish and another was a bit too old and had a long beard - he eventually became Hamish’s grandad Rory McHaggis.
Finally, we found our Hamish.
While Sally was working on Hamish had I started to think about characteristics or habits he might have. It would be fun to have the characters going on picnics, so Hamish has a picnic basket which he often worries about- where it is, what he can put in it for their picnic and if he will he get peckish on their trips away.
He also has a special vehicle called a Whirry Bang, designed by Hamish himself which can be a little unreliable at times.
Hamish needed a place to live and so he got a little grass and heather-covered house called a Hoggle.
I thought Hamish should live in a secret hideaway in the Highlands and Coorie Doon (which, in Scots, means to 'snuggle down and be cosy') seemed like a good place.
|Jeannie and Angus|
There’s also Jeannie’s brother, Joe, on the isle of Skye, Shona the red squirrel who lives in the grounds of the royal castle at Balmoral and Nessie (the Loch Ness Monster).
Sally was not keen to draw clothes on the animals so we decided they would have accessories - Hamish has his hat, and Angus has a red cap which he wears backwards, Jeannie has pink beads and Rupert has a bow-tie and a pair of glasses.
There are now ten books in the series and the latest Hamish McHaggis and the Great Glasgow Treasure Hunt was launched last weekend at the Kelvingrove and Riverside Museums in Glasgow.
This book has a new character, Maggie the Glasgow fox, who has a rather capacious handbag!
Hamish has many fans of all ages and he often gets cuddles when he surprises them with a visit.
You can find out more about how Sally and I work together on a previous blog growing wings
There are also Free downloadable resources for teachers on Hamish McHaggis books
Linda Strachan is the award winning author of over 60 books including Writing For Children pub A. & C. Black.