Sunday, 30 March 2014

The Writing Process - Blog Tour

This post is my contribution to the ‘The Writing Process Blog Tour’. The Tour involves writers answering four questions about their work and posting them in blog form on Monday morning (I'm a day early, due to work commitments tomorrow. Sorry!). Each writer then passes the baton to one or more other writers who do the same on the following Monday, and so the web of connected blogs grows. Lovely!

Many thanks to Alice Hemming for asking me to be one of her invited authors. Alice has written a fabulous debut picture book called The Black and White Club about a giraffe called George who feels a bit left out of a club for black and white animals. The book is published by, who are also publishing my first book, Hocus Pocus Diplodocus. Alice has a second picture book, called Bibble and The Bubbles, coming out later this year. Here’s a link to Alice’s website:

So, on to the four questions I’ve been asked to answer. Firstly, I have to say that as a debut author, I don’t feel very qualified to impart any great wisdom on children’s literature, but what I can do is provide an insight into how I work, what inspires me and what I love about books – especially children’s picture books.

1) What am I working on?

Well, lots of picture book stories. One or two are complete and with publishers awaiting a response. Some are nearing completion and some are no more than a few character names and plot ideas scribbled in a notepad. I keep coming up with new ideas all the time, so I have to train myself to concentrate on turning one or two at a time into finished stories.

My current batch of completed or nearly completed manuscripts includes stories about a pirate parrot, some unusual creatures that live behind waterfalls, an unlikely hero called Alan, an ‘undercover’ dad and a nonsense rhyming story.

I am also trying my hand at a longer story for early readers (age 6-9 category). This one started life as a picture book story, but after my wife read it, she suggested I was trying to cram too much into a short format, and a longer book might be more suitable. Of course, she was right, so I’m now developing the story into a longer text.

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I do try to come up with plots and characters that I haven’t come across in other picture books. But there are so many incredible picture books out there, I’m sure there must be some that are similar to mine.

I always want to tell a proper story with a plot; one that keeps you guessing or eager to read on to the final page. I also like to include lots of little details that repay subsequent readings. That often means I have a lot to squeeze into the limited picture book word count. It’s a challenge I enjoy, and forces me to keep my writing as economical as possible.

I especially like stories with a twist or an unexpected ending, or an ending that just makes you smile. I don’t enjoy picture books that just seem to fizzle out at the end. I try to leave the reader/listener with something to think about, or at least smile about.

That was my aim when writing Hocus Pocus Diplodocus. I had the idea for a dinosaur with magical powers, based simply on two of my son’s obsessions at the time. But I wanted to come up with an original story that had a twist and one that made kids stop and think a little bit about why you don’t see any dinosaurs around these days! It was thinking about that question that gave me the idea for the ending of the book.

The picture books I like most are those that have lots of humour and excitement for the young listener, but also some jokes and references that the weary adult reader (who may have to re-read the story night after night) can also enjoy.

3) Why do I write what I do?

For as long as I can remember I have wanted to be a published author. I used to make my own books when I was very young. But it was only when I had children of my own that I rediscovered the wonder of picture books. They are such works of art and the stories can be beautifully written, packing so much into a limited word count. Having read so many of these to my children, I felt I’d like to have a go at writing one. I had what I thought was a good idea for a story and set about writing it.

Fortunately, it was picked up by a publisher and so my adventures as a picture book author began. I am self-employed, working as a freelance copywriter, so writing picture books also fits nicely around my day job (see my answer to question 4)

Another reason for writing picture books is that my children are at the right age for reading them, so I have a good idea what children of that age will understand and find interesting or funny – which is very helpful when planning a story. 

4) How does my writing process work?

I wouldn’t call my haphazard writing efforts a ‘process’, but here’s how it works.

I often have a flurry of story  ideas all at once. Ideas usually come to me when I’m not actively trying to think of any. Usually in the car, or when I’m supposed to be working on something else, or trying to go to sleep.

I try to write them down as soon as I think of them because I need to catch them when they are fresh. If I don’t, I can easily forget the spark that gave me the idea in the first place.

I work as a freelance copywriter, which means I have the luxury of managing my own working time. That means I can fit my fiction writing around my other work. And because picture books are so short, it’s easy for me to dip in and out of them. I can read the whole story in a few minutes and tinker with it during a break from my business writing.

I think picture books benefit from repeated revision and honing to get the text as tight and expressive as possible, in the fewest possible words. You have to think visually too, and imagine how the pictures will tell some of the story for you.

Once I have an idea for a story that I’m happy with, writing the first draft will take a couple of days. But then the editing and revising process goes on for weeks. The longer I leave between reading the story, the more I find to change each time. It’s hard to read something you’ve written with ‘fresh eyes’, but the longer you leave between readings, the more chance you have of being objective about it.

This editing process could go on for ever, but at some point you have to decide that the story is finished and ready to send to a publisher. That’s a very exciting moment.

Next week… Rachel Lyon

That’s my part of the question answering bit over with. Now I’d like to pass the baton on to another Maverick author, Rachel Lyon, author of The Cautionary Tale of the Childe of Hale. Rachel will post her blog entry next Monday (7 April). In the meantime, here’s a link to her website:

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Turning words into pictures

Anyone who has looked into submitting a picture book story for publication will know that publishers really don’t want you to send illustrations with your manuscript. They want to find a great story first, then use their expertise to match it up with an appropriate illustrator. That’s the general advice. It’s hard enough to get your story picked out from the piles of unsolicited manuscripts, without diminishing your chances by insisting that it must be accompanied by your own dodgy artwork. 

Of course, if you’re an illustrator who has come up with a story idea, then the advice might be different. But, as a writer, this never applied to me. 

So, having had my story accepted by Maverick Books, I was keen to find out how they would go about finding the right illustrator.
Once they had skilfully divided up my story into the appropriate number of spreads for a standard 32-page picture book, Maverick’s approach was to ask a selection of suitable illustrators to produce one full-colour ‘test spread’. The chosen illustrators were given the same spread to work on, from which Maverick chose the favourite.

I had heard that some publishers don’t consult the author at all at this stage, but I was delighted that Maverick asked for my opinion from the outset. Clearly, their decision would be final, but it was great for me to be involed.

It was a thrilling moment when the test illustrations popped into my inbox. It was fascinating to see how different illustrators had interpreted my characters and how they had chosen to lay out the page. For me, there was one clear favourite, who seemed to have really captured the cheeky, mischievous, slightly naive character of Hocus Pocus that I had in mind when writing the story. Fortunately, Maverick’s preference was the same, and so the very talented Kate Daubney was appointed to illustrate my book.

The next step was for Kate to draw up sketches for every spread in the book. Once again, I was asked to comment on these, and my suggestions were fed back to Kate via my editor, Kim, at Maverick. Of course, Maverck made their own comments, based on years of experience of making outstanding picture books. Over a number weeks, the sketches were refined until everyone was happy with the look and content of each spread. Here’s an example of one of them:

Then Kate went away to produce the full-colour illustrations. Here’s the final version of the above spread. What a work of art!

The whole process was a joy to be involved in. It was amazing to see my story brought to life by Kate’s vibrant illustrations, and to see how she had visualised some of the episodes in the story.

The final stage was for Kim at Maverick to design the front cover and end-papers, and write the blurb for the back cover.

Now the book is complete and ready for printing. It will be out in May 2014. You can even pre-order it on Amazon or Waterstones if the fancy takes you!