How to evaluate a picture book idea.

As you can see from previous posts I have been stalking picture book authors and publishers trying to find out how to break into this tricky market. The most important thing I have learned is: the idea is king.

So what makes a good idea?

Hmm.

There is no simple answer to this.

A combination of things.

And I have lots of ideas. So which are the best ones? Which should I spend time developing?

Hmm.

So here are a list of questions – a sort of check list I’ve developed – to help evaluate picture book ideas.

Hope this helps. It’s helped me.

1) Are the characters original and appealing?

How could you build in: idiosyncrasies, a distinct voice, actions, and memorable appearance. Turn norms/cliches on their head e.g. a misunderstood (friendly) crocodile. Make them stand out from the crowd.

2) Is there a clear theme?

Often this is a childhood emotion or experience, something that universally resonates with children and their parents.

3) How will the characters/concept appeal to young children?

What are they going to take away from the story at the end? Why will they read it again?

4) THIS IS VERY IMPORTANT: Search on Amazon and see if someone else has come up with the idea already!

5a) What is the problem/hook? This should be in the first or second spread.

5b) What is the climax of the problem? (point of change)

5c) What is the resolution? The main character must resolve the problem themselves.

THIS IS THE STRUCTURE OF YOUR STORY

6) How will the reader/listener participate in the story?

E.g. page turns, flaps, pullouts, touch, suspense, anticipation, irony, rhyme, singing, repetition, actions, spot what’s missing, find something, counting, humour.

7) Series potential or stand-alone?

THINK ABOUT ALL THE PEOPLE THIS CONCEPT IS GOING TO HAVE TO APPEAL TO: 

8) How will the story appeal to and inspire an illustrator

9) Why will it appeal to parents?

10) Will it appeal to teachers?

11) Will it appeal to digital publishers?

12) What are the unique selling points (USPs) for the:

Publisher’s Commissioning Team, Marketing Team, Sales Team

Retailers

Now write a ten-word elevator pitch

13) Sit in the children’s department of a big book store and imagine your book concept on the shelf. Does it stand up to the competition?

14) Are there any publishers that are a good style/tonal fit for your story. Study their books!

NEXT POST: DEVELOPING A PICTURE BOOK IDEA

Feeling well and truly post conference SCBWI’ed!

So it’s Monday morning after the conference and my head is spinning with the volume of information I have scribbled in my notebook and the new contacts I have made this weekend. I am particularly excited about all the contacts.

In the space of two days, I have found two fellow SCBWI members in my hometown who write exactly the genre I do. I have met commissioning editors from Oxford University Press, Little Tiger Press and Maverick Books. I have chatted to Kate Nash, from the Kate Nash Literary Agency, Amber Caraveo from Skylark Literacy Agency. I have attended workshops run by authors Nick Butterworth and Mike Brownlow (the result is a promising group story effort about a formidable pigeon!)

Nick Butterworth

Nick Butterworth

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I listened with interest to keynote speakers, Sally Gardner and Cathy Cassidy about their journey to success.

Cathy Cassidy

Cathy Cassidy

I have met most of the SCBWI organizing team (all published authors/illustrators themselves) and a large number of fellow aspiring authors and amazing illustrators.

Phew…

You’d think I’d need to put my feet up and relax after all that. No Way – I’m inspired!

I have picture books to send out, a Young Reader and a YA manuscript to finish.

At the launch party on Saturday evening an impressive number of SCBWI members stood on stage with their 2014 published books. I want to stand up there too, maybe not next year, but one day…. I’d better stop blogging and start writing, I’ve got a lot of work to do….

SCBWI Launch Party

SCBWI Launch Party

Good Picture Book Advice from Pippa Goodhart – Keep it short!

I jumped at the chance to meet Pippa Goodhart and listen to her words of wisdom at the recent SCBWI Author Masterclass on Writing Picture Books in London. My children love her book You Choose; it’s so well thumbed it’s fallen apart! You Choose is a concept book with just 220 words. The words are mostly page titles or captions around Nick Sharratt’s catalogue-style illustrations. In the Q&A session I asked Pippa how she pitched You Choose to publishers. “It wasn’t easy,” she replied. “The concept was rejected by nine publishers. If you believe in your idea you have to be persistent.” The book went on to become a bestseller.

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The number of words in picture books was a recurrent theme during the workshop. Publishers want manuscripts from zero to five hundred words; less is definitely more. Newbies like me tend to overwrite, and I admit, sometimes I only think about the pictures once I have drafted the story.
Pippa explained the story is in both the pictures and the words, and sometimes in the gaps in between such as a page turn or a change of pace. Thinking about how the child participates in the story is very important.

Pippa showed us some favourite picture books of hers, This Is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen, Mr Tiger Goes Wild by Peter Brown and Handa’s Surprise by Eileen Browne. Writers, she advised, should think about a story in pictures and let the pictures do the ‘showing,’ reducing text to a minimum. There can be considerable power in no words at all. It feels rather brave as a writer to leave a page blank with just an illustration note, but many of the best writer/illustrator picture books do just that to create impact. Pippa also recommended rough sketching the twelve double page spreads to help visualize the book.

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All workshop attendees had the chance to request a short one to one with Pippa to discuss their own works in progress – or to workshop them briefly in the class. Pippa critiqued my story Ming’s Dragon. The basic idea was fine, but it needed a complete rewrite. The story was too long and the character motivation and story message weren’t crystal clear. I plan my longer novels and the short stories I write for magazines, but with picture books there’s a tendency to think, ‘It’s only four hundred words. Why do I need to plan?’ Pippa explained a picture book should have one, maybe two clear themes. Character, motivation, plot and emotion all have their place, as in any story. Concept, pictures and words must work together intuitively to resonate with young audiences. Idea evaluation and story planning is essential.

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Later in the afternoon, Pippa set a group creative writing exercise to rework an old fairytale. This was fun, writing is such a solitary occupation it’s great to bounce ideas around with other writers. SCBWIs are a creative bunch; there were some impressive narratives and near meter-perfect rhymes, all generated in under an hour.

And yes, they were all appropriately short!

Book of Animal Stories Launch Party Highlights

What a lovely evening and it was great to put names to faces.

I meet the illustrator of The Elephant Carnival, Briony May Smith, my editor Daisy at Walker Books, thank you for your encouragement and offer to look at more or my stories. I met Justine Roberts, the CEO of Mumsnet, Denise Johnstone-Burt from Walker books and Anthony Browne, the head judge.

And not forgetting all the other authors and illustrators, who after a few glasses of wine started signing each others books and calling each other the Panda Lady,the Bat Lady and (me) the Elephant Lady! Every author and illustrator I spoke to said this was their first publication. So fingers crossed this is just the beginning for everyone.

And thank you to the CBC gang for meeting me before hand at The Society Club (bookshop with a bar!) to help ease my nerves.

Here are the pics from the evening.

With Briony (the illustrator)

With Briony (the illustrator)

With Justine CEO of Mumsnet

With Justine CEO of Mumsnet

With Denise from Walker Books

With Denise from Walker Books

Curtis Brown Creative Gang (Writing for Children Students 2013)

Curtis Brown Creative Gang
(Writing for Children Students 2013)

Briony's amazingly detailed and colourful carnival of elephants.

Briony’s amazingly detailed and colourful carnival of elephants.

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The hero's of the Elephant Carnival, Nandi and Bobo the Elephant.

The hero’s of the Elephant Carnival, Nandi and Bobo the Elephant.

Mumsnet Book of Animal Stories front cover

Publication News – The Elephant Carnival in The Mumsnet Books of Animal Stories

Last February my story the Elephant Carnival was chosen along with nine other animal stories to feature in this year’s Mumsnet/Walker Books, Book of Animal Stories. And here it is – the front cover. It’s available in bookshops from the 1st October!

The great SCBWI Agents Party!

On Friday I was in Foyles Book Store on Charring Cross Road with a hundred or so other SCBWI members hobnobbing with children’s book agents. I have a list of picture book texts to sell and I wanted quite simply to make contacts so I could send submissions directly to someone rather than the impersonal Dear Submissions Team (or overwhelmed slush pile reader). I also wanted any tips on what they were looking for and a heads up on which agents were particularly friendly to new picture book writers. (Lots want writer/illustrators or illustrators only)

This is in general what agents are looking for across the age ranges.
Emotion
Dark characters
Strong characters
Authenticity
Unexpected elements
Clear plot direction/ clever plots/ mystery
Natural writing (voice)
Characters readers want to spend time with (and empathise with)
Can I sell this? A manuscript that evokes a passionate response/ enthusiasm (writer has to have this first and convey it)
Humour
Unusual

When I spoke 1:1 with picture book agents they couldn’t tell me what they wanted. They just said simply send it and we’ll know when we read it. Which is somewhat frustrating, though humour was sort after. Rhyme is okay if it is top quality otherwise forget it.
What I did find out however is that Young Readers are a tough market to break into (aren’t all genres!)because a lot of well known picture book writers are being asked to convert picture books into longer texts for this age group directly by their publishers. I asked also about illustrated stories as a stand along or part of a collection (e.g Fairy Tales) Apparently they don’t sell so well but there are a few about and this may depend on the publisher. Oxford Uni Press and Usbourne have a lot of story collections or series reads in their catalogue.

The most encouraging take out of the evening was that the agents were all very optimistic and encouraging. They want to see great ideas and great writing. They are literally waiting for it to land on their desks. If they turn down a manuscript it is purely that manuscript at that time, not the writer or illustrator.

Writers have to bounce back with bigger and better ideas. The idea is king.

Idea Popping

A blog entry inspired by The Big Idea Competition

Most ideas pop into my head when I am zoned out, lost somewhere in a daydream. There’s a lot of inspiration up for grabs in the middle distance, I can tell you, so glaze over and see what pops into your head.

I have discovered the following triggers are excellent for inducing creative daydreaming.

  •  Watching repeats of husband’s favourite TV programmes. Top Gear and Grand Designs are particularly recommended for zzzzz.
  • Consuming several glasses of wine. Though can cause forgetfulness or overestimation of personal brilliance.
  • Sitting in a traffic jam with windscreen wipers on, raining or not.
  • Listening to husband snoring. I keep a UV pen handy in the bedside drawer and write on sheets if I forget my notepad.
  • Sugar highs. Who ate all the sweets, Mummy? Ummm.
  • Personal favourite. Lying on the trampoline watching the clouds float by. Though, risk of falling asleep and forgetting to pick the children up from school is a problem.

Recent Inspiration Credits:

Fact really is stranger than fiction. Thank you David Attenborough for the Pink Fairy Armadillo and the Blob Fish.

Thank you cool science magazine for a digital artists impression of the planned Mars Space Station and thank you Jack (son and heir) for a fab space plane drawing, which could definitely fly us all there.

Yes Jack, I have your picture. It’s on my desk.
No, you can’t have it back yet; your space plane is about to enter an asteroid belt.
Mars-flyer? Hmm, you’re right, that does sound better. Thanks Jack.

More seriously…

About reading…
Recent children’s fiction is of such a high standard it blows me away. I can’t remember the last time I shed a tear or snorted with laughter over an adult book, sadly. Children’s writers new and old are the best at evoking emotion in their readers and keeping reader attention from the very first line. I see the affect such writing has on my nine-year-old daughter. She devours the delights of Harry Potter and The Famous Five like chocolate and then asks for more. I dutifully conjure up the books. My price is her exacting and helpful review of the pros and cons of each book.

It’s interesting to watch her reading preferences mirror mine, we both love quest and adventure stories about far away lands, and stories about animals. Narnia, 101 Dalmatians and The Call of the Wild were some of my childhood favourites.

My son is another breed entirely. Aliens and spaceships float his boat, he giggles at quirky tales with subversive or gross humour. The pace must zip along at lightning speed.

About writing…
My problem is I have too many ideas. I have a collection of picture book texts and texts for short illustrated stories. They are under 1,000 words. I can finish them fairly quickly and move on to the next idea that pops into my head. One is excitingly on its way to publication.
But I also have ideas with deeper roots and a spread of characters. A story that has something more to say, that could be a middle grade novel or a series for emerging readers, a story that would take many weeks to write. I have to learn to kick the doubts out of the writing room door.

My entry for The Big Idea is one of them.

http://www.thebigideacompetition.co.uk

Children’s Picture Book Market Segmentation

Last week I went to a Children’s Picture Book talk arranged by SCBWI.

Bloomsbury’s picture book commissioning editor and designer were the professionals who gamely answered all our questions.

I won’t summarise all that was said because it’s well worth joining SCBWI and going along to their various talks and workshops. (Actually you don’t have to be a member to attend the talks but you get a discount if you are. )

One part of the evening was a real eyeopener. The question was – how do they chose each years list? The editor and designer had bought a selection of Bloomsbury’s new titles. They were asked to group the books and describe what those groupings were. What surprised me was the simplicity of the answer. There was the usual age split: 0-2 babies board books (mostly written in house), 2-3 picture books (up to 400words) and 4-6 picture books (up to 700 words (Bloomsbury like them short)) and then they divided the pile of books into two piles, quirky/humorous and loving/warm. Illustration style was segmented into commercial (loud and colourful for the supermarkets), posh (hand drawn illustrations) or quirky (stylised). That’s it.

Then someone at the back asked whether any of the stories were ever shown to children before they were published. No never, was the answer. Or parents. No.

Hmmm….

When I write a picture book story, I think about the big events in an average preschool child’s life: starting nursery; making friends; a new baby brother or sister arriving; being scared of the dark/spiders/getting lost; fascination with gross things and where they come from; how come people are different (the neighbours or kids in China) and so on. Then I break it down into the emotional issues the child might face. So for example with starting preschool, the story could be about overcoming shyness. Only then do I get creative with how to tell that story.

Children are on a steep emotional learning curve between the ages of two and six. They find it very difficult to decipher and talk about emotions and problems. They need stories to help them understand the world and their feelings (just like older children do and adults too.)

The delivery can be quirky, fun and humorous or warm and reassuring, but that’s the wrapping, not the content.

Looking at the new releases across the big publishers, the illustrations are beautiful, there are some cracking rhymes, and a lot of fun on the page, but many are instantly forgettable because they have no message, moral or meaning. And there is also a lot of repetition as competitor publishers have the same themes on their list – cosy warm night night stories with cute bears, bunnies or mice and jolly jaunts with aliens, pirates or dinosaurs.

If that is what publishers want, then I should write my own version of these themes to get published, and I will. But I won’t stop sending the stories that are more helpful and relevant for young children and their parents. Such stories are needed and important. I hope they make it through the noise.

My Writing Process Blog Tour

My turn to write for the Writing Process Blog Tour, which is bouncing around the web at the moment. Writing this is akin to therapy. I recommend it!

What am I writing?

My novel is a YA murder mystery. I have written just over 60,000 words of the first draft. It has the working title of Genesis. The climax, where I must pull all the threads of the plot together so the reader finally finds out whodunit, is my current challenge as well as sorting out a few structural errors and wayward antagonists (there are four. Eek! Is my heroine in trouble or what?)

How does my work differ from others in its genre?

Hmm, I’ve not read anything like this for older YA. Mix Gone Girl with Sophie Mackenzie’s, Girl Missing, and throw in genetics, suicide and drugs and a love story and you’re getting there.

Why do I write what I do?

I dream the plots, literally, or elements of them and then I build on the idea. They grow like a tree. Sometimes I park them if I hit a wall. But the ones that keep growing and become a theme, with characters that start talking to themselves (in my head!), I start writing down. My biggest problem is having too many ideas. I don’t have enough time to write everything I want to and I have to be careful not to overload my plots.

Story ideas for children aged 2-8 years, teens and YA, come easily. I enjoy the imagination of young children. You can bend all the rules. Aliens, monsters, tigers, you name it, can all come and play anywhere anyhow. What fun!

I love teenagers and young people’s dialogue. They reinvent language for their own purposes. They challenge everything for better or worse. Maybe that’s it. I write these genres because they break the rules. But I also think stories for children and young adults contain a lot of hope and that’s the emotion I want to leave readers with at the end of my stories.

How does my writing process work?

I’ve worked hard on the structure of this novel. The murder mystery plot demands that the author knows exactly what’s going down in each scene and how it all ties up.

I have a spreadsheet. In the cells across the top I have all the scenes titles (I don’t put them into chapters until later). Running down the page I have headings: characters, setting, current situation, problem, reaction (physical and emotional), action/decision, central scene question, underlying theme build, drama/tension/suspense, imagery (scene detail, symbols, 5 senses)

I fill out this spreadsheet partly before and partly after I have written a scene, because lets be honest, spreadsheets are not very inspiring! A blank piece of paper, lots of sticky notes and coloured pens are my favourite tools for brainstorming a scene or act. The spreadsheet is just a tool for recording what I have done and preventing confusion. After brainstorming I write straight onto the screen and just let it come. If I get stuck I go back to brainstorming or consult my research file, or I take a break and let the problem stew for a bit. My best writing comes after about an hour of writing, and then I hate to be disturbed as I have my head in the scene and it’s really hard to get back in the zone. I get fatigued after two and half hours and need a pit stop (food!). I’ve stopped word counting on a daily basis because it’s not about how many words there are, it’s about how good the scene is. I have taken over the dining room and spread my novel and picture book ideas all over the table in a happy mess.

Family and guests will just have to eat in the kitchen for the foreseeable future.

Tall Tails Publishing

A word from Tall Tails Publishing

I thought your readers might be interested in submitting query letters to Tall Tails Publishing House. We’re a small independent children’s press, and we’re expanding our catalog with two new Middle Grade imprints this year. One is for non-fiction and reference, and the other is for fiction chapter books. I have included our wish list below, but other genres may be considered.

Middle Grade Non-fiction and reference:
- Writing guides and reference books
- Biographies of (often overlooked) historical figures
- Accounts of historical events using primary sources, especially from a child’s POV
- Oklahoma history and biographies, especially from a child’s POV
- Science and technology guides, tutorials, and reference materials

Middle Grade Fiction Chapter Books:
- Legends, myths, or fairy tales—with a twist!
- Science Fiction set in outer space
- Post-Apocalyptic stories (remember the audience!)
- Stories featuring multicultural or non-traditional family groups, especially during the holidays or special events
- Scary chapter books

Our current response time is about six weeks, but if an author doesn’t hear from us in that time frame, they can send us an email. Please read our Submission Guidelines (talltailspublishing.com/submissions.html) carefully before submitting.

Thank you!