Monday, 20 March 2017

Are you rich? by Jane Clarke

A couple of weeks ago, I was sent an email via my website, it didn't address me by name:

 "I have a Fiction Story which I plan to Publish in UK. However, I do not have enough revenue to sponsor the idea. Hence I need a Partner that can assist me in this regard. If interested, You are to pay me 10,000 pounds which will entitle you to 50% of the royalties from the sales of the book after it has been publish.

There are so many things wrong with this scenario, all I could do was smile as I hit the delete button. But, regardless of whether this is a scam or not, it has an underlying belief that all authors must be rich. It’s a belief that’s clearly shared by a lot of people I meet when I’m out and about doing author-ish things, and I’ve been out and about doing lots of author-ish things round World Book Day this month. The children I’ve seen are often up front enough to ask 'are you rich?’

My reply? "Yes! I have a new granddaughter. She's my third, I'm rich in granddaughters!"

One of the very precious things in my life

But despite the underlying truth in that, it's a bit disingenuous.

So for the record, although I now have had over 80 books published, writing has not made me rich. This isn’t a moan, I love my job and I feel very privileged to earn my living from writing, but my current income is around what I would be earning if I was still teaching.

Happy author

You may have heard of writers receiving a ’six figure advance.’ An advance is what is the publishers pay you in advance of the publication of your book. My most recent advance for a picture book text was for £2750 (paid in 3 instalments). After publication, once the publishers have recouped the costs of the book in question, I will earn royalties of 3.75 percent on each book sold (as long as they are not heavily discounted). 

Some tedious details.

If a book does well, royalties may occasionally be in the thousands over the lifetime of the book, but that’s very rare - more often a book earns just a few pounds a year - or nothing when it goes out of print. It’s also hard to get picture books taken by publishers, I feel very lucky if I get one or two a year. I do other sorts of writing, like ghost writing and writing for reading schemes, and chapter books (all with smaller advances than for picture books) and school visits to supplement my income.

Having fun  helping Reception class make up a story

It’s no hardship or compromise, I really enjoy all these things.  I think I have the best job in the world!  In the UK, we’re fortunate to receive an annual payment from  Public Lending Right (and lots of people borrow picture books from libraries, thank you, it all adds up!). A couple of times a year, there's a much smaller payment from the Authors Licensing and Collecting Society - if you register each title you get a tiny amount each time a poem or story is copied, broadcast or recorded by an institution that responsibly registers its use. 

Thanks to PLR and ALCs every little bit adds up.

Of course, there are a few exceptions who have made pots of money from children’s writing, but they are in a tiny minority. Much lower down the financial scale come the fortunate people like me who earn their living from children’s writing. But the majority of children’s writers and illustrators do not earn enough money to make a living from it, and don’t dare drop the day job. 

So please don't assume any of us at the PictureBookDen are rolling in it. You're not rich, by the way, are you? If you have the odd £10,000 to spare, you're welcome to take my website correspondent up on that offer! :-)

Jane’s latest picture book is Neon Leon, fabulously illustrated by Britta Teckentrup, who is almost certainly not rich either :-)

Monday, 13 March 2017

Practising What You Preach in School Author Visits: Mindfulness, Mistakes and Early Picture Book Drafts by Juliet Clare Bell

During a school visit, have you ever been talking about your writing process and a great top tip for writing... and then found yourself thinking “what a great idea! I should do that.” ? And you realise that you’ve not actually done it (or that your writing process has strayed away from what you’re describing) recently…

Maybe I’m the only one, but I suspect not. And the time around World Book Day, usually the busiest time of the year for author visits, is a good time to listen carefully to what you’re saying to others and making sure that you practise what you preach.

I am currently going into one school for two days a week over a five-week period, where amongst other things, I am practising and discussing mindfulness with the children and how mindfulness can help us in our everyday lives and when we are writing. Jess Mikhail (who illustrated Two Brothers and a Chocolate Factory) is doing the same with illustration.

I'm lucky enough to be working on a mindfulness and writing/art project with Jess Mikhail, after having worked with her on Two Brothers and a Chocolate Factory: The Remarkable Story of Richard and George Cadbury, above.

I have practised mindfulness, on and off, over the last twenty five years, and it’s been extremely useful, but I hadn’t used it much over the past ten years and not deliberately when writing.

One of the things we’ve focused on a lot in the school is making mistakes and taking risks and trying to encourage children to embrace their mistakes and feel better about making them. If you’re afraid to get things wrong, you’re unlikely to take risks in your work (or life) because of the fear of failing at something. So we’ve been using mindfulness to try and feel better about getting things wrong.

There’s a great clip for children from Kung Fu Panda that deals simply with trying to remain present. It might feel a bit corny to an adult but it’s quite easy to grasp and the children pick it up pretty easily:

Clip from Kung Fu Panda (directed by Mark Osborne and John Stevenson)

And one way of feeling ready to take risks and make mistakes is by being in the present –and not worrying about the past (how you felt when you made mistakes before) or the future (what might people think of you if you do something that’s wrong?).

So I’ve shown them my very messy, rough plans for my stories –on messy paper, where I’m not censoring my ideas but getting everything I’m thinking down onto paper before I try and actively shape it. And I talk about how it not being in a beautiful notebook makes it easier for me not to worry about messing up something that’s clean and fresh and beautiful.

Scrappy planning for a picture book of mine, which I share with surprised (and amused/horrified) children.

I’ve given them each a lovely clean sheet of blank A4 paper and then got them to scrumple it up, jump on it, rip it and then use it so it feels less like something that it would feel bad to make a mistake on. And then we’ve made deliberate mistakes on the page –it can be surprisingly hard to write your name wrong, but we do, and then we write sentences where the structure is clearly wrong –and then talk about how we feel about doing it.

Children writing their own names wrong and coming up with sentences that are grammatically wrong, on scrumpled up and jumped on paper...

And they love the book, Beautiful Oops, by Barney Saltzberg, which celebrates the mistakes we makes and shows us how to make the most of them

Beautiful Oops, by Barney Saltzberg

So I hope we’re now at the point where the children are feeling more inclined to take risks and make mistakes in their writing and art throughout the rest of the project –and beyond.

But am I practising what I preach?

Well, in terms of being messy and writing on big scrappy paper and not censoring my thoughts as I’m planning, then yes. That’s definitely how I work. And taking risks? Every time I show my work to anyone –whether it’s my agent, my editor or another writer, I’m taking a risk. All authors do it -so yes, again. But in terms of being mindful and trying to be present as much as possible, especially when writing?

I’ve tried. Since we arranged the project many months ago and whilst I’ve been thinking about the project, I have tried to be practise mindfulness with my writing more often. With my most recent story, I actually tried a different way of writing the first draft of the manuscript –with mindfulness very much in mind.

I am writing a picture book on a very sensitive subject. It’s a story about a girl whose older brother gets sick and then dies. There are all sorts of expectations about the book and I do feel a real responsibility to get it right as the people who will read it will be very vulnerable. Whilst I was researching the book, interviewing bereaved parents and doing creative work (for their own books) with bereaved and pre-bereaved siblings, and with young people with life-limiting conditions, I made no notes for my story at all. But I immersed myself in what I was doing and tried to be as ‘present’ as I could be. When it came to writing the first draft, I did make a scrappy mind map one morning (between 6 and 7 am, when I can focus best, without distraction)

and then the following morning, I wrote my story. But the story felt fragile and I’d deliberately not thought about it too much. I wanted to be as focused as I could without distraction so I tried something new:

I wrote it in the dark.

I had to have just enough light so that I could see that I wasn’t writing lines directly on top of other lines, but I only even glanced down at the unreadable page when I’d got to the end of each line, just to be sure there was some space between the lines:

Written in the dark (at what turns out to be a not very horizontal angle)

And the results?

In terms of focusing on the present, and reducing distractions (as we’re trying to encourage the children to do), I was much better able

To focus: I don’t visualise things so in the dark, I don’t have any images or colour and I can’t be distracted by seeing any objects around me

To keep going: I couldn’t read what I’d written so I wasn’t immediately being distracted from my task of keeping on writing by being tempted to edit words or phrases that I’d just written

Not to worry about mistakes:  because I couldn’t see them!

I can find myself easily distracted when writing but practising mindfulness and being able to focus like this actually worked really well for me. And interestingly, the story written this way has needed far less editing than a lot of my stories.

School visits are valuable in many ways, but this school project has been helpful in an unexpected way: because of the particular project I’ve really had to go away and practise what I preach. And for me, at least, it’s worked.

Have you tried any unusual ways of writing –as an experiment, or so you can focus properly? Or have you tried other things to help you focus? And how have school visits helped you as an author? Please leave a comment, below.

Monday, 6 March 2017

School Visits for Infant Years by Abie Longstaff

It's March. School visit season. So if you see raggedy authors looking exhausted, pulling large bags behind them please smile at us in sympathy.

For me, school visit season is both the most exciting and the most knackering time of year. It's the time when I step away from my computer and go to see my audience. It's wonderful to find that the world you created in your head really resonates and impacts on kids. And there's nothing better than seeing children dressed up as your character.

Kittie Laceys on World Book Day 
But school visits can be really stressful and tiring, I cover Reception to Year 6, and each year has its own particular needs. KS1 is an age group that few authors cover (we PictureBookDenners are a rare breed) and I often get phone calls from panicked author friends saying 'Help! I have to talk to Reception - what do I say?' Here are some tips for the picture book age group.

1. Timing
4 year olds do not sit still for long. 30-40 minutes is about right. 

2. Size
Large groups can be intimidating for small children. It's better to do multiple sessions repeated in each Reception class, rather than put all the year group together into a hall.

3. Technology
Put the book up on the interactive whiteboard so that all the children can see the illustrations clearly. If you read from your lap the kids will jostle and wriggle to get a closer view.

4. Make your session interactive
Ask questions, do noises and silly voices, ask children to bark like a dog or cackle like a witch. The more they are involved the more they'll listen.

5. Dress up
Kids love outfits, wigs and costumes.

Fairytale Hairdresser skirt
Fairytale Hairdresser hair

6. Bring props
This age group is very tactile. They love to hold things. Bring soft toys or objects that go with your book.
Bottles for Magic Potions Shop
Rapunzel hair to try on

Dolls waiting to have their hair done
7. Show them your mistakes
I bring my sketchbooks and notebooks and show children how messy I am and how many times I need to re-write until I get it right.

8. Tell them about you
Kids love to hear about where you live and work

My writing hut
9. Get them creating
This age group is old enough to plot very simple stories.
I show them a scrapbook with animals in and together we invent a story about a character. Pick a photo where an animal is doing something exciting or showing a strong emotion.
The Comedy Wildlife Awards has great pictures you could use.

10. Structure your event
I asked picture book author Alex English ('Yuck! said the Yak') how she organises her infant events. She said:

'I'd suggest splitting your workshops into lots of sections so that there is a variety of activities - listening to stories, getting up and being active, colouring, cutting and sticking, writing a poem together (with you writing on the board). Then you can do as many or as few bits as you can fit in - it can be very hard to judge how long things will take them or how quickly they will start to get bored!'

11. 'Questions'
The questions from this age group are not really questions. They are more of a chat. One little boy put his hand up to tell me 'I had pineapple for breakfast'. This is the kind of interaction you should expect. It's VERY cute and I love having little chats with all the kids.

12. What can illustrators do?
Hannah Shaw ('Bear on a Bike') advises:

I do live-drawing, and I make my talk much more about the illustration side. I prepare rhymes, riddles and jokes, as well as a 'making' or drawing thing linked to the book. The children love any kind of craft activity and I often give them a fun worksheet for them to colour in or add to.’

13. Relax and enjoy it
I love this age group! They are always so excited and enthusiastic. My main problem is gently peeling them off me when they've been cuddling me for a bit too long.

Please add your tips below - I'd love to hear how you cope.

Abie's latest book is The Fairytale Hairdresser and Aladdin - out on 9th March!

Monday, 27 February 2017

Openings with a Promise – the Emotional Journey of Your Character

I love it when as a writer you realize that other creative people face similar struggles or challenges with their craft. 

Like when I attended the SCBWI conference in LA last summer, I was heartened to hear how Drew Daywalt, the author of the NY Times bestselling The Day the Crayons Quit, waited six years for his agent to find a publisher who ‘got’ his book and wanted to publish it.
The Day the Crayons Quit
by Drew Daywalt and Oliver Jeffers

Or like how Jon Klassen of I Want My Hat Back fame was stuck because:

“… I had a problem in that I didn’t like drawing characters. I like drawing scenery and inanimate objects and I especially liked it back then. The challenge of making a piece where the subject wasn’t a living thing was really fun, and I liked how quiet the effect was.”

I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen

I recently received a gift. It was one of my favourite kinds of books – the story of a fellow writer. As I savoured the book, its pages, beautifully designed windows into E.B. White’s life and writing, I realized a few things:

Some Writer! The Story of E.B. White
by Melissa Sweet
• E.B. White kept a journal and he finished each entry by asking himself a question that he could think about as he was drifting off to sleep.

from Some Writer! The Story of E.B. White by Melissa Sweet

Yes! This is such a good technique – to mull the questions of the day, of the story, of a stuckness that becomes unstuck in the subconscious of slumber. I love to do that too!

• In his column One Man’s Meat for Harper’s Magazine, he wrote in 1982 about the influence of moving to a farm in Maine, where “confronted by new challenges, surrounded by new acquaintances – including the characters in the barnyard who were later to appear in Charlotte’s Web – I was suddenly seeing, feeling, and listening as a child sees, feels and listens”.

from Some Writer! The Story of E.B. White by Melissa Sweet

I thought about this. As I read on . . .

• It took E.B. White a year of revisions to settle on the iconic opening for Charlotte’s Web. 

Charlotte's Web by E.B. White, illustrated by Garth Williams,
published 1952

In Some Writer!, Sweet includes images of White's original manuscripts, complete with crossings-out and musings in the margins. 

I learned that E.B. White tried at least six different tacks to nail the opening of his most famous book. First:

“Charlotte was a grey spider who lived in the doorway of a barn.”

Then: “I shall speak first of Wilbur.”

Then: “A barn can have a horse in it, and a barn can have a cow in it, and a barn can have hens scratching the chaff and swallows flying in and out through the door – but if a barn hasn’t got a pig in it, it is hardly worth talking about.”

After a year, White wrote: “At midnight, John Arable pulled his boots on, lit a lantern, and walked out the hoghouse.”

Next, he cut to the action: “Where’s Papa going with that hand ax?”

Which was shortened to: “Where’s Papa going with that ax?”

opening chapter from Charlotte's Web by E.B. White

I was struck by this journey to find the way into the story. The story was there all along, wasn’t it, but it was only when White cut to the emotional core of the characters’ emotional journey and told it like child might experience it that it felt right.

In previous blogs about creating compelling openings and using show, don’t tell”, I wrote about the importance of:

• showing readers through the character’s body language, action and dialogue

• including the answers to the questions who, what and where to create a compelling opening

• clear character motivation – why?

• creating vivid, detailed scenes

But, connecting these elements with

• the promise of the characters’ emotional journey and

• “seeing, feeling, and listening” like a child

is what will really hook readers into the story and get them to keep turning the pages.

When we read the opening line of Charlotte’s Web, these elements come together almost effortlessly. But the weren’t effortless at all . . .! 

E.B. White with his beloved dog

Wow, some writer!

Natascha Biebow
Author, Editor and Mentor

Blue Elephant Storyshaping is an editing, coaching and mentoring service aimed at empowering writers and illustrators to fine-tune their work pre-submission.  Check out my small-group coaching Cook Up a Picture Book courses!
Natascha is also the author of Elephants Never Forget and Is This My Nose?, editor of numerous award-winning children’s books, and Regional Advisor (Chair) of SCBWI British Isles. 

Monday, 20 February 2017

How the Pig Got Published • John Dougherty

A big THANK YOU to guest blogger John Dougherty for this post that shows how perseverance can pay off in picture book publishing.

Like many children’s writers, I used to be a teacher. And like many children’s writers, I probably wouldn’t be a professional author now if I hadn’t been a teacher first.

A week of my pre-teacher training course classroom observations was spent with a teacher who told me, “If you're going to teach children, you need to read children’s books,” and who sent me home with some reading: Gene Kemp; Dick King-Smith; a different author every night. On the course itself, an entire module examined ways to use children’s books in our teaching, introducing me as it did so to the likes of Anthony Browne, Jeanne Willis and Tony Ross. It wasn’t long before I found myself devouring children’s books and thinking, “These are great - I wonder if I could write one?”

Teaching being as all-consuming as it is, I was, for a while, too creatively drained to be able to try any actual writing. But in my third year, my imagination was given a nudge by my pupils and some of their idiosyncrasies, and I ended up writing a number of what I hoped were picture-book manuscripts. My favourite of the bunch was inspired by Suganthi, a sparky little girl with a very snorty laugh; I’d taken to teasing her that she had a pig up her nose, and this prompted a story of a girl who, well, had a pig up her nose.

The reaction from publishers and agents was fairly consistent: these made us laugh, but they’re not what we’re looking for at the moment. But one editor - Sue Cook at Random House - went on to say, “I like the flavour of your writing, and I’d be interested in seeing anything else you’ve written.”

To cut a long story short, that was my break. Over the next few years Sue gave me feedback on everything I sent her, suggested I have a go at writing chapter books for newly emergent readers, and finally, when I sent her Zeus on the Loose, offered me my first deal.

I love being a published author, and I’m very proud of my work to date. But I started off trying to write picture books, and for years I wondered why none of the picture book manuscripts I’d written had ever been published. I’ve still got a growing pile of them, and every now and then my lovely agent Sarah would send one of them out… but nothing. Just an addition to the great big pile of nope that I keep under my desk. Until a couple of years ago, when, Sarah having retired, my new lovely agent Julia asked me, “Anything in the bottom drawer we could try sending out again?”

Well, to cut another long story short, Egmont - the very first publisher to whom Julia sent There’s a Pig Up My Nose - went mad for it. Absolutely loved it; made us an offer; secured the services of the fabulous Laura Hughes to do the illustrations. And since publication in January, it’s been getting all the love - a great review in The Guardian, Nicolette Jones’s Children’s Book of the Week in the Sunday Times… 

I have no idea what made the difference. Why did it get virtually no attention from anyone twenty-one years ago, yet an almost instant deal and broadsheet reviews all this time later? I can guess, of course, as can any of us, but there’s really no way of knowing. Perhaps ridiculous humour was just unfashionable in children’s publishing then, but is in vogue now. Perhaps it just landed on the right person’s desk this time round.

Whatever the reason, it’s another reminder of the lesson most of us, as authors, keep coming back to: persevere. If you believe in a story, don’t give up on it, because some day someone else may agree with you about it.

Of course, Suganthi and the other children in that Year Three class at Hillbrook Primary school will be all grown up now. But I hope that some of them will come across There’s a Pig Up My Nose in a bookshop or a library somewhere, and recognise my name, and read it to their own children. And I hope that whatever they’re doing, they too will have learned the lesson of persistence.

John’s website is at and you can follow him on Twitter @JohnDougherty8. There’s a Pig Up My Nose, illustrated by Laura Hughes and published by Egmont, is his latest book.

Monday, 13 February 2017

Building Bridges Through Picture Books, by Pippa Goodhart

 As our world divides, and distrust between different peoples seems to be growing, our children need to learn to do better than us.  That will only come through understanding and communication between cultures.  This has set me thinking about the few occasions when my story text has been illustrated by an artist from a different culture.  

The first time was when I wrote a silly rhyming story about Three Little Ghosties who like to bully ghoulsies, witches and ogres.  They are about to scare a human child … when the child wakes up and scares them instead.  I had a particular British illustrator in mind for this book.  Colin Paine did these lovely roughs ...

 … but Bloomsbury appointed an Italian illustrator, Anna Cantone, to do the final illustrations.  She used collage to produce very ‘designery’ images (please excuse the badly lit photo!).  I wasn't sure about them to begin with.  And yet I’ve come to love them.  Why?  Well, largely because young children react to them so well!  (NB This book is now out of print).

I’ve had books illustrated, published and sold in South Korea, and those have surprised me by showing children who look more British than Korean to me. 

 I asked my fellow Picture Book Den contributors what experiences they had in working with writers or illustrators from other cultures, and only Jonathan Emmett had experience of working this way.  He told me …

It took three years to find a suitable illustrator for my picture book story The Santa Trap and I’d almost given up hope of ever finding one when my editor Emily Ford discovered Argentinian illustrator Poly Bernatene. Poly brought a distinctly South-American Gothic feel to the illustrations that was a perfect fit for the dark, cautionary tale.

Poly’s English is pretty good these days (and certainly puts my miserable Spanish to shame) but back then his wife Paula translated the story’s text and Emily’s email correspondence so that the language difference did not seem to present too much of a problem. We’ve since done three more books together and are hoping to do a fifth. Although Poly can sometimes interpret my words in a way that I hadn’t intended, this often leads to interesting and appealing results.

That highlights one obvious problem; language differences.  And yet translation of short texts isn't hard.  Perhaps there should be more cross-cultural cooperation?  

There is!  Tiny Owl Publishing have recently launched an exciting and innovative move to publish children’s picture books which ‘bridge cultures’, specifically between Iran and Britain.  They asked me to write a fable for an Iranian illustrator to work on.  So I wrote A Bottle of Happiness, and, remarkably quickly, there was my story made into the most beautiful and, to me, initially slightly strange images by Ehsan Abdollahi.

As with Three Little Ghosties, I wondered whether the style would be too sophisticated and strange to British children’s view, but not a bit of it!  More fool me for underestimating them.  Of course ALL styles, indeed the whole world, is new to a small child, so they naturally tend to be more open to new ideas than we adults might give them credit for. 

In our modern world, we need to know facts about each other, but I strongly believe that we also need to have a proper feel for, and familiarity with, each other’s worlds and outlooks.  We need to share cultures.  

My father, who was a lovely and wise man, used to say that the point of education was to give us more things in life to enjoy.  Well, having access to the beauty and insights of other cultures certainly gives us more things to enjoy.  So let’s give that joy to our children!