Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Ten Little Pirates (or how I nearly threw away a great book deal) by Mike Brownlow

We're delighted to feature author (and sometimes illustrator!) Mike Brownlow as this month's guest blogger. His many picture books include the popular Little Robots series that became a TV series, and in this blog Mike divulges why somebody else has illustrated Ten Little Pirates, and it wasn't all plain sailing...


It came unbidden, as sometimes these things do. Walking with my wife in Trelissick Gardens not far from Falmouth, thinking about nothing in particular, the words “Ten little pirates, sailing out to sea, looking for adventure, happy as can be” popped into my head.


Maybe it was because I was in Cornwall, with all its piratical connections, or maybe because it was a beautiful day and I was gazing out over the sea that the nautical theme occurred to me. Whatever the reason, it might have stayed no more than an opening line, soon forgotten, had I not immediately coupled it to the idea of ten green bottles, and their gradual reduction in number.

So, here we have ten little pirates ready to be bumped off one by one in a series of nautical mishaps, the more dramatic the better. But would this be too gruesome for a picture book text aimed at 3-6 year olds? Well not if a happy ending could be arranged, and I had an idea about that. By the time we’d finished our walk I reckon I had about a third of the book written. I dragged my wife into the National Trust coffee shop, and she patiently waited until I'd put down on paper what was in my head. It felt like a strong idea, but I've grown to be wary of first ideas. I’ve started on texts before now, thinking yay! this is the one! – a terrific idea that will make for a sure-fire best seller, only to realize a little later that maybe that first flush of enthusiasm was misplaced.

But another feeling I've learnt to trust is to make time to develop that germ of an idea, whether the outcome is a good manuscript or a duff one. And do it as quickly as you can manage. I made time the next day and pretty soon I had the first draft of Ten Little Pirates done and dusted. It happened that I was quite busy with other work at the time. I was illustrating a book for America, and was running a bit behind schedule. I had a pretty good idea how I wanted my pirates to look - a bunch of disreputable but lovable rogues, with the odd scar and peg leg thrown in to conform to piratical convention. I doodled about, but the annoying thing was that I couldn't actually get down to roughing out the pictures for the book because of pressure of work.


Yet there was still that nagging feeling - was the idea any good? If you're anything like me, confidence is brittle at best, no matter how many books you've had published. I needed confirmation that my text was on the right track. I needed that reassuring pat on the shoulder. So I sent the manuscript off to my agent without any accompanying sample illustration, nor even a pencil character rough, and went back to my other work. All I wanted was a little note saying, yes, this is good, carry on, or no, I don't think this is going to fly.

In the evenings over the next few days I worked on the look of my pirates, and even did a painting of them hanging from the rigging. I was keen to continue, but the Americans were sending me nagging emails, so it was back to the day job.


Less than two weeks later I received an email from Caroline Walsh, my agent at David Highams. 'Congratulations!' it said, “Orchard Books have made an offer on Ten Little Pirates!” Orchard are better than good. They're a great publisher responsible for producing many lovely books. I was thrilled... until I read the next sentence. “And they have the perfect illustrator for the book.” The 'perfect illustrator' it turned out, wasn't me. Orchard had worked before with a young, relatively new artist called Simon Rickerty. He had produced a book for them, 'Suddenly', and it was doing very well. They'd been looking for another text for him to work on and, in their opinion, this was it.

I'll confess it. I was miffed. I huffed about for a while until I'd collected my thoughts. I made the fateful decision. I emailed Caroline to say thanks but no thanks. I really want to illustrate this one myself. Terribly sorry and everything. Caroline emailed me back to say “Er, are you really sure about that? This is a great deal they're offering.” I had another think. I had, I realized, done most of the hard writing work by this time. Illustrating it would take me at least another three, probably four months of hard graft. I checked up on the upstart Rickerty. Damn. He was very good. Bright, bold, strong shapes. A charming naïvety juxtaposed with graphic sophistication. Was this worth having a hissy fit about? I was being offered the opportunity of a book deal with the prospect of having very little extra work to do. All the rest of the hard slog would be down to Simon.

I recanted. I said yes to the deal. It turned out that my manuscript had landed on the desk of Frances Elks, who had been newly promoted to editor that very week. She has subsequently told me that she was worried at the time because people had warned her it might take weeks before she saw a promising manuscript, and here she was, on the first morning of her first day, with something sitting in front of her that she thought was really good. It had apparently taken the reassurance of one or two of her colleagues before she’d followed her convictions and made the offer, but I'll always be grateful that she did.

Fran very kindly suggested she show me Simon's work as it progressed to see if I had any comments. My old illustrator instincts getting the better of me, I looked over his roughs and actually, yes, I did have one or two thoughts. Shouldn't that giant squid be a bit more terrifying? Shouldn't the pirates be in a bit more of a panic on that other spread? Shouldn't that pirate's hair be a teensiest bit browner? Whether Simon actually saw any of my comments I don't know. If he did, he politely ignored most of them and went his own way. And why not? I always hate it when art directors come back to me with nit-picking amendments. I decided to keep any future comments to a minimum. I needn't have worried. Simon did a beautiful job with my little pirates, taking the ‘Little’ part of the title literally and coming up with ten child-like pirates, whose look seems to chime well with children.


Ten Little Pirates breaks two big rules – it’s written in rhyme and its cover is black. Despite this I'm happy to say that at the time of writing the book is selling really well, with five reprints of the paperback in less than two months. It’s also been short-listed for two literary awards. Orchard are so pleased that they’re making it into a series. The next one out is Ten Little Princesses, in August. There are two more ordered, and I’ve just completed the first of those scripts, which personally, I think is the best one yet. (Dinosaurs since you ask!)

More by accident than design, Ten Little Pirates has turned out to be a great book to read out at school visits. Some books make for a quiet read. Not TLPs. I always get the children to stand up and join in with the actions and the noises that accompany the story, and it seems to work a treat. Having a hall full of children leaping into the air and all crying out “ARRRRR!!! at the top of their voices is very satisfying. It even works with a room full of jolly, middle-aged women as I found out the other week when I gave a talk to a regional branch of a book charity in a library.

Hachette, who own Orchard, have a brilliant publicity department, and Rebecca Hearne who deals with me, has found me lots of spots at various festivals, something I’ve done very little of before. It feels very good indeed to have a publisher’s support like this.

And illustrating? Well it’s fair to say I’ve had a bit of a crisis in confidence with my illustration. I know many illustrators and lots of us periodically reach a stage when the work we’re producing feels tired and dull. (A browse through the picture book section of any bookshop usually brings on this feeling in me!) But after a relatively fallow period last year, I’ve re-evaluated things and have updated my way of working in a way that makes me feel enthusiastic about the future. I’ve been doing some pared down illustrations and it feels more contemporary. ‘Less is more’ is a motto I’ve always admired, but never had the courage to put into practice. Now I feel I’ve tweaked my paintings so that the results look less fussy.

But the real discovery from my decision to hand over the illustrating reins to someone else, is that I haven’t missed illustrating nearly as much as I thought I would. In fact I’ve spent quite a lot more time recently writing other manuscripts – early reader and middle grade books as well as picture book texts – and I’ve found that to be a thrilling and addictive process.

So, am I pleased I decided to let another artist illustrate my text? Very definitely ARRRRRRR!!


Mike has worked as an illustrator in the areas of advertising, packaging, animation, design, and editorial. And possibly a few other areas he can’t recall just now. He began writing and illustrating children’s books in the late 90s, and his second book, ‘Little Robots’ was made into a 65 episode, animated TV series for the BBC. Mike’s website (which needs a jolly good spring clean!) is mikebrownlow.com

25 comments:

  1. Those pirates are very cute! Thanks for sharing the story behind this book. That's so neat how you got your idea and how quickly it was accepted by this new editor. Congratulations on your new series!

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  2. Really inspired by your story, Mike. Congrats!

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  3. Your ability to embrace change helped to bring you good things, Mike. Congratulations!

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  4. Congrats to you and Simon on Ten Little Pirates, Mike, and well done for embarking on such a rough journey. Arrrrrr!

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  5. This is a really interesting post, Mike. It's so difficult to know which stories are worth investing time in and which are not! I think your advice - to put time into developing the germ of each idea - is right. But, as you say they don't all turn into books in the end!

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  6. Fascinating story behind the story, Mike. I've known several illustrators who have submitted their stories with accompanying illustrations or roughs and had the manuscript taken on but not the illustrations. No one turned down your illustrations -they saw a great story and did something with it immediately. In terms of crisis of confidence with your illustrations, please don't. You're a great illustrator who's made millions of children very very happy. What I think it shows is that you're writing so well that your manuscripts are being picked up way quicker than most writers -including those of us who don't illustrate at all. Hope you get that well-deserved confidence back again soon. Good luck with the fab book -and its sequels. Clare.

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  7. oh - Mike - how I feel for you! Juliet Clare Bell just posted a teaser of a link to this asking if I felt the same when I submitted my MS for The Quiet Woman And The Noisy Dog. I have to say - no. I submitted the text because, like you, I was excited by my story. I didn't attempt to make a dummy book - so when Andersen asked if I minded if they asked another illustrator to do it, I was thrilled.

    Had you you submitted a dummy book of Ten Little Pirates too - perhaps things would have turned out differently?

    I am about to submit 2 dummy picture books this week and these stories I have been working off and on for several years (the last dummy took 3 months solid work). If the publisher suggests that someone else illustrates them - I would have to say no - wouldn't I?

    Illustrations take time - so - in this case youdid what you wanted to do - develop your other work. Good luck and remember, you don't have to illustrate them all!

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  8. An interesting read, Mike. It's good to hear other writers have crises of confidence, even though they've had lots of books published. I'd loved to have seen those ladies jumping around to your story! I think this book is a must for my cousin's youngest (nearly two) - she was staying last weekend and spent most of the time saying 'Aarrr' and swinging her arm back and forth. I assumed she was being a pirate anyway! Congratulations on being asked to write so many more texts.

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  9. I have to echo what other people have said - and shake my head with amazement that someone so talented should feel their "confidence is brittle at best ".
    Good on you, Mike -in whatever creative field you bounce into.

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  10. Great post and congratulations on TEN LITTLE PIRATES! Your comment that you've learned to trust the importance of taking time to develop an idea is so spot on. Time, for me, is a great tool, for bringing stories to the next level. Looking forward to reading your book.

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  11. Annoyingly for the rest of us, Ten Little Pirates feels like one of those 'obvious' books which we all should have thought of but didn't. Clever you! And I LOVE the way you've written it!

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  12. brilliant Mike, fascinating to get these insights.

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  13. Thanks for the story behind the story!

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  14. I always love a candid peep at the development process! I don't draw, but I have experienced having my stories illustrated for the first time recently. It's fascinating to see how someone else views your work and all too tempting to make your own "suggestions." I have certainly been guilty of the latter, and I agree that it's a better use of your creative energy to trust in the editor and get on with something else instead.

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  15. Great blow by blow account ;-) it must be odd, as an illustrator, having somebody illustrate your story, (and take half the royalties!). I'd feel the same emotions you did. But it looks like you made a wise decision and a great book together.
    You had to trust in fate a bit I think, and it's turned out well for you. It's probably pretty intimidating for a new illustrator to illustrate a book by an established illustrator, so the anxiety went two ways I should think.
    Say Hi to Francis from me. She was at Boxer Books a couple of years ago. Great she's doing well at Orchard.

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  16. I'm so glad you didn't turn the deal down, my daughters and I love Ten Little Pirates :-)

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  17. That is quite a story, Mike! You were very humble and generous to allow someone else to do the artwork when yours was so delightful. I'm thrilled that it worked out for your advantage.

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  18. Thanks for all your lovely comments, everyone. Sue's point about a picture book dummy taking a long period of (unpaid!) time is well made. It's a daunting prospect with no guarantee of success. I've submitted one or two dummies before now when the story wasn't quite right, and it has felt like a lot of wasted effort. This is where crit groups can be so useful -- honing the story before embarking on the illustrations.
    Anyway, I found out last week that TLPs has been long-listed for the Evening Standard's inaugural picture book prize, Oscar's First Book Prize, which has come as a very pleasant surprise.
    Thanks, Clare, for inviting me to share a few thoughts.

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  19. What an interesting post and one that hits close to home for me. I am just starting out in my illustration career and haven't gotten a book deal yet for illustration, but did get a contract for my first picture book story…and it will not be illustrated by me. Congratulations on such a success- I will look for the book.

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  20. I love this post, Mike. It's always interesting to hear the stories behind books - especially such a good one. I gifted a copy to my local first school recently and they love it.

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  21. Thank-you so much. There is a lot of pressure on us to illustrate everything we write. I really needed this. Thank-you all.

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  22. I really enjoyed hearing the 'behind the scenes' story behind this book. As Pippa said, it's one of those that seem so obvious and you wonder why nobody has thought of it before! Good for you! It is exciting, too, that it will lead to more exciting projects in the series and new avenues of creative writing for you. Thanks for sharing!

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  23. There's a hardback copy of Ten Little Pirates sitting on my shelf. I've just taken another look at it because your blog post has added a new dimension to the book and I've adored hearing about the genesis of its publication - thanks so much for sharing, Mike. I also find it interesting that the illustration of the pirates as children has added to its success.

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  24. Fascinating post, Mike. Thanks for sharing your story.

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  25. My now 5yo loves this series, and so do I. I bought the Pirates book initially because I loved the illustrations, they really caught my eye, and we now have all the books. My son loves the rhymes, the counting, acting them out and yelling out "ARRRR" etc. I also love that there is so much to discover in the illustrations, such as seeing items or creatures from the other books in the one we're reading, it's all very clever. Looking forward to the next one (hint, hint!).

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