Finding your Funny Bone

Ten types of humour PB writers need to know about

About a year ago, I started writing funny picture book stories. I’m not sure where this sudden burst of subversive humour came from but one idea soon followed another. After I finished Storystorm 2018 (write down a PB idea a day for January) I had a raft of them.

I knew humorous picture books sold well – but were my stories the right kind of funny? Were they funny enough!

I realised I knew absolutely nothing about comedy writing, so I did what all author/book lover types do, I read up on it, watched a lot of funny TV, and passed a critical eye over the picture book market.

There’s actually very little guidance on writing or performing funny stories/sketches for young children, so I have adapted and ad-libbed taking the best advice from adult comedy writers and applied it to the PB market. I hope this will help you find your funny bone.

So, what makes you giggle?

Physical Humour

Were you a fan of Tom and Jerry or Road Runner when you were a child? Slapstick/accident prone humour definitely appeals to the young, after all they do fall over and get gunk on their faces a lot. Funny expressions also come into this category.

Vehicle or journey themed stories are a natural fit. BEEB BEEB, HONK HONK! One of our favourites is Mini Racer by Kristy Dempsey, a rhyming whacky races concept. On every page, one of the crazy cars (there is a rabbit driving a carrot) crashes out.

Also, in Rosie’s Walk by Pat Hutchins, the fox has one mishap after another as he stalks Rosie around the farmyard. Note: almost always in these stories, the little guy outwits the big guy, though The Squirrels who Squabbled by Helen Bright, is a good example of a double act.

 

 

 

Gross humour

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If you laugh when someone farts then this one’s for you (along with most 2-5-year-old boys!) It’s an extension of physical humour but deserves its own category due to massive popularity. Farts, bums, wee, poop, bogies and all potty-training books, line up here!

Surreal (or just plain silly) humour

This is the heartland of picture books and when exaggerated for comic effect can be very funny indeed. Of course, in real life aliens don’t wear underpants, a book cannot eat a dog and you wouldn’t usually find a shark in your bath. But wouldn’t it be hilarious if you did! This humour either has a normal character in a comic world or a comic character in a normal world.

What if… that’s the question. Let your imagination fly.

 

 

 

Witty Wordplay

Do you love a pun or chuckle at a silly rhyme or playground joke? There are so many wonderful picture books in this category, it’s hard to choose only three examples.

Dr Seuss and Alan & Janet Alhberg of course, and the recent viral phenomenon, Wonky Donkey by Craig Smith, originally based on a playground joke: What’s a donkey called if he only has three legs? Click here to watch the funny clip to find out how a giggling Scottish Granny can boost book sales!

 

Improvisation

I almost rejected this one as an adult live action comedy technique but then one picture book came to mind. Of course, a book cannot literally improvise, but it is possible to make the characters sound as if they are improvising, with witty repartee and timely page turns.

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In Oi Frog! by Kes Grey, the frog persistently asks the somewhat superior cat whichanimal is allowed to sit where. The cat refuses to be out questioned and comes up with increasingly funny answers. The story is part witty wordplay, part surreal humour and part impro

Spoofs, Tropes and Parodies.

I think this humour is aimed more at the adult reader than the child. One of our favourites PBs is Traction Man is Here by Mini Grey. My son doesn’t remember Action Man or his overly macho gear, but I do – my Action Man and Sindy were great friends. I also love Nuts in Space by Elys Donan, which not only sends up the sci-fi series Lost in Space but also features the Death Banana and a Darth Vadar lookalike.

 

 

 

Twisted or fractured fairy tales also fit into this category and are popular with publishers.

Rebel humour

Do you cheekily challenge authority, commonly held beliefs or the set way of doing things? Do you think why when someone asks you to do (or not do) something? Or perhaps you are a mischievous saboteur or heckler! Rebel humour is satisfyingly subversive.

 

 

 

Observational

This technique is all about finding the humour in everyday life, focusing on a common moment or problem and retelling it in a hilarious and unexpected way. I could list most of Lauren Child’s, Charlie and Lola series… Lola is also a fantastic rebel!

 

 

 

And Mr. Panda is very good at teaching manners!

Self-deprecating

This is not a sense of humour young children understand easily, nor do we want them to as it’s based on negative feelings and a lack of self-worth. Plenty of picture books, however, flip this negativity on its head and deliver, in a humorous way, a positive message about self-esteem.

 

 

 

Giraffes can’t Dance by Giles Andreae is a triumphant story about a giraffe who finds his own tune. Thelma the Unicorn by Aaron Blabey is about learning to love who you are, even if you don’t have sparkles.

Dark humour

Do you have a wicked dark side? Throwing light on fears and antisocial behaviour in a comic way makes these sometimes embarrassing and difficult topics easier to talk about. Most picture books have a reassuring happy ending, but in darkly humorous tales the main character might just meet a sticky end.

 

 

 

A few extra tips

Exaggeration and surprise are the keys to comic writing. Trouble comes in threes, make no. 3 an inappropriate (funny/surprising) response. e.g. The cheeky little fish thinks he gets away with stealing the hat once, twice, but not thrice!

The best stories have a mixture of humorous elements that appeal to both the parent and the child.

I love comments.

Please share your favourite funny picture books.

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StoryStorm 2018: How did I do?

My StoryStorm month of idea generation.

I’ve just finished StoryStorm, an annual challenge where participants pledge to write down a story idea a day for the month of January. There’s a daily blog post to inspire and lots of giveaways from mentors.

I’ve always kept a notebook of ideas (on my iphone) and I’ve never worried about where the next idea might come from, they just pop up every now and then. I had about 30 or so ideas in my notebook from over a two-year period.

But 31 in a month? Could I do that?

I’m surprised and pleased to report I have generated 60 ideas! 

There are only 5 ideas I’ve borrowed from my previous list and I’ve evolved them all in some way.

Inspiration wasn’t constant. Some days, I had five ideas. Some days, none.

Some ideas are no more than a catchy title, some are emotions, some are common childhood scenarios I’ve never seen in a picture book. Others are a whole paragraph of questions and what ifs; another is about fun formats or styles I should try. I even took a photo of a newspaper article. Two ideas were repeated unknowingly but the second time with a new twist, so I’ve kept them. Sometimes, I just wrote ideas about where to get ideas.

Looking down the list, I have ideas that suit adult short stories, a contemporary women’s novel, middle grade and non-fiction. But mostly Picture Books because that’s what I love to write. I didn’t filter anything, I didn’t judge, I just wrote them down.

So now, as I look down my list and begin to evaluate, I notice something interesting.

The first decent idea I had for a picture book was No.10. It’s one of those, ‘I can’t believe no one has covered this before,’ stories – no one has, I’ve checked.

My second good idea is No.19. It has scope to be more than a PB, a big concept that is current and original and I get a fizz of excitement just thinking about it.

Then I don’t hit on a concept that immediately feels like an original story until No.34 (this is why you shouldn’t stop at 31!)

And then they come thicker (but not faster). In every 10 ideas noted, there are three I immediately feel have strong picture book potential.

At the time of writing this, I have finished drafting No.54 and started No.56 because the titles are fun and sum up the story in a nut shell, and I know this is what picture book publishers are looking for.

These are the six things I’ve learnt from StoryStorming:

  1. No idea is wasted if you write it down.
  2. The first ten ideas I have are not necessarily my best (or even the ten after that!)
  3. With a long list of ideas, it’s much easier to see the ones that shine from the ones that don’t.
  4. I can train my brain to recognise and form more rounded story ideas with practise.
  5. I’m going to be a lot less precious about rejected stories when I have five more ideas I can’t wait to write.
  6. Thematically, my ideas centre around scenarios, adventure, action, humorous moments, play on words, original layouts and plot twists. Not so much character and place. It’s a weak spot and I need to find stimulus that helps me idea generate here.

I’ll be back next January, and in the meantime, my idea list remains open for business.

Thank your Tara Lazar and everyone at StoryStorm 2018.

 

Growing Down – Thinking Like Young Children

On a flight from London to Nice, I came across this article in the inflight magazine and it got me thinking… Little Wins: The Huge Power of Thinking like a Toddler.

It was a review of a book written by Paul Lindley, entrepreneur and founder of Ella’s Kitchen, the company who make those colourful food pouches for tots.

Anything that helps me get into the mind of a pre-schooler before writing is useful. I’m forty something and my children aren’t that small anymore, though we still all love picture books.

Paul Lindley’s approach also made me think a lot more determinedly about how to develop and sell my children’s books and how to get the attention of publishers.

Paul Lindley says: If you think like you did when you were a small child, a load of opportunities open up, because when you were that small child, everything was new, there were no rules and you worked things out yourself.

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He then goes on to list nine ways toddlers think and behave that are a useful perspective for entrepreneurs, and rather helpful for writers too.

CONFIDENCE

Toddlers make their minds up quickly; they are confidant about who they are and what they want to do. And they don’t worry about what people think. They aren’t distracted by second thoughts.

Wouldn’t it be to wonderful to think like that

 And when you are doing something that no one has done before (such as write your book) you need confidence and self-assurance. Because there is going to be a lot of people telling you, you can’t do it than you can.

So true.

GET NOTICED

This is what toddlers do best. They are masters of grabbing attention and getting their message across. They use many strategies.

 I don’t think Paul Lindley literally means jumping up and down and screaming, I can’t imagine many editors being impressed with that, but more the essence of it – being persistent, keeping your message simple, trying different methods until you and your book get noticed.

BE CREATIVE

At the age of 2, 98% of us think divergently, which is a measure of creativity, and by the time we’re 25 it’s 2% (stats: Ken Robinson).

Growing up, Lindley states, kills creativity. Toddlers are life’s great experimenters, always trying new things, giving them a go. They defy convention, they don’t know it exists. And sometimes by doing things differently, they achieve what the rules could never have led them to.

oliverjeffersstuck1 The picture book Stuck, by Oliver Jeffers, sprang to mind. A kite is stuck in a tree. How will the boy get it down? Convention states get a ladder, but when that doesn’t work the boys gets rather creative.

Children’s books should break conventions and snigger at them a bit too.

 BE HONEST

Young children have a bracing, sometimes hilarious honesty… without any fear of the consequences.

As we grow we develop filters, we learn what people want us to say, we tell little white lies to keep the peace, it’s easier to stick to the quid pro quo.  The problem with this is, we stop saying, Why? and What if? – the fundamental questions of creativity.

DIVE RIGHT IN

Toddlers live in the now. They have no past and they don’t really understand the future. So, although their attention spans may be relatively short, when they are in the moment, they are really in it, they dive straight in with gusto. They have no fear of failure.

So, next time you have a light bulb moment and feel the buzz of inspiration – write it, draw it, develop it and develop it. Don’t let learned practicality and doubt pause your creativity.

NEVER GIVE UP

Toddlers are determined because they have to be, says Lindley. They know nothing and suddenly they can walk, talk, smile, hold a conversation…And they can do all these things because they have failed lots and lots of times.

Stoicism about rejection letters springs to mind here. And also, an attitude of, if this idea doesn’t work, never mind, I’ll work on it until it does, and if it still doesn’t work, then I’ll come up with a better idea and a better idea, until one day something sticks.

 HAVE FUN

Having fun is a toddler’s job. They explore the world through imagination and play, and they are very clear about what does and doesn’t interest them. If it isn’t fun they won’t do it.

Roald Dahl had similar sentiments and a fantastic sense of outrageous fun.

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 “Matilda said, “Never do anything by halves if you want to get away with it. Be outrageous. Go the whole hog. Make sure everything you do is so completely crazy it’s unbelievable…” 
― Roald DahlMatilda

I hear so many creative people say, it feels frivolous to spend time sketching or brainstorming plots with multi-coloured pencils and sticky notes, because it doesn’t feel like work. But Lindley says, play fosters the ability to think differently.

 Sometimes desks and computers are the last places we should hang out. Switching environments (I love museums and bookshops) and colourful writing/drawing media always helps me think creatively.

SHOW YOUR FEELINGS

Whether it is a tantrum or uncontrolled excitement, we always know how toddlers feel.

Publishers look for authors who can enthusiastically convey their passion for their story not just on paper, but in person on the publicity trail.

INVOLVE OTHERS

Toddlers are naturally open and trusting. Their ability to make new friends and learn from them puts the most accomplished professional workers to shame.

Although creativity and drafting are solo occupations, there comes a point in the writing process where you can no longer go it alone. Whether it’s professional guidance, or a crit. group,  diversity of opinion on your manuscript and writing style is essential for perspective and improvement.

And it’s rather lovely to have writing friends too. Lots of them. The more the better!

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Little Wins: The Huge Power of Thinking Like a Toddler by Paul Lindley is published by Portfolio Penguin

 

 

Notes from the London Book Fair

 

I went on the Tuesday and Thursday this year using the SCBWI members three day ticket. Fellow SCBWI’s have been asking if the Fair is worth it and I would say, yes, if you are gearing up for submission, if you want to meet/hear/talk to well known authors and publishers and if you want to find out about new releases and the publishing world in general.

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Little Tiger stand, The Children’s Hub @LBF

There are agents and editors about but unless you know them or have pre-booked the 15 minute pitch slots, it’s unlikely you’ll get time with them. Their priority is selling rights and networking, not new authors. Having said that, I did manage to get 20 minutes with an editor I’ve been having an email conversation with about one of my stories. It is always good to put names to faces.

YA & MEG ROSOFF

Meg is one of my favourite authors and I found her in the Penn Literary Salon talking about writing and her new adult screwball comedy, Jonathan Unleashed. Meg has also just won the prestigious Astrid Lindgren Prize for her YA novels and deservedly so, her characters are quirky and original, and she is superb at first person voice.

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Meg Rosoff: Winner of the 2016 Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award

Meg says she “writes on the edge of reality, where the strange might happen,” weaves into her stories the two big questions teens and young adults are preoccupied with. Will anybody love me? and What will I do with my life?

She says her stories reflect her “cape crusader personality”. She believes in “being good in an unconventional way,” and that life is not about finding happiness, “it’s about being useful and being loved.”

She spends a lot of her day thinking and a small part writing and then rewriting and rewriting and rewriting, until her characters resonate.

Seminar Notes: The Power of Pictures: Working with Picture Book Creators in Primary Schools.

I stumbled upon this talk and I’m so glad I did!

This is a three year Arts Council funded project, from Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE), where nine author illustrators have worked alongside teachers to help them understand the creative process that goes into writing picture books. The teachers use this experience to support the children in their classes to become better readers and writers. Author/illustrators taking part included Mini Grey, Nicola Davies, Alexis Deacon and Benji Davies.

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“Good picture books are complex”

Charlotte Hacking, the CLPE programme leader, demonstrated the complexity of the picture books chosen and how they communicate subtle layers of meaning through: body language, expression, line of vision, background, context, colour, page breaks, page turns, rhythms and rhymes, the contrast between words and pictures, and so on.

With a teacher or parent’s support, picture books not only entertain children, they encourage them to use their imagination, organise their thoughts and look for deeper meaning in stories. When children engage fully with a story it can help them learn life skills; one of the most important is EMPATHY.

The CLPE aren’t the only ones thinking like this. Agents/editors are currently seeking picture books that feature a life lesson, e.g. loss, worries, standing up for yourself, finding love, etc. Take a look at the latest SCBWI Slush pile challenge; this is exactly what Helen from Bell Lomax Moreton wants.

I asked the sales reps at some of the  children’s publisher stands: “What’s selling well in picture books at the moment – in the UK and aboard?”

And guess what! Books with a life lesson, stories that make children think, stories that evoke emotion and resonate with both children and adults do, and importantly, they must be humourous.

And bonus! They export well, especially in the Far East’s growing markets.

There was a lot of talk about picture books being relevant to ALL ages. Why do we frown on 7+ year old children reading picture books and push novels on them as soon as possible? Charlotte Hacking advocates breadth of reading for all ages: magazines, digital, comics, picture books and novels, because, “breadth of reading builds reading stamina for life.” 

Seminar: The Future of Children’s Publishing

In this later session, there was a warning and an opportunity. Children’s market are still growing, buoyed in part by adults buying children’s books (seeking what they loved as a child and recognizing the great new writing in this market) and super child readers (from affluent middleclass backgrounds) who are consuming more than their weight in books. Overall though, children of 6+ years are spending less time reading due to digital platforms (YouTube and Apps) becoming more accessible and more attractive. Ensuring diversity and breadth of appeal in children’s publishing is key and creative concepts, which can cross formats are a real opportunity.

INSPIRING AUTHORS

I also attended talks by crime author Peter James, children’s writer Judith Kerr, and watched a ‘Dragons Den’ style panel event called the Write Stuff where five brave authors pitched their novels to agents.

Listening to them talk, it was obvious that successful authors pour their life experiences and passions into their books. Peter James enjoys accompanying the police on raids and his real life tales are every bit as fascinating as his fictional ones.

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Peter James, crime writer

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Judith Kerr, 93

Judith Kerr’s novel, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, was based on her childhood experiences as a jewish refugee narrowly escaping Nazi persecution. The winner of the Write Stuff pitched a book about the fallout of a relationship after a soldier arrived home from a conflict zone, psychologically damaged and irrevocably changed. Both the author and her husband have been deployed in the Middle East and it was a story she needed to tell.

This kind of passion is catching and inspiring and sells lots of books.

Lastly, here’s my pile of children’s publisher catalogues featuring current lists and what’s debuting spring and autumn this year!

I wonder what the gaps in the market are…..

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How to evoke emotion in your readers?

Karl Iglesias in Writing for Emotional Impact, states we can experience three different types of emotion when we read books or watch movies.

Voyeuristic emotions relate to our curiosity about new information, new worlds and the relationship between characters. In this mindset we are interested onlookers but perhaps not fully emotionally engaged.

Vicarious emotions are when we identify so closely with a character, we feel what they feel. Their struggle is our struggle.

Visceral emotion is an intense physical (stomach clenching) sense of curiosity, anticipation, tension, surprise, fear, excitement, laughter, and so on (a real page turner!)

Great books evoke all these emotions.

So first ask yourself, what’s the heart of my story?

And by heart I mean emotional truth. That little nugget of familiarity, which has your reader identifying with your character and his situation, that spark of recognition that makes your character feel believable and real.

For every hurdle your character faces, ask yourself, what would I feel and what would I do in that situation (at that age and that time)? Life experience is invaluable, but research can help fill the gaps: first person letters/autobiographies/live film footage.Failing that, a keen perception, a good imagination and a way with words!

These are the three ways I build a connection between readers and my characters. 

Recognition (understanding and empathy) To identify with a character we must feel (or have felt) the same as they do. If a character is well drawn (and the author understands human nature well) readers can empathise with and share the characters situation, feelings and motives, and then experience the story directly through the characters eyes.

Fascination (interest) We are attracted to what’s different and unusual. It’s human nature to be curious. A multidimensional villain, flawed hero or quirky sidekick are great hooks, as are the magical or dangerous worlds they inhabit.

Mystery (curiosity, anticipation and tension) Children’s books are full of characters with mysterious origins, super powers and secrets to be unlocked.

Think about Harry Potter.

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What character and story elements did J.K Rowling use to help us identify with and care about Harry?

He’s an orphan. He lives in the cupboard under the stairs. The horrendous Dursley’s. The scar on his forehead. The mystery of his parent’s death. Wizards on the front lawn. Magic… and that’s only in the first two chapters!

So how exactly do we show a character’s emotional reaction on the page.

After every event (action) there is a reaction.

As a writing exercise, note all the emotional highs and lows you have in a single day and your physical, verbal and emotional reactions to them.

Use all the usual writing techniques to show, don’t tell, and mix them up a little.

Internal monologue (voice)

Dialogue

Body language/behaviour

Action

This extract is from We Were Liars by E. Lockhart16143347 – 14-year-old Cadence describes how she felt when her father walked out on her and her mother.

My father put a last suitcase in the back of the Mercedes and started the engine. Then he pulled a handgun and shot me in the chest. I was standing on the lawn and I fell. The bullet hole opened wide and my heart rolled out of my rib cage and down onto a flowerbed. Blood gushed rhythmically from my open wound then from my eyes, my ears, my mouth, it tasted like salt and failure. The bright red shame of being unloved soaked the grass in front of our house…

This scene is three pages into the book and sets up Cadence’s state of mind. You can feel her pain.

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Even the fast moving, criminally cool, Artemis Fowl (Eoin Colfer), “felt a lump in his throat. Most uncharacteristic,” at the mention of his missing father and “blinked back a few rebellious tears,” at his mother’s mad ramblings. (Chapter 2)

 

 

Picture books

At Christmas, I watched 50 Best Children’s Books, presented by David Walliams and guests. Winnie the Pooh was in the top spot. Julia Walters read an extract and it struck me how emotive the writing is.

“We’ll be friends forever won’t we, Pooh?” Asked Piglet.th-7

“Even longer,” Pooh answered. “Sometimes the smallest things take up the most room in your heart.”

I’ve read a lot of picture books lately (drafts and published) that completely omit emotional content. There’s lots of colourful action but no point to it at all. Very young children cannot articulate moods and emotions but they certainly do feel and show them. Picture books are an important aid to learning and talking about feelings. They teach empathy.

Here is a great guide to structuring picture books because it makes space for the character to feel, react and learn.

Spread 1: Intro character/world

Spread 2: Establish problem (worry/dilemma/misunderstanding/first experience)

Spread 3-8: Action

Spread 9: Crisis moment (show immediate emotional reaction- Shock/laughter/confusion)

Spread 10: Examine feelings

Spread 11: Solve problem (new understanding put into practise)

Spread 12: Emotional resolution (answers the stories emotional problem)

Courtesy of Hodder/Hachette (with a little elaboration)

Character emotions vs. reader emotions

There is one final point I want to make about evoking emotion.

Authors don’t always want their readers emotional experience to mirror the characters. An unreliable narrator or an inexperienced, over confident or haphazard character can make the reader feel wonderfully superior and knowing. Humour also works this way. A clumsy character might trip over and fall into things with hilarious consequences. We will be laughing, but the character won’t be. It’s a very effective devise, if done well. It makes the reader feel clever, and flattery, as they say, gets you everywhere.

 

 

Ahoy! SCBWI conference low-down

 

My second conference with amazing SCBWI BI…

Started with some wise words from Natascha Biebow about evoking empathy not sympathy in our writing, and the importance of being in touch with our inner child.

(The amount of piratey costumes at the launch party suggests the inner child part isn’t a problem for most SCBWIs.)

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Me with the fearsome Sally Rowe

And continued amusingly, with Sarah Mcintyre and Philip Reeve dressed up, as I’m not sure what, to talk about creating their three illustrated books for young readers, which sold out on the book stand in 30 seconds  afterwards.

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The unforgettable Sarah Mcintyre and Philip Reeve

I did manage to nab an Oliver and the Seawigs. Thank you for adding the extra sea monkey, Sarah.

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Then on to a Picture Book/Illustrated Fiction Industry Panel with publishers Hodder, Faber and Faber, Otter Barry Books, and agent Felicity Trew (Carolyn Sheldon.) They all stressed how important it is for picture books to appeal to supermarkets (promo slots) as well as international markets, otherwise they don’t make money. A good title is important for Internet sales and a series concept is more likely to attract publishers (particularly for illustrated young readers).

After lunch, the amazing Jonny Duddle, Pirate Cruncher extraordinaire took to the stage and demonstrated that sometimes life takes you in unplanned and unusual directions. But it’s all rather useful material for future books. Though, he did seem to be destined to be a pirate from the very beginning.

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Jonny worked on a real pirate ship for a year  – yes, that one there.

BTW you can learn pirate talk from handy websites like this one: http://the-pirate-ship.com/piratedictionary.html

Jonny thinks up stories and rhymes while out running/cycling in the welsh hills. I wonder if the Chilterns have the same magic air.

It was lovely to meet the SCBWI’s who have launched their books this year at the Mass Book Launch Party. Thank you for all those signed copies! My children feel very spoiled.

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Go SCBWIs!

On Sunday morning, publisher David Fickling got us all up and dancing to Pulp Fiction, and then he shouted money money money. Yes please, David, that would be a nice change.

Agents Julia Churchill (A.M Heath) and Penny Holroyde (Holroyde Cartey) gave a great session on everything an agent does (which is a lot more than I appreciated). Penny also shared a page of her golden notebook – subjects/genres publishers are short of at the moment. Yes, gold dust indeed. My lips are sealed. Book SCBWI events to find out about these tips!

Somewhere in the middle of all that, I had a one to one with an editor from Frances Lincoln and a crit session on a picture book that won’t behave, but now might, thanks to my critiquers insightful comments.

Lots of contacts, lots to follow up on and writing enthusiasm at warp speed 10.

Thank you SCBWI-BI Team.

Writing Humorous Picture Books

I thought this an excellent addition to the notes on my blog about writing picture books. Thank you Rebecca and Laurie for sharing. Love that hat.

Laurie J. Edwards ~ Author, Artist, Dreamer...

Rebecca witch 1Today I have the great pleasure of hosting my friend Rebecca Colby, an awesome picture book writer, whose book, It’s Raining Bats & Frogs, released this month. She’s agreed to give share some secrets for writing funny picture books. And as a special bonus, if you read through the post, you’ll find a clue for her Scavenger Hunt. Be sure to collect all of the clues to be eligible for a prize.

And here’s Rebecca…

Show Them the Funny: Writing Humorous Picture Books

Everywhere I look on editor and agent submission wish lists these days, I read the following: WANTED: Funny, Quirky Picture Books. Why? Because everyone enjoys a laugh—kids and adults alike. Laughing makes people feel good, and as a result, funny sells.

But if you’re not the kind of person who automatically sees the funny side of life, you may find writing humorous picture books…

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Children’s picture book publishers accepting unsolicited manuscripts

Big picture book publishing houses don’t accept unsolicited submissions but many of the smaller independent ones do. If you want to publish without getting an agent, see the list below.

Note – all these publishers have websites and it is a very good idea to look closely at their catalogue and read their books, as they often focus on one area of the market, e.g. board books, novelty books, colouring books, educational, series, younger children, etc… and there is often a very clear house style. Submission guidelines and word count vary a lot, so check out their guidelines or ask for them and tailor each submission accordingly.

Most of these publishers also publish young readers, middle grade, teen and non-fiction

Anderson Press

Maverick Books (currently they are overwhelmed and have closed their doors but will probably be open to submissions again at some point)

Nosy Crow (traditional publishing and digital)

Firefly Books

Templar books

Hinkler Books

Francis Lincoln books

Oxford Uni Press

Walker Books (if you look closely at their submissions page they don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts for any other age group, but they do from picture book illustrators and writers, but don’t expect a reply unless an editor absolutely loves it! The slush pile mountain is legendary!)

Sweet Cherry Publishing (series reads only)

Newish publishers to look out for:

Fourth Wall Publishing

Flying Eye Books

Old Barn Books

Barefoot Books (not sure how open to new writers/illustrators they are but checkout their interactive studio in Oxford!)

Made in Me (digital books)

Ginger books

You can circumvent the ‘no unsolicited manuscripts rule’ with the big publishers by talking to them at writing conferences or any other author/publisher/agent events they might attend. Also look out for competitions, they are often sponsored/judged by an editor from a publishing house that would otherwise be closed to new writers. At the SCBWI conference, I handed a Little Tiger Press editor two stories after she facilitated a picture book writing session and she was kind enough to give me some very good feedback within two weeks! My stories would have been ignored otherwise.

If you get feedback, it is like gold dust, no matter what it says. Thank editors profusely for their time.

Good luck.

Is the London Book Fair a worthwhile visit for budding authors?

My morning at Olympia started at 9:45 at Authors HQ, listening to Rebecca Swift from the Literary Consultancy, chairing a discussion with agents, Juliet Mushens, The Agency Group, and Iain Millar, co-found of Canelo Digital Publishing, on how they find new talent.

Some of their advice I have heard before but it’s never a bad thing to be reminded of the high standards expected of manuscripts.

Juliet said: “Succinctly summarise what your novel is about in your covering letter. Tell us why your story is going to be attractive to publishers and readers. It’s amazing how many authors don’t do this.”

Iain said: “A lot of manuscripts are rejected because they start too early and don’t establish character, setting and conflict in the opening chapters skilfully.”

Juliet advised: “Send your first three chapters to 5-10 agents. If they ask for the full manuscript this does not mean they want to represent you and not all agents respond with comments, alas.” Though Juliet said she does send feedback if she reads a full manuscript.

Agents and publisher, Juliet Mushens and Iain Millar answering questions.

Agents and publisher, Juliet Mushens and Iain Millar, answering questions.

I then headed over to the Children’s Hub to listen to Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New children’s writing, and her publisher Samantha Selby-Smith and agent Louise Lamont from LBA. Laura’s novel, Poppy Pym and the Pharaoh’s Curse, is to be released in October. I was lucky enough to be given a free proof copy.

I chuckled when Laura confessed she had only written the first five thousand words required to enter the first stage of the competition. When she was shortlisted, Scholastic asked if she had the full manuscript (which was expected!), she said yes, and then wrote her novel in three weeks. “It was the most stressful three weeks of my life. I wouldn’t recommend lying to your publisher,” she joked.

Laura Wood signing, Poppy Pym and the Pharaohs Curse

Laura Wood signing, Poppy Pym and the Pharaoh’s Curse

I had time to look at all the publisher stands in the Children’s section before heading to the next talk. My objective was to: collect trade catalogues, handy for idea creation (and spotting what has already been done), publisher styles and market trends; and also to discover new or relatively new publishers, who are expanding their lists and accept unsolicited manuscripts. I found a few!

I located the Pen Literary Salon just in time to hear Anthony Browne talk about his long career illustrating and writing picture books. He was my favourite speaker of the day – articulate, wise and creative.

He takes ideas from his childhood, from familiar objects, other artwork, toys and games. He twists and changes them into something else and plays with point of view.

"Picture books are like works of art, they can be poured over, paused over, thought about and revisited." Anthony Browne

“Picture books are like works of art, they can be poured over, paused over, thought about and revisited.” Anthony Browne

“There should be different layers in picture books. The child doesn’t have to know what everything is or what everything means. Conversations between children and adults are generated by the story and illustrations. Parents sometimes move children on to quickly from picture books, thinking they are for young children and therefore babyish.”

Anthony believes the picture book is for any age. “We live in a visual world of moving images, there is only a few seconds to appreciate an image before it is gone. Picture books in contrast are like works of art; they can be poured over, paused over, thought about and revisited.”

After lunch, I did a quick reccy of the larger publishers stands, which sprawl across the grand hall, collecting more trade catalogues. I also checked out the self-publishing stands. There’s a lot of info available and at least one talk a day.

Olympia's Grand Hall.

Olympia’s Grand Hall

Then I headed back to Author HQ to hear some very brave authors pitch their books live to a panel of agents and publishers. They had one minute to introduce themselves and two minutes to pitch their book before being critiqued. The panel had pre-read one chapter.

It was interesting to watch people’s style, hear about their background and watch mistakes. The biggest takeout from the panel was a warning about marketability. “Where does your book fit,” they kept asking, a couple of authors received the more depressing news, “I like the writing but I can’t sell it.”

This it at odds with the advice often given, “right what you love” – the caveat clearly is, as long as it is marketable.

There is definitely a lot more going on for authors this year at LBF. I’ve got a stack of information about the market and a few publishing leads.

Yes, indeed, it’s definitely worth the ticket.

(SCBWI members are eligible for a half price flexi ticket)